Sunday, December 23, 2012

Writing and Getting Published

Let me say a short thank you to my two dozen or so devoted readers.  I originally started this blog as a way to share my military-related writing, but it has assumed its own direction.  I've called myself a writer since early 2008, but thus far I have never published.  I have been paid for writing a pamphlet for a bank about how pre-paid credit cards work, a job I found online.  I was paid $15, and I didn't receive any credit or byline.  I've made a few dollars each quarter from Yahoo, but nothing I ever wrote went viral.  The most popular piece I have online is an educational article about uterine fibroid tumors on Yahoo that has been read almost 8,000 times.

Just before Thanksgiving, I decided to explore a whim, and I wrote a short-short fictional piece.  For those non-writers, a short-short, or micro-short, does not have anything to do with Daisy Duke, although I suppose it could.  In such stories, the author has less than 1,000 words to set a scene and try to make a point.  There isn't much time for the type of explanation and exposition that the first paragraph of this blog contains, for instance.

I was immediately faced with two challenges.  First, I don't normally write fiction, and I certainly have never tried horror or suspense.  Scary movies make me laugh, and I've seen enough real-world carnage that it would be pretty hard for me to be suspenseful.

Secondly, unlike a research paper, writing less is actually more difficult.  I had no time to introduce the reader to the character, set themes, and build anticipation.  The outlet that I had chosen for my piece has a strict word limit of 666 words (yes, it's a horror publication), and the outline for my first story exceeded that.  So I went back and revised the story, changing it to a single scene, with just enough background to make it work.  My 100-word outline for this story quickly expanded to 500, so I cut things out as I put things in, sort of my own personal fiscal-cliff negotiation with myself.  As I reached the limit, I went back and eliminated any phrase with more than one adjective, and slicing off every piece of small fat. 

I added one or two pieces back, and ended up with exactly 666 words, a fact I thought might please this particular publisher.

The website I had chosen from the 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, a heavy paperback commonly accepted as the place to look when one is ready to sell a work.  I had dutifully read some of the published work, and I thought haughtily, "I can write better than that."  I still believe this to be true.  Since the site accepts about 50% of what they receive, I was hopeful as I sent my presh-isss to their editor to be considered.  Since they promised a reply within a week, I checked my inbox daily.

Thirteen days later, I eagerly clicked on the incoming e-mail, but my giddiness was doused with a small bucket of "Your submission doesn't meet our needs."  They didn't write it quite like that - in my recent memory I seem to think it was more like, "We think your story sucks."  Hey, I'll remember things the way I want.

For some reason, I didn't stop.  I opened the guide again, and saw another website that published monthly.  They receive 100-200 submissions/month and publish about a dozen.  After browsing their guidelines, they made it very clear that they had enough material for the next year.  I wasn't hopeful, but off it went again to another editor.  This one promised a 3 month response time, so I forgot about it.

This time it only took six days.  I opened my inbox and did click.  The reply was equally short.

"Your story has been selected for publication in the October 2013 issue."

The publication is called Ascent Aspirations, an e-zine published in Canada.  I'm not being paid, but that's not why I want to be a writer.  There are plenty of more efficient ways to be paid.

I want to be read.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Big and The Small

Today's post is short, but I hope my readers will take the time to give it a Like, Digg, Stumble, +1, or even a Share.

Saturday my family and I went out walking.  We were actually looking for a local street event that we never quite found.

One thing we found instead was a man in a park, letting his puppy run around in the grass.

There are things in this world that make me feel very big.

Later, as we made our way to the ocean, we saw a gray sunset, the water still lit with the warmth of a sun that we couldn't quite feel.

There are things that make me feel very small, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reflecting in Huancayo

There’s nothing like waking up to the sunlight.  With the foggy weather of Lima, it had been months, but this morning we woke in a humble little hotel in Huancayo called “Grandma’s House.”  It was cheap, clean, and cheap, my three requisites.
Lucho, our guide, met us out front, and within minutes of the ride to our first stop, we could tell that Huancayo was nothing like our corner of Lima.  It felt more rural, more…normal.  The tiny museum was in the corner of a tiny suburb, and a group of kids, well dressed from mass, were gathered in the town square, which might have been a hundred feet across.  We were quickly the main attraction.

As we were greeted with staccato choruses of “good morning,” Lucho explained that they learned some basic English in school, but didn’t understand much.  Once they realized that we spoke Spanish, they were a bit quieter, but a few talked with us like kids do.

After a five-minute tour of the museum, which was just one room, we walked down some stone steps to a set of ruins about the size of a basketball court.  A few hundred years ago, the Catholics had covered the ruins with dirt, in an effort to bury the religious beliefs of several millennia.  Surprise, the Peruvians have shovels.

