Thursday, January 31, 2008

Short Story Alert IV


A good friend of mine just pointed out something important (and something I should be picking up from my technical writing courses): Context is important. I have not provided the proper context for the last few “Short Story Alerts” on this page. So to repent: The last three installments are chapters from a book I’ve been working on for the past few years. Called “Slouching Toward Bensonville,” the book follows the adventures of two young people who get caught up in fighting against a big box juggernaut bent on dominating the world through easy retail, mind-manipulation and free nachos. Obviously, it’s a work in progress, and I doubt it’ll have a happy ending. I’m posting it here to get a feel for how well it works, or how well it doesn’t work. Plug away.
Ed note: This is the chapter I'm least pleased with thusfar. Please offer suggestions.

Of the Helpless Rabble of Willing Victims

When cavemen shopped, there was only one store. It offered, grudgingly and through thorns, claws, thistles, horns, stings and poisons, whatever the shopper had the strength and will to hunt or gather. The proprietor, though willing, literally, to stock every item imaginable on earth and under heaven, was just as apt to hurl lightning bolts or introduce a new, saber-toothed predator – adding to the antagonism of a typical monopolist – as he was to offer half-off deals on dead gazelles.

And so Quanult Creek’s first consumers lived in a cave left under the desert turf by flowing lava; a cave they shared with bats and the occasional coyote. They ate camas roots, snared the occasional rabbit or grouse, and generally lived a life as easy as could be found in a place where the nearest water hole was seven miles distant and rain fell only occasionally – and often horizontally.

Understandably, these people wished for something better. So about 6,000 years ago, one of them, a barrel-chested man named Thunk, dug a channel from the far-distant watering hole, digging in the general direction of the clan’s cave. The clan found him drowned when they thought to look for him, lying in his canal, of which he’d excavated nearly a mile with tusks left over from a slaughtered mammoth. Times being what they were, they ate him. But thanked the gods nonetheless that the water was that much closer to home.

Modern denizens of Quanult Creek had a similar triumph, when, after more than a decade of inquiry by ravenous natives, the Olive Garden chain announced plans for a franchise on the west side of town.

Six months after it opened, however, they were already bored with it.

Such attitudes would rankle Quanult Creek’s white settlers, who had visions of scratching civilization out of the wilderness, thankful for any merchant who settled there rather than move on. Their hard work at building roads, canals, log cabins, churches, parks blistered by the desert sun and ash trees that would scarcely grow to knee height during their lifetimes, in order to build for the future and keep their city growing.

To track the city’s progress, then, it’s necessary to consider its history. So at about the same time the Pilgrims sloshed ashore at Plymouth Rock, Quanult Creek looked like this:

Even an apprentice cartographer would have been quick to draw in the river, its islands, perhaps a few of the scattered cottonwood trees and juniper bushes. An enterprising cartographer may also have noted a random game trail, the lazy creek, and perhaps sketched in a few clumps of sagebrush and other doodads to fill in the vast, blank empty that Quanult Creek, in the 1620s, presented. But for those who draw maps that go in phone books, Quanult Creek, the now-bustling city over the Western hills and smack in the middle of a sage-dominated desert, was the blank page begging for the funeral home advertisement. Those are the people drawing our maps.
Even ten years after Franklin V. Coffin, the first white man to slip in the mud at Quanult Creek, first wandered through the general area searching for signs of his horse, which had bolted from a camp he’d set up near a spring seventeen miles south on the river, Quanult Creek still would not have interested the phone book map makers.

It wasn’t until 1862 when “Crow” McGill decided to hell with going to the Wilammette Valley, set his oxen to grazing and tacked together a few rough-hewn boards over the canopy of his weary family’s Contestoga coach that Quanult Creek has its first building – a church that doubled as a saloon and, in bad weather, an oxen barn.

McGill’s presence in Quanult Creek would have made the phone book cartographers take notice, thusly.

Not impressive, say, in comparison to Chicago, but enough to show that Quanult Creek, like every other fly-specked, dust-chocked, tick-infested rutted excuse for a wide spot in the trail had the same promising future as Seattle, Spokane, or Pocatello.

But because commerce begets commerce, because the collection of human souls in a particular spot tends to make others collect there as well because they’re damn well not going to walk on and find something even worse that where they are now, Quanult Creek, like Seattle and Spokane, grew.

Ten years after McGill, eighteen after Coffin, Quanult Creek looked like this.

It wasn’t called Quanult Creek yet. It was known, quaintly, as McGill’s Hole and, believe it or not, already appeared on a few of the maps enterprising cartographers were selling in Independence or Winter Quarters, enticing would-be Westerners with the glories of the west that the cartographers would absolutely be visiting again as soon as they earned enough money selling maps to travel to Boston and open a printing shop.

Quanult Creek became Quanult Creek, rather momentously, in 1889 after the death of McGill, who died in a mysterious explosion that left his oxen dead and a rather large carter at the site of his church/bar, where he had been experimenting lately with various fuels he brewed out of alcohol and oxen dung, in an effort to stop the city’s growing dependence on imported lamp-oil.
The committee of town Elders – minus McGill, of course – solicited the United States Post office to change the town’s name to Quail Creek, in honor of the formerly abundant ground birds who left the immediate area once they saw what a dump the humans were making of the landscape. But because the telegraph operator sneezed mid-transmission – and because the elders and the operator never came to terms on the price of sending a second telegram to correct the first, the town became Quanult Creek - much to the relief of the thirteen other Quail Creeks established in the territories that year.

Cartographers, of course, noted the change. When maps began circulating in 1890, the newly-christened Quanult Creek looked like this. By then, obviously, the railroad had arrived, and with it the city’s first smear of industry, boiled down to a coal yard for the passing trains, several water butts, a shack grandly named the Quanult Reek Rail Depot and an assortment of bars, hotels, gambling houses and tent villages pitched in the trees down by the river.

As in other cities spread across the plain and Western wilderness, commerce arrived. Quanult Creek had its fair collection of dry goods stores, tin ware shops, general stores, blacksmiths, dentists, doctors, lawyers. With a population of only 3,800, it had three newspapers, all started by Eastern newsmen disaffected by working for someone else and wanting to work on their own. In each square acre of Western earth lay the promise of founding your own enterprise, your own function, your own bureau.

And they were distinct. Unique. True, from town to town, each doctor had tools ordered from similar catalogs. Each dry goods store ordered from the same warehouses, the same salesmen. But in each village, shoppers found the things they wanted.

And because Quanult Creek possessed greater opportunity than the likes of Los Angeles and Salt Lake City – in the form of cheap land the current settlers hadn’t thought to lay claim to because 1) They already had what they wanted, 2) The quail needed some place to live, and 3) No one had had the gumption yet to dig irrigation canals, the city boomed once men with Big Minds came in and set the city on the road to commercial and industrial prominence. Large farms and ranches sprouted on the arable land surrounding the city, soon to be joined by stockyards, feed lots, a factory to process sugar from beets, grain elevators and the associated detritus of shops, businessmen, banks, newspaper editors, offices and do-gooders needed to wrest civilization from the Wild West. All virtue flowed to business, as the Big Men reasoned churches, a library, schools, paved streets, would only make the town more attractive to other men of their ilk, just as long as they were bringing in complimentary, rather than competitive, business. By 1915, the town looked like this, and actually had its main streets done in cobblestones.

It also had its first chain store. An A&P grocery store, an enormous, dazzling 1,800 square feet of goods purveyed to Quanult Creek from not only across the nation, but from across the world. Its arrival on Main Street – only two blocks from Mancini and Odeen’s, the city’s oldest grocers – caused a sensation, and much conversation in town, specifically among the customers of Mancini and Odeen, who noticed the A&P had the same goods they wanted, but at less expensive prices.
Mancini and Odeen fought back, selling local produce at less expensive prices than the A&P could muster for its goods, which often arrived wilted or moldy.

Shoppers – specifically those interested in cabbage – noticed the difference. They bought their produce from Mancini and Odeen, but bought nearly everything else at the A&P and counted themselves ahead in the bargain.

Mancini and Odeen began to suffer. They offered canned goods at less expensive prices than before, and forced their delivery boys to smarten up their dress to compete with the A&P’s men, who wore starched shirts and bow ties.

And they continued to suffer as people flocked to the A&P, which expanded its Main Street presence, tripling its size within the first ten years.

The cobblestones, of course, were torn up in 1928, when automobiles outnumbered horse-drawn carriages and everyone felt the cobblestones made the roads too bumpy and the town too old-fashioned.

Mancini and Odeen, whose children wer far-flung studying law, aviation, millinery and education, were desperate. They appealed to the Quanult Creek Courier-Journal for assistance. But the editor, a cynical Easterner wearied – by only four years of residence in the West – of the West’s anti-East harrangues, wrote a scathing editorial, revealing George Washington insisted on buying a pewter tea-serving set from England rather than buy one locally – even from silversmith and fellow Patriot Paul Revere – because he thought those made in America were of lesser quality.
Mancini and Odeen’s was not the first Quanult Creek store to close its doors, and few, except Messrs. Mancini and Odeen, noted its passing. Within three weeks of its closure in 1931, its former storefront and the four floors of building above had been converted to the Quanult Creek Business University, to be haunted by the ghosts of a failed Quanult Creek enterprise, and its endless number of cabbages, until the university itself folded due to lack students decades later.
By 1932, Quanult Creek had its White Way, with lights blazing forth a glory unparalleled since the time the town’s settlers could open their tent or cabin door and look up into the night sky to enjoy the stars not drowned out by the quiet white noise of the White Way.

