Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sunday sunshine and Saturday's projects, cont'd.

The sunshine is mocking me. I hear the bright sky and the soft, warm air calling my name, urging me to come outdoors, play golf, do some yard work...just get out of the house.

But there’s still standing water in the back yard, water in the front ditch, and everything is soggy. So I’ll sit indoors, write, and daydream about another weekend lost to the weather.

Yesterday afternoon, when the toilet still had shown no signs of any leakage, another project beckoned. Oh, before we leave the subject of the toilet, let me assure you I am not fooled by its delay tactics. Toilets ALWAYS leak after initial installation or reconnection. This will be no exception. It is hoping to suck me into the belief that just maybe, this one time, I’ll have completed a project with no leaks.

Ha! I know better. That just won’t ever happen. Never has – never will. CAN’T FOOL ME, TOILET! I’ve been around your kind too many times in the past. I KNOW YOU’RE JUST BIDING YOUR TIME.

I figure that by tomorrow afternoon, about the time I’m due to leave for the airport to be out of town for 3 days, THAT’s when the fool thing will start dripping. I’ll tell my wife to put a pan under it and I’ll tighten things when I get home. Then, that night, it’ll increase to a steady stream and when she calls me on my cell phone I’ll tell her to turn off the faucet that feeds the supply line.

By the next morning the faucet itself will be dripping on the floor. She’ll call me in a panic because the only way to stop the water then is to turn it off at the meter in the front yard. Things like that never happen when I’m at home.

Example: About three years ago I had gone on a three-day trip for training. The first day she called me to tell me we had a new fountain in the front yard. Water was bubbling up from the ground in a strong, steady flow. It just happened to be in a direct line between the water meter and the point where the pipe enters the house.

I had her call a plumber, who found a broken line (tree roots got it) and repaired it. But that’s typical timing. Only happens when I’m gone. The toilet will be no exception.

Beats me how these inanimate objects always know when I’m gone.

Oh, yeah, yesterday’s other project. A four-tube fluorescent fixture in the sewing/computer room had a bad ballast. At least, I assumed that was the problem. Only two of the tubes would light up. Yes, I changed the tubes. No, the new ones wouldn’t light up in those sockets either.

I took off my plumber’s hat and put on my electrician’s. I could either pay $25 for a new ballast (which MIGHT fix the problem), or I could spend $45 for a new light fixture (with two new ballasts, which would DEFINITELY fix the problem). Even knowing what a hassle the new fixture would be to install, I opted for it.

‘Bout two hours later we had light again. No cuts, bruises or electric shocks. So, not a bad rainy day’s work: one toilet (waiting to leak) and lots of light in a previously semi-dark room.

Tonight I’ll pack for my out of town trip and make sure the cell phone is fully charged so I can take the call about the leaking toilet.

YEAH, TOILET, I’M TALKING ABOUT YOU! I KNOW YOU’RE GONNA LEAK, YOU !**!&##!!

I’ll be sure to leave my wife the number of a plumber.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Toilet Trouble — A Very Un-Romantic Ramble

Ah...Saturday! Visions of sleeping a little later, a leisurely morning of catching up on bill paying, browsing a few of my favorite blogs, and maybe working on the next chapter of my second novel before and afternoon round of golf. Great plans...

Dashed! I awoke twice during the night to the unmistakable sounds of rain dripping off the eaves. We'd already had heavy rains on Thursday and the golf course would be soggy at best; now it would be unplayable, even if the weather cleared. (I am an admitted wimp – I do NOT golf in the rain.)

Ah, well...A change of plans to indoor activities. More time to write, and maybe review the questions I’m planning to ask at the hearing (see the previous 3 postings).

Fate had other plans. My wife has long been convinced that our guest bathroom toilet leaks. She’s found discolored grout in the floor tile around the base, and the only possible source seems to be moisture seeping up from below. The only possible source of the water? Well, the toilet, of course. Yesterday her fears were confirmed. She found water at the base of the toilet. Not much, but like vermin in the house, if you ever see ANY there are always LOTS more you don’t see.

I’ve had plenty of experience with toilets. And not just from the standing or seated position. We used to own some older rental property and an old house. There were a total of six toilets in our possession, and over time every one of them had to be replaced or re-sealed.

When we moved to a newer house with a slab foundation I thought my toilet woes were over. That seemed to be true until my wife decided to put down ceramic tile in the bathrooms in place of the linoleum. That meant the toilets had to be removed and then re-sealed and replaced. That was about 10 years ago.

So, how long has this particular toilet been leaking? Well, at least several years, based on the grout discoloration around it. Maybe ever since I reinstalled it over the new ceramic tile.

Thus my Saturday morning has been spent disassembling and removing the toilet and cleaning the floor underneath it. Yes, it was quite wet outside the wax ring. (For those who are not experienced toilet mechanics, the wax ring is supposed to seal the discharge from the toilet as it flows into the sewer drain.)

It’s now mid-morning. We’re attempting to warm the floor tiles with a ceramic heater to get the area as dry as possible before applying silicone caulk to the seam where the tile rests on the concrete slab. Since this is a cold, rainy day, that may take a while.

Then I’ll install a new wax ring, place and level the bowl, secure it with closet bolts to the floor, mount the top tank, reconnect the water supply line and check for leaks. If I find any, you’ll probably hear the hollering and cursing because then I’ll have to start over.

For now, I’m letting the floor warm and dry. My Saturday mood has turned grumpy and confrontational. Think I’ll work on questions and challenges for my daughter’s unemployment hearing. I’m ready to take on her ex-employer and chew him up!

Friday, February 25, 2005

Fight brewing, III

Some interesting developments today. My daughter received her notice from the workforce commission scheduling her appeals hearing. Included in the envelope were some response materials from her ex-employer.

One of them was a memo detailing an event that happened last December. Supposedly it was written by my daughter’s supervisor. My daughter (I’ll call her Christina) had confided to a coworker the amount of her year-end bonus. He (the coworker) was unhappy that he received less and pitched a fit, complaining to his supervisor. Christina was counseled not to discuss her pay or bonus with other employees. She agreed not to do so. She had thought he was a friend and had only answered his question. It wasn’t as though she brought up the subject and bragged about her amount.

The memo alleges that Christina was sternly warned, not only about discussing compensation, but also about keeping busy and occupied between patient duties. That just didn’t happen. Clearly an attempt is underway to build a case. Christina doesn’t think the memo was written by the supervisor at all, but by the office manager. She had never seen this memo, much less signed it. In fact, the day after the incident she asked her supervisor if the incident was still a concern and was told, “No. Forget about it.”

Statements submitted by the office manager further allege that during her last few months on the job her attitude changed dramatically for the worse. That also didn’t happen. Nothing was ever said to her in counseling or as a warning about performance or attitude.

These allegations hurt her. She read them to me in tears over the phone.

I told her not to take it personally. Like they said in “The Godfather,” “It ain’t personal. It’s business.” It’s also horse manure. I plan to ask a series of questions about these claims and the document to show them false. At best, though, we’ll probably end up in a “He said, she said,” situation.

