Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fun With Spam

It's been a good while since one of these emails snuck through the spam filter, so I thought I'd have a little fun with it.

Here's the email from, uh, "Mary."

You are an exquisite looking man. So stunning. You captured my attention.
But then I imagine you have that affect on all women. Would you be interested in corresponding? If you would like to know more about me, please reply to my email.

I couldn't just leave the poor gal hanging, so I promptly replied.

Dear Mary,
It's true: tall, middle-aged, somewhat overweight balding men such as me are often burdened by the need to fend off young, alluring women such as you.

That said, I do appreciate the accolade. I'll try to keep it in mind when I shave in the morning, when I'm prone to talk to myself: "Whoa man, what the hell happened to you?"

However, my wife is a passionate Italian woman who happens to be quite proficient with firearms. So, even if I were inclined to let the little Eskimo explore strange igloos, my strong sense of self-preservation would preclude such (mis)adventures.

I sincerely hope I've let you down gently. And please, quit skipping meals.

Hal Johnson

Thursday, November 24, 2011


It's been a long time since I've thought of someone as "my bartender." I don't frequent taverns much nowadays, but for the last few months, on my break night before flying home, I've stayed at a hotel in New Orleans with a bar and restaurant I like.

The first night I met K as my bartender, I was talking to a British waterworks engineer who'd recently lost his wife. K mentioned that she'd lost her husband a few years ago to cancer. He was only in his forties.

The last time I saw K on the night before flying back home, the restaurant was busy, but the bar deserted. Being the nosy guy I am, I asked how she met her husband. She told me that they met during Mardi Gras, and started dating. She then told me how they came to be married.
"Marry me," she said to him.
"I don't want to get married," he said.
"Then I'm going back to California," she said.
"Okay then, I'll marry you," he said.
They were married for twenty-five years before cancer took him away. She followed the ambulance with her oldest son and daughter in the car. Her youngest son rode with his dad in the ambulance.
The dad looked at his son. "I'm not going home again. You know that, don't you?"
The youngest son couldn't accept such a proclamation. "Sure you will, Dad."
The dad looked at his youngest again. "Your mom is the love of my life."
And indeed, the dad never went home again, although his message did make it back to the woman who would soon carry on as a single parent, making a living in a bar, pouring beer for nosy guys like me.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

September Exchanges

A few nights ago, I came upon Dylan eating sunflower seeds. I asked him to clean up the shells. An hour later, the shells were still there. I asked him again. 20 minutes later, the shells were still there. So, I gave him a choice. "You can clean up those shells NOW, or I'll pick you up from school tomorrow wearing a Speedo."

The boy moves fast when he's motivated.

A question from my eleven year-old son: "I hear people say they're 'overwhelmed.' Is anybody ever just 'whelmed'?"
A day after the ten-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, journalist/musician Jim Dyar posted this: "I remember the short window of unity that happened after 9-11. It didn't last long, but it was tangible. Can we go there in our minds again? It requires dropping off all your bags that are marked 'I hate (something).'"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Change of Heart

People ask me how my son handles me going away to fly helicopters. That's the nature of most flying jobs; dads (and sometimes moms) go away to work.

At eleven, Dylan is pretty stoic about me leaving, except during times like hurricane evacutions in the Gulf of Mexico, or annual training, when I'm away for longer stretches than usual. My friend and coworker Todd has a son the same age, and relates that it's pretty much the same with his son.

It's all Dylan has known, after all. When he was a little guy, prior to starting school, I'd get a kick out of how he reacted when I walked through the door after being away: it was like he picked up on whatever conversation we had before I left.

But at the age of seven, it seemed that Dylan really got a grasp of how other families lived. His little friends had their dads home every night. One night, when I reminded him that I'd be leaving the next morning, he burst into tears. It shook me. I held him in my arms like he was three again.
"I don't want you to leave, Daddy."

Oh geez. For the last year, I'd been "Dad" instead of "Daddy." This was serious.

I said, "Dylan, if me going away is really getting to you, I'll find another job."
"Yeah, really."

He pondered that for a moment. "So you'd be home every night?"
"Yep. Every night." More pondering.
"Dad, would you still volunteer at my school?"
"Well, probably not. I'd probably be at work. Have you noticed that it's mostly moms who volunteer at school?"
"Yeah. Dad?"
"What, Punkin?"
"Does that mean we couldn't go camping during the summer?"
"We could go camping, but it would mostly be on the weekends."
He frowns. "While more people are there at the lake?"

He thinks more. "Dad?"
"If you got a job where you didn't have to leave, does that mean you wouldn't be a helicopter pilot?"
"Well, yeah, I guess that's what it means."
"I couldn't tell my friends my dad is a helicopter pilot anymore?"
"I guess not," I say.

He holds his hands up in a stop right there gesture. "WHOA WHOA WHOA. FORGET IT."

