A Circle of Moonlight, Books, Commentary

A Symbolic Post about Symbols

This is kind of a weird post about the dinkus, which I literally did not know was called that until I looked it up. And you may very well ask yourself, what in the Sam Hill is a dinkus?

So, when you are writing a book, one of the things that you have to do is to is to separate the book into chapters, right? Everyone knows this. Chapters have been used since the Dark Ages. But things happen within chapters; time passes, perspectives change, settings change. You can’t start a new chapter every time that happens, unless you are James Patterson, and you are not James Patterson.

This is where the dinkus comes in. The dinkus is a break within the chapter. It is a subtle hint to the reader that something is different. You could use–and people do use–an extra carriage return, but the cool thing to do is to use a symbol. You can just use three asterisks, like this.


And that’s fine. But you can use anything you want. In A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT, one of the main characters is a black rabbit, who is a symbol himself, so I used that as the dinkus.

I thought, and still think, that this is very cool. I think that the readers (both of them) figured this out, and got it, and that is fine. You don’t have to use the dinkus, but it’s a nice touch.

So I wrote the sequel, A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT, and I wanted to use a dinkus for that, and in the early drafts I used a dinkus that was a minimalist interpretation of the changing of the phases of the moon. It looked OK. But when I tried uploading the Word file to Amazon for them to set up the Kindle file, hey howdy, guess what. The dinkus didn’t carry over. Well, okay, FINE. This is one of the little annoying fiddling things that you have to deal with when you deal with publishing.

So I started thinking. Okay. If the image file won’t upload, what can I use that I know will work? The short answer for this is something called Unicode. The internet runs off of Unicode, and Unicode is a huge repository of symbols. I went looking for symbols, and there is a kanji symbol for moon:

So that looks kind of sharp. But I looked a little deeper, and there is a Unicode variant that has a circle around it:

Ding! Ding! DING! That’s the dinkus. It’s a circle! Around the moon! For a book called A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT! Boom. And it works when you upload it to Kindle. And a little more research shows that there’s a similar ideograph for fire!

So I have been spending all morning trading out the rabbit symbol in A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT for the fire ideograph for the new Kindle and print versions.

And because everything in the world is not quite perfect, it turns out that in Japanese, these symbols also mean “Monday” and “Tuesday.” And this is fine. If you are reading either novel in Japan, and you are wondering why on earth there’s the symbol for “Tuesday” in the middle of the book, well, this is why, and I wrote this post to explain it. So there you go.


Miracle at the Meadowlands

I wrote something very critical of the New Jersey vaccination process the other day; this is the follow-up. My appointment was today to get the vaccine. There are basically three tiers in the system now: one is through the mega-sites that use the state vaccination registry system (Somerset County, Morris County, and Middlesex County), one is through the mega-sites that don’t use the state vaccination registry system (the Meadowlands site, Burlington County, and the Atlantic City site where my wife got her vaccine last month), and the other is through the major chain pharmacies. The first-tier mega-sites are wait-and-hurry-up; at some magic moment the state will give you a registration code and an appointment, you just have to be patient. The third-tier pharmacy sites are all whackadoodle; you have to be on at just the right time when they’re ready for you, and if you don’t have your chakras aligned with the universe, you are out of luck.

The second-tier mega-sites are the way to go, they release appointments at a certain time and you can get one if you’re persistent and lucky. The Meadowlands site, where I went today, is affiliated with the nice people from Hackensack Meridian Health, who run a lot of hospitals in North Jersey. If you’re on their site at midnight, and keep hitting that refresh button, you can get an appointment, or that’s what I did. So this is my list of tips for anyone who’s going there:

  1. Sign up for MyChart once you have your appointment. This is the Hackensack Meridian patient portal. The key advantage of doing this is that, for reasons that don’t make any sense, the Hackensack people do not send you an email that tells you that you’re registered. If you have any anxiety issues at all, you can sign up with MyChart (the HMH version, other hospitals use the same software), and it will tell you when your appointment is.
  2. Get there in plenty of time. You want to go to Parking Lot M, which is a little sliver of parking in the big Meadowlands complex. The vaccines are given in the west grandstand of the racetrack, which is just north of MetLife Stadium. (Why they don’t use the stadium itself I do not know.) There was a good bit of parking when I went there; didn’t really have much trouble with traffic or parking. (I had one moment of panic where the police shut down Route 206 north of where I live, but that was just for a few seconds to deal with an idjit driver who was going southbound in the northbound lanes.)
  3. You’re going to have to wait. There was a three-stage line when I went there: a) a line to get into the building, out in the freezing wind–this was populated by Army National Guard soldiers with bullhorns who barked out the latest time when you could get in time. I got there at 10:55 for an 11:10 appointment, and had to loiter out in the cold wind for three or four minutes before they would let you on the line. (This is to combat the very long lines they’ve had periodically.) All they will do at that point is check your printout to see if you have an appointment. After that, b) you have to climb a steep ramp which does NOT comport with ADAAG standards, I’ll have you know. There’s a checkpoint at the top of the ramp–which is inside, out of the biting wind–where they check you in and give you a little plastic card with a QR code printed on it. After that is c) another line to get to the registration desk.
  4. Bring your significant other with you. Okay, so I went with my wife to the Atlantic Convention Center mega-site, and could not have felt more useless. So you might be thinking, hey, I can just go myself, leave the Mrs. at home, right? Yeah, don’t do that. Why? Because if you’re signed up, and your spouse isn’t, they might just offer to sign up your spouse for their first appointment at the same time you get your second dose. Cool, eh? (They do NOT do this at the AC center, if they had, I would have jumped on that option like a duck on a Ritz cracker crumb.) The only flaw in this system is that it’s only one person you can do this for. One of the people ahead of me in line was a twentysomething kid who had brought his elderly parents, and they would not let him into the registration area–only two people at a time, that’s the rule.
  5. It’s going to take awhile. I was signed up for 11:10 AM, and didn’t get the shot until close to 11:45 AM. That’s not bad! I was able to pick up the plastic bin that the Mrs. wanted me to get at the Container Store in Bridgewater on my way home, and was in home in time to pick up the kids from school. But, yeah, it took maybe a little longer than you might think.
  6. So far, so good. The shot wasn’t painful, and the arm isn’t incredibly sore. No side effects yet (this was the Pfizer shot, in case you’re keeping score at home.)