I’m hoping that when I bring out the facts about the decline in the practice and patient load, the fact of the pregnancy of two terminated staffers, and the departure of another staffer all at the same time, none of whom (as far as I know) have been replaced, the hearing officer will see what’s going on, or at least give Christina the benefit of the doubt.

More to come.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Another fight brewing, II

In a comment to the posting below, anonymous asks, “I am not an HR professional but I know how hard it can be to find a good employee, and you don't just let him/her go for a couple of mistakes. Whats the real deal?”

Well, read the posting “another fight brewing” first, then scroll back up and catch my answer.

We THINK the real deal is this: The medical practice in question went from four doctors (all specialists) down to one in a year’s time (fact). Obviously they also had a reduction in the number of patients. The office manager assured the staff that nobody would lose their jobs due to the departure of the docs.

Seems to me they were getting into a cash crunch and didn’t need all the staff. But since he’d PROMISED that there’d be no layoffs, he had to come up with a creative reason for the termination. Plus, he (the office mgr.) IS an attorney and surely knows that he can avoid paying unemployment if he fires someone for misconduct.

Further muddying the water is the fact that they let another staff member go at the same time. Both she and my daughter were then about 6 months pregnant. I think they also wanted to avoid the obvious health care insurance claims that were imminent when the babies were born. They had announced that the health coverage was up for renewal and they were concerned about the costs going up.

Ah, but firing for that reason is discriminatory and illegal. So another reason had to be manufactured.

Some folks would go out, hire a lawyer, file a discrimination suit and then perhaps settle for $20-30,000. All my daughter wants is unemployment compensation while she finds another job (difficult when she’s so very pregnant). In fact, two firings of pregnant employees is a class-action suit waiting to happen.

It’ll be interesting to see how hard they try to defend their “fired for misconduct” stance at the unemployment appeals hearing. It’s scheduled for Wednesday, March 9. Rest assured I’ll keep you informed of our preparation, the confrontation, and the outcome.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Another fight brewing!

Yeah, but this one is righteous! I’m going to help my daughter fight her ex-employer.

She worked at a medical practice for 14 months. They fired her. Why? Ah, there’s the issue!

Their version: she was fired for misconduct. She made a statement in front of a patient that could have given a negative impression of the medical practice. After a stern verbal warning about this, she was overheard almost immediately making another negative comment to a different patient.

Her version: she asked the doctor, with the patient present, if the next follow up appointment could be delayed beyond when the doctor was requesting as the week in question was already very full. She was told no. The office manager overheard this exchange and immediately took her aside to tell her the question was inappropriate as it implied to the patient that the practice was too busy. She apologized, but pointed out that the question would have been asked at checkout anyway. Nevertheless, she accepted the warning.

Some time later she had prepped a different patient (a baby) for the doctor after being told that the doctor would be in to see the baby next. She made small talk with the baby’s parents. (No pun intended there.) Some time passed and the parents were becoming anxious. My daughter went to check, saw the doctor approaching and said to the parents with a relieved smile, “OK, we’re finally ready to see you now.” That attempt at pleasant empathy got her fired.


Big deal, right? So they let her go. So what? In Texas employees are considered “at will,” meaning they can be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason. The only thing the law prohibits is an ILLEGAL reason (like age, sex, religion, race, ethnic origin, etc.)

Well, the “big deal” is unemployment compensation. In Texas, if you lose your job you are entitled to unemployment (which affects the employer’s payroll tax rate!) There are only two exceptions: voluntarily quitting, or being fired for misconduct (usually rules violation). So employers wanting to get rid of someone will try to avoid paying the higher tax by claiming misconduct.

No, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a long-term Human Resources Manager. I’ve sat through a bunch of appeals hearings over this issue, usually arguing the company’s side. This time I’m going to be on the other side of the table. More to come as it develops.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Spring in South Texas

We noticed this weekend that the ash trees are budding out and turning green.

The “love bugs” are starting to swarm. Some are already joined in their near-permanent coupling, but many others are still flying solo, seeking their “two shall become one” status.

Mosquito hawks are everywhere and the fire ants are becoming very active.

An article in our local paper noted the high number of dead skunks on the roads and described the phenomenon as the result of mating season. Ardent males in search of female companionship tend to ignore oncoming traffic in their single-minded pursuit. (Click HERE to read the story.)

I mowed the lawn on Saturday. The grass didn’t require trimming, but the thistles and clover brought in by airborne seeds were poking their tops up in ragged array and needed taming before they, too, sent forth their seeds in the breeze.

Farmers are either in their fields readying for planting, or wishing the mud would dry a little more so they could get out. The last threat of frost is usually past around the second week in March, so seed can be planted soon.

To my readers in somewhat higher latitudes, like you folks way up in Dallas, no I am not insane. Well, some might disagree with that. But I’m aware that this is only February 22, the day after Presidents’ Day, and many of you may still be planning your winter ski vacation.

Here in Victoria County it’s time for golf in short-sleeve shirts. Shoot, we’ve had robins hopping around our yard for a couple of weeks already. The birds, bugs and critters are going through their reproduction rituals. Spring hasn’t quite sprung, but it’s fixin’ to. We’re running our air conditioner — more to knock the humidity out of the air than to cool it — but still!

Don’t be jealous. Don’t begrudge us our early spring. It only lasts a few weeks, and then we’re slammed into the middle of full-blown summer. By April we’ll be seeking shade and air conditioned shelter from a skin-scorching sun (couldn’t resist all the esses).

We joke around here that we have nine months of summer, two months of winter, and two weeks each of spring and fall. Sometimes, though, we skip spring and fall completely. Maybe this year we’ll be blessed with an extra week or two.

Monday, February 21, 2005

A Country Music rambling

The Life of a Rodeo Cowboy, as told in 4 Country Songs.

Ever notice how some songs could be put together and they’d tell a more complete story than any one of the songs did? Consider these 4 country classics:

“Some Day Soon” sung by Suzy Boggus, but long before that by Ian and Sylvia (written by Ian Tyson)
“Rodeo” by Garth Brooks
“I Can Still Make Cheyenne” by George Strait
“Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait

I’d quote the entire lyrics of all 4 songs, but if you’re reading this you probably already know them. If not, click here and read them before going on.


“Some Day Soon” is written to be sung by a woman (I know; Chris LeDoux sang a version written for a man, but...). It tells of her love for a 21 year old man just out of the service. The problem?

"He loves that damned old rodeo as much as he loves me. "

But she’s going with him anyway, some day soon. Why? We must surmise that she thinks or hopes that his passion for the rodeo will fade, and that his love for her will keep them together. The familiar false hope of many a woman that she can change her man.


“Rodeo,” though sung by a man, is also told from the wife’s point of view. They are a bit older. He’s been hurt in a rodeo, but “his wounds have almost healed.”

She now knows, but is still in denial, that his love for the sport (game?) is still just as strong as his love for her. Maybe stronger. She knows he’s gonna go.

Is it the same cowboy and his wife? Could be. There are those same lyrics, “that damned old rodeo.” Sounds like the same couple, but grown more cynical.

But while she curses the rodeo, isn’t it in fact the cowboy who’s damned and not the sport?
He’s controlled by his need, and it will drive him insane. This song offers a chilling prediction of the inevitable outcome of his addiction; “all he’ll have to show” is a broken life.


