Sunday, December 30, 2007

Cuba Libre or Mentirita anyone?

"The Powers That Be" is an ambitious and intoxicating first in the new Room 59 series.

Room 59 is an independent, ultra secret, black operations agency that goes places and does things that governments can't or won't. Once a mission has been approved by the International Intelligence Agency, the Room 59 operatives, lead and chosen by Kate Cochran, act to eliminate global threats arising from the gritty reality of counterterrorism, international crime, and intrigue. Since Room 59 was designed to operate independently of all known governing bodies, if something - anything - goes wrong, there is no one to call for help.

To accomplish a mandate this big and make a story worth reading, the plot must be well researched, believably set in real places, pay attention to detail, be technically accurate, be built of images that are powerful and yet familiar, and delivered with a directness that pulls no punches. With that accounting, "The Powers That Be" succeeds admirably. This story is complex and necessarily so. The cast of characters is large. The level of technical detail and accuracy adds a clarifying granularity. The imagery sucks you into the story, spins on the bottle cap shut behind you, and locks you in right up to the very last page. It starts the prologue with the search and interrogation of a political prisoner in a Cuban prison, and ends on a deserted beach in Florida with the incoming waves removing any evidence that anyone had been there at all.

The action in this story is positively breathtaking. With simultaneous operations in both Cuba and Florida, there is plenty to keep the pages turning. When a historical complication from the early Sixties is twisted into the mix, events really get rolling.

This is not a tidy "Mission Impossible" sort of story with a neatly compact team of characters. The plot is richer than that. It is dark, gritty and executed with the number of characters (both good guys and bad guys) to realistically pull it off. That number of characters can be challenging to follow at times. The richness of the plot redeems it and would make an excellent foundation for a solid summer blockbuster movie.

A simple twist of lime is the difference between an ordinary rum and Coke and a "Cuba Libre". "The Powers That Be" also has a defining twist. Further, it has the imagery and detail that make it really compelling. One example of that is wrapped in this question: What is the difference between Cuba Libre and a Mentirita, and why is that important to me a world away from the sandy beaches and crowded cities of Cuba? The answer is on page 94 of the book. All the other pages of the book are pretty good too.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Satisfying, quick and fun ... again

"The Cost of Honor" by Sally Malcolm picks up where "A Matter of Honor" left off very well. The story seeds planted in the prequel have some very surprising results as well as consequences. Rather than following military protocol and asking permission first, Colonel Jack O'Neill mounts an unauthorized rescue mission of SG-10 using the stolen gravitational technology to slip through the crushing grasp of a black hole. This "breaking faith" becomes a thematic conflict for all of the characters. One by one they must come to terms with the relationship that they have broken faith with, and how, if it is possible at all, they can redeem themselves. The plot that emerges from that conflict is very well done. It makes this novel the strongest story written in the SG-1 line so far.

A simple truth is that the hardest thing in the SG-1 universe for an author to do is to get the characterizations right. Sally Malcolm did an admirable job bringing our favorite Jaffa, Teal'c, to life in the pages of this book. The mannerisms were spot on. His subtle humor was natural and effectively presented. I liked her presentation of General Hammond very much, especially in her deepening of his character through his struggles with the central theme of the story. She perfectly captured the basic weasel in Senator Kinsey's character, and kept him squirming through to the very last page.

In three places in "The Cost of Honor" the author missed the characterization mark. The peek that we get into Samantha Carter's head very early in the story is especially uncomfortable. It is one thing to wonder if she will "fall apart", but another entirely to deny the military bearing and professional demeanor that we've come to expect from her character. She is military and would focus on the mission first, there would be time to second guess decisions made along the way and mourn later. Along the same lines, Jack O'Neill is NOT a "kill or be killed" kind of guy. He is a military man and a professional. That means that he is a principled warrior. We've seen that aspect of his character consistently over the years and we've come to expect better of him than a mere "law of the jungle" player. We expect him to behave consistently on other matters too. On page 308 when Carter "dies", Jack O'Neill does nothing to her killer even though he is standing right there with a gun against the killer's (Koash) chest. Even though this "death" isn't real (an illusion because of the sheh'fet), Jack would have certainly shot Koash first - before he had the chance to injure Carter like he did, and if not, then certainly afterward. Consistency is expected of all the characters, especially from the heroic characters of Daniel Jackson, Teal'c, Samantha Carter and Jack O'Neill. The SG-1 canon has never wavered on that point. Taking liberties with the heroic nature of these four characters is -- CHEATING. Don't do it! These miscues are the only weakness that mattered to me in the story because the storyline is so strong and (otherwise) well done.

This book is definitely worth a read, even if you have to hold your nose to cross these few bad paragraphs. All the rest of the 362 pages of "The Cost of Honor" are a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Tails Up!

Ray R. Kepley’s "Tails Up!" is an epic, first-person Western that is unexpectedly rewarding for such a familiar genre. It is a complex and sweeping tale set in 1868 in the short grass prairie of western Kansas and eastern Colorado. It is an unflinching look back in time through the intimate prism of history, geography and human behavior.

After reading Harpers Weekly and other publications describing the wonders of the West, Jack "Caroliny" Reynolds leaves North Carolina seeking adventure. He gets a job with a wagon train in Kansas City, Missouri, and follows the Santa Fe Trail west. The freight wagons Jack will drive are owned by Tom Powers from Missouri. One of the most interesting things about the journey is how the vast landscape they travel through transforms from unnoticed backdrop into a fully developed character. To the very end of the story, the expansive prairie never relents. It compels every one of the other characters to adapt to it or it kills them.

Tom Powers elects to stop a few miles east of (Fort Dodge) Dodge City, Kansas, and settles in a sod house. Jack and a friend named Bid McClaine stay on to help Tom build a ranch. Of the many challenges that face Jack, Bid and the other hands at Tom Power's ranch, the one constant is the harsh and untamable nature of the environment. Life changes permanently for them when Bid buys a mule that he is compelled to name "Old Satank". With mobility comes new opportunity. Jack and Bid aren't very good at farming, barely competent at ranching, and it would seem that they only excel in adventuring and scheming ways to make money. That leads them to the hay meadows and into deadly confrontation with the Native Americans.

The final third of this story is spent with Jack and Bid enlisting into the U.S. Army as civilian scouts. Along with fifty other men, Jack and Bid soon find themselves in one of the most important battles that ever took place on the prairie - The Battle of Beecher Island on the Arikaree River in what is now Colorado. Since the story is told in the first person, many of the key details of the battle and the important players in it aren't revealed. On the other hand, the painstakingly researched details and first-person account makes this battle gripping, even terrifying at times.

There were a couple of things that I really liked about this story. The geographical detail and simple truth in the characters were very appealing. The language the author uses in narrative to describe the area where I grew up is spot on ... on the high flats of eastern Colorado, in sight of the lonesome Two Buttes ... somewhere in the unknown past it has all but lost its way in the jumble of shifting sand hills ... (page 304), and later ... the better known and more impressive Two Buttes in Colorado ... (page 449). Having traveled extensively in Kansas, his descriptions of and references to the land there are equally well done.

The language the author used in the dialogue is sometimes difficult to read because it is spelled phonetically - as the author believed the characters to have actually spoken. It makes their creative combinations of curse words all the more potent as period-appropriate punctuation.

The three pieces of the story could stand on their own as separate novellas. Together, the story is very good, although long at 466 pages. The ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how the characters grand plans for a cattle ranching operation of their own grazing Texas range cattle on western Kansas short grass prairie would have turned out. That's a testament to the strength of the characterization and energy in its plot.

Unfortunately, we'll never get to read that last component of the story. The author, Ray R. Kepley, died Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007, in his hometown of Ulysses, Kansas, at the age of 99. He wrote the book “Tails Up!" when he was 70.

Definitely worth a read!

Publisher: Elliott Printers (1980)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0960424806
ISBN-13: 978-0960424801

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mel Odom does Geekerati Radio

Local author and writing instructor, Mel Odom, appeared on Geekerati Radio. Mel has written more than 150 novels and can always be counted on for a great interview.