Anyway, lookit. The fact that we have a vaccine today is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t know for sure if it’s a miracle cure or not. But I was glad to get it done, no matter how aggravating the process was, and I’m glad I have an appointment for three weeks from now for the second shot.


The Needle Tears a Hole

I don’t remember when I started really seriously worrying about the vaccine. It wasn’t right away. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t want the vaccine. I just thought that I would get it in good time.

I am a fairly normal and average person, but I am maybe a little more vulnerable than a lot of people to COVID-19, for two reasons. First, I am overweight and have Type II diabetes, and yeah, there are a lot of people like that. Second, I am working outside the home; I do human resources at a small social services agency in Philadelphia. In this role, I have been exposed to COVID-19–haven’t contracted it yet, or I might not be sitting here typing about it.

I was under the impression, early on, that I would get the vaccine through my employer. I wasn’t particularly stressed about this; I assumed that the state agency that funds the program where I work would make the vaccine available in short order for our staff.

I didn’t start to get worried until the stories started coming out about the 21-year-old Drexel student who was, stupidly, put in charge of the Philadelphia vaccine program. That was the first inkling I had that anything was wrong. I decided to hedge my bets and sign up for the New Jersey registration system. That was easy, but then there was nothing from that system except radio silence.

Not long after that, New Jersey posted a long list of places where you could sign up for vaccinations. Some of them (like the designated site in my county) were tied to the state system. Others… weren’t. I signed up through the Camden County site. I got an appointment–for early August. Not ideal.

Not too long after that, vaccines started to be available through the large pharmacy chains, and I started checking them on a regular basis. When I didn’t have anything better to do, I would click through. Shop-Rite–nothing. CVS had intermittent stretches where it looked like you could make an appointment, if you held your mouth right. Walgreens would let you enter in ZIP codes all day long but never give you any availability. And Rite-Aid… oh, good Lord, the Rite-Aid site. You have to click on every store and see if appointments are available. One time out of, say, fifty, you can click through–but you can’t ever make an appointment.

And I began to hear from other people–won’t say who–who were getting vaccines, and who had way less entitlement to the vaccines than I did.

I have spent a lot of time working in social services, and one of the most corrosive things in social services agencies is I’m not getting what I want but someone else is, which is just a variation on that’s not fair. You hear this all the time. “I just fell through the cracks.” “I’m not getting this because of my race,” whatever that race might be. “The illegals get taken care of and we don’t.” Whatever your particular flavor of grievance is, there’s enough unfairness in social services delivery systems to justify it.

So this was familiar territory for me, dealing with service delivery in a fundamentally broken system. What you learn in dealing with these systems is that you need to figure out what the unwritten rules are and then use them to your advantage–that, and you have to advocate for yourself, because nobody else is going to be as effective.

The first step in the process is self-education, and it turns out the best way to educate yourself rapidly is through Facebook, which hosts several New Jersey groups for vaccine advice. It didn’t take me long to get helpful tips. Follow the vaccine bots on Twitter. Walmart only does appointments for seniors, so don’t bother. Rite-Aid releases appointments at 11:45 at night, and check http://vaxxmax.com/ for what sites are available. CVS updates at 5 am. (Being an insomniac is a great way to get a vaccine.)

So far, it’s worked, despite frustration after frustration. We were able to get an appointment for my wife at the Atlantic County mega-site; they operate their program by, literally, the luck of the draw. I got an appointment at the mega-site in the Meadowlands because I was on a certain website at midnight, holding my mouth right, and just kept clicking until an appointment came up.

The Facebook group that’s the largest does have incredibly useful information, but it’s also a litany of misery. People are trying as hard as they can and not getting anywhere. People are trying to get appointments for elderly parents who won’t travel. There’s a lot of anxiety, and a lot of heartbreak. And it doesn’t have to be this way. There is plenty of opportunity for the state to step in and tell their partners to develop a more systematic, orderly way for giving out the vaccines instead of relying on people to navigate a bewildering and tech-heavy system. I can’t imagine why it’s not being done, other than it’s easier to do it this way. (Just as it was easier to hand thousands of vaccines to that 21-year-old.)

I get vaccinated in the next few days. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to get back into the mainstream of life. But I’m aware that I’m only able to do this because I learned about the vagaries of the system and was able to exploit them–and that others aren’t as lucky.


No One Catches the Ryan Express

This is a little post that I do maybe every ten years or so. The purpose is to point out that nobody – ever – is going to throw as many strikeouts as Nolan Ryan.

It’s the most unbreakable modern-day record in sports. (Nobody is ever going to win more games than Cy Young, but that was a different game in a different time.) Somebody eventually is going to hit in 57 straight games. Somebody is going to break Hack Wilson’s RBI record. Somebody is going to break Hank Aaron’s home run record. (Yeah, yeah, yeah.) But no one is going to catch the Ryan Express.

The way you figure it out is this. Take all the active pitchers with a minimum number of strikeouts. Project the rest of their career and determine how long they would have to pitch in order to catch Nolan Ryan. Because, you see, you can beat the Ryan record of 5714 strikeouts; you just have to keep pitching for as long as he did, as effectively as he did, for 27 years, in his age-46 season.

Methodology: The following table has the active strikeout leaders. I’ve calculated their average strikeouts per year, and assumed that they can keep throwing at that level indefinitely (which is not the way to bet) and calculated just how old they would be when they equaled Nolan Ryan.

