Friday, December 30, 2011

10 Days to Learn a Foreign Language? I Don't Think So!

10 Days to Learn a Foreign Language? I Don't Think So!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Art of Total Communication: Listen With More than Your Ears

For my vocation, diplomacy, and my avocation, writing, a skill that is essential to success is the ability to listen. 
Now, I have to confess that giving my full attention to people when they’re talking is something that I could be better at.  I’m often multi-tasking when talking to people, or when I’m at some gathering, I’m involved in more than one conversation at the same time, and that’s frankly rude.  I know it, and people who know me well, know it too, and at least on the surface, forgive me for it.
I’ve been that way most of my life, and find it hard to change – although, I do really, really try.  I have the unfortunate ability to listen to two or three conversations at the same time, and sort them out in my mind – and often, recall them days later.  If only I could remember where I put my reading glasses as easily, or the names of my nephews and nieces.
Another thing I do that might seem strange is; I listen with my eyes.  That’s not a joke either.  Most of us do it, but are unaware of doing so.  I just happen to know that it’s possible, and work at it.  If you don’t think I’m serious, the next time you’re in conversation with someone, pay attention to what you do.  If they’re giving you numbers, or dry details, you’re probably not really paying them much attention; but, the minute they begin to talk about feelings, decisions, or anything you consider important, what do you do?  You fix your eyeballs on them; watching their facial expression and body language.  I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’d estimate that we get more than half of the meaning of a conversation through what we see rather than what we here.
And, that’s what I mean by listening with my eyes.  Work on improving this ability, and you’ll find the amount and quality of information you gather will increase.  While you’re at it, learn to hear without listening, another skill that comes in handy regardless of your profession or pursuit.  This is a Buddhist meditation exercise I do frequently to help myself relax.  I stop trying to listen to discrete sounds and merely open my ears and allow all sounds to enter.  You’d be surprised at how many different things you can hear, and understand, when you don’t strain to listen.  It’s like the difference of relaxing and looking at the scene around you, instead of squinting to see a particular object – an exercise that blocks or blurs the rest of the vista.  Don’t believe me?  Try it.
What I’m getting at here is, communication is not just a verbal, mouth-to-ear, process, but one that involves every sensory organ, and the rest of our body as well.  If you’re a journalist or diplomat, developing these skills will improve your performance.  If you’re a writer, you’ll see more of the world around you with the clarity that will enable you to more skillfully interpret it for your readers.  So, open your eyes and hear what I’m saying.

It's the People on the Ground Who Are the True Heroes

On Dec. 28, I received the Diplomatic "Defender of Human Rights" Award from Zimbabwe Organization for Youth in Politics (ZOYP), but, it's actually the organizations on the ground, including the media, who are the true defenders of human rights, and the real heroes in the struggle for democracy.  Read more . . .

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-il, North Korea's Dictator Dead: The One Enemy He Couldn't Bully

A reclusive, some felt extremely dangerous despot, who ruled his country with an iron fist, baiting and threatening the West and South Korea since 1994, Kim Jong-Il, “The Dear Leader,” of North Korea, finally succumbed to the one force that no one can defeat – time.  Kim, who kept his nation on the brink of starvation, banished or killed thousands, and turned the country into a pariah state, died of apparent heart failure Dec. 17.  According to state media, he was on a train trip to give field guidance when he died of “physical and mental overwork.”  The Official news agency, KCNA, later said he died after a advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock, medical jargon for a massive heart attack.

Everything about Kim Jong-Il, son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, remains a mystery, even the exact cause of his death. His exact date and place of birth, the subject of much official mythology, is a mystery, although he’s thought to have been born in 1942 in Russia’s far east when his father was based there waging guerrilla war against the Japanese.  The official version has him born in China, on Baekdu Mountain, the mythic origin of the Korean race.  The state-controlled media of North Korea is not known for accuracy or truth in its reporting, and given that Kim has looked frail for some time, it becomes difficult to know his exact cause of death, only that is fairly certain that he made his last appointment with the Grim Reaper.

Taking the reins of the DPRK after the death of his father, Kim faced an uphill battle.  Many of the old guard in the ruling Workers Party objected to the dynastic succession, viewing it as ‘uncommunist.’ Neither as charismatic nor as capable of his father, he was unable to exert his personal will as his father did, but through manipulation and cunning, was finally able to overcome the opposition.  It has been widely speculated that many of the decisions since he came to power were actually made by the powerful military.  The year after he took over, the country faced one of its worse economic situations in its history, with a famine that lasted until 1997 that killed over two million people.  Only the iron control exerted by security forces prevented the mass exodus of many more millions.

In the ensuing years, though, many have managed to flee, with millions living in the Chinese border areas near Dandong and Tumen as undocumented aliens.

In 2006, North Korea announced the test of its first nuclear weapon, creating a tense situation of brinksmanship; offering at times to disarm, and at others threatening to use the weapon whenever it felt slighted, or suffered some problem needing outside assistance.

Kim will likely be replaced at the helm by his son, Kim Jong-un, a relative unknown who is not yet 30.  He is likely to face even more difficulty reining in the old guard than his father did, which means that the situation on the Korean Peninsula, always volatile, could be ratcheted up a few degrees, at least in the short term.  We must never forget that the Korean War is technically not over, only in a cease fire; a condition that North Korea has violated scores of times since the main combat operations of the Korean War ended.  A power struggle in Pyongyang could be the match that ignites yet another round of hostilities in this dangerous area.