The Geekerati folks entitled tonights forum: "Fantasy on Film: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen". The teaser read like this ...

The new millennium has seen a resurgence of fantasy on the silver screen. Some of these films have been spectacular, and financially successful, but others have failed to bring the audiences studios might have expected. Are we at a crest on a roller coaster of quality, or is it a sign of more good fantasy to come? Join the geeks and our guests, fantasy/sf author Mel Odom and Medieval Literature professor Richard Scott Nokes, as we discuss our favorite fantasy films.

They finally got to Mel with just 15 minutes left in the show. Mel was in fine form. I had to make some notes along the way ...

Hawk the Slayer? Wow, now that one takes me back. I didn’t think that anyone had seen that picture. AND a plug for a “Portrait of Jennie”! Nice. It’s my absolute favorite. Oh and then he goes into a discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ...

To wrap things up, the moderators tossed a curve ball at him. The moderators had some prize to give away, so they needed a trivia question to make a contest of it. So, they let Mel come up with the trivia question. The first person to answer at wins the prize - a one sheet movie poster from "The Golden Compass".

The trivia question he asked was - In the story "Mysterious Island", Captain Nemo supposed got blown up and the Nautilus was damaged and sank to the bottom of the sea. What popular fiction author supposedly revealed the resting place (location) of the Nautilus?

Now that’s quite a trivia question. Do you know the answer?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Once a Femme Fatale ...

Was reading the latest post at the "Noir of the Week" blog and followed a link through to a link and then another link that popped a picture of Lizabeth Scott at me.

If you don't know who Lizabeth Scott is, you're not alone. She was an actress who made twenty or so movies in the late 40's and 50's, and then quit. With only a couple of exceptions, she hasn't done anything in public for years. A full three-quarters of her pictures were dark and gritty noirs. When the popularity of that genre faded, the blonde femme fatale tried but couldn't move into the future.

The future is a strange place that's built out of the past. Somewhere between the time that Led Zeppelin discovered Kashmir and Frampton came alive, my great uncle and his family moved back to the Great Plains from California. That part of my family fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930's and actually did find work in southern California. So they stayed and put down roots; that is, until the souring economy of the 1970's brought them back to southeastern Colorado to work for my stepdad on our farm.

My great uncle married early and had two children, Dave and Linda. Linda was in her twenties, pretty and a lot of fun. She never really adjusted to southeastern Colorado. The climate was too dry. There weren't any trees. Worse still, there weren't any eligible men. She had won a car on the "Price is Right" television game show. That made her just about the only celebrity anyone from Baca County had ever seen.

Dave was in his twenties also. He was the first person I ever met that was truly "cool". He had long blonde hair and listened the kind of music that my Mom called "hippie shit". There were a lot of "hippies" in those days and she refused to suffer anything about them or their culture. I was thirteen and was oh-so-ready to rebel. Dave taught me how and in exchange I taught him how to drive the tractor, work the combine, take care of cattle, move irrigation pipe, service the wells, and how to properly order a sandwich at Stella's Grocery in the booming metropolis of Two Buttes, Colorado, with a population was 67 at the U.S. Census 2000.

My great uncle was a bull of a man. He had wide, strong hands and a tireless work ethic. He knew nothing about farming. He drove a truck and did some mechanic-ing in southern California. He had remarried somewhere along the way after finding a beautiful Lebanese woman named Sharon. She was great. She cooked food no one had ever tasted before, and it was great. She was the first cook I ever knew that didn't have a ceramic jar next to the stove for bacon fat. She had a keen sense of humor and was the first person I ever heard say the word "penis". Her son Ricky actually knew what that meant too. My brother Jeff and I didn't dare confess we didn't know what it meant. Just as soon as we possibly could, we were picking through a Funk & Wagnell's to find it. My stepdad's name was Dick and that was pretty much everything we needed to know about that word. Just goes to figure that you learn something new everyday.

My great uncle John was able to rent a house about five miles away from our farm. That house needed a whole lot of work, so John got it for free provided he make the place livable again. After it was fixed up, then he paid a small rental for it and everyone was happy. The house came with full rights to use the barn and the stock corrals. John put them to use right away when he picked up some calves from a feedlot in Johnson City, Kansas. His idea to bring out a Jersey or a Guernsey for milking never panned out though.

As it turned out John and my stepdad had something in common. They didn't mind bending an elbow to toast something. After a while their elbows were bent most of the time. The "Irish Disease" is fairly common where I'm from.

One day John asked me go around to take care of his cattle because Dick and he were going to take Dave to the Two Buttes Anchorage, which was codespeak for a ramshackle beer joint beside Two Buttes Lake. There was water in the lake in those days. The jukebox there still had Shambala by Three Dog Night. There was tons of Country music also, and in those days, it was mostly just bad music to drink and get drunk by.

John wanted his cattle fed a special mix of packaged feed, grain and hay. He stored the packaged feeds in the barn, but he hadn't told me where in the barn he stacked the 50 pound sacks. While I was searching I found a fat leather photo album that was like something out of a movie. It was three feet tall and two feet wide. The cover was dusty and thick. I opened the album to the first page and saw a black and white picture of this pretty blonde woman stepping off an old propeller driven airplane. She was surrounded by guys in Perry Mason suits and hats. Another one of the pictures had this woman waving to a crowd. I turned page after page. She wore other dresses in the other pictures. She was always beautifully dressed and elegant. Some of the pictures were movie stills, others were publicity shots. Some of them were obviously staged, but others were spontaneous and there she shined most brightly of all. Not only did the camera love her, but she was full of confidence and had fun with all of this. A few of them were candid shots of her getting into a car or trying on some sunglasses. She must have had a thing for sunglasses because there loads of those pictures. There were some newspaper clippings stuffed into the album also and that's how I learned that the woman was Lizabeth Scott.

I found the feed sacks and took care of the cattle, but a couple days later, I asked my great uncle about the photo album. He told me that he had found it in the barn when he was cleaning it out and that I shouldn't look through things like that because some of the pictures "weren't very good". He reserved those words for sins of the flesh. That didn't make sense of me because I had looked through them all and hadn't seen anything indecent about any of them. He was sincere about it, so I didn't ask again, but every chance I got, I always went back to look at those pictures just in case one of them "wasn't very good". I even volunteered to take care of his cattle.

One day I went into the barn and found the leather photo album stuffed into a trash barrel. When I had the chance I fished it out of the trash and hid it in the pickup I was driving. I finished the chores for my great uncle and rushed home. My great uncle came over that evening to visit. He suspected that I had taken the album. He took it and burned it in our trash can while he and my stepdad drank and talked.

To this day I don't know who took those pictures of Lizabeth Scott or why. Somehow Lizabeth Scott had made her way into my world - in the darkest corner of Colorado. In my own "coming of age" noir, she was a femme fatale again. It was a role for which she received no credits, but certainly one I'll never forget.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Poulan Predator

After the ice storm hit, I went to three stores to buy a good saw to help removing my trees. Of course, the gas powered chainsaws were sold out, and naturally the electric ones were also gone, but these people had picked the shelves clean of every type of saw - no matter how ridiculous ... I called around, I even went to the stores in town that had no power. I was hoping that in those suddenly "cash only, no credit cards" stores, maybe there would be one left. Nope, nope, and hell no ...

One of my neighbors had a visit from a tree service company. She only had one mortally wounded Bradford Pear tree in her yard. They gave her a quote that covered bringing down the part that was still standing, chopping all the wood, and piling it up within five feet of the curb - all for the low, low price of $600. Gouge, gouge, gouge. I have three trees, so the survey says ... $120 more or less for a chain saw and some sweat beats a $2,000 drumming!

On the third day of looking, the happy Walmart voice told me that two more skids of chain saws just came in and they would have them out on the floor in about an hour. I rushed over to the store, had to parked a mile away from the door, and sprinted in (so what that it looked like a ruptured hog on ice!?!). I found the chain saw pallets in a sea of people. I got my saw!