Player SeasonsAgeStrikeoutsAverage strikeouts per yearStrikeouts behind RyanYears to RyanAge to Ryan
Clayton Kershaw 13322526194.3318816.448.4
Max Scherzer 13352784214.2293013.748.7
Chris Sale 10312007200.7370718.549.5
Justin Verlander 16373013188.3270114.351.3
Felix Hernandez 15342524168.3319019.053.0
Gerrit Cole 8291430178.8428424.053.0
Jacob deGrom 7321359194.1435522.454.4
Cole Hamels 15362560170.7315418.554.5
Zack Greinke 17362689158.2302519.155.1
Madison Bumgarner 12301824152.0389025.655.6
David Price 12341981165.1373322.656.6
Jon Lester 15362397159.8331720.856.8
Chris Archer 8311349168.6436525.956.9
Stephen Strasburg 11311697154.3401726.057.0
Yu Darvish 8331392174.0432224.857.8
Aaron Nola 627922153.7479231.258.2
Noah Syndergaard 527775155.0493931.958.9
Robbie Ray 7281042148.9467231.459.4
Trevor Bauer 9291279142.1443531.260.2
Patrick Corbin 8301195149.4451930.360.3
Lance Lynn 9331415157.2429927.360.3
Gio Gonzalez 13341860143.1385426.960.9
Jose Quintana 9311310145.6440430.361.3
Eduardo Rodriguez 527707141.4500735.462.4
Rick Porcello 12311561130.1415331.962.9
Corey Kluber 10341462146.2425229.163.1
Masahiro Tanaka 731991141.6472333.464.4
Sonny Gray 8301066133.3464834.964.9

I left off all the active pitchers who would have had to pitch past their 65-year-old retirement age. As funny as it might be to see Dallas Keuchel pitch until he’s 70 to try and catch Ryan, it’s not going to happen.

So what does this tell us? Is there a chance for the people at the top of the list? It certainly looks possible. Could Clayton Kershaw pitch until he’s 48? He might not want to, but he could try if he wanted to. A 48-year-old Clayton Kershaw pitching in a Rangers uniform is not, shall we say, unthinkable.

But here’s another way to think about it; Clayton Kershaw has been a strikeout machine for his entire career, has pitched at a Hall of Fame level, and he isn’t even halfway to Nolan Ryan’s record. Verlander is only barely halfway to Ryan and it took two unbelievable strikeout seasons in 2018 and 2019 to get there. He’s not going to keep pitching until he’s over fifty, he’s just not.

Of the people on this list, if I had to guess if any of them would even get close, I might pick Chris Sale. Maybe. He can pitch 300 strikeouts a year, if he can keep it up for ten years, coming back from Tommy John, I might say maybe. But I’m not seeing it.

Commentary, Literary

Seven Things I Think About NaNoWriMo

I tried doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once. It was in November 2001. I was working on a cheap PC in a tiny apartment in Austin, just off Airport Boulevard. I was using the desk my parents bought me when I was twelve. I didn’t finish that novel for another three years. It never got published. Neither did the next one. The next one got self-published. None of them were NaNoWriMo projects, for the simple reason that it takes me longer than that to write a novel. RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY (which was published in March 2013) was written in two sections, the first half in the summer of 2010 and the second half (after a New Year’s resolution) from January to March 2011. That doesn’t include two years of querying, interspersed with substantial and painful bouts of editing.

I have a very narrow amount of time (from about 10:30 to 11:30 at night, on nights when I’m home) to write anything. That means that my output (which includes blog posts like this one and short stories and making fun of people on Twitter) is, necessarily, narrow. I started my current work-in-progress in (I think) June of this year, and I’ve written only twenty-five thousand words from then to now–more if you count short stories. (This includes two separate vacations where I didn’t write anything except my name on credit card slips.)

Could I ramp up my production, just for November? I mean, sure, I suppose so. I could crank out fifty thousand words, in thirty days, at least in theory. In theory, I could learn to do that thing where you drive your motorcycle off a high ramp and leave your seat while still holding on to the handlebars. In theory, I could think of a better joke than the one where you list all of the silly and impossible things you could do in theory.

Seven things I think about NaNoWriMo:

  1. If NaNoWriMo works for you, let it work for you. If it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work and you shouldn’t worry about it. If you want to try it one time and see if it works for you, it doesn’t hurt.
  2. NaNoWriMo won’t make you a better writer. Only failure and rejection can do that.
  3. NaNoWriMo may make you a more disciplined writer, at least in terms of forcing yourself to sit in your chair and write. But it’s not magic. Like most things involving self-discipline, “it works if you work it.”
  4. NaNoWriMo won’t get you published, especially if you’ve never written a novel before. If you don’t understand that, down deep inside, don’t do it.
  5. I went to Baylor, and one of the sports team slogans they’ve had at Baylor in the past few years is “pressure makes diamonds.” That’s true as far as it goes. Pressure and heat and time make diamonds. Too much pressure, applied the wrong way, makes coal dust. You don’t want coal dust. If you are like me (God help you) you already put a huge amount of pressure on yourself to succeed with your writing. If all NaNoWriMo is going to do is make you put more pressure on yourself for no good reason, then don’t attempt it.
  6. NaNoWriMo is a commitment. There’s nothing wrong with making a commitment, and if you’re able not only to make it but to carry it through, that’s a real positive. But your real commitment is not just to write, not just to finish, but to see the project all the way through until you have your own book in your hands, however that happens. NaNoWriMo is an independent step, not an end in and of itself.

Fifteen Weird Tricks to Make Your PowerPoint Presentations Less Terrible

One of the most awful things, for me, is having to watch someone else do something badly that I know how to do well. It’s like Josh Hamilton having to watch Esteban German take a turn at bat.

I used to do a lot of PowerPoint presentations. I don’t claim to be a PowerPoint expert, but I got to be pretty good at it. And because I am a twenty-first century human being, I have to suffer through other people’s presentations. I notice how these other people (who I’m sure are nice, wonderful people) do their presentations, and most of the time they are simply horrible and wretched.

This is not so much a guide as it is a list of useless and stupid things that I have seen people do, and that I would like them to stop doing.

