- 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 Seasons Age Strikeouts Average strikeouts per year Strikeouts behind Ryan Years to Ryan Age to Ryan Clayton Kershaw 13 32 2526 194.3 3188 16.4 48.4 Max Scherzer 13 35 2784 214.2 2930 13.7 48.7 Chris Sale 10 31 2007 200.7 3707 18.5 49.5 Justin Verlander 16 37 3013 188.3 2701 14.3 51.3 Felix Hernandez 15 34 2524 168.3 3190 19.0 53.0 Gerrit Cole 8 29 1430 178.8 4284 24.0 53.0 Jacob deGrom 7 32 1359 194.1 4355 22.4 54.4 Cole Hamels 15 36 2560 170.7 3154 18.5 54.5 Zack Greinke 17 36 2689 158.2 3025 19.1 55.1 Madison Bumgarner 12 30 1824 152.0 3890 25.6 55.6 David Price 12 34 1981 165.1 3733 22.6 56.6 Jon Lester 15 36 2397 159.8 3317 20.8 56.8 Chris Archer 8 31 1349 168.6 4365 25.9 56.9 Stephen Strasburg 11 31 1697 154.3 4017 26.0 57.0 Yu Darvish 8 33 1392 174.0 4322 24.8 57.8 Aaron Nola 6 27 922 153.7 4792 31.2 58.2 Noah Syndergaard 5 27 775 155.0 4939 31.9 58.9 Robbie Ray 7 28 1042 148.9 4672 31.4 59.4 Trevor Bauer 9 29 1279 142.1 4435 31.2 60.2 Patrick Corbin 8 30 1195 149.4 4519 30.3 60.3 Lance Lynn 9 33 1415 157.2 4299 27.3 60.3 Gio Gonzalez 13 34 1860 143.1 3854 26.9 60.9 Jose Quintana 9 31 1310 145.6 4404 30.3 61.3 Eduardo Rodriguez 5 27 707 141.4 5007 35.4 62.4 Rick Porcello 12 31 1561 130.1 4153 31.9 62.9 Corey Kluber 10 34 1462 146.2 4252 29.1 63.1 Masahiro Tanaka 7 31 991 141.6 4723 33.4 64.4 Sonny Gray 8 30 1066 133.3 4648 34.9 64.9
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.
- 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:
- 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.
- NaNoWriMo won’t make you a better writer. Only failure and rejection can do that.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 LeagueAll 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. 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:
- 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.
Why It Won’t WorkThe 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.
- How America Makes Cornbread Dressing: A Scientific SurveyI 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. 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.
CornbreadAll of the cornbread dressing recipes include cornbread. 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 BreadA 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.
ProteinOne 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.
AromaticsEvery 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). 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.
SeasoningsThe 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.
LiquidSo 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.
ButterAlmost 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 NotApples? 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?
ConclusionsThere 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:
- A Little Pinch
- AllRecipes (note: this is the most basic of recipes, and the easiest — everything you need, nothing you don’t)
- Bon Appetit
- Cafe Delites
- Country Living
- Dessert for Two
- Dinner at the Zoo
- Divas Can Cook
- Food Network
- Grandbaby Cakes
- Just a Pinch
- Martha Stewart
- Melissa’s Southern Style Kitchen
- Once Upon a Chef
- Platter Talk
- Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Serious Eats
- Show Me The Yummy
- Southern Bite
- Southern Living
- Syrup and Biscuits
- Taste of Home
- Tastes Better from Scratch
- Tastes of Lizzy T
- The Spruce Eats
- On Professional DeclineA 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 PublishingWhat 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.)
So This Is What I Am Going To DoI’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.
