Washington Could Learn How To Behave From The Beehive (State)

I’ve never been to Utah. Never much wanted to go either. It seemed to me to incorporate most of the bad traits of the American West and not so many of the good. Dry, shapeless arid desert land with the scorching summers of mid-Texas but snowy, cold winters of my homeland to the north. Arid miles broken only by one big lake …which is salty.A huge, mysterious military base conspiracy theorists say took over from “Area 51” when Nevada became too touristy. Besides a few scenic rock arches in the south of the state, not a lot to see and one mid-sized city notable for being the home of the Mormon Church. But maybe I owe the state an apology, because at least politically, it seems to be the shining light for the entire U.S.A.

I’m referring to newfound heroes Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson. Cox is the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Peterson a professor. Both are running for Governor this November. And both have done something revolutionary for the times – they have agreed to be civil, to respect one another and the public as well. They appeared in a couple of TV ads which quite unlike the typical political ad of the day, they smile and tell voters “we can disagree without hating each other.” It seems like it’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said, but alas, this is 2020. So they are revolutionary, and to them I say “amen” and “bravo.”

The pair appeared today on the Today Show and told Savannah Guthrie, controversial host of last week’s discussion with Donald Trump, that they for the most part like each other and respect one another. Both said they would listen to the other on significant issues if elected.

“We can debate each other without degrading the other’s character,” Peterson, the Democrat says. If only the big boys in Washington could take note and do the same. “Our common values transcend our political differences.”

Cox, the Republican, said people “are hungry for decency” and “as our national dialogue continues to decline, my opponent and I decided to try something different. Let’s make Utah an example to the nation.” Both agree that the “peaceful transfer of power (is) integral to what it means to be American.”

Amen to them both for stating the obvious. Or what should be the obvious but in this day and age is not, even to the sitting President.

I don’t know what big issues in Utah state politics are this year and don’t have specifics on what either candidate suggest to rectify the problems. But I know if I was in Utah, I’d be reasonably confidant good solutions to the problems could be achieved and not be too worried whichever candidate won. Either seem like they have the decency and intelligence to make a good governor. Hell, why stop there. With their “radical” way of thinking, I daresay many Americans might not mind having either one in the White House.

Sad to have to say that saying civility and courtesy still matter. But the fact that a Republican and a Democratic opponent are saying so gives me hope for the future of the land.

Mexico’s Improbable Star

Youtube launched the career of Justin Bieber. He was an unknown Canadian kid, putting home videos on the website when he was “discovered” and a year or two later, we all cursed Youtube. But we knew Bieber’s name. It seemed fitting because to many, like me, when you think “Youtube” you think music. The new MTV, a video jukebox of music videos both official, and homemade by fans. But there are of course, a lot more things going on that lure the billion-plus users to the site some five billion times a day!

I for instance am a weather nerd, and have seen countless videos of tornadoes and other storms from the ground captured on video by both professional storm chasers and amateurs who happened to be at the right (or wrong?) place at the right time. My sweetie loves seasonal decorations and has found a whole network of ordinary people who craft and decorate their homes for July 4th, fall, Easter, Guy Fawkes day, Halloween, and of course Christmas. She’s gotten a few good ideas from them and doubtlessly hours of relaxation watching Dollar Tree signs being repainted into something decorative and pumpkins repurposed. Recently the two of us happened upon one of the internet’s most unlikely stars – Dona Angela, a 70 year-old Mexican grandmother.

Angela is an aging farm wife who lives in Michoacan, a rural area of southern Mexico, and speaks no English. She cooks traditional Mexican food in a most rustic way… and has over three million followers!

Remarkably, the Spanish-speaking lady who seemingly has no running water nor kitchen in the house, only began posting videos mid-way through 2019. One of her daughters (her two daughters and husband occasionally show up on her videos to assist, or enjoy her finished food) was a Youtube fan and started recording her mom with the phone and posting the videos. Within two months, the “channel” – De Mi Ranch e Tu Cocina (“from my ranch to your kitchen”) had hit an extraordinary million subscribers. Now it’s well past triple that, and some individual clips, like one for enchiladas have been seen over seven million times.

Dona cooks in what seems to be an outdoor, but partly enclosed kitchen, which revolves around a large wood-fired stove. She uses mainly traditional implements like a molcajete, a stone mortar and pestle she grinds spices and flattens dough on. The tomatoes, peppers, avocadoes and more come from her garden as do, one would suspect, the chickens and pigs that provide most of the meat and occasionally wander by. She says “I don’t use measurements, I just grab with my fingers.” When you’re 70 and have probably been cooking for six of those seven decades, you can probably do that and get good results! Likewise, the cooking temperature is unregulated since it’s just coming from a wood fire in an iron stove. Her one concession to modern times is an electric blender she likes for her sauces. She shows you the ingredients, how she prepares them, how she cooks them up, in a variety of old metal and clay pots and pans, and let’s you know how they turned out … mostly “just like I like it!”. This I, and most of us, know from the subcaptions, since she speaks only Spanish. One video showed her getting Youtube award plaques for hitting first 100 000 then one million subscribers. She opens the boxes and is obviously delighted with, but she and her daughter tell the viewers there’s a congratulatory letter too but neither of them can read it, since it’s in English.