The White Way, of course, represented Progress to the boosters and he-men of Quanult Creek, a place where merchants could locate near each other to encourage a lot of healthy competition to benefit the city dwellers and farmers alike, namely by secretly fixing prices so no one had to go out of business, or go in to work more than 30 hours a week, if they didn’t care to. Quanult Creek’s White Way quickly became the bustling commercial center of a five-county area, with farmers and their wives and children, dressed in their Sunday best, could come once every other week from as far away as Mayfield to pick up the things they’d ordered from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and to buy custard tainted with gasoline.

And on the White Way, among the local businesses, more national stores arrived, much to the joy of the populace and the Quaunult Creek Boosters Club, who decided they would take growth no matter where it came from. A few local businesses here and there – and even a few professionals – complained when they brought more competition in, but since they were not full dues-paying members of the Quanult Creek Boosters Club, their complaints were dismissed as complaints of cranks intent on Quanult Creek remaining in the past.

In 1943, when the city’s Chamber of Commerce successfully solicited the War Department to build a munitions plant on the edge of town, Quanult Creek looked like this.

Residents of surrounding counties poured into the city, bloated and prosperous during the years of rationing, gold stars and Victory gardens. A church, driven west by mobs, built its sixth temple in the west in town, and selected the city as the site for a university, which blossomed to six buildings within the first ten years.

Workers at the munitions plant – expanded three times before World War II ended – turned out tons of anti-tank shells, built by local people who hoarded their money against the day that there would be consumer goods to buy again, without rationing. The school district built a new high school as housing tracts spread to the city’s west and south. In ten years’ time, the city’s population doubled, then threatened to treble in 1948, when the Atomic Energy Commission announced it would build a slew of nuclear test reactors in the desert fifty five miles west of town.

By then, the glow of the White Way had faded a bit, with downtown buildings starting to show their age and the city starting to show the wear of war plants and the automobile. But Quanult Creek citizens had money to spend, and were more than willing to flood downtown stores, buying all manner of clothing, toys, household goods, cigars, suits, polka-dot dresses, automobile tires, barbecue grills, records, sodas, and shoes with their wealth.

Then, the 1950s. Boom time for the nation. Nuclear test reactors and associated buildings that were hastily built but rarely talked about, sprang from the desert like jackrabbits. Inhabitants of Quanult Creek moved into duplicate stucco boxes and reveled in earning wages paid by the Federal government. By then, the munitions plant had converted to the peacetime activity of turning nitrates and phosphates into fertilizer, and employed nearly as many workers as the bomb plants had before the war brought an end to that chapter in the city’s commercial history. By the time 1965 rolled around, the city looked like this.

The city boasted three movie theaters, sixteen grocery; stores, the state’s first K Mart and a population of nearly 40,000.Older parts of town looked more worn, but were still busy with businesspeople, store clerks and shoppers.

Then, in 1967, the city got its first shopping mall.

Built of stark, modern concrete, hung with luminous round globes of light inside, hanging from a polished cherry-wood ceiling. Sears moved in. And Lamont’s. Between the anchors lay two dozen shops, acll connected by a cool, immense hallway.

Downtown started to crumble a bit after the mall opened on Hitt Boulevard, equidistant between downtown and the city’s first exit on the Interstate.

But the city’s denizens loved the mall. Felt it made the town, with its golf courses, fledgling museum, orchestra and ballet company, a cosmopolitan center, worthy of visits from DOE honchos from DC, Argonne leaders from Chicago. Many of those visitors, when they found jobs in town that paid well, settled there, selling their modest homes back east for a huge profit, then building mansions on the cheap Quanult Creek land.

Downtown still thrived. The mall brought new stores, new competition, but enough new people moved into town every year that there seemed to be plenty to go around. Penney’s and the Bon Marche stayed in their downtown buildings, surrounded by passels of local stores, Ferrell’s and Captain’s Quarters selling clothing for men; the ignominiously-named Wayne and Marlene’s Bojangles selling clothing to teenagers, who thought the store was too hip for words.

Still, there were more home-grown businesses than chains. Going to McDonald’s was exciting, because one expected the servers to break into song and dance as they do on TV, but eating a burger at the local Scotty’s brought a taste sensation – of salt and grease – no different than at the Golden Arches. Who needed Taco Bell when one had Taco John’s?

Then in 1984, a coup.

Marsha Wharton, then Quanult Creek’s mayor, succeeded in persuading a development company from a neighboring state to build a new mall in town, rather than on a piece of county-zoned land ten miles to the north along the interstate. A big deal, the city’s denizens thought. Even bigger, they realized, when the found out Penney’s and the Bon Marche had been wooed from their downtown locations to set up at the mall, no matter where it was built. Well, if the department stores had to move, may as well move within town, rather than leaving, they said. So the mall rose like a pyramid on a path of farmland near the city’s northeast corner, a patch to which the city had to build several new roads, lest the existing roads – which directed traffic downtown, past the soon-to-be-vacated storefronts – become too crowded with commuting shoppers. And because Americans are wowed by the new, even at the expense of the old.
Some fretted. What many thought as progress, they said, was just the opposite.

Too much consumerism, they said.

In part, they were right. But at the end of World War II, something had to be done with the military-industrial complex built up and gared for wartime production. Manufacturers figured if it were patriotic for men and women to build tanks and mess kits and shells and the like, it was just as patriotic to build alarm clocks and toasters and televisions, which they did in abundance after the war ended.

But since there was little to be gained by carpet-bombing Japan with toasters or shipping televisions to war-ravaged Europe, those goods, produced with the same efficiency that brought the world the Tommy gun, had to go somewhere. New targets were needed. Industry settled on the American consumer, targeting them with the ack-ack of friendly fire.

So progress came to mean the construction of goods, the creation of mass markets to sell the goods, the building of stores to stock the goods. Progress meant, in many eyes, the arrival of stores thus advertised on national televison, stores heretofore visited when the denizens of the outskirts of America shopped in larger cities, far from home.

When the stores arrived in Quanult Creek, citizens became giddy at the prospect of being able to buy color television sets, popcorn poppers and fanciful gelatin molds and Yugos without an eight-hour trip to inconvenience them on the way to the store. No longer were they held at bay by tyrannical local merchants, reluctantly ordering what their customers wanted, if they didn’t mind waiting three weeks to get their goods. What they wanted was available immediately at the new temples of cinder block and glass. Those who couldn’t produce immediately would suffer consumers’ wrath.

So as new stores came, old ones faded. And few seemed to care. Captain’s Quarters and Bojangles disappeared, their landlords converting their buildings to office space. Blocks, the city’s venerable department store, died quietly. Buell’s, the department store rival, hung on, resisting the flow of shoppers to the former White Way, now known as Hitt Boulevard, the Happy Highway.. Buell’s remained the sole holdout on a downtown block razed by the city through eminent domain to make way for a new public library. And it hangs on still, fueled by a dying breed of customer whose fathers shopped there. Their children do not. Buell’s days are numbered.

Every city has its growing pains, many said. Quanult Creek was entering puberty.

Cities everywhere are beginning to look the same, lamented others. Franchises litter the suburbs and outer rims.

Downtown is doing fine. Full of professional offices and banks, fueling our city. Leave well enough alone.

Law firms can’t replace stores, others said. No one shops downtown any more. No one interacts any more. We all drive to the stores, hurry through the aisles, buy what we want then scurry home to put what we just bought in closets with the rest of the crap we bought last week. And the traffic is atrocious.

That’s efficiency. Increased productivity paying off for a better-off population. And a lifestyle unparalleled in modern history. Besides, downtowns worked before the auto. Now, there’s no where to park.

We wouldn’t need the suburbs if cars hadn’t been invented.

So we should all live and shop together, with each others’ wash flapping in our faces?

At least people talk when they live close together.

About what? Underwear stains? Fags at the art show and druggies at the drum circle?

It’s better than golfing.

You liberals are all alike.

And you conservatives won’t be happy until every last bit of this planet is paved, with a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart on every corner!

And you liberals won’t be happy until we’re all living in teepees running around nude and using yucca plants to fight off ticks!

Corporate drone.

Tree hugger.

And so on. But cities like Quanult Creek continue to grow. And cities smaller than Quanult Creek see the new Quanult Creek. And queue up for their turn at progress.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I Should Have Stood in Bed. . .

Welcome to the Second Monday of the week.

Yesterday was a Monday in all respects. Started off with a snowstorm that blew through the night before, closing the highway I typically use to get to work. Because work still has to be done even though the roads are closed, we all went to work. We ride the bus, which is great. We went through Mud Lake via Idaho Falls that morning, meaning THREE HOURS on the bus, or about 120 miles. Got to work an hour late, which is no big deal, since everyone was late. Then at 9 am, one hour after we arrived, they send the announcement: They're sending us home. We're on the buses shortly before 10 am. THREE AND A HALF HOURS LATER, I'm home. And that doesn't mean home snuggled in front of the wood stove with a book. It means at home replenishing the wood supply and putting up Valentines Day LIGHTS on the front of the house. That's the kind of thing you get to do when you're married. . .

But getting off for the afternoon was good, since I had to go into town to Walgreens to have them re-take some passport photos, which the passport office rejected because they were too blurry. I worried about that at the time, but I figured, well, I always look like a water buffalo in those pictures, so why not a blurry one?

I have no real news or thoughts for this day. I'm not feeling well. I should have stood in bed.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's COULD HAVE, folks

Just a note here from Mr. Anal English Guy: Could have. COULD HAVE. The proper way to spell this is c-o-u-l-d(space)h-a-v-e. Not "could of."

I like the verb "to have." It's handy, well, to have around. So I argue that CNN should have (not should of) known better:

No, this is not about Fairfax, Virginia's "Snow Day Boy," whiny loser that he is. It's about the CNN transcriptionist who is allowing a verb to die. He or she is not the first. But he or she, working for a national news network, should have (not should of) known better.