And that was the last time he brought it up. Sometimes, I guess, peer influence can be a blessing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shoulder Time

A couple of nights ago, Dylan and I sat next to each other on the sofa. He was feeling rotten, suffering through flu-like symptoms. He leaned against my shoulder as we watched TV, and a realization washed over me: it had been at least a year since he'd leaned up against me like that. He was sick then, too.

Don't get me wrong. I'm openly affectionate toward Dylan, and he doesn't seem to mind. We hug a lot. When I drop him off at his school in the morning, I still kiss him on the head, and he doesn't seem too embarrassed.


He's eleven now, and getting more independent, and the little boy in him is receding into the background, little by little. I thought about that as we sat there on the sofa.

Sometimes, he gets exasperated with me, and informs me that I still treat him like a little kid. I explain to him that, to me, it doesn't seem so long ago that he was so small I feared breaking him while picking him up.

One day, when he was three, we came back from town. I extracted him out of his car seat, held him close, and kissed his head.
"Thank you, Daddy. Will you still kiss me when I'm thirteen?"

I was taken aback, and I laughed a surprised laugh. Where the heck did a three year-old come up with such a question?

"Well of course, Punkin'. But you know, sometimes by the time boys are thirteen, they don't want to be kissed by their daddies anymore. I might have to chase you down and tackle you just to kiss your head."
He giggled. "That sounds like fun."

It also sounds like a good motivator to stay in shape.

Friday, July 15, 2011

No Thanks, E.T.

     Funny, I don't think of myself as a guy steeped in vanity, but a dream I had a couple of nights ago has me questioning how well I know myself.
     I was day hiking in the Trinity Alps when I came across a spaceship. A little purple man--not green, purple--invited me inside. He cut right to the chase.
     "We have a mission for you."
     "Yes, you."
     "We have devised a verbal campaign to save earthlings from destroying themselves and their planet, and we have chosen you to deliver our messages."
     "Well, okay. But, y'know, I have a family, and I have a job." Maybe my family and my job didn't mean anything to those little purple bastards, but they would know in no uncertain terms that they were important to me.
     "You would deliver our messages over the internet. All we ask is one hour per week."
     "That sounds workable," I said. "Anything else about this assignment I should know?"
     They looked at each other. I knew those little purple bastards were hiding something.
     "Well, your messages will be in video form. Since image is important to earth people, we propose to modify your appearance somewhat."
     "How so?"
     "We wish to restore the dormant hair follicles on your cranium. You will no longer be in the throes of male pattern baldness."
     "Cool," I said.
     "And, you must grow your hair long, and wear it in dreadlocks. You should never be heard listening to any music save that of Bob Marley, and you should be seen eating quinoa with every meal."
     "Yes, dreadlocks."
     "Will my hair still be gray?"
     "Yes. The gray will lend credibility."
     I weighed the pros and cons of their offer for a few moments. "So really, just an hour per week?"
     "Yes. One hour per week."
     "Okay. Sign me up."
     Rhonda was able to stay home the next morning. I told her and Dylan about the dream.
     "DREADLOCKS?" they asked in unison. Family stereo.
     "Yep, dreadlocks. I'd be one stylin' middle aged dude."
     "Yeah, Dyl?"
     "If that ever happens for real, and they say you have to wear dreadlocks, please turn them down."
     "That kind of stings your old man, Dyl."
     "Dad, the truth hurts. You should never be seen in public wearing dreadlocks."
     Just wait until Halloween. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

America's Braveheart?

     "Young 'giant' Peter Francisco was the most renowned common soldier in the Continental Army — and possibly in the entire history of the U.S. Army." That's from an article in Military History magazine.
     He was a giant of a man for the time, standing six feet six inches, and weighing 260 pounds. In 1777, he joined the 10th Virginia Regiment at the age of sixteen, and over the next three years, his battlefield prowess gained him a near-mythical status among fellow soldiers. He carried a five-foot sword made under the authorization of General George Washington. Washington himself said that the American Revolution might well have been lost without the benefit of Francisco in key battles.
     Why isn't he better known? Well, one reason might be that he was not a member of the landed gentry. In fact, his origins are a bit of a mystery. Legend says that that he was brought to North America at the age of five. He was found sitting on a dock in what's now Hopewell, Virginia, wearing expensive clothing. He spoke only Portuguese. He was taken in by an uncle of Patrick Henry, Anthony Winston, and lived with and was tutored by the family until the start of the American Revolution.
     After the war, he married and had two children. He lost his wife in 1790, but later remarried and had four more children.
     He was probably born in 1760, and died in 1831. Perhaps his name will one day gain the recognition warranted by his superhuman feats.
     After all, without Peter Francisco, we might have grown up with fish and chips instead of hamburgers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Review from Buzz

Have you ever used Yelp? It's a good way to discover what people say about restaurants and other businesses should you find yourself in a different city. Heck, I've discovered places in my own town thanks to Yelp.
The writing can get downright entertaining. In Redding, our star Yelp reviewer is a guy named Buzz. Buzz has over 200 reviews on Yelp, and he tells it like it is. I sent him a message a few days ago asking him if he did a blog, and if I could post one of his reviews on mine. Nope, he doesn't do a blog, and that's a shame. But, he gave me the okay to post this review.
So here's a Yelp review from Buzz, my very first, ahem, guest blogger. Caution: Buzz is rather blunt. His review concerns a place called the Palo Cedro Inn here in Shasta County, California.