Over the wood fire she creates a mouth-watering assortment of Mexican staples like salsa, mole (a type of soup, not the little critter), napoles or cactus, tortiallas and of course, tamales.

Forbes recently listed her along with Selma Hayek as one of the most influential women in Mexico. One could imagine that with that endorsement, not to mention the Youtube plaques, she could easily turn the fame into a Food Network show and big-selling cookbook. “The Pioneer Woman From South of the Border!” Nor is it hard to cynically wonder if the wood stove and rugged kitchen it sits in aren’t a soundstage, perhaps beside a fancy home with state of the art food processors and microwaves. But that’s not Dona, apparently. Both the Houston Chronicle and NPR have featured her lately, and both failed to be able to get her to speak to them. She will apparently answer a few questions about her cooking, or defend herself to critics who suggest her stove looks dirty or such, but when it comes to mainstream media… and the dollars they represent… she’s a ghost. Making herself a “star”, or getting rich by her recipes isn’t in her plans apparently. Making more tamales and atoles by hand over a fire outside, for her family to enjoy, are.

I think there are a few takeaways from this.

For instance, these days we can become successful on a low budget. Yes, it’s still uncommon, but one can become a well-loved author without having Random House or Penguin backing you; one can become a star musician in your basement with a computer, an instrument or two and video camera. That’s a definite plus to social media, a part of our lives which has its share of negative attributes as well. A 70 year old cooking tamales outdoors in the 1980s would have been known only as far and wide as her crowing roosters could be heard. Now, she can be an international influencer. A tween Justin Bieber singing in his bathroom in the 1970s would have likely been stacking cans of beans at his local Loblaws ten years later, not on magazine covers. I suppose we shouldn’t blame the internet for that…

Secondly, we all have stories to tell and talents to share. You might not be able to cook from scratch, but if you can fix an oil pump or make a nice wreath for your door at Christmas for ten bucks or get rid of a wasp nest in your shed without using toxic sprays, or…well, you get the idea, there are people who’d like to know how. You can make others’ lives better by sharing. Likewise, maybe you have lived through history. Veterans. White House staff. People in the San Francisco earthquake in the ’80s. Firefighters. Best boys on 20th Century Fox sets. All have stories that would be interesting for the rest of us to hear. I bet you do too.

As well, your own family’s history is worth documenting… and there’s no better time than now. Maybe it’s the food you cook, like Angela, maybe it’s the trips you took, maybe it’s the array of cars you owned or the girlfriends/boyfriends you hung out with before you got married… there are a lot of stories there that you might like recalling. And future generations will thank you for. My mom was in London during “the blitz” in World War II. She saw the Queen Mother walking around the rubble talking to people, which probably colored her views on the royal family for life at a very young age. My dad worked with John Kay of Steppenwolf, before he was a rock star in Steppenwolf. So many stories and traditions to share… it might not make for Youtube videos, but that part of your heritage is worth preserving, just like Dona’s old ways of making her own tortillas.

Lastly, be authentic. Be yourself. Dona Angela is. She could wear designer clothes, disguise the wrinkles on her face, flash name brand spices and fancy cookware at the camera. Maybe sip on a Coca Cola with the label front and center in exchange for endorsements, be phoning up the newspapers and public radio for interviews to talk up her web videos. But she does none of that, and her fans love her for it. We already have enough fake “reality” anyway.

Maybe you’ll never get to three million subscribers on Youtube, or 100 000 readers here on WordPress or be on any list made by Forbes. But you do have something to say, and share.

Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

The Crown – Story Of Queen Royally Good Drama, Maybe Not Such A Joker Of An Idea?

My sweetie and I have been watching The Crown this past month. We got to the current end of the series and are now counting the days until the new, fourth season begins in November.

For the uninitiated (which would have included me until a few weeks ago), the Crown is a Netflix series based on the life of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth II to be precise, there was a previous one some four centuries earlier. The first three seasons begin by seeing her childhood, with her father (George VI) being thrust into the role of king when her uncle David (who was King Edward… don’t ask me why “Edward”) abdicated – quit – to marry a woman the family, and Church of England, didn’t approve of. George VI is a decent-ish man but a chain smoker and he soon dies of lung cancer. In what the country would have considered the ideal situation, he would have had a son, but instead left two daughters, so the eldest, Elizabeth became queen while barely out of her teenage years. Ironically it was a role her younger sister, Margaret coveted and Elizabeth didn’t want, preferring “country life” riding and selling horses. To her, the crown’s something of a burden. Small wonder “crown” and “anchor” are linked together so often.