Why is this important? Don't languages evolve through the way words are pronounced and used? Does Mr. Anal English Guy say, phonetically, "could of " and "should of," and any other combination thereof, like the abomination "may of?" To answer the questions in reverse. Yes, I do. But don't spell the phrases phonetically. I spell them correctly. Yes, languages evolve. They also devolve. This is important because we're killing a verb and showing our phonetic ignorance. We're not saying "could of." We're saying "could've," as in the contraction for "could have." Same for "may have," which is being improperly contractionalized into "may've." To write the sentence "He may not of called you," begs for confusion -- even if we understand it phonetically. English may be the dominant language of business, entertainment and the Internet, but it doesn't have to the be dominant ignorant language, does it? The verb "to have" has has been in our language for generations. Don't kick it out through laziness.

Bigfoot Lives! With Marvin the Martian!

So, Bigfoot has been sighted again. This time on Mars:

True. If you tilt your head and squint just right, you can see the figure of a striding -- that's the word all these Sasquatch people use: striding -- briskly across the Martian landscape. To prove they're politically sensitive, most of those babbling about this image on the Intertubes believe the figure to be female. That makes me feel warm all over: Female Sasquatch Spotted Striding Briskly on Mars! Probably going to stride briskly right over to the Mars rover that took her picture and re-wire the dang thing so it works better, reconfigure the solar panels so it absorbs more light and THEN demand that it be painted pink or fuschia. I'm sure if she were striding in a way that would allow us to see her left hand, she'd be carrying a purse.

NASA, on the other hand, insists this briskly striding figure is, in fact, a two-inch-tall hunk of Martian rock, carved by the wind. So consider: One one hand, we have an element of the (roll ominous music) FEDERAL GOVERNMENT once again engaging in a cover up, because all of their other cover-ups (Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Guantanamo, secret Bette Midler breeding program) were so successful. And we have a pure group of Internet-based truth seekers who have been so successful in selling their truth (Ron Paul) to everyone. Guess who comes up as more believable? (Believe it or not, searching for Ron Paul and Sasquatch pulls up more than 70,000 hits on the Internet, including a site that also offers itself as a web portal for the band "Testicle Bomb." There's your plug, boys.)

Eric Hartwell, a poster at the site linked here:, pokes fun at the Intertube dwellers, claiming to have spotted in the same NASA photograph other figures, some striding and some not, including: Jabba the Hutt, a poloar bear, a duck, a hand pointing to the striding Sasquatch and a Tiki head which, judging by the look on its face, is getting a good glance up the Sasquatch's skirt. (He posts pictures at the site as well. Please take a look. Then take the Jabba the Hutt picture out of scale and context and show it to your Star Wars fans just to watch them gibber.)

I'm fairly certain the first people to notice this striding figure thought, "Ha ha! Let's post ths somewhere so some idiots will believe it's a Sasquatch!" But believe me: I've been to Idaho State University's Sasquatch display. (ISU is an epicenter of Bigfoot research, God only knows why.) These people NEED NO ENCOURAGEMENT to be absolutely nuts. Because as Nose Hair Man (our site mascot) will attest, it's EASY to find familiar shapes in nature, because our eyes and brains want to make sense out of nonsense. This explains why I have identified three geese, a dragon and a coyote in the plaster swirls on my bedroom ceiling, and why I have a collection of rocks that resemble pigs' noses (which evidently prove that ancient pigs had easily-detachable and quickly-fossilizing snouts in order to make it easy for modern man to find and classify their remains). I love how much Mother Nature cooperates with mankind's whacked-out fantasies. . .

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bonus Post! Blather on Genre!

Preamble: If you want to read Carolyn Miller's "Genre as Social Action," on which I comment in this post, it can be found on the Internet for free in incomplete form, or in a 1984 edition of the Quarterly Journal of Speech. If you read it, I cannot be held responsible for bruises and contusions you may receive as you fall alseep reading it. This essay, I imagine, has left many inert bodies and bonked heads in its wake.

I will admit, wrapping my saber-tooth tiger skin more tightly around me as I squat by the fire burning deep inside my cave, that, to me, genre has never meant very much outside of a vague notion that, like the dinosaurs and proto-mammals stomping and slithering about outside, bits of writing fall into different categories: Good or bad (both in taste and temperament).

But because even the dimmest Cro-Magnon can be induced to learn, I carry deep inside my skull the idea that writing – beyond my taste in it – falls into general categories: The novel, the essay, the short story, the poem, the article. There is of course a miscellany of writings that may very well constitute other genres, but to be frank, pigeonholing them has never interested me all that much. Perhaps that is because the benchmarks that set a novel apart from a poem, an essay apart from a short story, are stark and easy to recognize, while the differences between a progress report and a letter of recommendation are more subtle, or as is more likely, outside my range of interest. Shame on me.

Carolyn Miller, obviously, would be disappointed in me. She’d question my humanity and curiosity, since she cries “the urge to classify is fundamental,” and that “classification is necessary to language and learning.” But that my urge to classify does not go into the detail her urge drives her to does not mean my cave is a vacuum of learning. A Cro-Magnon may recognize the differences between the tyrannosaurus and the stegosaurus without needing to know the first is a Tyrannosaurus rex, the second a Stegosaurus longispinus. (And never mind that the tyrannosaurus hails from the Cretaceous, the stegosaurus from the Late Jurassic and the Cro-Magnon from the European Upper Paleolithic; their presence together here is for illustrative purposes only.)

So I am learning, as even a Cro-Magnon can.

Miller goes much further into defining what constitutes (and what does not constitute) a genre that I ever have. My rules are simpler: This bit of writing rhymes, has a distinct meter, or is arranged in short bursts of thought; it must be a poem. Going further: This poem is a limerick. That, a sonnet. But those are subgenres, pigeonholes inside pigeonholes. Those rules work just fine for the writings of Shel Silverstein and the poems of Shakespeare, but what about works like Moliere’s Tartuffe? It has meter and rhyme like a poem, but it has other forms more common to plays – so it is a play. Why? It has to do with genre’s relationship to form, as Miller points out: “Genre is a form at one particular level that is a fusion of lower-level forms and characteristic substance.” This is, as she points out, a lower-level benchmark of what makes up a genre. Moliere’s motives in making this story a play rather than a novel obviously plays in the desirability of showing his audience the hypocrite Tartuffe in the flesh – on stage – rather than merely in the imagination of a novel reader, where overt and covert textures in Tartuffe’s character might be more easily overlooked or puttied over. I contend, then, that form and genre are more closely tied together in hierarchy than perhaps Miller admits. She says herself that “the interpreter must have a strong understanding of forms at both higher and lower levels, in order to bridge the gap at the level of genre.” She does go on later to say that genre is more than a pattern of forms – with this I agree. I simply think genre and form are more equal than she does.

I will admit I’ve never thought much of motive and social action playing a role in genre development, so that vein of thought is intriguing. I say I’ve never thought of it; that does not mean I’ve never used it. “We learn to adopt social motives as ways of satisfying private intentions through rhetorical action,” Miller writes. “This is how recurring situations seem to ‘invite’ discourse of a particular type.” I can say I’ve sat down to write out a thought and, as I’m tinkering, decide “This is going to be a poem,” or “This is going to be a short story.” The motives behind my writing certainly drives me to the genre most fitting for those motives, though if I were asked to explain why those motives drove me to a particular genre I might be flummoxed. “It just worked better as a short story,” I’d say.

A sharper ability to study motives in relation to genre certainly has the potential to be an important rhetorical tool. “It suggests that what we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of forms of even a method of achieving our own ends. We learn, more importantly, what ends we may have,” she writes. It’s a good reminder for any writer to keep in mind, because I’ve noticed many writers, even those skilled in using genre to fulfill their motives, often don’t recognize the motives in writing by others. I have that fault, and I’m learning to erase it.

(In other words, I find Miller’s thoughts intriguing and I wish to subscribe to her newsletter. She can share my fire if she wants.)

One of 'Those' Professors

He's a trickster. He has hidden questions he wants answered. If you're on the wrong track he consdescends.

I have one of those kinds of professors.

Whining about his behavior doesn't make me feel any better, because I still have to deal with it until the end of April, and, perhaps, beyond if I have to take other classes from him in the year I have left in this technical writing program. I don't mind that we're being asked to learn. That's why I'm pursuing a master's degree. But I have a hard time learning when it's couched in a taco shell of smugness. But I will triumph. Now that I recognize the behavior in question, I am prepared to jump through his professorial hoops in order to get a decent grade in the class. I am, after all, an experienced student and a government employee. I will jump through the ring of fire, the ring of ice and over the dog doo stick, and win again.

This is Day Two of the Blistering Freeze we're in here in Idaho. School is again cancelled for the day, though it was only 14 below zero this morning. They never cancel work, of course. Even when our bus broke down on the way out this morning, they did not cancel work. They just sent us a new bus. Not that I mind. I'd rather be here, earning that paycheck, than at home right now, dealing with three kids -- no, five, because Michelle is babysitting two for the morning. Or so I assume, what with school cancelled and all. Now, I love my kids. But two days of indoor play has made them a bit cabin-feverish, and that never bodes well. Especially since the three-year-old gets bored and beats up the seven-year-old, who of course can never fight back and only complains about his poor treatment. At least Lexie is happy, likely drawing more pictures of herself as a ballerina.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Twenty-Seven Below Zero

It's cold outside, folks. When I left for work this morning, it was 27 below zero (That's 32 below, for you people on the Celcius scale). Fortunately, the truck started, though it asked "You're kidding, right," when I first cranked. The sun shines through the window, but it's one of those suns that says, "Truly, I am 93 million miles away today, where it's warmer."