Do you guys know how Game 5 of the NBA Finals turned out?

I'm asking because I went to PCI last night to watch the game -- our satellite dish was on the blink.  I watched the second quarter in relative peace -- the only distraction was listening to the guy sitting a few stools to my left go on and on about how the world's supply of crude oil is actually infinite, and conservation is bullshit, because God replenishes it as we use it up.  See, that's why the center of the earth is hot.   It's God's way of cooking up more crude oil.  There's actually so much oil that it's bubbling to the surface in Canada and the Dakotas, and the only reason there are shortages is because Democrats and environmentalists blah blah blah blah blah....

At halftime I'm eating my soup-and-salad dinner when a guy sits down next to me and proceeds to tell my all about his last five years in one long stream-of-consciousness epic saga.  Included were details about a nasty divorce from a member of a prominent local hill clan that involved a prenuptial agreement regarding an $8 million estate, a back-stabbbing housemaid who committed perjury, a bitter custody fight, multiple car wrecks and DUIs, bulging discs, disability, Medicare, sexual molestation charges involving a minor.....

About every two minutes he says something like, "And that's all I got to say about that. I said enough already.  You're trying to watch the basketball game.  (He looks at the screen.) Hey, nobody touch the nigger!  It's a foul if you touch that nigger.  Ha ha ha." Then back to his life's story.

I'm staring a hole in the TV screen in the 3rd quarter, hoping the guy next to me is going to follow through on his promise to go talk to the owner, which is why he says he's there.  A woman walks up and ask the bartender to change the channel.

This is the same bartender who knows I'm there to watch the basketball game, which I've been doing since I arrived, and I'm watching now with as much focused intensity as I can muster given that the guy next to me is still talking about how the girl involved in the molestation charge is a big fat liar, and he heard Glenn Beck say on the radio today that it's going to be a law that we all have to learn how to speak Spanish, and his only hope at getting the truth out about the molestation is the anchorman at Channel 24 News in Chico, and if you ever need a lawyer get one from Alturas 'cause they still make their living off the land over there, and the Grand Jury won't do shit about his ex-wife even though his lawyer told him they would.....

The bartender changes the channel.

Check, please.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our Feet on Their Backs

A few years ago, my friend Algernon D’Ammassa wrote about taking a leave of absence from his employer. They filled his position with a temp. She was a capable, energetic woman who quickly showed her value to the organization, and when Algernon returned to his position, his employer decided to keep her on. One condition of her permanent employment, though, was a credit and background check. Alas, the credit check revealed that the young woman had once declared bankruptcy. Just like that, she was out of the running and jobless.
More and more, it seems acceptable in our culture to blame others for their own misfortunes. If someone has been unemployed for a long period of time, he or she must be lazy or stupid or both. Compassion is for suckers.
Nowadays, job ads appear warning the jobless that they need not apply. Last year, Sony Ericsson decided to move its headquarters to an Atlanta suburb. The move would create 180 new jobs, but included in the job announcement was this: “No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.”
More such ads seem be surfacing. In the words of Mr. D’Ammassa: “We put our feet on the backs of those who try to get back up.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


My friend Steve Brewer has a new novel out, titled Calabama. I’ve read sixteen of Steve’s novels, and liked them all, but this one will probably rank among my favorites when time puts things in perspective.

I was a fan of Steve’s before we became friends. I met him a few years ago at a gathering of local authors, and bought a book from him, Bank Job. At the time, I hardly read fiction at all, tending toward nonfiction almost exclusively.

Bank Job got me reading fiction again, and opened my eyes to the crime fiction genre. My wife Rhonda minored in Theater Arts in college, and acted in several plays during and after college. She says, “Good acting is when you forget that they’re acting.” I find a parallel in Steve’s writing. With twenty-two years under his belt as a journalist before transitioning to a career as a self-employed author, he brings a journalist’s strengths to his fiction, an economical, cut-to-the-chase style that allows the story to be king. With Steve’s work, I’m reading a story, I’m not reading writing.

In an interview, author Eric Beetner said it best. He was asked, "Which author should be much better known?" He answered, "My go-to for this is always Steve Brewer. He's as good as Elmore Leonard with a fraction of the accolades."

On the website Mystery Fanfare today, Steve wrote about Calabama.

You need certain key ingredients to get going on a new novel -- a setting, a notion of the plot, a good opening line, a protagonist that speaks to you. I also like to have a title in mind before I start writing, though we all know they sometimes change.

Occasionally, the title is the spark that sets an idea on fire. That was certainly the case with my 18th crime novel, CALABAMA.