We see her develop into the role of Queen, come to understand its gravitas but also lose a bit of her own soul and self in doing so. We see her as a steadying presence in a country losing prestige in the world, but also a somewhat powerless one as a succession of prime ministers come and go and make decisions she often disagrees with but puts up with, because, well, that’s what The Crown does. From time to time we see small victories the Queen and her kin have; Margaret securing a huge “bailout” loan from the U.S. after a night of un-regal drinking and dancing with President Johnson in the ’60s, Elizabeth herself nudging a reluctant, frail and failing Winston Churchill into retirement when he was no longer up to the job’s demands. But for the most part, it’s a life and job of sitting politely and doing little. Where we’ve left off, the ’70s are rolling, her son Charles is stuck on Camilla Bowles but Diana hasn’t arrived on the scene and other son Andrew is just a lad, not the infamous “Randy Andy” who befriended Jeffrey Epstein. I’m more than a little curious to see her reaction (at least the show’s interpretation of it) to those events.

It might seem a weird one for me to get hooked on watching. I grew up in Canada, which is part of the “British Commonwealth” but has little real association with the UK these days. Nevertheless, growing up I saw the Queen’s face on every coin I used, most of the paper money and many of the stamps I put on letters… some of which were probably railing about how much I despise seeing a foreign leader on our money! No fan of the monarchy am I. It’s not so much that I ever really had it in for Elizabeth (watching the series only confirms she is an ordinary woman asked to do extraordinary things) but merely the two facts that she was from another country, not mine, and she wasn’t even picked by the people over there! Democracy people! Let the people pick the leaders.

That was how I felt. Now, in this insane year, I might be re-evaluating the idea. Hey, I still have a problem with someone being leader just because of the family they were born into. But I might be coming to see that Britain might have something going there with its two-part balance of power. Like the rest of us, Canada, the U.S., most other “civilized” lands, it still has its elected leader (a prime minister in their case) and the hundreds of elected politicians in Parliament, their equivalent to American Congress. That’s where the real power lies, where laws are made and changed, national budgets set and policies created. But then, quietly sitting there, taking it all in, is the other part, the monarchy. Sitting, politely waving once in awhile, not saying much in public beyond “Happy Christmas” every December 25th.

But, behind the scenes a force which can potentially influence a wayward government and could theoretically, change it. Laws there still give the Queen the “power to appoint and dismiss ministers (as in heads of branches of the government), regulate the Civil Service, issue passports, declare war or make peace, direct the military and negotiate and ratify treaties and alliances.” All that and be the official owner of all the swans in the country! That’s a lot of unused power. And maybe not such a bad system of checks and balances.

It all comes to mind because more and more, it’s becoming apparent that democracy as we know it, although better than the alternatives, isn’t working all that well. Lindsay Graham sits in Washington piously declaring in 2016 that it would be wrong to appoint a Supreme Court judge only nine months before an election and that if it happened in 2020 we should use his words against him. Now he’s blithely declaring they can do so, only six weeks before an election, so they will. And of course, the Democrats don’t shine by warning that if the Republicans follow through on that, they’ll simply expand the court to their advantage as soon as they can. Get your kids to take a high school law class parents, because if it keeps up, by 2028 Supreme Court judge might be one of the big growth jobs. (“Oh yeah, appoint four more judges will you!? Well when we win the next election, we’re going to put in 200 of our friends and make it a court of 213! Bazinga”). My Canada has long had a similar problem with elected government stacking the inexplicably unelected Senate with partisan patsies often quite unqualified for the role.

Add to that a sitting president urging his followers to vote twice – a criminal offense – to scuttle an election and make it null and void and an increasing number of voters getting their info from entirely unreliable sources (mainly social media posts) and one has to wonder where it’s all heading. Suddenly the concept of having an overseeing body watching it all, mainly observing passively, maybe yellling at a few dunces behind the scenes but ready to if necessary pull the carpet out from underneath any government that gets to be too delinquent or self-indulgent might not be a bad idea after all.

Of course,it’s still an unrealistic idea outside of Jolly Ol. They’ve had the concept and the practise of a ruling royal family for centuries and that’s the way it is. Having them requires nothing more than a bit of inertia and the occasional rolling of one’s eyes. Over here, we have no such tradition and needless to say, trying to install one would do little more than perhaps manage to miraculously unite the two polarized parties in Washington in outright frothing anger at the suggestion. Although the Kennedy’s have long been nicknamed “America’s Royal Family”, they aren’t and if we can’t agree on whether it’s OK not to stand during the national anthem or not, we sure as H-E-double- hockey sticks won’t be agreeing to a change of that magnitude. Who would get to be “the crown.”