It's cold all over. From Montana to Maine, it's below zero. Add to that the butt-puckering panic over worldwide stock market losses, and you've got a lot of people wandering around, whimpering like the radiation victims in "The Day After." Of course, these are paper losses. No one has come to anyone's house to pull money from piggy banks because the stock markets said whaa. It's not fun, mind you. Getting those end of the year statements showing losses in what paltry stocks my wife and I own was not entertaining. And it's likely to be worse come April. But we still have food. A woodpile to feed the basement fireplace. Gas for the furnace. To quote Gloria Gaynor, "We will survive."

I've been reading a lot about reading this week, mainly in this Frank Smith text for my, uh, which class is it now? Reading Theory and Document Design. A general mish-mash of a title if I've ever heard one. A nugget from this weeks' reading: "Written language (like speech) is transparent -- we look through the actual words for the meaning beyond, and unless there are noticable anomalies of meaning, or unless we have trouble comprehending, we are not aware of the words themselves." Pretty tricky thinking. We like to think we're aware of words, especialy those of us in the trade of wordsmithing. But perhaps, keeping in mind that people use words to get to the meaning behind them, I can become a better technical writer, if not a better blogger.

Just this week we've had a debate here at work on two procedures that I and another tech writer are working. We've spent a good two days tinkering with one step in both procedures, trying to get the wording just right. I tinkered with it a bit yesterday, and thought I had it worked out. Then I took it to our criticality safety guy, whose job it is to ensure that we writers retain the meaning in the words. I struck out. He explained the meaning, and I went back to work. Second time around, the wording got across the meaning intended -- which is good, because it's a pretty important safety requirement we have to meet. What I'ev enjoyed the most about this process the last few days is how collaborative it's been. We've had two people from crit safety, two tech writers and a safety analyst poking and prodding these steps. With each of us taking the meaning we had in our heads, tinkering with words, we were able to come to an agreement on what words to use to get the meaning across. And then I got hit on the head and forgot where I was going.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Should I be worried about my mental capacity or brain pan size if, in studying for a masters degree in technical writing, that I find some of the readings we're assigned to be, well, boring? Should I worry that other people in my classes seem much more thoughtful about varying technical subjects, ranging from Web 2.0 to psychology? All I can offer is a litany of Holocaust literature references, a narrow smattering of 1970s television culture and the goings-on at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, or at least the mundane goings-on I'm privy to? And should I be worried I'm just about to bore you with a page-long discussion on sentence length?

Probably. But here goes.

(For a little context: We were asked to critique the USU Professional and Technical writing web site. I argued some of their sentences were a bit long and dull. This is a continuation of that discussion.)

We’ve had an interesting discussion on sentence length, with a lot of back and forth on why they may be good or bad.

I do not agree that long sentences are necessarily bad. If they’re well-written – this includes word choice, phraseology and punctuation – they are perfectly acceptable.

The following example is a sentence of 55 words:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Why this sentence works:
Rhetorically, it is broken into short “chunks” that are constructed in a parallel fashion (verbs are all in the present tense, verb, noun, verb, noun).
Rhetorically, it has cadence and rhythm. While this is not possible (or desirable) in every rhetorical situation, such cadence makes reading and comprehending longer sentence easier.
Difficulties with this sentence:
Spelling and capitalization are unconventional. This is, however, from a 200-year-old document.
One might argue that the first phrase and last phrase are split, and might be better as follows: We the people of the United States, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America, in Order to . . But that messes with the cadences.

Then we have an example of a sentence of 77 words:

Students take classes in two areas: first, they build a theoretical foundation in rhetoric so that they can assess any writing situation and adapt their writing to the context as audience-aware, self-aware, self-confident writers; and, second, they learn about writing in a variety of contexts using the most up-to-date tools of technology so that they know both how to write and why they are writing, thus preparing them for the ever-changing job markets of the twenty-first century.

This sentence shares in common with the first its parallel structure, though it is more complex, tossing in a lot of pronouns that make the sentence wordy. Word choice throughout just makes the sentence too long. Here’s a re-write that keeps the parallel structure and general tone of the sentence (which is just fine) but eases the wordiness:

Students study in two areas: Rhetoric, where they build a theoretical foundation to assess writing situations and confidently adapt as writers who are audience- and self-aware; and Contextual Writing, where they learn both how to write and why they are writing while using up-to-date technology.

The sentence is now 45 words long, an economy of 32 words. More importantly, the sentence conveys the desired information in a clearer fashion. It also clarifies the two areas in which students are taking classes. (The bit on preparing them for the 21st century feels like fluff to me. Obviously, the program isn’t preparing them for the 18th century.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mmm, Text presented in context understood by left-handed dentists without tonsils

My wife and I have a dial-up Internet connection at home. That shocks a lot of people. They behave as if we were still driving around one of those cars you have to crank to get started, or still huddle around the radio at night listening to FDR tell us there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

It’s not that we don’t see the benefits of faster Internet. It’s not that we haven’t experienced faster Internet. We had DSL at home for about six months, about two years ago. It’s just that, at the current prices our local providers want for high-speed Internet, we just don’t see the point. Take Qwest, our last (and thus far only) high-speed provider. I’m sure they’ve paid off the investment in their phone lines years ago. Sure, they have to maintain things. But $30 a month for high-speed Internet on a phone line for which we’re already paying federal taxes so the company can maintain their lines? Forgive me if I roll my eyes until they’re in the gutter across the street. I know the price is what the market will bear. There are plenty of people out there who think that price is worth the service. But they’re also the people who have cable TV and think it’s great, have cell phone plans for which they spend $50 to $80 a month on and don’t know how they ever survived without it. We don’t have all that. We have T-Mobile’s pay-as-you-go plan, and that works just fine. We’ve dropped $25 on the phone in the past six months. We don’t have cable or broadcast TV. Perhaps, because we don’t have these expenses, we could splurge on high-speed Internet. I’d like to. I’m spoiled by the fiber optic connection I have at work. I have a portion of an e-book I need to read for one of my masters classes this week, and reading it at home, I can tell already, isn’t an option, because the Internet, in all its wisdom, is geared for those people who have broadband of one sort or another.

Yes, Qwest has competition here. But when all the competitors offer basically the same product for the same price, it really isn’t competition, is it? It’s options based on landlines, cable or wireless connection, but nothing price wise that sets one apart from the other. And yet if a municipality around here talks about setting up some kind of broadband network, the local providers quail that the municipality in question is setting up unfair competition. What’s fair about offering “competition” that doesn’t compete on price? This isn’t capitalism at work, it’s hostagism. Free the Springfield Two, Marge! Free the Springfield Two!

Now this week in one of my masters classes – to switch gears – we’re going to talk about context in writing. As if that’s a big revelation. Context is important. Those of you reading this blog expect useless drivel, so that’s what I deliver. But get too far down this philosophical road and you find that if you have to consider every context for the things you write, pretty soon you’re reduced to writing the little message you get on the tab in Hershey’s Kisses, because that’s the only thing that people can agree meaning, no matter the context they may find it in. So forgive me if I don’t get all philosophical when it comes to technical writing. Pay attention to various contexts, yes, but fear that if a tree falls in the wood and contextually someone was expecting it to fall on the beach, nah. If that makes me a mental midget, so be it. I’ll leave philosophy to the gurus. The rest of us have to go to work.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Short Story Alert III

The Futile Act

“Tom, I’m just not sure this is going to work.”

“I’m sure George Hewes felt the same way,” Tom said. “But what he participated in was the spark that helped the American colonies throw off British rule to become an independent nation.”

I won’t ask, Rich thought. Because he’s going to tell me, anyway.

“Hewes, by the way, was one of a band of patriots that boarded seven ships anchored in Boston Harbor,” Tom continued, making sure the nylon stocking stretched over his face was in place. “The men threw ten thousand British pounds’ worth of tea into the harbor, to protest being taxed without representation in their government. Even though the East India Tea Company was now selling the tea less expensively than smuggled Dutch tea, Boston’s patriots wouldn’t drink it – because the price still included the hated tax. They threw a bunch of cheap crap into the harbor, even while they were spending more for the tea they were drinking. Symbolically, they were telling the British they wouldn’t sell their souls for inexpensive goods. We’re doing precisely the same thing. Now put your stockings on.”

“Maybe I’d feel better about this if we were in war paint,” Rich said as he pulled the plastic egg holding his nylons out of his pocket. “And if you weren’t channeling Nicholas Cage.” Tom ignored the remarks. Rich snapped open the egg and pulled the stockings over his head, mashing his nose and ears. “I feel like I’m in an episode of ‘Starsky and Hutch,’” he said. Both men zipped up black jackets and pulled black knit caps tightly onto their heads.

“Concord Regiment, fall in,” Tom whispered into a walkie-talkie. The talkie instantly chattered as members of the team checked in, stating their readiness. When it grew quiet, Tom switched channels. “Revere to Adams, Revere to Adams, Concord is ready; repeat, Concord is ready.” He lowered the talkie, listening to the affirmative reply: “Ready for Griffin’s Wharf. Griffin’s Wharf in ten minutes. Mark.”

Other teams, he knew, were also checking in with the group’s Samuel Adams, a man Tom himself had met only twice, both times at a rather effeminate bar in Rodeo Drive. He didn’t know his real name, but suspected he’d married – or at least knew – a woman named Gloria, since her name was tattooed above a skull and crossbones on the man’s hairy left bicep. Not quite the image he wanted to retain of a revolutionary leader, but he supposed, as he and Rich skulked along the shadowed edge of an immense warehouse, that some may have balked at Adams’ bald head ringed by a wild fringe of grey hair. Somewhat romantically, Tom imagined the original Adams himself had a tattoo – much smaller and of better taste – concealed under the rough muslin shirts he wore in his ale house. Never expect your leaders to be perfect, he reminded himself. Just concentrate on your shared ideals. That is the path to perfection.

They’d planned the act for months. They raided offices for shipping schedules, studied ample weaknesses in the Department of Homeland Security’s measures to keep unwanted guests out of the port area and found sympathetic dock workers who would see strategic overhead lights were shot out or accidentally blotted by enormous piles of cargo.