“I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” A year or two pass. The cowboy’s wife hears the telephone ring, and wonders what’s wrong “this time.” No doubt something is wrong. Something always is. They haven’t been together in months. Still married, still hanging on, but only because she has nurtured that same hope in her heart over the years that his passion for the “damned old rodeo” will fade. Her heart tells her the hope is gone. She answers the phone.

After the first stanza the point of view changes from the wife’s to that of the cowboy. (Why does he start by assuring her that he’s all alone? Maybe because that’s not always the case?) He tells his tale to apparent stony silence, and asks, knowing the answer, if there’s something wrong.

In final acknowledgement of the truth she’s known all along, she tells him it’s over. She has lost hope. There is no way he’ll ever love her as much as he loves that damned old rodeo. There’s somebody new, and it sure ain’t no rodeo man!

Wait. Maybe she’s bluffing! Maybe she still clings to the hope that, faced with losing her, he’ll give up that stupid damned rodeo and come home.

If so, there’s an instant when it might happen. He apologizes! Says he’s “sorry it’s come down to this.” But that faint spark dies with his next words, as he shows where his heart really is:

“There’s so much about you that I’m gonna miss. But it’s all right, baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.”

Ah, the poignancy! He doesn’t hang up the phone, but leaves it dangling. He can’t bring himself to be the one to terminate the contact, the relationship, the marriage. He stares at it for a moment, and then drives off to his other love, damned to self destruction by his overpowering addiction.


“Amarillo by Morning” tells us his outcome. The entire song is from the cowboy’s point of view. There is nobody else in his life now. The broken bones and broken home promised in “Rodeo” are acknowledged in the second stanza.

In the third stanza we find that now the cowboy is the one in deep denial. He acknowledges that he has nothing, “Not a dime.” But he asserts that though not rich, he’s free.

In truth he’s just as much a slave as the plantation farm hand in the 1830s. His master is that “damned old rodeo.”


I love the ability of a song, or a few songs, to tell us so complete a tale in so few words. There’s enough material in those four songs to write a novel, or a series of them.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A political rambling

I’m treading on dangerous ground here, but an article in our local paper today got me going again on one of my favorite political rants. Term limits for congress.

According to the article, a number of the Republican (most of them) congressmen (and women) who were swept into office ten years ago in connection with their “contract with America” pledged to limit their own terms to two or three. I applauded that pledge, but knew even then it was doomed to failure.

Sure enough, the article said that while some of those were stepping down after two or three terms, others have decided to stay on. Their excuse for weaseling on their promise? Gee, they figured out that congress works on the seniority system, and in order to get on committees with any power they must have served longer than many others.

Well, duh! That’s part of the problem that term limits will solve!

And are they trying to tell me they didn’t know that’s how congress worked before they campaigned and made their pledge? That stretches my credulity WAY past the breaking point.

So what’s the answer? If we, the American people, want to break the cronyism and good ole boy systems that have caused the abuses in the spending of OUR money for decades, we need to force our congresspersons to pass a mandatory limit on terms.

A pledge from candidates to limit their OWN terms is OK, but as we can see from practice it doesn’t work. It’s unenforceable. Why? Because it’s voluntary. If some limit their own terms and others don’t guess who winds up with all the power.

We need to elect candidates committed to passing a term limits law. That will invalidate the seniority system.

Then we need to put all congresspersons under the same Social Security system as the rest of us. If that were to happen I bet congress would become REAL creative in ways to keep the system solid and solvent, instead of the political football it is today. Ah, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

I promise not to get off on political ramblings very often. All they’ll do is alienate folks who disagree, and I’m not out to alienate folks. Guess in the future I’ll stick to...??

I’m trying real hard to think of topics to stick to that won’t alienate anyone. Not having much luck.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Phone problems resolved

On Friday our local telephone repair tech Bill (see postings below concerning my fight with the phone company) stopped by to test our circuits and ensure that we were connected back onto Verizon’s long distance network.

We were. I asked him if he’d ever figured out why it was impossible to accomplish that last week, but this week it was quick and seamless. He hadn’t. His best guess was that some programming technician somewhere in Verizon’s system made an incorrect keystroke that went undetected for a while. Somehow, somewhere in that tangled system, the programming either found and corrected the error or someone overwrote it with a new instruction.

Doesn’t matter. The problem is solved. I’m sure the attention is now focused on a new problem someone else is having. I wonder if anyone will think about all the opportunities for improvements in their company’s “customer service” group that MY problem revealed.

Somehow I doubt it. Analyzing why a customer was left with a bad taste in his mouth isn’t sexy. Determining if additional training is needed, or a shift in culture, or maybe even a review of the difficulty in speaking to a customer service rep — those aren’t sexy either. Jumping on an immediate current problem and getting it fixed is a much higher priority. And a lot sexier.

So despite my desire to reform Verizon into a custome service powerhouse, I doubt my letter writing will have much effect. It's a hell of a good letter. Funny, too. A little caustic in places, but hey, if the shoe fits...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Birthday Thoughts

Yeah, today is my birthday. Woo – woo. I know; who cares?

We celebrate the anniversary of our birth as if it’s a big deal. Gee, we’ve made one more trip around the sun. Isn’t that a great accomplishment? Aren’t we special? Well...no and no.

It’s fun to have a party, starting with a baby who’s just turned one year old. Those little ones are so cute with cake frosting smeared all over their faces and the rest of their immediate environment, crying in confusion at the candle we won’t let them touch and at all the attention they don’t understand.

At age two through about ten we delight in THEIR delight at presents, gift wrap, party dresses, friends over, games, and maybe a clown. We develop a culture where everyone thinks their birthday is THEIR special day. And while that’s not necessarily bad, it’s a misguided focus.

Whose special day should it be? Well, our mothers’, of course!

She’s the one who did all the work that day. She suffered through something no one of my gender will ever fully understand or appreciate.

But that was just the beginning. She then had to go through all the years of child rearing, with all that entails. Middle of the night feedings, diapers, daily laundry, teething, potty training... OK, you know the list, and how it goes on and on.

Then there was the mental anguish she went through watching us learn through trial and (lots of) error, putting up with us through a surly adolescence, and worrying about all the influences out there trying to lead us down a path she knew would not be the best for us.

On my birthday, those are the things I think about in pure wonder. I thank God that He instilled maternal instinct into the females of our species.

I know we celebrate much of that on Mothers Day each year. But that’s a generic day for all mothers. I always call my Mom on my birthday as HER special day, to thank and congratulate her specifically on her great accomplishment.

No, none of us ever turns out perfect. But it isn’t Mom’s fault. Give her a call on your next birthday and let her know how glad you are about the part she played in making you who you are!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A little more on Lantz Powell

My last posting about the ups and downs of communicating with Lantz brought one posted comment and a couple of emails.

Yeah, unlike many bloggers I put my email address in my profile for all to see.

I know, it’ll be snatched up by web crawlers and wind up on a zillion spam lists. I figure, what’s a zillion or two more? Most of my spam doesn’t even merit a glance and is deleted after looking at the subject line and sender. A few are entertaining. I keep waiting for the next new BIG category. After those for weight loss, size enhancement of personal body parts (male and female), cheap rip-off software, erectile dysfunction cures, cheap prescription drugs that are probably sugar pills, low rate mortgages, and Rolex watches that are probably Timex, what else is there? Oh, I get the occasional ad for an online casino or a new porn site, but most are now stale.