1. Figure out where you are going to stand. By this I mean DO NOT STAND IN FRONT OF THE PROJECTOR. For the LOVE of GOD, people. Look. More than likely, I don’t want to see your slides anyway. But if I do want to see them, I want to see them on the screen. I do not want to see them on your shirt. It’s not that hard to figure out someplace where your audience can see both you and your slides.

2. Figure out how you’re going to change slides. You don’t always have a lot of options. Sometimes you have to put your device (your laptop or whatever, I mean) next to the projector. That’s almost always a bad call, because it often causes you to violate the previous guideline. So my advice is to invest in a clicker, and learn how to use it. That way, you can stand wherever you want and still change slides. If you can’t afford to buy a clicker (they’re fairly cheap), at least figure out how to change the slides without having to ask some random person in the audience to change slides for you. That’s a recipe for disaster every time.

3. Learn how PowerPoint works. By this I specifically mean figure out how to go back and forth on slides. There is nothing, and I say this from years of personal experience, more excruciating for your audience than the moment when you lose your place in your presentation and have to go backwards and forwards to find the right slide. This is even worse when you don’t know how to use the right-click menu and spend ten minutes fumbling through the different options before you finally figure it out. The people listening to your presentation are taking time out of their busy day to listen to what you have to say. This is probably because someone else is making them. Be considerate of their pain. Figure out how to advance your slides. Figure out how to go backwards. Figure out how to switch back and forth from the slide sorter to the slide view if you need to. Stop wasting the time of everyone in the audience who knows how to use PowerPoint and would like nothing better than to hurt you for not knowing how.

4. Put a little color in your slides. If all you do is put up black text on white backgrounds (or, God forbid, white text on black backgrounds) in your slides, that tells me something. That tells me you do not care. That tells me you put zero effort into how you come across in your presentation. On a similar note, if you use a default template – you know the ones I’m talking about, you’ve seen other people use them a thousand times – that tells me you’re lazy. I am not expecting you to be a graphic designer, but I am expecting you to use a little imagination and effort in how you come across.

5. Use consistent formatting in your slides. I am mostly talking about fonts here. Pick a font and stick with it. (I honestly don’t care if you use Comic Sans as long as you are consistent with it and as long as you don’t use Comic Sans.) Pick a font that matches your design. If your design is sleek and modern, use a sleek and modern font like Helvetica. If your design is fussy and intricate, use a fussy and intricate font like Garamond. If your design is stupid and pretentious, use a stupid and pretentious font like Trajan. Just go with what makes you happy. But just use one font, and for God’s sake make it big enough for people to read. You have a huge enormous screen. Use huge enormous fonts. Nobody likes squinting.

6. Don’t use animations or transitions unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re almost always better off not using them, so don’t. (I am looking at you, people who use animations to bring up one bullet point at a time. Stop that. It’s almost never a good idea and it’s painful to watch if you happen to screw anything up.) If you’re thinking about using animations, ask yourself a question. “Am I doing this because the animation will help me get my point across, or am I using it to look cool and impress people?” If the answer is “help me get my point across,” think about whether it actually does. If you have any doubt, don’t do it. If you are trying to look cool, think about a little self-deprecating joke you can use if it ends up not making you look cool. If you’re comfortable with that, go for it, but please don’t do it more than once in a given presentation.

7. Know if you’re funny or not funny. You either are or you aren’t. If you’re not funny, don’t force it. If you are, don’t highlight it unless you’re an actual professional comic. There’s nothing wrong with leavening your presentation with humor if you can do it effectively – but you have to know when your schtick isn’t working. If it’s not working, do a little Johnny Carson golf swing and move along. Oh, and don’t think because you used a New Yorker or a Dilbert cartoon in your slides that a) you’re automatically funny or that b) people even get it. There is something about using cartoons in presentations that doesn’t work. Half the people in the audience aren’t paying attention to your slides anyway and won’t laugh until you point out the joke and hit them over the head, and by that time you’ve lost the half that were paying attention and didn’t think the cartoon was funny to begin with. 99% of the time, you’re better off just telling the jokes and leaving them off your slides.

8. They’re slides. Don’t say “deck,” because it’s pretentious.

9. Please, do not put every single word you have to say up as a part of a slide. The words on the slides are there to do two things: telegraph to the audience what you are going to say, and to remind you of what it is you were planning to say. Your slides should be more like Twitter and less like War and Peace. Fewer words, bigger fonts. And do not make me read tiny footnotes on your slide. Save that for your research paper or whatever it is.

10. Know your content. Knowing what’s on your slides is half the battle. If you know what’s on your slides, you will be able to handle yourself much more effectively.

11. Know your audience. Whatever you do, for the love of all that’s holy, take a minute and figure out who you’re talking to beforehand, and try to tailor your presentation to that audience. This is not always easy. I had one presentation I did, years ago, where a state agency asked me to come in and talk about legal issues for their attorneys. So I did that. It turned out that all the lawyers in the agency–no fools they–went home early, and I was talking to a lot of legal secretaries and support staff. If I had known that before, I would have done a different presentation. Know ahead of time who is going to be there, and talk to them, not just some generic knot of people you don’t know anything about.

12. Know your time limit. Use fewer slides. Put the best content up front so if you have to skip slides you can do it at the end. Don’t run over time trying to squeeze in every slide, and don’t skip ten slides at a time because you ran out of time. Plan ahead. Know how many slides you need to get through and how long it will take you. Respect other people’s time. They are using their few precious hours of their day to listen to you. Make that count.

13. PowerPoint is a visual medium. Use images. (Don’t use cheap clip art, either. Google Image Search is your friend.) You’re using PowerPoint to tell a story, so make sure that the images you use help tell that story in some way.

