Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hiking the Shenandoah - Oh, it Hurts So Good

Recently, I let my wife talk me into going mountain climbing with her and some of her friends.  You can read about my painful but pleasant experience here.


The National Memo » Documents Found In Meth House Bare Inner Workings Of Dark Money Group

The National Memo » Documents Found In Meth House Bare Inner Workings Of Dark Money Group

The National Memo » 2012: The Cellphone Election

The National Memo » 2012: The Cellphone Election

The National Memo » The Corporate Mad Dogs Of Citizens United

The National Memo » The Corporate Mad Dogs Of Citizens United

The National Memo » Romney’s Trojan Horse Candidacy

The National Memo » Romney’s Trojan Horse Candidacy

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The National Memo » Romney, Republicans Struggle To Play Politics After Sandy

The National Memo » Romney, Republicans Struggle To Play Politics After Sandy

The National Memo » WATCH: Romney Slammed For Misleading Auto Ad

The National Memo » WATCH: Romney Slammed For Misleading Auto Ad

The National Memo » Could This Man Cost Mitt Romney Virginia?

The National Memo » Could This Man Cost Mitt Romney Virginia?

The National Memo » Paying Taxes To Your Boss: Another Step Toward 21st Century Feudalism

The National Memo » Paying Taxes To Your Boss: Another Step Toward 21st Century Feudalism

The National Memo » Sorry, Wrong Numbers: Why The Polls Don’t See Obama’s Winning Margin

The National Memo » Sorry, Wrong Numbers: Why The Polls Don’t See Obama’s Winning Margin

The National Memo » Not An Easy Makeover For Florida’s Rep. Allen West

The National Memo » Not An Easy Makeover For Florida’s Rep. Allen West

Friday, October 26, 2012

Paris: City of Light and Dark | Charles A. Ray | Blog Post | Red Room

Paris: City of Light and Dark | Charles A. Ray | Blog Post | Red Room

The National Memo » The Romney Bus Rolls On

The National Memo » The Romney Bus Rolls On

The National Memo » No, Richard Mourdock Has Not Apologized

The National Memo » No, Richard Mourdock Has Not Apologized

The National Memo » What’s Turning Minority Voters Away From Mitt? Maybe His Crowds

The National Memo » What’s Turning Minority Voters Away From Mitt? Maybe His Crowds

The National Memo » Awaiting Romney’s Tax ‘Reform,’ Big Donor Moved 26,000 Jobs Offshore

The National Memo » Awaiting Romney’s Tax ‘Reform,’ Big Donor Moved 26,000 Jobs Offshore

The 'genius' of neoconservatism | Stephen M. Walt

The 'genius' of neoconservatism | Stephen M. Walt

America's dangerous fantasy land | Prestowitz

America's dangerous fantasy land | Prestowitz

The All-Powerful President - By Micah Zenko | Foreign Policy

The All-Powerful President - By Micah Zenko | Foreign Policy

Clicking This Will Make You Stupider - By Uri Friedman and Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy

Clicking This Will Make You Stupider - By Uri Friedman and Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The National Memo » Right Wing Fumes As Powell Endorses Obama

The National Memo » Right Wing Fumes As Powell Endorses Obama

The Possibility of Miracles

I’m not an especially religious person.  I was asked to leave my mother’s church when I was 12 or 13 because of my infuriating tendency - - in the eyes of the southern Baptists in my home town - - to question everything.  After deciding at that tender age that the Baptist faith was too confining and narrow minded, I tried a lot of religions and cults, even flirted with the idea of atheism, decided I was really agnostic (read undecided) and that Buddhism was the philosophy of life most closely attuned to my personality.

I’ve never questioned the possible existence of a supreme being or some higher consciousness in the universe, I’m must not sure of its nature.  When I was in Vietnam in 1968, though, I witnessed a situation that leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but also confirmed my middle of the road philosophy.

I was in an outfit that did behind the lines recon missions; a highly dangerous undertaking as the enemy knows you’re out there snooping around, and doesn’t much like it.  One of our teams, while on a mission, was attacked and one of the members got separated from all the others.  Poor guy wandered around the jungle for four days, occasionally encountering VC or NVA soldiers, including one incident when he and an NVA guy were on opposite banks of a stream getting water.  Funny thing is, being out there all alone, wandering around like a lost sheep, he was never shot at.  The guy at the stream just stared at him for a few minutes, nodded, got up and walked away.

We finally stumbled across him with a search team; or maybe he stumbled into them.  Weary, hungry, and befuddled, he was otherwise unharmed.  The whole thing, though, set me to thinking.  I still wasn’t sure about the whole God thing, but the fact that this guy, with his dark skin, round eyes, and tightly curly hair had survived that long in enemy territory when the bad guys had a bounty on the heads of each of our recon guys, made me think that there was such a thing as miracles.  Who or what generated them, I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t really matter.  What it did for me was to peel away any cynicism I’d been coated in, and leave me open to the possibility of good things happening even when conventional wisdom says you’re screwed.

