Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Holiday Letter

I write a holiday letter most years and include it with our Christmas card to friends and family who we see rarely throughout the year.  You probably receive a few of these.  I find them informative and well-meaning, but there are some that go too far and should be stamped Warning! TMI.  
Ours is usually less than one page (12 font, 1.5 spacing).   I mention vacations, status of the family pet, and maybe the publication of my latest book.  Mostly, it’s just to say we’re well and looking forward to the coming year.  
I’ve seen some holiday letters that border on autobiographies, multiple pages in length, requiring bulk postage.  As you read them, it makes you wonder how anyone could pack that much activity into a single year or even how they were able to remember it all.  I appreciate them taking the time to compose the letter and include me on their mailing list, but I’m not sure all the information is intended for my consumption.
Trying to make one letter apply to a diverse mailing list of friends and family is one of the dangers of the holiday letter.  The “need to know” varies greatly for each recipient.  Your wife’s electrolysis might be okay to share with her sisters, but your Great Uncle Henry probably doesn’t appreciate the need, nor does he care about the results.  Similarly, last fall’s septic tank backup during your wife’s high school reunion might be humorous to your college buddies, but should be left out of the letters to your boss and pastor.              
Another pitfall of the annual holiday letter is sounding boastful.  I can understand wanting to make these letters upbeat, but not everyone cares what a great deal you got on your new Lexus LS400.  In fact, there are many who believe any car that doesn’t come from Detroit represents a threat to the U.S. economy.  Also, I’m sure your wife might be thrilled to get her fifth David Yurman bracelet to stack on her right wrist, but 90% of the population wouldn’t know David Yurman from David Bowie. 
My simple rules for holiday letters are: keep them short, focus on people and events rather than things, and if it doesn’t apply to everyone, leave it out.  Admittedly, these rules may lead to a dull, lifeless letter, but you aren’t going for a Pulitzer.   The objective is to start next year with as many friends as you had at the end of this one.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Want to enjoy Christmas? Reset your expectations!

It’s taken me about 50 years, but I’m finally able to relax and enjoy the holiday season.  It was easy to relax once I understood why the Bermuda Triangle of holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) stressed me out.  I had unrealistic expectations.

Nothing creates stress more than unrealistic expectations, and nothing creates unrealistic expectations more than trying to live up to past holiday experiences.  For example, once you’ve given your wife a diamond necklace (or a diamond anything) for Christmas, you’re doomed to failure in meeting her future gift expectations.  Also, have you ever counted the wrapped presents around your tree on Christmas Eve trying to remember how the tally compared to last year?  Where does it end?
The worst assignment you can ever receive is the task of planning the company’s Christmas party.  For weeks, all you’ll hear is how great the past parties have been, how each year the venues, the decorations, and the music have grown to an epic level.  Your only options are to either seek new employment or rent Club Med Cancun and put Mrs. Claus in a thong bikini pushing a bar cart as Bruno Mars plays “White Christmas” to the beat of “Uptown Funk.”  
"Are you sure we have enough lights?"  It’s the question that haunts most married men at Christmas. At one point in my life, the rows of boxes in our attic containing Christmas decorations looked like the warehouse in the closing scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.   We had enough lights and garland to cover every peak, valley, post, window and railing on our house, plus every shrub and tree in the yard.  Scaling back was never an option.  After all, the neighbors never did. 
It’s hard to break escalating holiday expectations, but eventually expectations hit a ceiling with nowhere to go but down.  It’s like alcoholics hitting bottom before realizing the seriousness of their addiction. Having hit the ceiling, I have a few suggestions for simplifying the holiday season:
  • Christmas is for children.  Opening presents on Christmas morning is for those age 12 and under.   
  • All adults in your extended family (parents, siblings, spouses of siblings, etc.) should draw names from a gift pool.  Everyone gets one gift and gives one gift. This still allows a reason to gather, but takes the emphasis off presents.
  • Everyone should share their wish list, preferably on Amazon, where you can order/ship with one click.  If everyone complied, you’d never need to go to the mall.   
  • Don’t exchange Christmas gifts with your spouse.  Instead, treat each other to gifts throughout the year whenever you feel like it, focusing on vacations and special events versus accumulating more stuff.
  • Attend only Christmas parties you want to attend, not those you feel you must attend.   
  • Home decorations should fit into two average-size boxes and take less than two hours to put up.
  • Keep your artificial Christmas tree decorated all year.  It should be small enough to fit in the den closet during off season.
These suggestions will help get your Christmas back under control, but if you really want to reset your holiday expectations and regain the Christmas spirit, there are better ways.  Redirecting some or all of your holiday time and budget to those less fortunate will deliver more gratifying results.  While some of us are privileged to struggle with escalating holiday expectations, there are way too many others with little or no anticipation of a happy holiday.
Adopt a needy child or a family for Christmas, providing them with food, clothing, and toys for their holiday.  Donate to a food bank for those needing a hot holiday meal.  Deliver a couple bags of dog food to your local animal shelter.  Better yet, take a shelter dog for a walk, giving it a moment of freedom to be your companion.

