How to Get Ahead In Business

By: MikeJan 7, 2016

Some Necessary Background

Long long ago, in a city not too far away, I was a cog in the corporate wheels. I worked for various government agencies, usually through the auspices of third-party contractors. However, unlike many corportate drones, I have a bad habit of noticing things. I can't help it, it's how I'm wired.

I've noticed things all my life. Growing up in the dark, remote forests of Montana, it pays to notice things. Things like the car being nearly out of gas before driving into a blizzard, or that there's a mama bear in the backyard, for example. People who don't notice things tend to encounter what my mother termed "tribulations" —other people call it freezing to death or getting mauled by a bear. Not wanting tribulations, I got pretty observant.

But corporate culture is stranger than Alice's wonderland. One of my first jobs said they didn't really care what schedule you worked, as long as you worked at least eight hours. I decided 6:00 am to 2:00 without a lunch was a dandy schedule, which left me a little time to enjoy the afternoon. Turns out the boss left at 5:00 every night, and assumed that anyone not still working was a slacker. I learned two things. He who leaves before the boss is soon to be unemployed, and never trust your boss.

Later I took a job in a secure computer facility. There were lots of elaborate security protocols. Fancy locks, electronic logs, all the trimmings of a good Hollywood cyber-espionage flick. They repeatedly stated that if any employee could find a security vulnerability they would offer a pay-bonus. Now, as hackers go, I'm about a three out of ten; just a little past script-kiddie first class. However, beneath the window dressing, this company had terrible security (which was sad, because they had a lot of sensitive data). So, I started filling out security vulnerability forms, documenting dozens of flaws, holes, and gaps in their coverage. I ended up getting summoned to a meeting with the high-muckitys, who were skeptical of several of the vulnerabilites I had highlighted. Thinking it would be illustrative, I hacked into a secure server to prove my point. Sitting there, with a root prompt quietly blinking on my laptop, I suddenly realized I had made a terrible mistake.

Not only do bosses lie about workplace rules, companies dedicate whole departments to things like ethics and security, when in fact they don't really value those things. They just want to be seen to value them. Also, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes will get you fired, and truth is no defense at all.

So eventually I learned to play along. Pretend-clap politely when the golden-boy in web development gets another giant reward for some bug-ridden javascript app. Attend your annual sexual harassment training (hey, that's what they called it!), and get yelled at for being male. Go to diversity training to learn about your evil white privilege. Return to the overwhelmingly white, male work floor scratching your head. Listen to bosses talk passionately about the ethical use of the corporate internet, apparently not realizing that the sysops have all seen their server logs. Don't say anything. Never say anything. In fact, it doesn't pay to think too much.

I made mistakes, but I seldom repeated a mistake. My salary went up, my job titles improved, and I even got to add cool initials after my name. Like I said, I notice things. And now I would like to share what I've learned.

A Summary of Findings

A quick glance at the career management section of any bookstore will show there are a lot of people charging good money for career advice. Hundreds of pages devoted to being a proper toady and achieving total buzzword compliance. As a hint, saying "Can we leverage our intangibles to achieve synergistic growth while exploiting hyper-local analytics to fully enable granular marketing?" doesn't really impress anybody over the age of ten. Honest. Those books are balderdash.

For years, I watched senior executives, looking for common factors. Every scientist knows that identifying variables with high covariation is the first step to establishing causality. What traits do senior executives share with one another, but not with middle-management or lowly employees? Everyone assumes it's intelligence. Obviously those dark-suited figures are smarter than everyone else, which is why they make the big bucks, right? Sadly, I ended up in a position where I routinely attended meetings with these folks, and I can assure you that their intelligence is generally underwhelming. Yeah, I was pretty disillusioned by that finding, too.

My next thought was education. And there's a correlation there. I mean, a lot of very rich people have ivy-league degrees. However, it's an incomplete correlation. Maybe half of the high-muckity's have ivy-league creds, but there's also a lot of ivy-league paper floating around the working-grunt cubicles. Still, if you've got the money to add a Harvard Business degree to your portfolio, it's not going to hurt your odds of success any. If I were a betting man, I'd say that ivy-league contacts are probably a better predictor of success than anything you get from the classroom, but I don't have the data to back that up, and as you'll soon see, it doesn't really matter.

There's something that's far more strongly correlated with success than ivy-league credentials, and it's easier to obtain: a great haircut. That's it, the great unifying commonality that virtually every senior executive shares. Great hair. They can be as dumb as a post, eat with their fingers, and have an associates degree from a school whose entire campus is a post-office box, but they all have great hair. Even the nearly-bald executives have a handful of perfectly-groomed hairs that never vary in length by more than a few micrometers.

I remember, years ago, all of the technology staff were invited to an 'all hands' meeting with the chief information officer of our giant multinational corporation. She would dispense words of wisdom from on high, and all of the high-priests of the server rooms were to be in attendance. The meeting was in a huge conference center. People had flown from all over the country, and the drinks and gossip flowed freely for hours before the big event. Finally the CIO ascended the podium. She was a beautiful woman, and could easily have been a Miss-America contestant from a prior decade. But her hair— her hair was spectacular. An elaborate coiffure of shining tresses that framed her face in a veritable proscenium of architectural impeccability. The summa perfectionis of the hairdresser's art. . .

And then she spoke, and it became inescapably obvious that she knew absolutely nothing about information technology or cyber-security, and that lack hadn't hampered her career in the slightest.

Concluding Thoughts

Great hair completely obviates the need for education, intelligence, or even a good golf game. It is the sine qua non of success in business. And that, dear reader, is a simple truth more valuable than all the buzzwords and mail-order MBA's ever printed.

Oh, and here's one additional thought. All the time I was enmeshed in the machinations of corporate America I was warned about workplace romance, particularly between boss and subordinate. This, I was assured, was of the devil, a wickedness that would draw the very fates to oversee one's downfall and destruction. For the past eight years or so, I have been married to my boss. She's the author, I write the web page. She's the horse-mistress, I build the fences. I am romantically involved with my boss. All doomsaying to the contrary, we've never been happier. As Jaimie and Adam would say, "Myth Busted!".

Now, get out there, get those follicles stimulated and your hair styled to perfection. And don't forget to bring some flowers for your boss. You can thank me later!

Of Books and Bones and Little Horses

By: Mike Feb 14, 2016

Fire Touched will be out next month. As always, Patty is biting her fingernails and worrying about how it will be received. I don't think she has a lot to worry about, it's a very good novel.

Speaking of biting her nails, the broken jaw is healing a bit more slowly than we'd hoped, and her teeth no longer meet properly. She just spent four hours in the dentist chair getting a root canal on a tooth that didn't survive the trauma, and there's an orthodontist (or possibly an oral surgeon) in her future. Still, since the accident could easily have been fatal it's hard to be too unhappy with the current issues.

I will, however, warn people coming to the signing that because her teeth don't work right, she tends to clamp her jaw, and often speaks through her teeth. She manages to sound like she's furiously angry all the time. It's caused a few misunderstandings in our marriage, when I assume that a woman gritting her responses through clenched teeth is angry with me. I mean, usually when she sounds like that it's time to stop talking and re-examine the past few minutes in hopes of discovering the colossal blunder from which I need to extricate myself. Now it just means her jaw hurts.

I mention this not because I'm hoping for pity, but as a warning to readers. Patty says she feels like her usual sunny and cheerful self, but she sounds like Yosemite Sam's understudy, and her smile is a lopsided grimace that reminds me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. With luck, things will improve before the book signing tour, but if not, remember that the angry-looking woman behind the table and speaking through gritted teeth won't actually bite you. In fact, she can't bite much of anything!

The Hand Bone Connected to the . . . oops

I had surgery on my right hand a few weeks ago. A bone in my right hand had gotten pretty arthritic, and the doctors decided to simply remove it. Who knew the body had a bunch of spare parts? The operation was a success, and my hand is recovering nicely. I can type again, and hold lightweight objects without any loss of dexterity (which probably means I was a klutz before the surgery). Anything more than a few pounds causes some pain, but it's getting better. Hooray for me!

Horse Farm and Carousel

The horse farm is a muddy wasteland right now, but things are warming up and drying out. We've already had the first foal of the year, a very handsome little colt. Patty adores them all, I tend to look at colts and see thousands of dollars going up in smoke. Patty tells me it's not about the money. I'm trying to keep the farm put together — it's about the money! Still, he's a cute little devil, and it's hard to be too unhappy.