And now they were doing it. Striking a blow for the working man, enslaved by a corporation’s reach, wealth and power that made the East India Trading Company – indeed, the old British Empire – appear as sinister and powerful as a local street gang.

“The other corporations – the competition – only worry about No. 1 because they’re not it,” Tom said to Rich, more than a year ago, as they watched a group of fourteen screaming toddlers in their church nursery. He was on a recruiting mission for the Patriots, as they called themselves. “They won’t help us at all. They all get their goods from the same factories in China, where little kids work fourteen hour days, seven days a week. What we’re planning is a blow against evil, a blow that will show not all Americans are consumer zombies, selling their birth right for a cheap set of table and chairs or a kid’s blanket – kid’s blankets! We wrap our kids up in these things at night! And they’re not made here. They’re all made over there. In China.”
Tom recalled that conversation, as he and Rich slipped through the darkness, crawling on their bellies between two low stacks of crates as a night watchman idled nearby, spitting tobacco juice into the water.

Through an already stifling August night, individuals joined into groups of twos and threes. They climbed fences. Dashed warily across access roads and freeways. Some from the North, some from the West, a few from the East. One daring man climbed the tall ladder to an empty cargo crane, prepared to light a powerful lantern should he receive word from the rear guard that the police had entered the dock area. Most of the slinking crew had walkie-talkies chattering quietly, as group leaders kept their men dispersed, but moving forward, and as the rear guard radioed progress to Adams’ Ale House, their headquarters. They leaped over ruins of rusted chain, navigated mazes of massive cargo crates, sticking to the shadows, dodging the scanty crew of night watchmen and graveyard stevedores that could not be bribed or, frankly, didn’t speak enough English to be a threat.

Their target: the mighty Won Pi Gau.

Through spies at Long Beach who knew dock workers in Canton who wanted an authentic pair of Levis – and by authentic, the man insisted on a pair made in the United States, not abroad – they’d found the Won Pi Gau, their target vessel, bound from Canton to Long Beach. The ship’s cargo was known precisely to the leaders only, though most in the group had an inkling it would consist of the ordinary effluvia of American life, ironically now mostly excluding tea.

They would throw it all into the sea.
Tom, as he approached the dock where the enormous vessel stood to, again wished the ship were a prim British cargo ship, sails furled, decks smelling of tar and sea salt and astringent soap. Born too early, he said to himself again. “But for Revere and Hancock and Graves, they were taking on the epitome of modern power, modern in their time,” he said to Rich, who long ago gave up listening to Tom’s impromptu history lessons. “They walked over commonplace cobblestones to a commonplace dock and climbed aboard seven nondescript ships and tossed a whole lot of ordinary boxes of boring India tea into the harbor they’d known their whole lives. What they did – and who they did it for – was absolutely contemporary.”

“These itch,” Rich said, scratching at the nylon stretched over his cheek.

Tom glanced at him. “You’ve got a run.”

They arrived at their designated staging point, a scant thirty yards from a rickety steel staircase the ship’s crew would use to embark and disembark in a few hours. Others were near similar staircases. Stallone-types were abandoning plans including stairs, going instead to monkeying up the long chains holding the vessel in place.

Early on, some in the group doubted the effectiveness of the act. “With so much coming into the country, is anyone really going to notice if we stop just a tiny fraction of it,” asked Earl, leader of the dissenters, at a gathering of Patriots held six months prior to the act. “Let’s face it. We’ll be lucky to toss off the contents of one of those crates, before the cops get wise and corral us. Maybe one store, two, three, will be affected. But more of that crap comes in every week, every day. It’s a drop in the ocean.”

“It’ll be noticed, Earl,” said the Patriots’ Sam Adams. “The media will see to that. They hate the corporation. And when they get the news release, the live video, the photos, we’re going to feed them of the act, both before and after the police arrive, they’ll jump on it. We’ll be worldwide, instantly. Especially when we give them Tom’s Revolutionary War connections. The only thing the media likes more than lambasting the rich is making fun of right-wing kooks.”

The comment still rankled Tom, though in his patriotic fervor he was able to overlook it. Also rankling was their leader’s decision to make them all wear pirate eye patches. Tom knew from long research that while the Patriots at Boston Harbor wore Indian headdresses and other such regalia, there were no known uses of pirate patches. He so wanted this event to be historically accurate.

The signal came over the talkie: “Two lights in the Old North Church. Proceed to Dartmouth. Repeat, proceed to Dartmouth.”

Tom’s heart thumped wildly as he raced up the steel stairs, Rich and a number of others following. Two lights. That meant the three night watchmen in the general area of the Won Pi Gau were having a smoko near the Porta-Potties on the dock near the ship’s stern, far enough away from the stairs to allow the men to race up without worrying about the noise their shoes made on the metal.

Other calls came over the walkie-talkie as Tom’s men raced up the stairs, directing other teams to proceed to “The Beaver,” and “The Elanor,” with the Dartmouth, the tea-bearing ships the rebels boarded and emptied in Boston. For the men scrabbling aboard the Won Pi Gau, the names meant the three stairways linking the ship’s deck to the dock below.

"How much of the ship do you think we'll empty," Rich whispered as he and Tom
scrabbled up the last few steps to the ship's deck.

Tom stared at the ship's bulk. There weren't any masts, or sails, or wooden trap doors, or salty sea dogs to give him a reference for size. Only long, dark boxes stacked like blocks, making the ship look exceedingly top-heavy. Somewhere in the maze, he assumed, was the ship's bridge. For all he knew, they looked out their front windows at a wall of cargo and steered the ship by camera and remote control.

For the first time, a little doubt crept into his mind on the effectiveness of the operation. "Well," he said, finally. "We'll do what we can. Enough we'll get noticed."

"And thrown in jail," Rich asked.

Tom ignored him. He straightened his three-point hat - bought from a Hollywood second-hand costume shop - and did a quick headcount. All men present. "Concord to Adams, Concord to Adams. Ready at the top of Dartmouth," Tom whispered into the walkie-talkie.

The device crackled. "Affirmative, Concord. Proceed, Sons of Liberty."Tom gave quick signals, sending some men racing down the track between the enormous container stacks, while others leaped to the nearest pile and quickly opened the bottommost container.

"Where's this stuff bound, matey," one of Tom's more jocular team members said, pulling a squat cardboard box from the container, hefting it experimentally. Tom consulted his log book, looked at the label on the box, then stared at the log book again. The book was supposed to contain a manifest of the ship's cargo, but Tom was dubious of his ability to interpret it enough to find a match from book to box label. "I think it's going to a Cible discount store," he said, indicating the logo on the box label. "Damned if I know where. Throw it overboard."

The man darted the scant yards to the ship's port side and heaved the box over. Tom counted three seconds before he heard a distant splash.

"Just like that, but much more quickly," he said. His men formed a chain from the box to the ship's rail and began emptying the container - forty feet long, as large as a semi trailer.

Similar chains, accompanied by similar splashes, quickly indicated activity aboard the Won Pi Gau. Chatter over the walkie-talkies, frequent and enthusiastic at first, slowed to a trickle as the men set to work. Ten minutes passed, and as far as Tom could tell, no one yet had noticed the activity, nor sounded any audible alarm. The guetters set to watch the night watchmen reported they'd finished their smoke and had resumed their patrols, but dockside, far from the splashes on the seaside of the ship.

Clearing the port of stevedores – who work 24 hours a day – hadn’t been easy. In the end, through some of the group’s shadier members’ shadier connections in the Los Angeles underworld, they had fomented a Teamsters strike that had the port shut down for nearly a week as laborers and management haggled. Even the watchmen on the docks that night were scabs, happy for a few days’ quiet work while ships stood to between Long Beach and Catalina, waiting for the port to open.

As the night wore on, the men relaxed. A few opened some of the boxes they were tossing and reveled in tossing container and content into the water. Soon, the sea alongside the Won Pi Gau bobbed with pillows, stuffed animals, odd bits of furniture and a flotilla of basketballs, while microwaves, boxes of clothing, folding chairs and dolls sank to the muck on the harbor bottom.
He had quick visions of replicating container - and ship - distasters he'd seen on the Internet: Containers toppled like dominoes, some sinking to the bottom of the harbor as they fell overboard. Some crushed like tin cans, their contents a mangled mess of cardboard, pressed wood, weak cloth and foam pellets. Ships capsized under the weight of toppling mounds of garbage merchandise.

Tom, unfortunately, wet his pants when lights seared on and klaxons blazed aboard ship about fifteen minutes after the men started their deed. Panicked, he screamed to his men, "The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!" A few of his men darted by, running to the stairs, scattering the handbills they'd plastered on containers, boxes, the ship itself, proclaiming, in a stiff English borrowed from his hero George Hewes:

“We free Sons of Liberty were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the boxes of IMPORTED CHINESE TWEE and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the boxes with our knives, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every box to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.” He was quite proud of his iteration of Hewes’ text. Then to cement the message, Tom had written: “We tossed these hated, imported items into the Long Beach harbor as a patriotic protest against the weakening of the American economy by consumers seeking increasingly cheaper foreign goods, and the retailers selling the soul of our country to oblige them. The Sons of Liberty have spoken.”

He wasn't sure how much time he had to dash down the staircase - or if indeed security would meet him halfway up. He was certain none of his men, fleeing into the darkness of the docks and the ship itself, had seen the pee stain on his pants.

The security guard he met at the top of the stairs, however, did notice.

LONG BEACH ‘TWEE PARTY’ screamed the Los Angeles Times the next day. Below the headline was a photo of police leading Tom, still in his three-pointed hat, through a corridor at police headquarters.

He felt he looked rather rakish and defiant. He was actually proud his nylons had been torn off in a scuffle with security at the dock, so as to present to the nation a rational, American face on an act once again meant to spark a shot heard ‘round the world.

