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Some very funny links

Check out the Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie (yes, that's what I said) homepage. Thanks, Jay! Also, I'm adding Ray Owens' Joke-a-Day site to my Links page. Definitely check out the story on the AOL.EXE "virus hoax". It had me in stitches.

While I'm at it, click here to read an in-depth study on the so-called programmer shortage and H-1B workers effect on the American job market, and on immigrant laborers. It's the reason why a junior programmer can't find a job these days, even though a year ago it seemed like the sky was the limit for anyone in the tech field.

Threes are Wild

Today, August 3rd, makes it three years and three months since I quit smoking. It could only be a cooler date if it was three years, three months, and three days. Oh, well. You can't have everything.

It would have been my father's 78th birthday today. Oh well, again.

Clarion call

In the summer of 1990, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop at Michigan State University in East Lansing. It was quite a coup for me, as it's the oldest SF & Fantasy writing workshop in existence, and I'd be spending six weeks writing and learning about writing and talking about writing with other aspiring writers. And I made some lasting friendships there, which is what Jim Kelly told us would happen on the first day. We may never get published, he said, but at the very least, we'd go home with some great friends. It's where I met Heidi. We hit it off from the start.

Well, some of my classmates and I have gotten into the habit of attending the annual World Science Fiction Convention as a sort of Clarion reunion. The last two years the con was in Chicago and then Baltimore. It's in Philadelphia this year, but Heidi and I probably can't swing it this time. Next year we're considering having a reunion in Richmond. It should be cheaper than a con, since we both have extra bedrooms and sofabeds.

But I started thinking about how much fun we had in Baltimore. That was the first time in about seven years that many of us had seen each other. We spent as much time together as we could. One evening the four of us who hung out together the most--Heidi, Mark, Ed and I--went to an Italian restaurant. After dinner, we were sitting around chatting and finishing our drinks. The other three decided they wanted to go elsewhere, and they started teasing me to finish my drink. I took a sip, they started chanting, "Chug! Chug! Chug!" which is a chant that has never gotten me to do anything other than stare at the people chanting it, and they know it. But I started chugging the drink. Heidi said, "Oh my God, she's doing it!" and I finished the drink in moments, surprising them and myself.

So I was thinking today about why I did it, and why, at Clarion and with these people, I have done many things that I ordinarily do not do, and all of these things include making a bit of a fool of myself in public (singing "Me and Bobby McGee," for instance, at the first Friday night end-of-week party), being silly, and having a lot of fun. And the answer that came to me was this: Comfort level. I felt comfortable around them.

Once I got to know my Clarion buddies, I never felt that I had to be on my guard. We weren't mean to each other. Any teasing was done with gentle intent. I think part of it was that all of us are writers, so we had that in common to start with. But once you get past that, you still have personalities. I've met some real bastards who are also writers. The year I was at Clarion, none of the students were nasty people. They weren't all necessarily likeable, and we didn't all become best friends, but with a few exceptions times were pretty peaceful.

I'm not saying they're perfect. There was one incident in Chicago when we all went out to dinner and I was rather grumpy, and a few of them were giving me a hard time, but I can only take so much of a science fiction convention before I want to take a sledgehammer to certain conventioneers. But overall, my Clarion buddies are definitely people I wished lived a lot closer. They're helping me redefine my definition of friendship.

And maybe someday, if they're really nice to me, I'll show them what I wrote about them in my journal eleven years ago. Oh, except for the entry I wrote after the class trashed my story about Medusa. I want to keep them as friends.--MAY



A trip down memory lane

Okay, now I've started thinking about family stories, and the one that jumps immediately to mind has become immortalized as "The Horsehair Cake".

When I was about 13 years old, my family lived about twenty minutes away from my mother's oldest sister, my Aunt Edith, and her family. Aunt Edith's four daughters were my and my brothers' favorite cousins. The three oldest of them pretty much matched us in age, and poor Janet, the youngest, used to tail along, generally being told to go away by the six of us, who often paired off, oldest to youngest pairs. My cousin Sharon was my personal "best cousin", and we felt more like sisters than cousins, in spite of the fact that we were practically polar opposites. She adored saddle shoes and cheerleading and was on the Drill Team. I thought all "rah-rah" things were déclassé--I was more into the "freak" stuff. But we loved each other and each other's company.

One weekend, I slept over while my aunt and uncle were away from home. Our grandfather did babysitting duties, though he was only there to make sure we didn't burn the house down. Ellen was 16 at the time and quite capable of watching all of us. On Saturday, Sharon had something going on at school, so Ellen and I hung out together all afternoon. The afternoon ended with a visit to the local stables, as Ellen was and is completely nuts about animals. I think I rode a horse; I can't remember. At the very least, I know I was petting one.