Fifty years is a long time to figure it out.  It shouldn’t have taken me that long.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Great Writers - Born Not Built

(Re-posted from earlier this year)
I’ve been writing my whole life.  Most of us have.  The first time we spelled our name in block letters on grainy, wide-lined paper, writing became a part of our daily communication. What middle schooler isn’t required to write an essay on what I did over my summer vacation?  Universities have added compositions to their application processes.  Most jobs require the ability to write.  It’s hard to succeed without the ability to communicate in writing. 

So, am I and other self-published authors qualified to be writers?  It’s a hot topic, and my answer may not be what you’d expect.  I believe anyone who has a desire to write should write, but to be a great writer, like other art forms, requires a talent that comes from within.  Great writers are born, not built.  
As an example, my father is a gifted carver, one of the best.  He can visualize shape, texture, and color and transform a block of wood into a thing of beauty.  It’s amazing to see what he can create.  I could take woodworking and carving classes for years and not come close to doing what he finds natural.  Dad has improved his craft over many years, studying other carvers and learning new techniques, but he started with skills that can’t be taught.
Just like my father, great writers need to envision what they write before they put it on paper.  They must feel the emotions, visualize scenes from the point of view of their characters, and then transpose what they see and feel into words so their readers experience the same.   Writing is truly an art, but it’s also complex and technical.   Being able to visualize characters, scenes and plots is only half the challenge; you also must be able to choose the precise composition of grammatically correct words to convey what is visualized.  I can visualize a duck, but no one would want to display what I carve on their mantel.
I’m not claiming I was born with the inner skills to be a top writer.  I wasn’t.  My definition of a great writer is someone capable of producing best sellers or whose works stand the test of time.  It’s a broad definition, and not everyone would agree every best seller was produced by a great author.  Today, good marketing plays as much of a role in achieving success as great writing.  Nevertheless, we can agree that Hemingway was a great writer, and there are few Hemingways.
Most of my friends and family are supportive of my writing.  Several have read all my books, and I’ve received sufficient recognition and sales to keep me motivated.  Still, there are doubters.  I sometimes see eyes glaze over when the subject of my writing surfaces.  I’m sure they wonder why I spend so much of my time on something seemingly frivolous.  Surely he doesn’t think he’ll make a go of this, they must think.
What they don’t know is that I have already made of go of it.  While I accept that great writers are born with unique talents and that I’m not in this class, I know I can become a better writer, maybe even a good one.  I expect most self-published authors feel the same.  To them I say, keep on writing.    

Friday, October 21, 2016

Seeking Creativity? Try Walking.

Many famous writers turn to alcohol or drugs, either for motivation or escape: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.  I’m not sure the total number of renowned alcoholic authors is sufficient to claim a high correlation between destructive compulsive behavior and writing genius, but there’s enough to make you wonder.  
A mysterious romance is often associated with troubled writers toiling over their unfinished novels in smoky studies with their favorite libations nearby. One might question if their coarse lifestyle infused their creative genius, or if their genius came first and was a burden too heavy for them to carry.  I suspect it’s the latter.
Let me suggest there’s a better way to stoke your creative writing juices than drinking: walking. 
Walking briskly for at least 30 minutes a day has been shown to stimulate your brain. Walkers are 50% less likely to develop dementia than non-walkers.   Higher fitness levels are correlated with continued development of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, both vital to memory and complex thinking.  Those who remain physically active late in life are also more likely to demonstrate continued mental growth.    
It also has been proven that those who walk regularly are happier and exhibit higher levels of energy.  Regular physical exercise releases uplifting endorphins that improve your mood, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.  You may have heard of a “runner’s high.”  The release of endorphins is responsible for that buzz.  
I start each day by taking a 45-minute walk with my dog along mountain trails. I’m not so sure if the walking has made me a more polished writer, but I can attest to feeling refreshed and in a much better mood on the days I walk.  I am clearly more productive after my hike in the woods and able to focus at a higher level.  Walking alone also gives me time to think, time for my mind to wander.  I’ve come up with many new ideas for stories, plot twists, and character developments while sauntering through the woods.  
While walking may not be as mysteriously romantic as Hemingway passing out at his writing desk after a night at a Key West saloon, it will definitely improve a writer’s energy and longevity.  At age 64, I’d like to write many more years, so I’ll do anything to keep my body healthy and my mind sharp. 
Although, I must admit, if I thought going on a weeklong bender would elevate my next Miles Stevens novel to best seller status, I’d be downing double shots right now.              