I first heard the term from a friend in Redding, California, where I lived from 2003 to 2010. Redding is an isolated city of ninety thousand people, way up north near Lake Shasta, and it's the setting for one of my other novels, BANK JOB.

Soon as I heard the word "Calabama," I knew I must write a novel to go under it. It was the perfect description for life in inland California.

When most people think of California, what comes to mind is Los Angeles or San Francisco or beach towns like Santa Cruz, where I live now. But the state's vast interior is rural and socially traditional and politically conservative and prone to pickup trucks. It resembles Arkansas (where I grew up), but with palm trees.

I've bucked that redneck mentality my whole life, so it was easy to create a character who'd do the same. Eric Newlin is a dope-smoking slacker who landed in Redding by accident. He's unhappily married, works for his father-in-law and dreams of escaping Calabama.

Eric survives a traffic accident, one of those near-misses that feel like an omen, and he decides his life is going to change. It does. It goes straight to hell. Jobless and broke, Eric gets mixed up in a kidnapping scheme with a local crimelord named Rydell Vance, and things go very wrong.

The novel's a hillbilly noir, full of violence and greed and backwoods bitterness, but leavened with dark humor.

Kind of like Calabama itself.

Alas, Steve and his wife Kelly moved from Redding to Santa Cruz several months ago. Santa Cruz is a lovely place, but good luck finding an all-night taxidermist in that town.

Calabama is available today on Kindle and Smashwords.

Monday, June 06, 2011

An End of the World in 1969

When I was thirteen years old, in 1969, a local pastor in our area convinced most of his congregation to move from southern California to Tennessee. He’d had a vision that a monstrous earthquake would hit California, and that most of the state would end up underwater.

I think I remember that about three-quarters of his congregation left their jobs, homes, and lives in Oxnard behind. They pulled up stakes and moved to Tennessee. Some of the people were rather connected in the community, so it made front page of the newspaper.

A week after they arrived, the biggest earthquake to hit the Tennessee area in decades rumbled through. Could that be evidence that God has a sense of humor?

As I recall, the pastor had no comment.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Gomez, Sweet and Mighty

It seems that blogs are often a repository for grief, especially for grief attached to the loss of a pet. People seem to accept as a given that a post about the death of a pet will find like-minded eyes. Me too. This is one of those posts.

If we lose a human loved one, we expect to garner sympathy far and wide, I think. But the loss of a pet seems to occupy a netherworld in the landscape of solace. If you sit up at a bar in a tavern, spilling your heart out about the death of your dog or cat, the guy or gal next to you may weep right along with you. Or, he or she might roll the eyes and think, “What’s wrong with this guy? It’s not like he lost a brother or sister.” That’s just the way it is. If you think of a pet as part of your family, you get it. If you think of a pet as just an animal, you don’t.

Rhonda found Gomez hiding in the shrubs near a restaurant in April, 2000. It was a colder than normal day for early spring, it was raining, and the little puppy was tiny and shivering. She tried to beckon him with food, but he was scared. That’s saying something, because Rhonda is like a magnet to dogs, cats, and kids.

Rhonda came home to tell me about the puppy she’d seen. She cried in the telling. She’d found him in a parking lot near a busy street, and she feared he would be killed before she could find him again.

But the next day, there he was, hiding in the same spot under the shrubbery. She’d brought a hamburger patty, and the little puppy came to her, hunger outstripping fear. She fed him bits of meat, talked to him, and petted him. Soon, he let her pick him up.

She called me on the way home. “I have him.”

I waited for her in the driveway. She drove up, lowered the window, and opened her coat. Inside, snuggled up against her, was the puppy.

I laughed. He was so cute, it hurt to look at him. And, after riding inside Rhonda’s coat for twenty minutes, warmed by her body heat, he didn’t look scared at all.

We put a found ad in the paper, and tacked up flyers around the neighborhood where Rhonda found him. No answers. After a week, we realized that we had a new addition to our family. We named him Gomez. He was obviously part Chihuahua, and he just looked like a Gomez.

I took him to the vet to get him checked out, and almost didn’t get him back. Everybody who worked there wanted to keep him. The vet said he was about four months old, and in good shape other than having a slight case of malnutrition. She guessed that he was indeed a Chihuahua mixed with something like a Miniature Pinscher. He weighed four and a half pounds.

For the first week he was home with us, it scared him to be petted. He would shrink back and blink his eyes. He obviously hadn't benefited from human affection. It took several days, but he did grow quite used to getting petted, especially in someone's lap.

Our son Dylan was born several weeks after Gomez joined our family. We’d heard horror stories about little dogs getting jealous over human babies, but Gomez was fascinated with our little human. If we took Dylan from one room to another, Gomez would follow, stationing himself where he could watch over the baby. You could imagine him saying, "He's my boy, and I have to watch him."