Walls several feet thick surrounded a central courtyard filled with thick green clover and two ancient, twisted trees.  Shallow pits walled with stone graced the center courtyard, where we saw three men quietly meditating near one of them.  An older one was talking quietly to the other two, who were about our age.  We stepped quietly passed them, not seeking to disturb, and kept to other parts of the sacred place.

Our respectful gesture may have impressed the old man, because he spoke to Lucho, and we were invited to sit next to them in the circle under one of the twisted 500-year old trees.  In the center, a small bundle of candles burned with black smoke, and a cloth with various objects sat near.  The objects, as Lucho explained, represented various aspects of life, like the sea, or Mother Earth.  There was also a small bowl of coca leaves and cheap cigarettes near the candles.

The old chief offered each of us a handful of coca leaves from a small bag, we were to sort them and pick out the best three (the number three representing the heaven, the earth, and the underworld) and place those back into the bowl, a gesture of recognizing the gods for what we had been given.

The rest of the leaves we quietly chewed while we made small talk with the old man. The old man then offered a pinch of ashes to go along with the coca – apparently the lye in the ash serves to “unlock” the spiritual properties of the leaf.  I’m pretty sure it’s just chemistry.  I did as our guide did, wetting the leaf in my mouth and blotting in onto the ash, then placing it in my cheek.

I don’t remember anything after that.

I’m kidding.  A person would need several pounds of coca leaves to feel any significant effect, and even then, the leaves are unprocessed, not like the concentrated, alkaline substance produced by the ton a few dozen miles further into the jungle.  The raw leaves are either chewed or brewed into a tea, which is stimulating, but not as much as caffeine.  It also fixes nausea and a host of other things.

I didn’t see any little pink elephants (elephants are in Africa anyway) but my mouth got a little tingly, and the altitude headache I had been coping with most of the morning disappeared.  

Any euphoria I felt was caused by a quiet minute to sit down, without the noise of the city, and just talk quietly with people with whom we shared little in common, other than simply being human.  We all felt incredibly lucky that they had shared this intimate and important part of their lives with us.

After a few minutes we stood up, thanked them, and moved quietly elsewhere.  We spent a few minutes hunting four-leaf clovers in the old courtyard, which Lucho said were lucky even in the pre-Inca culture.  

“The odds of a four-leaf clover are about one in ten-thousand, and a five-leaf is a one-in-a-million chance, and although sometimes certain patches have lots of them, that’s not normal.”

He looked at me skeptically, like he didn’t trust my facts.  It is true that 72% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

I told him about hunting them with my Grandparents when I was a kid, not being any good at it, and that I had found a 5-leaf only once in my life.

Five seconds later I plucked a five leaf, and held it out to him.


“Remember these things, children do.  Yours will remember this, too.”

Lucho may be a long-haired hippie looking, Yoda-talking, Inca tour-guide dude, but he’s a pretty smart guy.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, even hikes through the jungle, depending on what you would like to see in or around Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Highest Train in the World

Okay, the second highest.  The Chinese had to build one, too, but they spent $3 billion on theirs.  The train I speak of is the Central Andean Railway, or Ferrocarril Central Andino, in South America.  The line was completed over a hundred years ago, and while today it is used mostly for cargo, on occasion a passenger train still runs from Lima over the mountains to the city of Huancayo, Peru.

My family and I set out early to Desamparados Station in downtown Lima (it means “departures” in Spanish) for the 7 a.m. train.  Unlike most things in Peru, we expected it to be on time, and it was.  We were in tourist-class, which meant slightly more legroom and access to a lounge.  While the seats are modern, the walls of the train are covered in wood and brass, reminiscent of the age.

The passenger car was built in the 1930s, and evidence of this can still be seen

The 13-hour ride starts near sea level, and ascends an average of 27 feet per minute into the Andes mountains, which make the Rockies look like foothills.  68 bridges, 71 tunnels, and 9 “zigzags” punctuate the trip.  The zigzag is self-explanatory, a simple, yet brilliant way for the train to ascend a few hundred feet in an otherwise impassable area.

 This photo illustrates the scale of the Andes, when compared with the highway below

Enough boring statistics, because that doesn’t do this trip justice.  Facing rearward, and after rolling handily through the outskirts of Lima for almost an hour, we picked up speed and steamed around the mountains and gorges near Peru’s desert coast.  We saw entire fields full of giant prickly-pear cactuses, their pods used to make dye, but I thought it was a great guard against intruders.

Our first stop was a small train station and roundhouse.  The locomotive had to be turned around so it could pull us up the mountain.  We were distracted by an old steam engine and missed the action, but the roundhouse was old-school – no hydraulics.  Using nothing but gravity and leverage, a single man can rotate a 50-ton modern locomotive in about a minute.  One of the passengers was allowed to perform this task.  To me, this type of 19th century engineering makes the iPhone look rather obtuse.