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Reviews: They're Hard To Come By

Authors crave book reviews.  Most reviews of my books are well-thought and favorable, but I’ve also received not-so-positive critiques.   I appreciate them all.
As a self-published author, it’s difficult to accumulate reviews of my work, and it’s getting even harder.  I estimate fewer than 5% of my readers post a review on Amazon or Goodreads.  It’s difficult to calculate exactly.  I know how many books I’ve sold and how many I’ve given away in promotions, but I don’t know how many of my books have actually been read.      
Successful authors receive plenty of reviews, and getting reviews builds success.  It makes you wonder what comes first, success or reviews? Many factors contribute to becoming a recognized writer, but without favorable reviews, aspiring will forever precede author in your title.
I’ve tried most of the typical approaches used by self-published writers to obtain more reviews:  book signings, author interviews, promotional giveaways, advance reader copies (ARC), and review swap groups.  I promote my work on my blog and via Twitter @drshoultz .   I even ask for reviews at the end of each of my books (a practice frowned upon by established authors).  I, and most new authors, work very hard for each review.     
The pursuit of reviews has become controversial in recent years, the controversy escalating with the explosive growth of self-publishing. The ethical, and even legal, dilemma surrounding solicitation of reviews gives all authors cause for concern.  Personally, I see no harm in offering free copies of my books to readers in exchange for honest reviews, provided the reader acknowledges the gift in their review.  On the other hand, I would never pay anyone for a review.  
Amazon has recently published book reviewer guidelines.  It no longer considers reviews by friends of an author as valid and goes so far as to remove these reviews.  I’ve had a couple taken down.  I told Amazon I couldn’t control whether or not my mom posted reviews, but her review disappeared nevertheless.
One might ask where and how Amazon draws the line on its definition of “friend”.  I know authors with thousands of Facebook and Goodreads friends.  They’ve cultivated their list of internet friends for the primary purpose of expanding their readership.  My advice to these authors is be careful how "friendly" you become with your readers.   
One criteria of success for an author is reaching the point where you have so many reviews you (and Amazon) can’t read them all.  I’m clearly not there yet.  I read each one, some several times--especially the reviews from my mom.       

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writer's block, what is it?

All writers get it, but what is writer’s block?   
The term makes it sound like a cork stopper is jammed into the channel of the brain that allows free-following thought. Much has been written on the subject, some by writers, some by psychologists and psychiatrists.  Writers want to know how to overcome it.   PhDs and MDs are more interested in the neuroses that cause writer’s block to occur.   
As a writer, I find my encounters with writer’s block occur when I’m distracted by life.  Some of these distractions are good, such as vacations, visiting with friends and family, or getting a new pet.   Unexpected home maintenance, health issues, family drama, or the dog chewing a hole in your leather recliner fall into the not-so-good category. Whatever the distractions may be, they take time and focus away from freewheeling creativity and putting pen to paper.
Doctors have arrived at a medical explanation for this. It appears during periods of stress or distraction, the brain’s limbic system takes control from the cerebral cortex.    The limbic system controls instinctual “fight or flight” reactions, whereas the cerebral cortex is vital to the creative process.   The more stress, the less creativity.  Writers under a deadline may experience a negative feedback loop.  The more they stress over meeting the publisher’s or editor’s deadline, the less creative they become.
I also find some writing projects just lose steam.  It has nothing to do with personal distractions or my brain shifting from one side to the other, but more to do with my writing ability.  It might be my original idea for a book or story isn’t well thought, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to finish what I started.   Whatever it is, it’s led to many uncompleted writing projects. I have a Word file labeled “Elephant Graveyard” filled with the carcasses of dead novels and short stories.  I occasionally visit the file and kick the bones.  Every so often, one of the elephants comes back to life. 
So, what do you do about writer’s block?  Not being under deadlines, I have the freedom to wait it out, and that’s what I do.   I’m not big into mental manipulation or word games to free my thoughts.  These techniques may work for some, but I find putting my project(s) on the back burner for a few days and coming back fresh is the best approach. 
Starting a new writing project can also help.  If I hit a dead spot while working on a novel, putting it to the side and writing a blog entry or starting a new short story can jumpstart creative juices.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing now.  I’ve been working on the third book in the Miles Stevens time-travel action-adventure series and needed a break. 
I think I’ll grab a cup of coffee and get back to seeing what Miles is up to.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When I'm 64, will you still need me?

