Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Remembering A Literary Hero - HST

Yesterday, February 20th, was the second anniversary of the self-caused death of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was an inspiration to many and an idol to me. His brutal honesty and honest brutality came through in the words he wrot. If he felt it, he wrote it or said it regardless of whether it was the politically correctthing to do. As an example, here's a eulogy he wrote in 1996 for former President Richard Nixon, who he didn't really care for:

SinceI have a couple of dachshunds, I got a laugh out of this quote from the speech:

“He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.
That was Nixon's style -- and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don't fight fair, bubba. That's why God made dachshunds.”

Hunter is missed by many.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How to be Outstanding

For several years I owned and operated a small residential painting company. I not only was the owner, but the estimator, the PR guy, the customer service guy and sometimes even the helper and laborer. I offered my services for a reasonable price, always tried to give a little extra and did a nice job on the homes I painted. I stayed busy due to word of mouth and was making decent money until… “the fire!”

For those readers who have been thinking about lighting your self on fire, I would highly recommend against doing so.

Don’t do it!

It Hurts!


And you may end up in Indiana!

Just ask anyone who has used old gasoline as an accelerant and then foolishly bent over with a Bic lighter to get the brush pile going. I’m confident they’ll agree that it is not only painful, but makes it very difficult to paint houses while you are growing new skin on your arms, hands, neck and face.

After months of daily debridement followed by more months of being amazed by the human body’s ability to regenerate skin cells, I had a fresh coat of brand new baby skin and a lot of bills. The painting business did not recover and I was looking for work.

I had to find employment and was offered a job as a laborer for a company that built fiber optic networks throughout the country. Considering the overtime pay for the planned 12 hour days, six day weeks and the per diem, the money offered was impressive. The person offering me the job, aware that I had been a successful business owner, expressed concern with offering a menial position. I told him that I would start at the bottom because I knew nothing about the industry, but I also told him I wouldn’t be a laborer for long.

It was late January when I departed Billings, Montana to report to work in northern Indiana. I reported to the shop, to find a crew of well over 100 fiber bums stumbling in to work in the pre-dawn, bone chilling, sub-zero weather. As the crews began to leave for their respective job locations, someone pointed at me, asked if I was a new laborer, pointed to an old toothless guy and said go with him.

An hour later I was dropped off in a cornfield next to an open manhole. The hole in that field contained 18 various colored pipes coming in one side, and 18 others going out the other. My instructions were simple: Watch the hole. As the dentally challenged man, who I later came to know as Smitty, drove off in a cloud of powdery snow, the wind picked up and I realized it was very cold where I was, and I had absolutely no idea where that happened to be. Nor did I know what I was supposed to be watching for in that hole in the middle of that Indiana corn field.

The only thing I really knew about my new job was that I had been assigned to watch that hole and I was being paid well to do it. I stood there in that corn field, thinking at times I would freeze to death. I couldn’t avoid wondering what I had gotten myself into this time. I not only watched that hole, but several times I even crawled into that hole and used it to escape the brutally cold winds coming off of Lake Michigan.

Because I had no place to go, nor any way to get there, I stood there in that field and watched that hole for a bone-chilling six hours before Smitty returned. It was fortunate that he noticed my lunch bucket in the back of his truck and remembered he’d left me watching that damned hole or I may still be there. Unapologetically, Smitty informed me there was a situation 20 miles away and he got redirected. Meanwhile, I shivered.

I’ve always tried to do any job to the best of my abilities and this was no different. I did exactly what I was told to do that day, but this time it wasn’t out of my normal sense of self pride. The plain truth is the only reason Smitty ever saw me again after deserting me in that Indiana corn field that morning had nothing to do with a strong work ethic or dedication on my part. I stayed there simply because I didn’t have the means to go anyplace else.

The next morning at the shop, in front of my new co-workers, the project manager called my name and proceeded to present me with a certificate. I had no choice but to laugh with everyone else as he read the words proclaiming that I was “Out Standing in my Field.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Writing with Focus - Why I'm Nocturnal

For most of my life my words have been the bread and butter of my income. Whether spoken or written, the words that originate in my head have managed to keep food on my table most days of the week. I think that qualifies me as a writer.