Unrealistic? Yep. But a starting point in the discussion on how to “fix” democracy perhaps. By the way, I can sit and watch from the sidelines…just sayin’! I wouldn’t mind owning some swans…

The Aliens We REALLY Don’t Want

A few stories over-shadowed by the big ones ( pandemic and social unrest due to racial issues) have caught my attention in the past month or so. Stories about immigrants, of good and bad sorts. It makes me think the U.S. has the right issue but the wrong targets.

My sweetie loves Youtube videos about decorating and crafting and one favorite of hers is a young guy who makes, well, somewhat over-the-top centerpieces, mantel decorations and wreaths using dollar store goods. He’s called Ramon at Home, and even if I don’t share his enthusiasts delight in all his lavish designs and all things burlap, I must admit the young man is quite charismatic. He has a strong Hispanic accent, and he shared a story of how he grew up poor in Mexico and looked forward to nuns coming around with such simple gifts as new toothbrushes and toothpaste. He came to the U.S., taught himself English and now seems to have a beautiful house and thriving online community following him. Lately he’s been spearheading a campaign to get children’s clothes and hats for low-income kids at Christmas. It’s hard not to be inspired by that or get behind a person like that. Of which there are so many in the land.

So it surprised and pleased me to hear of George W. Bush’s upcoming book. Out of Many, One is going to be a book of portraits painted by the former president; 43 different immigrants accompanied by essays he wrote about them. It’ll be his second book of paintings, coming after Portraits of Courage, pictures of U.S. military personnel he painted. You can take that – a book celebrating immigrants to the country – how you will in terms of the commentary about the current government and its policies. Bush says “there are countless ways in which America has been strengthened by the individuals who have come here in search of a better life,” and adds “it should be (an idea) that unites us.”

Right you are, George… and I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be saying that about Mr. Bush’s writings or beliefs about 15 years back. There are stories in the news though that do suggest America has a real problem with immigrants… just not the kind Washington is worried about. Invasive species.

When environmentalists talk, lately “climate change” gets the attention. The spotlight and the hand-wringing and the sparse money that is to go around to implement change is directed towards what Al Gore referred to earlier this century as “Global warming.” But it seems like a number of unwanted visitors are ruining our environment and country a lot faster than a few added degrees on the thermometer ever will.

To start, more Asian hornets have been found this year in Washington state and nearby B.C. in Canada. The giant wasp dubbed “murder hornet” by the media showed up in a few locations last year, found noticed when beekeepers near Seattle and Vancouver found some hives decimated. The 2” long hornet has one of the most powerful stings of any insect, and is said to kill about 50 people a year on average in Japan.

This is disturbing. I have allergies and am at risk around stinging bugs. So too are an increasing number of people. In fact, an average of 62 people a year die from stings in the country annually, and that number has begun to rise sharply in the past decade, according to the CDC. People worry about sharks when they swim or rattlesnakes when they go walking but bees and wasps kill several times more people than those critters combined. An even bigger, more dangerous wasp isn’t going to help that any!

Experts add that the Asian hornets aren’t aggressive… unless you stumble upon their nest… which people undoubtedly will, since they bury their nest underground rendering them more or less invisible until you step on it. But even if their non-aggression is the case, they are concerned that the hornets have a real taste for eating bee heads like we might snack on popcorn. A single one can eliminate a hive of honeybees within a few hours. The repercussions for agriculture could be monumental should they get a foothold, even if only along the Pacific coast.

One of the reasons the number of people being rushed to hospital, and at times dying, from insect stings is a similar story. Although “yellow jacket” is essentially a rather non-scientific generic term for a number of wasps, the ones we usually mean when we say “yellow jacket” – the ones which menace our picnics and have never met a beer or soda they don’t like – are actually European ones brought into the continent in the 1970s. Maybe they came over on ships or planes accidentally as the Asian hornets likely did; maybe some misguided farmers imported a few to try and control other bugs (when a yellow jacket can’t find some McDonald’s or Miller to share with you, they’ll happily chow down on other bugs including smaller wasps). One way or another they started showing up in the Great Lakes region in the mid-’70s. Now they’re considered a major pest as far afield as the towns of Dixie and the Canadian Rockies.

Stinging insects aren’t the only unwanted six-legged intruders. Spotted Lanternflies have been, well, spotted, in Pennsylvania this year. It’s an Asian moth which actually looks quite attractive. But, says the state, if you see one, “it’s imperative to immediately report it (and) kill it! Squash it! These bugs will lay egg masses of 30-50 eggs each.” The adults will not only enourage poisonous mold to develop on the plants, but also eat the leaves and can destroy fields of plants including grapes, apples and hops.

You won’t confuse the spotty moth with another recent Asian arrival – the Ash Borer. That colorful green beetle from Eastern Asia recently showed up in the northeast around 2002 and has managed to do some $280 billion damage so far. “An ecological catastrophe,” the American Forestry Association calls it. The beetles lay their eggs exclusively under ash tree bark, and when the larvae come out, they feed on the wood, quickly killing off the tree. Entire forests of ash trees from Quebec to Kentucky have been wiped out already. Ash is not only one of the most common types of forest tree in the East, providing homes for many birds and animals, it’s a popular shade tree in gardens and commercial one used for lumber (and baseball bats.) One of the suggestions to control them is – I kid you not – to bring in more, different Eurasian wasps to see if they can, because North American wasps aren’t eating them in any appreciable number. More foreign wasps? What could go wrong there?