Will you still need me?  Will you still feed me when I’m 64? 

Paul McCartney, the Beatles icon, was only 16 when he wrote the song which was later released in 1967.  At the time, turning 64 was nearly five decades away for young Paul.  He couldn’t have had a clue what being 64 would be like. This was obvious by the questions he posed.  

Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out ‘til quarter to three, would you lock the door? 

This is what a 16-year-old wonders about someone who turns 64?  On the one hand, he sees a 64-year-old as unneeded and unable to feed himself.  On the other, the same person is drinking wine and staying out until 2:45 a.m.    

Well, I turned 64 this past week, and I am definitely still feeding myself.  I tip the scales at 190 on my skinny days.  I’m also still paying bills, so I guess I’m still needed.   I received several birthday cards, and I drink wine daily, so I can check off that question, too.  As far as the final question, if I was ever out ‘til quarter to three, I wouldn’t need to worry about being locked out.  My wife would have already contacted highway patrol and filed a missing person’s report.  I haven’t been out past midnight since before Reagan’s presidency.  

I wonder what McCartney thinks of his song now.  He’s looking at 64 in the rearview mirror. The knighted mega-millionaire turned 74 this past June.  Maybe he’s working on a sequel, When I’m 94.   If he is, I might suggest the following questions find their way into his tune: 

Will Medicare still heal me?
Will Social Security still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a get-well card, bedside flowers, graveside stone?
If I fall and make a mess, will you mop the floor?  

Check back.  I plan to update this blog post in 30 years.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why Write Short Stories? An Update

If you’ve read 11 novels or more last year, you’re in the minority—at least in the U.S. 

The percentage of Americans reaching this reading plateau has declined from 43% in 1978 to 34% in 1990 to 28% in 2014.  Nearly a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single novel last year(1).    Reasons for this decline are many, but it sure isn’t due to a lack of supply.  The number of new authors who pen their first work each year is in the tens of thousands, and quality books from both new and established authors continue to percolate to the top of best seller lists.   

Reading takes time, and many activities compete for the time of potential readers.  The average American spends an alarming 11 hours a day on electronic gadgets --TVs, smart phones, PCs/tablets, radios, DVD players or other devices (2).   If you sleep eight hours, that leaves little time for family and other interests.  

Avid readers have at least a couple things in common.  They tend to make reading a priority, setting aside time each day to read.  They also have typically been ardent readers most of their lives, becoming interested in books at a young age.  This could have been the result of parents reading to them as toddlers, or becoming interested in a young adult series as a preteen or just having an active curiosity that reading satisfied.

I believe short stories and novellas provide a means to get more adults interested in reading. Short stories have a compact and pointed plot and typically can be read in one sitting.  Novellas are works of fiction of intermediate length and complexity, usually requiring just a few hours to complete.  In today’s electronic media world and consumers’ desire for immediate gratification, short stories and novellas are stepping stones back to reading.  

I’ve written several novels and recently published my first novella, MOST MEN, packaged with a second collection of short stories. In addition to focusing on the Miles Stevens time travel series, I plan to continue writing and publishing short story collections.   This decision was driven in part by a desire to target new readers.  I've talked to many people who are becoming fans of short stories. They are willing to invest the time required to read these stories, but are unlikely to ever read a 350+ page novel.  

I enjoy writing short stories and have received literary contest recognition for several of them. Unlike with novels, editing of novellas and short stories goes more quickly.  Changes and improvements can be made without tearing through hundreds of pages.   On the other hand, space is precious and words can’t be wasted.  Character and plot development must be crisp, yet compelling.  

I hope both new and veteran readers will check out my short story collections, IT GOES ON and MOST MEN.  Maybe the stories will inspire you to read more novels this year.

Books by D.R. Shoultz can be found by clicking HERE.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Isn't there enough to worry about?

I had a minor surgery earlier this week, if there is such a thing.  It seems there’s a progression to skin cancers, ranging from basal cell carcinomas to the deadly melanoma.  I had the one in the middle, a squamous cell spot above my right eyebrow, and I had it removed.  Advice to all, use sun block lotions and get regular checkups with your dermatologist... but that’s not my thought for today.
I was given an antibiotic as part of my treatment, and it led to a discussion about superbugs, or strains of bacteria that have become immune to antibiotics.  There are several, but the most commonly referenced superbug is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).  This nasty creature started showing up in hospitals years ago.  It appears that over time, bacteria can adapt to the drugs that are designed to kill them, and change to ensure their survival. 
That’s just what we need—smart bacteria.  Don’t we have enough to worry about without having micro-organisms targeting us?  Millions of people are infected each year by these superbugs, leading to everything from diarrhea to death.   
You can reduce your exposure to superbugs by taking antibiotics ONLY when you need them, and when you do take antibiotics, make sure to take the ENTIRE course of treatment.  Other than that, wash your hands and avoid unsanitary conditions.  Personally, I try to avoid going to the doctor’s office or hospitals unless I absolutely have to.   That’s where sick people hang out!
Life was much simpler when I was a kid.  Sure, medicine has advanced dramatically the past 50 years, but it now appears the diseases are getting smarter right along with us.  This comes at a time when we have more than enough to worry about—economic uncertainty, terrorism, rising worldwide divisiveness, and worst of all, the prospect of Hillary or Donald as president. 
Come to think of it… I’ll take my chances with superbugs.       