Reminds me, I laughed out loud at the Dilbert strip a few days ago in which Dogbert was sending out spam offering a pill that would turn body fat into a Rolex watch. Scott Adams is a genius!

OK, back to Lantz. The reactions I’ve received have expressed curiosity as to why I “put up” with him, or signed with him in the first place. The anonymous comment asked, “What’s he in it for?”

Well, follow the money. I haven’t paid him a cent. Zip. Nada. So if he’s “using” me, I can’t figure out how. The contract I signed with him gives him exclusive representation rights on one novel for a year. But if six months go by and he’s not trying very hard to sell it (or becomes convinced it won’t sell) I imagine he let me cancel. Why not?

As for authors evaluating each others’ work, I didn’t find it offensive or burdensome. Evaluating other manuscripts did give me a better idea of some techniques that do or don’t work. He presented the idea as a way to help me improve my writing. Again, why not? Didn’t cost anything.

Now, if he used those evaluations to make a decision on whether or not to represent someone, then he’s relinquished a huge amount of control of his own business. I don’t see that happening.

Bottom line? He’s spent a lot of time “working” with me to get my manuscript in better shape, and I’m convinced it’s MUCH better than it was. In fact I’m embarrassed at how bad it was before my own ruthless editing, and my editor’s further work.

To me, all that remains to be seen is: does he try to sell it, and is he successful? If he at least tries, I’m still ahead of where I would have been.

Check into this blog from time to time (if you’re not already a committed daily reader!) and find out haw the saga goes.

By the way, he is a bit controversial. If you Google him you’ll find a discussion group in which he is alternately vilified and lionized. Finally he weighs in personally with a defense against the outrageous claims. I read through the entries bemused. All I would say to his detractors is what’s above. He’s never asked for nor been paid a penny from me. You might say, I’m getting what I’m paying for. Maybe. But since I’m not paying, (shrug).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

My Fight with the Cable TV Company

I seem to be a magnet for “customer service” problems. Well, that’s not fair. I sometimes experience superior customer service. When I do, I make a point of writing to someone in that organization to express my pleasure and desire to give them repeat business.

When I don’t, I also write someone. Or at least call and report the circumstances.

But while I’m on the subject I’ll relate a recent adventure with Cox Communications.

As a card-carrying member of the digital revolution, I pay all of my recurring bills via “online banking.” Hey, it’s fast, easy, and it works. I’ve been doing it for years, ever since my hometown bank began offering it.

Rarely has there been a glitch, and those few have been straightened out with minimal effort.

My cable television service is one of those accounts that never had a glitch...until last October. I’d paid the September bill plenty early, but my October bill showed no September credit, an overdue balance and a late charge.

I called to inquire.

A breathless smiling voice said, “Thank you for choosing Cox Communications, your friend (emphasis) in the digital age! For English, press one. Para EspaƱol, marque el dos.” You can hear it if you like. Just dial (888) 822-5151.

I won’t quote all the other voice prompts, but suffice to say I was offered choices of business or residential, internet or cable TV services, billing questions or technical support, and more.

Selecting “billing” rewarded me with more recorded information that the call may be monitored or recorded “for quality assurance reasons” (Interpretation: “So we can nail you if you say something you’ll later regret!”), all agents were busy helping other customers, my call was important and would be answered in the order in which it was received, please do not hang up and call again as that will only delay my service, yada yada yada. Then I was treated to a repeating loop recording of Cox ads touting various TV shows and upcoming specials.

I tuned them all out, and eventually was connected to a smiley-voiced human being who asked for my account number, name and address, and “to verify my identity” the last 4 digits of my Social Security number. Satisfied, she asked, “How may I help you?”

Over the next few months I heard those recordings and questions so many times they’re now engrained in my subconscious. Years from now when I’m in a nursing home and confused about my identity, location and all details of my current existence, I’m sure I’ll be able to recite, “Thank you for choosing Cox Communications, your friend in the digital age.”

I was asked to prove that I had paid the bill in question. A copy of my cancelled check? Nope, I pay through a third party using online banking. No cancelled check. How about a copy of my bank statement showing the debit to my account payable to Cox? “Oh, yes. That’s all we’ll need.” (Not!)

Three months later, having escalated the situation to the supervisor and the manager level, I still had an overdue balance and service charge on my monthly bill. I had provided fax copies of the front and back of the cancelled check from the bank’s third party payer, proving beyond any doubt that I had paid the bill on time.

The problem? They couldn’t credit MY account until they could figure out where the money went in error so they could debit THAT account and balance their books. I told them I was tired of seeing the past due balance and the service charge on my statement, and I didn’t care WHERE they money came from much less whether their books balanced. I was feeling a little unbalanced myself.

They wanted me to understand their problem. What I understood with great clarity was this: it was, as they said, THEIR problem!

My January bill finally showed an adjustment with the past due balance and the service charge gone. I don’t know if they ever did find out where that money went. And as Rhett said to Scarlet, “Frankly, my dear...”

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Acquiring a Literary Agent – Communicating?

... But then, one week later, an email appeared from Lantz:

"John,

“Our submissions department now thinks that we might be able to sell Cherish. However, don't think we are going to be able to do it overnight. The fact that you have gone the extra mile and come up with a list of prospective publishers helped a lot.

“Below is a second group of questions. These are focused on marketing. Please go back and pull the publishers the librarian came up with and insert them the questions below.

“At the end of this email, I have enclosed a copy in PDF with our standard agreement for your signature. If you have any questions, please let me know."



I read it. Then I read it again. A flood of thoughts rushed through my mind.

“Who IS this guy? It can’t be the same Lantz.”

“Is he playing with me?”

“Is he serious?”

“If not, then...??”

“Do I really WANT this guy representing me?”

I waited a few days and sent him this:

“I must have misunderstood your two emails of Oct. 23. The statements from your submissions department had an air of finality. The writer didn't like Cherish the first time and still does not like it. To paraphrase: it is boring with a cheesy opening and has some fundamental writing flaws throughout (overuse of character names, unnecessary detail of action).

“How can a manuscript be transformed in one week from a loser to something you can sell?

“Wait! That is not a defensive reaction. I can take criticism. I responded that same day in what I thought was a positive fashion indicating that I can fix many of those flaws. I asked a question about the formatting and spell check remarks.

“I assumed our agent-author relationship was beyond reconciliation, but I planned to move forward. ‘That said, I can tell I've reached a dead end with SouthernLitAgent's submission department. I doubt that any amount of editing and changes would turn around his/her feelings toward this project. And that's OK. I'd rather have this honest feedback than some platitudes!’

“You chose not to respond to my questions or to correct my ‘dead end’ comment but critiqued the writing style of my response, ending with, ‘Good luck.’ I took that to mean, ‘Good luck, and goodbye.’ I had not planned to contact you again. Your email of yesterday was a complete surprise.

“Lantz, in the last seven days something must have happened. Can you tell me what that was?”