Of course, the problems aren’t limited to insects. Florida is having to wage war against … pythons! Someone probably had a few Burmese pythons at one time as pets and perhaps thought they were getting too big. They dumped them in the Everglades. Within the past two decades, they’ve multiplied and spread throughout the southern part of the state, growing precariously close to the 26-feet, 200 pounds they can reach in their native southeast Asia, eating almost anything that gets in their way.

While attacks on people are rare, they’re not unknown (and expected to become more common if the numbers keep growing and they invade places like Miami and Orlando in any significant numbers), they’re doing huge amounts of damage to the ecosystem. The babies eat rabbits and rodents, but the adults can eat animals as large as deer! The state says since they’ve been found in Florida, there are 99% fewer raccoons and opossums in the Everglades and adjacent areas, 87% less Bobcats (probably as much because the pythons are eliminating the cats’ food as much as eating the Bobcats although that can happen as well) and lowering bird populations while rabbit and fox populations have almost disappeared. They spent $142 million last year trying to get rid of them, both by directly trying to catch and euthanize, as well as implant radio devices to track them and hopefully root out nesting sites and colonies of the huge reptile. Even though snakes have no legs or arms, so far, it seems the pythons have the upper hand. Although Wild boars, yet another invasive running wild, do sometimes manage to tear them up… along with anything else in their path, plant or animal.

So yep, seems like there is a problem with some unwanted foreigners coming into the country. Only thing is, they’re generally winged, or scaly or furry, not people.

Boffo Beer Blog #17 : King Grackle Has Surely Come

I’m back with a new beer to take out for a flight…Texas Beer’s King Grackle Stout. As I’ve noted before, I like birds and so this one was a “must try” for me. And decidedly Texan!

For those who aren’t familiar, grackles are blackbirds, long, slender, social and shiny. where I came from (as well as much of North America) there’s the Common Grackle, a noisy bird a bit bigger than a robin and a sure sign of spring when they return in March. As they say though, “everything’s bigger in Texas” and here we host the Great-tailed Grackle, a much larger version of the regular ones and one of the biggest songbirds on the continent. And boy do we have them! They nest around the cities but in winter, they’re joined by their friends and cousins from the colder states and congregate in flocks that can number in the thousands, often in trees around shopping areas. They’re bold and eat almost anything and are thus successful…and like most animals that thrive in urban areas, the locals by and large hate them. But I always find them colorful, enjoy watching them fly out of nowhere to chase a passing hornet and am in awe of their synchronized twists and turns as the flocks get ready to settle for the night. Cities like Dallas, Austin and Waco have the biggest numbers of them anywhere.

So we have a bold, quintessentially Texan bird which is mostly black in color. Fittingly, the beer named after it is dark and bold as well. The brewery describe it as “a full bodied stout that flies boldly above the flock.” They note that it’s “bold and flavorful” with “notes of coffee and chocolate.” Which might sound unusual but actually is typical of European stouts and could pretty well describe Guinness too.

The Texas Beer Co. is a relatively new addition to the roster of craft brewers around the state, starting up in 2015 with the help of a Kickstarter fund as well as private investments. They built their brewery in an old brick building in Taylor, not far from Austin, and like many others, have a Taproom on site which offers trivia nights and live music in non-pandemic times! Among their popular brews are a blonde ale, a Hoppy Duck IPA and Pecos Amber, a beer which took a gold medal at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival.

For my try, I popped open a 12-ounce can (suitably dark and adorned with a picture of a Grackle) and poured it, noting its similarity to Guinness in appearance. It was almost black in color and produced a tall, creamy caramel-colored frothy head which lasted some time. I had it with a toasted ham and tomato sandwich lunch with some cut-up green tomato (unfried) on the side.

My first impression was that this is a strong drink. Strongly-flavored with a foamy head that actually retains a bit of texture when drunk. It is bitter, but not displeasingly so and rather hoppy. I could detect just a hint of chocolate in the mix (they actually use some cocoa brewing it) and although it didn’t taste precisely like coffee, it did evoke a bit of a feeling of a cold, strong black coffee. Thankfully, I like black coffee.

As it might be assumed, it held its own with the meat sandwich and the tomato (green tomatoes , by the way are quite meaty and less “sweet” than most typical ones). It actually created an odd little “zing” when washing down the sandwich and had a nice silky, creamy kind of feel. Substantial was a word which came to mind. The chocolate hints and strength of it make me think it would go well with a real coffee over a sweet pie or ice cream dessert as well. But at over 7% alcohol (the can says 7.5% but their website claims 9%) it is a brew for enjoying when the day is done. You’re probably not going to be flying energetically after downing one.