So we get home late afternoon, and it's time to make dinner. Ellen decides that she'll make a chocolate cake for dessert, Sharon's job is to make the spaghetti, Marci got the bread and side dishes, and Janet, the youngest, set the table. Remember now that the cooks are aged 13, 14, and 16. Try to think back to what kind of cook you were--especially unsupervised--at that age.

Ellen and I had a problem right off the bat. The icing recipe called for powdered sugar. We had none. "Well, I'm sure regular sugar will do," she said, and we put in granulated sugar instead of powdered. About halfway through making the cake, she suddenly looked at me and said, "Did you wash your hands before we started?" I blushed.

"Oops." I went to wash my hands. They all teased me about smelling like horses. We finished the cake, supper was almost ready, everyone gathered 'round the table to eat.

Well. Nobody told Sharon that if you're going to cook spaghetti, you need to add oil to the water if you don't intend to stir the pot often. And that maybe you should stir it often anyway. The spaghetti came out in one solid lump. We literally cut it into chunks and served it. Janet was the only one who ate much of it. It tasted about as bad as it looked.

Then, dessert time came. We sliced up the cake and tried it. The icing crunched. There was a reason they wanted you to use powdered sugar and not granulated, as we learned. Janet, again, being the youngest, was the only one who didn't mind it.

The dinner was, in a word, awful. But it didn't bother us overmuch. We were still on our own (mostly) and enjoying the weekend. When Aunt Edith came home and heard the story, she got a huge laugh out of it. And it's been a favorite story of ours for years. It's grown in stature so much that Janet now swears to heaven that she found a horsehair in her slice of cake. (She did not.) And it never fails to make us laugh, even when I told the story at Sharon's eulogy. But that one is a story for another day.--MAY



Speaking in anecdotes

I was rereading one of my Thurber collections (My Life and Hard Times), which is a group of short stories about James Thurber's youth. He had some pretty strange and amusing relatives, and he told the stories really well. I remember thinking, years ago, that I wished I had a Thurber relative. Some time later, as my grandfather grew older and deafer and rarely wore his hearing aids, I realized that I had one. Sometimes a conversation with Zayda would go like this:

"Hi, Zayda, is Mom around?"
"I'm fine, how are you?"
"No, Zayda, where's Mom?"
"Yes, it's awfully warm out."
"Zayda--put your ears in." (Said while pointing to an ear.)

But I was thinking back on my own family times, and thinking of family anecdotes. Which somehow brought me back to my college days. It was a Wednesday evening, and we were putting the paper together to be ready for printing the next day. Ann Marie--I think that was her name--and I were talking about something. She was either feature or arts editor, I've forgotten which. And about halfway through my telling her a story, she said, "You know, it just hit me--you speak in anecdotes." She was very nice, and made sure that she told me it wasn't a bad thing to speak in anecdotes, just something different. I had no idea until then that I had a habit of telling stories in most of my conversations. It's a skill that comes in handy when you're trying to, oh, write a weblog, for instance.

So after reading my favorite Thurber stories ("The Dog that Bit People", "The Day the Dam Broke"), I was thinking about my own family stories. There was one about four or five years ago--no, longer than that, I think, because we were at the house in Maplewood and Mom's been out of there for a long time--anyway, it's a bit embarrassing, but I still can recall the shocked looks on both my brothers' faces when it happened.

I'm a big fan of Coca-Cola, and so are my brothers. We probably drink too much of it. It's a staple on the dinner table. Well, my brothers can act extremely immature in family situations, mostly because you can get away with behavior around your family that you would never display with anyone else. And my younger brother loves to play around. So they generally do things like have a belching contest at the dinner table (luckily, they haven't had one in years; there's a small boy in the family and they have to set an example for him). I generally decline, as I've never really been a big fan of the belch, and besides, I've never been able to do nearly as well as they can, so I'd always lose, and I hate losing.

Well. For whatever reason, during this dinner, instead of suppressing the CO2 in a ladylike, covered burp, I gave an almighty belch that was worthy of either of my brothers. There was a stunned silence as they both looked at me, shocked.

"What?" I asked. "You guys do it all the time!"

My younger brother continued to stare at me. "Yeah," he said. "But you don't. Ever."