The National Memo » American History Lesson

The National Memo » American History Lesson

The National Memo » How The Right Wing Lost In 2012

The National Memo » How The Right Wing Lost In 2012

The National Memo » Help Us Name Mitt’s Next Lie

The National Memo » Help Us Name Mitt’s Next Lie

The National Memo » 10 Forgotten Scandals Surrounding Mitt Romney

The National Memo » 10 Forgotten Scandals Surrounding Mitt Romney

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

30 Halloween Party Ideas: Decor, Entertainment, Food, and More

30 Halloween Party Ideas: Decor, Entertainment, Food, and More

16 Ideas for Election Night Parties

16 Ideas for Election Night Parties

The National Memo » Helping Republicans Find Real Voter Fraud In America

The National Memo » Helping Republicans Find Real Voter Fraud In America

The National Memo » 5 Ways America Would Be Different If Mitt Romney Had Won In 2008

The National Memo » 5 Ways America Would Be Different If Mitt Romney Had Won In 2008

The National Memo » The ‘Foxified’ Media Cost Romney Two Debates

The National Memo » The ‘Foxified’ Media Cost Romney Two Debates

The National Memo » No Denial: ‘Son Of Detroit’ Profited From Bailout — And Jobs Shipped To China

The National Memo » No Denial: ‘Son Of Detroit’ Profited From Bailout — And Jobs Shipped To China

The Versewagon: Poets launch album in Harare

The Versewagon: Poets launch album in Harare: Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights (ZPHR) has launched an eight-track album entitled “All Protocol Observed” that addresses social ills...

The Versewagon: LIve and unedited

The Versewagon: LIve and unedited: A poetry performance that was a hybrid of two poems: Bound to the Street and Do You Remember. This was recorded at Tartwort Poetry Slam i...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Zen of Eating Meat

I have to start off by saying that this isn’t a Halloween article, and it isn’t particularly scary – well, maybe a little, depending on your point of view.  It does concern a serious issue, though; one that has been troubling me for some time.

When I go into town (Washington, DC is the town I refer to here; I live just outside the city in Maryland’s Montgomery County), I usually go to the area called Foggy Bottom.  This is near where a lot of federal agencies are located, but it’s also home of George Washington University, sometimes known as the ‘university that ate Washington.’  That nickname comes, by the way, from the fact that GWU has spread over Foggy Bottom like an infestation of tape worm, devouring some neat old buildings and changing the skyline completely – but, that’s another story.

My tale is about the student activists you encounter the moment you come off the Foggy Bottom Metro station escalator, and in particular, the PETA folks.  They have their little signs stuck up all over the place, and from time to time will be there on the sidewalk handing out pamphlets and stuff.  I used to think they stood for a worthy cause; after all, as a Buddhist I firmly believe in avoiding gratuitous violence and showing respect for all living things, so they’re stand against cruelty to animals seemed something I could support.  Then, though, they started the campaign against fishing, and they’re dead set against eating any animal flesh.  Sounds simple enough on the surface, but, when you think about it, the logic falls apart.

I’m assuming their objection to eating animals is because of a belief that like us, animals have feelings; pain, loss, etc., and, I suppose I can’t really argue with that since I know animals can feel pain, and have seen what appear to be a sense of loss when an animal has lost a mate or young.  I know they feel fear; I grew up on a farm and once had to put down a herd of typhus-infected hogs; when the first two died, the rest panicked; probably from the smell of blood.

I come from Texas, a state that has a reputation of being gun-happy, and hunted from an early age.  I never, though, hunted for pleasure.  When we hunted, it was for food, not trophies, or just killing animals for the heck of it.  I gave up hunting, and guns too, many years ago, and now get my food from the super market.  I don’t fish anymore, but that’s more from lack of time than any sensitivity to hurting the fish.  You see, what I’ve concluded is that PETA hasn’t thought this thing through enough.  I agree with them that gratuitous violence is a no-no; no cock fights or dog fights, I hate bull fighting, and beating animals, or inflicting cruelty on them (such as stuffing food down their gullets to enlarge their livers) is just plain wrong.  But, killing them as quickly as possible for the purpose of converting them to food, well, the world is sometimes a painful place.

One could be tempted to think that PETA is endowing these creatures with souls.  I’m not arguing that point; just pointing out that if this is the case, what about the fact that all animals eat other animals, with the exception of herbivores.  Big fish eat small fish that eat smaller fish, which eat one-cell organisms; lions eat antelope; and so it goes.  If it’s wrong for humans to eat animals, is it not wrong for animals to eat other animals?  And, while we’re on the subject, what about the fact that when we die, our flesh is eaten by the smallest of animals, the microorganisms in the soil?  Doesn’t that put them at the top of the food chain?