It's a Poulan Predator. It has a powerful, but compact 34cc engine that didn't complain too much starting for the first time in 28 degree (F) weather. The instructions for starting the chainsaw are in pictures by the handle. The instruction manual was a little more technical, but cold starts are a snap. You pull the handle five times, then pump the little primer bulb 6 times, then pull till it starts.

It's got an Anti-vibration handle on it that really makes for comfortable operation of the saw. It is small, but you can feel its 11.8 pound mass after welding it for a couple of hours. The vibration is very low. The "sweet spot" on the cutting chain is right where you'd expect it to be. It is noisy, so wear ear plugs. The operation of the saw is cleaner than I expected. It directed saw dust away from me, but some dust did accumulate in the area where automatic chain oiler works - not an excessive amount, but it was noticeable. You definitely want to wear eye protection when using this or any saw. The instruction manual spends a lot of time discussing kickback. If you are careful and pay attention to your technique, you can minimize kickback and other problems. There is an inertia activated chain brake on the saw just in case though.

This saw is small and inexpensive. It's got plenty of power too. It fits well with the type of work that I need it for. I cleared the very large Bradford Pear tree that was split open and dead in my front yard in just an hour and a half. Highly recommend it for odd jobs and occasional work.

It does come with a one Year Guarantee too. Unlike many other items sold in Walmart, the Poulan Predator is Made in the USA.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rocking the Bird-spa

I was lucky enough to be able to find and buy a chainsaw yesterday. Everyone in the area needs one to clear the downed trees. The weatherman says that it will snow this weekend, so it's a rush to get at least a little cleaned up in the yard before then. Here's a look at my front yard:

Down at the Pond, life has taken a turn also. One of our intrepid Homeowners calls in the ducks and farm geese whenever the weather gets bad. He bribes them to come into his garage with a hefty sack of cracked corn. There he locks them in for the duration with a plastic kiddie pool of water, a mountain of Homeowner's Association Cracked-Corn and a good dose of warmth from his central heat and air. None of them has ever complained about the Homeowner's Association "Bird-spa", but the wadding pool gets a little funky after a couple of days.

A couple of things happen whenever the ducks and geese are rocking in the "Bird-spa". The one that almost always makes the newspaper begins with an unusual noise complaint - which leads to a police visit - which leads to an investigation - which leads to "THE MAN" discovering the lounging ducks - which leads to a citation for "Harboring domestic livestock within the city limits" - which leads to a court appearance, and finally which leads to a $120 fine. Since judges are retained by popular vote in this state, I urge EVERYONE to please vote to dump every judge (except for Lucas and Heatherington) at the next general election.

The next thing that happens at the pond is Evil. Everything is super quiet down at the pond ... until Nature elects to fill the ecosystem vacuum left by the vacationing domestic ducks and geese. Such vacuums are usually filled by poo-chumming Canadians.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The incredible self-pruning Bradford Pear

The ice storm that roared through this weekend did quite a job on the trees in the Homeowners Association. All three of my trees were killed by the storm. Two of them were completely destroyed. The one in the front yard had on limb still standing, but at a dangerous angle toward the house. All of my trees were Bradford Pears. Yes, I know that the wood is very, very soft, but these trees grow so well here and they have that perfect gumdrop shape. One of the downsides to this type of tree is that they are "self-pruning" in even moderate breezes; that is, whenever the wind blows, they shed leaves, twigs and even branches. Toss on several hundred pounds of weight in the form of ice and you have a disaster like this:



Another Angle:

Hrothgar motored through the neighborhood taking pictures from the toasty comfort of his ultra-deluxe, 3 miles per gallon SUV. As soon as the power came back on, he emailed the images out to everyone - along with this note:

It looks like we have a lot of clean up! The trees that incuurred the most damage are the bradford pears, the river birch trees and the cottonwoods. The bald cypress, hackberry, red maples, and the sycamores had the least damage overall. The trees that still had their leaves were hurt the most.

I'll post up a few of those later this week.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

OK, this is the last one of these ...

OK, this is the last one of these quiz things. I know, they are stupid and a total waste of time, but this one fits my world view so very well that I couldn't resist. Here's to hoping this is true. Cheers!

How will I die?
Your Result: You will die while having sex.

Your last moments in this life will be enjoyable indeed...hopefully. Do not fear sex. Try not to become celibate as a way of escaping death. You cannot run from destiny.

You will die in your sleep.
You will die from a terminal illness.
You will die while saving someone's life.
You will die in a nuclear holocaust.
You will die of boredom.
You will die in a car accident.
You will be murdered.
How will I die?
Create a Quiz

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What kind of reader are you?

Well, now I know. Here's the answer I got. How about you?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Literate Good Citizen
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Armadillo Jailbreak

Titus the Armadillo almost lost his freedom last night. Maybe the fear it caused and the work it took for him to break out of this Armadillo Jail drove home the point. Maybe that was enough. Maybe Titus will stay out of my backyard. I hopse so. I fixed the bent and broken aluminum trap, and then took it into the attic and put it away. Even though it was a safe catch and release trap, the armadillo wouldn't lose his freedom tonight - even if just for a few hours - because of me. He would have to choose that himself.

This evening a friend of mine told me some sad news. I couldn't stop thinking about it. This is the first time I've ever seen tears in her eyes. It was heartbreaking to see her heart breaking. Later, when I got home, I tried reading to put it out of my mind. I came upon an article called 'Thinking About Freedom' by Robert LeFevre from back in 1983. I've appropriated and contextualized it the questions that follow.

If an armadillo stalks into someone's backyard and lightning strikes well manicured Bradford Pear tree which falls on the armadillo, pinning him to the ground, has the armored beastie lost his freedom? No, he has lost his mobility, although some would call it ... justice. He is still free in the sense that his plight arises between himself and the laws of nature.

If an armadillo is cornered in the someone's backyard by a hungry lion, has the armored demon lost his freedom? No. He is merely confronting a hostile manifestation of nature, although some would call it ... justice. His battlefield is one ordained by nature - through a choosing of his own.

If an armadillo is felled by a virus and ends up flat on his back in a beautiful hedgerose flowerbed, has he lost his freedom? No, his health is imperiled. Although some would call it ... justice, he is still free. Again, the arena is a natural one - the armadillo doing what Nature intended for him to do.

If an armadillo chooses drugs over the beautiful wife he promised to love and to cherish, hasn't he already lost more than his freedom? Hasn't he lost everything?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Putting up the lights

Finally got the lights up.

Merry Christmas ya'all!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Neighbor-Hoods

Sometime ago evil FEMA said the magic words and this happy kingdom by the pond was suddenly plunged in the long dark of the "100 year flood plain".

Biblical darkness, that is. Homes not selling. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Years of darkness. The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.

FEMA was here to help. Emboldened by the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973, (part of US Code TITLE 42 CHAPTER 50 Sec. 4001 ), they sent around notes requiring Homeowner's Association members to pick up flood insurance. It's the law. Those homes noted by a survey or mortgage lender to be in the "100 year flood plain" require flood insurance for their mortgage.

Hrothgar's other shoeless hillbilly cousin took FEMA to task over the declaration. He said that FEMA was wrong. He said that FEMA couldn't come down here with their skinny pointed lizard shoes and big city ways and push us good folk around with their weird science, polysyllabic silly speak and extra-crispy legalisms. No, by God, he hired surveyors, engineers and wild-haired witch doctors from the church for the mediocre to come out and prove them government boys wrong.

So they set up the equipment, blocked off traffic, had some KFC and a few beers, then got out the magic chicken bones and chanted. Directly the ground began shake, the ducks bolted from pond, and eerie voices came from from beyond the veil. Then Joe Ed Twitty grabbed up something big and purple and labelled "ATOMIC" from the magic toolkit. "Hey, y'all, watch this," He said. Everyone jumped down and hugged the ground. There was a terrible clap of thunder and blobs of spectral energies rained down like biscuits out of Baptists. In no time at all, the whole durn place was knee deep in that kind of Inevitability that only comes from watching a tornado twisting through the prairie with your back to a trailer park.

