A Shopping Trip That Rated a Grade of C

Went to Costco yesterday, determined to buy only things that begin with the letter C.

Am I obsessive-compulsive or something? No. I just decided to play a game as I shopped. And I suppose it might have helped keep the cost of the trip down. After all, it’s Costco, and we always end up spending way more than we planned.

So here’s what I picked up on my expedition.

• Coffee

• Cheese

• Cereal

• Cherry tomatoes

• Chips

Hmmm. How about

• Chicken eggs

• Calcium-enriched orange juice

• Corn-free flour tortillas

• Carved ham

• Crisp frozen Taquitos

• Crunchy granola bars

Then there was something we really needed, but working around the “C” rule was tricky. I finally came up with …

• Cubed ice, melted and placed in individual serving containers – in other words, bottled water.

Was that cheating? Then you’ll really love:

• Cados, avo

What can I say? I really wanted the bag of avocados.

Random Moments From Three Great Days

sunset on the beach
Tori shot this gorgeous picture of the beach at sunset.

Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.

 

on the beach
On the beach shortly after sunrise.

We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.

 

Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.

There’s Something about Tori

I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.

The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.

It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.

He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.

The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.

His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.

But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.

The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.

She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.

That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.

I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.

You Could Feel the Ghosts

fort morgan arch
You could feel the ghosts in Fort Morgan’s brick-lined vaults.

The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.

 

Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.

It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

fort morgan parade ground
The sun-filled parade ground of Fort Morgan.

And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.

 

We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.

The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.

Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.

(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)

You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.

It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.

Get Lost!

Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.

In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.

But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.

souvenir city
A pirate ship that turned out to be the back entrance to Souvenir City.

Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.

 

What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.

Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.

nina pinta
The Nina and Pinta (replicas) tied up on Perdido Key.

And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.

Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.

 

* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!

The Power of Failure

“Failure is not an option.” Ed Harris in the movie, “Apollo 13”

Sorry Ed, but it turns out failure not only IS an option, sometimes it seems to be almost a prerequisite to success.

I got four books for Christmas. One was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which is so good I can’t even begin to tell you. I mentioned it before, when I had just started reading it. I finished it a couple of weeks later and it was every bit as good as the first chapters suggested. Great book, beautifully written, easily the best book I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and I read a lot. “Born to Run” is deeply personal and moving, yet sometimes hilarious.

One of my favorite passages is when, as a high school student, he rounded up a couple of other friends who could play a little and formed a band. After their first big gig – an unqualified disaster – the other members got together and voted him out of the band he had formed.

Wouldn’t you love to get those guys together now and ask, “How does it feel to be the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from a band?”

I’m now reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, who for almost 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s was “the most trusted man in America” as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In this – shall we say? – strained political climate, it seemed appropriate to revisit a time when the media were not only trusted, but some of its members were revered. Cronkite, you may recall, was known as “Uncle Walter” to a devoted public. If Cronkite said it, you could take it to the bank.

In one of his first jobs in the 1930s, Cronkite was the news announcer for Kansas City radio station KCMO. In fact, he was essentially the entire news staff. One day the station owner rushed to Cronkite’s desk with a scoop. The owner’s wife had just called to say City Hall was on fire and three firefighters had been killed. He ordered Cronkite to get on the air right away to issue a news bulletin.

Cronkite reached for the phone, to the owner’s consternation. “What are you doing?” “I have to make some calls and verify it.” “Are you calling my wife a liar?” Of course not,” Cronkite said, but he pleaded the need to verify the report and get more details.

The owner fired Cronkite and went on the air himself with the breathless report of K.C.’s City Hall burning down, with three firefighters plummeting to their deaths. And of course, it turned out to be completely false. There had been a small fire in City Hall, easily extinguished. Nobody injured, let alone killed.

When Cronkite died in 2009, a blogger wrote a piece titled “KCMO: Stupid Enough to Fire Cronkite; Downhill Ever Since.”

Another of the books I received for Christmas was “The Daily Show: The Book.” It’s a conversational, chronological history of the Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run. And of course he wasn’t fired from the gig. But as he points out in the foreword, his career until then hadn’t been exactly overwhelming.