Facing forward again, we spent the next five hours chugging up mountain after endless mountain, seeing amazing waterfalls, gorges, mountain villages, and alien vegetation.  I must not forget about the alien plants – imagine the top of a pineapple, except fifteen feet across and ten feet high.  Out of the top, grows a flower that looks like a giant stalk of asparagus, but crooked and snakelike, straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  The kind of plant that makes me nervous if I get too close to it, because it looks like it might just eat me, or at least sniff the back of my neck.

The train finally reached its highest point at 15,583 feet, which I believe is about a thousand feet higher than Pike’s Peak.  By this time, several passengers had received supplemental oxygen, although I felt fine.  Actually, I felt better than fine.  In spite of my avoidance of the bar-car, other than for some sightseeing and photo-taking from the open rear section, I was absolutely giddy – without the best oxygen supply, my brain seems to interpret everything from cancer to genocide as the funniest things ever – I think we were 2,000 feet down the mountain before I could wipe the smile off my face, but I came up with the most interesting conspiracy theory about the link between the Curiosity mission to Mars and the Federal Reserve Bank.  I wrote it down, and that may be the subject of a later post.

By the last third of the trip, we were all pretty beat, and ready for it to be over, but occasional view of snow-capped peaks or rushing rivers kept us going until sunset.  A few more trips to the lounge car at the end of the train, just to give us an excuse to stand, proved helpful, although it raised another question to my oxygen starved mind:  there is enough lateral movement that the walk through four cars to get to the bar feels like a condemned ride at Disneyland, yet in all the movies, the heroes and villains always end up fighting on top of the train.  We could barely stand up in the center of the thing without holding on.

 This is the entire train, taken from the open lounge car at the rear of the train

The last hour or so of the trip was in the dark.  Even that proved fascinating – so far away from the scourge of civilization, there are only a few million extra stars to look at.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, depending on what you would like to see in Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

World War Two Vets Released After ANC Incident

Arlington, VA --- Three elderly men have been released from custody after initially being accused of peace disturbance and aggravated assault at Arlington National Cemetery, police said.

Roy Eggert, 89, Bill Wallace, 91, and Fred Wahlberg, 93, were gathered near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a ceremony marking Veteran’s Day.  Each of the men is a veteran of World War Two.

According to initial reports, Retired Army Master Sergeant Eggert and silver star recipient spotted a young woman taking a photo of her friend near the tomb.  The second woman was crouched next to a sign reading “Silence and Respect” with her middle finger raised.

Wallace, a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and former sniper, attempted to chamber a round into his M1903 ceremonial rifle, but was stopped short by a suggestion from Wahlburg, who served in the south Pacific, and left the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer following the Korean conflict.

“I thought it was warranted, don’t get me wrong,” said Wahlburg in a brief statement to the press following his release.  “I just told Bill it would be better if we keelhauled her, and he thought it was a great f**king idea.”

Police arrested the men while they argued about the best place to find a suitable ship, he added.

A law-enforcement spokesman stated that the men were held for several hours, but once the young lady’s photo appeared on her Facebook page, police were unable to find any witnesses to the incident.

(Disclaimer:  The above piece is written as satire)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Saying “Thank You” to Veterans

It’s probably happened to most of us in uniform – a free beer, dinner, or even a surprise upgrade to business class.  Americans wish to support a random vet by saying ‘thank you for your service.’

It’s well received, and I am grateful, but it makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don’t always know what to say.  The source of my discomfort is a simple matter of sacrifice.

I don’t feel like I’ve done that.  Sure, I’ve been away from my family for years of my life, endured searing heat, loneliness, and dust that can only be described as a living thing.  As a medical officer, I have seen things that I would rather not remember, much less describe.

I’ve never lost a limb, or my life.  But I know people who have.  I’m not serving anymore, but I still have friends in harm’s way.  There are so many others who deserve your thanks more than I do.

A few years ago, I delivered a Veteran’s Day speech to my local high school auditorium, which I thought went well – I stood before the group of parents and teenagers in my captain’s class-A’s and told of the service of men barely teenagers themselves, and made a joke or two about the desert heat.

Afterwards, I was approached by an ancient soldier in WW2 dress greens, buttons tarnished.  He shook my hand, and without a word, reached up slowly and carefully to lift my lapel.  I know he saw one ribbon I wore there, stacked onto a dozen others that feel more like boy-scout merit badges, so modern-day generals can wear giant stacks of ribbons like some Latin American dictator.  I got my bronze star for meritorious service in combat, but I certainly didn’t do anything courageous to get it.  Like most others, I spent much of my time inside the relative safety of “the wire.”

The old staff sergeant smoothed both my lapels and patted them down, and took time to feel the polyester-wool fabric, likely different from his own wool uniform, which was faded and eaten by moths once or twice.  That’s when I saw the three small ribbons he wore.