Then the FEMA man drove up with bonafide FEMA maps now showing that all of our Association homes are outside of the 100 year flood plain. Woo hoo! Mighty Hrothgar's battle with FEMA is over, and victory is ours. This is the official communique from Hrothgar Triumphant:

All our Association homes are outside the 100 year flood plain. This means no one is required by their lenders to have the expensive flood insurance. However, most people located near creeks, streams, rivers or near areas with water back-up should probably buy flood insurance at the discounted rate which is outside the 100 year flood zone. My 101 class at the State Water Resourses Board revealed that 30 % of flood claims occur in the 500 year flood zone with 70% falling within the 100 year zone. The maximum annual premium is just a little over $300 at my brothers' agency just off of Main Street down by the railroad tracks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Titus the Armadillo

Had a rude surprise in the lawn today. Appearently the armadillo that has created "An Impression of the Surface of the Moon" in my neighbor's back yard has decided to begin excavating around my house. He dug this nifty patch out of the grass by the trusty gas grill in the east-facing back yard. He dug in the flower bed in the west-facing front yard. He dug an east-west trench under the gate in the fence. He dug a north-to-south tunnel connecting my neighbor's cratered back yard to mine. Lastly he dug a passageway under the south fence to escape into the greenest lawn in the Association.

How to handle a rogue armadillo? This is a red state so the consensus around the water cooler was - by gun. As exciting as turning the backyard into the OK Corral sounds, it'd be a shame to get planted in Norman's I O O F Cemetery with this on my headstone . . .

Here lays AtomicZebra7,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.

Someone suggested killing the rogue armadillo with an arrow. Unlike the Canada geese down at the pond, I don't think the arrow would actually go through an armadillo's armored hide. That narrowed the advice down to getting a German Shepherd from the pound, or ...

This catch and release live trap was recommended at the Atwood's. Appearently all you have to do is arm the thing, put in the path of mighty Titus the Armadillo, and bada-bing!
We'll see.

The last bud of the season

Well, winter finally came. The pond is full and the ducks are happy (although I have no idea why their feathered butts don't freeze in that water). The old rose on the northeast corner of the house popped one last bud before winter. Here it is. The day after this picture was taken was our first frost of the season so this bud never got to bloom outside. It's doing nicely in a vase on the dining table.

For some odd reason ... farm geese have decided to move to our pond. In years past it didn't matter so much because just one would appear in Spring and then magically disappear around Thanksgiving. This year four appeared after the Invasion of the Canada Geese. The four farm geese drove off the wicked Canadians so every tolerated their honking and territorial displays. Sometime around Labor Day, another farm goose magically appeared. Before there were two matched couples - 2 odd wobbling poofs and 2 uberdominant, human-hating bitch birds. The newest arrival was a strutting, old school gander who famously would mount (and remount, rinse, repeat) the females on the sidewalk in front of the Pony Ride during the neighborhood Fall Picnic celebration. When the scandal reached the Homeowner's Association Newsletter, no one claimed ownership of the fowl, so the Association kept feeding them along with all the other critters who call the Pond their home.
Thanksgiving Day (or, Judgement Day for those who cover their buttocks with feathers) came and went quietly enough at the Pond. All of the farm geese are still alive and kicking although I have no idea how much longer. MSNBC sez "Roast goose makes Christmas dinner special" ...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

One in every crowd

Took this photo near Corning, New York last week.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A visit to Cincinnati

Last week I went on a work related trip to Cincinnati, Ohio. There's a lot to see and do in Cincinnati, and naturally, I didn't have the free time to do much of anything really. I did have a good time with what little there was though.

I arrived at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport at night in a driving rain storm. Finally got my luggage and picked up the rent car. The airport is not only out of town, it's out of state. So a drive was required to cross the Ohio River and pass through to Sharonville on the north side of Cincy.

When you crest the last hill in Kentucky on the interstate, Cincinnati shines like a golden city across the river below. It's a magnificent view. I can only imagine what it was like looking at that same view in the time leading up to the Civil War. Kentucky was a slave state and Ohio was a free state. The area was a part of the Underground Railroad and was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

We don't have White Castle in Oklahoma for some reason, so I made the mandatory visit. This one was right off the interstate just past downtown. There was only one employee on duty at the time, and he was working the drive-through lane. See the cars queued up below. After a few minutes of waiting, all of the other employees and the manager came in from a break, and ignored me and the other customers waiting in line. I eventually got four sliders, some fries and a drink.

The next day was a work day. Here's Gary with a tie. He had just taken a photo of me with my tie. There's C.L. from S.C. on the left.

It was Wednesday and the Cincinnati Art Museum had special hours, so I went over for a visit. They are open until 9:00 pm on Wednesdays and there were lots of people there. The admission was free. I wanted to see the two John Singer Sargent paintings in the collection.

'A Venetian Woman' is HUGE. She's life size and there's plenty of canvas above her head and below her feet. The dimensions are 93 3/4 in. x 52 1/2 in. (238.1 x 133.4 cm). It was painted in 1882. The artist was 26 when he finished this painting. Sargent's career would explode two years later when he exhibited the scandalous 'Madame X' at the Salon of 1884.

Sargent painted 'Two Girls Fishing' in 1912. It's much smaller [22 x 28 1/4 in. (55.9 x 71.8 cm)]. See how effortless and natural the work appears. Sargent worked to develop his skill and improved as he got older.

I've heard that Cincinnati is famous for its unique culinary delicacies, one of which is 'Cincinnati chili'. So after another work day, I stopped in at a Skyline Chili across the street from the Ford plant in Sharonville. This is their interpretation of a chili cheese fries. Marks for the presentation: shocking, splattered, and skidmarks. Marks for the taste: well ...

After having tried some of Cincinnati's best ... whew ... let me recommend a dish of chili cheese fries from that jumping little juke joint in Stillwater, Oklahoma - Eskimo Joes. For the straight up best chili cheese fries on the planet, you can't beat Eskimo Joes.

After all the work was finally done, I had a choice. I wait several hours to come home either in Atlanta, Georgia, or in Salt Lake City, Utah. I choose Atlanta because it is a much more fun place, even if you are stuck in the airport. I found this little bit of New York City in Terminal D. On the television to my right, they were running an advertisement for 'Gone With The Wind' on one of the cable channels.
The irony was so delicious, I went back for seconds.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Little Tour Bus on the Prairie

This weekend we went to Dighton, Kansas, to celebrate my step-grandmother's 90th birthday. The celebration lasted three days, and good times were had by all.

Kinfolk and friends from all over the place gathered Friday evening at G'ma's house. After the hellos, handshakes, great food, and companionship, we broke for the night. We stayed at Shay's Inn, a tiny little place that was clean, quiet and pleasant. Its' eleven rooms was also full to overflowing, which turns out to be the case most of the time, so if you're passing through call ahead for reservations.

Saturday morning we met again at G'ma's house for breakfast. Then a tour bus came up a little later from Montezuma, Kansas. The plan was to visit all the places in the area that were important to G'ma Roberts. It was overcast and foggy when we started, but it cleared as time went by. We visited houses, farms and an old country school house for lunch. One of the more memorable stops was at the Bentley gravesite overlooking the old Butterfield Overland Dispatch Route. The view from this grave is really nice. As Carl said, "You almost see the old stage coming up through the valley and going off west across the prairie." The route went in hops all the way to Denver from this point. There is no road there now, (see the picture below) and it was a real experience riding the tour bus across the tufts of blue grama and buffalo grass. G'ma Roberts talked about her experiences as we traveled, sometimes using the bus' microphone, other times using a megaphone!