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Virginia is for Lovers... and Speeding Tickets

I confess. I was speeding. I was going 76 in a 65 mph zone, but then, so was most everyone else careening downhill on this section of I-77 in Wythe County, Virginia.
I’ve driven through Wytheville, Virginia dozens of times in the 20+ years I’ve been making the trip from our home in North Carolina to visit family in the Midwest.  More often than not, the Wythe County Sheriff’s department has been lined up in the median, hiding behind hills, before darting out to pull drivers over, sometimes two and three at a time. I’d avoided getting tickets in the past, but not this time.   
It was 9:00 a.m. Sunday.  My wife Claudia, our dog Milo, and I had driven for about an hour. We had 400 miles to go to reach Louisville where I was dropping my wife off to spend a few days spoiling grandkids.  I was then driving another 300 miles to tend to my 87-year-old mother in Illinois who had knee replacement surgery three days prior.  She was scheduled to come home from the hospital the next day.
Having just passed a slower moving car, I continued to gain speed, going downhill on the mountain highway.   I saw two county patrol cars tucked behind a roadside hill and glanced down at my speedometer.  I was going 76 and immediately braked and glided into the slow lane.  The two cars behind me did the same thing, but it was too late.  I watched in the rearview mirror as one of the patrol cars pulled out and came our way.  Wondering which car he was after, my heart raced as he closed the gap between us.  Finally, he slid in behind me, and the top of his car exploded with multicolored lights.  My more than 10-year hiatus without a speeding ticket was about to be over.  I pulled to the roadside.
Wise-ass comments passed through my mind as the stocky sheriff’s deputy lumbered up to my driver’s side window.  
Glad to see you were able to run down this 4-cylider Civic.
Just my luck.  I pass through town when your donut break is over.  
So, are you targeting grandparents hopped up on Metamucil this morning?   
Fortunately, I never said any of them.  I was madder at myself than the deputy.  I knew to be careful traveling this section of interstate.  There’s even a blog warning drivers about Wythe County  The 65 mph speed limit (most of I-77 is 70 mph), the long downhill section of highway and the large number of out-of-state drivers adds up to a good source of revenue for Wythe County.
After introducing himself as J.P. somebody and informing me of my serious crime, I handed the deputy my license and registration and he walked back to his cruiser.  While we waited for J.P. to return, a couple other drivers were caught in the Wythe County Sheriff’s net.  The scene was beginning to look as if there had been a multi-car pileup.  With the heavy traffic on I-77 and the county patrol cars darting on and off the highway, it was a miracle there wasn’t a serious accident.  I wondered what the larger risk was, me driving 76 in a 65, or the backup of traffic resulting from the multiple roadside arrests.  
J.P. needed only a couple minutes to call in my license plate and fill out the two-page Virginia Uniform Summons.  After he returned, it took him less than 30 seconds to explain it to me.  His staccato memorized spiel blended together, sounding like Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.  
I thought this must be the Wythe County Sheriff’s equivalent to calf roping.  Nearby, one of the other deputies must be holding a stopwatch.  As I pulled away, I looked back expecting to see J.P. throwing his hands into the air, signifying his calf had been successfully tied.
I handed the ticket to my wife.  She informed me that the total cost of my brain fart was $132.00.  Only $66 was for the fine. Another $51 was for “processing” and $15 for local fees, a.k.a. county windfall.  Not bad for roping one Civic.    
As we were about to leave Virginia, I saw a sign displaying the state’s motto, “Virginia is for Lovers.”  
Yeah, I thought, and for speeding tickets.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Car Travel - Then and Now

