Fiction, Writing

New story: “Algorithms and Lies”

July 29, 2022

Do Not Trust Robots.

My latest story, “Algorithms and Lies,” has just been published by The Fictional Cafe. It’s the cautionary tale of Mick Sanford, an old-school crime writer bedeviled by a new breed of editor, a bot named Max with boundless artificial intelligence.

Contemptuous of her and the modern world in general, Mick tries to bluff and bluster his way to publication. But he ends up as the villain in a story he never meant to write, one that could have been scripted in “2001: A Space Odyssey” – or in the Twilight Zone.

I don’t want to be a spoiler, but if you’re a fan of classic science fiction, it’s fair to say that like HAL 9000, Max blows Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics to smithereens. I hope you like it. Check out the other great writing in The Fictional Cafe too.

humor, life, nature

I love nature. It hates me.

July 13, 2022

Grey tree frog on leaf.
This isn’t Kermit (Photo from the Kentucky Dept. of Fish & Wildlife Resources)

“Don’t forget the frog,” is a sentence that one might not expect to hear from one’s partner. Typically, the other person might remind you to take out the recycling, pick up some cat food, collect a kid from soccer practice, or blast Roundup on the weeds.

Around here, though, we’re facing what seems like a Biblical onslaught of frogs, one of which I recently captured and neglected to return to the wild. (Please don’t send the ASPCA after me. No amphibians were harmed in the making of this post.)

The critters descended after we installed a small above-ground pool. Longtime readers might recall me griping about the same problem in our former home, which came with a 36,000-gallon mini-ocean in the yard.

Though it’s a fraction of that size, the new one is like a hot singles bar for little grey tree frogs. Despite the name, their color varies from green to brown to grey. The one I caught was almost white, as if it’d been dipped in ashes. They’re only a couple inches long, tops. But oy, are they loud.

Every night, just below our windows, we hear this racket. It’s so bad that if we crash before they do, we have to turn up a white-noise machine in the bedroom to drown them out. It’s definitely mating season. At least we haven’t found eggs or tadpoles in the pool; one time in the old place we had a veritable tsunami of those.

The only way to curb the croaking and noodling is to catch them and move them to a creek branch down the street, which is also just outside a big community pool. The evening after my latest relocation job, we heard a lone voice, almost plaintively calling out for an FWB (frog with benefits).

football, Trump

Let’s (not) hear it for the Big 16!

July 8, 2022

Football resting on turf.
The grass is greener when it’s poached. (Photo by Jean-Daniel Francoeur on Pexels.com)

In these times it may seem silly to rant and sputter about something as trivial as football, especially since the season is still several weeks away. But if you’re a fan, stay tuned for my manifesto on the biggest outrage since the spot of the ball on 4th down in the second overtime of the 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game. (Trust me, it was a big deal. See for yourself.)

The madness is that the Big Ten, home to the Wolverines, Buckeyes, and a dozen other mostly midwestern schools, is expanding to include USC and UCLA, which are ditching the Pacific or Pac-12. Between this and the B1G’s previous addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the former heartland conference will stretch from Redondo Beach to the Jersey Shore.

You’re probably thinking, “So?” and you might be right. Realignment has become routine as schools fight to the death for TV money. To me, though, this feels like the last nail in the coffin of the real Big Ten, which I’ve been watching for 50 years. It might even open the gates for the end of college football as we know it.

I don’t care what the marketers and data geeks say: Geography—where you live and where you play the game—is the core of a team’s and a conference’s identity. The great coaches like Bear Bryant and Bud Wilkinson were revered for lifting the pride and profile of Alabama and Oklahoma, not for raising TV ratings halfway across the country.

The SEC’s plan to add Oklahoma and Texas might make regional sense. The Big Ten proposal is Frankenstein’s monster. It’s the kind of sleaze that Trump or Zuckerberg would cook up: grab the cash box and screw everything else.

It’ll weaken if not kill traditional rivalries that bring people out in 30° temperatures and blowing snow. While Michigan vs. OSU will still be THE game, cherished trophies like the Little Brown Jug and the Old Oaken Bucket may end up in the flea market. The original Big Ten schools in places like Madison, Iowa City, Champaign-Urbana, and Columbus will become the Flyover Ten.