A World War 2 victory medal, a Pacific campaign ribbon, and the bronze star – with four oak leaf clusters and a tiny metal “V,” black with age.  He had been awarded the medal 5 times - for VALOR.

“Thank you for your service,” the old man said in a gravelly voice, not much louder than a whisper.

How could a simple “You’re welcome” suffice?  He looked to be more than eighty, but he was made from molds long broken, from material tougher than anything seen in decades.

“And I thank you for yours,” was all I could reply without choking. I wasn’t worthy to shine this man’s boots.

My speech that day had been about a man named Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I.  Since then day, we have lost him to eternity.  Within a few decades, we will lose more old warriors, and the current ones, if they are lucky, will become the old.

Please take the time to share or retweet this - but more importantly, take the time to thank a soldier, new or old.

 Veterans Day 2012

They (we) thank you for your support.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

White Water Rafting in Lunahuana, Peru

Our latest episode of tourism in Peru began on a winter morning.  Winter in South America falls in July, but in Lima it’s mild, reaching 58 degrees on the coldest of nights.  Sometimes, the excessive humidity creates a bone-chilling mist, but it’s no blizzard in Chicago.  Once away from the coastal desert, the climate is much more what one would expect a few degrees south of the equator.

For this reason, we headed out of town by bus, to a place called Lunahuana.  Peru is said to have some of the best white water rafting in the world, fueled by runoff from the Andes.

When Americans think of white water rafting, usually it’s done in the Rockies of Colorado or somewhere similar, but there is a difference in scale – the State of Colorado contains a number of tall mountains, the highest of which is 14,440 ft.

The highest in Peru is 22,132.  We’re planning on climbing one in a few weeks that is just over 19,000, and it doesn’t even make the list of the top 35.  

Adjust your thoughts of white water rafting in Peru accordingly.

My wife and I had both been rafting in the Rockies, on class 3 rapids, and this was rated at class 3 and 4, so it didn’t sound like a bad trip to us.  The water level was much lower than in the rainy season.
“Do people raft when the river is that high?” we asked our guide.

“Not if they’re smart.  People die during the rainy season.”

“So people have died on this river?”

“No.  Not for a few months.”  He wasn’t kidding.

As frightening as it might sound, added to the fact that Peruvian white water rafting is basically unregulated, we felt pretty safe.  Each boat had its own guide, and several additional guides made the journey with us in kayaks, so they could maneuver quickly if one of our seven-raft group got in a bind.

They even provided us helmets, which proved useful in the first two minutes, as when we went under the first bridge, local kids tried to hit us with rocks.  Sort of a Peruvian version of "Whack-a-mole."

Our guide told me later that keeping tourists alive is better for business.  I love the free market.

We made our journey in just over two hours, which was the perfect amount of time.  It was the perfect balance of excitement – I never felt afraid, at least not much, but there weren’t many moments of boredom.  Rather than a relaxing float punctuated by fast water, it was basically one continuous set of rapids.

In the few moments of calmer water, we could see people getting on with their daily lives near the river.  At several points they have constructed elaborate cable crossing gizmos, moving people and supplies across the river in suspended buckets or platforms.  We didn’t get any good photos of this, as I was busy trying not to drown.

The amount of time was perfect as well, as Youngest was starting to have purple lips by the time we docked.  I was ready for some dry clothes, a cup of hot tea, and a nap.

The cost for four of us was about $300, but we went with a large group, so our price included the three hour trip by bus.  A number of tour operators are in business near Lunahuana, and the village alongside the river boasts the occasional small café.  If you have an extra day in Peru and a need for adventure, this trip is just the thing.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Ruins of Caral

Caral was the place where it all started, just a few hours north of Lima, Peru.

I don’t refer to an incident, or even a long, dramatic series of events.  By “it all,” I am referring to everything.

The ruins at Caral are the oldest signs of civilization in the western hemisphere.  They were built at the same time as the pyramids of Egypt, and are only 200 years more recent than the oldest of the old in Mesopotamia.

The type of structures they built?  Pyramids…hmmm.

We decided to pile into a bus, and ride the three hours along the coastal highway to visit this pile of stones in the middle of nowhere.  The ride itself was a spectacular visual journey.  As we traveled outside of Lima, every strata of society displayed its living arrangement.

Once clear of the suburbs, the Pan American Highway treated us to alternating views of rugged coastline, and giant valleys filled with small fields of corn, strawberries, or fresh flowers.  The ride itself is a great part of the trip.  The final half hour was a low speed journey through the valley of Caral, and across a dry riverbed that made us question the agility of the tour bus.

We arrived at the ruins at midday (Middle and Youngest called them “big piles of rocks and dirt”).  Fortunately, the sun was still behind clouds as it is in most of the winter.  The old city itself consisted of about a half dozen larger pyramids, maybe four or five stories tall, and a few smaller structures.  Some housed large burn pits, essentially giant stone furnaces, used for cooking and sacrificing stuff to the gods of barbecue.