An Interesting Site for Authors Promoting e-Books

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Virginia Phiri's Review of My Novel "Die, Sinner"

Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri ("Highway Queen") recently read and reviewed my Al Pennyback mystery, Die, Sinner, and here's what she had to say about it.

In her first response: 

I started reading "Die Sinner" last Thursday but I am already half way through. The book seems to be "brutally honest"!, I am enjoying it.
She the followed up with additional comments:

I still stick with "Brutally Honest" but I would also like to add on more comments.

In "Die Sinner" its is clear that there is a lot of hypocrisy and cut throat business. One wonders how many business people do this sort of thing in our communities. It must be lots! In fact the drama in the book reminds me of what I have seen happening in the Christian communities here in Africa. The result is sad as many have been hurt and they bear scars that will last a life time. Unfortunately the flashy and fake style in these type of churches pulls crowds and blinds them completely. I personally do not go to church I just research about what goes on in the churches when I get an opportunity. When I feel like praying I do it at home.

I was just thinking aloud the other day, adaptation of this book into drama on the screen would give instant benefits to many. This could save a lot of souls. Just a suggestion.

If you'd like to see what impressed Virginia, check out my store's link.  Die, Sinner and my other Al Pennyback stories, as well as my other books, are available there.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bulawayo: The City of Kings

Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second largest city.  It has an interesting history, but is also a good tourist destination.  Read more . . .

Christmas Facts

A look at the history behind the traditions of Christmas.  This will probably offend some, so be aware of that if you decide to follow this link.

The'>">The Truth About Christmas

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Unusual Cambodian Destination

Located on the coast, Kep is a city that many visitors to Cambodia have never heard of.  Read more . . .

Tenerife: A Jewel in the Atlantic

The largest of the seven Canary Islands, Tenerife offers amazing scenery, a touch of Spain, and warm hospitality.  Read more . . .

My Reflections on Serving in Vietnam

I served 20 years in the Army, including two tours in the Vietnam War. I've never regretted having served, but the main thing I got out of it was a healthy disdain for the bureaucracy.  Read more. . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't Get Sucked in By a Good Story!

When you encounter someone who can tell a good story, you quickly get sucked into his orbit.  When I first read “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, I was sold completely on the great things he related doing in central Asia, bringing education to children who would otherwise languish in ignorance and poverty.  The man can really tell a great story.
Then, I read “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer, and I came up for air.  Krakauer claims in his book that he too was moved by Mortenson’s tales; so much so in fact that he donated to Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute.  The problem, according to Krakauer, is that Mortenson’s tales were just that, and mostly tall ones.  His accounts of using the millions of dollars, donated mostly by individuals, to build schools in remote areas, schools that are educating hundreds of Afghan children, are, Krakauer says, mostly fabrications, or highly embroidered versions of reality.
His story that he was kidnapped and held for several days, for instance, was totally made up, the author says.
Now, this leaves me in a quandary.  Clearly, many people admire Mortenson for what he has done, and are willing to overlook some of his over exaggerated claims.  Some are even willing to forgive the poor financial management of his Central Asia Institute, and accuse Krakauer of being merely a destroyer of other writer’s reputations who hasn’t substantiated his allegations.  On the other hand, there are others who find the allegations credible, and who are extremely concerned with any non-profit organization that doesn’t perform in a completely transparent manner.
I don’t know who to believe.  In my career I’ve seen too many highly motivated NGO workers who are willing to skirt the truth to press their cause; who fabricate stories in the belief that their cause is so important it justifies such behavior.  I’ve also seen people who will write anything that they think will sell, and who make a living trashing other people; pulling the angels from the pedestal.  So, for now, I’ll just decide to not decide.  Maybe one of them is right; maybe both of them are wrong.
I do know, that henceforth, I’ll be less likely to be suckered by a well-written sob story, and ask for documentary evidence instead.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Official Page at Asnycnow Radio

I'm Diplomatic editor for the New York-based Asnycnow Radio network.  Check my official page at the following link:  I'd be interested in any reader feedback.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Success is Nothing But a Bunch of Failures That You Learn From

Following is the text of a motivational speech I gave at the annual Zimbabwe Cricket Awards on November 28, 2001.

Thanks for the introduction, and a special thanks to the players and staff of Zimbabwe Cricket for giving me the honor of not only attending, but participating in tonight’s event.  This is indeed an historic occasion; marking Zimbabwe’s triumphant return to test cricket.  And, I don’t use the term triumphant lightly, for what you’ve done is just that.  You have, as we would say in the U.S., made a great comeback – and the best is yet to come.
If I may, I’d like to talk about the importance of returning or coming back.  I’d like to talk about winning; and what it means to be a winner.  The members of the national cricket team will remember when I spoke to them earlier this year just before they left for the ICC World Cup matches in South Asia, I said that winners are not always those with the higher scores on the board, but those who refuse to quit no matter the odds; who continue to try even when everyone tells them trying is useless.
Well, guys, this past year, you’ve done just that – and, in my book that makes you winners regardless of the final scores.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite poems was one by English poet Rudyard Kipling, called “If.”  That poem has always inspired me, especially when times were toughest.  The passage that I particularly like goes something like this:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