14. Know thyself. Self-awareness is a curse, but if you have at least some degree of self-awareness, you may find that you do a better job in your presentation. The presenter who sparked this particular rant (who made almost every error on this list and others that I have kind of blocked out) had a verbal tic that drove me up the wall. It was the word “huge.” He had a stereotypical Noo Yawk accent, and the word sounded like “UUUUUUUUge.” And he kept saying it, and he kept stressing it in every sentence he used it in. “This is a UUUUUUUUge problem. It’s a UUUUUUUUUge issue.” It got to be a UUUUUUUUUge annoyance. So, listen to yourself. Understand what you do well or don’t do well. Think about how you come across.

15. Be considerate. This is the most important rule of them all – really, all the other rules are a variation on this one. Think about your audience. More often than not, they didn’t ask to be there. Somebody else made them go. They would ten times rather be anywhere else, most of them. If you can’t be interesting and entertaining – and that’s a hard thing to do for most people – at least don’t make it any worse for them than it already is.

Commentary, Humor

I Am The Kraken, And I Would Very Much Like To Go Home Now

I was told that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the most recent case involving the election. I have very little idea who or what the Supreme Court actually is, or why they were involved in all of this, or what an election actually is, to be honest with you. I would like to go back to the North Sea now.

I was asked to come here by some very nice people who told me that they needed my help. Most of my encounters with people over the last thousand years have been very negative, and have involved people on boats with long pointy spears. There have been a few nice and helpful zoologists and oceanographers over the years, but most of my interactions with people have been negative. I figured that this was a chance to do something positive, maybe rehabilitate my image somewhat.

When I was approached by the President’s legal team, I have to confess I was a little apprehensive at first. They told me that they had a strong case, based on statistical analysis and hard evidence of voter fraud. They said that my participation was important to protect the democratic process. I have friends in Iceland, and I know they have democracy there, but I didn’t know a lot about it. I figured that it was a great opportunity to learn. I was right about that, but not in the way I thought.

As a large underwater sea creature of high northern latitudes, I had not been paying very close attention to the Presidential election in your country. The only thing I really understand about elections is that someone wins and someone loses. It’s like that when I take on a school of plankton, although I always win. And the President was supposed to win, but someone took his plankton away from him and he was unhappy. Well, I understood that part, at least.

So I was told that I would be unleashed, and that once I was unleashed, the President would win. And it sounded like so much fun that I didn’t ask many questions that in retrospect I probably should have asked. For one thing, nobody told me that I would get unleashed in Atlanta. I have nothing personal against Atlanta, but I wish someone had told me that it was very far from the sea. I have spent all of my life in the cold waters of the far North, and Atlanta was far too warm and dry for my tastes. But everyone on the legal team said that what I was doing was very important, and that me being unleashed was the best for everyone. I still don’t know what being “unleashed” means; I’ve never been leashed in my life. But everyone said that it sounded cool.

I don’t want to sound impatient, but if all of this is really over, I would like to go home now.

Anyway, so I was told I was being unleashed in Georgia, and then in Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. But every single time, the legal team kept losing. Nobody would tell me why. They’d say that I was doing a great job just being myself. Which didn’t make any sense to me. All I can be is myself; I’m never going to be a lawyer or handle a case in court.

It took me a long time to realize it, but I finally came to understand that all that the lawyers were doing with me was to use me to scare people. I didn’t like that at all. I honestly don’t want to scare people. I just want to go back to the Norwegian coast and dive into the inky blackness of the deep and feast on plankton and shrimp. Sure, every year or two I will sink an unlucky fishing trawler, but it’s usually because they sneak up on me and surprise me. It’s not something I set out to do. I know I have a scary reputation; that’s why I got involved in the first place, to show people that krakens aren’t really that scary. We just want to be left alone.

It’s important to me that people realize that I wasn’t ever trying to scare them. I was told the President was in trouble and I could help him. I mean, I never got to meet him because he was always golfing, but I thought I was doing the right thing.

I still don’t understand what I was supposed to be doing, or why it was important, or what a President even does. It’s all very confusing. I am sorry I got mixed up in this, and I would like very much to find a nice quiet fjord and sink to the bottom of it and contemplate things for a while.

I wish your country good luck with its new President and hope that his administration practices pro-kraken policies. Other than that, I’m through with public life and would very much like to go home now.


The Road Goes On Forever: A Not-So-Crazy Proposal to Fix the National Football League

All I am asking is that you hear me out for a minute. I know this sounds crazy. My wife has already told me it sounds crazy, so I don’t need to hear that from you. And, I get it, adding two teams to the NFL that do not, actually, have stadiums or fan bases or even practice facilities and asking them to play 17 road games a year, at first blush, sounds crazy. Not just crazy, but actually indicative of a deep-seated mental problem. Be that as it may. Just stick with me for a minute.

NFL Shield
This message was not brought to you with the permission of the Office of the Commissioner.

One of the strengths of the National Football League is that, currently, it has 32 teams. This matters more than you might think. A 32-team NFL, playing a 16-game season, means that each team can have a predictable schedule, not just for the 2020 season, but for the next century. The Dallas Cowboys, next year, will play the three other NFC East teams twice, will play all four of the AFC North teams, and all four of the NFC West teams. The only two games that weren’t set in stone were determined once the Cowboys, um, completely gave the NFC East to the Eagles; the Cowboys will be playing the second-place Falcons and Vikings instead of the first-place Saints and Packers, and this is probably to the good. But the point of all of this is that you know, for 14 of the 16 games, exactly who any NFL team will play each year.

While this is a very nice thing for the NFL, having this kind of balance means that it’s hard to expand. The NFL had similar growing pains going from 30 teams to 31 teams (requiring that at least one team sit out every week) which it fixed in going to 32. But going to 33 or 34 teams, no matter how much the NFL would like to do that, will interrupt the carefully laid-out schedule.

Add to that the fact that the NFL would like to move to an 18–week schedule. Currently, the NFL plays 16 games over 17 weeks, with one bye week per team (the scourge of fantasy football owners everywhere). The NFL, and a lot of fans, would not mind at all if there were, say, one or two pre-season games and a 17-game schedule being played out over 19 weeks with two bye weeks. But, again, adding games to the NFL season fouls up the near-perfect alignment of the schedule.