Just a little food for thought – no pun intended.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The 20-60-20 Rule of Human Behavior

When I was a kid, I remember reading somewhere an article about the ‘Talented Tenth.’  This was a theory that said basically ten percent of the population was responsible for most of society’s progress while the remaining 90% was sort of ‘along for the ride.’  I have to admit that my observations as I matured didn’t do much to contradict that belief; that is, until I started looking more closely at how people behave.

After five decades of watching people in societies around the globe, under all kinds of circumstances from almost idyllic peaceful circumstances to the stench and bloodshed of war, I have come to the conclusion that the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory missed it by a bit.  My observations, admittedly anecdotal rather than scientific, have led me to believe that people in groups tend to fall into a Gaussian distribution (so called for German mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss, who popularized its use to analyze astronomical data), otherwise known as a Bell Curve or normal distribution because of its graphic shape.  Basically, in a normal distribution, the highest point in the curve, or the top of the bell, represents the most probable event or situation, with all possible occurrences equally distributed around it, creating a downward-sloping line on each side of the peak.

So, how have I observed people to sort themselves out in the normal distribution?  Like I said, it’s not empirical data, but it seems to work out to a ratio of 20-60-20.  That is, 20% on what I call the ‘good’ or ‘productive’ side, 20% on the ‘bad’ or ‘dysfunctional’ side, and the remaining 60% evenly distributed in the main or central part of the bell.  I guess you could say we 60% are the ballast that keeps society on a somewhat even keel.

Now, on the ‘good’ side, we have the Einsteins, the Michelangelos, the Mother Theresas, and others who come up with the new, bold ideas; who go where no one has gone before.  These are the people who make things happen for the betterment of the whole society.  On the ‘bad’ side, we have the Hitlers, the Jeffrey Daumers, and the idiots who change lanes on the beltway without signaling, cutting in front of cars so close they cause them to stamp on their brakes, creating massive traffic snarls and sometimes causing fatal accidents.  These are the people who take guns to school and use classmates and teachers for target practice before turning the guns on themselves.

While the ‘good’ side of the bell is busy trying to help society progress, the ‘bad’ side is constantly trying to pull it down.  You might think that leaves those of us in the middle 60% at the mercy of geniuses and madmen; but, you’d be wrong.  Like the ballast in a ship, we serve to keep things from going too far in one direction or another.  The geniuses are often so deep in their vision of the future, they fail to solidly ground themselves in the present.  We dullards of the so-so 60% keep them grounded in reality.  At the same time, our outrage when the ‘bad-siders’ go too far helps to keep society from descending into total chaos.

As far as I know, no one has seriously studied this phenomenon.  If they have, I’d be interested in seeing the results, just to see how far I am off the mark.  But, I think that if one day this is ever studied, my theory will be somewhere in the neighborhood of the reality.  After all, under the rules of normal distribution, it should be somewhere near the middle of the bell.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

New Al Pennyback Mystery "Dead Man's Cove" Now Available

It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend on an island in the Chesapeake Bay with friends, although Al Pennyback wasn’t looking forward to the boat trip.  The boat trip, though, was the least of his worries; when the idyllic interlude is interrupted by the brutal murder of one of the vacationers, Al finds himself in the middle of domestic discord and jealousy that makes some of his other cases seem like walks in a peaceful park.
Get the latest Al Pennyback mystery, now available in paperback and soon available for Kindle.
Order direct from


Monday, October 15, 2012

Remembering Sihanouk

Monday, October 15, 2012, and I awoke to emails and news reports saying that Norodom Sihanouk, former monarch of Cambodia, who stepped down in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni in 2004, died of a heart attack on Monday in Beijing where he’d gone for medical treatment.

Sihanouk will be honored by his countrymen and remembered by many for many things; playboy, filmmaker, musician, mercurial personality, one of the founders of the non-aligned movement.  But, I will remember him for more personal reasons.

When I went to Phnom Penh in 2002 as American Ambassador, he was king, having made a deal with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to return to the throne.  Given his feeling that the CIA was behind the 1970 coup by Lon Nol which overthrew him, I didn’t expect to have very good relations with him.  It turned out not to be the case.

Singing with Prince Norodom Sirivuth's combo.  Sirivuth
is Sihanouk's younger brother. This was at one of Sihanouk's
infamous all-night dinners.
  I found him an engaging and fascinating individual, and thoroughly enjoyed my audiences with him; listening to his accounts of historical figures of the 1950s and 1960s, people with whom he knew intimately.  Although they were sometimes a strain on the system, I also enjoyed his all-night dinner parties that ran from seven pm until the early morning hours, and at which he’d dance and sing and entertain his guests.  Sihanouk was both simple and complex.  I’m convinced that he loved his country, and always sought to do what he felt was best for it.  He enjoyed life to the fullest.  But, he was a product of contrasting eras; on the one hand, the ancient Khmer royal traditions, on the other, the modern, fast-moving twentieth century.  He seemed equally at home in both.