Car travel has changed dramatically since the days when my family drove cross-country on our summer vacations.
With the trunk of our new 1962 Ford Galaxy packed tight, a stack of board games in the backseat between me and my sister, and mom armed with a Shell Road Atlas, we took to the highway.  Weeks perusing dozens of glossy brochures preceded our departure.  Most of them were now stuffed in a brown grocery sack at Mom’s feet in the front seat. There was no Internet to research our destination or MapQuest to chart the course.  
These trips always started filled with optimism, which usually lasted until the first pee break, about an hour down the road.  “Didn’t I tell you to go before we left home?” was Dad’s rhetorical question.  Of course he told us, but my sister’s breakfast orange juice would not be denied.
There weren’t a lot of four-lane super highways in the early 60’s.  Travel was on two-lane roads, winding through every small town between home and our destination.  Signs foretelling fast food restaurants at each upcoming exit did not exist.   In fact, fast food was rare then.  My dad would seek roadside cafés advertised on billboards 50 miles in advance.  A ten-year-old could starve waiting for Kelly’s Shiny Diner to appear on the horizon.
There was always at least one point where we’d get lost. Mom would have the road atlas unfolded in her lap, flapping like an unfurled flag as Dad shouted out passing road signs.  An argument would usually ensue before we pulled into a gas station to re-chart our course. Kids today don’t appreciate how iPhones and navigation systems have improved family harmony.   
My sister and I got along pretty well on these trips, even without video games, which were yet to be invented.  We’d make lists of the states found on license plates, challenge each other to find roadside objects, and play Old Maid.  However, we were ten and eight years old.  The silence wouldn’t last 1,000 miles.  It was usually around mile 300 that the first, “I’ll turn this car around right now!” would come bellowing from the front seat.
We knew Dad would never reverse course. He was driven by a timetable in his head--St. Louis by lunch, Joplin for dinner, hotel in Kansas City by nightfall, etc.  I think most men were like this, but my dad was fanatical.  I dreaded getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck.  It usually meant skipping the next restroom break to make up for lost time.  Hang on bladder!  
Dad loved to calculate our gas mileage on vacations.  Cars back then were the size of whales and had huge, inefficient V-8 engines, but then, gas was only 38 cents per gallon.  At each service station, Dad would fill up and then provide the number of gallons pumped and odometer reading to my mother.  She would do the calculation.  “Seventeen point eight,” she would announce. “Not bad. Up a mile per gallon,” Dad would proudly reply, and our journey would continue.  
I assumed gaining one mile per gallon was a huge windfall.  It wasn’t until my math skills improved a couple years later that I realized we were talking about 50 cents per tankful.  Today’s cars calculate gas mileage and display it continually.  I’m glad this technology wasn’t around in the 60s.  It would have robbed my father of one of his simple pleasures.  
We always made it to our destination and back home with the car and the family intact.  Memories of our time on the road eventually faded, replaced by happy photos of the vacation.  I’ve often wondered if today’s families could survive similar ventures.  Somehow, I doubt it.          

Monday, August 1, 2016

Dangers of Insomnia

I’ve never been a sound sleeper.  I wish I were, but I seldom get more than five hours a night, typically waking in the early morning, unable to fall back to sleep.  I’m writing this at 4:35 a.m.
My physician has warned me of the health risks linked to lack of sleep: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and other ailments.  What he didn’t tell me was that insomnia can also be associated with nocturnal stupidity, at least in my case.
I have the bad habit of using the time normal people are sleeping to surf the internet—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news sites, and yes, infomercials.  None of this is very productive.  In fact, it's dangerous.
Keep in mind, I’m a mature retired man who ordinarily uses good judgment.  You wouldn’t think I could get into much trouble sitting at a keyboard at 2 a.m., but you’d be wrong.  I’m embarrassed to admit what I did recently, but confession is the first step to curing what may be addictive behavior.
Of all things, it was a pop-up ad for wrinkle cream.  But not just ANY wrinkle cream.  This one used snake venom as one of its active ingredients.  I guess the theory is the venom will paralyze wrinkles. It was the snake venom combined with the before-and-after pictures that captured my attention. If this stuff could produce such amazing results, it was worth taking a further look.  So, I clicked on the ad.  Big mistake.
This wrinkle cream claimed to have been featured on the Dr. Oz Show.  Surely, that gave it medical cred over other wrinkle erasers.   I was becoming more convinced.  When I read you could get a 30-day supply for only the cost of shipping, I reached for my credit card to pay the $5.95.   Minutes later, I had been emailed a receipt, and was on my way to rediscovering my youth.
The cream arrived in seven days.  The only instructions were on the side of the bottle. Cleanse your face, pat dry, and apply lotion two times daily.  It seemed simple enough.  I used it every day for the next two weeks, carefully inspecting my sagging eyes, crow’s feet and lines on my forehead. My skin did feel tighter after applying the miracle potion, but I didn’t see results similar to those before-and-after photos. Not even close.  My face was stuck in the “before” position.
Upon closer inspection of the bottle’s contents, I discovered water was the first ingredient and “actual” snake venom wasn’t included.  Instead a synthetic ingredient with “characteristics” of snake venom was listed.  Huh? There are chemists with this kind of time on their hands?  I’m not so sure I would have ordered a wrinkle cream containing “fake” snake venom.
My embarrassing story could have ended there, with me out $5.95 for shipping and a bottle of half-used fake snake venom cream in my bathroom cabinet, but no.  Less than a week later, I noticed an $89.95 charge on my VISA account for something I didn’t recognize.   It turned out it was for the wrinkle cream!
I immediately called the product’s toll-free number and reached a young man with a distinctive East Indian accent and an uppity attitude.  “I’m sorry, but our ad clearly states you will be billed the full price in 30 days if you don’t cancel your subscription.”
“Subscription? I didn’t sign up for a subscription!” I argued, asking repeatedly to speak to his supervisor.  His supervisor was busy—no surprise to me.  Nearly 45 minutes later, I was successful in getting a 50% refund, but I was still out more than $50.00, including shipping, and my face still looked like a dried-out catcher's mitt.
I went back to the wrinkle cream website.  If I had scrolled far enough past the fancy ad and read the small print agreement, it did state I needed to cancel within 30 days to avoid further charges.  I wonder how many people actually do this, especially at 2 a.m.   It was a lesson learned.
Hmmm.   I’ve always wondered if these non-stick cooking pans actually work.  They must.  They have Cerami-Tech technology. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Free Time - Is It Really?