That, folks, is what it takes to be a winner; what it takes to be a success in this world.  I often tell young students that I speak to that success is really nothing but a string of failures that you’ve overcome.  If you’ve never been on the bottom, you really can’t appreciate being at the top.  Now, you are far from the bottom, but having been away so long, it must sometimes feel like it.  Believe me, I know the feeling.
I’d like to tell you about another person who made a triumphant return; who had a long string of failure before making it to the very top.  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States is often viewed as one of our greatest – if not the greatest – leaders.  Through perseverance and sheer will power, he held the Union together during a terrible civil war that threatened to tear the country apart.
In 1860, Lincoln was elected President of the United States, the highest elective office in the land.  What you might not know, though, is that before winning that office, Lincoln was bedeviled by a long string of failures and returns in his career.
In 1832, he lost his job and was defeated in his run for a seat in the state legislature of Illinois.  But, that year, he was elected captain of a company of the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War.  In 1833, the business he started after the war was over failed.  He came back to be appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois and deputy surveyor of his county.  In 1834, he finally won a seat in the state legislature.  In 1835, his sweetheart died, and the following year he suffered a nervous breakdown.  This didn’t, however, keep from winning reelection to the legislature or getting his license to practice law in Illinois.
In 1838, Lincoln lost his bid to be speaker of the legislature, but he won reelection to his seat and served as his party whip.  In 1843, Lincoln made his first try at winning a seat in the US Congress, but lost, and lost again in 1848.  In 1849 the state of Illinois refused to appoint him a land officer.
Now, if you think this was the end of his troubles, think again.  In 1854, he was defeated in his campaign for a seat in the US Senate, and in 1856, he lost the bid to be vice president on his party’s ticket.  He tried for the Senate again in 1858 and, yes, lost again.  A lesser individual would in all likelihood have quit after so many devastating losses in such a short period of time, but not Lincoln.  He persevered, and in 1860 was nominated by his party and won election as President.  A famous quote attributed to Lincoln is, “M y great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”  He was clearly not content with his, and despite nearly 30 years of one failure after another, he kept coming back.  He went on to become one of our greatest leaders.
There’s a lesson there for all of us.  It’s not important how many times you fall down.  What’s important is how many times you get back up and keep pushing ahead.  The only true failures are those who never try.  Those words of wisdom I got from my grandmother, and I’ve tried to live by them in everything I do.
So, tonight, we celebrate returns; we salute those who keep coming back for more, who strive to be ever better.  If I wore a hat, it would be doffed to you valiant young men and women, and all those who support you.  You have done remarkably well, and I predict you will do even better in the time to come.
In parting, I’d like to leave you with a line I remember from some movie that I saw once.  I no longer remember the movie, but I’ve never forgotten the line – “The best is yet to come.”

Let Not the Veil of Ignorance Descend Upon Our Children

Narrow minded, anti-intellectual, anti-science beliefs and those who espouse them have been with us for a long time. 
Socrates was forced to drink hemlock after being charged with corrupting the youth of Athens.  The Italian, Galileo, who supported the theory of Copernicus that the earth orbited the sun, was called to Rome in 1633 and tried for heresy.  One of the pieces of evidence against him was Psalms 104:5, “The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved,” a biblical verse that shackled men’s minds for centuries and held back scientific enquiry into the nature of the universe.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with anything?  Well, the narrow, absolutist views that hemmed in people like Socrates and Galileo, are still with us.  Recently, the state of Mississippi tried to pass a law declaring that life begins at the moment of fertilization.  The so-called ‘Personhood Law’ was shot down by voters, but one has to believe, unfortunately, people whose minds run to such efforts won’t give up.  Which brings me to the issue that is really on my mind; the pseudo-scientific theory of Intelligent Design that some people want taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in our public schools.
Adherents of intelligent design claim that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that certain features of our universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not an undirected process, such as natural selection.  They try to separate their views from creationism, stating that it relies on scientific evidence rather than biblical scripture or religious doctrine.  This attempt to explain the universe and the living things contained within it was developed in the early 1980s by cosmologist Fred Hoyle who, along with many others, was uncomfortable with bringing God into the discussion. 
I have serious issues with both schools of thought.  Creationism accepts no argument; you either believe or you’re rejected as a non-believer.  Unlike scientific enquiry, which is always subject to further verification or outright rebuttal when new evidence is found, creationism must be accepted on faith alone.  Intelligent design doesn’t go quite to those lengths, but it still fails the scientific test – it posits that some superior intelligence designed the universe and living creatures, but is mute as to the identity of that intelligence.  Sounds suspiciously like a cleaned-up and edited version of creationism to me.
If we allow our educational institutions to indoctrinate students with such points of view, are we not risking creating new generations of people who don’t think or question?  Shouldn’t religious indoctrination be left in the church where it belongs?  Not, according to the supporters of such thinking.
I’ve seen firsthand the outcome of religion intruding into the classroom.  Zimbabwe, where I’ve lived for the past two years, allows teaching of the Bible in government schools on a par with science.  On my Facebook page, I regularly interact with over 4,000 young Zimbabwean products of this education system, and their responses to certain issues demonstrates the danger in blurring the border between church and state functions.
Recently, just for fun, I posted the following question:  Is a zebra a black animal with white stripes, or a white animal with black stripes?”  Within thirty minutes, I’d received over 30 comments from young Zimbabweans, and about ten percent of them were religious in nature.  By the end of a day, there were more than 100 comments, still with a significant number along the following lines:  It takes an intelligence not to disintegrate what God created it simply black and white. Giving it one color is good as question God's actions,” or “There is no color in that animal . . . when God created that animal he did not tell us about colors.”
The significance of this admittedly limited sample; and I have many others, believe me; is that it shows how adhering to absolutist beliefs often closes the mind to new information.  That which conflicts with our absolute beliefs is simply rejected.  Our minds refuse to move forward, but remain mired instead in a simplistic, un-provable point of view.  Some people would call that ignorance.
I prefer to be charitable and call it naiveté; but it is no less dangerous.  Such beliefs lead to the persecution, and often destruction, of those with whom the adherents disagree.  It leads to the refusal to accept the benefits of science, such as some religious sects who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.  Not only does this endanger the children themselves, but in the case of infectious diseases, others with whom they come into contact.
There has to be a place in our world for religion and for science.  I don’t believe the two are necessarily in conflict.  A scientist can believe in evolution and God at the same time.  Unfortunately, there are far too many people – some of them in positions to affect our lives – who don’t hold that view, and who want to force their views on the rest of us.  I respect their views, and defend their right to hold them; but, I will fight to the death against their right to force them on me, or upon future generations.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Deadly Intentions, a new Al Pennyback mystery is available in e-book format