I told him several other things, including the fact that I had engaged the services of a very picky editor to review the book, help me clean it up in terms of loose writing, grammar, style, sophistication, and more. I told him I supposed we could work together, but I had serious reservations about our ability to communicate with clarity.

Here’s his response:

“As to what happened. We are always weighing pros and cons. The Submissions department said it was not as good as it should be and could be better etc., etc., etc. I on the other hand had met you and am convinced that you understand that marketing is a major part of the process. I don't look for great authors who don't understand that they are the main reason that will make the project sell. The fact that you went the extra step and did some research on who it might be sold to honestly made me say that I want to try to pitch it even though it has some flaws that need to be cleaned out. Maybe with the new editor some of those will be purged and both you and I will be happy, and I can show the Submissions Department that I was right after all.”

Well... OK. I guess. We’ve had some very cordial correspondence since then. A bit of a roller coaster ride, but that’s my story of acquiring a literary agent.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Acquiring a Literary agent – Editing

“You talk too much,” he told me.

I had contacted Lantz early in his new career as a literary agent, and he hadn’t signed many clients yet. When he received all of my material (see the previous post) he either: 1) saw some potential and thought I might be worth some time (my preferred version of events), or 2) felt sorry for me and against his better judgment took some time to help a floundering amateur (the more likely scenario).

Whatever. He advised that I read a book on “Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer,” apply its principles and send him my revised MS.

I did. “Much better,” he replied, “But...”

This time he gave me a few specific examples of how he wanted me to edit the MS. In an email he copied in several of my paragraphs and highlighted phrases and sentences that could be cut with no loss to the story. The result was much tighter writing. OK. NOW I get it.

Another complete re-write. I was now down to about 90,000 words and thought it was really ready to sell.

Lantz’s advice was to re-read the “Self Editing” book and get brutal with the (eraser, knife, delete key — pick your analogy.) He gave me some more examples. He also encouraged me. One sentence in his email read, “It is so close to being so damn good I can taste it. “

Wow. Talk about mixed emotions. I was at the same time amazed that this agent was spending so much time with me, abashed that he still didn’t think my book was of commercial quality, but thrilled with that “so close to being so damn good...” comment.

I got brutal. I rearranged chapters and events into a more logical order. I cut out whole sections of what I had considered good background material but which really added nothing to the story. Then I went back and cut out more sections. Whole chapters went away. I searched for all the “ly” adverbs in the book and cut out ALL of them that modified a verb except those used in dialogue. (I mean, c’mon! When people speak they totally use adverbs!)

The word count was now 75,000, a full 25% cut from the original. Surely now I had it right.

During this time Lantz went through a phase he has since abandoned. He had prospective clients read and review (evaluate with a large “scorecard”) the manuscripts of other prospective clients. I actually read 3 other manuscripts: graded one an A+ (really liked it!), one a C (the writing was pretty good, but I found I just didn’t relate to or care about the characters), and one an F (I just couldn’t get into it; I read 50 pages and had no idea what was going on in the story). Two different people graded my story. (To my delight, neither panned it. Both said it had rough areas, but was sound and a good read.)

I waited for Lantz to sign me up. And waited. I tried to be patient. He advised me to keep writing, because many publishers will want a commitment for more than one book if they like the first offering. I had several projects outlined, but started on a sequel with some of the same main characters as “Cherish Is the Word.”

I even went to the trouble and expense of attending a writers’ conference in Ft. Worth, about a 6-hour drive from my home. Lantz was speaking at the conference and I wanted to meet him. We met and had several good, positive conversations. Two weeks later I sent him the latest version of the manuscript. I waited.

Tired of waiting I fired off an email asking Lantz if we had a future. He asked me for a few days to meet with his “Submissions Department” to make a decision. I chafed. Five days later came a chilling reply.

His submissions department wrote, “You wanted me to look at Cherish again. I don't like it anymore now than I did the first time. It's boring to me. I don't like the cheesy way it starts out in 1st person telling the story to his daughter and then shifts to 3rd person as he goes back to tell the story. If an author sets a character up as the narrator, keep it that way. He needs to format, run a spell check, eliminate overuse of the character name and use pronouns and have less unnecessary detail of action.”

OUCH! “Cheesy?” “Boring?” “I don’t like it...?” Wow.

It took me a few days to digest that. I felt sure that Lantz was telling me “goodbye.” I thought the message was pretty darn clear. But I wrote him back to tell him (in a conversational tone) how much I appreciated all his advice and efforts on my behalf. I never expected to hear from him again.

But that same evening he sent me (get this!) a critique of my conversational “goodbye,” told me to read the self-editing book again, and wished me luck.

OK. End of relationship. I planned to never contact him again.

But then... (More next posting)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Acquiring a Literary agent – The Query Letter

I already have one. Agent, that is. But it darn sure didn’t happen overnight, and I won’t bore you with the entire saga in this one posting. In fact, it would take quite a few to tell the entire tale.

If you’re trying to find one (agent) and haven’t checked out Gerard Jones’ irreverent web site, do so now. It is: http://everyonewhosanyone.com/
Just plan to spend quite a bit of time browsing and reading and laughing.

After I had my novel manuscript ready (Uh huh. Right. Guess again.), I read up on the art of writing a query letter. A query letter is supposed to tell a literary agent in about 5 paragraphs: who you are, why you’ve selected him/her to query, what you’ve written, why it’ll sell like crazy, what else you’ve written, include an offer to send a sample of your work or the entire manuscript, and ALWAYS enclose a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) or you won’t get a rejection letter.

I wrote a hell of a good query letter and sent it to 10 agents a week for 8 weeks. I got back 80 variations of, “No, thanks.” Some actually hand-wrote on my own query letter astute things like, “No interest” or “Not right for me,” stuck it back into my SASE, and mailed it back to me. Not ONE wanted to sell my potential best-selling book!

Hmmm. Let me think about this. I need to send out MORE letters.

There are hundreds and hundreds of agents. Shoot, some agencies have dozens of them, and each one can be queried. So, I sent out about 60 more copies of the same letter, and guess what? I got back 60 more versions of “NO.” (Sounds like the old song, “What Part of No Don’t You Understand.”)

Hmmm. Let me think about this some more. They haven’t seen anything I’ve written except my query letter. I wonder...should I re-draft the query letter?

DUH!

I wrote a much better letter and mailed out copies to 10 agents a week for 8 weeks. This time nearly one in six asked for more. A synopsis. The first ten pages. The first 50 pages. Two wanted the entire manuscript. I HAD LEARNED HOW TO WRITE A QUERY!!

With stars now dancing in my eyes I sent the requested material waited for the offers. And waited.

Hmmm. Maybe I need to try editing my book.

Three re-writes later I was still getting no agents beating down my door wanting me to sign.

I expanded my horizons and contacted more agents. One of those was Lantz Powell, of Chattanooga, TN. (What? A literary agent in Chattanooga, TN?) He calls his agency “Literary Agency for Southern Authors,” and limits his clientele to writers located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Texas qualifies, so I queried him.