Like many writers, I have certain rituals and habits that tend to make others think I’m a bit off. One of them is that I do most of my best work in the middle of the night. The reason I lean toward the nocturnal is that there are very seldom any interruptions at three in the morning and that allows me to get into a thought process and stay there.

Besides, during the day I exist to cater to Blue and Skye, a couple of dachshunds that live in my house. Blue and Skye don’t understand that this is my job. They are certain I stay home so they have someone to hang out with all day.

Skye, the female we obtained to one day be the mother of Blue’s children, thinks my lap is her recliner. She does seem to know when I’m at my desk that there’s a bunch of buttons in front of me that I keep pushing on and she wants to help. The problem is, she’s a lousy typist and doesn’t spell very well.

As soon as I politely explain she has no fingers for typing she cops an attitude. The next words out of her mouth are accusing me of not appreciating her. After I’ve offended her and she’s gone in the other room to tell Blue what a jerk I am, I start feeling kind of bad. After all, she was just trying to help. If nothing else, for such a funny looking little dog, Skye has a huge heart.

But Blue has corrupted her. Before I can even offer a cookie because I hurt her feelings, Blue has told her that what I’d really like is for them to both begin playing with their toys that squeak. “The louder the better,” Blue tells her as they take off into a symphony of their own making. There’s nothing that will take your focus away from writing more quickly than two wiener dogs playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a rubber cheeseburger and a pink tennis ball. I feign appreciation and listen attentively. Having already told her she’s a lousy typist there’s not a chance in the world you can get me to tell her she’s a poor musician as well.

Following the recital, Skye excuses herself to use the powder room, which is right outside the French doors in my office. Of course Blue has to go out with her. He knows that she’ll need him to bark incessantly at the first sign of one of the hundreds of squirrels that reside in our back yard. Of course her being the helper she is, she’s got to do a lot of barking too.

I swing open the door and yell for their silence, but am ignored. The frantic barking intensifies. I’ve learned the only way to silence the beasts at a moment like this is to hit them with a stream from the super soaker squirt gun I keep next to the door for just this purpose.

It’s empty so I’m standing there yelling and pumping up the squirt gun and shooting out air. By this point the squirrels are not only sticking their tongues out at Blue and Skye, but they’re laughing at me as well. I retreat to the kitchen sink and replenish my ammo. Moments before I return to the door with my weapon fully loaded, the barking dogs and laughing squirrels become silent. Just as I get to the door, Skye leaps at it to let me know she wants in.

I open the door and she rushes past me in a flurry of fur. Blue sits nonchalantly out in the yard looking at me. I say, “Come on, boy!” and he continues to sit, staring blankly. No sooner do I shut the door and return to my desk to look at the blank page where words should be, does Blue start barking again. It’s not the squirrel or cat bark. It’s not the strangers in the yard bark. It’s not even the “I want to come in now” bark. No, it’s the one he uses for no apparent reason whatsoever. Again I command, “Come on, boy!” Again he ignores me.

I take aim with the super soaker and plan my trajectory to ensure I’ll make it over the Dogwoods and hit Blue with the full stream of cold water. If I don’t hit him on the first shot, he will take evasive action. I gently squeeze the trigger.

Bull’s eye! No sooner does the water hit him than he charges toward me. Dachshunds are remarkably quick critters, considering their legs are only two inches long. Blue covers the 25 to 30 feet between us in the blink of an eye! He flies between my legs and head butts Skye who was watching the whole situation unfold from right between my two feet. Now the real fight begins. Blue has weight and experience on his side, but Skye is not at a disadvantage. She’s quick, she’s agile and she’s smart. Plus, she’s a female and they don’t always fight fair.

The ferocious growling, snarling and yelping as these two killers chase each other around in circles is deafening. Blue takes Skye to the ground only to be out-wiggled and then he suffers a swift counter-attack. Skye unexpectedly pulls a Tyson and has Blue’s ear clamped tightly in her jaws. This looks bad for Blue.

But wait. Blue tells Skye that the sun is shining through the window onto their doggie bed and she lets go of his ear, they walk to the bed, curl up and go to sleep. It’s 11 a.m.