We brought some new carousel figures back from California last fall, and had intended to paint them over the fairly short Tri-Cities winter. It's now spring, and we've just started painting on the same two horses we were working on last year. We're going to have to get faster, or we're never going to get a working carousel. I find painting a little frustrating. I see professional artists who effortlessly mix colors, and their brushwork is as smooth and graceful as figure skating. It doesn't work that way for me. I'm beginning to suspect I should just use colors straight out of the tube, since I keep getting muddy hues, or throwing away big globs of paint that didn't turn out the color I thought they should. Still, we're slowly getting better. Next year I might get more paint on the horse than I get on myself — it's a goal worth working towards, right?

The carousel building is basically stalled out until we get the money together for stucco. Some things can be done with a few dollars here or a few dollars there, but the stucco sort of needs to happen all at the same time, so we're saving up our nickels. We've made a little headway with the stained glass windows. There will be a series of five large stained glass windows across the top of the carousel bay. Here's the one that was just finished:

Stained Glass by Robert Oddy

Houston, We Have a Problem. . .

By: Mike March 8, 2016

About that Launch . . .

After weeks of nervous anticipation, launch day is finally here. Fire Touched will drop onto eReaders and computer screens across the country and be available in bookstores. We bounced up at about 6:30 to hit the road for the signing tour . . .

. . . and ran into a mailbox overflowing with angry letters. It turns out that somehow, someone dropped the ball over at Amazon (who just happens to be one of the largest booksellers out there). Preorders were cancelled. Price guarantees were not, apparently, guaranteed. People expecting to read the book during their morning commute were left bookless. The book is garnering a herd of one-star reviews from angry customers. In short, the book launch at Amazon is experiencing some technical problems.

We're aware of the problem. We've called our contacts at Penguin, who are apparently calling their contacts at Amazon. Sadly, there's nothing more we can do. Once the book is edited, it's basically out of our hands. We're going to launch for the book tour within the hour, and hope to see many of you in the next few days.

Thank you, one and all, for your patience. We sincerely hope that the book is good enough to make it worth your trouble.

ALERT: Signing Tour Issues

By: Mike March 12, 2016

We are stuck in Fenton Mo and won't be able to make the Murder by the Book signing this afternoon. We're terribly disappointed, and apologize in advance to all the readers.

We started this trip still dragging with the remnants of a terrible cold. Apparently traveling with a compromised immune system is stupid. We've picked up a nasty stomach flu. Patty and I spent last night taking turns throwing up, and there's just no way either of us can get on a plane today. Again, I'm very sorry. With a bit of luck we'll recover enough to make the final stops on the signing tour, but we'll make that decision later today.

And now, dear readers, Patty and I are going to crawl back in bed.

Signing Tour in Progress

By: Mike March 8, 2016

After getting off to a slightly-rocky start (at least for Kindle owners), Fire Touched is officially launched. The first salvo of reviews is in, and while no book is a hit with everybody, the overall response seems positive.

On the way to Seattle, we stopped by the farm where three of Patty's little fillies are being trained for show. We were treated to a little show with several beautiful horses all flawlessly groomed. Patty was in heaven. I swear this is the best anti-stress treatment available for her. When life hands you lemons, go play with a pony.

We arrived in Seattle, and immediately headed down to Pike Street Market for a little retail therapy. Usually, that means cinnamon rolls or a t-shirt. Today, the girls were hunting for big-game: dress clothes for the signing. The good news is that they were successful in their quest. The bad news is that the Visa is uncomfortably warm in my wallet. A cooldown period is strongly indicated.

So, Patty is relaxed, and has new finery to wear. Now she and Ann are sipping a soda/coffee respectively, and eating cinnamon rolls. Life is good, and we're looking forward to the signing tonight.

We're #1!

By: Mike March 17, 2016

Yesterday afternoon the phone rang, and Anne Sowards informed Patty that Fire Touched was officially a #1 New York Times bestselling title. To say we're excited is an understatement. It's incredibly gratifying that Patty's stories have found such a supportive group of readers. Ten or fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable for a little genre fiction book about werewolves and vampires to appear on the NYT list, let alone top it. It's Saint Paddy's day, and even though we're wearing plenty of green we're pinching ourselves to make sure we're not just dreaming. Thank you, one and all, for your support. We are humbled and grateful.

Today, we got even more good news. Fire Touched is apparently #2 on the USA today list, which includes all books. We're officially walking on air around here. Once again, thank you!

Health, Hotels and Missed Signings

So, the bad news is that we were only mostly-healthy when we left on the signing tour. And, of course, mostly-healthy quickly became too sick to travel, much to our dismay.

As luck would have it, we ended up spending a couple of days in bed at the only hotel on our itinerary that was sub-standard. Patty's publisher has generally been amazing at picking very nice hotels. The trip is exhausting, and it's amazing how much difference a great bed and the ability to order some food at midnight makes.

This particular hotel was very odd. The outside was beautiful and the lobby was incredible. The lobby was huge, and lavishly decorated with myriad artistic touches. All of the staff were impeccably turned out and it looked like a class act all the way. In contrast, the room looked like something you'd find in a Motel-8 that had fallen upon hard times. Very hard times. The mattress sagged like a hammock and rather than replace it some enterprising soul had tried to revive it by topping it with a tick filled with a some sort of padding that had clumped into irregularly-shaped balls and rolls. There was no fridge, no microwave, and the bathroom was equipped with single-ply tissue that felt like they'd stolen it from the nearest highway rest stop. It was just sort of mind-boggling that our room and that lavish facade were part of the same hotel. The silver lining is that, when we got to the next hotel and I laid down on the bed I thought I might expire from pleasure. It certainly put everything in perspective!

We've arrived safely home, and of course we're sick again. Still, we're recovering, and being sick in our own home, in familiar and safe surroundings doesn't seem too bad. Life is good. We're richly blessed, and just smart enough to recognize it.

We're working to figure out a way to atone for missing two signings. We've come up with a tentative plan that has promise, but I'll need to check some prices and do some homework before we announce anything. We haven't forgotten about the stores or the readers we disappointed.

Make-Up Signing In Las Vegas

By: Mike March 26, 2016

Patty and I were unable to attend two of the signings that were scheduled earlier this month. We've already tendered apologies, and we'll be sending T-shirts and book plates to Murder By The Book in Houston to make amends. By dint of some happy coincidence and a helpful bookstore manager, we've managed to re-schedule the Las Vegas signing. So, we'll be at the Barnes & Noble on Rainbow Blvd at 5:30 PM on April 15. Hopefully there will not be any further catastrophes! Thank you to everyone involved for being so kind and understanding, we know that some people were traveling a considerable distance to attend.

On Forest Guardians

By: Mike March 26, 2016

A few days ago someone posted a link to our Facebook with the following image of a tree. It's a gnarled and ancient thing, and with the addition of a couple of eyes it is transformed into a world-class scarecrow. Well, scare-something anyway. Seriously, if I were coming around the corner and saw that, I would no longer need to worry about how many miles to the next rest-stop.

This is a scary tree.

By sheer coincidence, we've had a problem with people trespassing on our land lately. There's an old canal road that meanders across the southern border of our land, and I haven't found the time to put a perimeter fence across that portion of our property (remember, setting a fence post in this area is not a task to be undertaken lightly!). Since the property isn't clearly marked, we've had a number of folks using our south pasture as a four-wheel-drive park, picnic spot, or whatever.

After seeing this amazing "guardian spirit" tree, I thought that perhaps we could do something similar to secure our southern border. Hey, it's got to be easier than putting in a fence, right? The problem is that we don't have big, menacing-looking ancient forest giants, we just have bunch-grass and sagebrush. Still, some of the sagebrush is eight feet tall, and it can't hurt to try. I bought a couple of craft-store eyeballs, and wandered down to create a vision of terror that would send would-be trespassers scampering for the safety of their bedrooms. This was the result of my labors:

This is ALSO a scary tree, right?

Patty says I should start building the fence this fall. . .

Building Castles in the Sky

By: Mike May 14, 2016

My apologies for the long gap between posts. I was sick for much of the spring, and summer caught us unprepared. We've been working long hours getting the farm built and working on Silence Fallen, the next book in the Mercy Thompson series

The good news is that the book is nearly done, there's a freshly-erected loafing shed in the lower pastures and the hay barn and tack room have been reinforced, re-sided, and given a fresh coat of paint. With the lawns mowed and the trees pruned, this place is almost presentable. It's important that our little farm look presentable, because we're having it appraised this week in preparation to taking out a loan.

For the record, I hate borrowing money. We finished college deep in debt, and had some really lean years before were were finally debt-free. I remember the struggle all too well. So why are we trying to get a loan? That's the topic of today's post.