Self-described revolutionaries, the paper said, boarded a Chinese cargo carrier and tossed an undisclosed amount of consumer goods into the sea, mirroring what one of the group’s leaders – who had only given the name Paul Revere to police – the defiant Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773.

In fact, the paper said, the self-described leaders of the group wore Revolution-era costumes they rented from a local costume shop. “I”ll say they’re the best-dressed freaks we’ve ever arrested,” Police Captain Kirby Wilson said.

For some reason, however, the paper noted, all participants wore pirate eye patches.
“Rather than targeting one hated imported good like their revolutionary idols,” the paper said, “the men tore open what harbor spokesman Angelo Rotini described as boxes of clothing, bedding, childrens’ toys and other consumer items, most bound for discount stores ranging from Cible to Bil-Stor, mostly in the Pacific Northwest.”

“’Who knows what motivates some people,’” the paper quoted Rotini as saying. “’We’ve had all sorts of kooks slip into the harbor area, from vandals to thieves to some weirdo who was certain Captain Nemo was going to appear in the harbor with the Nautilus to take him below. You think in Los Angeles you’ve seen all the kooks. But then more weirdos come out of the woodwork.’”

“Anne Chapman, spokesperson for the American Retailers Union, said while a ‘minority’ of US residents occasionally complain about the flood of good entering the US from China and other countries by far, most Americans welcome the opportunity seeking goods on the world markets afford them in stretching their paychecks.”

“’This certainly ranks as the most unique protest I’ve ever seen,’ Chapman said. She said it’s highly unlikely, however, that the act – which she deplores as larceny and vandalism – will cause much more than a ripple in the nation’s retail landscape. ‘People are too used to getting what they want at prices that keep going down,’ she said. ‘No amount of destruction or disruption, short of a nuclear war, is going to alter the status quo.’”

“Nuclear war,” Tom muttered as he folded the paper and stowed it on the jail cell mattress at his feet. “They’d be for that, too, if they could figure out how to sell the bombs for $8.90 apiece.”

He jammed his hands in his pockets. Pulled his left hand out, bearing a small, crumpled piece of paper. He smoothed it out. He stared at the picture on it. It had come with his pirate patch. He shook his head. And for the first time, read the words beneath.


He threw the paper to the floor and covered his eyes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So, can you fit Mitt into an envelope?

Two things to discuss today: Apple's new "Air" laptop, and Mitt Romney's win in Michigan.

On the "Air"

So, it's thin. Who cares? I have a "thick" laptop, probably about 2 inches thick. It's brand-spakinging new. Paid $350 for it. It does what I want it to do. I've never worried about its thickness. Or thinness. Or overmuch about anything aside from will it let me watch DVDs while I'm on the bus and will it let me process words. So it works just fine for me. Don't feel the need to pay $2,000 for something thin enough to go into a manila envelope. Sure, the Air is pretty. But unnecessary, if you're not one of those idiot toy-grabbers who have to have the latest widget because they can't even pay spiders for sex.

Poor Apple. They have to try to top the iPhone with a useless widget. Of course, it's one widget topping another widget. Widget widget widget.

On the "Mitt"

So, Mitt won. Why, for the Republicans, does his win, combined with Huckabee's win in Iowa and McCain's win in New Hampsire, mean, according to a buttload of pundits, that the Republican Party is adrift? Nobody's saying that about the Democrats' split between Obama and Clinton. Couldn't it just be that, wow, everybody in the two parties is finally thrilled to have a good crop of people to pick from, and that -- wow, this is an interesting concept -- people in different states might have different opinions on who is the best to win this pony show?

Politically, I'm independent. I tend, in local elections, to vote for the Democrats, because they have no chance in hell of ever getting to office and I think someone should vote for them. In national elections, I tend to vote for the guy (or gal) less likely to win, because then when the bozo who does win gets in and starts driving the country right back into the ditch, I can whistle past the wreckage, tapping away at my fat laptop.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Site Mascot Chosen

Funny how the site mascot I've selected was in front of me the entire time. . .Bid welcome to Nose Har Man. There. To the right.

This is an absolutely unPhotoshopped image, captured by my wife Michelle at Upper Mesa Falls in Fremont County, Idaho, this past fall. Nose Hair Man appears as a natural rock and foliage formation on the east bank of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, just south of the falls. Take that, Old Man of the Mountains.

We have a lot in common, Nose Hair Man and I.

Chicken Man, Or What It's Like to Live In A Used Car Lot

First of all, gotta say the Chicken Man from Woodland Park, Colo., would be a mighty fine site mascot:

Just in case you never visit and are not familiar with the situation, here's the story in a nutshell. Or rather, in the form of a link:

Now, I live near a city that could probably use a taste of Branden's decorum, if not its dour sense of humor. We have several businesses in town who employ otherwise unemployable college students to advertise their businesses while wearing costumes. A tax preparer regales us with Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. A juice bar provides entertainment via a dancing banana. Pizza places, a local big box store that's run like a high school economics class project and other various shops employ people to stand on the snow-encrusted sidewalks, waving signs advertising their wares. Then there are the banners, balloons, blower-powered flappers, and other folderol that conspire to make the town look like a 25,000-people strong used car lot.

About a year ago, a luckless city employee tried to enforce a law on the books prohibiting such advertising. Needless to say, she was run out of town on a rail as the business owners whined it is their right to visually pollute the town with their garbage ads in the sake of pursuing a buck. So we continue to have a city that looks like it just got home from the flea market. And there's no reason to keep secrets: It's Rexburg, Idaho. The only town I know where the local pizzeria can issue a four-page booklet extolling the evolution of their restaurant, the intimate details of the lives of its founders and figure since they bore their testimonies they didn't need to offer any coupons to the unwashed masses. So we never go there. There's no need to keep secrets: It's Craigo's.

Yes, I am a negative vibe merchant. So be it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Site Mascot II

So, one vote against Cutty the Pig, whom I've decided to re-christen Le Porc Qui Se Coupe, although the "La Vache Qui Rit" people might get a little mad at me.

We can, by the way, now purchase "La Vache Qui Rit" at WinCo. It's kind of weird to se it sitting there, innocently among the other cheeses. I keep waiting to see a "Pere Clement" camembert appear there as well. But alas, not yet. . .

Maybe, in fitting with my know-it-all personality, I could use the site theme -- it's not really a mascot in this case -- gleaned from this photo:

Yes, you people get your due credit, so get off my back.

Know beans. We say often that we don't know beans. So if we know, do we know beans? I think so.

The drama of the weekend continues, fueled by a project director who got 2 hours of sleep in the 48 hours leading up to the crisis. If you think that lack of sleep compounded the crisis, you're absolutely right. But now that we're into the work week when the crisis has to be put on the backburner because we're working the jobs that pay for the time off we use to work the other job which is inciting all the crises in the form of meetings, things are cooling off. Not that anyone but me would understand all that, since we're still sworn to secrecy under pain of, well, possibly thumbscrews.

I'm drinking a Pepsi right now. Non-diet. Don't usually do that, but I needed one this morning. Reminds me that Dad used to drink a lot of Pepsi and once told me and my younger brother that drinking Pepsi was like having an angel pee on your tongue. I'm not sure that would be a successful advertising slogan.

We have our reorg boots on at work. A big bunch of big men from Test Area North are marching their way quickly towards RWMC, bringing their assoretd hangers-on and making a lot of people here quake in their shoes. Everyone tells us our technical writing department is safe. Which scares the hell out of us, because whenever anyone tells us we're safe, we know we're doomed. We've already got one casualty -- Art, our Beloved Leader, is now heading to INTEC to become lead tech writer there. He's being replaced here by Danny, who got hired on after me as a tech writer at INTEC. I have mixed feelings. Not that I want the job. I've seen what the job entials, and I don't want to get involved in that (deleted). I've decided long ago that I'm very happy as an underpaid minion, scuttling around trying to keep my job, rather than working on a higher profile where the money, yeah, is better, but the demands do not fit my scuttling personality. I am a true, living example of the Peter Principle (which states that people generally rise to the level of their incompetence). (If you've never read that book, by the way, I recommend it. There is a lot of hilarity in truth.)

You have to expect this kind of thing when you work for a company whose initials are ICP. There are the ordinary urinary inferences, of course, but the preferred alteration of the meaning of this acronym is Insane Clown Posse. I think it fits.

Maybe they could be the mascots. But I'm damn sure I couldn't get their endorsement. I'm more of the Weird Al "White and Nerdy" type.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Oh, the drama

There's been a lot of drama in my life over the past 48 hours. Drama that involves possible plagiarism (not on my part, thank you very much). skullduggery, spies, a comparison to the attack on Pearl Harbor, being sworn to secrecy by a guy who works for the armed forces in undisclosed locations so undisclosed even Dick Cheney doesn't know where they are, and jokes (mine) about cyanide suicide pills. The drama is not job-related. It's hobby related. Which tells me I should have stuck with the damn stamp collecting. Just whatever you do, do not go near the Internet at all over the next few days or you just might die.

Mascot-wise: No decisions yet. I have one vote against Cutty the French pig, calling him "gross." But then since the comment is from my sister who was once chagrined to learn her father used her purse to smuggle horse sausage out of the Netherlands, her opinion is tained. But as she did post the first comment on my blog, I will count the vote and let the record show that unless the worldwide Internet community rallies in Cutty's behalf, he's doomed to the slaughterhouse. Which is just as well.