The reasons mankind sought to live clustered together is still a subject of some argument.  As hunter-gatherers, more people means more mouths to feed.  Until food could be stored, anything beyond immediate family just needs to go find their own food.

Except there is no evidence of pottery at Caral.

Another theory is that people got tired of hunting and gathering, and decided that they could form roaming bands and clunk other people over the head and take their food, so thus people began clustering together to defend themselves against warring factions.

Except there is no evidence of weapons at Caral, either.

As it turns out, the current theory is that someone figured out they could weave fishing nets out of cotton, which grew too far from the ocean to be of any use, but if the nets were carried to the ocean, they could be traded for fish.  Since Caral is a day’s walk from either resource, it looks like it started as a trading post.  It’s built on the very border of the coastal desert, on a patch of ground that looks like it has never seen a blade of grass, which made sense as agriculture developed in the valley.

For those seeking a tourist experience in Peru, the Caral day-trip isn’t at all like the jungles of the Amazon, or the mountains of Machu Picchu. It’s more relaxed and reflective, as you imagine people living and working there, who have been gone for five millennia.  For reasons that were revolutionary at the time, people decided that living together was better than roaming the world alone.

It isn’t nearly as interesting as the theory I had.  I always thought civilization sprang forth due to the discovery of beer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles: Protein Supplements

I hate the idea of protein powders, weight-gain formulas, and any of a number of other corn-syrup laden products that are just as likely to make my pancreas explode.

When I was 20, I had a roommate who was trying to lose weight, so I went to the gym with him a few times, thinking I might finally add some muscle to the body that made single girls wonder if I had hit puberty.  I bought some crap called “Super Gainer 3000” for more money than I could afford.  It didn’t taste bad, but after a few days of it, I stopped eating other things, had headaches and nausea, and eventually suffered from a Mexican vacation that I never got a chance to take.

A few years ago I tried again. I bought some protein bars at Wal-Mart (yeah, yeah, I know) because they were on clearance.  I wasn’t working out with enough regularity to even say that I did, but these brightly wrapped candy-bar doppelgangers promised 30g of protein, so I bought some.  Turns out they tasted like sawdust soaked in olive oil and covered with low grade chocolate.  Bleh.

Recently I have been forced to look at this again, since my body has started crying out for more calories, more protein.  I’ve thus far resisted because I believe in real food.  Not organic – cyanide is organic – but just real old fashioned food – nothing from a box, and nothing containing that toxic high-fructose corn syrup stuff which I’m pretty sure is also used to make bio-diesel.  Most of the garbage we eat nowadays explains why the girls from the senior class of 10 years ago all look like Honey-boo-boo’s mom.

Fortunately, I am currently residing in South America near the coast, so fresh seafood is available daily, and I can still buy a whole chicken.  Things are sweetened with real cane sugar, and starches aren’t any more hostile than just potatoes or rice.  Cooking things in real fat is possible, there’s no reason to substitute anything that is chemically similar to tub-and-tile caulk.  Real food is incredibly cheap, and fortunately, so are maids who know how to cook.

So enter quinoa, this grainy tasting stuff that has the same amount of protein per ounce as eggs, yet none of the cholesterol.  It’s supposed to be like tofu in that you can flavor it with just about anything, to suit your personal tastes.

I still haven’t discovered a way to make it taste like anything other than paste.  This incredibly perfect food is supposed to bring balance to the Force, since it has 14g of protein per ounce, low carbs, and desperately needed fiber, and I can buy a 10 pound bag of it here for a couple of bucks.

I tried it with fresh strawberries, and it tasted like strawberry paste.  I am using the paste references because it is something I know - I ate a lot of paste as a child.

I even tried mixing it with egg and bacon and frying it, and it still tasted bad.  If I can deep fry something with bacon and it still doesn’t taste good, then humans weren’t meant to eat it.

The only thing left is trying to ferment it and turn it into beer.  If I could invent a high-protein beer, I would be richer than Zuckerburg.  They could sell it at Wal-Mart.

The Stickman Chronicles continue.

The Stickman Chronicles, Day 120

Four months in – a third of a year, and I suppose there are a few new things to report.  I’ve gained 12 pounds since July 1st, and that is first and foremost.

My biggest problem when I started this effort was my own ignorance.  While I know a lot about human physiology due to my time spent in the medical field, I am quite foolish when it comes to the subject of fitness.

I’ve shied away from most fitness forums, since they are mostly filled with spammers trying to sell the latest powdered soybean-sawdust crap that promises to add pounds of pure ripped muscle without the slightest effort.  The pounds lost come straight from your wallet.