Now what was I writing?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Drunks Against Mad Mothers (DAMM) Strike Back With Statistics

It doesn’t matter if you’re a water buffalo, canary, house pet or person, chances are favorable that you are aware of the use of statistics in our lives. Whether you’re being born, voting, living, or dying you are personally involved with statistics. I was forced to take (and pass) a Statistics class prior to receiving my college diploma, even though I claimed to be a conscientious objector.

If you’re wondering what I could have possibly been conscientiously objecting to, it was the whole concept of statistical methods. You see, I’ve watched these little bits of information be used in ways that just are not right. With the correct wording, sentence structure and a little well placed inflection, the results of a study or survey can be, and usually are, manipulated to portray whatever you want them to.

I’m going to use drunken driving statistics to show how this is accomplished. Before everyone starts trying to lynch me let me state that I do not advocate drunk driving in any way, shape or form. I’ve done it hundreds of times and I have finally concluded it’s stupid. Without adequate research and personal knowledge, however, I would not be able to say with any authority how stupid it is. (Disclaimer: The author no longer drives drunk.)

In 1980 an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was created. Since then, MADD has grown from a small grass roots effort to a national phenomenon and they’ve done it by presenting data about drinking and driving in a manner that renders the population without a means of contesting their claims.

For instance, quotes information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that says in 2005, 39 percent of all traffic fatalities were killed in alcohol-related crashes. That’s 16,895 out of 43,443 people killed in accidents that involved alcohol. That is comparable to one person every half-hour.

This is true. What they don’t tell you though is what I have a problem with.

The term "alcohol-related" doesn’t say the fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol. If a drunk guy is walking down the street and a sober driver runs over him while swerving to miss a herd of penguins, that’s considered an alcohol-related fatality. If a drunk driver in a car gets hit by a sober guy on a bicycle, that’s reported as an alcohol-related fatality. An NHTSA Highway & Vehicle/Safety Report estimated 12 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve an intoxicated bicyclist or pedestrian and not a drunk behind the wheel of a car.

The NHTSA has also declared “a motor vehicle crash is considered to be alcohol-related if at least one driver or non-occupant (such as a pedestrian or pedal cyclist) involved in the crash is determined to have had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .01 gram per deciliter (g/dL) or higher.” A BAC of .01 is a long way from the .08 that is considered legally intoxicated in the United States.

So when MADD cites statistics saying 39 percent of traffic fatalities, or 16,885 people, were killed in alcohol-related crashes, we now know that 2,024 of those deaths weren’t the result of someone drinking and driving an automobile. Out of the remaining 14,859 fatalities, it’s estimated that 15 percent or 2,228 fatalities involved someone with a BAC less than .08 which is not even legally intoxicated. That leaves us with 12,631 out of 43,443 traffic fatalities actually caused by drunken drivers. That comes out to 29 percent and not the 39 percent being cited by MADD.

If we then consider that 29 percent of all traffic fatalities in this country are caused by drunk drivers, wouldn’t that indicate, statistically speaking of course, that 71 percent of all traffic fatalities are caused by sober people? Who is causing more deaths on our nation’s roads, drunks or sober folks? Who should MADD really be mad at?

Another statistic I came across while researching for this article has left me scratching my head and asking, “Huh?”

According to a study released by Loyola University Health Systems, safety belts were found wrapped around 12.8 percent of fatally injured intoxicated drivers, while a whopping 33 percent of sober drivers killed in crashes were buckled in. These statistics tell me that 87.2 percent of drunks not wearing seat belts walked away from accidents while only 67 percent of sober people not buckled up were able to walk away.

And that’s why I despise the word statistics. Statistics tell me that sober folks cause more fatal accidents than drunks. So why aren’t the people not drinking and driving breaking the law, being arrested and sent to jail, followed by a treatment program that teaches them the basics of drinking and driving?

And why would there be such a huge push for people to buckle up when clearly the numbers tell us that more people die while wearing their seat belts and not drinking?

Based on this information, I suggest everyone get naked, open a beer and go for a ride without any protection…. from seatbelts I mean.