A Quiet Little Nook

There are authors who write best in isolation, and others who prefer the energy of a crowd. There are some who write while walking, or standing, or even flying on an airplane. I've talked with authors who claim that their best writing is at a Science Fiction convention, where the energy and hype provide energy and inspiration. To paraphrase the Princess Bride, "Author's methods are diverse. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something". So, while recognizing that there are many paths to success, Patty prefers solitude.

Finding the perfect spot to talk to your imaginary friends isn't always easy. Writing at home is hard. Home is full of distractions. Is your heroine in a slump? Maybe you should watch a few minutes of TV while your subconscious sorts it out. Is you plot not thickening properly? Well, it was probably time to run a load of wash and vacuum the carpets anyway. It takes real discipline to write from home.

For authors who don't mind a little hustle and bustle, the coffee shop or bookstore may provide a viable alternative. For authors, like Patty, who want to sing along with their music, scratch what itches, and maybe test some dialog out loud (while possibly carrying out multiple parts of the conversion), public places are best avoided. There is a fine and blurry line between creativity and schizophrenia which the other patrons may not fully appreciate.

For many authors, an office away from home is ideal, and for several years we rented an office in town. The short commute reinforced the idea that this space is for working and that space is the one with dirty dishes in the sink. While in the office, you write.

Here in Benton City, we ran into two small problems. First, the commute to town was a little longer than we wanted, which, in addition to wasting gas and time, made it difficult for us to take lunch together. Second, her office was in a building owned by a very industrious entrepreneur. He sold metal buildings, cars, farm equipment and offered various other services. He was far too busy to spend any time in his office, but Patty was clearly visible working at her desk in the office next door. It was natural for visitors to assume that Patty was his secretary and and ask her to leave messages, schedule appointments, or make a quick photocopy. The owner of the office building was, I think, delighted with his cleverness in acquiring a secretary who not only worked for free but paid rent. Patty was less enthusiastic.

Dreams are Free, Construction is Not

We decided to build our very own little office out in the lot beside our house. Her commute would be a quick walk across the yard, and we could probably even write off the building as a business expense. A small, simple office would be an excellent investment.

From such simple, rational decisions spring forth the seeds of hubris. If we were going to build another building, we should add a small shop for my tools. In all of our years together we have never parked a car in garage. Garages, when we've had one, have always been filled with tools. If we built a shop, the garage might actually have room for cars, and wouldn't that be wonderful? Our imaginary building quietly doubled in size.

At about this time we were going through a hellish renovation on the house, and while grasping for a happy thought, decided to build a carousel 1. You know, the old-fashioned ones with hand-carved wooden horses that go up and down. If we were going to build a carousel, we would need a place to paint carousel horses. A dedicated space with good light, and maybe a big double sink nearby for cleanup. Another imaginary room was added to our imaginary building.

Naturally we would want to store the carousel indoors. In our dreams, the carousel wouldn't be one of those little portable units that the traveling carnivals use, it would be a full sized park carousel. You know, something fifty feet or so in diameter and about twenty-five feet tall. And where do you store such a monstrosity? Why in the imaginary carousel bay you just added to your imaginary building, of course!

The astute reader will have noticed that, at this time, our imaginary building is not exactly the small dedicated office building we started with. Perhaps I should have written this all down years ago, and hired an astute reader to point that out to me, because we sort of ignored that subtle difference, and jumped right into drawing up plans.

Plans are fun and wonderful things. You sit down with a skilled architect who doesn't laugh at your ridiculous ideas like all your friends would. Instead, he starts taking notes and looking thoughtfully at the plans you've drawn in crayon. Oh sure, he might mention that the indoor water slide over an alligator pit presents some design challenges, and the teleporter required to access the third floor will need to get passed to engineering, but he can certainly draw it all up right and proper2.

And then, somehow, you find yourself holding a sheaf of papers with detailed plans and an engineer's stamp for your building. Your bank account may be a little lighter, but so what? You're building your dream just like Carnegie, Rockefeller and the giants of the gilded age! Now all you have to do is hire a builder, get some permits, and make that dream a reality. Most people come to their senses after talking with a builder and getting a construction estimate. Some of us go the builder and ask about cheaper materials (maybe the walls don't need to be hand-polished Italian marble after all) and the feasibility of building in stages, as the budget will allow.

And Here We Are

We broke ground almost four years ago, and our wonderful contractor has been as good as his word, working when there's cash available, and then buttoning it all up tightly during the lean times. The dream isn't done, but the shell of it hulks in the side-yard, far larger than it looked in those early plans and sketches.

A Little Office in the Side Yard

Meanwhile, Back in Reality . . .

When Patty gave up her little office in Benton City, she needed a quiet place to work. I suggested we buy an office trailer as a temporary solution. There's a place in town that rents office trailers to construction firms. They're not fancy, but they're warm and dry. No plumbing, no kitchen, and few amenities, just a place to read the blueprints and store some tools. We bought one that was getting a bit long in the tooth. The doors were sagging, the windows didn't close well, and the siding was in rough shape, but it was cheap, and available immediately. Patty looked a little dubious, but I promised it would only be temporary3.

The Office Trailer

Patty's now been in the office trailer for six years. For most of a year, we lived in it. She says it's still haunted by the ghosts of those memories. Last year, several woodpeckers drilled holes all over the outside of the building. The windows still don't seal well, but several large spiders have taken up residence and make quick work of most of the insects that wander inside. You have to fight through the apricot tree to get to the trailer, and only one of the doors works. But wait, the inside is even better!

The Office Trailer

Half of the building is dedicated to holding goods for the web store. Bins of shirts are stacked practically to the ceiling, along with shipping materials.

The Fortress of Solitude

The other half of the building is where Patty spends her time. By the way, that green color? Yeah, she picked out a swatch in one of the big box stores, and thought it looked pretty good. I painted the room as requested, but it's a little overwhelming. Patty has tried to hide it by covering most of the walls with book shelves.

To be fair, she usually keeps her office pretty clean. However, the end of a novel is always a chaotic period with long hours, and the office tends to suffer for a month or so. Here's a closeup up her desk during crunch time. Notice the many spent bottles of "Author Fuel". The life of an author is glamorous, no doubt about it.

Livin' la Vida Loca!

With the office trailer deteriorating rapidly, we need to either fix the new offices up so they can be used, or start putting money into fixing the trailer. Patty seems convinced that the larger, nicer offices on the second floor of the new building would be a better solution, and every day spent in the dusty, bug-ridden trailer strengthens her resolve. . .

All of which explains why I've been busy fixing the rest of the farm, and waiting for an appraisal as a prelude to taking out a loan. I'm convinced that most historical disasters started out with a simple, reasonable plan and a person with an active imagination.

1) The carousel story is long and convoluted. Suffice it to say that our sanity was probably questionable at that point in time.

2) At this point, for anyone considering designing or remodeling a home, may I heartily recommend Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House? It's a 1948 Cary Grant Comedy that perfectly encapsulates the experience.

3) I didn't lie. On a geological time scale the office trailer is temporary. It will probably have crumbled into dust long before the next ice age, and certainly before the sun goes nova. See? Temporary. It's not my fault she interpreted that as "only a few months, a year at the outside".

One Man's Trash

By: Mike June 18, 2016

There are many joys to living in the country. There are also a few drawbacks. For instance, there is no weekly curbside trash collection. Trash collection, indoor plumbing, and complaining about taxes are the foundational pillars of modern civilization, so this is a loss not to be taken lightly.

Actually, there is a rather costly trash collection service that we could employ. However, they would only allow a single bin of trash to be collected from a location about a half-mile from our home. In place of their services, we have pressed an aging horse trailer into use as a garbage scow. So, a battered yellow trailer sits, day after day, some distance from the front of our home, slowly filling with a ripening amalgamation of householdtrash and various bits of detritus and debris from the farm. At some point, either the trailer is completely full, or the air becomes sufficiently suffused with the redolent boquet of waste that corrective action is required.

The Richland dump, er, Sanitary Landfill is about fourteen miles away. So I hitch up the stinky trailer, put on my gloves, and make the odoriferous journey. At the entrance to the dump, one is required to park on a scale, and make arrangements to dispose of your cargo. Household trash is one price, landscape waste another, and there are various surcharges for tires, paint, household chemicals, and several other things. Naturally, things like appliances and metals are handled in distinct locations of the facility, so I may need to make several stops to get everything properly sorted. Oh, and of course, payment must be made before proceeding.