So this is my not-so-crazy idea. The NFL should:

Canton Bulldogs logo, circa 1920
Well, it looks better than the Browns logo.
  1. Add two teams to the NFL, one in the NFC and one to the AFC. I would like one of the two teams to be named the Canton Bulldogs, to honor one of the founding NFL franchises and the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that’s just me. You can choose one of the other founding teams, like the Rock Island Independents, just because of their awesome uniforms, but whatever. Call them the London Monarchs. Whatever.
I mean, COME ON. Look at that.

2. So these two teams are, well, a little different from any other NFL team. How, you say?

3. Well, as you probably guessed already, the teams do not actually play in Canton or Rock Island, or in fact, anywhere. Why is this important?

4. This is important because these are road teams. This means that they never have any home games. They play every game in the road. They don’t have a stadium or a fan base or (this is key) an owner; they would be managed by the league.

5. As such, a league-appointed general manager would set up the rosters and a league-appointed coaching staff would coach the teams.

6. The Canton team would be in the NFC and would play each of the 16 NFC teams in their home stadiums. The AFC road team would do the same in the AFC. (Then the two road teams would meet in a neutral site to play each other the last week of the season.)

7. The road teams would get no draft picks. (So if they go 1–16, it doesn’t matter.) They would be working with minimal budgets, so no pricey free agents. The other NFL teams would be able to designate a player or two to play with a road team on a developmental basis (similar to what some teams did with the old World League).

8. This would probably — almost certainly — make these teams very, very bad indeed. But they could still make the playoffs as a wild-card (they wouldn’t be part of any division so they couldn’t ever be division champions).

What are the benefits of doing this?

First, every other NFL team now would have nine home games instead of eight, which automatically improves revenue by 12%. (This is offset by the loss of one preseason game.) This takes advantage of one of the most under appreciated problems with the league — that so many stadiums are empty half the year. This also may help a little with overall scheduling because you can shift around the road teams any old way.

Second, adding two road teams gives more players the chance to start in the NFL without displacing older players or diluting the overall product. The talent stays concentrated in the league, but the players on the road team can develop instead of being stashed on a practice squad.

But most importantly, I think, is the idea that the road teams would be a whole lot of fun.

Why would that be the case? Part of it would be that the road teams would be so undermatched in talent that they would have to resort to, well, trickeration. Different schemes. Wildcat formations. Why not? They would have nothing to lose. And as such, the NFL might hire coaches that were a little unorthodox. Tell me it wouldn’t be a lot of fun to see the NFL hire Mike Leach to run the Oakland Pirates or whatever you ended up calling these teams. (I realize this is a longshot; in the unlikely event the NFL ever implements this idea, it would hire some boring non-entity like Mike Shula or Dave Wannstedt to run the teams. But you can hope.)

And then secondly, well, how do you think that the American football-watching public will take to these teams? One thing the NFL doesn’t really have right now is underdogs. Nobody sees, for example, the Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions as underdogs — they’re generally thought of as bad teams with bungling front offices. A lot more people would cheer for the Browns and Lions to go 0–16 (including some of their fans).

But these teams? You have to think that if the Canton Bulldogs play the New York Giants, there are going to be a whole lot of people cheering for the Canton Bulldogs (at least in Dallas). Any games that these road teams win are going to be terribly embarrassing for the loser — and very endearing for the road teams. It would be an event — like Appalachian State beating Michigan, or like Stephen F. Austin beating Duke in basketball. I am not saying you will ever have a lot of fans of these road teams, but (especially if they play fun) they would be a lot of fun to cheer for.

Why It Won’t Work

The owners won’t like it. These new franchises would have next to no value — and in theory, this would bring down the value of their franchises. And — yeah — maybe the road teams dilute the value of the product some, maybe it’s a little harder to sell tickets to a Jaguars-Monarchs game, even if it’s close to a guaranteed win for the Jaguars.

The league won’t like it. Running two teams is kind of a conflict of interest for the league, and it’s a huge administrative headache. Even running the road teams on a shoestring, the costs might be more than the revenue brings in — especially if ticket sales go down for these games.

The networks won’t like it. They might like having more games, but maybe not these particular games. You’re not going to see Troy Aikman or Joe Buck calling a lot of Canton Bulldogs games.

And the real reason — the union won’t like it. Even though it creates a lot of jobs, it doesn’t create good jobs — and by creating more opportunities, it creates opportunities for current players to lose their jobs to upstarts from the road teams. Add to that the fact that the unions don’t want the 17th game or the 18th week (even with the two byes), the whole thing is practically a non-starter.

So it’s crazy. But I still think it’s crazy enough to work. And it’s not like the NFL hasn’t done worse.

Commentary, Food

How America Makes Cornbread Dressing: A Scientific Survey

I am not here to tell you what to do.

Let’s get this out of the way first. You are a grownup. You can put whatever you want on your Thanksgiving table. You can serve chili with beans and I will roll my eyes and silently judge you because you do not put beans in chili, but that’s not the point. This is your dinner, and you can serve it however you want and whenever you want. You have control over everything except how Jason Garrett’s inexplicable lack of coaching skill will wreck the Cowboys game.

This is not me telling you how to make cornbread dressing. You can follow whatever recipe you want, whether it’s your grandmother’s sacred text or Stove-Top’s. (My grandmother’s dressing was unmemorable, but she would put chopped hard-boiled eggs in the gravy, and good Lord, don’t do that.)

What this is trying to be is behavioral analysis: what do people actually put in their dressing? Specifically, what are search engines and recipe sites telling people to put in their dressing?

METHODOLOGY: I started by clicking on the first thirty recipes for “cornbread dressing” on Google. This is not exactly scientific, and shut up, but it does tell you what the popular online recipes look like. (I specifically left out the New York Times recipe — these, you know, are the people who insisted that you could make guacamole from mushy peas.) Then, I put the ingredients into a spreadsheet.