Overall, I like it for times when a drink with a bit of kick and intensity feel right. It might not be my everyday choice for cooling off with or having while watching a couple of innings of baseball, but it’s one I might just keep on hand. I rate it 7 out of 10 for strength, 7 out of 10 for flavor and

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3.5 out of 5 king grackles!

The Cat That Sold Train Tickets. It Was A Simpler Time.

The art and science of marketing fascinates me and I like visual arts as well. So corporate logos interest me; the things that go into making a public image that will sell a company’s products. Often there’s a lot more to them than first meets the eye. Many know for example, there’s an arrow in the Fed Ex logo in the negative space between the “E” and the “X”.

fedex

An arrow suggests moving quickly doesn’t it, and that’s what you want your package to do!

Cisco computer systems in based in San Francisco (as the name suggests) and if you look carefully at the lines above the name, they suggest the outline of the city’s most famous structure, the Golden Gate Bridge:

cisco

Toblerone chocolates are from Switzerland, so it’s no surprise they have a mountain in their logo. What is more surprising is that they are from Bern, Switzerland specifically and that means “bear.” And if you look closely at the mountain…

toblerone

Look at that bear walking in front of the mountain!

I like trains and cats too. Bet you think we’re getting near a Dr. Seuss story by now, don’t you. Actually we’re not. But there is an example of the three – trains, cats and corporate images – intersecting. No wonder I liked the Chessie System railroad so much.

Chessie was a 1970s railroad that resulted in the merger of two large railroads – the B&O and the C&O (yes, the same two you find in a Monopoly game) – and one short line, the Western Maryland RR. It ran freight trains all across the northeastern U.S. (and a single line cutting into southern Ontario in Canada for a few years) and while most of their competitors favored somewhat dull-looking black and white engines and brownish freight cars, Chessie sported lively navy blues and yellow. Their locomotives were neon yellow with an orange stripe and dark blue top, with the name in large, ever-so-’70s Bahama font on the side. They looked great running loads of coal through the Appalachians and even got a starring role in a music video, strangely enough (R.E.M.’s “Driver 8”).

chesloco

If you look closely though, the “C” in the Chessie System, you see the letter is sort of cut with a couple of points. Well, if you look closely and kind of squint, the “C” is holding the outline of a cat’s head and front paw. That cat is “Chessie.”

Chessie was a kitten that was used in the era when travel by train was the way to get around. Before air travel became cheap or readily available in most places, long trips were undertaken on the rails. And long before the government-sponsored Amtrak, various rail lines competed hard for the travel dollars and advertised extensively, using posters and ads showing the glamorous destinations mostly. The C&O were among the first railroads to get air conditioned cars, and somehow came across a picture by an Austrian artist. It showed a contented-looking kitten sleeping with its head partly covered in a pillow and one paw sticking out from the sheets. They bought the image for all of $5 and ran it in ads saying “sleep like a kitten and wake up fresh as a daisy” when traveling on their trains.

chessiekat

A picture of a sleeping kitty cat might not lure you into booking your next trip between New York and Chicago on a particular railroad, but it was a simpler time back in the 1930s. A couple of decades later, a sexy girl in a bikini might have been the ad attraction, now a multi-racial, multi-generational family laughing around a kitchen table together. But back then, people loved the ad and passenger numbers increased on the C&O after it was used. So popular was it they even published a calendar using the kitty the next year and sold thousands. Take that, Sports Illustrated models!

The mascot, or mas-cat, needed a name so they chose “Chessie”. After all, the “C” in C&O stood for Chesepeake, as in the bay. The O was Ohio, by the way. They ran more ads and, rather like some of our modern corporate spokespeople have (think Flo for Progressive) Chessie took on a life of her own. In time, she grew up, met a tomcat (“Peake”) and had her own kittens, “Nip” and “Tuck.” When WWII came up, Peake went off to war and Chessie stayed home selling War Bonds for the lads overseas. And cats overseas, as it were.

chessiewar

The cats remained popular mascots for years, but eventually passenger trains began to lose their lustre, and eventually were all taken over by one entity, Amtrak. C&O and the likes concentrated exclusively on freight traffic, which required less advertising in mainstream magazines. Chessie was more or less retired. Until the C&O and B&O, with their similar paint schemes and often parallel rail lines decided to merge. They formed the Chessie System railroad, and needing a new corporate image, they resurrected Chessie the cat, but only in the sillohuette superimposed on the large “C”.

chessie cab

The rail line was a favorite of photographers, model railroaders and apparently Michael Stipe of R.E.M., but as is the way with large corporations looking for efficiency, by the ’80s, they in turn had merged with another southeastern railroad, the Seaboard Coast Line to form a corporation unimaginatively called “CSX Transportation.” The company retains the Chessie colors but lacks the kitty design although they say officially Chessie the Cat is still their company mascot. However, repainting entire rosters of thousands of engines and boxcars isn’t always a transportation company’s top priority, if you keep your eyes open you might just spot ol’ Chessie rolling by at the level crossing now and then.