Through a friend, though, I got lucky, and I have found a Facebook workout group, of the virtual variety, called “Devil Dog Fitness.”  (I am proud to gratuitously insert the team leader’s link here.) At first I was skeptical, since none of these ladies share my fitness goals – they all want to lose weight, but they are trying with the same desperation that I feel.  There haven’t been all the “Oh I wish I had that problem” comments - they get what it feels like to not like what you see in the mirror, and they also know the only way to get there is through sweat and effort.  The members are courageous enough to post photos online they would rather burn, and numbers they would rather hide under the bed.  There are words of encouragement because these girls get it.  I am incredibly inspired by them.

I went a step farther, and started working with a personal trainer.  One can see his resume from a distance – I’m not sure that he could be cut with a diamond.  I think this has helped tremendously, because not only has he guided me in developing my own workout routine, but I have to make an appointment to meet him at the gym, and I have agreed to pay him.

This means that I actually have to meet him at the gym.  And since I will be there anyway, I might as well work out. So, the Stickman works out. And the Stickman slowly gets bigger.

I’ve yet to receive my first product endorsement deal, but I am watching the mail for it every day.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Google Ad Fail

I begin the day with a healthy dose of tragic irony.  Google, Facebook, and so many other search engines look up your virtual kilt, searching for details about what ads are most likely to be effective, based on what you are reading.  An article about running might produce an ad for Nike’s latest running shoes, for example.

I guess the presence of the words, "oven, "cooked," and "seafood" were enough to trigger the software.  As I read of the tragic death of 62-year old Jose Malena in a giant steamer, please take note of the blackened steak pictured in the ad halfway down the page.

Google ad epic fail.

While I didn’t know Jose, I hope he had a sense of humor.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Sing Along to La Bamba

I’m beginning to think I’m not meant to fly.

This is the fifth attempt I have made to the two hundred-foot seaside cliffs, in search of a fool willing to strap me to the harness of a giant kite and jump off with me.  It’s a service provided to the tourists for about $50 USD.  My wife has been talking about it for months, and finally she went yesterday, but I missed it, due to my late arrival at the designated rendezvous point.

We returned today, only to find that the wind was too strong for anyone as small as our children to fly, so we put it off yet again.  That’s not interesting at all, so you must now be hoping that the story is going to pick up, otherwise you are clicking off.  I get it.

We were riding the combi-bus, a small Peruvian community transport in the form of a Toyota bus, which will hold about a dozen of your close friends.  Including the driver and the conductor, there were 19 people on it today.  The driver had a thing for old rock and roll (in English), and several Beatles songs had played.  To the chagrin of Middle-child, I was singing along to every one of them.

Then something very strange occurred.  The song, “Twist and Shout” began to play, and the gentleman behind me started to sing along, too.

Except it was painfully obvious that he didn’t know English.

As he sang “Twee an Shau,” along with equally butchered lyrics, I stifled a chuckle, not wanting to be rude.  In his seat behind us, he couldn’t see my smirk.

“I’m totally amused right now,” I told Middle.

“I’m only partially amused,” she replied, but was smirking the same as me.

“Shake your shake your baby now, come on shake her…”

I almost lost it.  If I had been drinking Inca cola, it would have been coming out my nose.  I couldn’t lose the visual about the clueless guy behind me singing happily about shaking a baby.

So, gringos…the next time you think about singing along to “La Bamba,” or “99 Luftbalons,” as catchy as the tunes are, if you don’t know Spanish or German, respectively, then don’t…just don’t.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles: P90X

One of the fitness nuts at work offered to loan me her P90X workout DVDs.  I am gratuitously inserting my virtual fitness group leader’s link here.  They have catchy names like “plyometrics,”  which mean nothing to me.  It’s sort of like “retsyn” in Certs.  Seriously, what the hell is “retsyn, and why do I care that it’s in there?”  It probably causes cancer or maybe warts.  To make P90X more interesting, these videos all come with a full screen of warning:

You will experience pain not felt since the inquisition.  You could die while working out to these videos.  In fact, everyone who has ever tried to do more than two of these videos in one day is now dead.  

Not having a clue, I put in the one called “Ab-ripper.”  Who doesn’t want ripped abs? Being the Taylor Lautner wannabe that I am, I attack this 20-minute workout video with a passion.

It didn’t take me long to discover that the name of this episode had been poorly chosen.  It should have been “Flesh-render,”  “Meatgrinder,” or perhaps “Soul-destroyer.”  I doubt that these names sell workout videos, though.

The next third of an hour was spent performing unnatural contortion rituals while listening to this guy Tony yap like a stupid magpie.  I wanted to jump up and put some old school karate throat-punch on this guy, but that would have broken the television and more importantly, involved one extra crunch that wasn’t in the video.  I finally hit the mute button so my family wouldn’t hear me screaming at him to shut up.  With expletives.