Gomez wasn’t an aggressive dog, but he surprised me one morning at dawn by tearing after a small female black bear getting into our trash cans. The bear ran off, and Gomez came prancing back, for the moment feeling like a Rottweiler trapped in a half-Chihuahua’s body.

The years went by, and Gomez seemed healthy, although he was overweight and had been that way since we had him fixed. It was a dark day when we learned that he had a heart condition. Still, for the last couple of years, he enjoyed a good quality of life.

Until yesterday, when he died.

He was a sweet, loyal dog, a great companion, and about as little trouble as a dog could be. It was really difficult trying to be strong for my son last night, especially when I felt eight years old again. But, I’m grateful that a certain funny little dog joined our family for his time on earth.

So, now I say goodbye to my son’s bodyguard, who liked nothing better than to snuggle up against one of his humans, except maybe barbecued chicken. I say goodbye to a pint-sized threat to black bears everywhere. I say goodbye to my little friend.

Gomez: January 2000 - May 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

E-books Take Center Stage

Recently, Amazon announced a milestone in the reading world: Since the beginning of 2011, e-books have outsold print books on the Amazon site. Yep, e-books are here to stay.

Here’s a timeline provided by Amazon.

July 1995: Amazon begins selling books

November 2007: Kindle and Kindle e-books introduced

July 2010: Kindle e-books outsell hardbacks

May 2011: Kindle e-books outsell hardbacks and paperbacks combined

In the press release, Amazon said that since April 2011, for every 100 hardcover or paperback copies, Amazon has sold 105 e-book copies. That doesn’t include free e-books, which include nearly every title of note published before 1923. From the beginning of 2011 until now, Amazon sold three times more e-books than during the same period last year.

I resisted joining the e-reader legions for a good while, but not because of the reasons I’ve most often heard from folks: “I like the feel, the heft, and the smell of books.” No, I resisted because I didn’t want to spend the money on a Kindle or other device, and because I could often find used copies of books for less than the Kindle version.

That’s not to say I didn’t read e-books. I had the free Kindle apps for my Mac and iPhone for a good while before I bought a Kindle device, and had read a few books on my computer or phone. But at the end of summer last year, I noticed a woman sitting across from me on an airliner. She had the new version of the Kindle, with the lower price of 139 bucks. She decided to take a nap, and handed over the Kindle so I could check it out. When I got home, I ordered one.

For me, it was a natural transition to e-readers. I travel a lot, for one thing. I like to have a half-dozen or so reference books with me all the time, and that just wasn’t practical with hardbacks or paperbacks when trying to get by with carry-ons. Also, although I’m no tech geek, my job requires me to work with electronic stuff, so I’m not technology-resistant, either.

Again, one thing that kept me from fully embracing e-books was the cost of the books. Sure, a New York Times bestseller priced at $9.99 beats the hardcover price by a bunch, but I’ve never been one to chase after the bestseller list, especially with fiction titles. It was common to find used hardcovers or paperbacks for less than the price of a e-book edition. But, in the year before I bought my Kindle, I noticed the emergence of “indie authors,” writers who essentially self-published through e-books. I’ve found some great books from indie authors priced at $2.99 and below. The notion that I could find used books cheaper than e-books held sway much less. Yep, you’ll find junk out there in the indie world, but I’ve also paid 24 bucks for a hardback and been disappointed.

E-books have been a boon to readers and authors. My friend, fellow sasquatch at large, and journalist turned novelist Steve Brewer has authored twenty books, some of them out of print. (Interesting guy: he’s written for a living since he was eighteen.) Having secured the rights to all of his published titles except one , he now has them available on Kindle and Smashwords (Smashwords covers most e-book formats besides Kindle). Because Steve has the rights to most of his titles, he prices them at $2.99 and below. (The one title for which he doesn't have the rights, Boost, is priced at $9.99 by the publisher in the Kindle version.)

Before e-books, authors such as Steve were at the mercy of publishers regarding older titles. If a publisher chose not to issue a reprint of a title, the author was out of luck. E-books have changed that: Mr. Brewer reports that his biggest selling e-book title is one of his older ones, End Run, first published in 2000, despite paperback and hardcover versions slowing "to a trickle" by 2011.

Steve Brewer serves as a good example of how e-books are good for readers and authors. You can buy End Run as an e-book for $2.99. As of today, paperback copies cost $14.00 on Amazon, and the hardcover will set you back $23.95. And get this: Steve tells me that he gets the same royalties per copy for an e-book priced at $2.99 as a hardcover priced at 24 bucks.

By the way, Steve has a new book coming out in June, Calabama. Steve was kind enough to let me read his nearly-final draft, and the novel is a dandy. It's set here in Shasta County, and concerns the travails of a transplant to the area who suddenly finds himself without a job, without a wife, and ensnared in the clutches of a local drug kingpin. Fun read.