If you enjoyed reading the first chapter, check out the complete book at
Available soon in paperback at, or here in my store.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Never Try to Fool A Computer

A little humor to brighten everyone's day.

A man, a very tightfisted, miserly man, was suffering chronic headaches, but he didn't want to go to a big hospital because it was so expensive.  A friend told him of a new clinic in town that used computer-based diagnosis, and it would only cost him five dollars plus the cost of any medications.  This appealed to his penny-pinching nature, so he immediately went.

At the clinic, he was directed to provide a urine sample and put it in a receptacle attached to the computer, which he did.  After some whirring and clicking, the computer spit out a slip of paper; a prescription for some medication.  The total cost of the visit was twenty bucks.  He was pleased.  But, he was also a skeptic.  He refused to believe that a mere computer, no matter how economical or cheap, could be so smart.

The man decided to put the machine to the test.  He collected urine samples from his wife, his daughter, himself, and his dog; and, for good measure put in a small amount of water from the tap over his kitchen sink.  He went to the clinic, paid his five dollars and submitted the sample.

The computer took a bit longer this time, but in due course, it spit out a long slip of paper, which the man tore off and began reading.

"Your wife is pregnant," were the words on the slip of paper.  "Your daughter is an alcoholic, and your dog has ringworm.  The water in your home has too much sediment, so you need a filter.  You are healthy, but you are not the father of your daughter, or of your wife's unborn child, so if you don't want future headaches, get your daughter into rehabilitation, take your dog to the vet for treatment, and hire a good lawyer."

"The Last Dictator Standing"

This TV ad for Nandos fast food outlets is airing in South Africa and the UK.  There's a good chance it won't be airing in Zimbabwe any time soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Necessity Might be The Mother of Invention, But, Golf is It's Father

Necessity Might be The Mother of Invention, But, Golf is It's Father

6 Steps That Will Help You Generate Leads With LinkedIn

7 Neglected Social Media Generation Opportunities

Necessity Might be The Mother of Invention, But, Golf is It's Father

Necessity Might be The Mother of Invention, But, Golf is It's Father

Love Comes in Many Forms | Charles A. Ray | Blog Post | Red Room

Love Comes in Many Forms Charles A. Ray Blog Post Red Room

On Safari in Mana Pools - Zimbabwe | Charles A. Ray | Blog Post | Red Room

On Safari in Mana Pools - Zimbabwe Charles A. Ray Blog Post Red Room

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Note To All Writers - Making Your Writing Come Alive