Sadly, only those who follow events in Southeast Asia, or who are students of history, will pay much attention to his passing.  In today’s age of globalization, economic meltdown, Middle East turmoil, and international terrorism, he is not a player of significance.  But, history is a continuum; and as we view the mosaic of our history, present, future, and past; he is one bright tile.

I will certainly never forget the fascinating conversations I had with him from 2002 until my departure from Cambodia in 2005.  It was like a college symposium in international relations, and so much more.  He was a man of many and varied interests and was always willing to share his insights with those who cared to listen. 

May he rest in peace.

Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk Dies Eurasia Review

Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk Dies Eurasia Review

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Check Out "Never Can Say Goodbye"

My friend Theresa Chaze, in addition to being a fantastic script writer, pens some really chilling fiction.  Check out her Facebook page for her paranormal thriller, Never Can Say Goodbye, at
If you like it, share it with friends.

Writing From Your Dark Side

We’re told to write what we know, right?  Well, if you write mysteries that could present a problem.  I mean, how many of us are serial killers, axe murderers, and the like?  Certainly not many I hope.

But, just because you’ve not lived your life on the wrong side of the law, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to tap your own thoughts for ways to manipulate the villains in your stories.  All you have to do is tap that dark side that exists in each of us.

    Consider this; have you ever been driving along and some idiot cuts in front of you on the freeway, causing you to have to stand on your brakes to keep from rear-ending him?  What did you feel like at that moment?  I’ll bet dollars to donuts you had visions of the fool in the car in front of you suspended upside down over a roaring fire.  Have you ever had someone cut in front of you when you’re waiting in line at the drug store?  Ever want to ram a hot poker in their – well, doesn’t matter where you put it – you think of doing grave body harm to them.

These are the dark thoughts we all have from time to time, and if you use them wisely, they can make for some really, and I mean really, scary villains.  It’s a good idea to keep a notebook or journal with you wherever you travel, and when these little incidents occur, record your feelings.  Write down that macabre fantasy that flitted through your mind when the lady who was so busy texting as she drove almost ran you down in the intersection, when you clearly had the walk light.  Record your emotions at the time; did your pulse rate rise?  Your heart race?  What words and images came to mind?  You just might surprise yourself by learning that you know more than you think.

Get Off My Line!

As a child, I was always taught to be polite, and I strive to be courteous under all circumstances.  There is one situation, though, where I have come to the conclusion that, the normal rules of courtesy simply do not apply.  This is when I make the mistake of answering my phone and there is a telemarketer at the other end.

I know these are just people trying to make a living, but their intrusive behavior strains my patience to its limits.  Recently, while sitting in my alternate man cave (an office I’ve set up in my basement for when it’s too cold to work in the unheated garage), I answered the phone.  After I said ‘hello’ a bright young female voice at the other end of the line asked for a Mr. someone or another, a name that isn’t attached to anyone who resides at my address.  I politely said ‘you have the wrong number,’ whereupon, this bright voice informed me abruptly, ‘no, I have the right number, just the wrong name,’ and then launched into a machine-gun rendition of a pitch designed to get me to donate to what is, I know, a worthy cause, but I was immediately turned off by her aggressive approach.

The problem was, once she started talking, she didn’t offer a pause long enough for me to tell her I wasn’t interested, or to otherwise politely terminate the conversation.  So, I did what I do when I get frustrated with one of those telephone tree gadgets that walks you through an interminable series of choices of pressing ‘1,’ press ‘2.,’ etc., I hung up.  Right in the middle of whatever it is she was saying, I softly put the phone back in the cradle.  That is, I know, a rude thing to do, but when someone tells you that you’ve called the wrong number, it is also rude to basically tell them that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Unfortunately, I doubt the network of telemarketers share information to the extent that my number will go onto a ‘this guy’s a grouch, so don’t bother calling him.’  I’ll just have to remember to let the answering machine continue to screen my calls. 

In the meantime, if you’re a telemarketer and you have a sensitive disposition, I’d advise you to stay off my line.

Monday, October 8, 2012

WIP: Chapter 2 of "Dead Man's Cove"



     Quincy had been mixing drinks; a pitcher of vodka martinis and one of margaritas; and, from the spots of red on his cheeks, it was evident that he’d been sampling each.

     “Getting a head start on the head start to the weekend?” I asked as we entered the galley, which was located at the bottom of the stairs leading from the stern deck.