Maybe all this sounds archaic. Tell that to the guys slamming their bodies around in frozen mud in front of 70,000 screaming fans. I must say, I look forward to seeing two sunny California schools try to compete under those conditions.

Fiction, hometown, life, Writing

My new short story: “Wednesday’s Road”

June 6, 2022

Country highway stretching to horizon.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Wednesday’s Road,” just published by Flora Fiction, is about a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a brand-new electric car. Don’t worry: it’s not an advertisement for Tesla or any other EV. It’s about the choices we make when the journey is growing short and we hope to reach the destination on our own terms. I hope you enjoy it. Please check out the other great writing at Flora too.

life, new old age

The graduation speech I’ll never give

June 4, 2022

Diploma being handed to graduate.
Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Greetings to the Class of 2022! I’m not conceited enough to think you’ll read this, since blogs are relics from around 2000 B.S. (Before Smartphones), which is also before y’all were born. However, I’m too lazy to break up this post into TikTok videos, and since this month marks the 50th anniversary of my own escape from high school, I feel compelled to say something.

I could offer you life hacks like, “Wear sunblock. Don’t skimp on tires. When in doubt, order the club sandwich.” What I won’t do is tell you things were better back in ’72 even if folks from my generation would like to think so. We were still fighting a hopeless war in Vietnam, for which the men in my class were subject to conscription. I knew a guy who caught an unlucky number in the draft lottery and went off to the Army. And right about the time we got our diplomas, a gang of burglars were busted at the Watergate. I sure hope your history classes covered that.

I had a good education at Loy Norrix High in Kalamazoo, Michigan, though some lessons were more useful than others. In half a century I’ve never had reason to recite the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Chemistry, biology, and physics fell by the wayside when I found I wasn’t cut out for science after all. While I still remember words and phrases from my three years of Spanish, I couldn’t hold a conversation with a native speaker.

The one thing that left a lasting impression was “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s timeless play about life, love, and death in Grover’s Corners. I studied it in sophomore English under Mrs. Ensfield, who had a gravelly voice and a penchant for bad puns, but was a fine teacher. At the time, I was struggling with my father’s passing, school, and the world in general. Wilder’s message – that we drift through the years without truly appreciating anything – struck a chord.

The character Emily Webb realizes this only after dying and paying a brief, heartbreaking visit to the past. As playwright Donald Margulies wrote in the foreword to the 75th anniversary edition of the play, her farewell is, “one of the immortal moments in all of American drama.”

Good-by. Good-by, world, Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets maybe – they do some.

Long before I walked out of the auditorium on graduation night, I was determined that my life would not be like those described by the Stage Manager in another scene: “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”

So, kids: Be interesting. Never take life for granted, especially if you’re a saint or a poet (I’m neither one). By all means, read or watch “Our Town” if you haven’t done so already. There’s a 1940 film and if you can find it, a 2003 PBS version with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. You can see his closing monologue here.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, life

A pandemic diary: Last call

May 18, 2022

Pint of beer on bar.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Booster number two is in. Unlike the other shots, this one brought no particular sense of relief, hope, or civic duty. Instead, I had short-lived but tangible side effects: a sudden lethargy and weariness in my bones, which sums up how I feel about the pandemic in general.

Two years on, the federal government – the one I voted for – has no idea how many cases are out there. The money to replenish vaccines and treatments is about to run dry. While deaths have remained relatively flat in the current wave, we’re still losing more than three hundred souls a day and will soon hit the ghastly milestone of one million. The “authorities” sound like the flight attendant who comes on the intercom when three engines have fallen off the plane and the fourth one is on fire, and says “Please do not be alarmed. We will resume our beverage service as soon as possible.”*

I’m not waiting to resume anything. This doesn’t mean dropping my mask or partying with superspreaders. I’m just making the most of what I’m lucky enough to have right now, which is plenty. A comfy home office with a view of the birds and the trees. Dinners on the deck in the quiet spring twilight. Time to write the stories that find their way into my head. A hard drive full of music my wife and I have loved and collected all our lives. Each other.