Before I delve into the topic I’ve chosen to write about, I have to make a confession; I’m something of a traditionalist where grammar is concerned.  I find many of today’s coined words, phrases, and expressions empty of meaning and disruptive of the flow of comprehension when I try to read.  The doublespeak of a lot of communication, especially government communication, leaves me cold.
Now, that I have that off my chest, let’s talk about verbification and some of the other grammatical and linguistic conventions that we modern folk seem so enamored of.
What the heck is Verbification?
Verbification, or the process of converting words from one form to another, is a time-honored tradition.  It can be used to express simply what might otherwise take many words.  It is also sometimes a form of wordplay for amusement, as in Shakespeare’s King Richard, when the Duke of York says, “Grace me no graces, and uncle me no uncles.”
Now, that’s a funny phrase, but sometimes, it gets out of hand. Converting nouns to verbs does not always lead to clarity in communication.  Take the following sentence, for example:  “Let’s diarize the outcome of today’s meeting and interface tomorrow so that we can operationalize it.”
Does this make sense to you?  Perhaps after a second or third reading you might get it, but why bother.  Why not go for something simple:  “Let’s record the results of today’s meeting, and meet again tomorrow so that we can implement our plans.”  Isn’t this version better?  If you’re a traditionalist like me, it is.  The first sentence is what you are likely to read or hear in a bureaucratic setting, and while we become accustomed to such forms after a while, I prefer the simple statement. 
An Appeal for Simple, Clear English
I haven’t really figured out the attraction that some people have for inventing new words.  Take ‘dialogue’ for instance.  A perfectly nice noun that some people insist on using as a verb, as in the sentence, “Let’s dialogue on the issue.”  What’s wrong with ‘talk,’ pray tell?
In writing, verbs are the strongest words; the fuel of writing.  They give your writing, fiction or nonfiction, power and impact, and make it more interesting. They do, that is, until you start mucking around with converting nouns to verb, and then they add so much fog to what you write, you risk losing your readers.  Which brings me to another peeve of mine; the practice of turning verbs into nouns; for example, “Let’s conduct a review of the department’s plan for crisis management.”  In this case, the verb ‘review’ has been converted to a noun, and hidden in the sentence, leaving it with far less impact than “Let’s review the department’s plan for crisis management.”
When we convert verbs into nouns, we often need extra verbs in order for our sentence to make sense; turning a simple, short sentence into a rambling collection of words that can, if we’re not extremely careful, lead our readers astray.
None of this is meant to say that we, as writers, should never do this.  Shakespeare did it, and to great advantage.  It is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of the English language in fact.  In fiction, these forms can be used to delineate our characters and make them distinctive; it can add interesting color to what we write.  But, in nonfiction, where we’re striving for maximum understanding, my advice; my plea; is that we proceed cautiously – and, you’ll note here I didn’t say ‘proceed with caution.”  Try to write so that your words ‘live’ on the page; so that they jump out at your readers and engrave themselves in their minds.  Your readers will thank you for it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Overestimating a Person's Intelligence Can Be as Risky as Underestimating.

It is a matter of common knowledge that one of the worst things you can do when dealing with people is to underestimate their intelligence.  When you do this, it leaves you open to some nasty surprises.  You think that, because someone talks slowly, or has a slightly rustic accent, they don’t possess a sharp mind, and that will cause you to miscalculate more often than not.
So, that’s good advice – never underestimate people.  Of course, from sad personal experience, I’ve found it’s also dangerous to overestimate people.  It can be a big mistake to assume that just because a person has a college degree, or comes from a more or less privileged background, they will know the things you know – even things you think are as common as dirt.
Once, when I was the number two in a government organization operating in a difficult and often dangerous situation, I was charged with keeping everyone’s morale up and keeping them focused on our mission.  I often held pep talks with them; always encouraging them to persevere, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.  One of my favorite sayings was, “We don’t quit as long as we have a breath left in our bodies. Even when the forces arrayed against us are powerful and relentless, we will not roll over on our backs like a dog.”  Now, if you’ve had a dog as a pet, or you’re at all familiar with the habits of predators, you’ll know that in a fight, the weaker animal will submit by rolling up and exposing its throat and belly.  Everyone knows that, right?
That’s what I thought until two of my female employees came to me privately and complained that that sentence made them uncomfortable.  I was confused as to why that should be so, so I pressed them for an explanation, and finally, red-faced, they let me know that such specific sexual references were inappropriate in the office.  Now, it was my turn to be red-faced, and it took me a few moments to collect my wits and explain animal behavior to them.  We all had a good laugh, but I learned a valuable lesson.  Some people actually do grow up without ever having a pet, or observing animals in the wild – or even in a back alley, so what was common knowledge to me was completely unknown to two of my employees.
So, word to the wise – try to neither underestimate nor overestimate the people you work with; and good luck with that one.

What's With the Republican Party?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chapter One of a New Al Pennyback Mystery, "Deadly Intentions."

Following is the first chapter of my new Al Pennyback mystery, Deadly Intentions.  Look for it in my store in a few months.  Reader comments are welcome.


My friends Buster and Lum and I had managed to slip away from the ladies and had made our way to a cabin near a lake in the hills for a little fishing.

Buster is Buster Mayweather, a detective first class with the District of Colombia Metropolitan Police, reassigned from homicide to the gang task force. A former college football player, Buster is over six feet, two hundred twenty pounds, and the way he keeps his head shaven, has that angry black man look that helps him survive the dog-eat-dog world of the streets of the District where the gangs hold sway. I met Buster when he came to my house with two uniformed cops to tell me that my wife and son had been killed in an auto accident. I was thrown into turmoil by the news, and he’d stayed with me until I came to my senses. That night, sitting together in the morgue in northern Virginia, we’d formed a bond that only became stronger with each passing year.

Lum is Lum Kellum, sheriff of the West Virginia town of Middleboro. Buster and I’d met Lum when my girlfriend Sandra Winter and Buster’s wife Alma had been kidnapped by America for True Americans, a dumbass militia group that had once operated in the hills near town. He’d been instrumental in helping dismantle the group, and the three of us had been friends since. About five-eleven and portly, with fringes of brown hair on either side of a bald spot that extended from his brows to the back of his head, he looked older than his forty five years. He had faded blue eyes that had a tendency to look somewhat vacant and unfocused, and gave him the look of one of those yokel sheriffs of some backwater town you see on TV, and if you thought that you’d be fooled, because he had a sharp mind and a nearly photographic memory.