Recently, I heard someone talk about how they spent their free time.  It made me wonder, what exactly is free time?  And by free, do we mean available or without cost?  I’m not sure it’s either.
Wikipedia defines free time as time spent away from business, work, job hunting, domestic chores and education, not including time spent on necessary activities such as eating and sleeping.
An even broader definition of free time comes from  time available for hobbies and other activities that you enjoy, free from duties or responsibilities.
I guess I’d lean toward the second definition, but is time ever free? Time is like gold dust, slipping through your fingers and captured by the wind.  Once passed, time can never be reclaimed, and therefore, shouldn’t be wasted.
You could easily make the argument that free time, or leisure time, isn’t really wasted. It allows us to recharge our batteries, and makes us more productive when we tackle the “must dos” of life.  Some percentage of our time should be available to relax and recharge, but how much?
Much of our life, our employer defines the ratio of free time to work for us.  If your boss gives you two weeks’ paid vacation per year and you add in all weekends, you’ll average about 30% of each week to use as you wish.  Sounds low doesn’t it?  Well, it gets worse.  Not all of that 30% is truly available.
You probably use much of this time for other duties and responsibilities: home maintenance, domestic chores, volunteering, family commitments, responding to work-related emails, weekend work assignments, etc.  You might be lucky to end up with one day per week to actually do what you desire--maybe less.  But even that time isn’t free, or without cost.  Think about it.  You worked 70% of the year to earn it.
I’m retired after working more than 32 years in corporate America, conservatively averaging 50 hours per week on the job, and often traveling on weekends.  I’m extremely grateful to be healthy and young enough to enjoy my retirement, but I have never considered my leisure time as free or that I’m entitled to it. I earned my retirement many times over, and I try not to waste a single day of it.  It’s one of the reasons I write. It’s enjoyable, gives me a feeling of accomplishment, and doesn’t interfere with my other interests and activities.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all known people who fear giving the perception they have free time, even after retiring.  They believe appearing busy gives them an air of importance.  These people truly waste time, filling it with pretentious sounding busy work.  To them, I share a quote from Henry David Thoreau. It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
I’ve not heard of anyone wishing from their death bed that they’d spent more time at work.  At the end of our lives, most of us would give anything to be able to spend more time with our family and friends.  Isn’t that the best evidence free time is worth more than any material possession? 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shopping Carts - They Can Define You

This may not be the most hard-hitting blog thought I’ve ever posted, but I think it’s a topic to which most people can relate.