Some call this attitude “romanticizing your life,” and say it started with Covid, but for me it’s a return to the ways I learned from my parents. They were blessed with Midwestern grit that got them through a flu pandemic, a depression, and a world war. They were grateful for simple good times and didn’t waste them quaking in fear about the future. As my mother always said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

This is the last chapter in my diary, at least for now. I’ll certainly go on blogging about other important topics (like football). I just don’t have the energy to keep plunging into these waters and wouldn’t want to give y’all a half-hearted effort. I hope it’s been useful. Take care and be safe.


*This is an inexact version of a line from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. I couldn’t find the original.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Pandemic diary

A pandemic diary: Minority report

April 27, 2022

I’m a straight white guy, yet belong to what may be the biggest minority group in the country: those who’ve never been infected with the coronavirus.

According to new data based on tens of thousands of blood samples, almost 60 percent of us have caught Covid at least once. That figure is up from 34 percent in December, prior to the surge triggered by the Omicron variant. It’s also more than twice the official case count. Among children and teens, the infection rate is as high as 75 percent.

It’s conceivable that I had an asymptomatic or mild case, as many people in this new metric apparently did, but with all the precautions I’ve taken it’s not likely. I still wear a mask though lots of folks around me in Atlanta are shedding theirs. I avoid crowds, too. If I were a Washington journalist like I used to be, I wouldn’t go near the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

To me this is just common sense, even if Dr. Fauci is right when he says we’re out of the full-blown pandemic phase. Like our last president’s lies about the 2020 election, the virus keeps mutating, reinventing itself in every corner.

The 60% may not have natural protection against new infections. Over three hundred Americans still die of Covid every day. I don’t intend to join them and hope none of y’all will either. Take care and be safe.

CDC chart of U.S. Covid deaths.
Source: CDC 4/27/2022

Covid 19 pandemic, Fiction, new old age, retirement, Writing

Stopping the real steal

April 16, 2022

Iced tea glass and sandaled foot on deck table.

Time, time time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please

– Paul Simon, A Hazy Shade of Winter

In Tony Hillerman’s spellbinding mystery “A Thief of Time,” the thief is one who loots artifacts, pieces of the past, from a Native American burial ground. I respect the dead, especially since I expect to join them someday, but I wouldn’t mind if an enterprising gonif* heisted a few choice bits of my back pages.

Let’s start by unloading the hopeless hours I spent chasing softballs and soccer balls in gym. Better yet, take all three years of junior high, and I’ll throw in college chemistry! Don’t forget my misguided career moves, like the ones that landed me in a radio studio spinning Muzak on the midnight shift. Hangovers that could’ve sunk a Russian warship, speeding tickets, textbook bad dates, various social goofs and gaffes, bell-bottom pants, and sooooo much more. Grab it and go!

The real crime is theft of the present and future. It’s been a while since I launched my personal Great Resignation, aka “retirement,” and lately it’s been a battle to keep the golden years from turning to lead. Some mornings when I get up I could swear my feet are full of the stuff.

I’m writing fiction, which I always wanted to try and hope y’all enjoy reading. I’m luckier than many of us because I haven’t had Covid or a financial crisis. But when you’re a high school senior, you graduate. What happens when you’re just a senior?

This conundrum gets worse when you don’t fit the mold. For me, life in a geezer theme park like The Villages, which the Trumpniks love, would be all nine circles of hell. Then there’s AARP, which acts as if we’re either 50-ish movie stars or Methuselahs who’ve missed out on everything modern since about 1985. Their mags carry ads like, “WOW! A Simple to Use Computer Designed Especially for Seniors!” I started using PCs in ’83, and those early machines were not simple.

I’ve concluded the only way to cope is to double down on boundaries. Lisa McCulloch, a writer who recently turned fifty, aptly calls this the get off my lawn phase of life, when we become territorial about our physical and emotional spaces.

This can be as easy as setting up a few palms to create a privacy shield on the deck, as shown in the photo. The electronic realm is another story. However, when I first laid hands on a computer in the antediluvian 80s I learned a crucial fact that still applies: there’s always an “Off” button. Take care and be safe.


*Yiddish for a thief or dishonest, disreputable person. Such a rich language.

