January 2014 Archives

This blog serves several purposes, one of which is to make other blog writers feel better about their competence in comparison. Another important purpose is more personal: it's a medium for documenting things that I don't want to forget, even if I'm likely to forget that I documented them here. And that's why I'm doing this short series on "Best Dance Memories." If you find anything in them interesting at all, then that's a plus, but I recognize that these posts are the equivalent of old home movies and so you should feel free to fast forward through them.

Best Dance Memory #1 - Our First Dance

The exact date of our first public dance is not recorded anywhere, although the year is rumored to be 2006. The actual date has mercifully been stricken from the Historical Records (if not from our hysterical memories). I know that we'd gotten a fair number of lessons under our belts, but were exceedingly trepidatious about our first outing into the real world of dance, and with good reason, as it turns out. 

The dance was at Midland's Petroleum Club, during the golden years of the Ballroom Dance Society when the turnout was north of 100 people and dances were hoity-toity affairs well-stocked with tuxedoed doctors and CEOs and sparkly ladies, all riding the trendy waves of Dancing With The Stars (which itself was feeding on the residual vibes of Shall We Dance). Remember how we all wanted to ride mechanical bulls and live in Houston and have big hair like Debra Winger after seeing Urban Cowboy? Neither do I, but the phenomenon would have been similar, if it had existed.

We were intimidated from the get-go (likely being the only people there who used that phrase), not knowing anyone well enough to do more than flutter a wave in their general direction. We finally worked up the courage to get on the dance floor - I don't recall the type of dance - and literally froze, as if our brains were completely mystified by the concepts of feet and rhythm - and we backed off the floor and retreated to our table. I'm not sure we ever ventured onto the floor again that night...I've managed to block most everything else out of my memory.

Looking back, it's amazing that we kept going. But we learned a lasting lesson. We can now empathize with people who are just beginning to learn to dance, and we're more quick to encourage them than we might otherwise have been.

MasterCard? More like MasterFail.
January 27, 2014 8:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I defy you to find a more infuriatingly incompetent credit card website than the one Citi provides for those unfortunate souls who have a MasterCard issued by Sears. And by "unfortunate souls," I mean me, of course.

Here's what I get when I try to log in to our online account:

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

You'd have to work pretty hard to come up with an error page that's less useful than this one. It doesn't explain the error. It doesn't suggest a solution. It doesn't provide a means to contact the company to get help. If I didn't know better, I'd think the federal government was involved with the design of this website, but that would be an insult to the federal government.

One might logically assume that getting this message after attempting to logon MIGHT mean that perhaps a new password is needed (yes, it's an assumption borne of desperation, but alternatives are limited). Guess what you get when you try to change your password?

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

Oscar Wilde said that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, but if you substitute "pathetically incapable" for "unimaginative," the sentiment still works just fine.

If I can ever figure out how to get past this screen, I'm going to close the account and switch to Visa. At least they have better TV ads.

UPDATE (same night, one hour later): I took to Twitter to vent my frustration, and once again was gratified by the power of social media to get the attention of even large companies.
And while their suggestion wasn't all that helpful, I did appreciate their quick response (they followed with another tweet asking me to message my phone number to them if I continued to have a problem so we could work through it). But it did cause me to try a third browser - Firefox; I have already tried Google Chrome and Safari - and I was able to connect to the account and take care of business. So, perhaps I'll grant a reprieve...at least until I see how the site behaves in the future.

LogMeIn KicksMeOut
January 21, 2014 7:05 PM | Posted in: ,

A month or so ago, having grown frustrated with lengthy tech support phone conversations with various family members, we installed the free version of the LogMeIn desktop sharing app on all of our various computers. It's cut those "my window has disappeared and I can't find it" calls to a bare minimum, making everyone much happier. And then this, today:
It seems that the outfit has grown tired of offering its services to freeloaders like me, and now my only option is the "Pro" version that starts at $99/year (or $49 for the first year if you already have an account). Even though the application has been helpful when we needed it, our actual usage doesn't justify paying that much for the service. So, adios LogMeIn.