Celebrity Chef Alton Brown eating a big hunk of cornbread dressing
I am not getting into the dressing versus stuffing debate here.

The spreadsheet follows a simple pattern, one that I remembered from an old Alton Brown Good Eats episode — basically, how Alton defines a casserole. (Yes, cornbread dressing is a casserole. Shut up.)

  • Starch. This, of course, in cornbread dressing, is primarily… wait for it… cornbread.
  • Protein. (This isn’t in Alton’s rubric; he says “main ingredient,” which in cornbread dressing is… wait for it… cornbread, but that’s the primary starch.) Some recipes have a protein, some don’t.
  • Aromatics. Flavorful vegetables like onions and celery, you know.
  • Seasonings. Sage is the traditional seasoning, but there are variations.
  • Binder. This is what holds the casserole together. In traditional Southern post-war cooking, this is cream of mushroom soup (please tell me you’re not putting cream of mushroom soup in your cornbread dressing).
  • Liquid. This, again, is not in Alton’s rubric, but with all that dry cornbread you need something to keep your dressing from drying out.

The results are as follows:


All of the cornbread dressing recipes include cornbread.

A big hunk of cornbread in a cast-iron skillet.
I know, right?

Now, because this is essentially a libertarian article, I am not going to tell you that you have to make your cornbread from scratch, in a cast-iron skillet, the way that God and Martha White intended. I am not going to tell you to put sugar in it, or buttermilk. You do it your way. (I use Jiffy Brand and am not ashamed.) I specifically did not document what the different recipes used for cornbread; no need to stoke that fire. Make cornbread how you want.

White Bread

A loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread.

A little under half of the recipes in this survey include white bread. If there was ever evidence of the total collapse of decent society, it is here.

Three recipes include biscuits instead of white bread. This is also wrong. But it is, somehow, less wrong than just putting a big hunk of Mrs. Baird’s in your dressing. I don’t recommend this but you can do it.

One recipe suggests adding a box of Stove-Top to your cornbread. I do not endorse this or the people that do this. You can try it! You can try lots of things. But there are better options, like admitting you can’t cook and going to Waffle House.

All kidding aside, really, please don’t put white bread in your cornbread dressing. You can! No one is saying you can’t. But all you are doing is adding extra carbs and no flavor.


One third of the recipes included sausage as a protein. I always include sausage in my dressing; but that’s a minority position and I’m okay with that. Two recipes included chicken breast; I think that would probably be okay if you weren’t making this for Thanksgiving; chicken in dressing plus turkey sounds like poultry overkill.

I am a Texan living in New Jersey, so I made a special order for Elgin sausage. Sage sausage is excellent if you can find it. Some recipes call for breakfast sausage, others for Italian sausage. I say you can’t go wrong with whatever you like.


Every single recipe had onions. This is as close as you get to unanimity in this world, and it is a good thing. I am not a huge fan of onions, but even I put onions in my dressing (heavily diced, nearly caramelized).

Andy Warhol print of can of Campbell’s cream of celery soup
I mean, it can’t be worse than starving to death.

29 of 30 recipes had celery. The other one had cream of celery soup. I honestly do not know what to tell you about this. I suspect that someone, years back, opened their refrigerator on Thanksgiving morning, saw that they were out of celery, looked in their pantry, saw a lonesome can of cream of celery soup, and said to themselves, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?”

As far as other vegetables, several recipes called for garlic. I think this is fine. I think you probably need to like garlic a lot to make this work. Similarly, one recipe included fennel. Again, if you like fennel, that is fine, too, although I think that you’d do better off with Italian sausage if you wanted that flavor. A couple of recipes called for bell pepper, which I think doesn’t add enough flavor, but you can try it. One recipe suggested jalapeno peppers, which I would personally be OK with but everyone else in my house would rebel.


Sage leaves
Not shown: parsley, rosemary and thyme

The easy winner here is sage, with almost every recipe including this particular herb. Those that didn’t list sage included poultry seasoning, which just so happens to include sage. So my sage advice is to make sure you have some sage. (Yes, I know.)

So what else you got? A lot of people use parsley, and thyme, and even rosemary, to go with the Scarborough Fair joke I made in the caption. Any of that is fine, I suppose. There were a couple of people who use nutmeg, why not. I have used ginger before. It’s pretty good, but you can’t use too much of it.


So just about everyone uses chicken broth. Which is fine. A couple of recipes use cream of chicken soup as well (and one, dear God, does use cream of mushroom on top of that, why would you). I think cream of chicken soup is a little bit overkill but without ever having tried it I am not going to mock it that much.

Three recipes use milk — two use just regular milk, but one uses Eagle Brand, and I have to admit, I am a tiny bit curious about this. I think it would be too sweet, but I like sweet. I’m a little afraid to try it out. You might try using evaporated milk to make the cornbread — but when you look up that recipe, the first link is from the people who make evaporated milk. Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

One recipe recommended using wine as a liquid. I am just going to leave that with you.


Almost every recipe used butter — sometimes as a medium to brown the aromatics (this is what I do) or just for the hell of it. So, yeah, butter.

Other Stuff You Can Try, Why Not

Apples? I mean, sure, why not. Mushrooms? I mean, I guess. Bon Appetit suggests corn nuts, which just sounds weird. Pecans and cranberries could work but you are going to have cranberry sauce and pecan pie, aren’t you? AREN’T YOU?


There is a good bit of variety in these recipes, but you know, really not that much. Getting the basics right is more important than the variations. If you can make cornbread, that’s half the battle. Then all you need to do is add butter and onions and celery, add in some sage, drown it with chicken stock, bake it, and you’re golden. Anything else is just gravy.

And please don’t put hard-boiled eggs in the gravy. I am begging you.

Links to recipes used in this article:


On Professional Decline

A gerontologist friend recommended the Atlantic article by Arthur C. Brooks on professional decline after 50 on the social media thingy the other day. I skimmed through it and responded, “Wow, I’m ahead of the curve; my professional decline started a long time ago!”