Uncategorized

A pandemic diary: The colors that give me the blues

April 1, 2022

UPDATE / CORRECTION, April 2: It appear that at least part of the local case surge discussed below is from a batch of previously unreported tests administered in January. I’ve changed the text to reflect this info and added a link with details. I apologize for passing along any incorrect information.

According to the brand new COVID.gov website, within ten miles of my house there are sixteen pharmacies that’ll give me a Covid test AND treatment with pills if it’s positive. My wife and I can also check ourselves with the free rapid tests sent by the federal government. We’ll probably pop down to the corner drugstore for our second boosters, hopefully without the side effects reported by a friend, who said he felt “like Will Smith slapped me all over.”

Am I a carefree camper? Have we reached this hazy new normal that people keep talking about, where the virus is a routine nuisance and a matter of personal responsibility?

Cue the fire alarm. That yellow patch amid the green in north Georgia represents a chunk of metro Atlanta, where “community levels” of Covid have jumped from low to medium. The next stop is red, which means “high.”

Some of the increase in cases may be caused by a backlog of unreported ones that the state just dumped onto the rolls, but it’s still worrisome, at least to me. For weeks , the experts have been predicting a second Omicron surge from the BA.2 variant.

CDC graphic showing rise in Covid community levels in metro Atlanta.
Info from CDC website April 1, 2022

After two years, I’m not the least bit surprised. I just hate being the bell cow for another wave, especially since most of the country has tuned out the bells altogether.

Some say they’re tired of criticizing others’ Covid decisions. Not me. As John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, once said, “Anger is an energy.” I’m holding onto mine. I don’t blast it around recklessly, but it’s staying in the tool box with the tests and the N-95. Take care and be safe.

War

From cold to warm and back again

February 28, 2022

I’m sure glad my wife and I had a safe room built into the basement of our house. We did it because we were worried about tornados and the dangers of climate change, but it’ll make a fine fallout shelter too.

Headline: Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions.
Source: AP 2/27/2022

To someone who was born early in the Cold War and lived through some of its scariest moments as a kid, headlines like the one above are depressingly familiar. Though I don’t recall the details of the Cuban missile crisis or the Berlin Wall going up, I clearly remember being surrounded by grownup fear and paranoia.

Nikita Khrushchev.
Remember him?

One day in third grade, my teacher took off on a rant about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had threatened to “bury” the West and slammed down his shoe at the U.N. Schools ran “duck and cover” drills with kids diving under their desks, as if that would protect them from a nuclear blast. Textbooks warned that the Communists wanted to rule the world. Newspapers and TV portrayed Vietnam as a crucial effort to halt the Reds at the South China Sea.

Later, when the Cold War seemed to be over, I saw some of its weapons symbolically beaten into plowshares. As the Pentagon correspondent for the Voice of America, I traveled with the defense secretary to a missile base in Pervomaysk, Ukraine, where the new independent nation was breaking down the former Soviet arsenal.

My story from the day is lost in some obsolete archive. The AP’s Robert Burns wrote, “With the U.S. and Ukrainian defense chiefs looking on, soldiers laid to rest on Saturday one more ghost of the Cold War doomsday threat. ‘We are seeing history in the making,’ Defense Secretary William Perry said, a 60-foot-tall SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile at his back. Ukrainian soldiers lifted the giant, gray SS-19 – its warhead already removed – out of its underground silo.”

Journalists and military officers standing under partially dismantled bomber.
Russian and Ukrainian officers and journalists (that’s me in the trench coat and hat) under a partially dismantled Soviet bomber in 1995

From Pervomaysk, the secretary’s party flew on to Moscow. On arrival, we were greeted by the Russian army band playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” a moment I’ll never forget. During our stay, some of the traveling press found time for dinner and music (below), followed by a late-night walk around Red Square.

Three Russian women singers in traditional garb in restaurant.
A Moscow night

Someday, such things might be normal again, like sitting in a crowded barbershop with no mask and no worries. This time, however, I’m not hiding under my desk (partly because my geriatric bones would complain strongly if I tried). I’m grateful for all the journalists, including those from VOA, who are reporting the truth from the war zone. To them and everyone, take care and be safe.

Flag of Ukraine.