So, are e-books all good and no bad? Well, no. For one thing, my first Kindle froze up. They’ve been reliable, but they’re not as reliable as paper. (Amazon was great; they overnighted a new one to me the next day, and paid for the shipping to return the broken one.) For another thing, e-books lend themselves to impulse purchase. I’m guessing there are 20 or 30 titles on my Kindle priced at $.99 to $2.99 that I may never read. I just had to have them because they were cheap. The cost of the device itself is still considerable: the cheapest Kindle is $120. Although some devices, including Kindle, allow lending, there are usually limits such as time constraints, and library lending for e-books seems to just now be getting off the ground.

If you love print books, you might fear that growth in e-book sales threaten the availability of paper books. So far, those fears seem unfounded. When Amazon announced that e-book sales had surpassed that of print books, it also announced that sales of paperbacks had increased in the same period. I think there is little danger that paper books will go the way of 8 track tapes and cassettes. More likely, the lasting legacy of e-readers and e-books will be that they led to more people connecting to a passion for reading. That’s especially good news for novelists, since in today’s United States, fewer men read novels than in decades past: only one out of four men read book-length fiction today.

I’ve owned a Kindle e-reader for less than a year, and it’s probably resulted in the doubling of my reading volume. Really, I suppose I’m pretty much the opposite of the I Like Paper Books set: I find the Kindle so convenient, and such a pleasure to use, that I resent having to go back to a “real” book. I’m with the E-book Nation to stay. I even bought an emergency radio that charges my Kindle with a hand crank. You know, in case of The Rapture, or total economic collapse. A guy can’t be too careful.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Japanese Attack Southern California

From the yeah, really department: In February 1942, the Japanese mounted the first mainland attack against the United States since the War of 1812, and the attack was likely prompted by prickly pear cactus spines stuck in a Japanese fellow's ass.

In the early months of World War II, ten Japanese submarines patrolled the west coast of the United States. In 1941 and 1942 they sunk about a dozen ships, sticking to targets at sea. But Kozo Nishino, the commander of I-17, a 350 foot long B-1 class submarine 70 feet longer than the largest German U-boat, decided to up the ante one evening in February 1942. He surfaced off the shore of Ellwood Oil Field, near Santa Barbara, California, with his crew of 101. For twenty minutes, starting at about 7:15 pm, the I-17 fired 15 to 20 shells at the facility.

After the attack, Captain Nishino reported to the Japanese command that he’d “left Santa Barbara in flames,” but the shelling was kind of a bust. The Japanese had the best shipboard night optics in the world at the time, but most of the shells fell either well short or well beyond the intended target. The attack caused about 500 dollars worth of damage to the oil facility pier, and there was only one injury reported. (That injury actually happened well after the attack, when a worker was injured while trying to defuse an unexploded shell.)

Nishino knew the area well. In the 1930s, he’d often captained a merchant tanker in and out of the Santa Barbara channel, sometimes loading crude oil at the Ellwood oil facility.

During one such visit in the late 30s, officials invited Nishino ashore for a welcome ceremony. While walking up the path to the ceremony location, he fell into a prickly pear cactus, and cactus spines were pulled from his butt while oil field workers looked on and laughed.

As legend goes (it’s a widely accepted story, but not without dispute), Captain Nishino never forgave the folks at the Ellwood facility for laughing at him, and would years later seize the opportunity to gain revenge from a Japanese submarine. Thus, the probability that the first mainland attack against the United States since the War of 1812 was provoked by a prickly pear cactus--and laughter.

The attack on Ellwood could be viewed as kind of a joke, especially since the jitters brought on by the attack almost certainly led to the so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” the next day. Decades later, the two events would inspire the movie “1941.”

But in the longer term, the hysteria provoked by the attack was no laughing matter. It led to greater censorship of the news, and increased pressure to confine Japanese-Americans and Japanese visitors in internment camps. Soon, 110,000 Japanese people--62% of them U.S. citizens--were forced to leave homes and businesses behind and were confined to internment camps.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

My Son and Our Sun

(In honor of Mother's Day, here's a re-post from October 2008.)

I write about my son Dylan often. I was a late-in-life dad when he came into the world, and eight years later, he's still a fascinating little creature.

Dylan is a good kid. More than that, he has the makings of a guy who will be a good person as an adult. He's not perfect. He can't eat anything without ten percent of it ending up on the floor. Sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get him to do his homework. Sometimes he knees me in the privates when we're wrestling. I think it's accidental.

But yeah, in my heart and mind, Dylan shines in many ways. Still, Uncle E's post today in which he mentioned Dylan surprised me, and left me with a big lump in my throat. There's something about hearing or reading good things about my son from someone else--especially when that someone else is as thoughtful and perceptive as Uncle E--that just makes my heart swell anew.


I don't mention my wife Rhonda as often as I do Dylan. That largely has to do with Rhonda's desire for privacy. She's fairly well known in our community, and she doesn't like the idea of her life being an open book. So, I respect her feelings, although the woman has had a fascinating life. Heck, someone should base a novel on her experiences.