Generally speaking, I back the trailer into the transfer station, makes a hasty job of emptying the trailer while trying to breathe through my mouth and think thoughts of faraway places, and depart driving like the lead in an 80's action movie until my eyes quit watering and my nose begins to function normally. The very definition of a "Quick and Dirty" job.

Yesterday was garbage day. I hitched the trailer, and trundled my way to the dump. I chatted briefly with the nice lady in the receiving office, and paid my fees. I was just backing the trailer into an unoccupied slot in the transfer station when a little three-wheeled cart zipped up to my window and a stern-looking woman with a clipboard (a universal symbol of authority) hopped out of it and motioned for me to roll down the window.

She looked my, admittedly-disreputable, trailer up and down, and apparently found nothing to her liking, then turned her gaze upon me and repeated the procedure. From her expression, I was also found wanting. "Where are you from?", she spoke without preamble, and with all the warmth of liquid helium.

In case I haven't mentioned it, I have authority issues. It's yet another widely-recognized flaw in my character. I am, sadly, also very keenly aware that authority figures can bring all manner of unpleasant consequences down upon the heads of those who fail to bow and scrape properly. So, when confrontedwith an authority figure, any authority figure, my brain immediately fabricates acerbic and derisive responses to their inquiries. Another bit of my brain begins formulating obsequious responses replete with honorifics. My id and ego gang up to endorse the sarcastic commentary, and the superego begins banging his gavel and screaming for prudence and moderation. The space between my ears is suddenly very busy and very chaotic, and sounds something like this:

Where am I from? Well, that's a theological question if ever I've heard one. And, like most questions of theology, the answer is complex. Even in the Christian religions I am either the result of an original sin, and thus a tainted entity desperately in need of redemption or a heavenly offspring trailing celestial glories behind me, or virtually anything between those extremes. Of course, each of the major world religious traditions has their own explanation of where we come from. Dropping the metaphysics, I suppose parts of me, at least the heavy elements, are the remnants of dead stars,although their location is a little hard to pin down. The lighter elements, presumably, were present with our sun and solar system formed, though alternate explanations are certainly possible . . . And, anthropologically speaking, I believe "somewhere in Africa" is still the current answer.

The other part of my brain is saying, "Good afternoon officer, it is truly a pleasure to be called upon to assist in the enforcement of our beloved municipal codes, and might I say how gracefully you dismounted from your conveyance? Surely you are either a gymnast or a dancer, though I suppose that grace could also come from extensive martial arts training. As for me, I hail most recently from the quiet hamlet of Benton City, where we are all staunch supporters of the laws and policies of our state, county and local leaders."

After a furious internal debate, my beleaguered brain tries to combine the best of both responses, and after a two-second pause I mumble, " Benton City". And that's all that comes out. I sit there like a simpleton, unable to elaborate further because my id, ego, and superego are throwing things at each other and fighting to get to get control of the microphone. I want to bang my head on the horn, and a quick glance confirms that clipboard lady is not impressed with my rapier wit. Her frown deepens a bit, and she asks, "Do you have your receipt?"

Of course I have my receipt, they just gave it to me ten seconds ago. Heck, she probably watched them hand it to me. Now were did I put it? I look around the cab frantically. I didn't set in on the seat, or on the dash. I usually throw trash on the floor of the back seat, and the floor is awash with crumpled papers and wrappers. It definitely time to head to the dump, which is exactly what I'm trying to do! Where is that blasted . . . and then I find it in my pocket, crumpled into a tiny, wrinkled ball. I hand it to the nice officer, who takes it dubiously and tries to read it.

While she's squinting at the crumpled receipt, I'm looking around in disbelief. I mean, I'm at the landfill, right? What does she think I'm going to do, sneak in and steal the garbage? Do they have a problem with that around here? Maybe she's worried that I somehow snuck past the big gate and the chain-link fence. I picture a crazed lunatic driving a truck and trailer like my own, revving his engine and fishtailing wildly down the drive then swerving violently to crash though the chain link fence in a cloud of dust like Bo Duke. And then what? Drive nonchalantly up to the transfer station and hurridly unload the garbage while bits of broken fence rain to earth and the dust slowly settles behind? I mean, the gate is only like a hundred feet away, and that's the only way in. And so I watch her study the little piece of paper that I hope proves I'm an upstanding citizen and not a nefarious garbage thief trying to steal a full trailer of sun-baked and rotting trash.

If she manages it read it, her eyes are sharper than mine, but she's ready with her next question. This is like some demented quest game where the hero has to answer the riddles of the fairy queen.

She jerks a thumb back at the trailer, and asks, "You got any chemicals back there?"

And we're off the the mental races again. I've got a long-unused degree in chemistry, but suddenly it's in overdrive. "Let's see, we've got lots and lots of cellulose. That's a polysaccharide, of course. And the trash bags are doubtless polyethylene, but they'll also contain plasticizers, primarily esters and pthalates, and possibly colorants as well. And the fast-food wrappers are polystyrene, and there's waxed paper, which means we've got carboxylic acids and some long-chain hydrocarbons. Waxes are just a garbage-heap of big organics, so we probably have alkanes, ketones, aldehydes, fatty acids and more right there. And then there's the rotting food — it's a veritable library of organic compounds. Obviously, my trailer is just loaded with chemicals!

I don't even let the obsequious half of my brain get started, and just mutter "No Ma'am".

I'd never survive a real interrorgation, it's obvious even to this woman that I'm thinking way too hard to come up with such simple responses, and she's gotten suspicious. Her eyes narrow and she jerks her thumb back behind me again, and says "What about tires? You got any tires back there?"

And my id and ego are off doing their Dumb and Dumber act. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror shows that, indeed, the back axel of my truck is still attached, and the tires are firmly in place. The trailer, likewise, has four tires clearly visible to anyone who cares to look. A closer inspection would reveal that both truck and trailer also carry spare tires. That's eight tires right there, and I should obviously inform her that I've got eight tires "back there" right? Id and ego are chanting in unison, "C'mon do it! She handed you the perfect straight line, and you'd only be telling the truth!" Someday, they're going to get me shot.

The officer clears her throat, and I realize I've got a stupid grin on my face. She's pretty sure she's being mocked somehow, and she doesn't like it a bit. I sober up quickly and say, "No Ma'am. No tires." I smile at her lamely, and she's doubtless wondering how on earth I ever got a driver's license and what sort of drugs I'm on. Smooth. That's what I am.

And so it went for a half dozen questions, until I was finally allowed to go offload my cargo of trash. It's a brave new world out there folks, and even the dump is employing loss-prevention officers. Stay safe, stay indoors, and read a good book!

All I Ask Is A Tall Ship

By: Mike July 17, 2016

Our lives revolve around two things: books and horses. The books are understandable, after all, that's how we keep the bills paid. The horses are occasionally a cause of some consternation.

Patty steadfastly maintains that the horses are a business venture. We've invested in broodmares, vet care, horse trailers etc. We've spent even more time and money in facilities (though I maintain that there's a problem with building sweat equity when all the sweat is mine). Patty gets to point out the fields and say, "Let's put another horse shelter over there, and then move that fence back a few feet." I get to make it happen . . .

The payoff for all of this time and effort is supposedly a second line of income. Each time we sell a foal Patty proudly displays her "income". So far, however, if you account for costs we've never managed to sell a horse for more than we've invested in it.

In her defense, Patty is doing a fine job of competing against farms with vastly bigger budgets, and people are starting to take note. Her confidence is not entirely unwarranted, and she might eventually turn a profit. Possibly tens of dollars!

Whatever the financial reality, the horses remain Patty's passion. Occasionally, after yet another horse-related expense has devastated our discretionary income, I throw a temper tantrum and stomp around the house ranting about how we should sell the blasted horse farm and simplify our lives.

Over the past couple of years, I've begun to fantasize about selling everything, taking the tidy stack of money that would result, and buying the biggest sailboat we can. I've watched a few of those travel-channel specials about the folks who leave their noisy apartment in the city and end up cruising the Caribbean on a sleek sailboat. The shows always end with the smiling couple, now bronzed from sun with hair artfully tousled by the sea breezes, holding hands and sailing into a flawless sunset for ports unknown. Hey, as fantasies go, it's a good one, right?

Back in the real world, I don't know a thing about sailing. Oh, it's true, I can sing a lot of semi-authentic sea chanties. And I'm no stranger to the ocean: I've been on two charted sailboat rides around the bay while visiting in California. Of course, the captain wouldn't let me touch anything, but it didn't look too complicated!