I believe your shopping cart habits define you.  That’s right.  What you do with your shopping cart tells a lot about you.
Abandoned carts. They drive me nuts.  What normal person leaves their shopping cart in the middle of a parking lot after unloading its contents into their car?   These discarded carts are a hazard.  They become parking lot torpedoes.  People too lazy to push their cart 50 feet to the collection area must think the world owes them a favor.  Or maybe they believe the guy in the orange vest, snaking the line of carts back to the grocery store, enjoys retrieving them one at a time.   I’m not a governmental controls person, quite the opposite, but there should be a law against shopping cart abandonment.  Anyone caught should be required to don an orange vest and gather carts for the next hour. 
Carnival carts.  These are shopping carts disguised as trains, race cars, buses or other things that don’t belong in a grocery store.  They are twice the size of a normal shopping cart and usually have a couple kids bouncing around inside them.   These monstrosities push other carts out of their way and send produce, soup cans and cereal boxes careening off the shelves in their wake.   The parents at the controls of these carts are self-absorbed.  They clearly think it’s okay to have other shoppers share the pain of parenthood during their weekly shopping experience.  
Gotta bad wheel?  It doesn’t matter to some people.  I’m sure you’ve seen them pushing these defective carts, rattling their way down the aisles.  A shopping cart won’t go straight on three wheels.  It just won’t.  What goes through the mind of someone who keeps a defective three-wheel cart?  It’s not like they don’t have a choice.  There are hundreds of them at the entrance.  These people can’t possibly put much value on convenience or even on personal satisfaction.  Life just gave them a lemon that they could have easily traded for an orange, but they didn’t.
Electric shopping carts.  I know this is a sensitive subject.  Many users of these carts have special needs and have no other option. I’m clearly not judging them.  However, for those unable to walk the aisles of a grocery store simply because of their weight, I’m not sure providing an electric cart to gather more food is really helping them.   I’ve also witnessed ambulatory people of all ages and sizes use these carts, drop them off at the store after unloading, and then walk across the parking lot back to their cars.  For them, these carts represent an entitlement that no one regulates.  The use of electric carts has become so widespread the aisles of some Walmarts look like Shriner’s parades, except the Walmart drivers have better costumes.  
If you ever see me shopping for groceries, I’ll be the one carrying the hand cart.  I try not to be there any longer than necessary.  I guess that means I’m anti-social.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mayberry 2016 ?

What would Mayberry look like today?
I have a pretty good idea because I grew up in a Midwestern town in the 50s and 60s not unlike Mayberry.   Delavan, Illinois is a town of 1,700 residents, a 30-minute drive south of Peoria.
When I was a pre-teen, Delavan was a sleepy little village with one full-time policeman and a couple of barber shops: Bale’s and Whistler’s.  Whistler’s was most like Floyd’s.  There was also a bowling alley, one grocery store and a church positioned every few blocks with taverns tucked between. Our park had two small ponds stocked with fish.  Opie-looking kids dotted the shorelines most weekends.  My beagle trotted beside my bike everywhere I went, especially to the park.  We had one interconnected school building containing grades one through twelve.  Of the 50 students in my 1970 high school graduating class, I started kindergarten with half of them.  Like I said, it was a sleepy little town, not unlike Mayberry.
So, how would Mayberry appear today?  I visited my 87-year-old parents this past Father’s Day, so I can tell you exactly what’s changed in Delavan.  Some of the changes have been for the good, some not.
The first thing you see when you enter Delavan on Route 122 from the east is a new 20-acre medical marijuana plant.  That’s right.  Delavan has become the pot capital of central Illinois.  What would Barney think?
This is not to suggest Delavan will compete with Boulder, Colorado any time soon. There’s no low-hanging fog over the city park, not yet anyway.  The Mary Jane production is for medical purposes only.  Still, my grandparents are buried at Prairie Rest Cemetery a half mile down the road, and I’m concerned with what might be leaching into the soil.  When I meet my grandfather at the pearly gates, I expect he’ll have a Cheech and Chong grin on his face. 
Main Street in Delavan has had a major facelift in recent years, thanks to the investments of a local resident.  Several long-vacant buildings on the west side of Main have been remodeled.  What once were a grocery store, post office, and café are now a pizza tavern, upscale restaurant, a wine store, and a yet-to-open brewery.  Delavan residents no longer need to travel to Peoria to enjoy a good meal and a bottle of $40 wine, and it won’t be long before Delavan’s Otis can stop making his own moonshine.  He’ll be able to buy it on Main Street, within walking distance of his jail cell.
On the downside, Delavan no longer has a bowling alley.  In an era dominated by video games, rolling a ball at stationary pins has lost its luster.  The town is also without a barber. Bale's and Whistler's shops have long-since closed.   The town’s grocery store mysteriously burned to the ground several years ago, having previously lost most of its business to a new Walmart in a neighboring town. 
My dad now gets his hair cut at Great Clips by a revolving cast of “stylists” with names like Tracie, JoJo and Tina on days when he and my mom drive to Walmart to buy groceries.   It’s not the same as gossiping with neighbors while you wait your turn at Floyd’s—I mean Whistler’s.
Mayberry may not have gone down the same path as Delavan, but it’s not hard to imagine.  I hear they recently opened a Walmart in Mount Pilot.