So there you have it – a time when a kitten was the “cat’s pyjamas” for a railroad. Not too important, but just an interesting little story of an America of days gone by.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

They say “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we writers know differently. People do exactly that, so you’d better be able to judge a book by its cover… and quickly.

It’s always been an issue for authors and their publishers. Unless you’re a household name with a stack of New York Times best-sellers to your credit, people will take a quick look at your book in the store and decide from that cover whether it’s worth even picking up to read the slipcover, let alone purchase it. So your book needs to have immediate visual impact, and suggest to the newcomer just what kind of book it is. Take a look at these examples:

sking

Granted, almost everyone who ever sets foot in a Barnes & Noble, and most of those who don’t, know who Stephen King is now. But even if that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination or guesswork to figure out from the cover that this wasn’t going to be a cheery work designed as a lullaby in print! And, since King is so well-known, note how his name takes up about half the cover. When you’re that successful, your name alone will lead to sales.

Contrast that to this one:

egif

Although it would soon be made into a successful movie, when it came out, Emily was an unknown author. But the cover made for a quick suggestion as to what it would be about and its character. We’d have been quite surprised to find it about a deranged super-natural clown, wouldn’t we?

People do judge a book from its cover. It’s always been true but now is more so than ever, as much of the browsing is done online. Now instead of a 7X10” book sitting in front of them, readers make their choice increasingly by looking at a stamp-sized image on a screen. That thumbnail better have something to make them interested right away.

It was a problem confronting me when I put out my debut novel, Grace…fully living. While my dad, ever the cheerleader, would probably have told me to be confident and go the Stephen King route and have my name take up half the front, I realized outside of a few dozen Facebook or Twitter friends and my little circle back home, no one knew me from Adam. Visuals would have to do the selling.

So, I needed something to catch people’s eye, tell them the book was a light-hearted one about a young woman…and be within my relatively small budget. For that, I find Pexels is one of the best sources of stock images.

My first cover, on the initial e-book release, was this:

gracenewsmallcover

The photo was taken by a Toni Cuenca and I loved it. It was bright, it was colorful (even more so after I tweaked it in a photo-editing program), it said “fun.” The model was attractive, and a redhead, as Grace is in the book. I chose bright summery fonts.

I thought it was great, to be honest, but my sweetie didn’t. Now, it is my work and my choice, but it was worth considering. She was a lady of approximately my target audience and she didn’t seem to appreciate the cute girl in a swimsuit. If she didn’t, many other women might not either. Not to mention, it had no direct tie-in to the book other than the redhead and the easy-going feel. And the proof was in the pudding. Initial sales were low to say the least (not that I expected it to be a million seller no matter what was on the cover!)

I put it out last summer, and decided to try and reboot it and spark sales late in the year by putting it out as a “Christmas edition.” It wasn’t altogether too cheesy an idea as the book begins and ends at Christmas. I added in a little bonus content and changed the cover to this one. The image also came from Pexels.

cmaswrapping cover_small

It was cute. My very small focus group of women seemed to prefer it to the first one. It made an appropriate lead into the start of the story… young woman, Christmastime, cold area, looks like she might be happy enough. But for the new cover and few extra pages, it didn’t fly over the internet into a lot of Kindles.

So when it came time to actually get a small run of the book printed this year, I wanted a new look for it. The hot chocolate cover wasn’t going to cut it, since it might give a hint that it was a romance or comedy, it screamed “Christmas!” with the image and all that red and green going on. Which might be good come December but is going to torpedo summer sales.

Again I looked at Pexels and found by Thiago Schempler. I liked it for several reasons. It’s simple, it’s sort of upbeat looking and it could easily have been a part of a few scenes in the book. The model looks casual and happy, and her hair obscures her face somewhat, leaving a little room still for the reader to imagine Grace as they like. And it was fairly basic in image and colors…more so after my digital tweaking of it. There was space to add in the title without covering essential parts of the picture and, without too much detail, it translates quite well when reduced to phone thumbnail size.

grace resize cover

It’s not pushed the book onto bestsellers lists or bought me a new Ferrari (not even a diecast one!) yet, but I think it works. And I thought you might like to get a feel for one of the myriad of things that go into being an author besides the “simple” writing a book!

Books About Touchdowns And Touchy Divas

So, if you were wondering, I’ve been trying to keep up on my reading through the past few months, still looking to meet my New Year’s Resolution of reading more books than I did last year (when in turn, I think that was also a resolution for 2019.)