When I finally decided to make the effort to peel myself off the floor, I can only describe what followed as a religious experience, as illustrated by the profession I uttered on the way up, “Oh, Jesus, god, holy-crap!”

I didn’t hurt the next morning, but every muscle from my armpits to my knees was simply on vacay.  I was forced to sit down while putting on my pants, lifting a leg up with one hand while I put it in my pants with the other.

Shoes.  I have described shoes as the root of everything that is wrong with society, and I felt the same way on this particular morning, because I couldn’t get them on.

It was there, my plain black leather Docker dress shoe, right by my foot, but it might as well have been a mile away, taken there by that guy who always wants to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

As I sat in my armchair, I was able to lift my foot, and of course I could bend down to grasp my shoe, but I could not do both.  It wasn’t a matter of enduring the pain. I simply could not do it.  I had to lift my foot into my lap and put the shoe on it from there.

Three days later, I could dress myself without assistance.  There was nothing about that in the warning.  Approach this series with caution.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Redneck Diplomat visits Mistura Food Festival

Today’s adventure is my family’s recent visit to Mistura.  This is not a beach resort, nor a mystical location in the Amazon Jungle.  Mistura is Lima’s annual festival of food.

Most towns have a festival for something – my own home town celebrates the black walnut, which honestly isn’t all the interesting.  But EVERYONE loves food.
The event takes place in a huge park in the middle of Villa Maria district, about 40 acres of booths, where over a hundred restaurants each serve two examples of their most prized dishes for a nominal price.

We arrived at the gates, and I had flashbacks of Disneyworld.  The crowd moved fast, however, and within minutes our tickets were punched and we were handed little ad flyers that said (in Español, of course) “Welcome to Mistura.”

We opened the flyers, and attached inside were little packets of antacid.  I did not let this deter me.  

We didn’t get far and I was distracted.  “Hey, look, they’ve got rat-on-a-stick!”
“Dad, there’s no way I am eating rat,” youngest told me firmly. There’s nothing like having credibility with your kids.  

“It’s not rat, it’s beef.”  This was true, technically, and of course the child agreed.  The dish in question was anticucho, a small shish-kabob of barbecued beef heart.  And no, I didn’t mention that part until the child had polished hers off.  She still owes me for a number of dirty diapers.

Over the next four hours, we wandered about the park, sampling sushi, chocolate, breads, and other ethnic food.  A television-studio had been set up in one tent, presumably there would be a few live shows coming up.  Another tent was filled entirely with chocolate products, everything from ice-cream to liqueur.  

I then saw the coolest thing I have ever seen – I understand they have these at ball games in the U.S., but I’ve been out of the states for four of the last seven years, so cut me some slack.

A minion of the beer gods wore a keg on his back like a backpack, a six foot bicycle flag a beacon to followers.  He had a cup-dispenser on the side, and the nozzle was on one of the straps.  I paid the equivalent of a U.S. dollar in tribute, and received a 12-ounce ice-cold blessing.

My thirst quenched, we continued for another hour just as we had all afternoon:  A few minutes in line, a small, seemingly harmless transaction, and yet another entree.  Suddenly I was stricken with a moment of clarity regarding the aforementioned antacid.

My estimate of the crowd was 15K, which was close, as the newspapers later said the day’s attendance was 30,000.  Over the ten-day Mistura festival, over half a million people gained a new understanding of one particular quote in the Bible:

The serpent tempted me, and I ate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Where were you, on this day in 2001?

Before eleven years ago, I don’t suppose I ever understood the answers to the “”Where were you?” question that would sometimes circulate at the barber shop or during a church dinner.  I had heard it before in two variations – “Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” and “What were you doing the day JFK was shot?”
I remembered where I was the day that Challenger 25 blew up.  I was home sick from high school, and Mom came up to my room and asked me if I wanted to watch the shuttle launch on TV.  I declined, and I still remember how.  “No, mom, I’ve seen it before, and this one won’t be any different.”
As tragic as that was, we went right on going to school and to work and nothing changed.  It wasn’t the defining event of my generation.  Not yet.
The morning of 9-11, I was driving, heading to Lake Ozark to check on a rental property I had there, and had just topped the hill going into West Plains, MO.  Ironically, I was within sight of the radio station to which I was currently listening.  The DJ that day was Randall, a friend of mine I had known since high school.  He came on and announced the event.  At first I thought he was joking, as he was known to do – he announced for weeks that he was going to walk naked down main street at a certain date and time, and he did indeed – “Naked” was the name of his pet goat.
I just kept driving, not thinking about it much.  When the announcement of the second attack came, the music on the radio just stopped.  I don’t think a single song played for the next two hours.  I remember thinking that this might be the “Day the Music Died.”  I started humming it.
I stopped in a little town of Richland, MO, where I briefly lived, and pulled into the police station.  I showed them my badge, and they let me go behind the counter, where they were huddled around a little black and white TV, watching the replays of the first tower coming down.
I just felt like I had to continue doing what I was doing.  As an Army reservist, I knew that we would go to war over this, I just didn’t know where and with whom.  Still, I kept driving.  I inspected my property, made some phone calls to a cleaning contractor, and started home.  I stopped to top off my gas tank, even though I had slightly more than half.  I don’t really know why I did that, but it turned out to be a good call, since the price of gasoline tripled, with lines around the block everywhere.  We still had a hundred gallons in the farm tank.
I got home in the late afternoon, and the first thing my wife asked was, “Will you have to leave?” I told her I didn’t know.  I didn’t know much of anything.  We didn’t talk about it that night at all.  I knew where all my army stuff was if I needed to pack in a hurry, but there was nothing I could do.
With the exception of the few thousand brave souls at ground zero, I would imagine that the other three hundred million Americans felt much the same way.  For then, at least, there was nothing we could do.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: Blessed are the Pure in Heart, by Jean Rosenow