There was also the time I went sailing on a tiny catamaran my folks own on their little lake in Montana. My father took me out for a quick trip on the lake. We had a stiff wind, the water was as smooth as glass, and the little boat was zipping along at a surprisingly good clip. My father asked me to adjust a line, and without thinking I jumped from the center platform onto the nose of one of the floats. All two-hundred-plus pounds of me, and I did mention it was a tiny boat right?

Stupidity completed, physics took over. My landing was sufficient to drive the front of the float under water, effectively bringing it to a screeching halt. Since the boat was moving at speed, all of that kinetic energy had to go somewhere. Newton was vindicated once again, and the boat cartwheeled spectacularly across the lake. As I was getting thrown into the lake, I saw my father some distance above me, hurtling through the air as though he'd been launched from a catapult. Catamaran. Catapult. In hindsight, there's obviously a reason they sound similar.

Given my vast experience and sailing prowess, I'm exactly the sort of salty sea-dog who should sell everything, spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on whatever boat the smiling salesman recommends, and sail off into the sunset (being very careful not to jump on the front, er, bow of the boat). What could possibly go wrong?

And so, when things go badly on our little patch of dust and rock, I stomp around the house and talk about selling the whole thing and buying my sailboat. I occasionally even browse sailboat related classifieds as I'm nursing whatever new bump or contusion I've acquired from farm work. Would I be better with a sloop or a ketch? Is fifty feet long enough, or should I look for something even bigger? What the heck is Bermuda-rigged?

Patty just waits for me to simmer down and then says, "You can buy a boat if you want to, but I'm not getting rid of the horses, so make sure to get a boat with a deck big enough for them, OK?" She's insufferably smug.

Recently, however, I found a solution. The British Navy is selling a slightly-battered Aircraft Carrier! It's like an answer to my prayers. Oh, sure, it may cost a little more than the sailboats I've been looking at, and I'm a little concerned about the fuel cost. It apparently operates on gas, but they didn't mention how many miles-per-gallon the new owner might expect. If the ship has it's own desalination plant, I could set up sprinklers and grow grass on deck for the horses. There's even room for my tractor!

I can imagine the two of us, hand in hand and bronzed from the sun, standing on the bridge of our aircraft-carrier while the horses gallop and cavort on the long grassy deck as the sun sets into the Caribbean. Yes, I definitely need to make a couple of phone calls!

For Sale: A Boat with Room for Horses.

A Stranger In a Strange Land

By: Ann PetersAug 11, 2016

Patty's mild-mannered assistant, Ann is the alter-ego of an intrepid and undauntable world traveler. Her signature purple suitcase (which we suspect is actually sentient) is also a world-traveler. Sadly, their itineraries seldom coincide. Last week, she and her luggage where chasing each other across much of Europe, and she had decided to share her latest adventure with us.

Home, sweet home! Germany was lovely, but the trip was very much less so. I have determined that I am under a curse, and am seeking a nice Catholic priest who will bless me and drench me with holy water, even though I am a Protestant. And maybe a smudge stick or two wouldn't hurt, either.

My luggage was lost on my last trip to Germany. You wouldn't think it would happen again, would you? No such luck. I had to collect my suitcase and recheck it in Frankfurt after going through Customs. I waved goodbye to it at the Air Berlin desk in Frankfurt, but it did not arrive with me in Berlin. Somehow they lost my big purple suitcase (I believe in accessorizing to match my hair) for four days. How can you lose a purple suitcase??? So each day after waiting fruitlessly to hear from the airline, I went out to buy another set of clothing and undergarments — sorry, Air Berlin, I can't wear the same clothes for four flippin' days - that is nasty!

We had a lot of fun in Berlin - I looooooooove me some castles; we went to lots of them! (Segue: we need a castle in the Tri-Cities! Or a pyramid. We're in a desert, and deserts have pyramids, right? We should have a castle AND a pyramid - come on, Chamber of Commerce, let's get on that!) We went to museums and exhibits; the Body Works exhibit at the Menschen Museum almost made me regret our visit to the Fassbender & Rausch Chocolaterie, and all the good German beer and sausages I had consumed. Almost. So lots of fun stuff with the kids all over Berlin!

It was the Hell Trip Home that did me in. It started with the very early flight from Berlin to Frankfurt, which was delayed. A lot. The three hour layover time disappeared, and by the time we landed, changed terminals (a looooooong way away) and RAN through all three security points, we arrived huffing and puffy and sweat pouring off our desert accustomed bodies (it is extremely humid over there, not used to it) only to find that our flight had already taken off - without nine of us. So we had to go back through all the security points to exit, change terminals again, and cry at the Air Berlin officials. Many hours later, we had our new flight itinerary in hand and at a hotel for the night - without our luggage. And in our now nasty, sweaty clothes. And guess what? This hotel was in the middle of an industrial area - no stores nearby. No gift shop. And no toiletries. They had soap in the bathrooms, and that was it. We had our carry on bags, but they only contained our souvenirs, our prescription medications, and my sauerkraut (more on that later). My grandson and I took turns in the bathroom (which had a clear glass, sliding door, so no privacy) bathing and washing our underwear with soap and water and then drying them with the hair dryer. We got up at 4:00 in the morning to try again.

The first hotel shuttle was at 4:45, so we were out there at 4:15 to make sure we got on. There was an orderly line of folks, and everyone was polite and civil until the shuttle bus arrived. And then all hell broke loose - it was worse than Black Friday! Even though we were at the front end of the line, my grandson and I got shoved back by the suddenly savage and bloodthirsty fiends who were determined to get on that bus; the bus driver came out and I thought he was going to demand good behavior, but instead he said the bus was full and closed the doors and took off, while the rest of us stood around with our mouths open, wondering what just happened. We finally caught the second shuttle, but by then I was starting to stress again, because our plane was departing at 7:15 and it takes a loooooong time to check in at Frankfurt. We made it with fifteen minutes to spare; not enough time to buy a fresh t-shirt or jeans in any of the shops, as I had hoped, but at least we didn't get left behind this time. So we thought we could finally relax, as the worst was behind us. We were headed to Paris to catch our flight to SeaTac, yay!

Not so yay. This plane was also late. See what I mean? I am cursed! We got in to Charles de Gaulle Airport, past the scheduled arrival time. We were supposed to change terminals, check in and get our boarding passes, and get through security. All in an hour and a half. We ran. We have bruises from where our carry on bags bumped and bounced. We made it to the other terminal - and stopped. It was backed up and we couldn't get through, because the police were apparently searching for someone and all the area had been evacuated. There were soldiers everywhere with machine guns. For a couple of folks from Tri-Cities, Washington, that was scary stuff, which is why I decided not to confront them and explain why they should let us pass to go get on our plane. I thought about it very hard, but their white knuckled grips on their guns and nervous expressions gave me second thoughts. Finally we got the all clear and ran some more. We checked in and got our boarding passes; the Delta folks told us to ask Security to let us through because our plane was boarding. We asked. Security said no. He looked about as understanding as the police, so I didn't argue with him. I didn't kick him in the ankle or anywhere else, either. But I wanted to.

And once again we got in a freaking long line, just to get our passports checked. We finally got checked and got in another line for security, which was about five miles long. Okay, I'm exaggerating. The line was only three miles long. At that point, I snapped. Oh, hell, no! Our plane was leaving in a half hour, and I was A Desperate Woman. I have never, ever, ever in my entire life done anything like this before (I am polite in real life, honest!), but I grabbed my grandson by the hand, held on to my carry on bags with the other, and I hauled him under the ropes and around and THROUGH all those hordes of people. I still can't believe I did that; it was so incredibly rude! But I did it, hollering at the top of my lungs "I'm so sorry, our plane is boarding now, please excuse us, I'm so sorry!" One guy tried to shame me and said "our plane is boarding now, too," but it didn't work. I just told him to grab hold and come with us. I did not have time to look back to see his expression, but I'm guessing it wasn't a nice one. I'm sorry mister, really! Or in France, I guess it would be Je suis désolé, monsieur. Mais je le ferais sans hésiter une seconde!

We got to security, and they dumped out our bags. Literally. Pawed through everything. Opened our prescription bottles and shoved them back inside without the lids on, so they spilled. And. They. Stole. My. Sauerkraut!!!!! This sauerkraut made it through Berlin Security. It made it through all three checkpoints in Frankfurt — THREE freaking times!!! But in France, they told me it wasn't allowed, and they took it! I personally think the reason the security people there were so cranky is because they were hungry, and I hope they felt better after eating their ill gotten gains. Actually, I totally lie. I hope it gave them serious and urgent digestive issues and disgusting gaseous emissions from their nether regions. Jerks!