A couple I’ve read recently were classic guilty pleasure “summer reading” titles, both by Emily Giffin. Giffin is by now one of the more established romcom/romance writers around and a longtime fave of my sweetie. My first introduction to her material was through the movie Something Borrowed, a likable little flick starring Ginnifer Goodwin at her cutest, Kate Hudson and a pre-action hero John Krasinski. It (spoiler alerts afoot here!) involves Goodwin and Hudson’s characters, Rachel and Darcy respectively, being childhood friends now turning 30. Darcy is the spoiled, self-centered one engaged to the millionaire blue blood lawyer, Dex, while Rachel is quiet, demure, brainy and seemingly a pushover. As it progresses though, we find Dex and Rachel have loved each other for years and when Darcy has a pre-wedding fling, the other two are thrust into each other’s arms. Meanwhile, Krasinski’s all-seeing, all-wise Ethan is a straight-talking friend to all. It’s fun, it’s lightweight and while not an Oscar contender, there are far worse date-night movies around. The movie actually ends with a scene from a sequel…which for what ever reason, never was shot.

The sequel, Something Blue, follows the same characters, but is told from the point of view of self-centered Darcy who simply can’t believe her meek, plain friend “stole” her guy and overlooks the fact that she too had an affair…with one of her guy’s groomsmen. And that she’s pregnant with twins, a result of said affair. Ethan’s moved to England to work and Darcy decides to go to him to avoid the gossip and stares around the fancy places that were her previous haunts.

Since the movie wasn’t made yet, and now Krasinski is a big-time star, and the young women just aren’t that young anymore, probably never will now, I decided to pick up the book for some light reading and to see what happened to those characters.

I wasn’t necessarily instantly taken by the idea by reading about obnoxious Darcy’s exploits that much, and the first few chapters are only readable because it’s funny how self-absorbed she is. And how I can imagine every one of us has met at least one “Darcy” in real-life! But as the book progresses, Darcy is forced to look in the mirror (she can no longer see her feet by looking down) and grow up a little. By the end, she’s managed to become a likable character and as with most romance books-movies not written by Nicholas Sparks, there’s a pretty happy ending for all.

That led to my sweetie rummaging around in a closet and pulling out another book by Giffin, The One & Only for me to read. This one quickly set the tone as being football-centric, and as a big baseball fan who cares little for the gridiron and Friday Night Lights, I was a bit reluctant to even dig past the first chapter. But I was glad I did, as it ultimately was a pretty good book, more nuanced and thought-provoking in fact than the other two. And as a resident of football-crazy Texas now, I loved picking out the telltale signs of life in King of the Hill-land… Shiner Bock being the go-to beer for locals, the Whataburgers, the October days that still feel like mid-summer in the desert.

While still a romance, The One & Only is more drama than comedy, and could borrow from Law & Order‘s “ripped from the headlines” tagline. Again, spoiler alerts ahead although I will try to limit the detail. The story revolves around a football-crazy stathead girl, Shay. She lives and breathes football (which again, might seem foreign to most of us not born in the southern Plains but rings true here) living in a thinly-disguised version of Waco. Her city, “Walker”, like Waco, is obsessed with college football, has the team colors everywhere in the city, and is home to a “near Ivy League” private religious university which has a powerhouse football team, playing in a stadium on the shores of the Brazos River just south of Dallas and a populace with seems overcome with their despise for the University of Texas team. It’s surprising Walker didn’t have a reality-TV couple making home renovation programs there in the  book.

Shay has an entry level job at the university and a pothead boyfriend, but is friends with people in high places, Texas-style, including the aging football coach at the university and a high-profile pro player for Dallas who’d gone to school in Walker. Suffice to say she’s challenged to leave her comfort zone and apply herself a little and soon she’s got a better job and a chance at a better relationship. In time she’s forced to confront questions about her own loyalty to her school and “BFF” vs. her boyfriend. Not to mention, knowing which beau is best.

Although the story centers around Shay, a relatable enough young 30-something even for those of us who don’t share her passion for all things football, but in doing delves into the psyche of the sport and its stars. It examines recent scandals involving university players being accused of impropriety and team official’s turning a blind eye through a surprisingly thoughtful lens.

If you need a lightweight summer reading escape, Giffin’s Something Borrowed/ Something Blue aren’t half bad choices. If you’re a football fanatic, or want some grit with your love stories, The One & Only might be just that.

Your Summer Reading List Just Grew… ‘Grace…fully living’ Now In Print

Finally something “novel” that’s not a corona virus!

Time out here to blow my own horn a little. My first novel is now available in limited quantities as a softcover book and you can be one of the very first to get it. A perfect light read for the poolside or wherever else you might be spending the holidays!

Order your limited edition copy of Grace…fully living now through Etsy. Under $10 for this year’s hottest, funniest and most hapless new rom-com heroine in print. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll feel good knowing your supporting independent artists like Dave.

Thank you and enjoy!

(PS- be watching for a new site soon featuring Grace…fully living discussions, pictures and more as well as other short stories and related pieces.)