- # 98,201 With A Bullet: Building a Kindle Bestseller
Or, How BookBub Helped One Struggling Author Reach His (Modest) Dreams — Sort Of12/2/2017 9:14 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey Today is the day of my BookBub promotion for my novel, WREATHED. If you don’t know about BookBub, they are the premier company out there in the book-recommendation market. They have developed several mailing lists of hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are voracious readers with a few extra bucks to spend on electronic books. If you’re an author, you can apply for a BookBub promotion to get your name on a mailing list — but there’s a few things you have to do. First, you generally — not always — need to widen the distribution for your book. A lot of independently published books like WREATHED are Amazon-exclusive, because Amazon consistently delivers better results than any other channel. But a lot of BookBub readers are in the Apple ecosystem, so it’s a good idea to widen your distribution network. Second, you need to discount the price of your book. BookBub offers promotions for e-books you are giving away for free, and books you are selling for anywhere between 99 cents and $2.99. For this promotion today, I am selling my book for 99 cents. (I did a free promotion for this book two years ago, and did very well.) Third — and this is the crucial part — you need to convince BookBub to take your money. BookBub is famous for turning down independent authors for slots, a practice that has gotten more widespread as more traditional outlets use the service and crowd out slots. I had been turned down several times recently, but got lucky this time (after I widened the distribution channels). So it’s early here, and I had to get up early to work on a paper for grad school, and the BookBub e-mail hasn’t gone out yet, so I’m basically waiting for that to happen. I had three sales yesterday, and one sale overnight, so that pushed the initial Amazon ranking for the book to a healthy #98,201. (To provide some context, my children’s book — which hasn’t sold any Kindle copies in months — is at #1,570,774.) My goal is to get in the overall top 100 in the romance category, and ideally in the top 1000 site-wide. But it’s early yet. I’ll check in throughout the day. (The promotion runs through the end of next week, and I’ve promoted the book on other sites, so I’ll keep track of that as well.) 12/2/2017 10:22 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey The last BookBub promotion I did was on a Friday, and the e-mail went out around noon. This is a Saturday, and I think the e-mail may have gone out earlier. Or it may not have! I am using multiple services today (a process called “stacking”) and I can’t specifically say that today’s sales are due to BookBub or not. But so far, things are looking pretty healthy, with 89 sales. The Amazon ranking hasn’t updated yet; it’s showing WREATHED at #107,035. It’s hard to be patient; you want that number to go up, not down. 12/2/2017 11:17 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey I am working on a grad school project this morning, and the person I am working with was supposed to be on a conference call with me to discuss it, but I had uploaded a lot of content to the project and she hasn’t had time to read it yet. That means I am sitting here at my computer, trying to figure out ways to not check sales numbers every five seconds. Since my last BookBub, the program has gone international, so there are going to be sales in the UK, India, Australia, and Canada as well. Whee! Most of the international sales are from the UK so far — that makes sense, because people are awake there now. I am very curious as to how well the book will do in India (it’s not the least bit Indian) but there is only one sale there so far. My guess is that those will come in overnight, but who knows. The Amazon ranking is sitting at #112,872, which means that the sales-rank algorithm is behind on calculating the last two hours of sales. (I shouldn’t complain; it is going to take days to figure out if I had any sales through Apple or Barnes & Noble.) But it’s still frustrating. The main reason for doing this is to see if I can drive this book on some kind of bestseller list, and that’s not showing up as of yet. 12/2/2017 12:17 PM EST — Somerset County YMCA Since it’s the season of giving, I took the Mrs. and the kids to an Operation Shoebox packing event here in the boro. Operation Shoebox sends care packages to American troops overseas — in this case, gallon Zip-loc bags full of travel-size shampoo and soaps and Q-Tips and whatnot. What you do is this: they hand you a bag, you take one item out of each bin, and put it in the bag. You get enough unskilled labor to do this, and many hands make light work. But the problem is that so many people showed up to help that there was a line to go through the process. This is the kind of problem you want to have from the organizational perspective, but you leave a lot of volunteers standing in line. So I checked my phone, and sure enough, the algorithm had updated. WREATHED is now up to #2,757 overall in the Amazon US marketplace. It’s starting to show up on category lists, too, although it hasn’t broken the Top 100 in romance or new adult yet. 12/2/2017 2:16 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey A much smaller jump this time, to #2,166. The problem, of course, is that just because you’re on BookBub, it doesn’t mean other people aren’t. Even some big-name authors are doing the BookBub thing today — Michael Chabon’s publisher is discounting The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and go read THAT if you haven’t. You’re competing with all of those guys, and everything else that’s new and popular, so it’s hard to break through to the top 100, even with a lot of sales. Over 200 sales in the US so far today for WREATHED, and another hundred or so worldwide, so that’s a fair amount. 