     “Have to make sure they’re made exactly right,” he said.  “Gaylord and his friends are fussy about their cocktails; at least, the first few.  After three or four, they’re usually so drunk; they don’t notice how you mix them.”

     “You’ve done this before?” Sandra asked.

     “Once or twice; my liver can’t take these trips more than two times a year.  Gaylord’s a nice guy, and his friends aren’t too bad, but they do love to drink.”

     “Love to drink as in ‘let’s have a good time,’ or as in ‘sloshing drunks’?” I asked.

     “Oh, come on, Al sweetheart,” Sandra said.  “Loosen up a little and just enjoy the weekend.”

     I like the occasional tipple just as well as the next man; Quince and Buster, my friend who’s a detective with Washington metro PD, and I have on more than one occasion over-imbibed; but, I don’t like being around drunks.

     “Which is it, Quince?” I persisted.

     “Well, I’m afraid for one or two of them it’s more the latter than the former.  These are people with a lot of pressure; just trying to hang on to the fortunes they’ve made, for one thing; so, they let off a little steam a couple of times a month out here.  No harm, no foul, I say.”

     “What can you tell me about the people we’re gonna meet?” I asked.

     “Oh, Al,” Sandra said. “Can’t you stop being a detective for one weekend?”

     “Sorry, babe, but I just like to know who I’ll be getting sloshed with.”

     “Fair enough,” Quince said.  “I know how you like to do a bit of recon before going into a war zone.”  He laughed. “Let’s see if I can remember who Gaylord said would be here this weekend.  There’ll be the Coleridges, Algernon and Penelope; Algy’s a banker; then, there’s William and Darcy Holbrook, Bill works for a venture capital firm.  Oh yeah, and the odd man out; Madison Albright.  Mad’s a lawyer like me; well, not exactly like me; he does divorce cases mostly.  He’s divorced; not exactly a good advertisement for his line of work; but, he and his wife were part of the group for a long time, so he’s usually here.”

     “That makes an odd number,” I said.  “Two couples; well, three, counting me and Sandra; and three single guys.  Does it every get hinky when people get too much booze in them?”

     He looked at me strangely for a moment, and then laughed.

     “Oh, you mean like swapping and the like?  No, that kind of stuff went out in the seventies.  We just sit around and drink, eat a little, and drink some more.  No funny stuff.”

     “I’m glad to hear that,” Sandra said.  “It wouldn’t be good if word got back to my school that I was involved in something like that.”

     Sandra is a teacher in one of Washington’s rougher inner city schools, and it’s doubtful she could do anything that would shock that crowd, but, she’s a stickler for appropriate behavior.

     “So,” I said. “Just a bunch of bored rich people on their private island getting blown away for the weekend; then come Monday, they’re back in their three-piece suits like nothing happened?”

     “You make it sound a bit sordid,” Quince said.  “But, yeah, that’s about it.”

     “Do they all have houses there?”

     “Sure,” he said. “We’ll be staying with Gaylord.  The others stay at their own places; Madison got his place in the divorce settlement; that’s about all he got, too.  His old lady nearly cleaned him out.”

     “So, he comes up here now and then to try and drink her out of his mind?”

     “I suppose.  I don’t hang around with him all that much.”

     Drinking, divorce, and debauchery; funny how that triumvirate seems to figure so highly in the lives of the so-called rich and famous; people with enough money to be able to do something really worthwhile, but instead, they blow their time and money on useless activity. 

     “Have you heard enough?” Sandra said; a note of sarcasm in her voice.  “Can we just have a good time for a change, without looking for trouble under every rock?”

     That last was said with a little biting humor.  I do have a habit of finding trouble everywhere I go; or, maybe it’s trouble that’s always finding me.  She had a point, though; I did need to learn to just sit back and relax.  I can’t fix every problem, or every problem person, and these people were nice enough to let Quincy bring us along to their little retreat for the rich.

    “Okay,” I said.  “Private detective mode turned off.  I don’t promise to get as drunk as I imagine these people get, but I’ll be nice all weekend long.  Pinky swear.”

     I held up my little finger.  She clasped it with hers, laughing.

     “That’s better.  If you’re a real nice boy, mama just might have a little treat or two for you.”

     “Oh, get a hotel, you two,” Quincy said, laughing.  “Have you no sympathy for an unaccompanied bachelor?”

     That started us all laughing.  Quince is a bachelor, but by choice.  Tall and slender, with high cheekbones and jet black hair that he keeps combed back to accentuate his broad forehead, he has his pick of the single women of Washington who are always on the prowl for eligible men who might have connections.  I think he came on these weekends solo to get some rest.

     Our merriment was interrupted by the blaring sound of the boat’s air horn.