Brothers. There's just no pleasing them.--MAY



History, MTV-style

Channel-surfing can be a wondrous thing. I spent the entire day on the go, so by 4 p.m., I was tired and wanted nothing more than to relax, preferably without having to think. So I put on the tube and started looking for something to watch. I hit upon VH1's Time Machine program, which is effectively a history of the year from an MTV-eye-view. The years I watched before I finally got bored with it were 1984, 1987, and 1992. 1984 featured the big-hair bands, George Michael, Boy George, Michael Jackson (it was Thriller time), John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and I've forgotten the rest already. Hm, a flash of Pat Benatar if I'm not mistaken. 1987 was the end of the big-hair bands and the upsurge of the Grateful Dead and REM, plus the beginnings of rap. 1992 was the beginnings of grunge (Nirvana et al), gangsta rap, and Bill Clinton playing sax on Arsenio (remember him?).

Anyway, the bands aside, I found the documentaries fascinating. They mixed current events (almost entirely domestic) with the music, tracking musical trends with popular trends, and as I was watching these slickly-made, fast-moving "rockumentaries," I realized how incredibly effective they can be in, say, a history class. I remember quite well how excruciatingly boring history class could be. I'd have given my right arm for a documentary even half as interesting as the VH1 Time Machines. All I remember are goofy things like the one about hurricanes with the song "They Called the Wind Mariah" in the background. Yawn city.

It was an interesting trip down memory lane, because for each year, I was figuring out how old I was and what I was doing at the time. It was also interesting to see members of Whitesnake now (still got that long hair!), and to finally have a Duh Moment over Tawny Kitaen's claim to fame. She was a model married to the lead singer of Whitesnake. She had some very funny memories of her time in those videos.

More maintenance notes

As promised, you now have the longer version of archived files. I'm pretty sure I fixed all the links on all of the pages, but please tell me if I missed any. I really should automate it, but hey--then you'd all have to have XML-capable browsers to see it. In the meantime, it gave me something to do that fulfills my obsessive-compulsive requirements for the month. I did tell you that I tend to get obsessive-compulsive at times, didn't I?--MAY



Money back guarantee!

I think I've finally hit upon the exercise/diet regime that's working for me. But I have to say it feels extremely odd, doing what I'm doing, as I've never really done it before. Not the diet thing, I've tried to go low-fat before. Not the exercise thing, I've done that before. Not even the combination, as I've been trying to shed my nonsmoking weight for a while now. It's watching the exercise video that I've never really done before, and I must say, it makes me feel--vaguely silly, and a bit embarrassed.

Why I feel silly and embarrassed is an issue for the therapist, I think, but in the meantime, let me explain a little further.

It's summertime. I prefer fresh air to air conditioning whenever possible, so my living room windows are open whenever possible. So whatever I'm watching on TV or saying on the phone is easily audible to anyone passing by. I know this, so I tend not to swear too loudly if I hear footsteps outside. Common courtesy, I figure.

So I got this exercise machine, the original version of Tony Little's Gazelle Glider, which is basically a cross-country skiing machine suspended from bars so that you're doing all the moves about six inches to a foot or so off the ground. It's low-impact, it's easy, and most important, it's interesting enough so that I'm actually doing it on a daily basis. I had seen the informercial for the latest version of the Gazelle, and wanted it, but I'm on a low budget these days, so while I was thinking it over I discovered that the owner of the beauty salon I go to had an old one. She offered it to me for a tryout last week. I'll save a bunch of money buying this one, and after nearly two weeks, I'm pretty sure I'll keep working out on it. Which is the crucial element. I really hate running, but this isn't running. It's gliding, as Tony points out.

However--and now we come to the silly part--I can't help feeling a little embarrassed when I plug in the video and start the program, because I've never had a videotape talk to me before, nor have I ever had one that asked me to talk back. Tony's an interactive kinda guy, you see. And he says things that are somewhat inspiring and somewhat absurd. I like his way of thinking when he says "When one door closes, go open another one!" (active, not passive) but I'm not too thrilled about hearing a song from Rocky Horror quoted at one point "Don't dream it--be it!" I know I'll eventually be working out without having to watch the tape, but I'm a bit obsessive at times, and I like to get things right, so I'll be watching the tape for the foreseeable future. Or at least until I have the hang of my exercise routine. Or maybe I'll eventually mute it and keep watching the tape, because it has this really neat timer in the corner of the screen that I pace myself against.

However, I will keep on doing what I'm doing, in spite of feeling vaguely embarrassed, because it's working. I can see the muscle definition in my biceps and quadriceps, and I'm pretty sure my stomach is flattening. It's no longer as much of a strain to lean down and tie my shoes, my pants aren't as tight, and my next-door-neighbor's nine-year-old said today that I've lost weight. He's a charmer, that one.