Again, no time to stop at a shop for fresh undies or t-shirts. Or toiletries. We were in Paris, and no time for shopping. Was this fair? It so was not!!! But I have to say, my urge to return to Paris for a second travel experience is pretty much in the negative zone right now. If I want to shop, I'll hit the mall or go to Amazon! Take that, Paris — I will spend my tourist dollars elsewhere, where they don't steal sauerkraut!

We made it to the final security checkpoint at the gate (if anyone was youtubing, that was me hollering "don't let the plane leave without us" and fantasizing about a buff, handsome and heroic flight attendant physically pushing on the nose of the plane to keep it from departing). I don't know if it was our wild eyed looks of mania and panic, but they searched our bags AGAIN, and also searched my grandson's person — who looks like a young Harry Potter, by the way, not a drug runner or terrorist. They took his passport and held it, probably to prevent the scary grandma from tucking her grandson under her arm and running for the plane. They did look nervous when they finally gave me back his passport; they were wise to be nervous. My gritted teeth were the only thing saving them from savage bites on the knee caps (I'm told that's the height I can reasonably expect to reach). And since I hadn't been able to brush my teeth in two days, those bites would have been toxic.

So we finally made it onto the flight to SeaTac, whoot! My grandson and I settled down in comfort into the teeny, tiny little seats (thankfully we are not big people), buckled in, and let our aroma waft into the cabin area. Remember, it had been two days of little sleep, little food and no toothbrushes or deodorant. All the panicked running about and stress sweat had permeated our persons and dispelled any pretense of personal hygiene — the shower the night before was an exercise in futility. I am truly sorry for the people who had to share that flight with us; it can't have been pleasant. Blame it on Air Berlin who started this whole thing. Also blame it on the security people; especially the ones who stole my sauerkraut. Yes. I hold grudges. I hope Karma bites them in the butt real soon. Thieves! They stole My Precious!!!

The beverage cart came around in very good time. I told the attendant that I was badly in need of alcohol. She gave me a glass of wine filled to the brim. I am assuming it was generosity on her part at the sight of a very frazzled woman. I'm sure it had nothing to do with not wanting to come near our aroma again. Really.

We arrived almost eleven hours later in SeaTac. And of course, The Curse held true, and this flight was also late. I really, really, really need to find a nice Catholic priest! Fortunately, at SeaTac you don't have to exit the gates if you have connecting flights, and thank you God for that! After we got through Customs (who didn't like my nice German soaps but finally decided they were not really explosive devices, and really, we smelled like we really needed to use them), the wonderful folks at Alaska took our bags right back, checked us in, and sent us to our gate. Where we made it with ten minutes to spare, yay! Once again, not enough time to buy any fresh undergarments or toiletries...but thankfully, this trip was only forty five minutes.

Forty five loooooooong minutes. No beverage service because of the turbulence. I dry swallowed my Dramamine, but it was still a close call. Flying through the nasty wind storm and the smoke from the many fires in the region made the plane shake like a kid in a bouncy castle. My grandson was edging away from me; he said the green in my face made him nervous. Ingrate.

And then - we arrived at the Tri-City airport! My husband met us there and immediately recoiled. I am assuming his offer to let us drive home in the back of the truck was a joke. Right? I am so grateful we have two bathrooms at home; my grandson and I each took one and had made good use of the showers. And then I threw our clothes in the washing machine and washed them with Pinesol. Twice. I am not kidding.

We are home safe. And I still miss my sauerkraut.

It'll be easy, I said!

By: MikeOct 13, 2016

Somehow summer has slipped away and fall ambushed me while my back was turned. I'm not sure where the time goes. We're always busy, and always running behind. How is this possible?

I was looking at my feet, pensively pondering this perpetually-perturbing puzzle, when I remembered some sage advice: To see what has eluded you, look beyond your current focus. Well, something like that anyway. Since I was currently looking at my feet, I squinted a little (my eyes are older than they once were) and tried to look beyond them. It took a little while, but in a sudden rush of inspiration, I saw what I'd been missing. . . the floor.

Beneath my feet was a new tile floor, missing only grout. It's the latest in a never-ending series of projects, and not a particularly impressive effort. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood how time (and money) manage to mysteriously slip away.

We're trying to focus our efforts on completing the office building for Patty and her trusty assistant Ann. I decided that learning to do some basic tile-work would be a good way to contribute. There's a lot of tile work to be done: the kitchen, bath, and stairway all need tile and the installation costs are prohibitive. I know a fine gentleman named Cruz, who has worked for us periodically over the past several years. He's skilled in many areas, including setting tiles. I asked him if he might be willing to come work for a few days, and teach me the rudiments of setting tile, and he agreed.

At this point, Patty reminded me that our budget is pretty tight, and asked for an estimated cost. Every project has three costs: The amount I think it will really cost, the amount it really does cost, and the amount I tell Patty it's going to cost when I'm trying to get her approval. Now, before you get judgemental, I never, ever lie to my wife. However, my estimates are often a little, um, conservative. For example, the office porch isn't terribly large: about 300 square feet. I had just seen some discount tile at 99¢/square foot so that's about $300 in tile. Cement is cheap so I'll ignore that, and I already have a tile saw. I can't imagine it will take more than three days of Cruz's time, so at a ballpark that's what? About a thousand dollars, more or less?

“It will cost about a thousand dollars”, I stated confidently. Who says I'm not an optimist?

The next day Cruz showed up bright and early, and we headed out to the tile store to buy materials. I looked at the cheap tile, but there was some very nice imitation slate tile — the same tile we used on much of the house. It's on sale for $2.99 per square foot and being discontinued. Perfect! Of course, I should buy a little extra for wasteage. The salesman asked how many linear feet of the porch are not against the building, and suggested buying edge tiles with a round bullnose since they're safer than the sharp edges of a regular tile and give things a finished touch. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I agreed.

The little buggers were $4.00 each, and I need 45 of them. And who would have guessed that thin-set tile adhesive was so much more expensive than concrete? It's nearly $40 a bag, and I was told I needed at least eight bags. Also, while we were driving over I'd been thinking that plain square tile was a little boring, so I decided I'd cut the corners of the tiles and inset some little diamonds cut from black granite tile. While we're at it, a black granite border would certainly enhance the overall appearance, so I added a few flats of polished granite tile. Oh yeah, we'd better grab a couple of new diamond saw-blades for the tile saw, and a few miscellaneous bits and pieces . . .

And so, long before lunch on the first day, the thousand dollar budget was a distant memory. We set to work, and Cruz began instructing me on the art of laying tile. We ignored the edges, which would be full of laborious custom cuts, and started filling in the floor. It was slower and more tedious than expected, and by the end of the first day, we'd only laid about fifty square feet of tile. It looked pretty good, and I was confident that we'd do better the next day.

The next morning, Cruz was gleefully tapping tiles, and pointing out the ones that I hadn't seated properly. They sounded hollow, and would need to be removed, the dried cement cleaned from tile and floor, and the tiles reset. Probably a quarter of the previous days tiles were bad, and it took most of the day to repair them. And so it went. As I slowly learned to lay tile, the days flew by.

A week went by. The next week, I had Cruz working alone for much of the time. I was busy with all of the other myriad tasks that stack up on a farm. Cruz in in his late 70's and not quite as fast as he once was. Also, he began teaching me to cut tiles to fit along the irregular base of the stone-faced wall. It can easily take a half hour per tile to mark and cut the complex curves for each tile. And, of course, if they're going to break, they do it at the last possible moment. The second week flew by. And a third. I'd learned a great deal, but I'm still a beginner. Cruz still delights in pointing out the crooked or poorly-seated tile, and making me pull them up and re-do them. We still have to take horses to the vet, visit with our lawyers over business deals, and take trips to various doctors for the ailments of the no-longer-young. Summer has gone, so it's often been too rainy to work. One night a cloudburst ruined the whole day's work on the border tiles, so now we don't work when it's going to rain. And the days go by all the same.

So, looking at the tile, I realize that I tend to have a single focus. I see the better part of month gone, and the project I confidently estimated at three days still not finished. It's easy to forget all of the many side-jobs that cropped up along the way, the hours spent editing manuscripts, designing things for the store, or caring for horses. Most of those hours were spent in the company of my beautiful wife, and while I considered them a disagreeable distraction, time with her is always delightful. I'm so focused on pruning the garden, I risk not seeing the flowers.