As for me, my name is Al Pennyback; Alfred Einstein Pennyback on my birth certificate; and, I’m a six-one, two hundred pound former Army Special Forces officer who became a private detective in Washington when I left the army after my family was killed. The people who know me well enough to know my full name, also know better than to call me anything other than Al, or Mister Pennyback if I’ve just met them; I was raised to be formal with strangers and am uncomfortable with people who start calling you by your first name as soon as they meet you. During twenty years in the army, I earned black belts in Taekwondo, Karate, and Jujitsu, and proficiency with more weapons than you could ever imagine. A botched operation in the Middle East that resulted in some innocent people being killed soured me on firearms and despite the popular image of the pistol-packing PI you see in the movies, I don’t carry or even own a gun.

We were sitting on a rickety wooden dock built out over the small lake in the hills above the town; had, in fact, been sitting there since sunrise, and it was just after nine in the morning. It was early March, and there was still a bit of a nip in the air. The morning mist off the surface of the lake was just clearing. We sat with our legs hanging over the edge of the dock, our feet just inches from the crystal blue water which shimmered in the morning sunlight. We hadn’t caught anything, but that hadn’t really been the objective of our fishing safari. We just wanted to get away for some male-bonding time. A cooler full of crushed ice, ham and cheese sandwiches and several cans of a local beer, Iron Mill, sat behind us, the lid ajar. We’d eaten half the sandwiches that Lum’s wife, Mary Ellen, who was also Middleboro’s mayor, had made for us, and the beer was about gone.

“Now, this is what life is all about,” Lum said, leaning back and fishing another can of beer from the cooler. He popped the tab and took a sip, smacking his lips, then leaned his head back and drained almost half the can. “Cold beer, and just sittin’ here fishing with friends; shucks, it don’t get no better than this.”

Buster took a sip of his beer. “Yeah, I guess I gotta agree with you,” he said. “I ain’t never been much for all this outdoor shit, but I gotta admit, this ain’t half bad. What about you, Al? You ain’t hardly said a word all morning.”

“When you’re with friends in a great environment,” I said. “There’s not really much need to say anything. It’s great just being able to sit here and not have to worry about having to deal with some scum bag who is trying to duck out on paying his bills.”

“Yeah, I guess you got a point,” he said. “It is kinda nice not having to worry about some gang banger trying to shiv me.” He turned to Lum. “Now, you got the perfect job. Bein’ sheriff of Mayberry here, all you got to worry about is some teenager joyriding in his daddy’s car, or the occasional lost cow.”

“Don’t forget,” I said. “He had that militia group up here.”

“Yeah, but we helped him get rid of that bunch of redneck fools,” Buster said.

Lum chuckled. “You fellas from the city think it’s all milk and honey out here in the sticks,” he said. ‘Well, now it is true we don’t have all the hustles and scams you have in the city, but if you think it’s all peace and quiet, I invite you to ride along with me for a week.”

“Aw, come on, man,” Buster said. “With that militia gone, what kinda crime you got up here in Middleboro?”

“You think down in the city’s the only place you gotta deal with a kid whacked out on crack or PCP?” Buster nodded in sympathy. “We get lots of break-ins,” Lum continued. “Mostly them same doped up kids trying to get money to buy the shit. Now and then, some wife gets tired of her husband coming home drunk and she conks him in the head with a skillet. Now, I know that don’t seem like much, but I’m a one-man office, and I gotta deal with it all myself.”

“Okay,” Buster said. “I admit, you ain’t got it all that easy either. Law enforcement is stressful even here in Mayberry. At least you ain’t gotta deal with a bunch of wanna be soldiers running ‘round scaring folks.”

“Well, now that you mention it,” Lum said. “I still got that problem.”

“I thought that group broke up when their leader died and the rest went to jail,” I said.

“Oh, it ain’t that America for True Americans bunch,” he said. “They were at least a bunch of local boys. No, a new group took over their property. Bunch of outsiders call themselves the True American Patriot Society. Can you believe it? TAPS, these guys got no imagination at all.”

“What is this bunch up to?” I asked.

“That’s my problem,” he said. “Like I said, they ain’t local, so there’s nobody to talk to like the ones before. All I know is the leader is some guy named Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson; can you believe it? He’s in a wheelchair and got a bunch of tough looking women as bodyguards; kinda like that crazy Arab guy. Hardly ever comes into town, and when they do, they never talk to nobody, and them women don’t let nobody get close to their boss.”

“Maybe it’s one of them cult outfits,” Buster said. “You know, some dude up in the hills with twenty or thirty wives.”

“I don’t think so,” Lum said. “These women don’t look like sex objects to me. They look tough and mean as snakes. I wouldn’t want to tangle with one of them, and he always travels with four of them.”

“So, they haven’t actually done anything?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “And, that’s what worries me about them. It’s just a feeling I have about ‘em, you know. I know they’re up to somethin’, but, I don’t know what. Kinda like waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“I know that feeling,” Buster said. “I don’t envy you having something like that on your doorstep. ‘Least, you ain’t havin’ to deal with dead bodies.”

“Not, yet, thank God,” Lum said.

Just then, the thrum of a car’s engine broke the morning quiet. We turned and could see a late model sedan, blue with white racing stripes, coming up the winding dirt road, kicking up a wake of dust as the driver tried to keep it in the ruts in the center.

“Who else would be coming up here this time on a Saturday morning?” Buster asked.

“I recognize that car,” Lum said. “That’s Bo Park; he’s a Korean real estate broker and lawyer. He and his brother were among the first Koreans to move up here. I think they came up from DC. Bought up a lot of vacant property and a lot of others came up after him. His brother Leonard runs most of the dry cleaning in the county. I never known him to cotton much to being outside town.”