Unsurprisingly, there are several free alternatives for this sort of application, so I don't expect to miss LogMeIn. It's simply annoying to have to make the switch, and to invest the time to find the best of those alternatives.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence of just how spoiled I've become. I quickly take for granted those companies who, for whatever reasons, offer free services or products, and then feel slighted (if not downright abused) when they decide to discontinue those things. Well, not as slighted as some people:
As much as I've tried, I can't quite work up the same sense of entitlement as Mr. Cyberaxe*. Logically, I should just be grateful for the time we had together, and recognize that all free things must come to an end. I assume that LogMeIn was hoping that its free offering would be a gateway drug to entice us to graduate to Even Better Stuff, stuff that we'd pay for, and when that didn't happen, the company decided it wasn't worth whatever trouble it was going to to maintain the service. It's a logical business decision.

I sort of doubt that many people will switch to the paid service; I doubt that I'm alone in deciding to seek out another free product to do the same job. But we all need to recognize that whatever we find, we shouldn't count on it in perpetuity.

*Given the specificity of the hashtag rant, I wonder if Mr. Cyperaxe was using LogMeIn's free service to generate revenue for himself, perhaps via his own desktop support business. It's never a good idea to build your business model on the assumption of freebies from a disinterested third party.
I don't write about political matters very often, primarily because it's just not that much fun. But sometimes a story comes along that demands the widest possible platform. [Note: That last sentence has nothing whatsoever to do with Gov. Christie or his alleged TrafficConeJamNeenerNeenerMayorGate. Unless you think it does.]

The revelation that the Democrats' über-liberal Texas gubernatorial golden girl candidate, Wendy Davis, might have fudged just the teensiest bit on her biography is one of those compelling story lines that needs wider distribution, because I doubt you're going to see much about it in the national media. And if you think this is just a Texas issue, you're probably missing the bigger picture. Like it or not, Texas politics have a way of morphing into national politics.

Anyway, the Dallas Morning News reports that Davis "blurred key facts" about her travails as a single mom who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and graduated from Harvard Law School through sheer determination and grit. It's a great story, at least until the facts sort of mess it up.

Here are the key parts of the DMN report:
Davis was 21, not 19, when she was divorced. She lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.

A single mother working two jobs, she met Jeff Davis, a lawyer 13 years older than her, married him and had a second daughter. He paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and her time at Harvard Law School, and kept their two daughters while she was in Boston. When they divorced in 2005, he was granted parental custody, and the girls stayed with him. Wendy Davis was directed to pay child support.
In other words, the true single parent was actually her ex-husband, an apparently very beneficent man who cashed in his 401K and took out a loan to pay for Wendy's Harvard education. In case you're wondering, an academic year at Harvard Law School is pricey...to the tune of $79K (today; granted, it was a bit cheaper in 1993 when Wendy's ex-husband's investment paid off...for her, anyway). Oh, and tuition nowadays at TCU is a cool $36,500 per semester, so multiply that times four and add and stir.

I freely admit that I don't like what Wendy Davis stands for. Her aggressively pro-abortion agenda is odious to me, and I can think of few things worse than to have her as our next governor. That alone is sufficient reason for me to speak out against her agenda. But as we get to know more about the "real" Wendy, it should become even more obvious that voters haven't up to this point gotten a true picture of the glamorized "crusader." 

Book Review: "The Leftovers"
January 19, 2014 8:20 PM | Posted in: ,

I finished Tom Perotta's novel, The Leftovers [Kindle | iBooks] this weekend, and found it to be both compelling and unsatisfying.

The book was published in 2011, and if I ever heard anything about it, I had forgotten it. But it's recently been getting new press due to the film adaptation that is scheduled to appear sometime this year on HBO.

Book coverThe basic premise of the book is simple. Three years earlier, on October 14th to be exact, 140 million people around the world - people of all races, religions, cultures, nationalities, and other demographic affiliations - simultaneously and instantaneously disappeared. There was no warning; there was no explanation. The book follows the lives of a handful of people living in Mapleton [somewhere in America] who are trying to cope with the aftereffects of the most mystifying phenomenon in human history. And most of them are, frankly, a mess.