The three of us went out boat camping on Lake Shasta on my last break at home before Dylan commenced going to school again. We had a wonderful time, but two days into the trip, Rhonda had pressing matters to attend to at her office, so Dylan and I dropped her off at the marina and headed back to camp. Dylan, at the age of eight, had spent a total of two nights away from Rhonda in his life. He was brave about the idea of two "dudes only" nights at the camp, but on the second morning without Mom, after we finished breakfast, I could tell that something was on his mind.

"Dad, if I tell you that I miss Mom, will it hurt your feelings?"

I chuckled. "Of course not. I've had a great time, but I miss your mom too."

Dylan said, "I've had a great time too, until now. Now, it seems boring without Mom. She's always so cheerful and funny; she always makes me feel like every day is a special day. She's like the sun."

She's like the sun. Dylan's words, and the look on his face, hit me with a wallop. Dylan offered a poetic essence of what I've always loved about Rhonda, from the day I first saw her and heard her talk in our high school cafeteria, thirty-six years ago.

She can show a tough-as-nails exterior, but inside lives a marshmallow heart. She has an irreverent, bawdy sense of humor, but a little girl's sense of wonder. She's one of the bravest, kindest, and most compassionate people I've ever known. Also, I like seeing her naked.

She's like the sun.

I'm one lucky dude.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Fidelity and iPhones

I recently learned via a blog post that a female friend, one of the few blogger buddies I sometimes see in person, keeps her iPhone 4 in her bra while she's at work. On vibrate. I guess calling her while she's working is now out of the question. I'd feel like I was fooling around on my wife.


Funny what you can learn from Sitemeter. I never knew, until a few days ago, that there was an Alamo, California. It’s east of Oakland.


I woke early Saturday morning, so I left while wife and son were sleeping to do some grocery shopping. On the way, I stopped to have breakfast. While I was eating, the song “Sugar Sugar” came over the speakers. That song came out in September 1969, while I was in the eighth grade. Forty-one years later, it still makes me wanna hurl. Yep, it was the #1 hit song in 1969, and the very mention of it provokes a cringe.

I posted something to that effect on Facebook, and Bob Barbanes, a friend, former coworker, and former disk jockey, mentioned the name of the singer: Ron Dante. Turns out that ol’ Ron is still active, even recently appearing with the CBS Orchestra on the David Letterman show. That’s pretty cool.

But I still can’t stand “Sugar Sugar.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rain Patrols

I'm nine, and I walk in the door soaking wet. No coat, no rain jacket. I've been walking in the rain. I'd loved walking in the rain for as long as I could remember. Rain seemed like a special occasion in southern California, and I wanted to feel it, to remember it, to celebrate.

My mom sighs and asks, "What were you thinking?"
"It was fun."
"Getting soaked is fun?"
"Well, yeah."

Mom shakes her head, but she's smiling just a little.


Dylan asks if we can go out "on patrol."
"It's raining," I say.
"It'll be fun."
I start to tell him that we'll wait for the rain to slow down. But then, I remember.

I grab a jacket and meet my son back at the front door. "Where's your jacket?"
"Don't need one," he says.
"C'mon. Get a jacket."
"Please, Dad?"

A memory. A nine year-old's memory.

We come back a half hour later. We're soaked. We're on the verge of shivering. Mom is waiting.

"Where are your jackets?"
"We left them behind," Dylan answers.
"What were you guys thinking?"

But she's smiling just a little, and while her words were "What were you guys thinking?", what we hear is "I love you both, even when you do stupid stuff."

She orders us to stand by the front door. She grabs a couple of towels, orders us to take off our shirts, towels off Dylan, towels off me. She disappears, and comes back with sweat pants and fresh t-shirts for both of us. We put on the dry duds, and retire to the sofa to watch "Dirty Jobs."

Rhonda comes out of the kitchen with hot chocolate. She looks at us, shakes her head, and utters, "boys."

I look at Dylan. He looks so happy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mary's "Conversations with Dad"

I overheard Dylan talking to his friend Kiley on the phone the other day.

"Both of my grandfathers are gone, and it's really made me sad lately."

There are many good things about being an older parent. I think I'm much better at being a dad than I would have been in my twenties. But thinking about my dad and Rhonda's dad makes me sad too. They would have both loved being granddads, and Dylan would have loved being around them.

So, oh yes, there are minuses to being an older parent too.