Lantz responded with some interest, but first wanted me to answer a long list of questions. It was worse than a job application! I was dubious, but decided he had the right to know who I was, why I wanted to write, what I planned to write, what I had already written, and a bunch more. I sent him all of that plus my entire manuscript, a synopsis, a chapter outline; a total of 8 attachments to the email.

His response was, “You talk too much.”

If you’re reading these postings, you already know that I can be, shall we say, a bit wordy. His point was that I needed to do some serious editing of my book.

More to come...

Saturday, February 12, 2005

How’d I come to write a novel? Ch. 2.

I’ve been writing for decades. In fact, I guess it runs in the family. My sister has completed 4 or 5 romance novel manuscripts, and even worked with a literary agent for a while trying to get the first one sold. Her works are more along the “classic” lines of that genre than mine.

Mine is a military action / love story cross-genre mix that would probably be sold as a “romance novel” if it’s ever published. My sister’s books are good. Her agent’s only complaint was that the heroine wasn’t strong enough for today’s market. Maybe someday she’ll pursue that dream again and be published before I am.

I started writing out my story to share with my now-adult children and our friends, with no thought of any commercial possibility. The further along I got, the more convinced I became that, hey, this might sell!

So I threw in some fictional people and events to strengthen the “conflict” angle and to add challenges to the main characters. I went back through it and reworked sections to smooth it out. When I finally typed, “The End,” I was pretty satisfied. It came to 100,000 words, give or take.

My wife refused to read it. She’s a smart lady! She knew that she would find sections or passages that she’d want me to change, and it would likely cause a defensive reaction. She knows me well.

I asked both of our daughters to read it. They did, and were gleeful to learn some of the intimate details, new to them, of their parents’ meeting and courtship. I twisted their arms a bit and got them to provide me feedback on the story and the writing. My younger daughter works with Tina, a Creative Writing major who also read the whole manuscript. All said it was pretty good, but...

I really wanted to hear the rest of the “but...” I asked them to pretend it wasn’t me who wrote it, just critique it to me. With reluctance they all did, but they were far too gentle. Based on their “suggestions” I pared the length to 95,000 words and figured it was ready.

I began querying agents for representation.

Ah! The query letter. More on that next time.

Friday, February 11, 2005

A Fight with the Phone Company, Part II

Friday morning, 7:00 a.m. We’re at 4 full days and counting with no toll calling capability. My company is now in danger of losing some business and has already incurred extra costs to communicate through alternate means (cell phones).

I had a message on my phone this morning from one of the repair departments I’d called yesterday. They wanted clarification about the problem.

What’s to clarify? You turned off my long distance access — turn it back on!

I called the number and was surprised when someone (Sylvia) answered. I was further surprised to learn that she was in California where it’s 5:00 a.m.

After I “clarified” the problem for her, Sylvia determined that this was not a “repair” issue, it was simply an issue of getting my long distance service turned back on. I informed her, not in a kindly tone, that I knew THAT back on Tuesday. Further, that Travis had promised me on Tuesday that he would enter a work order in their system to accomplish that simple act.

Sylvia began speaking to me more slowly, enunciating each word. “Sir, there is no order in the system. There is nothing else I can do from this office. You need to call our long distance department and initiate an order. Please write this down…”

I was being patronized. I wanted so much to scream, “No, Sylvia, YOU write THIS down!”

I held my emotions in check and wrote. Next stop, the long distance department. Oh, but they don’t open until 8:00 a.m. Central time and it’s only 7:10.

I waited. I managed not to snap at several co-workers who came by to wish me a cheery “Good morning!” Followed with, “Oh, hey, are the phones fixed yet?”


8:30 a.m. I’m on hold waiting for someone from the Large Business Accounts department to answer the phone. At least their music on hold — provided by an oldies radio station — is classic 60s rock. That’s better than listening to a loop tape of the same song over and over. Or, worse, listening to a loop of company advertisements and promotions for their services!

In case you’re wondering, the long distance department referred me to the Large Business Accounts people. (I wonder if the Business Accounts are large, or the people?)

I’ve been holding for almost 15 miuntes, just to get a customer service rep on the line. And this is the line for Large Business Accounts! I wonder how long it takes a residential customer to get a human being to talk to.

Ha! Someone answered. I demanded a supervisor. I’m on hold again waiting for one.

Got the supervisor! Now she’s got me on hold waiting to “conference in” someone from their Long Distance department. I’m refusing to let her pass me on to anybody. She is going to stay on the line with me until we get the problem resolved. Oh, THIS is cool! It turns out she is Travis’ boss! I gave her an earful about her employee who read my emails but didn’t bother to respond to them.

“Heat Wave”
“Stop, in the Name of Love”
“Dancin’ in the Street”
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”
“Farmer John”
“You Really Got Me Goin’”

Man, the hits just keep on coming! But the supervisor (Kim) doesn’t.

Oh, here’s one I haven’t heard in years! “Abraham, Martin and John.”

“He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.
I just looked around, and he was gone.”

Darn. Kim came back on the line in the middle of that one to tell me she’s frustrated (“Join the club,” I told her) and trying to get management personnel to escalate this problem and get it fixed. She’ll call me back, she says. OK.

9:30 a.m. Kim called back from a speaker phone in a room with several people. Her boss, “Bud,” asked me for the exact text of the error message I get when I dial long distance. I put him on hold, used the other line to listen to it, and carefully repeated it back to him. Ah! That told him that the problem was in their system, not my local switch. I knew that, but he had to convince himself.

They put me on “Mute” so they could talk about my problem without letting me hear them.
Their next offering was, “OK, try this for a workaround while we work on the solution to your real problem. Dial ten-ten-5483 — that’s the Verizon long distance code — then the area code and number.”

I tried. I got a rapid busy that the phone company calls a reorder tone. The had me try other variations of ten-ten codes. Nothing works. They’ll call me back.

I’m waiting, and now I don’t even get to listen to their classic rock. Darn again.


Time passes. My local repair tech Bill called and asked me to try a long distance call again. He tells me he is connected remotely to my plant’s phone system, and he can track what happens to my call. I try a call and get the same recording. He confirms that my call made it through my plant’s switch and got hung up in Verizon’s system somewhere else. He’ll keep working on it.

Bill just called back and asked me to try another series of ten-ten codes. He’s sure they will work now because he has just reprogrammed the Central Office switch. They don’t. He tells me he’ll be at my plant in 30 minutes to see if my switch needs some kind of programming.

I remain patient and supportive of Bill. He’s trying everything he can think of, even though he and I are both pretty sure the problem lies elsewhere.


12:30 p.m. Bill is here, talking on the phone with technicians in other locations while programming our switch. Nothing has any effect. I go to the lunch room to eat.


1:00 p.m. I’m reminded of the song “No News” from Lone Star.

“I prefer a bad excuse, to no news.”

1:20 p.m. I’m tired of waiting. I call for Kim at the Large Business Accounts number. I learn that Kim is out of the office. (Probably enjoying lunch. Or, maybe she’s huddled with some higher-ups trying to solve my long distance problem. Yeah, right; it’s gotta be lunch.) I asked for and was given her email address! I’ll see if SHE will respond to an email.

2:15 p.m. Kim just opened my email. Let’s see if she calls me or emails me back…

2:30 p.m. Ah! An email from Kim. She assures me that while she was out several other managers were working on the problem. She further assures me that she will be in touch as soon as she hears something. How comforting.