At four o'clock the bus had to get on to Dodge City, Kansas, for another tour, so we headed back to Dighton. We had supper at the Calico Apron, a family-owned catering concern. The food was outstanding. Call 'em at 620-397-5914 to try their cooking for yourself. The building at 140 S. Lane is large and has quite an interesting history.

Sunday morning we got together again at the Calico Apron for breakfast. We had a slide show of old (and some not so old) photographs. Later we went to Church and with all the relatives, we practically doubled the attendance. The parishioners were gracious and generous enough to share a potluck dinner with us.

We had a great time and hope to see everyone again soon. Most of all it was great to see G'ma Roberts again and wish her a happy 90th birthday and many more to come.

Johnny and Barbara ... again

Yeppers, I'm taking Steven E. Wedel's class "Writing Character Driven Horror Fiction" for the third time. It's being taught at the Moore-Norman Vo-Tech (again). The class is a lot of fun, informative and just plain worthwhile.

Yes, I've said this before, but ... unanswered question in "The Night of the Living Dead" is what happened to Johnny between the time his head was smashed on the headstone and when he pulled Barbra out of the house. The events of these infamous minutes are left as an exercise for the student. Here is my homework for class. Let me know if this is how you think the "missing minutes" passed.

* * * *


Johnny awoke to sound, the desperate buzzing of a thing in a web. It was above him, screaming, shuttering between weathered marble headstones rusted by lichens, withering in the undignified yowl of a moon frozen to a spot in the sky.

This odd buzzing burned in his head like a tuning fork on overdrive. It was hard to breathe. Lungs pumped but nothing happened. He gulped at the air as though he were drowning, forcing each mouthful down deep, and that awful winged vibrating buzz crunched, spackling his dry mouth with rancid black pepper gruel.

He sat up, gagging and spitting the goo of flies from of his mouth. The broad canopy of the spider's web blanketed his face, and he flailed his arms to free himself. He screamed.

"Oh God, this is not happening to me!" he said. "It can't be happening."

He got to his feet, still clawing at the spider silk on his neck and coat. What kind of dream was this? He looked at the ground around his feet. His glasses were gone, and so was the car. Was this some sort of dream? When he remembered - that man, the stink of mold and compost, falling, hitting his head, everything - a dread hit him.

"Barbara?" he called out. His dry and swollen tongue clucked the syllables, smearing them into a mess of b's and n's.

"Where are you?"

He pinched himself hard in the webbing of his fingers to wake up. Nothing changed. It didn't even hurt. He didn't feel anything at all.

"Barbara!" he cried.

Where in the hell was she? He spun on his heels scanning the cemetery. Shadow sprites whirled under the brooding elms. Everything went fuzzy. He lost his balance and fell. He landed on his hands and knees, panting.

He felt a snarling cramp in the pit of his stomach. In a few seconds its gradual creeping pinch seized his whole body. He was certain he would be sick. Flecks of light danced in his eyes. There was an emptiness inside him, and just acknowledging it, knowing that it was there, released the clench it had his insides. He wouldn't stand up so quickly this time.

He had to find Barbara. First, he needed his glasses. He patted semicircles in the damp grass. A sickening crunch nearby meant someone else found them first. It was a woman in red dress. The woman didn't notice Johnny. Johnny called out, the words mangled in his mouth. In reply, the woman muttered something tortured, low and incomprehensibly insane.

She was one of Them, like the man who had come after Barbara. Johnny lunged at her, and she crashed over a granite headstone. Where her feet had been, tiny pieces of glass glittered in the grass, both lenses smashed. Years of impotent rage found a focus in this strange woman, and a murderous fire burned in Johnny.

The woman climbed back to her feet, shrieking as loudly as she could. With a fast right cross, Johnny knocked her down again. Her back snapped across the concrete curb like a wishbone. She threw her arms and head into wild spasms dictated by some electrical violence more than any coherent thought, a violence that no longer reached below the waist. Her legs were dead.
He recoiled from her thrashing. That's when he noticed the others. There were so many of Them around.

"Barbara!" he cried.



The horrible people rambled by, just trudging in a stream through this cemetery and down the hill. He stepped back and they passed by him without a glance back - or down. The shrieking woman in the red dress was trampled by the mob eagerly moving down the hill, even as she began pulling herself along the driveway with her elbows and hands bent into claws, dragging those dead legs behind like fishing weights.

"What the hell are you - things?" Johnny screamed. The words boiled in his tight throat, and came out as a gurgle of constants.

Another man brushed against Johnny, pushing him backwards. Johnny's left foot twisted off the pavement and a wet crack echoed up from the ankle. Instinctively Johnny reached to protect it, to soothe it, and he screamed. He knew what to expect from that sound. Four years ago, he'd broken his ankle trying to ski. It was always stiff after that. The pain rush didn't come through.
He gingerly put the foot down and tested it with a little weight. It was board stiff, but didn't hurt. It probably would hurt like hell later, so he'd better hurry up and find Barbara. If something happened to her, Johnny wouldn't be able to face going back to Pittsburg. Mother would never let him hear the end of it.

A great relief washed over him when he saw the car at the base of the hill below the cemetery. Barbara could have locked herself in and these things out. At least she'd be safe. As fast as he could, he limped on bad ankle at the edge of the pavement and the stream of ghouls.
When he got close enough to see that the car was empty, crumpled alongside the tree, its windows smashed out. He thrummed his fists on the roof of the car. Barbara was gone.

"Why me? It's not fair!" he groaned.

He stabbed a finger at the sky.

"Why, God, why?"

Barbara was as timid as a titmouse. How dare He let something happen to her? She wouldn't last a minute on her own.

His head began tingling again. It was just like a foot or a leg would go to sleep if he had been sitting on it wrong. That buzz was coming back. It was louder this time. He clamped his mouth shut and pressed his hands against his ears to make it stop, but the pressure made it worse. It felt like an electrical short arcing across the synapses of his brain. A paralysis seized him and he fell against the car unable to move a single muscle in his body. He couldn't flex his chest to breathe. His mind raced. He even thought his heart was still. Was this what it's like to die? The body goes before the brain, the mind.

Please, he thought, please let me find Barbara.

It came to him like predator in the night. It shook him hard. It was a hunger more powerful than any he had ever felt. It was a craving. It had a name too. He knew what all of these things marching down the road were after - Barbara.

Please, he thought, I'll do ... anything.

It let go of his diaphragm. With all his might, he forced his ribs to flex, and a whistling thimbleful of air came inside. Each breath after that drew in more air. He should have felt dizzy from the oxygen rushing into his body, or at least from it being gone so long, but there wasn't any of that. He felt like he was standing on a mountaintop in the thin blue air above the clouds. His body weighed a ton and it took plenty of effort just to think.

He rested that way for a moment longer. There was plenty to see. The farmhouse across the field was lit up like a beacon. The lights hurt his eyes, but the column of monsters was aimed directly for the place. That is where Barbara had to be. That one desire, hunger, directing this army of beasts steered them toward the farmhouse like water to the sea.

The little farmhouse was surrounded. The mob battering on the doors would overcome its defenses soon. That much was inevitable. Their hammering racket sealed the last option for those inside, one of whom would be his little sister Barbara.

Depression settled over Johnny. He wondered what, if anything, he would be able to do against such a mob. What if, he thought, and then he didn't dare answer. He would have started to long for a cigarette, but all that was the old Johnny. He had a new craving now, and he didn't dare answer it either.

The awful buzzing started in his right leg before sparking through his stomach and up into his head. Its electrical jerking made him spasm. Johnny felt his body giving in to "the disease", whatever it was. None of his anger or the bargain he'd sought before in a moment of desperation had done anything at all to slow it down. All of this, these changes, everything, might be permanent soon. The last battle would be fought in his mind. He had to hold out long enough to do something for Barbara.

Johnny fought the numbness, reconnecting thought with action. First a fingertip fluttered and then another. Soon enough, he had control of his hand back. When he was able to push way from the car, he did so. In the staggering crowd he was faceless and alone, but marching with them in the strange parade to the farmhouse across the field.