I’ve been back in the U.S. for two months now, and retired from government service for just over one month.  I’m well into the transition to private citizen for the first time in 50 years.  According to one of my neighbors, I’m in stage three of the five stages of retirement; he says that stage three is ‘happiness,’ which follows ‘anticipation’ and ‘dread.’  He won’t tell me what the final two stages are, but I imagine ‘acceptance’ is one of them.  It really doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t remember going through the first two stages, and I’ve been relatively ‘happy’ throughout – in fact, I think I’ve been in that stage for most of my life.  That’s just the way my brain is wired.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t been going through some kind of transition; I have; it just means that I probably go through the process differently than other people.

I have, for instance, been thinking about the whole ‘returning home’ thing.  I’ve gone through this every time I’ve come back to the states from an overseas assignment – but, this one is significant because it’s the last one.

There are a lot of things I’ve had to become accustomed to again, and the process has got me thinking.  Thinking about things like, how we Americans tend to be hyper critical of drivers in the foreign countries we visit or work in.  How they ignore rules, drive like they’re the only ones on the road; things like that.  We criticize this like it only happens ‘over there.’  I’ve been driving around the Washington, DC area a bit lately, and as I have, I’ve noticed that drivers here look a lot like the commuter taxi or ‘Kombi’ drivers I observed in Zimbabwe.  Abrupt lane changes without signaling, busting through stop signs or speeding up when the traffic light turns amber; it’s done here too, and, often at higher speeds.  I’ve lost count of the number of drivers I’ve seen weaving from lane to lane; distracted because they’re talking on their mobile phones or texting; or, who pull into the lane of traffic from side streets without looking, forcing other drivers to stomp on their brakes to avoid a collision.

When I lived in Harare, I learned to endure the frequent power outages.  It just came with the territory.  I now live in one of Maryland’s richest counties, and, guess what:  when the wind blows too hard, our power goes out; the Internet is cut off; but, thankfully, since we don’t use electric water pumps, we still have water.  Of course, I know that could change when winter comes.  If we get a freeze that bursts water pipes, we could be without water for a few days as well.

I’ve had to get used to the telemarketers who call every day, just as we’re sitting down to dinner.  It’s inconvenient for family and friends who call me, but I now use my answering machine to screen calls – that, and the call notice on my cable-connected television that shows the number of the incoming call.

In poor countries, the sight of beggars on the streets trolling for handouts has always touched me; mostly in an irritating way.  Here, the panhandlers who stake out certain stretches of sidewalk, or who manage to get into the subway system and then claim they don’t have enough cash to get out again, do the same.  I use the same system to cope with it here that I use when I’m abroad; I avoid eye contact with them and march doggedly past them.  I don’t do this because I’m unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, but because I know, whether it’s here or in some other country, if you stop to give to one, you’re likely to be mobbed by others nearby.  I also know that, here in the Washington area at least, some of them make more from the handouts they get from sympathetic passersby is often more than I make.

A big adjustment I’ve had to make is dealing with the bureaucracy; especially by phone.  I hate it when I call an organization or store, and I get one of those machines that have you pushing buttons in response to a bunch of stupid questions for several minutes before passing you to a live human being – who is likely somewhere in India, Indiana, or some other place far from Washington.  Thank goodness for the Internet.  I try to do as much of my business as possible on-line.  Just send the email and wait patiently for a reply. Going directly to the place where you want to do business is an option, but often, once you get there, you have to take a number and wait for a clerk who will ask you a few questions, and give you another number.

Life is a never-ending series of transitions.  Going from being a fulltime employee to being ‘retired’ is just one of them.  The key to it all is patience and a sense of humor.  Patience, because no matter how much you rant about it, things just won’t move any faster, and a sense of humor, because if you don’t laugh about it, you’ll end up sulking in a corner somewhere; and things still won’t have changed.

So, I’m making the transition, and doing quite well nicely.  There are some really swell things about it.  My time is now fully in my hands.  I determine my daily schedule; what I will do, and when and for how long.  I don’t have to get up and put on a tie every day, and if I’m not doing a public speaking engagement or some other kind of official or formal meeting, I don’t have to shave.  I no longer have to squeeze my writing into the early hours of the morning before trundling off to work, or late at night before going to bed.  I can write whenever I feel like it, and for as long as I want.

Yes, it’s nice to be home. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

WIP: "Dead Man's Cove"

Following is chapter 1 or my new Al Pennyback mystery, Dead Man's Cove.



     I hate boats.

     I grew up in a small community in East Texas; the largest body of water was a lake about twenty miles from my hometown, and the muddy Sabine River that forms the border between Texas and Louisiana; during the dry season, it’s so shallow you can wade across it.  When I joined the army right out of high school, I picked that service because my eyes were not good enough to be a flier in the air force, and the navy and marines spent too much damn time on boats, or ships as the recruiter corrected me when I visited the recruiting station in Houston.  Didn’t matter what you called them, boats or ships, they spent too much time on water, and for me, water was for drinking or bathing; swimming as long as you could see the bottom of whatever it was you were swimming in.