It’s now clear to me that this problem is NOT going to be resolved today. (Hey, I’m slow, but even I can intuit some things!) And, I’ll venture a guess that on Monday morning it won’t be fixed either.

I need to leave a few minutes early to drive to a local supermarket and send two faxes (long distance) that just HAVE to go out today.

On the positive side, my back isn’t hurting any more. That’s totally irrelevant to this posting, but it’s the only positive note I can come up with now.


3:15 p.m. WAIT!! Late breaking news! Bill just called and asked who my Long Distance Provider of choice would be, after Verizon. I told him, “At this point, NOBODY is after Verizon. They’re all AHEAD of Verizon. But if I have to choose one, AT&T.”

He spoke into another phone, “Jeff, AT&T.” He paused for maybe 10 seconds and told me, “Try it now.” IT WORKED!

Bill told me, “What I just did is probably illegal, and AT&T may cut you off. If they do I’ll switch you to MCI or somebody else until Verizon can get you fixed up.”

3:16 p.m. I can now call and fax long distance. I notified everybody at the plant via mass email. Then I left for the rest of the week. Hey, it’s Friday. I need a beer.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Fight with the Phone Company

This past Monday morning I tried to dial a toll call from my office. I heard a recording I’d never heard before:

“We’re sorry, the number you are calling from has been disconnected.”

What!?

I dialed again just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t.

“No it hasn’t,” I said back to the recording. The recording didn’t seem to care.

Others at work began complaining that their phones weren’t working. It turned out that all were getting the same recording.

I called the cell phone number of our local phone repairman. (This is a small town, after all; Bill and I are on a first name basis.) He told me it wasn’t a local problem that he could fix, but I should put in a trouble call to the 800 number. Big mistake.

By 11:00 a.m. I had spoken with at least 6 different “customer service” reps, each of whom started out with empathy and questions, but ended up pointing fingers at other companies or other departments within their company.

I had one big advantage: ALL my local phone services (local, long distance and wireless) are handled by one company. I won’t tell you its name but it starts with a “V” and rhymes with “horizon.”

Despite that “advantage” I was passed from one person to another, and none of them had much empathy for me, the customer. One, named Travis, seemed to take ownership of the problem. He called me back two or three time with progress reports and initially gave me an 8 hour target for resolution of this emergency problem. Later he asked that I revise his target to 24 hours, as this was looking like a difficult issue.

Tuesday came and went with a couple progress reports and an indication from a technician that he had figured out the problem (Duh! The problem is, my long distance service has been turned off!) but to get the service turned back on Travis would have to submit an order to the long distance department. Travis assured me he would do so right away.

Wednesday (yesterday) came and went with no communication at all. My two emails to Travis pleading for an update and a solution were read (auto read receipt – a wonderful tool) but not replied to.

This morning (Thursday), 72 hours after my first trouble call, I again called my local repair technician in desperation. To his credit, he has since called me back 4 times with “updates.” He tells me he has several other technicians on another line who THINK they’ve solved my problem. “Can you call out now?” (“Can you hear me now? Good!”) I dutifully put him on hold, try to call out, get the same strange recording, and tell him, “Not yet.” The afternoon drags on.

Now Thursday has come and gone, and we’re over 80 hours into this service outage. I’ve written a hateful letter to “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN” at Veriz... oops, I wasn’t going to name the company.

My letter informs them that a change is needed to either their organization or their culture. I have no idea who will read the letter, or if anyone will care. My next step will be a complaint to the F.C.C., the agency that regulates long distance service. Maybe a call from the federal regulators will get someone’s attention. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

How'd I come to write a novel?

For years I’ve told people the short version – a couple of paragraphs – of how I met my wife. Most folks would say, “Awwww. How sweet. What a neat story! You ought to write a book about it.”

But I never had the time. Or to be more accurate, I never took the time.

Then the company I work for went through bankruptcy and eventual liquidation. While the banks were trying to sell the facility where I work, I was retained as part of a custodial force to keep the place presentable and to help provide information to prospective buyers. For six months I came to the office four days a week for 8 hours. On many days I had little to do.

Since I now had the time, I took the time and wrote the story.

It’s called "Cherish Is the Word." Yes, it’s named after the old song “Cherish,” written by Terry Kirkman and performed by The Association back in the 60s. In fact, it’s full of references to 60s songs, and the title song actually becomes the story’s climax.

Most of it is true, including the influence of the title song. Some of the characters and events are fiction, and others underwent name changes and enough changes in specific details that they are unrecognizable.

You’d like it. Those who have read it are anxious for a sequel, which I’m currently about 20% into.

Can you buy it? Sure, if my literary agent is ever successful in selling it to a publisher and it makes it to market. What are the odds of that? Good question.

I intend to use this blog to chronicle not only my daily life and work events (to the extent I think they may be of interest to a casual reader), but also the journey of creating a novel manuscript and getting it “good enough” to be potentially marketable. Further I plan to describe the process I went through to find a literary agent who’d work with me and with whom I have now signed a representation agreement.

Stay tuned to future posts. If something interesting is happening in another part of my life, you’ll read about that. If not, you’ll get installments and updates on my attempt to break into the ranks of published fiction authors.

If you like what you read here, please let me know and put a link to me on your own blog. Plus tell all your email and chat room friends about Romantic Ramblings. If you don’t like what you read here, go away and never come back!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Attending a Funeral

Births. Marriage. Divorce. Adoption. My company’s Corporate HR group calls them “Life Events.” One such life event is the death of a loved one. Of those, perhaps the most painful or traumatic to a family is the loss of a child.

The natural order of things seems to dictate that our children should outlive us. Thus it is especially jarring when that order is reversed. More so, it appears, when that loss is sudden and unexpected.

Last Friday night a co-worker’s daughter drove home from her restaurant job waiting tables. She was alone in the car. There were no drugs or alcohol involved. All that’s known is that the car left the road and crashed. Abbie was dead when the sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene. It was one day after her 18th birthday.

Abbie was beautiful. She was a high school senior, a musician, a cheerleader and a surfer. Beyond that she was her daddy’s girl, the very image of her mother, and a favorite of her classmates. She had everything going for her; a limitless future. Her dreams of that future were snuffed out with her life on the side of the road.

Today the memorial service was held in this small town’s First Baptist Church. The building couldn’t begin to hold the crowd.

Flower arrangements filled the front of the sanctuary where the choir sings on Sundays. The plants and bouquets overwhelmed the pulpit and spilled down off the platform to the pews. The service was to begin at 10:00 am. The building was packed by 9:20.

Abbie’s family requested that to the extent possible, as a tribute to their daughter, those attending should not wear black. Instead the suggested attire was jeans, Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. A few of the older mourners wore suits and church dresses, but the vast majority was in colorful, flowered garments.

The service was a celebration of life and of the promised resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless there were no dry eyes as the congregation inched forward after the eulogy to hug Abbie’s Mom and Dad and sister. Dad, my coworker, held up much better than I would have. I know he was in agony on the inside.