I decided today that I am official sick of winter. Usually, the feeling hits me much later in the year, say late February or early March, but the older I get, the less and less I like winter. I think the freezing rain we had Thursday night pushed me over the edge. I spent a good five minutes today hacking away at that storm's remnants, watching their bits fall to the ground at Wal-Mart from our minivan. It felt good.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Site Mascot

It struck me this morning that this site is in desperate need of a mascot. So I'll be trolling the intertubes over the next few days, trying to find one. Here's a likely candidate: Cutty, the French Pig. The text reads "One eats with pleasure . . . and without getting tired (bored, probably, in this sense). Auvergne sausages -- Absolutely pure food. The good sausages of the Prodigious Pig!" This is, first of all, evidence that it's not only the American advertisers who can put it on with a shovel. And obviously, watching a smiling quisling cut itself up to encourage you to eat its innards is, well, either disturbing or mouth-watering. And defiant of gravity. Why this pig's torso doesn't just flop over is a real noodle-scratcher.

I'm not making fun of the French -- I lived in France for two years, oui. Nor am I going to turn this into an anti-meat screed, since I've eaten a few pigs myself. And snails. Mussels. Frog legs. Horse. Horse is tasty. Mussels are fine in paella, not necessarily on their own. Frogs legs less so, and snails, well, if you like pencil erasers dipped in butter and garlic. . .

Another mascot contender just might be "Wake Up Cat," as detailed in this video:

The video, at first, may not appear to be all that funny. But you have to watch it in context, i.e., three children under the age of eight giggling their heads off as the cat does its thing. Priceless.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Must. . .save. . .the brain!

First, there's the old Internet circular (B-65):

I cdnuold blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg!

The phaonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Amzanig, huh? Yaeh I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt!

The contrarian in me disputes the author's assertation that spelling doesn't matter, because it certainly does to anal retentives such as I. But because this circular is readable by fluent readers confirms much of what Frank Smith writes in his book, "Understanding Reading," which I'm reading (and understanding) for my class in reading theory and document design. He writes on page 51: "Reading involves looking for meaning, not specific words." This assertion meshes wonderfully with Smith's idea of the "theory of the world in our heads." As he writes on page 55: "Our theory of the world seems ready even to make sense of almost everything we are likely to experience in spoken and written language -- a powerful theory indeed." Our theory, as Smith writes, is our "shield against bewilderment." As readers (and as human beings) we take risks, we predict. We experience bewilderment only when our efficient theory of the world fails us -- then we're surprised, we ask, "Why did that happen to me?"

Recalling the last time I felt acute bewilderment helps me understand more of what Smith is writing about (although, as he asserts, my recollections are likely to be tainted by the recent reading I've done in his book). Two years ago, I became a technical writer, leaving behind the more general writing found in journalism for the specific, attenuated world of radioactive waste disposal. My first few weeks on the job were bewildering and confusing. I understood the process of writing and editing, of attending meetings, reading e-mail and making phone calls, but up until that time, my theory of the world had not included a flood of acronyms, convoluted environmental requirements and the tribal knowledge that makes up the 50-year history of radioactivity in Idaho. My theory, though not wrong, obviously needed some augmentation. So two things came into play as I began "getting into" this job:

  • Time passed. "Time and change are an essential part of the way we perceive the world," Smith writes. After a few weeks of swimming (and copious note-taking, reading and talking with peers to figure out what the hell was going on) that theory of the world in my head started collecting more information.
  • I adapted my skills. "Our skills are the part of our theory of the world that enables us to interact with the world, to take the initiative in our transactions with our environment," Smith writes. No way was I going back to the worlds of journalism or telemarketing. That good ol' theory, adaptable to the end, started helping me make sense of this new world.

Am I a genius now? Not at all. But reading Smith's book helped me understand the inner workings of that adaptability. My theory of the world is now tainted by the world of radioactivity.

Reading Smtih also brought out a few random thoughts:

  • Theelepeltje. I did not know what the word meant. But i recognized it as a word. I'm half Dutch, through my father's family. My eyes immediately latched onto the "tje," a common Ducth word ending. I also knew the Dutch word for tea is "thee." Teaspoon, right. What fun.
  • Memory. As Smith writes about our long-term memory -- especially recall -- working on interconnections, it came to me how many childhood memories, many times the most vivid memories I have, involve eyeglasses. I started wearing eyeglasses in the 2nd grade, and recall instances of lost glasses, broken classes, stolen glasses, dirty glasses. There are also strings of memory that involve dogs, toys, avoiding Tuesday after-school Primary classes, fire (not that I burned things down as a kid; I just have a lot of fire-related memories). It's weird.
  • Cultural sharing of theories of the world. Sometimes we ask ourselves, how can people act/think that way? I've read a lot about the Holocaust (my father was a civilian during World War II, and brought those war memories with him to our family), and the big questions are How could the Germans behave so badly and how could the Jews allow themselves to be slaughtered. The answers that always come back in the books I've read is that it has to do with inborn culture. Maybe this theory of the world in our heads helps me understand what that means just a little bit better.

I've babbled long enough. Suffice it to say this book really set me to thinking about what we think, what we do and what we think we do.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Short Story Alert II

Not really a short story. But the first chapter of a novel I'm working on. Thought I'd toss it out here because, well, it ought to be read.


The Spawn of, well, I guess you could call it Evil

It starts with a shovel.

Others tried with a palm. A forked stick. A hacking axe. The pick.

They refine their tools. Stone for wood. Bronze for stone. Iron for bronze. Then steel. From steel they add the magic of steam. Of electricity. Of hydraulics and gasoline and Diesel fuel.
But they always go back to the humble shovel.

On this stage, a shovel of gold.

For work, the beasts. Great beasts to push and pull and prod and tear and move, driven by the few men who sweat an honest day’s labor.

From above, far above the stage lit with spotlights on the beasts on the fringes and one on the sole golden shovel in the center, the creator sees, and sees it is good.

Ground graded, holes dug, comes the concrete. Sinewy bands of concrete poop out of dirty, elegant trucks. Concrete sluices into plywood forms, leaving the grain of the living wood in the artificial rock of ages. Concrete and steel and wood and dirt.

Here and there, bits of rock. Errant soda bottles, tossed into the forms by idled workers, tossing when the bosses weren’t watching. In this particular creation, one worker One worker writes a note, stuffs it in an empty Pepsi bottle stoppered with a wad of paper:

Kilroy Was Here

Now bars of steel poke from the concrete like quills from a road-killed porcupine. More concrete comes, pours out as spotlights from the heavens play on the machinery.

The creator, watching the spotlights, is pleased.

And the stage grows, as if it were a world.

But not quite yet a world.

For the thing below, swarming with machines and men, still grows, slowly taking the shape of the thing in the creator’s mind. The thing drawn on thousands of bits of paper: The natomy of the future of commerce, the future of culture, the future of the insignificant town of Edina, where all will come, few to despair.

The thing rises from the ground. Workers crawl into its innards and shell like ants. But all in reverse. Not pruning then burying bits of flesh, but adding, always adding, building the thing from earthy building blocks, carelessly scattered by a Mother Nature, buried in the earth’s crust by a caretaker too busy building a planet to worry about planning for the future.

As the thing rises, is capped, painted, hidden and adorned like a temple to bury a thousand pharoahs of Egypt, from its sides spread the black cap, to welcome visitors far more numerous than the workers, destined to enter the thing, decorated with tile and marble, carpet and light, hiding the functional skeleton, circulatory system, poop shaft, stomach, brain.

And they will come, the creator said. For he declared: It is the Merchants Who Will Save Us. Will provide us with culture. With amenities. With a home and loving arms and pillows and sheets and sodas. They will come.

And come.

And come.

And come, until things like this spread over all the earth. Some will age and die, rot, wither, disappear. But always to be replaced by others. Always others.

High in the clouds, as spotlights swarm on the thing like fireflies, the creator weeps.
And below, as the beasts and workers trundle off the stage, out of the spotlight, the thing is finished.

So beautiful.

So beautiful.

Over the steel and concrete skeleton workers applied Italian glass mosaic, Cherokee Georgia marble, Wisconsin sandstone, imported Swedish green marble, black walnut, Brazilian rosewood, teakwood from India.

And the people come, to be blessed by the thing. To enter its many mouths, breathing a cool breath filled with the odors of cotton and nylon and pretzels covered with cheese.

Under the guiding eye of the rooster, they march from their cars into the Eden from which he, the creator, believes mankind has expelled itself. Here is the magnificent walled garden of past civilization, created for the new breed of human explorer. He did not feel the least uncomfortable with the appropriation of Godly metaphor in its creation. He, like God, created a four-walled garden, “Westward in Edina,” he joked. Like the Eden of old, his Eden has four rivers that flow from the four quarters of the earth, but his rivers are rivers of cooled air, even in winter, cooled because the hot bodies of those entering therein combine to melt ice, to warm stone; bodies wanting to be cooled by that made a reality of the original Eden’s fleeting promise.

Then the man felt it.

The lurching of the stomach, the spinning forward in time, like a brain addled by fever, wandering the hallways of a home he knew but couldn’t remember and where, in his fevered delusion, he feared tornadoes in the hallway.

Tornadoes are coming.

The thing, his creation, he sees, will survive. Revered by some. Invisible. Omnipresent. So innovative and creative as to be taken for granted. “I could have thought of this,” many would say, entering the thing the master created. Many, indeed, claimed to have invented it before the Master. But the thing is his. His with which to clothe, to feed, to suckle, to educate, to enlighten. His with which to relieve the burden of human existence on a frail, cold planet where briars and thorns issue from the ground, rather than fruit and flowers, as in the garden. A place where it was never too hot. Never too cold. Where food is plentiful. All is beautified with the natural treasures of the earth, finally unburied and stripped of concealing bark.

And the worship of the masses pleased him, despite the coming tornadoes, the illness, the empty pit in the stomach. But worship, he knew, has a stronger tendency to alter the thing worshiped rather than the worshipers themselves.

He accepts that. He has faith in the thing he created. Knows it will last through aeons, likely to be preserved as some latter-day Petra on the laked plains of Minnesota, a landmark for all time.