The first thing that might come to mind when you hear this plot premise is, "well, he's writing about The Rapture." Nope. While the author plays around the edges of that explanation, the book is completely irreligious. [Don't let the description of the HBO series lead you astray in this regard.] In fact, there is no attempt whatsoever to try to explain the disappearance phenomenon; it's left to the reader's imagination to put some context around the plight of the "survivors." In this sense, the author is showing respect to the reader, not feeling the need to explain everything, and is confident enough to let the story lead to whatever conclusions the reader desires.

We whose faith includes a belief in the Biblical Rapture might be offended by a portrayal of something that simulates an aspect of our faith without ever honoring it, but that would be an overreaction. This is a figment of a writer's imagination, possibly designed to provoke precisely that reaction, but more likely simply a way to stimulate our own imaginations.

I kept trying to make this into a science fiction story, but it wouldn't cooperate, staying stubbornly grounded in typically illogical human emotions, decisions, and relationships. It's not a book for children - there's lot of graphic sex, and some violence, and the usual quota of bad language. But mostly there are stories of broken people who are either trying to rebuild their lives after inexplicably losing loved ones, or who have twisted off into patterns of behavior that you know won't turn out well.

I've never lost a close family member to an unexpected event, let alone an unexplained one. Some of the questions the book raises are legitimately troubling. How do you live your life knowing that what happened once might happen again, and more of those you love might simply vanish? Would it be difficult to form friendships, let alone build a loving relationship? 

And how do you heal when there is no possible way to bring closure to the situation? How many times have we heard the parents of missing children express a desire to know something - anything - about their kids, if only to have that closure.

In the end, however, I found that I could only pity the characters in the book, as none of them seemed to have any concept or inkling of the true nature and character of God, or the comforting truth of Scripture, or the concept of healing grace. I don't necessarily look for this in the novels I read, but when one takes its primary cue from a phenomenon that is unique to Christianity, it's a shortcoming that leaves me, well, unsatisfied.

Front Yard Drama
January 18, 2014 1:29 PM | Posted in: ,

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day to shoot something good...

Well, it was actually a nice day to attack some winter weeds in the lawn. The sprinklers ran last night, and some of the pseudo-dandelions still retained some water drops. I think the lesson here is that accessorization is the key to making ugly things pretty.

Photo of a weed with a water drop in the middle
Photo of a weed with a water drop in the middle

Another lesson is that beauty is temporary, as this weed now resides in the bottom of a trash can. Life can be cruel.

Speaking of cruel things, this breaks my heart:

Photo of a happy Texas Mountain LaurelPhoto of a sad Texas Mountain Laurel

The photo on the left shows one of our Texas Mountain Laurels, in Happy Happy Mode. The photo on the right shows another one, just a few feet away, in Time To Break Out the Burial Clothes Mode. While the leaves still have a semi-healthy-looking hue, they're dry and fall to the ground at a touch. I have no idea what's causing this, but I'm pretty sure the tree is beyond saving. Perhaps spring will prove me wrong. I hope so.

Book Review: "The Ecuadorian Deception"
January 7, 2014 7:36 PM | Posted in:

My pal and former Midlander Bear Mills has published a new novel entitled The Ecuadorian Deception (available via Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback formats). Book coverI finished reading it over the Christmas holiday and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense novels seasoned with a healthy heap of [obscure] history.

I'm not a huge fan of the suspense/mystery genre and I can count the number of historical novels I've read on the fingers of one hand, but I stayed up well past my usual bedtime to finish this book, and my wife will attest to the fact that I never forego sleep for reading.

There's not much I can tell you about the book's plot without spoiling it. As you might surmise, most of the action takes place in Ecuador. The main character is a freelance website developer who has been lured to South America by an offer from a mysterious would-be employer. The offer is short on details, but lucrative enough to cause him to ignore some warning flags. (Take it from me, a $50K project will get any freelancer's attention.) And, sure enough, he gets his mule in an ant bed in pretty short order. The plot is thick with nefarious characters and ancient Incan treasure.

The book is rich with the kind of details - cultural, geographical, and historical - that accompanies writing that's not only well-researched, but personally experienced by the author. Indeed, Bear has spent time in Ecuador, in the exact locations where the action takes place. And as a former Texas Teacher of the Year, he understands the importance of accuracy in details.