“I don’t remember seeing any Koreas here,” Buster said.

“Oh, there weren’t any when you guys were up here before,” he said. “They’ve all arrived in the last six months or so. They pretty much stay to themselves. Built a little community on land the Parks bought. Even put up Korean signs. There’s been a little friction with the black community, especially since Cal Wilson, the leading black businessman in town, used to do all the dry cleaning, and they drove him out of business, but they sort of get along with everyone else.”

The car came to a halt near the little cabin, and when the dust settled, a figure emerged. Medium height, small build, the Korean man wore a dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. He dusted at the shoulder of his suit. He looked over to where we sitting and started our way. As he neared, I could see a scowl of anger on his face. He walked the ten feet out onto the dock and stopped facing down at Lum.

“Sheriff Kellum,” he said with only traces of an accent. “I went to your house looking for you. Your wife told me you were out here.”

Lum stood up and dusted off his trousers. “Yeah, Bo,” he said. “Me and my friends decided to do a little fishing. What causes you to be looking for me on a Saturday morning?”

“I must report a crime,” he said. “Someone kill my brother.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Penn Museum - Announcements

Penn Museum - Announcements

Talent Without Work Remains Unfulfilled

People often compliment on my writing and speaking ability, acting as if these skills are innate talents requiring no effort on my part.  The fact is, though, what modest ability I have in these areas is a result of study, hard work, practice, and a set of fortunate circumstances.
When I was a child I had problems dealing with people – actually, I hated being around people, preferring to be alone in a corner with a book.  My mother taught me to read when I was four, so when I started school, the first and second grade readers were a day’s work to zip through.  Recognizing that I was bored, in second grade my teacher allowed me to get books from the school library that until that time had only been used by the students in high school.  I was, as they say in east Texas where I come from, in hog heaven.  I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, Plato, Aristotle, and the Encyclopedia Americana (and read my way through every volume before I reached third grade).  This began for me a lifelong love of the written word, which has also shaped my writing to a large extent.
Because I also didn’t like being around people, I wasn’t a very persuasive speaker as a child.  When I reached high school in 1958 at the age of thirteen in a freshman class with kids two to three years older than me, I pulled into a shell.  My home room teacher wasn’t having any of that, though, and forced me to stand in front of the class and talk.  After a couple weeks of this torture, I discovered that since I read better and knew more than my classmates, as well as the sophomores who shared the room with us, I could easily regale them with stories.  Overnight, my fear of talking to people vanished.
Since then, I have worked hard to polish both skills.  I write at every opportunity, including stints as a newspaper/magazine reporter and tons of free lance writing.  I set myself a goal of at least 1,000 words a day in some form or other, even if only character sketches or impressions.  I never pass up an opportunity to speak publicly; on any subject, to any audience.  I’ve even had a stint in the classroom, teaching subjects from sociology to photography in a variety of schools.
I read books on writing and speaking, trying new things, and constantly striving to improve existing skills.  Maybe, just maybe, there’s some talent inside me.  But, without the study and practice, that talent would likely still be hidden deep inside.
Why am I boring you with this?  In my interactions with young people, I constantly remind them that the circumstances of their birth don’t have to be absolute limiters on what they do in life.  With the desire to achieve, even in dire circumstances, you would be amazed what you can accomplish.  Never let others define and limit you, I tell them.  Set your own goals, and aim high.  The only way to reach the stars is to reach for the stars.  And, even if you never actually get to where you aim to go, you’ll certainly rise above where you are.
(Note:  This article first published at

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Leading From The Middle: A New Paradigm for Leadership in the 21st Century

Not too long ago, in a meeting with some talented high school students in Harare, Zimbabwe, I was asked my leadership preference; leading from the front and pulling people along, or from the rear, pushing them. In my response, I talked about the need for leaders to create vision, build teams, and have consideration for the personal and professional needs of those they lead. I talked about the US Army motto, “Mission first, people always,” and concluded that perhaps my preferred position to lead from is the middle.

It wasn’t meant to be a glib answer; it just sort of worked out that what I usually did was lead from within any organization. Sometimes I push, but I try not to do that too much. At other times, I’m out front and urging others to keep up, but again, I find that is not the most effective really.

Since that meeting, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I hit on something that I’ve always known, but just never gave a lot of thought to. Where do the most effective leaders lead from? Part of the problem in coming to a conclusion on that is the way we tend to view leadership, and the very words we use. To lead seems to imply either pushing or pulling, and to follow indicates subordination. But, is that really the most effective way to lead? After some months of reflection, I think not.

I’ve said it and written it many times; the best leaders are visionaries. They are people who see the future, and have the ability to communicate that vision to others and inspire them to take the journey. Sometimes they push, and sometimes they pull, but more often than not, they simply encourage. They get people to go along with them; not through bossing them around from behind, or exhorting from the front. They do it as an integral member of the teams they create. They people to go along, as former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his autobiography, “An American Journey,” out of curiosity. They do it because you’ve been able to convince them that your vision can become reality, and they want to go along with you to achieve it. The best quarterback, in the game of American football (and I make that distinction because some of my readers think of football as the English game of soccer) lead their teams not from the front or back, but from the middle of the melee.