     Like I said, I hate boats.  But, here I was, on a Friday afternoon, standing on the stern of a boat watching the wake behind us as we cut through the slightly choppy waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the land just a smudge on the horizon behind us and to the left, and nothing to the front or right but water.

     My friend, Quincy Chang, a partner in Holcombe, Stein and Chang, the law firm that has me on a ten thousand buck a month retainer, stood next to me, a martini glass in his hand, looking as calm as if we were on the balcony of his Watergate condo gazing down at the traffic.  I was empty handed.  Empty handed because I was grasping the rails with all my strength.

     “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Quince said, gazing out at the water.

     “I suppose so.  When will we be getting to . . ., what was the name of the place we’re going?”

     “Dead Man’s Cove; it’s a small community on an island at the northern end of the bay.  We should be there in a couple more hours.  What’s with you, Al?  You’ve been acting like an expectant father ever since we left the marina.”

     Okay, so I have this thing about water.  But, I also have a thing about sharing my phobias with other people.

     “I’m just not too good at standing around doing nothing,” I said.

     “I don’t think it’s that.  Hell, you spend hours sitting around meditating.  The look on your face is not from boredom, my friend.  I think you’re just scared shitless and are afraid to admit it.”

     “I am not scared.  I just don’t particular like traveling by boat.”

     “What’s wrong with it?  This is a neat way to travel. Just look at Sandra; up there on the bow showing off that hot body of hers.”

     He was referring to Sandra Winter, my live-in soul mate – girl friend – hell, I wasn’t sure what the proper label was for her, but she’d been more or less staying at my place more than her own since we decided to have an exclusive relationship.  She did look beautiful, lying on her back, her flat stomach, smooth thighs and perky breasts soaking up the sun.

     “She likes flying, too, and you know how I feel about that; I’d rather jump from a damn plane than land with it.”

     “Al Pennyback, you’re a real piece of work.  You can face an armed man with nothing but your bare hands without flinching, and you get itchy on a perfectly safe boat or an airplane.”

     “Yeah, but when I’m going up against some goon, I have a measure of control.  Other people are driving airplanes and boats.  Besides, when I fight, I do it with both feet on solid ground, not with thousands of feet of air or water beneath me.”

     He laughed and shook his head.

     “What you need is a good drink.  What say I make you one of my special martinis; like James Bond, shaken, not stirred?”

     He had a point.  It was, I suppose, a bit childish to be afraid.  I could swim; so if the damn boat sank, I could swim toward the west and eventually make land.

     “Okay, I’ll have that drink, but make it Vodka.  Gin stays with me too long.”

     He drained his glass and turned to go to the galley.  Just then, the boat hit a wave and the bow rose.  I could feel my stomach do cartwheels.  I wheeled around and grabbed the rail again.

     “On second thought,” I said.  “I think I’ll wait until we get to the dock.”

     He laughed as he walked away, hanging onto the railing for balance as the boat pitched up and down.  It didn’t seem to bother him, but I was wishing I was anywhere else but here.

     Quince had made a rare visit to my farm in Montgomery County, just off River Road to the west of Potomac Village, the night before.  He arrived just after Sandra and I had finished supper and were sitting on the sofa in the living room cuddling.

      The cuddling had to be put off, and we broke out the vodka and I made vodka and tonic for Quince and me, while Sandra poured herself a glass of white wine.

     He said he’d come rather than call because he wanted to invite us for a special weekend.  A client of his, a commodities broker named Gaylord Wellington had a yacht – that’s the term he used, yacht – and was inviting Quince to sail with him to some place called Dead Man’s Cove for the weekend, and had told him he could bring some friends along.  He said that when he told Wellington about me, the dude had insisted that he bring me.  I was about to turn him down, when Sandra put her wine glass on the coffee table, put her arms around my shoulder, leaned in so that her silky blonde hair tickled my cheeks and said, “We’d love to.”

     So much for me being in control of my life; I’d never told her how I felt about boats, and with her breast massaging my arm, it didn’t seem like the right time.

     It was mid-September, and the weather in the Washington area was swinging from desert hot to the nippiness of autumn, but Quincy said that it was forecast to be sunny and only mildly warm on Chesapeake Bay for the weekend, which caused Sandra to say that she could do some last minute sunbathing to reinforce her tan for the coming winter.  Now, as much as I hate boats, the prospect of seeing her for most of the weekend in one of those bikinis she had, that barely covered the essentials, was tempting, so I agreed.

     Standing there, clutching the rail and trying not to heave lunch, I was having second thoughts.