He didn't even notice the barrier until he was upon it. A weed covered ditch crowned by a barbed wire fence five thorny rows high. There was no other way through. The glittering farmhouse beyond the fence was just a quick walk away through a flat hay meadow.

A phalanx of the groaning things were shredding their limbs trying to climb the vicious barbed wire fence, others were mired in the waist-deep weeds, mud and water that filled the ditch.
One of them bumped Johnny from behind, and then another. The throng crushed forward forcing him along with them. Johnny tripped into the weeds and fell into the water. The dark syrup water boiled up his nose and into his mouth. Others surged forward. Johnny felt feet on his back driving him deeper into the water. The pressure built in his ears and then his face hit the muck bottom. Foot after foot stamped into his back ramming his head down, driving the pine needles and elm leaves digested by the ditch further into his mouth, packing filth down his throat.

Johnny fought against the soupy mud bottom with his hands, but the weight of those stomping over his back was too much. Then there were hands against him instead of feet and shoes and boots. He flailed against the hands and flipped over. The hands snaked across his chest, its finger tentacles pinned him to the bottom. A looping, animated swath of red fabric clung to his face. He felt hands dragging the dead weight of legs over him. Finally he had to breathe. He clutched at the air inside him and the image of a terrified Barbara.

Choice. He could only hang onto to one of them. It had to be Barbara. He let all his air out at once and in one gasp drew what he could. He choked against the inward rush of cool wet murk. He felt it fill his chest and the weight of it held him on the bottom even as the legs of the body dragging itself over him passed.

That buzzing returned. He felt it inside his bowels and it crept up into his head. It grew so loud that it might drive him insane. His body writhed against the gnawing buzz inside him. Nerves sparked, and the twitching spasms got vicious. A blight entered his mind that he could not consciously stop. Hunger for meat came upon him like a fist at full swing. It met that image of Barbara as it crashed through his defenses.

It struck him that this was so perfectly natural, even logical. This was the way things had to be. A sadness lifted. He was ready. There was nothing weighting him down anymore, and he simply stood and climbed out of the ditch and then over the barbed wire fence.

Johnny swung his stiff weight foot over foot. Even the unintended movements of his arms and head seemed perfectly ordinary to him now. An unwanted call came from his body. The others knew what it meant even if he didn't understand it himself. He didn't know how he had made a sound that loud, but that didn't to matter to him now. He was so close to finding Barbara. Everything was fine, he couldn't have planned it any better.

He saw the lights inside the house, and the scurrying figures inside it scream as the mob wrenched the boarded doors down. There was Barbara screaming. Her tiny hands drawn up to shield her face, eyes widened in terror and then recognition.

Another unwanted call came from Johnny's body. The others heard him and acknowledged its meaning. Somehow he had avoided understanding it before. The long pursuit was over, he had found Barbara. The voice inside him cried out again and he understood it too. It answered that craving inside him with a single word - "Mine!"

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A disturbing bit of fiction ...

"Something Haunts Us All" by four time Bram Stoker winner Brian A. Hopkins is the kind of short story collection that stands up and demands to be noticed. In an extremely quick one hundred pages, Brian tells seven stories, two of which were published here for the first time. The ultimate recognition of the quality of these stories is that each and every one of them have gone on to reprinted again and again since the original 1995 publication of "Something Haunts Us All".

Two of the stories are especially disturbing. The first one, "Night Bite", is about a man, a mosquito and Hell. Not just any hell either. No, this is a southern Hell with a banjo moment that makes "Deliverance" seem tame. The ending will keep 'em talking for years.

"The Night Was Kind to Loretta" shares a southern slant. The illustrations by Donald W. Schank really bring the stories to life, none more so than "The Night Was Kind to Loretta". Brutal, honest and raw - the permanent state of things in a Louisiana bayou and the trunk of a Chevy Camaro - both places where history repeats itself in the most revolting way.

Brian's mastery of dialogue and characterization shine through in "Something Haunts Us All". He adds rich details that pop the stories into different energy levels and states. He layers the language with meaning and depth that makes the stories fun to read again and again.

"Something Haunts Us All" is a fast read and worth the effort to find a copy of this limited edition gem.
The seven stories in "Something Haunts Us All" are:

1. "Scarecrow's Dream" -- fantasy; published in The Best of the Midwest's Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Volume 2, Mar 93; reprinted in The Barrelhouse, Vol 2, No 1, Jun 93; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01.

2. "Gaffed" -- horror; published in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in White Knuckles, Vol One, Issue Eight, Sept 98 (available for $4 from POB 973, New Providence, NJ, 07974-0973); reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted at Count Gore's Creature Feature, Dec 02; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Nine.

3. "The Night Was Kind to Loretta" -- horror; published in The Tome, Issue #10, Nov 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted at Count Gore's Creature Feature in conjunction with an interview, Oct 00; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Six.

4. "Night Bite" -- horror; published simultaneously (kinda) in Eldritch Tales, Issue #30, May 95, and the collection, Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02.

5. "To Walk Among the Living" -- horror; published in The Midnight Zoo, Vol #2, Issue #2, Jun 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; translated to French and reprinted as "Je Marche Au Milieu Des Vivants" in Tenebres #9, Apr 00; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01; reprinted as "Je Marche Au Milieu Des Vivants" in 11 Minutes En Septembre, Spring 06.

6. "Thunder of the Water" -- horror; published in Aberations (sic), Issue #2, Feb 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02.

7. "And Though a Million Stars Were Shining" -- horror; published in After Hours, Issue #22, Apr 94; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Eight; translated to German and reprinted online by Storisende Verlag, July 2000; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01; reprinted at the Horror Authors Network, Jan 2002.

The histories of these stories hails from the bibliography link on Brian's webpage. (
Stop by and say "Hi!". He's always got something interesting going on over there.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A strange, strange read ...

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s "Frog Toes and Tentacles" is an experiment in eldritch sensuality that makes absolutely certain that you'll never forget you were in the laboratory with her. It's surprisingly good - as good as it is disturbing.

Not many books begin with a disclaimer like this: ' ... Should your idea of "kinky" begin and end with fleece-lined handcuffs and spankings, be warned ... '. Not many have to, but this one does.

This limited edition gem reads very fast. At only 116 pages, 14,000 words more or less, the images flicker by all too quickly. These shorts are erotic, first person explorations of the eerie, weird, alien and uncanny.

It's eight tales take us from a familiar seashore to the warm pool of a Salamander working girl to the dark workshop of a puppeteer with many waypoints in between. The companions chosen for us begin with a fish demon, a lycanthrope, and get more imaginative as the pages go by. This exploration feels like an experiment, the author's first to be sure. It's voice builds from a trembling start to brilliance by the end. The characters grow richer and more adventurous with each passing story. By the time "Pump Excursion" comes, Caitlin's brilliant characterization and atmospherics are at their best. The final story, "Ode" to Katan Amano, is an absolute masterpiece that combines the very best of this genre with Caitlin's signature styling.

"Frog Toes and Tentacles" is a "quickie" that really hits the spot.

Frog Toes and Tentacles
By Caitlin R. Kiernan

Illustrated by Vince Locke

Subterranean Press
Limited: 1-59606-050-6
Trade: 1-59606-051-4

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Good, but could have been great ...

The first book assignment in my Strategic Leadership and Decision Making (SLDM) elective for Air War College was "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" by Edgar F. Puryear Jr. The level of leadership this study aims at is very high indeed - the ranks of the general officers. The kind of strategy that leaders at this level create and conceptualize, during both peace and war, involves all of the nation's forces, and applies itself through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. This book deals exclusively with the sort of character, mentorship and values that a leader at this level must possess, and it does so with a tidal wave of good examples and meaningful quotes.

