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.”