The Ecuadorian Deception is also notable for what it doesn't have. I daresay that you'd have to go back to the days of Agatha Christie to find a mystery novel that contains no profanity, no lurid sex scenes, and no graphic violence...and yet still manages to maintain a high level of suspense and excitement.

While you won't find this on a book jacket, Bear is an evangelical Christian, and he embeds his values into his plot and writing style. Here's what he has to say about how his faith affected his approach to writing this novel.
I love mysteries, but many of them are laced from cover to cover with vulgarities. The F word must be the perfect word because it's a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, invective, preposition, and exclamation. I wanted to write a thoroughly entertaining novel that was free from cursing, but was gritty and even a little scary. If the novel is a success, maybe others will get on the profanity-free train with me.

I wanted to show how faith played itself out in the real world, a world where tragedies happen and bad people do bad things to good people. Author Craig Groeschel, a pastor up in Oklahoma, has written that when bad things happen, we need to stop saying, "God, why me?" and start saying, "God, what now? What do you want me to do? How do you want me to respond that will glorify you?" That's what I wanted to play out in the book.

[As you might guess, I'm all in favor of this trend. If you feel the same way, I can recommend a couple of other authors whose faith informs their novels. John Bush's Knox's Irregulars boldly integrates Reformist theology into a hard science fiction shell, while Jared Wilson, who is a pastor in real life, has crafted a gripping tale of the supernatural entitled Otherworld.]

Bear doesn't have the luxury of being a full-time writer; he has a day job to pay the bills. But he's working on two sequels to The Ecuadorian Deception. Again, in his words:
The sequel, The Ecuadorian Assassin, is about halfway done on first write through. My goal is to have it out by January of 2015. It is much more political in nature, dealing with the tense relationships between the US and Ecuador, especially since Ecuador has been courting Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba as prime political allies, but needs US tourism and expatriate relocation to pay the bills. Like all good sequels, it brings back many of the characters from the first book, with [main characters] George and Hugh at the center of things. The third book in the series is projected for release in 2016.
This is a great first effort and I look forward to more from Bear.
...the BCS (Bowl Championship Squirrel).

Photo - squirrel wearing football helmet

It's not the miles, it's the feet
January 4, 2014 6:18 PM | Posted in:

Cycling in our new Texas Hill Country neighborhood is not like cycling around West Texas. For one thing, there are, you know, hills. For another, there are really steep hills. And a lot of uphills. Plus, there's the climbing.

I fired up MapMyRide yesterday in order to quantify exactly how much climbing was involved in our regular route. We've ridden it only twice, but it will be our regular route because it's just the right combination of challenge and scenery.

Anyway, here's what the iPhone app told us about the route:

Screenshot from MapMyRide

The total elevation gain for the 11 mile ride isn't as impressive as I anticipated; it felt more like 1000'. But a similar ride in Midland would probably have a gain of 50' or less.

Besides providing a great workout, the other advantage of riding around here are the views. Like this one:

Photo - Overlooking Lake LBJ

We're overlooking Lake LBJ (Apple Head Island, to be exact). The downhill following this vantage point was as thrilling as the view from the top.

The bottom line is that we don't measure our rides around here in terms of miles, but in terms of feet...uphill feet, that is.

I can't stop watching this...
January 1, 2014 10:25 PM | Posted in:

Johnny Football being Johnny Football.

Johnny Manziel in 2014 Chick-Fil-A Bowl

Yes, I made this myself. No, don't worship me. I'm just a regular guy.

Take your best shot, 2014
January 1, 2014 8:38 PM | Posted in:

I don't make New Year's resolutions, mainly because I have a bad memory and no self-discipline.

But, if I did make resolutions, one would be to blog more regularly in 2014. And I'm talking about serious, introspective and/or inspirationally creative posts.

That's right...no more throwaway posts that are nothing more than placeholders and quota-satisfiers.

Like, um, this one.

Oh, look...a squirrel!

Squirrel photo

At the very least, 2014 will feature more squirrels. So, you have that going for you.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2013 is the previous archive.

February 2014 is the next archive.

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