I’ve been thinking back to my days in the army, when I was taught how to be an effective platoon leader, the first leadership position occupied by most second lieutenants. Even with the US Infantry motto, emblazoned on the base at Fort Benning, Georgia, “Follow Me,” platoon leaders who are most successful in accomplishing their assigned mission do it neither from the rear nor the front, but ‘with’ their men. They share the hardships of their men, letting them know that they will ask nothing of them that they, as leader, are not willing to do. You do that from within, not from in front or behind.

I don’t think I’ve hit on anything new. The most effective leadership is from the middle, from within. Then again, maybe this is something we haven’t thought about enough. I think it’s worth further study, and I fully plan to research it more thoroughly. I hope those of you reading this will be willing and eager to go along with me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

US Army Blackhawk flying over lake near Phoeniz, Arizona

Chinook Helicopter from Singaporean Air Force

A Huey coming in for a landing

HH-60 being refueled by a C-130

Air Force HH-60 and Pararescue specialists

Air Force HH-60 Pavehawk

High Flying Fill Up

High Flying Fill Up

Sunrise Over Dakar

Sunrise Over Dakar

Death of a Dictator: Those Who Live by The Sword Find an Inglorious End

Death of a Dictator: Those Who Live by The Sword Find an Inglorious End

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Web Site Devoted to Helping Our Veterans

A Non-profit 501(c)3 Community Based Organization for

Veterans to achieve Economic Empowerment through

Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship



Monday, September 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on Becoming a Grandfather

Samatha Aeryn Ray-Wickersham, all 6.5 pounds of her, came into this world at around 6 pm on September 24 - four days earlier than the doctors had predicted.  Nearly two feet tall, er long, the kid had her eyes open and was looking around the room when she was barely 18 hours old.  Gonna be smart this one, and with those long legs and long fingers, I can see great things in her future.  Of course, all that is incidental to the fact that this little bundle of squawling joy has just made me a grandfather.

Everyone's been telling me that you change when that happens.  I'm still waiting.  Oh, I was happy that little Samatha, or Sam, which I've already decided fits her better, was born healthy, and that my daughter suffered no ill effects. It was nice seeing my son-in-law, Charles (maybe it's true about girls marrying their dads and boys marrying their moms, you think?) taking to fatherhood so easily - even to the point of volunteering to change a diaper.  But, I'm still waiting for that magic glow that's supposed to envelope you when you become a grandparent; the one that makes you overly indulgent and prone to spoil kids.  I'm sorry, but I don't feel it.

I will, of course, dedicate my next book to Sam.  Nothing unusual there; I've dedicated books to most of the rest of the family, and this is just my way of welcoming her to the clan.  But, I promise you, I will not spoil her.  Teach her to read and do math when she hits three - yes.  I did that for her mother, and she turned out okay.  Teach her to tie a knot and throw a baseball before she's six - yes, that too.  At the same time, I'll also teach her discipline and self-reliance - or, at least, model them.  It's up to her parents to be her primary teachers.  As a grandparent, I will play my secondary role to the best of my ability.  Most of the time I'll be trying to keep my wife from spoiling her.  Now, she's really bought into this magical grandparent thing, hook, line, and sinker. 

So, there you have it.  And, don't forget, you read it here first.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Who are "We the People" Referred to in the Constitution?

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This brief introduction to the United States Constitution describes the basic aim of the document.  The Constitution was drafted in secrecy by 42 delegates from the 13 original states to replace the Articles of Confederation which had proven inadequate to regulate relations between and among such disparate entities.
In this, Constitution Month, it might be useful to analyze what I believe is the most important phrase in this document – “We the People.”  This is important for a number of reasons.  First, it starts with what the framers thought important, the people.  It didn’t say, we the government, or we the politicians, but we the people.  The Constitution is a people-centric, people-driven document that is designed to organize government to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around.
Another thing that has to be kept in mind is how “We the People” has changed over the more than two hundred years of this document’s existence.  When it was written, “We the People” were white, male, landowners.  After a period of time, those white males who were not propertied were included in the power circle, and combined with the original beneficiaries eventually expanded it to include black men, who when it was written were considered only three-fifths a person.  Then, many decades later, the rights under the Constitution were expanded to include women.  In other words, over time, the power elites saw the benefits in sharing power with others.  Not all, one must understand, felt this way.  We had to fight a civil war in order for the power circle to include people of color, and the fight over extending rights to women raged on even after blacks were granted rights on paper; an act that took more than a century to be actually implemented in a manner that can almost be called ‘fully.’
Therein, I sincerely believe, lies the real power of our Constitution.  It was written in a way that made it possible for changes to be made to reflect changing times.  But, more importantly, those who wrote it did not see right and privilege as a zero-sum game.  They discovered, and we’re still discovering, that sometimes sharing power actually increases it.  In this, there is a lesson for us all.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America

A Photographic Tour of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa

African Places: A photographic journey through Zimbabwe and Southern Africa
Authored by Charles Ray, Photographs by Charles Ray
List Price: $25.95
7" x 10" (17.78 x 25.4 cm)
Full Color on White paper
120 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1466266469 (CreateSpace-Assigned) ISBN-10: 1466266465 BISAC: Photography / General
A photographic journal of the author's travels around southern Africa from 2009 to 2011. Photos of people, animals, and places of interest in one of the most diverse regions of the world. Photographs and text by the author.

Improve Your Photography: How Budding Photographers Can Get Pro Results