So now, life goes on. The grieving will continue, and the healing will begin. Life will return to almost normal for most of the town. But the hundreds of lives touched by Abbie will never be quite the same.

Dying is indeed part of living, so I guess it is a “Life Event.” To many in this small Texas town, our mortality has been brought to our attention in a tragic and jolting way.

Monday, February 07, 2005

!!*&@%**!&!! Backache!

Yesterday I fired up the electric chainsaw and attacked a row of oleanders that had grown unchecked for three years and towered well over 15 feet.

More to the point, they also aimed their 15-foot shoots out in all directions from center. This made then very difficult to mow around, and caused them to obscure a stop sign down at the corner.

Every couple of years I whack them back to a bunch of stubs about one foot tall. I try to do this in the winter when, 1) it’s cooler work, and, 2) it’s after a freeze when the leaves have been burned and they look ugly anyway. The chain saw makes this task a lot easier than my former method with a bow saw.

I have six of these monstrosities in a row, about 15 feet apart. I started on one end, and managed to get four of them down without too much difficulty. At least, no severed fingers, gashed knees or sprained ankles from tripping on the downed fronds. I’d planned to cut back all six, put away the saw and extension cords, and then, over the next few days, gather the fronds into piles for the trash pickup.

I attacked the fifth oleander, had it about 1/3 down, and straightened up to move around it. ZING! Lower back, left side. No warning, no real strain or extra movement, just zing.

That was the end of oleander cutting. I had difficulty picking up the chain saw, gathering up the extension cords and putting everything back in the garage. No way I was going to be able to move all the limbs and fronds into piles.

I have this lower back pain once or twice a year, on average. Usually it is brought on from either a sudden exertion, or just a simple bending down or straightening up with no strain. The pain keeps me from doing most anything for a day or two, and then I hobble around for another day or two. In a week to ten days, it’s gone. Doesn’t seem to matter if I do nothing, see a chiropractor, take prescription muscle relaxers and pain pills, stay in bed, or walk as much as I can stand. It just takes a week to ten days for the pain to go away.

So, if my next few posts sound grumpier than normal, you’ll know why.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Airport security.

Speaking of airline travel, have you done any of that recently? Have you formed any impressions of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) procedures at airports?

In the Louisville airport (SDF) at 6:00 AM on a Friday morning, it seemed there were more TSA employees than passengers. My boarding pass and photo ID were checked three times by three different agents within a 30 foot distance. Each agent watched each of the other agents check my documents, yet each one went through the same procedure with me.

Then came the metal detection device, preceded by each passenger placing everything possible into plastic trays that are fed through an x-ray machine. And I mean everything possible.

As a frequent flyer, I know the drill. I try to wear items with no metal on them so I won’t have to strip off quite as much as others. This includes shoes with no metal eyelets for the laces.

Off came my watch and glasses, and out of my pockets came keys, coins, wallet, and a computer flash drive I usually carry. Since I also carry a notebook computer, it came out of its carry bag; and all of those items went into the plastic trays.

Before I passed through the little doorframe metal detector, the attending agent asked me to please remove my shoes. I smiled and told her they won’t set anything off; there’s no metal in or on them.

With no change in facial expression she asked me again to please remove my shoes. Now I know that shoe removal is not required (some airports allow you to walk through with them on), so I smiled again and told her, “These shoes have been through many metal detectors. They won’t set it off.”

Now she knew she was dealing with a troublemaker. With a roll of her eyes she informed me that if I wanted to leave Louisville on an airplane that day, I needed to put my shoes through the x-ray machine.

Being a perceptive, observant individual I continued smiling, pulled off the offending shoes and placed them in a plastic tray. With no further comment or acknowledgement she motioned me forward. I passed through the detector without incident and was waved on to pick up my three trays of items.

I counted 14 agents at that security checkpoint. After ensuring that I had collected all my belongings I glanced back and counted 8 passengers passing through the checkpoint or approaching it. For some reason I didn’t feel safer than I used to feel flying before 9-11.

To be fair, I’m sure that within an hour there would have been a continuous line of people going through security and 14 agents might be needed. And I guess their presence might actually prevent some idiot from getting on board an airplane with terrorist intent. But knowing that the same scene was playing out that day in literally hundreds of US airports, I had to wonder at the cost/benefit ratio.

The cost has to be astronomical. Are we truly safer having spent the money, undergone the inefficiency, and putting up with the inconvenience? Let's hope so.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Brave, or stupid? Airborne excitement.

I spent the last five days in Louisville, KY, on a business trip. Flew there from Texas on Monday, flew back on Friday morning.

Our Continental jet was an Embraer 50 passenger job; one of those long skinny twin engine models with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other.

Houston had a low ceiling with rain and thunderstorms in the area. Some earlier departures had been held on the ground as a hail storm passed through.

Our little jet became airborne without incident, and was about five minutes into the flight climbing through solid grey soup.

An instantaneous flash of light through the left side windows accompanied by a moderate “Bang” and a lurch of the plane got my complete attention. In what had to be less than one second my brain processed the following series of thought fragments:

Shit!
Had to be the left engine.
Bird strike?
Engine exploded. Must have. That flash...
We’re going down. Back to Houston?
Hope the flight controls and hydraulics are OK.
Wonder if we’ll make it.

I just knew the nose would start down, the engine noise would change, emergency instructions would be passed, and the next few minutes would get exciting.

When none of those things happened over the next two seconds, my thoughts were:

Lightning strike!
Must be no emergency indications or the pilots would have reduced power.
Still climbing.
Huh! Guess we’re OK.
Good.

The only indication of potential trouble was an increasing amount of babble from the passengers around me as they began to react to an event most never experience on an airliner. I turned to the lady behind me who was asking, “What was that? What just happened!?” in increasing volume.

I told her in a way I now realize sounded smug, “Oh, probably lightning hit the plant. Happens all the time. No big deal.”

She looked dubious. “Really?”

“Yeah. I used to be a Navy pilot. My plane was hit by lightning more than once.”

She calmed and sat back. “Well, since you’re here to tell about it, it must have been OK.”

Several minutes later the pilot told us all that it had indeed been lightning, that the crew had gone through all the procedures required in such an instance, that there were no indications of problems, so we were continuing to Louisville where the plane would be inspected and checked out before flying again.

Later I was a bit surprised (and yeah, satisfied) to realize that I never felt any fear or apprehension.

I’ve read there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Wonder which side of it I was on.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Romantic WHAT?

You want romance? I got romance! Only not so much in this blog. What you'll find in this blog is ramblings. Okay, some of them may be romantic, but most of them with be on other subjects.

The title is what it is because I've written what some would call a romance novel. I call it a neat, mostly true, autobiographical love story with a lot of 60s music references, some military training a la An Officer and a Gentleman, some military aviation, some tears, and an ending that... Well, let's not give everything away, shall we.

What you'll get here is the daily events in the life of an author wannabe who's written his manuscript, fought his way through the agonizing process of finding an agent (who thinks, maybe, that manuscript might be marketable), now hopes and prays that the agent is successful but who still has a day job that pays the bills until he's rich and famous. Or at least rich.

So, if you like what you're seeing, come back often. I've got lots of stories to tell. Some humorous, some exciting, and some might even include some romance. Ya never know.