“I was a 35-year-old New York City standup comic with a canceled talk show, an unproduced screenplay, an unpublished book of essays, and two upcoming roles in Independent Films critics would almost unanimously hail as ‘speaking parts.'”

So the common thread between the stories of these three disparate men is early failure. And of course, there’s a lot more such stories. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, but he’s now considered, if not the most important modern painter, certainly one of them. Erle Stanley Gardner received a rejection telling him not only was his story bad but he should never again be allowed to write in the English language. The story was, of course, the first Perry Mason mystery. Tom Clancy’s first novel was rejected by 26 publishers before it became the No. 1 bestseller “The Hunt for Red October,” leading to a publishing success story that continues today, with a new book on the lists despite the fact that Clancy’s been dead three and a half years.

Such stories are legion, especially in the writing world where we seem to wear our rejections like badges of honor. You’re nobody ’til somebody tells you you stink.

In each of those three books – Springsteen, Cronkite and Stewart – the key was not the failure but what they did with it.

Springsteen was brutally honest with himself, both as an artist and a person. He knew where he wanted to go with his music, and he cold-bloodedly looked at his strengths and weaknesses, then did what he had to do to improve until he not only was able to make a living as a musician, but become one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. In his personal life, at the prodding and insistence of his wife, he went into therapy and confronted the ghosts of his childhood that were standing in the way of his establishing meaningful relationships, of being the father he wanted to be. He spent years looking for a way to forge a loving relationship with the father he hated (and didn’t realize for many years that he had hated.) He turned himself into who he wanted to become by hard work and unflinching self-honesty.

There were a lot of people who looked for success in the burgeoning field of radio in the 1930s. Cronkite was one of the ones who made it – and you could argue he made it farther than anyone – by adhering to high ethical standards that he didn’t compromise for the sake of a job or a short-term gain. He also worked at his craft. He taught himself to speak in an easy, conversational style instead of the stereotypical staccato burst of the radio announcers of the day. He forced himself to read the news at 124 words a minute, while the average American speaks at about 165. That allowed listeners to really hear him, and to let the words come through so they could be comprehended. He was the master of the pause, not babbling inanely but allowing the moment to speak for itself.

And Stewart was simply never satisfied. When he took over “The Daily Show” it was already somewhat successful, and the writing staff made it very clear to him that no little failed MTV host was going to tell them how to do it. They were furious that he had his own ideas. So over the first couple of years there were fights and scenes until he was able to mold the show into something that fit , his sensibility. He never intended to create a cultural touchstone, never dreamed that someday he would be compared to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He just wanted the show give him a chance to say what he wanted to say, to not be canceled too early in the run, and to be funny.

And funny is serious business. It’s hard work. You don’t just go out for 22 minutes a night, four nights a week, and yuk it up. You have to have a point of view. Most days, after the 4 p.m. rehearsal, Stewart, the head writer and one or two others would retire to a small room behind the set and rewrite the show in the hour before they actually filmed it. Sometimes it would just be tweaks. More often than not, they would rewrite the entire show! Because it wasn’t enough for it to be good, it had to be as good as it could be. It had to mean something.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people turning failure into success, people who don’t allow a roadblock to become the end of the line, a dead end. They know what they want, and aren’t afraid to pick themselves up, learn their lessons and keep going until, by dint of hard work, they achieve their goal or surpass it.

Thomas Edison famously said, when trying to perfect the incandescent light bulb, that he hadn’t failed. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Being honest with yourself, recognizing what didn’t work and why, is part of charting the path to success. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

For Word Nerds: The Story of ‘&’

It just seemed too good, too pat, too cute to be true. It might be pure bunkum. But as near as I can tell after doing a little research, this is actually correct.

I was looking for something on dictionary.com the other day and they linked to an article on the old ampersand, you know, the “&” character that means “and.” Saving you two keystrokes that could be the difference between – well, between two things that don’t require much time. We’re talking typing here.

Maybe this is common knowledge, but it was news to me and way more interesting that you might think.

The ampersand character is actually more than 1,500 years older than the word “ampersand.” The character was developed by Latin scribes, linking the characters for “e” and “t” in the Roman alphabet. Those two letter form the Latin word “et,” which mean “and.” I suppose when you’re chiseling words into marble saving a character here and there is important.