Blessed are the Pure in Heart
Jean Rosenow
ISBN 9781477624593 
Reviewed by Yancy Caruthers, The Pen and the Sword


For anyone who has served as a caregiver to a person with special needs, or even lived in a special needs family, life can be robust and vigorous, or sucked from one’s very bones, and it will vary with the given day.  Jean Rosenow’s “Blessed are the Pure in Heart” is a work of fiction about one such family unit, Emma Prater cares for her younger brother Rodney, who has Down Syndrome.

While not presented as the protagonist, Rodney quickly becomes the story’s most powerful character.  His intentions are pure, as are his frustrations.  Unbeknownst to him, his very existence has caused his sister to believe that she will never find love.  The first few chapters are a little clunky with regional phonetics, but by chapter three there is momentum seldom seen in a new author.  As events interlock and unfold, a possibility is set in motion that turns the pages effortlessly.

I must confess two things to this reader.  First, I have known the author for 25 years - since I was a teenager – her four sons, each with his own brand of genius, are close enough to my age that I spent a good deal of time on the farm that she tended alone, after she became a widow at a young age.  The loneliness that Emma experiences in the story is probably no stranger to Rosenow, and neither is the farm and surrounding rural area that sets the story – she stops short of naming my hometown in South Missouri near West Plains, but there are enough sly details that I can almost smell the river near the farmhouse, or hear the screen door slap closed with the sound of a metal spring.

Secondly, my brother is a special needs person, a preschooler trapped for the duration in a body now fifty.  That bias may have worked against Rosenow to some degree, as I found myself very critical of Emma in her role of caregiver.  She seemed like a Pollyanna at first, but as the author rounded her off with touches of loneliness and doubt, she became real. 
As the story approached denouement, I found myself wondering how she would end it – too soon, and I would be left hanging, but too late, and it would fall flat, or lead squarely into a sequel, which has annoyed me since Twilight.  I was pleasantly surprised when it ended precisely where it should have.

As I finished off “Blessed are the Pure in Heart,” I found myself hoping to see more from Jean Rosenow in the future - one colorful secondary character in particular has numerous possibilities, but she would have to call it "Blessed are the Old and Grumpy."  I hope she runs with it.

The work, "Blessed are the Pure in Heart"  is available on by clicking one of the above links to the title.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Penmanship Demotivational Poster

I feared that I would use this power again - ever since I made the Jabba the Hutt demotivational poster, I knew it was just a matter of time before I did it again.  This time, it's a result of a sign outside a wine bar that had me doing a double take.

I may have found my new hobby.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Street Performers of Peru, Part 3

I have to pontificate a little about Peru's Welfare to Work program.  They actually have a welfare system, but if a person is able bodied, he can forget it, and even if he is lucky enough to qualify, the program would provide beans and rice.  It doesn't pay for cell phones, flat screen TVs, cigarettes, booze, or lottery tickets.  Neither does a minimum wage job.

Even those jobs aren't always plentiful, so the people of Peru have managed to create a vibrant underground economy, with street vendors or every kind, and wandering performing artists.  The system that created the need for this is sad, but the talent that has risen above it is shocking.

Little kids do cartwheels in the intersections, and many learn to juggle before they turn ten - all in the hopes of earning some random coins as the heavy Lima traffic congeals around traffic signals.

Our feature act this evening was obviously a master in the art of the one-up.

"Oh, you can juggle?  Well I can juggle flaming sticks!"
"Oh.  Lots of people juggle flaming sticks?  Well let's see them do this!"

What would one call this without butchering the grammar?  A Flaming Unicycle Juggler?  No, not quite right.  A Flame-juggling unicyclist?  Close enough.

You can bet this guy got the change I had in my pocket.  He accepted it with a smile and a bow.

 See another impressive Peruvian street artist.