I read this post from Mary this morning, and I liked it so much that I had to share.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Swinging from a Winter Vine

My bride's friend Linda came to visit us from down San Luis Obisbo way. She and Rhonda have been good friends since they were both probation officers in Los Angeles in the eighties. Linda became a grandmother last year, and she'll be moving to be closer to her daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law.
It was cold and windy, but Linda was game for visiting Turtle Bay Exploration Park here in Redding. The Sundial Bridge spanning the Sacramento River is one of our area's main attractions, and I often wonder why I don't walk across its span more often.
Geez, it's just so easy to take people and places and the other gifts of life for granted. I do that. I wish I didn't.
Linda stayed for the for a long weekend, and left yesterday. I picked Dylan up from school, and he was sad that she'd be gone when we got home. She's one of the warmest people I've ever met, and Dylan has always loved being around her.
We have the family we're born with, and the family we choose.
I had lunch with Dylan at his school yesterday. He liked having me sit there with his friends. He'll be in sixth grade next year, and the day could come when he rather hang out with just his friends. I thought of that yesterday, and it put a golden highlight on the moment.
A few nights ago, I dreamed that I went to feed the chickens, and our Barred Rock rooster struck up a conversation with me. I don't remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember that he sounded like Billy Idol.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sad Endings

I haven't been writing much. Sorry that a batch of sad news prompts me to join you today, but sadness has long been the best writing prompt I have.

My uncle Darrell, whom I wrote about here, lost his battle with brain cancer early this month. He was the first family member to show up at my parents' house the day my dad died. When I was a little guy, I thought Darrell was some kind of superhero. Dylan bonded to him as a baby more than any other extended family member, and I wasn't surprised. He chose not to have a funeral. That doesn't surprise me either. Our family will get their chance to remember him together, though: my uncle Sid--older brother to Darrell--and my aunt Bettye will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this summer.
We have a Mexican food place here in Redding called Burrito Bandito. Rhonda and I visited it right after they opened several years ago, and we liked it immediately. But, we lamented that it probably wouldn't make it because of its less than ideal location. But, not only have they "made it," they've succeeded due to great service and fresh, tasty food.
I got to be friends with a guy named Al who worked there. Since lunch hours were always crowded, I would go in before or after the work crowd. Al was a warm, engaging guy, the kind of guy who asked, "How you doing?" not as a mere salutation, but because he really wanted to know how you were doing.
I hadn't visited Burrito Bandito in a few months when I stopped by there last month. As I was waiting in line, I saw a photo of Al on the wall. On the top of the photo were the words, "We fondly remember."
Al fell from some height, hit his head, went into a coma in the hospital, and died several days later.
I've known Sherri since the sixth grade. I met her son Jeff and her daughter Jennifer when they were little. Jennifer was an adorable little girl, and Jeff was a bright, engaging little guy with an infectious smile.
This week, Jeff jumped to his death from the Cold Spring bridge, in the backcountry of Santa Barbara County. I've only communicated a couple of times with Sherri since Jeff's death. She's shipwrecked, of course. As for me, I'm having a lot of trouble reconciling my memories of that happy little kid with the young adult who became so overcome with darkness that he ended his own life.
Still, when I look at Jeff's Facebook page, it's clear that Jeff was a light in the lives of many, despite harboring his inner demons. It's also clear that Jeff will be remembered much more for the light he shared with others than the darkness that ultimately claimed him.

Right now, I'm pissed off at life. I should offer something better than that, but I won't. I'll get over it, and I'll be back.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Major General Smedley Butler

Maybe you've never heard of Smedley Butler. He was born in 1881, and died in 1940. He served 34 years in the U.S. Marines, retired as a Major General, and is one of 19 Americans awarded the Medal of Honor twice.

By some reckonings, he may be one of the biggest heroes in the history of the United States.
When FDR won the presidency in 1932, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, he quickly started the ball rolling on his New Deal. Many Wall Street titans thus came to view him as a traitor to his own class. They dreamed up a plan to get rid of him.
They chose the highly-decorated Butler as their point man. Their idea was to have Butler lead a huge veterans' march on Washington, and subsequently pressure FDR to install Butler as the "Secretary of General Affairs." Eventually, as the plan went, FDR would hand over the power to run the country entirely to Butler. In essence, the United States would be run by a Wall Street-installed dictator.
It's easy to understand why the Wall Street titans chose Smedley Butler. As a seasoned combat veteran, he'd served the economic interests of the rich and powerful before: He'd admitted to rigging elections in Nicaragua, and led military forces in other parts of Latin America to keep countries on a path favorable to U.S. economic interests.
What they didn't know was that by the time they approached Smedley, he'd come to believe what could best be related by a quote oft-attributed to him: "War is a racket." (Later, in a speech, he said, "I spent 33 years being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.")
Agents of Wall Street approached Smedley with the offer of an $18,000 bribe, but he spilled the beans to Congress. He gave testimony behind closed doors, and a House committee confirmed the bribe offer. At about that time, the commander of the VFW, James Van Zandt, stated that "agents of Wall Street" had also approached him about taking part in putting a U.S. dictatorship in place.
The House committee's investigation went nowhere. The transcript of the interview with Smedley Butler was printed with the names of the accused Wall Street titans deleted.
General Butler went on to give talks against the futility of war, but he didn't get much press coverage for his efforts.
I tend to believe that General Butler's name should be as familiar to us as that of Paul Revere or George Washington, but I'd wager that few of us ever happened upon his name in a history textbook.

"The problem with history is, the folks who were there ain't talking. And the ones who weren't there, you can't shut 'em up." Tom Waits