The subtitle of the book, "Character is Everything: The Art of Command", defines the focus of this study in leadership. Although the leaders studied in this book are chosen from fairly narrow sections of time and from only one country (USA), those times are the greatest perils. Ike, Patton, MacArthur, and Clark are drawn from World War 2. Grant, Sherman, Lee, and Jackson are cited from the American Civil War. Extensive passages on Billy Mitchell's experience as well as that of his ardent supporters Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz. George Washington's contribution is discussed in detail. There is a far too small, albeit tasty, portion for more recent leaders, like Colin Powell, Schwarzkopf, Meyer, and Creech, who have had to deal with the today's hyperpolitics, scandal-centric journalism, perpetual war and a evaporating budgets.

As good as "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" is, some important details of the leadership experience are left in rather soft focus. The rationale behind Operation Market Garden (p288, listed in other references as "disastrous"), continued support for Wedemeyer (p318-9, a similar set of "circumstantial" charges against an officer today would certainly be career ending), and clearing the Hooverville shantytown built by "Bonus Army" marchers (p264-265, brutal tactics used and the unfortunate remarks made at the press conference that immediately followed). These details could have provided the all important context that framed these actions and decisions. Character is revealed through actions inside context.

More examples could have been provided about leaders who did not read books. The book only lists one leader, the confederate Longstreet (p152-153), who did not read extensively. On the other hand, the narrative bogs down with mountains of evidence that reading books, particularly biographies and historical works, helps leaders think more broadly and learn from the timeless lessons of the past.

All things considered, "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" is certainly worth a read. It is a very good book that could have been great if only it had spent a little more time in the hands of an editor.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hrothgar's Hillbilly Cousin and CPA

The right lingerie can change your life. I'm convinced of it, now more so that ever. I just received the most recent note from the Homeowner's Association President, Hrothgar. The swaggering commander of our 436 member host unlatched his word-hoard:

Feb 2007 Financial Statements

Hugs & Kisses,

There was an attachment - one Meg worth of scanned accountant-speak on a cornflower blue stationery. Beneath the dread letterhead was the news . . .

We have compiled the accompanying statement of assets, liabilities and net assets - modified cash basis of The Homeowners Association (a uniquely profit-free entity) as of late, and the related statement of revenues and expenses - modified cash basis for the One Month and Two Months ending a little bit ago, you know, in accordance with Statements on Standards for Accounting and Review Services issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

This sounded serious, official even. Ah, but accounting, much like intimate apparel, has come a long way. From the simple and sweet to the . . . unmentionables . . . in the second paragraph . . .

A compilation is limited to presenting, in the form of financial statements that is the representation of management. We have not audited or reviewed the accompanying financial statements and, accordingly, do not express an opinion or any other form of assurance on them.

So instead of simply gazing at unsightly Visible Panty Lines (VPLs) of opinion and other forms of assurance that the science of accounting uses to bedazzle us, in paragraph three we see a fleshy bare derriere.

Management has elected to omit substantially all of the disclosures ordinarily included in financial statements prepared on the modified (asymptotically approaching zero) cash basis of accounting. If the omitted disclosures were included in the financial statements , they might influence the user's conclusions (jump back, Loretta!) about the Homeowner's Association's assets, liabilities, and changes in nets assets, and revenues and expenses. (ya think?) Accordingly, these financial statements are not designed for those who are not informed about such matters.

Well, since all of this is far too dense to be really comprehended by mere dues payers, who could lead us to . . . understanding?

We are not independent with respect to the Homeowner's Association.

. . . because we are Hrothgar's hillbilly kin.

Some time before Hrothgar runs for Mayor, he needs to learn two things:

1. Lingerie . . . is the curtain that separates the audience from the performance.

2. Get a different cousin to do the bookkeeping.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fairy Tales With A Twist

"The Painted Wall and other strange tales" by Michael Bedard is a collection of Pu Songling's 7th century Chinese folk and fairy tales adapted into short stories for a young adult audience. It's tumbler of Grimm's fairy tales with a twist of "Twilight Zone".

My first experience with a Pu Songling story was the 1987 film "Chinese Ghost Story" starring Leslie Cheung as an inexperienced tax collector who encounters a beautiful woman, an evil tree demon and a wise old monk. The movie was smart, sexy and packed with stunning action sequences. It was great Hong Kong cinema and a fairly close adaptation of Pu Songling's "The Magic Sword". While that is not one of the stories in this collection, there are 23 others to enjoy in this collection.

Bringing Pu Songling's classic stories to a young adult audience isn't easy, even word for word translations of the stories do not have their original subtleties or nuance. Cultural differences are as unavoidable as they are unexplained. The protagonist of every story is male. The villain of every story is either female or a wealthy person. Bedard does accomplish the goal in spite of all this. What really works about this collection is everything else - the originality of the tales themselves, the compactness of the writing, the diversity of the stories, and the rare opportunity to read tales of this kind.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Songs like old friends

I was very surprised that no one had said anything about "Paradise Bird" by Chyi Yu on Amazon. Maybe it was because the album was an import from Taiwan, but then, maybe it was because it first came out back in 1988. It was Chyi's third English language album. It wasn't her best, but it was good, really good.

Chyi Yu began singing commercially in the 1970s. She came up through the Taiwanese folk song movement, and her powerful, expressive voice moved her into more mainstream Chinese music. She recorded her signature song, "The Olive Tree", in 1979 and continues to sing that popular standard. Chyi sings in both English and Mandarin Chinese. She's had many hits over the years. Her younger brother, Chyi Chin, has also recorded many successful albums.

The Amazon review for "Paradise Bird" does not mention that the CD case comes with a lyric sheet booklet (in English). The review also says that there is one original song on this album. That is not the case. All of the songs are covers; however, the arrangements of these songs is fresh and personalized.

I really like the "Islands", "Graveyard Angel", "Gypsy", and title track "Paradise Bird". The rest of the songs are good ones too. I hope that you will like them too.

1. Only Love (cover. Nana Mouskouri recorded this song as a theme for a British television program in 1985. Over the next two years it went on to be a hit for Nana in English, French and Spanish. Does Chyi's arrangement of this song with the pop sensibility, lilting vocals and driving piano remind anyone else of ABBA?)
2. Paradise Bird (cover. from Amii Stewart's 1979 album of the same name. The shakuhachi flute that accents the intro and new age/jazz arrangement of this song has a nice contemporary Keiko Matsui feel.)
3. Gypsy (cover. from the 1987 album "Solitude Standing" by Suzanne Vega. This song is a testament to Chyi's ability to sing in English. She changes her diction just for this song and it’s a perfect fit, even better than Suzanne's original.)
4. Graveyard Angel (cover. from Louise Tucker & Charlie Skarbek's 1982 collaboration "Midnight Blue", and based on a high octane, synth version of "Adagio in G minor". Chyi really shows her vocal range here. A soaring soprano!)
5. Tonight (cover. from Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 masterpiece "The Phantom of the Opera".)
6. It Was Love (cover. from the 1985 album "Time for Lovers" by Frank Duval. Chyi's arrangement of this song has an edgy Vangelis sensibility to it.)
7. Islands (cover. from Mike Oldfield's 1987 album of the same name. Oldfield's lyrics come alive through Chyi's stratospheric power and range. Absolutely blows away the original vocal effort by Bonnie Tyler.)
8. Joan of Arc (cover. among others, Judy Collins, has recorded this old Leonard Cohen song. Judy did this in her 1971 album "Living". Chyi is able to execute this song very well. Technically gifted, Chyi adds an easily accessible emotion and range to this piece that is something to hear. Unfortunately, this is a duet and the other half of the vocal team doesn't measure up to Chyi.)9. Broken Heroes (cover. written by Chris Norman, 1988. You might remember the duet "Stumblin In" that Chris and Suzi Quatro sang which just managed to flash into the US charts in the late 70's.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A triumph of voice and movement

"The African American Audio Experience" is a triumph of voice and movement. It combines the best African American writing of the last century and the voices that turn the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic power of those words into something that can be felt by every human sense, and it succeeds on all six measures of that.