Latin was the language of civilized people, really the language of civilization itself, for about 2,000 years, and the ampersand came along for the ride. Nothing surprising there. Pretty much the whole English language is stuff we got from somewhere else.

This is where it gets really interesting. “&” was actually part of the English alphabet for hundreds of years. As recently as the early 1800s, kids reciting their ABCs would finish with “w, x, y, z, and and.”

Except “and and” was awkward, to say the least. So instead, they used another Latin phrase, “per se,” which means “by itself,” or “as itself.” So they would say, “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.”

And that’s where the word comes from. “And per se and” became “ampersand.” Cool. Very cool.

That’s called a mondegreen. If you think the history of ampersand is interesting, look up mondegreen, you’ll love it. But do it before the girl with colitis goes by.

Words to Work By

It’s a little late in the week for a “quote of the week” or “work theme,” but here are today’s words of wisdom as I knuckle down.

“Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working.”Michael Crichton

Actually, that’s good advice every day, every week. “Inspiration” is for amateurs.

So get to it, John. Get to it.

The count: Yesterday, 652 words, a little behind my goal, but respectable.

Big News and Lots of Work

Bunch of things in the last two weeks – Here’s the best.

jack-and-caseyMy eldest son, Jack, sent me two photos on New Year’s Eve. One was of him and his girlfriend, Casey, a picture we’d requested a little while earlier. When decorating for the holidays we’d noticed that our family photos were getting a little dated – we like the older photos, but we didn’t have anything current.

The other was this. Somewhere in that gray blur is my first grandchild. Yeah, sometime in August I’m going to become a grandfather. Yippee!

I have never pujack-and-casey-21shed my kids to procreate. I’m not against the idea of grandchildren, far from it, I just want them to live their lives. But Tori has noticed for several years that I have been paying more attention to babies in the supermarket and elsewhere around town. Or on TV. It’s all she can do to keep me from playing with their toes. That ‘s not a good thing, touching some stranger’s baby, and I have refrained. Tori says I’ve lapsed into permanent “grandpa mode.”

What can I say, babies are cute. It seems like a pretty great way to start life.

I have friends my age who have been grandparents for 20 years or more. One who is a great grandparent. And that’s been fine for them. Like I said, I never was in a hurry for my kids to reproduce. I want them to get their lives in shape and on track, make sure they’re responsible for themselves before they become responsible for someone else.

Well, Jack is 37, a librarian in the Berkeley Public Library System in California. A respected professional and something of an authority on graphic novels and comics – he’s a regular panelist at San Diego Comicon. I think he’s good to go.

Tori and I have joked that whichever of our kids became parents first, that’s where we’d move. Well, cost of living in the Bay Area is crazy high, so that’ll take some planning (and perhaps winning the lottery. Or at least selling some movie rights.) But for the short term, it sure changes our travel plans for the year. We’ll definitely be heading to the West Coast in late summer or early fall to meet the little sprat. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m working on my new project and I like it a lot. You always do at this stage. It’s when you get about halfway to two-thirds in that things start getting hard. But this is a story with a lot of potential and I’m very excited about it.

Tori is arranging a time after school when I can read chapters to a group of students, whose feedback will help shape the story. That’s the same way it worked for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and it was very helpful.

I can’t even write the title here yet, because it pretty much gives the whole story. It’s not a pirate story. It’s something different. I want it to be equal parts funny and exciting. It’s a stretch for me, and that’s a good thing. What do you learn if you keep doing the same thing over and over?

Sadly, I didn’t get much work done on it that last two weeks. I just finished a 12-day stint of work for my day-job, which is a misnomer since most of it is done at night. Working desk shifts for the Source until 1 or 2 in the morning, then getting up at 6 to get Tori and Max off to school. By the time they’re out the door I’ve been kind of brain dead, so not much writing has been going on.

But my colleague is back and I’m on the job again. Looking forward to getting back to the adventure of Connor and Ronnie and their struggle to save their town from an unspeakable horror.

New Year Resolutions? No, I’ve Got Something Better

I don’t do resolutions, not per se.

I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.

a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.

b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.

And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.

But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.

What I have is a schedule.

I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.

I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.

Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.

I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.

If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.