This is flip, but true enough. I am on, basically, my third career. After college and law school, I started off as a “junior politician,” working on the Dallas staff of then-Senator Phil Gramm as an underpaid and overworked “caseworker”. I was on the Senate staff, not the campaign staff, and missed out on his disastrous 1996 Presidential campaign. I jumped ship and worked for Governor George W. Bush, staying on through his successful 2000 presidential campaign. I wasn’t able to latch on with the White House staff, though, and wasn’t able to make any headway getting any other role with that Administration.

So I ended up reinventing myself as an attorney. In the Governor’s office, I was working on disability issues, and I got a job at Georgia Tech with the regional ADA center for the Southeast. That led to a job as an attorney with Disability Rights New Jersey in Trenton, where I represented clients with disabilities in a variety of different cases. I had a secondary role managing the state assistive technology program. I did that for eleven years, until I was heartily sick of it.

I don’t want to go too much into why I left my last job, but what happened was that the Medicaid program in New Jersey got handed over to private insurance. That meant that it was in the interest of the private insurance companies to cut back on individual services — and every time they did that, they would send out a letter telling the patients that my office would represent them in administrative law court for free. Which we did.

The upshot of all this was that I was spending a great deal of time arguing with first-year lawyers over whether little old ladies in New Jersey should get 10 hours of home health care benefits per week, or 8. This is — without meaning any disrespect to the little old ladies involved — not the stuff that great legal careers are built on. Around the same time, I was up for a promotion, and didn’t get it — and the lawyer who did get it was an advocate of taking on a lot more of these cases. This meant that I would be spending the rest of my career wrangling over the details of the bowel movements of little old ladies, and how much Medicaid assistance that required. (You want to talk about career decline, that was pretty much it.)

I went to look for other work, and found out that I had painted myself into a corner. There just weren’t that many firms that were interested in hiring someone whose specialty was representing indigent clients in administrative law court. And I couldn’t support myself as a solo practitioner handling those kind of claims. I interviewed with several firms where I could have made a lateral move — guardianship cases, special education, medical malpractice — but none of them were a good fit. I had bottomed out at age 48, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

I ended up going in a completely different direction. I left my job and enrolled in a master’s program in human resources at Rutgers. I have a very challenging job working for a small human services agency. It is anything but a glamorous role; I do a lot of paperwork and handle a lot of compliance issues. I am never going to get elected to Congress, or work in the White House, or argue before the Supreme Court, and that is fine.

I take a lot of comfort from this Pat Green song, about a hard-luck country singer:

I gave up on Nashville a long time ago.

Damn straight.

So I have, at age 50, become comfortable with the idea of professional decline. I am not exactly thrilled about it. I like to think that I can find a better job, doing something more responsible, perhaps using my law degree. But those opportunities haven’t opened up for me, yet, and maybe they won’t. It doesn’t bother me, or I try not to let it bother me, which is not the same thing.

Professional Decline and Publishing

What does bother me, though, is not professional decline in my career, although that is bad enough. What bothers me is what it means for me as a novelist.

I’ve written and self-published two novels; one in 2013 and one in 2014. Neither were particularly successful, even for self-published works. (I’ve also published an alphabet picture book, which flopped even worse, and had a political short-story collection published by a small press.) I finished my third novel just last year, and I have been querying agents on it over the last month or two.

I’ve had much less success than usual — even though I didn’t get an agent for the last two books, I used to get some kind of response. Maybe it was just asking to look at the rest of the manuscript. Now all I am getting is form rejection letters. And what I am asking myself, from an HR standpoint, is this: if I’ve really hit my creative decline at age 50, does this mean I’m wasting my time?

I’m starting to think so.

  • There is of course the good old self-publishing stigma, which isn’t (supposedly) what it once was, but only a fool would say it isn’t still there.
  • I write kind of slow. Three novels in seven years isn’t going to get anyone excited about representing me, and I get that.
  • I don’t write series, which hurts you a lot in self-pub and doesn’t help with anything else.
  • I write in different genres. I went from literary fiction to chick-lit to YA fantasy. I have no explanation for this; it’s just what I decided to write about.
  • I am old. It is tough to write YA when you’re old.
  • I am an attorney, and attorneys are famously cranky, and twitchy about contract elements.
  • I don’t have any kind of social media audience to speak of.
  • I am not only old, but old and non-telegenic, and a white male Republican in the bargain. (Every single agent, in every single profile, coos about how much they want diverse voices. This is partly to keep them from being eaten alive by the Twitter mobs, which is fine. This is partly because they see value in diversity, which is also fine. And none of this, y’know, is keeping me from getting published, but it sure ain’t helping me none.)

There is a name for everything I just did in that last bullet list, and that name is whining. I know that. (I spend half my life telling my 10-year-old twins to stop whining; I know it when I hear it.) And you shouldn’t whine. But it’s one thing to whine about gatekeepers, and another thing to realize that, you know, maybe there are perfectly reasonable decline-related concerns that an agent might have with respect to an aging and slightly doddering potential client.

So This Is What I Am Going To Do

I’m not querying anymore. Not on this project, probably not on any future ones. (I am still waiting on several responses from agents that I have queried; I’m assuming that they will reject me — although I’m open to discussion if they’re somehow, inexplicably interested.)

I’m going to start looking for a cover artist for the book. I’m going to slap a high-quality cover on it and put it on Amazon, and see how well it does. If it sells well, great, if not, great. I’m not going to worry about it one way or another. (This last sentence is a lie, but I’m going to try anyway.)

I am going to start actively managing my decline — my physical decline, if nothing else. I am going to try to eat better, and exercise, and lose weight — if only to set myself up for an enjoyable retirement. I am going to keep working — at least for a while — to save money for said retirement. I am going to cultivate my family relationships, and maybe seek out ways to serve in my community.

But I’m not going to slink into the forest gladly or gracefully. Decline, as Arthur C. Brooks ought to be able to tell you, is a choice. Senescence and death may be inevitable, but that’s not what we were made for. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas said.

Damn straight.