In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum's character said, “Life. . . Finds a way.” I think that life, with all of its surprises and unexpected twists, gets in the way. It gets in the way of our boring, predictable projects, ruins our carefully-planned monotony, and upsets the hum-drum dreary dullness that would otherwise permeate much of our existence. Life, it turns out, just happens, and it's far more stimulating than the banal, hackneyed existence that would get the porch tiled quickly. It's seldom precisely what we planned; it's more engrossing and abundant than our pedestrian imaginings. The porch isn't done, but life is wonderful, and in the broader context the hours and days are well-spent.

The Curious Case of Green Dandruff

By: Mike Nov 16, 2016

We live between worlds. Patty and I are both reasonably well educated. We are moderately intelligent, and well read (well, OK, Patty is well-read). I know more than one knot for a necktie, and can even tie a bow-tie respectably. We can, generally speaking, successfully infiltrate polite society and navigate with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Now, I'm not saying that we regularly attend the governor's ball, or can name a classical concerto from the opening stanza. I don't own a selection of designer tuxedos, and my ballroom dancing is atrocious (though, again, Patty is far more adept). We're certainly not fit for high society, but we don't look terribly out of place at the theater or a nice hotel. As long as you don't look too closely we can generally pass for reasonably-cultured middle-class.

We also run a horse farm. We live a few miles outside of Benton City, a metropolis with a population of about 2000. We're surrounded by orchards, vineyards, and marijuana farms. The civilized people in the Tri-Cities sometimes refer to this area as "Bentucky", usually with some jibe about banjos or inbreeding, ha ha!

I'm developing a bald spot, and the summer sun is ferocious, so I often wear a cheap straw cowboy hat. The wide brim keeps the sun out my eyes and off my neck. I usually wear work shoes, but I occasionally wear cowboy boots. My work jacket is a Carhartt with our farm logo embroidered on the back. When I drive the old white Chevy pickup to the feed store to pick up a pallet of grain, I don't stand out. When we go to a horse-show and Patty's walking horses around in her work jeans and a old sweatshirt with an Arabian Horse embroidered on it she looks like an authentic, bona-fide horse woman.

However, every once in a while, the two worlds collide. A couple of years ago I was at the Scottsdale Arabian horse show. It's one of the biggest shows in the country. Many of the owners fly in on their private jets, and we're obviously way out of our league. Of course, most of the trainers, handlers and a good percentage of the owners are just regular people, and it's a lot of fun. At any rate, I had somehow wrangled a ticket for a banquet luncheon, and Patty was busy doing something horse-related. I ended up seated next to a nice gentleman who looked very much the cowboy. Pearl-buttoned shirt, cowboy hat, cowboy boots and the big silver buckle. We chatted at bit about the show. He owned a some very nice horses, and had a couple in the show. We chatted about this and that, and somehow the subject of boots came up. He was wearing some very fancy cowboy boots in some exotic leather. I was wearing a pair of Ariat work boots. He allowed that he was very happy with the quality leather and decorative stitching in his boots. I mentioned that mine were pretty comfortable, and held up well to farm life. At which point he sort of paled, looked closely at my shoes and asked if those little particles in the tread might be actual horse poop. I thought he might need medical attention. Since it obviously disturbed him I excused myself and went to see the horses, who are much less concerned about such things.

Sometimes, things just sneak up on you. This summer has been unusually wet. The mountains (OK, they're really hills, but the locals call them mountains) near our home are usually the pale yellow of dried grass, but this year they're bright green.

Hills as green as, well, grass!

The wet weather has affected the crops this year, and the alfalfa is really leafy. The horses love it. But it's difficult to feed. All those tiny leaves dry into lots and lots of chaff. Chaff that blows into an annoying cloud when we feed.

A few weeks ago we scheduled a meeting with a loan officer at our little credit union. (Sigh. Don't ask, it's a sore point!) I went out and helped Patty feed the horses, then changed into clean clothes and we drove into town. The loan offer (like all the employees there) is very professional. She looked at me a little strangely, and then we got to work discussing options and signing forms. . .

Except that, as the crisp, white pages were passed to me, tiny greenish specks floated down upon them. I brushed at my hair. More specks. The loan officer studied me, but said nothing. I brushed at my hair again, and more little gray-green specks floated gently down to dot the previously-pristine paper.

Gosh darn it! It had been windy that morning, and every time I threw a pad of hay a cloud of chaff had blown back over the top of me. Patty has shiny, mostly-straight hair, and the chaff just bounces off. My hair (what's left of it anyway) is about the consistency of a Brillo pad. It apparently works perfectly for trapping airborne chaff. Sometimes life just isn't fair. My hair was absolutely full of chaff, and my carefully-cultivated veneer of civilization was shattered.

Hmmmph. I wonder why these sorts of screw-ups never happen to James Bond?

Evil Wins Another Round

By: Mike Nov 27, 2016

It's 4:00 AM, and I should be sleeping. The house is quiet, and I am left alone with my thoughts, which today are dark. This is more than just the worries of a bad day or a spot of bad luck, I'm wresting with a sea-change in how I view my fellow man.

I generally try to be optimistic. I believe that people are mostly good, with a few bad bad apples here and there. I wasn't born yesterday, and I've met my share of grifters, thieves, thugs and bullies. But they're a small minority, and I've made a conscious effort to believe the best of people.

I'm starting to change my mind, and it's left me very uncomfortable. I still believe most people are basically good. When bad things happen, I take comfort in repeating that. Most people are good. However, I've become convinced that numerical superiority is relatively meaningless measure. Do you remember in your intro to statistics class, when you learned the difference between mean and median? If the data is skewed, they'll be very different. All these years I've taken comfort in a meaningless median, when I should have been paying attention to the mean.

A few weeks ago I was talking with my father, who often waxes a little philosophical. He said some people create things, and some people destroy them. Creation requires faith, planning and effort. I've commented before on how much I admire artists, who focus their time and talents on creating beauty. Their efforts leave the world enriched with music, paintings and sculpture and architecture. The problem is that it can take dozens or hundreds of man-years to build a museum, library or cathedral. Lifetimes of highly skilled people working to create something beautiful. And it can be destroyed by a handful of people in a few hours.

That's the skew in the data. Good people may be more numerous, but evil takes much less effort. Somehow, I've missed that until today. It's like making a fruit salad with ten grapes for every watermelon, then being surprised that it's mostly watermelon instead of mostly grapes. Comparing good and evil isn't apples to apples, it's grapes to watermelons.

A number of years ago our eldest daughter was struggling with some serious health issues. We took her to every doctor, specialist, and purveyor of snake-oil we could find with very limited success. She couldn't attend school or visit her friends. Her life became very limited. Then she got a driver's license, and we splurged and bought her a lovely little used Miata. Suddenly, she had a little control of her life again. She could go to an event, and if her health was failing she could leave. The car was a miracle, and she loved her little green convertible.

Then one day she hit a rock a couple of miles from our house, and damaged the oil pan. She parked off the road, and came home. I told her we'd take the flatbed to collect it first thing in the morning. When we got there, someone had taken a hammer and destroyed the car. They smashed every window and light and caved in every body panel. The car was totaled, and my daughter was devastated. I sat there feeling helpless, and wondered about what sort of pathetic, angry person would do this. It wasn't the money, it was that the car had mattered so much to my daughter. It was just ten minutes of malicious fun for some random bad guy.

Our youngest daughter worked all summer a couple of years ago to raise the money for a Savannah cat. Basically, a hybrid of a domestic cat and an African serval. He was spectacularly beautiful, but a bit difficult to train and a socialize. Jordan worked many, many hours and turned Calcifer into a friendly, playful companion, and doted on him.

Today he got out of the house. He always wears a bright-purple harness and radio tracker so we can find him if he escapes. He usually goes into the vineyards near our house. Today, when we found him, he'd been shot. We rushed him to the vet. She and her lab tech worked feverishly to save him. Lots of good people trying to overcome the casual evil of one uncaring jerk. After four hours of surgery, he lost the fight.

And so, tonight, I've listened to my daughter sob for her beautiful cat, killed in an act of senseless and casual destruction, and my world view is gratingly, painfully changing. The majority of people are good. I still believe that. But evil is winning because it's so much easier. A lazy bad man can overturn the efforts of dozens of hard working good people.