Brock Peters' distinctive bass voice with its inflective yearning and heartbreak makes "Black Boy" by Richard Wright unforgettable. This is the only part of the entire five audio CD set (a 6 hour presentation) where the word "Abridged" in the small print really stings. We only get the first half of the story, the narration cuts off when the young man travels north and leaves the South forever. It is a testament to quality of the story and the brilliance of the Brock Peters' interpretation of it that leaves a listener so hungry for more.

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" was inspired by a line from a Langston Hughes poem “Harlem.” An unabridged, full cast production of this play brings to life this amazing story of what happens to a dream deferred. Ossie Davis creates a genuine and striking presence as his character searches for dignity and respect.

The very best of "The African American Audio Experience" may be Langston Hughes reading and commenting on selections of his work. Although brief, his presentation is as rich and it is rewarding.

There is so much in the "The African American Audio Experience" that its six hours pass in a flash. As Nikki Giovanni points out in her poetry, this is just the beginning - and it is an impressive one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

No donuts for YOU, Big Angry Beaver!

Big Angry Beaver is dead. Details are still coming in, but I have confirmed that Big Angry Beaver is now in that mountain meadow in the sky.

The day began like any other. Hrothgar, King of the Homeowner's Association, sent this note to the 436 subjects of the realm.

Hello Folks,

We have had a few requests wanting to know the date for our annual garage sale. Traditionally we have had our sale on the first Saturday after Mother's Day. This would be Saturday May 19, 2007 unless there is some kind a conflict with this date. My darling wife has volunteered to coordinate the event again this year. Her royal highness will be sending out details for the sale in a few weeks.

Please spread the word with your neighbors & encourage anyone not on our email list to get with the times. (longspeak for "I brought the Kool-Aid. Do I have to bring the cups too?)

Hugs & Kisses,


Pretty standard fare really. The next Homeowner's Association "One over the World" message carried the dread news . . .


You may already know this, but this afternoon we were at the north end of the lake and saw a large dead beaver by the side of the water. I don't know who takes care of removing this type of thing -- but it's pretty big.

A. Vassal

The renegade Beaver was dead. Not gone out like Johnny Dillinger, not like Jesse James, but like . . . Donald Rumsfeld. T.S. Eliot was right . . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Big Angry Beaver's was floating in the north end of the pond like a meat flavored lilly pad, a feast for the gulls. There was no last Hoorah, only silent bobbing at the shore. Big Angry Beaver had enemies that wasted no time confirming the facts, and worse . . . as the next message reports.

A. Vassal,

I also saw the beaver and raked it into the lake. Mother Nature (turtles) will take care of the carcass usually in short order. Nothing will go to waste.

Thanks for asking,

Hrothgar Triumphant
(f.y.i. from now on - Hrothgar the Victorious - will do nicely. Thank you very much.)

Like Antigone's King Creon, Hrothgar the Victorious' de facto decree that Big Angry Beaver is to be rendered into meat for the creatures of the pond and not to be buried: "touching this Beaver, it has been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for turtles and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame."

Good Ladies and Gentlemen, I ask you - who is our Antigone? Who is our dear sister of Justice and Mercy? Who dares defy the order of Hrothgar the Arrogant? What did the next to last message of the day contain?


I think a dog or another critter may have pulled . . . (the bloated, stinking corpse of the Big Angry Beaver) . . . back out of the lake. I will go over this evening and bury him.

On another note I am preparing an informational flyer that we can email and print up to advertise the Trash-Off day on Saturday, April 14. I was wondering if there is any money in the Homeowner's Association budget to purchase a few dozen donuts and water for those who are wanting to help?


Amanda Huggenkiss

The nearly instanneous reply was ...

Ms. Huggenkiss,

You know what? NO DONUTS FOR YOU!


Sunday, March 11, 2007

My home town is in "A Place Called Baca"

"A Place Called Baca" is a self-published tribute to a windswept and dusty county in the southeastern corner of Colorado. Most people would call that place pretty much the middle of nowhere and they'd be right, but the 1,268 families (according to the 2000 census) that live there call the place where Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma touch -- "home". What Baca County, Colorado, does have is a Past, and Ike Osteen tells that story in a way that makes it personal, involving, and fun.

"A Place Called Baca" is also a tribute to its author, a man whose story telling sensibility was cut from the same cloth as Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Ike Osteen called Baca County, Colorado, "home" most of his long life. "A Place Called Baca" contains the laughs, joys and sorrows from that long life which unfortunately ended in February, 2007. He was a farmer, civil servant, writer, historian and friend to many.

The best parts of "A Place Called Baca" deal with growing up on the prairie in an earth-and-plank dugout with his widowed mother and eight brothers and sisters; surviving the Dust Bowl; and telling the stories of those who came and went along the way. The stories are fully developed vignettes with interesting maps of homesteads and windmills.

Ike Osteen's knowledge of Baca County is so rich and accessible that he was often sought out for interviews and talks. Ike was 90 when Timothy Egan called for interviews when Mr. Egan was writing "The Worst Hard Time", a brilliant work on the Dust Bowl era. Ike was contacted by the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper for local information about a serious border dispute between Colorado and New Mexico. The case eventually led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1925.

"A Place Called Baca" is a hardcover book that was published without a jacket. Ike told the Plainsman Herald newspaper of Springfield, Colorado, that he wrote the book to document the history and hard work the citizens poured into the county. He did that extremely well. He did something else with "A Place Called Baca" that both surprises and impresses. He leaves a person with the realization that this land is neither barren nor empty. It has a bright Future in front of it because it is full of life and people that you want to get to know because they are hard working, interesting and dynamic. By the end of the story, you may even want to count some of them as friends.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Rogue Angel: Forbidden City" by Alex Archer

"Rogue Angel: Forbidden City" is a brisk, no-nonsense adventure and mystery double play. It's got everything you expect from the Rogue Angel franchise and whole lot more.

The action in the first sixty pages is some of the best in the Rogue Angel series. It starts with a bump in ancient China and sweeps on to forested goldfields of California. There is a host of bad guys, dazzling chase sequences, and the flashing sword of Saint Joan of Arc, and that is just for starters. The rest of the story is a compelling turn toward adventure and mystery. With a strange heirloom belt plaque as a guide, Annja unravels a mystery that leads her beyond the Silk Road in search of a lost treasure city that was built by assassins and thieves ages ago.

"Forbidden City" explores a theme of possibility and the likelihood of change. China, with its thousands of years of tradition and current headlong plunge into modernity, is the perfect canvas for the story. When the clues don't make sense, the pitch of battle sharpens to a razors edge, and events turn their darkest, Annja is forced to grow as a character. This isn't a teaser, this is meaty and substantial. Then Annja allies with Kelly Swan, a trained assassin on a mission to even the score with those who murdered her father. Kelly is so richly drawn that she's a perfect counterweight to Annja. Kelly is a character fully deserving of a spin-off novel of her own.

For the first time since the beginning of the Rogue Angel franchise, we really dig into the inner workings of Roux and Garin Braden. The theme rings true even in the smallest details when Garin partners with the villain. While bowing only once to its own mythology, this story very cleverly does more than has ever been done before to deepen and broaden its principal characters. Alex Archer's commitment to plain prose drives this point home and makes this story a fast, fun read.

The greatest strength of this story is in its telling. The pacing is spot on. The author's expert use of action and language makes this a fun read for all readers. Highly recommended!

I have only one tiny, tiny thing to say about the book that is not absolutely, positively 100% "thumbs up". Yes, it is very, very tiny, but it is one of those things I feel compelled to say. The only question I have is this -- what were the Chinese characters on the cover of this book intended to mean? It doesn't translate into much beyond gibberish; the words become "English Life" to the best that I can make out. I know this doesn't mean much in the greater scheme of things, but seriously folks, this is one of those things for me. Have you ever seen those baseball caps with Chinese characters printed on them? I saw a young person at the mall recently with one of those caps on his head. He was very proud of the cap, but apparently had no idea that the character translated to "foot". How hard can it be to find an appropriate word or words to say in Chinese? Really now, one third of the world we live on can speak that language fairly well!