12/2/2017 4:58 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey Child A somehow managed to knock over the gasoline can, leaving a good-size puddle of fuel on the floor, so I spent a productive fifteen minutes breaking up charcoal briquettes with a hoe and spreading them on the garage floor to absorb the fumes. Fun! WREATHED continues to climb up the charts, to #1,628 overall, and #81 in contemporary romance. That’s 354 sales overall (I’ll wait to break down the international sales later). 12/2/2017 7:58 PM EST — Bahama Breeze, West Windsor, New Jersey Out to dinner with the wife and kids. (I got the chicken tortilla soup and coconut shrimp, and an interesting Puerto Rican cocktail that was basically coconut egg nog with rum.) The Mrs. takes the kids to the potty while I’m trying to flag down the waiter to get the check. I check the sales rank on my phone. WREATHED is at #861 overall on Amazon. I resist the urge to get another egg nog. 12/2/2017 8:46 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey The sales rank is up a tick more, to #763. What has happened (what I think has happened) is that the month-to-date tab on the Amazon KDP site (which shows you how much you’ve sold that month) has caught up with the sales dashboard tab (which shows authors real-time sales). Usually the month-to-date figure lags a little bit. I don’t know which they use in their sales algorithm, but if it’s the month-to-date, well, that figure seems to have caught up, hence the rise in sales. The real metric for a promotion like this is return-on-investment. I paid BookBub $270 for this promotion. Right now, I’ve probably made something like $150. I need more sales to break even, and I don’t know if I will get them. A lot is riding on how well I do with the next round of promotions, and sales in Australia and India. 12/3/2017 11:08 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey So far this morning, WREATHED has maintained its place in the top 1000 books on Amazon, at#879. And that’s fine, but it’s not going to put the book on a bestseller list, which was kind of the point. I did OK in Australia (38 sales) but lousy in India (only one sale). I have three other promotions going on at other sites, so we’ll see how well I do overall. But I am worrying that we have hit a sales peak, and that I won’t make enough over the next four days of the promotion to break even. 12/3/2017 8:57 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey You know a great way to keep yourself from checking your sales figures every five seconds? Catch a cold. I got tired of working on my school projects, sat down to watch a little NFL football, and slept for the next two hours. And then I was so miserable and stuffed that I couldn’t get off the couch. Over 100 total sales today, which sounds good but doesn’t look good next to the 462 sales from yesterday. The book is still in the top 100 contemporary romances, and is #1,335 overall, which is not too shabby. And I’m #277 overall in Australia, which has to count for something. 12/5/2017 1:05 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey Only 4 sales today. That was fun! Sorry it’s over.
- Why I Wrote a Picture Book About America in the Age of TrumpThere is only one real reason anyone writes a book for children, and that is because they have children who pester them until they do. Or at least that’s what happened to me. I have eight-year-old twin daughters, and they are both avid readers. They know that I’ve written a couple of books for grown-ups, and they are not incredibly happy that they’re not allowed to read them. So they started lobbying me to write a book they could read. This kind of thing does not always work, of course — I have successfully turned a deaf ear to multiple entreaties to get a dog, or a cat, or a hamster, or an iPhone. And, initially, I was able to deflect request to write a children’s book. “It’s actually harder to come up with a new idea for a children’s book than you think,” I would say. “You also have to illustrate it, and I have no idea how to draw.” I figured that would be enough to defuse the issue. It might have been, too, except that I was driving the children home one day, and they were prattling to each other, pretending to be different people with different names. “Well, my name is Amanda,” one of them said to the other, and something about that struck home. (Amanda is their main babysitter.) Later that night, I wrote the first couplet for the book: If my name was Amanda I’d live in Atlanta And I’d say hello to a shark. If my name was Bonnie Then I’d live in Boston And catch fly balls in Fenway Park. That was the easy part. (The “shark” reference is for the Georgia Aquarium.) Once I had the basic formula established, I had to figure out matching first names and cities for each letter in the alphabet, and then I went back and tried to get the rhymes to work. (I also ended up taking the Fenway Park reference out; I didn’t want to run into any trademark issues if I could avoid them.) After that, I had to get the meter just right, so it would be easy to read. That involved taking the entire text and putting it into a spreadsheet, with a separate syllable for every cell. Once I got the text finished, and decided that the title should be If My Name Was Amanda, it was time to find help with the artwork. I lucked out and found an illustrator on Twitter — an English artist who turned out excellent work at a bargain price. Once I got the artwork put together, then it was time for the acid test — reading the book to the other kids at my daughters’ school. (They liked it, and their teacher was enthusiastic about the book’s use as a classroom aid to American geography.) But why go through all the trouble to put out a children’s book in a market that’s already glutted with children’s books? There are already, literally, hundreds of rhyming alphabet picture books alone, many of them incredibly well-done and well-known. Why bother with another? Ultimately, there were three reasons why I persevered and kept the project going. 