I'm getting mighty tired of chicken, but hey--you can't argue with success.--MAY



It's the stupidity factor, stupid.

It's those darned commercials. They generally insult my intelligence, and then I get to thinking about them, and one thing leads to another, and, well, here we are again, getting ready to quote H.L. Mencken.

You know, I bought a book of Mencken's essays. I never managed to get through them. I found it boring. Maybe I'll try again if I can dig it out of my spare room.

But the commercial thing--it was for some movie, and the catch to get you to see what looks like an incredibly dumb movie (Bubble Boy) is this: "by the producer of Austin Powers 2!"

Usually, a plug like that means "We know it's a stupid movie, but if you liked Austin Powers, you might like this really dumb movie, too." Because the people who put out films can't possibly be stupid enough to believe that the average American moviegoer keeps track of producers, directors, and screenwriters. Even though they use those plugs endlessly in movie trailers, they have to know that the average American can't go beyond Spielberg and Lucas when it comes to directors and/or producers.

Think about it. My guess is that most people probably knew who Alfred Hitchcock was, or at least have heard of the name. Er, make that most people over the age of 30. I'm also betting that, in spite of the success of Titanic and Terminator 2, most people have no idea who James Cameron is. He's a good example of "What have you done for me lately?" (He's also really no great shakes as a producer/director of note, but he is a good producer/director of action films and films with great special effects. The best way to explain a great director is one whose imprint on a film is so great you can tell it's his, but where you don't notice the direction while you're watching the movie. You can pick out certain styles, though. Frank Capra, for instance, loved rain scenes. Spielberg loves filming people coming up over a hill.)

Heard of Robert Altman? In your dreams. Stanley Kubrick? You know, the guy who died last year? Oh, that one! John Cassavettes? Never heard of him. Kevin Smith? Oh, the dude who did Clerks. Awesome, man! Ron Howard? Now you're talkin'!

Consider that the average American does not look beyond the surface of many things. We know actors, because obviously, they're the ones that make a movie or a television show what it is. Writers? Yeah, they need a script, but man, without the actors, it wouldn't be a movie! Producers? Like, that Broadway play that has something to do with Mel Brooks?

Wow. A truly cold fact just hit me. Now, as I'm approaching mid-life, I suddenly understand the other side of what is meant by "the generation gap". Gawd. That phrase was invented when I was the one who didn't understand the older generation.

I think I'm going to stop now that I've just depressed the hell out of myself.--MAY



Say it with flowers, but say it!

Damn, it's a low-inspiration kind of day. I hate when this happens. Instead of writing another blog, I wound up doing site maintenance. Now you can access the archives via a "NEXT" and "PREVIOUS" link, rather than having to go back to the archives page and choose each time. I'm also toying with the idea of two archive indices--one with just the dates, the other with a table of the titles of each blog. I've started it, but haven't gotten around to deciding if I want to really do it. Of course, what I ought to do is write the code to automate all of this, but I'm having more fun writing essays than code. One of these days I may even get around to adding cookies to the site.

Family time

You see, sometimes all I have to do is start writing and then it starts to flow all by itself. Hooray for the unconscious mind!

My brother came over for dinner tonight. We had a nice evening, and he even washed the dishes and thanked me for dinner (see, you can teach 'em new tricks). I told him about how I messed with Mom's head yesterday. Oh. I told you I was going to tell her about the Money God's eyes. I did. It totally creeped her out. She looked at him as I described how the eyes follow you no matter where in the room you go. This is actually getting to be quite amusing to me, since my exercise machine gets put right in front of Charles, and he watches me work out every morning. I glance at him from time to time. As long as he doesn't start to talk to me, I have no problem with it. If I hear him utter one word, I'm calling the men in the white suits on myself.

Oh. So I told Mom about the eyes, and of course, she walked a few steps while watching them, and then she sort of shuddered and asked, "Doesn't that bother you?" Nope, I told her. It's just a painting. Ah. The joys of getting a little back from your parents…

So I told Eric this, and he walked around the living room, watching Charles' eyes. Then he pointed out to me the secret: The glass is beveled. That's what makes the eyes look like they have depth. He really is quite brilliant, that brother of mine. And a skilled craftsman. Heck, he even complimented me on my tomatoes, and that's a lot, coming from the expert gardener in the family.

I should write this stuff down in my diary. A red-letter day. No, wait. I'll just put it in my weblogs.--MAY