The merchants will save this country, he said, long ago, still said, fevered in dreams. I’ve seen it happen. They will save us.

But the tornadoes come.

But other things came, spawned by the tornadoes, the fever, the rush. Other things burst from the ground, without evident help from workers or metal or bulldozers or Styrofoam cups filled with coffee.

With magic wands and portolets a few bring forth from the dirt a new kind of temple, scattered all across the land, soon more numerous than schools, from whence students flee to enjoy the peace and enlightenment newly offered.

They accomplish what the Maker dreamed in bulk: they turn concrete into gold.

Then asphalt.

Then cinders.

Then ash.

They turn cinders and ash into gold.

And leave the cinders unadorned, except with a coat of paint, grey or brown, using the money to build new temples in new cities and new countries spreading over the new face of the Earth, craving the newness as Man once craved water.

The Maker, despite his torment, feels a flicker of pleasure. That is a good thing, a fine thing. His prophecy. The merchants will save us, he intoned. The merchants will save us.

He hears the chant returned, by thousands, by millions.

The merchants will save us.

The tornadoes spawn more things, and more things, and more things. More ash and cinder temples, surrounded by bootblack where car upon car upon car upon car come and go. The thing spreads form suburb to city to city to suburb to even the smallest towns. And people rejoice, and are happy, live and die in the shadows of the things that come. They enter smiling, always smiling.

And more things come.

The Maker stands high above the stage, drowned in a thousand spotlights.

And the things keep coming.

A hundred thousand spotlights.

A million spotlights.

The stage, once filled with tantalizing shadows, mystery, promise, grew in the enormity of light. Ten million spotlights.

Colors on the stage begin to fade in the glare.

Workers and walkers do not wither in the heat. But as the lights multiply, the workers’ and walkers’ shadows waver and flicker, then their silhouettes, flicker as in a mirage. Details of their faces, their crooked teeth, their bent noses, their slicked hair, their staring eyes, fade.

A hundred million lights.

Now, few shadows.

Then, he said, but then I’m not sure what it is. Was. Will be.


This thing. A slinking, creeping, slouching, stinking thing, small as a mouse in the underbrush, large as the clouds, hiding in the shadows but always in plain sight. It is worse. Worse than anything else he ever saw or could create. I won’t pay alimony for these bastards, he said. And he didn’t really see it. Hear it. Smell it. Felt it, rather, like damp sheets to a sick man, a scream out of a nightmare that blends into an innocent nighttime noise that reassures when you wake fully and recognize it. But you stay awake for a while, afraid if you fall asleep, the noise will return.

A man in a white robe appeared at the Maker’s elbow. Viktor, the man said, You’ve always had a vivid imagination.

I know, Viktor said.

But this, he added. Where does it end?

The white-robed man smiled at Viktor kindly. “Ever hear of infinity?”

He awoke, startled, in an unfamiliar bed, drenched with sweat.

An old man in a battered nightgown. He swung his feet to the thick carpet on the floor, shaking his head as the eeriness of the dream faded. He rubbed his eyes, stroked his goatee. Briskly stood up, scooted slippers on his feet, wrapped himself in a hotel robe, walked to the bathroom. Gargled.

A knock at the door, and a dapper man entered, younger than the first.

“Mr. Gruen, it’s Alan,” the other said. “I heard you in the bathroom, so I hope you don’t mind me coming in.”

The man in the bathroom made an affirmative gargle.

Alan sat at the writing table, pulled a folder from his case, shuffled the papers inside the folder, waiting nervously for the man in the bathroom to emerge.

“Open the window to the east, please, Alan,” the man in the bathroom said.

Alan leaped to the window, drew back the curtains. Morning light streamed between the two stiff linen curtains. A quarter mile distant, an enormous granite and concrete box lay on the horizon.

“You’ve certainly got a nice view of it from here, Mr. Gruen,” Alan said, staring at the box. “And you won’t believe how excited people are. I’ve brought the morning papers from Minneapolis and St. Paul. They’re here for you to read.”

Silence in the bathroom.

Viktor, water dribbling from his chin, stared into the mirror. Recalled the dream. The tornadoes.
“Mr. Gruen,” Alan asked.

He shook his head, placed glasses on his nose, smoothed down his hair. “I’m ready, Alan,” he said. “Always a little nervous. At ground-breakings.”

Monday, January 7, 2008

Gossip Central

Monday morning. In the cubicle across the hallway, a lady complaining about how her work station was set up while she was gone on vacation. Next to her, two co-workers are talking about a brawl at the Shiloh Inn, started at a Center Partners party. I used to work there. Hearing that a brawl broke out at their party does not surprise me in the least. A good working environment there, yes, but some strong-willed, hard-drinking people. (Add to that statement that if you want drugs in Idaho Falls, all you have to do is go to the Center Partners parking lot. But you didn't hear it from me.) So glad I don't work in telemarketing any more. That was the low year of my life. 2005, never come back.

I hear a lot in my cubicle. I work in a mobile trailer about 1/4 of a mile from some of the nastiest radioactive waste on the planet. I have not yet acquired my own personal glow, but I have met radioactive rabbits, marmots and seen the spot where the radioactive stink bug was squashed on the sidewalk outside. Each month, a happy, bearded man comes through our building and swabs random desks, keyboards, et cetera, taking samples of our dust to see how radioactive we are. Funny thing is, we never get reports back. . .

Anyway, I hear a lot in my cubicle. I'm positioned next to the boss' cubicle, so I can eavesdrop on conversations, phone calls, et cetera. I don't make a habit of it. He has loud visitors and makes loud conversation, so I can't help what shoots over the wall above my head. Once and a while when something extra juicy is going on next door, Karen (the assistant boss) will slip into my extra chair and listen in as well. I'm used to all the visitors.

Did finally get the Toyota working, against the odds. I figured that at minimum we'd have to buy a new battery, at maximum, replace the doodads responsible for charging said battery. But so far, so good. I've probably jinxed myself now.

I turn 36 years old this week. I'm not worried about that.

What else happened this weekend?

  • Shopped our brains out in Idaho Falls on Satuday. Hate that. But we hadn't been to the grocery in a month, so we had to go. The kids were going absolutely nuts by the end. Their highlights included exchanging a faulty Ratatouille DVD and getting Liam a new coat at Target, then playing on the escalators at Dillards. My highlight was the drive home, when they all fell asleep and all the whining stopped. I wanted time to stop at that moment so I could continue driving down a dark, quiet road with only the radio playing. But we got home and they woke up. Like zombies or something.
  • Started our new church schedule. 1 to 4 p.m. Yuck. By the time church is over, the day is over.

What's new in thought today? I'm in uneasy anticipation about these new classes. And tired. So I go back to work to earn that money which makes this madcap life possible.

But then I come back. It's a slow day. In the past two days, however, I have harrassed our poor USQ person with no fewer than fourteen documents for her to review. That's a record, I think. It's just nice to get all this stuff off my desk and onto the desks of others. But get too much off the desk and the next thing you know is you're having nightmares about the next round of layoffs, which we're told will be coming regularly, each quarter. No such thing as job security here. Our fire protection engineer just left to start a similar job at the Smithsonian in Washington. I kept wanting to hide in his luggage. But no such luck.

I had a weird dream last night. I was on some busy street, endlessly coughing up Starburst wrappers, waiting in line at some ATM-like machine that may have been giving out money or may have been giving out dental floss. All the time I was trying to get away from this rather intent couple filling me in on the many virtues of living in some ratbag little town in Oregon. They told me the name, but I sure can't remember what it was. Thus ends my Virginia Woolf post of the week.

Friday, January 4, 2008


We got rained on today. Rain. In January. In Rexburg, Idaho. Global Warming indeed is real.

Today went down the tubes. Spent this morning fussing over the Toyota. Its battery died Thursday night. Tried jumping it with the Pontiac, but it's got one of those new-fangled batteries that hides the posts so you can't jump anything with them. So I pulled the old battery out, scrubbed it up then brought it home to plug in to the charger. Didn't notice until I was four hours deep into my temple open house assignment -- directing traffic in front of the stake center -- that I had battery corrosion dust on my gloves, with which I'd been brushing my nose and lips. They're not on fire quite as much any more, which is a good thing. Never, never rub battery corrosion stuff on your lips. It's no lip balm.

The temple open house. Not as bad as I thought it would be -- five hours out in the cold, waving a flashlight around. Wearing a safety vest. Shooing people away from the VIP parking section. Hoping nobody would get hit by a car during our shift. That happened Tuesday. Fortuntately, the guy walked out of the hospital with only a few bruises on him.

My classes start next week -- one on reading theory and document design, the other on digital media. I feel like a fool taking these courses, because I know nothing. But then I guess that's why we take classes, so we can get to know things. All the odd stuff we do to get a degree. I do enjoy the program I'm in -- I'll put in a plug for Utah State University. They do offer an entire masters program in technical writing online. It requires 33 credits; sofar I've completed a whopping 12. But that's 12 more than I had this time last year, when I was just getting ready to take the GRE. The more I think about it, the more I realize the masters program could be a springboard into teaching writing. But that would mean, in most cases, that I'd have to earn a PhD in order to continue teaching. I have to ask myself: Teaching? What am I thinking? But then I remember: The alternative was the family business: Bricklaying. Noble, of course, but outside in the cold and wet and heat and all. I've had enough of that as a hod carrier. And never will I go back to telemarketing. I'd rather beat up old ladies and steal their purses.

I just told my wife about the battery corrosion on the lips. She chalks that up as more evidence as why men should not be allowed to roam the earth unsupervised. That's why it's only cavemen, not cavewomen, that they find all the time in the tar pits.

By the way -- please visit It's a travel web site a few college friends and I have put together, where we invite people to share their insights into traveling in the Intermountain west.