1. I wanted to write a picture book that kids and parents could both enjoy. This is sort of a cop-out — who wouldn’t want to write a children’s book that kids and parents can both enjoy? But there are a lot of picture books that don’t make for easy and convenient bedtime reading. Even the esteemed Dr. Seuss wrote Fox in Socks, which is just tongue-twister after tongue-twister; I finally put my foot down and refused to even touch it. I never did figure out why Goodnight Moon was so popular. The nearly-wordless Good Night, Gorilla is lovely, but requires the adult reader to fill in the blanks — and woe betide the tired parent who leaves out a key detail. I wanted my book to be short and concise, and I wanted it to have a simple rhyme pattern with a good rhythm for easy reading, and I think I accomplished that. (My model in this was Sandra Boynton; if you have a very small child in your house, you can’t go wrong with one of her board books for bedtime.) But I also wanted it to be a book that wasn’t pushing any particular kind of behavior. A lot of children’s books focus on discouraging negative behaviors. We liked the Llama Llama books by the late Anna Dewdney, but they are almost all about how the young character has to learn not to throw tantrums every time something doesn’t go his way. (If that was, in fact, the intent of the books, they have been a spectacular failure at our house.) We also liked the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems, but several of those are behavior-related, too — like I Really Like Slop, which is all about Piggie trying to push “pig culture” on Elephant Gerald (sound it out) by making him try a nasty-looking bucket of slop. I have nothing against any of these books, you understand, but I also didn’t want something with a heavy-handed behavioral message. Kids get that sort of thing all day long; can’t they get the occasional break from it? 2. I wanted to write a picture book that showed that America is more than a collection of strip malls. I live in a small town in central New Jersey that has a lot of the same big-box retailers and fast-casual restaurant chains that you probably have in your town. I dislike the essential sameness of the suburban outback; when I travel with my kids, I want to try to get away from it as much as I can. If My Name Was Amanda was designed to introduce some of the beauty and majesty of our country to children. It also showcases just how different the different parts of our country are. The young girl who is featured in the story visits beaches and ski slopes, monumental structures and pizza joints, wilderness hikes and urban adventures. In her imagination, she crisscrosses the country from the badlands of South Dakota to a balloon ride over New York. This is a big, interesting, diverse country, and I tried to capture some of that flavor in the book. 3. I wanted to show children a positive vision of America. One of the most depressing statements of the last decade was Michelle Obama’s declaration that she had not been proud of America until the point that her husband began his Presidential campaign. (One wonders how she feels nowadays.) Akin to that in spirit, although not in content, is Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” which of course implies that America is not great now (and that only Donald Trump can make it great again). Both statements are not only profoundly negative, but depend on the premise that politics — and only politics — can make America more praiseworthy. What a pathetic lie to tell to children! America is great in spite of her political leadership, not because of it. There is not a whiff of politics in If My Name Was Amanda, outside of a background picture of the Capitol dome. That’s because the things that make America great have little or nothing to do with politics. There are a few political children’s books out there. One of the top-selling rhyming alphabet books on Amazon is a book called A is for Activist, which features a raised fist on the cover. One reviewer says ““Reading it is almost like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year olds.” Charming. Chelsea Clinton published a book in May that riffed off of the rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren received for criticizing the nomination of Attorney General Sessions; She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World features profiles of Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Sotomayor, among others. There are a few political children’s books on the Right as well — most notably by Rush Limbaugh. I want my kids growing up with a sense of pride in our country and our people, unimpaired by political strife — to the extent that such a thing is possible anymore. I wanted If My Name Was Amanda to reflect that sense of pride, and to help strengthen it. It’s important for everyone, in spite of our political differences, to recognize that there is a great deal about our country that is worth celebrating, and if one little rhyming alphabet picture book can help do that, I feel like I’ve done a good job. Curtis Edmonds is the author of IF MY NAME WAS AMANDA (if you haven’t figured that out by now) which is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.