     Breakthrough was the name of the boat we were on.  It looked like a cross between a squashed tugboat and an oversized rowboat with canopies, with a little roof over the rear deck and a pointed bow deck with just enough room for a person to stretch out to sun bathe or fish.  A rubber boat was lashed to the top over the wheel house.  The main part of the body of the boat was a gleaming white, with dark wood covering the upper structure.  It was about forty feet long and ten feet wide at the widest point which was near the center.  I guess it was beautiful to anyone who liked boats, but I was distracted by the way it bobbed up and down whenever we hit a wave, so I didn’t really appreciate its beautiful lines or the power of the engines that drove it through the water.  All I wanted to do was get off the damn thing as soon as possible.

     We passed through the area of choppy water and it settled down again, now only sort of rocking gently from side to side.  Of course, that didn’t do a lot for my queasy stomach either, but, I could at least now move along the rail toward the wheelhouse without feeling like I would be pitched overboard.

     I made my way forward and up the ladder to the wheel house.  Quincy’s client, Gaylord Wellington, a captain’s cap tilted rakishly on his head, and a martini in his left hand, was standing gazing out the front windscreen, his right hand resting on the wheel.  He turned and put the martini glass to the bill of his cap as I entered.

     “Ah, Mr. Pennyback,” he said.  “Are you enjoying the voyage?”

    “Just call me, Al,” I said.  “It’s okay, I guess.”

     “You don’t sound like you really like it.  Boats are, I take it, not your preferred mode of transportation.”

     He put his drink on the shelf in front of the wheel and took off his cap.  His hair was combed over his forehead, covering a large bald spot, and his forehead was peeling from the effects of sunburn.

     “You shouldn’t be ashamed of that,” he continued.  “Boating is not for everyone.  Although, from the stories Quincy has told me about your time in the army, I would have thought you’d spent lots of time on them.”

     I’d spent more time than was comfortable on them, in fact; from going out the escape hatch of submerged submarines to sneaking onto some dark foreign beach in an inflatable boat, my time in the army had been too much on water for my liking.

     “Unfortunately, that’s true,” I said. “But, I never liked it.  Never liked flying either.”

     “But, Quincy said that you were a paratrooper.”

     “I was; and, I always preferred jumping from a plane to landing in one.”

     He laughed.

     “I was never in the army myself; but, I’ve never understood people who would jump from a perfectly good airplane.”

     A lot of my friends in uniform shared that view as well.  Each to his own, I always say.

     “It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it.”

     “He’s telling the truth about that,” Sandra said.

     We hadn’t noticed that she’d left the bow deck and made her way to the wheelhouse.  She’d thrown a light shawl over her shoulders, which only accented the thrust of her breasts, and her long, athletic legs, bronzed from the sun, were on display.  Wellington’s attention was drawn from the water ahead to the sight; which worried me, not because he was ogling my girl friend’s legs, but because I wanted him to be alert to any hazards that might be lurking just beneath the surface of the bay.

     “Ms. Winter,” he said. “Welcome to the bridge.  Can I offer you a small libation?”

     “Thanks, but no,” she said.  “And, why don’t you call me Sandra?  Standing here dressed like this, it hardly seems fitting to be so formal.”

     “Very well, Sandra,” he said. “I’m Gaylord to my friends. You don’t want to know what my enemies call me.”

     She laughed and walked over, leaning against me, her hips touching mine.

     Take that, I thought; that’ll teach you to flirt with my girl.  Okay, so I was noticing his attentions to her; so, sue me.

     Like most guys who flirt with every woman they meet, though, he took it in good humor.  I can respect a man who knows when he’s lost.

     “When do we get to land?” Sandra asked the question that was on my mind.

     He looked at his watch, an expensive Cartier, and smiled.

     “You landlubbers can quit worrying,” he said.  “We make the dock in less than an hour.”

     I looked forward.  I guess the light smudge I saw on the horizon was land, but couldn’t be sure.  We didn’t seem to be moving that fast, but, he was the expert here, so I took him at his word; and, hoped he was right.

     “Where’s Quince?” Sandra asked.

     “I think I saw him go below,” Wellington said.  “Probably went to the galley to mix up a pitcher or two of martinis for our docking ceremony.”

     “Docking ceremony?” Sandra and I asked in unison.

     “Oh, he didn’t tell you?  Our friends always meet the boat at the dock, and we have a little ceremony. It’s sort of to get the party started.”

     I’d been looking forward to getting some solid food in my stomach before the weekend festivities began; which, I assumed would involve large quantities of liquid refreshments; and, from the look on Sandra’s face, I could tell she was thinking the same.

     “Maybe I should go and see if he needs a hand,” she said.

     “Good idea; I think I’ll join you,” I said.  “Call us when you see the dock, Gaylord.”

     “Trust me,” he said.  “When we’re coming in to the dock, you’ll know it.”