I read the news, and hear that IS has blown up yet more priceless cultural artifacts. Years of hard work by people dedicated to creating something lovely undone in seconds by an unskilled thug incapable of appreciating beauty, much less creating it. Greed and money trump compassion and responsibility every day. I see the violence and hate being spewed from every corner of society, and I recoil. There are more good people than evil, but it doesn't matter. Grapes to watermelons. The data is skewed. On the mean, humans are more evil than good. The conclusion grates and chafes. It's prickly and uncomfortable. It goes against the way I've viewed the world for fifty-some years. And it's statistically inescapable.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are the bastions of hope in literature. Humanity may be flawed, but our noble natures can rise up and overcome our baser instincts. Good is more powerful than evil. I've believed that for fifty years, but now, I'm doubting. I'm starting to think that the big lie in fiction isn't dragons, or werewolves, or traveling among the stars, it's the idea that good can triumph over evil. Darth Vader killed planets, Luke saved his sister.

The sun is coming up, but the light seems pale and wan. I no longer want to be part of society. I want to erect a force-dome over my little farm and retreat from the world. But I have no force-dome. The world will find me and once again bring hate and hurt to my little world and those I shelter. I cannot stop it. The laughter inside of me is dead.

I'm looking for my happy place, but right now I can't find it. In a few days, I'll try to post something happier. But for now, I can't sleep, my heart hurts, and the world seems dark despite the winter sun.

Rise of the Purple Avenger

By: Mike Nov 29, 2016

A couple of days ago I was in a very dark place, and posted when I should probably have just unplugged my keyboard. Wisdom comes slowly to some of us, and I still have much to learn. Mea Culpa.


I'm in a better place today. Still sad, still disappointed in humanity (who could shoot such a beautiful cat?), but the sun is bright, the air is crisp and clean, and this too shall pass. I'm back in my happy place, even if I'm still a little wobbley. We had a huge outpouring of support to my whiny post, and I spent a day reading responses and crying. (Um, yeah, quit snickering and take a note: that's manly crying. You know, the kind where the proud hero sheds a single, crystalline tear for the burden of humanity's collective failings. Not that girly sobbing stuff. Anyone who says differently is lying.) Anyaway, in those posts I've found some truly excellent advice.

It's no secret that I occasionally wrestle with my faith in humanity, and recent events haven't improved my outlook. The problem is that a small percentage of people are rotten, useless, pustulating zits on the buttocks of humanity. They cause a vastly disproportionate amount of pain and suffering. I have often thought that the world would be vastly improved by their absence. But of course, that's impossible, right?

Several of the comments urged me not to despair, to regroup and engage the world with even greater purpose. Good advice, I thought, but how. And then I read the comment that crystallized everything: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

I ruminated for a while about what change I wanted to see. You know what I came up with? I want to vote the bad guys off of my planet; may they go to whatever god will have their shriveled, blackened souls. The need is great, the benefits manifold. It's like the clouds parted and and the universe issued a calling. The world needs, if not a super hero, at least a dedicated janitor. Someone with yellow rubber gloves who's not afraid to take out the trash.

And so is born, the Purple Avenger1. Hey, I have to keep Ann happy or she'll blab my secret identity, and she's on board with anything purple. The idea initially seemed preposterous, but then I looked at it point by point, and it all adds up:

  1. I'm middle-aged, middle-height, slightly balding and overweight. Not your usual muscle-bound lantern-jawed hero. That's perfect because no one will ever suspect me!
  2. I don't have any super powers. While this has been a great disappointment in my life, frankly most of the people I plan to eliminate don't have super powers either. Oh, and they're generally not too smart. When all else fails I can ask them complicated questions and escape while they ponder.
  3. I have a farm, and the soil is so rocky that ground-penetrating radar would would be useless, regardless of what CSI says. I also own two backhoes. I can't say any more without revealing too much of my secret plans.
  4. Finally, and this is a big one, thanks to our earlier research, I have silver bullets. No, I don't expect that the bad guys will be werewolves, but every hero needs a calling card. This is part of my clever plan to deflect suspicion away from me. The authorities will be looking for the Lone Ranger, who long ago trademarked the use of silver bullets. It's genius, pure genius.

And there you have it: Be the Change You Want To See In The World. Great advice. I'm on it 2

  1. Yes, I know the humor is lame. I'm struggling a little, and this is the best I can manage right now. I'm getting better, honest!
  2. Patty caught me trying to sew my super-hero logo to my thermal underwear. She says the costume is lame, and I can't go out to kill bad guys after all. Bogus. It wouldda' been amazing!

'Tis the Season. Thank Goodness!

By: Mike Dec 15, 2016

First of all, we'd like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. So far, 2016 has been a depressing year. Injuries, financial reversals, health problems, and far too many funerals — Edsel Murphy has been working epic amounts of overtime. And then, suddenly, Christmas is upon us, and it all sort of fades away.

I've heard several wonderful stories of Purple Avengers setting the world on a better course. In our own small way, we've tried to be more compassionate. Even the gloom of 2016 can't extinguish the Christmas spirit. We've had snow for the past couple of days, and my normally dusty desert is suddenly covered in a soft white blanket that makes it look absolutely magical. Yesterday, on the way home from tending to the wounds of an injured horse there was the most incredible combination of fog and clouds, and the setting sun turned the whole atmosphere golden and luminescent. It's the most beautiful sky I think I've ever seen, and Patty and I watched until the light faded. The world is still full of wonders, and it's putting on a show.

We've recently been in touch with Illona Andrews and her husband Gordon. For the past couple of months we've been "reading" their Edge series of audiobooks. They are a ripping good time, and I've wanted to compliment the authors. There are also some publishing details we've been curious about (writing isn't all fun and games, we also need to make a living at it). We've met them several times at conventions, and they are stellar people. Patty called Illona last night, expecting a short and polite conversation. An hour later they were still talking. Patty filled half a notebook with much-needed information, while also having a delightful conversation. Their warmth and generosity is overwhelming. Merry Christmas Indeed!

So, I'll hoist a mug of the finest cocoa to those who are filling the last days of the year with kindness, compassion and generosity. Here's a toast to the Christmas season, and it's magic in bringing out the best in people. On Earth Peace, good will toward man!

On a Completely Different Note

Christmas is also a time of reflection, and the new year brings thoughts of change. This year, I've seen one particular change that is . . . interesting.

It's no secret that I consider Patty to be a paragon of virtues. It's been my privilege to be her companion for thirty-one years, and she continues to amaze with grace and beauty. It is, perhaps, not surprising that other men envy me and would attempt to woo her. The phrase over my dead body comes to mind, but I can certainly understand the temptation.

However, it would appear to my jaded eyes that the art of wooing has become grievously diminished in recent years. If gallant heart would win fair lady, then surely the effort expended should reflect the magnitude of one's desires. A man who would be loved must show himself deserving of that love. The goal of courtship is to present oneself in the most positive light possible, and while creativity in execution is imperative, a proper wooing has a structure that bespeaks planning.

It begins with polite overtures of admiration. If those are well-received, then the suitor may declare his intent to court the lady, ideally seeking permission from her parents. If the suit is not rebuffed, the courtship may begin in earnest. The objective, in broad strokes, is to show oneself as intelligent, cultured, and sympathetic. Of course, it is also desirable to demonstrate an ability to provide financial and physical security. The suitor seeks to embody the paradoxical dual nature of man: both poet and warrior, wrapped in elegance and etiquette. In short, a man who might confidently venture to win the love of his heart's desire.

In courtship, the suitor contrives to demonstrate his positive qualities, hoping to create a favorable and lasting impression. Thoughtful or costly gifts may show both the ability to provide as well as indicating that the giver is sensitive to the needs and desires of the lady. A well-composed sonnet shows a mastery of the arts and a sensitive, compassionate soul. Every act should be as carefully considered and executed as a military campaign. Wooing is an art of skill and wit, and there is no human endeavor with higher stakes or greater rewards.

Imagine then, my surprise at finding that my would-be rivals, who ostensibly seek to win my fair bride's affections, have chosen tactics so ill-conceived that they invite mockery. Over the past several months, a number of men (I can scarcely call them gentlemen) have chosen to begin their overtures of affection not with prose or poem, but with photos of their rampant manhood. The message, as I read it, being "Hi. I'm a crass, inelegant, vulgar lout. Knowing myself utterly impoverished of wit or manners, I yet hope to impress you with this poorly-composed, badly-focused photo of my penis."

I am assured by women of my acquaintance that this crude practice has become a common means of courtship. To say I am appalled is an understatement. What lady would be flattered by such churlish blandishments? As an old fisherman once told me, "Your bait determines your catch. If you are fishing for a mermaid, son, don't use stink-bait; all you'll catch are bottom-feeders."

Gentlemen, in courtship, you are the bait. Elevate your game or vacate the playing field, your conduct is unseemly and counterproductive.