Monday, November 30, 2015

My Brother Joshua Is 29 -- Wish Him Happy Birthday!

Such a wonderful day this is. Let's all celebrate a man with a profound spirit and a gigantic heart... my brother Joshua. On this day in 1986, he fought off an endless assault of foreign invaders, rubber gloves and metal weaponry to escape from our mother's womb. Born a fighter, but a lover at heart, Josh has walked the path of a thoughtful warrior for 29 years. He's faced adversity and challenge all along the way, but not once has he ever folded. I refer to him as the Quarter Million Dollar Man because of the super-expensive rods in his back, which he took like a CHAMP. Standing tall like a mighty oak, he's proven his worth as a man of the world. Oh Joshua... he might be my younger brother, but I'm proud to say I look up to him. Let's all give him a round of applause! Happy Birthday Joshua!

And now, the obligatory embarrassing photos!

Also, don't forget that today, November 30, is St. Andrews Day. Be sure to celebrate your inner Scot! Click here for more info.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Draw Something: Manta Ray

I've always been fascinated by these wonderful winged creatures of the deep. They glide along the ocean currents like eagles soaring on high. Such a shame that they're losing ground to humanity all across the globe. The manta ray truly is one of nature's greatest works of art.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Still Holding On.

When your best friend moonlights as a call girl, you're bound to have a unique relationship. To make it even worse, I'd been in love with Carla since the fourth grade. For over twenty years, we attended birthday parties together, watched countless films, engulfed thousands of pints of ice cream and even slept on the same bed. Though, not once had I ever worked up the nerve to tell her how I felt. Honestly, I think I created the concept of the friend zone.

Carla began working as an escort in college, soon after her junior year. At first, it was just to earn enough money to pay her rent and not be broke from one month to the next. As time progressed, it eventually morphed into a high-dollar enterprise. Thankfully, Carla was very prideful and not driven by an addiction like most other girls. She only visited wealthy men whom could afford her beauty. That's the thing with her; Carla is just about the most gorgeous woman I've ever known. Having a business degree under her belt didn't hurt, either. Eight years into her work and Carla had smartly saved a small fortune. It wasn't exactly earned legally, but it was honest work nevertheless. No one could take that away from her.

The great thing about Carla was that no one besides myself and her clients knew what she did for a living. Even her parents thought she ran a consulting firm for large hotels and resorts. She typically dressed somewhat conservatively and didn't show too much skin in public. Any reasonable person would have easily been fooled by her composed, business-like exterior; this was exactly what Carla wanted.

One cold night in December, Carla called me collect from a number I didn't recognize. It was the scariest phone call I've ever had.

"Matthew, it's Carla."

"Where are you?"

"I'm at the pharmacy on the corner of Horton and Potomac. They have a pay phone. Can you believe it?"

"Not really. Your cell phone dead?"

"I don't have it, can you come get me? Please, Matt."

Please. That's how I knew Carla was in trouble. As hard-headed as she was, Carla never said please for anything. Hurriedly, I tossed on some clothes and jetted down the highway. About thirty minutes later, I arrived to a scene I never wanted to see.

Her jacket and purse missing, Carla was standing huddled against the pay phone along the side of the pharmacy. A single lamp above wobbled in the fierce, biting wind. Casting a rocking beam along her shivering frame, I could tell that her black dress had a rip up the side. Emerging from my vehicle, it was like Carla didn't even want to look at me. Ushering her to my passenger seat, I couldn't help but notice the bruises on Carla's arms and neck. Her hair was disheveled and pulled astray. A dab of dried blood escaped from the corner of her mouth.

My worst fears had come to fruition.

The ride home was uncomfortable and quiet. Carla pushed her seat back and reclined the position. Pressing the button on the door to lower her window slightly, she eventually closed her eyes against the crisp night air slicing through the opening. As the city streets passed me one by one, the glow of green and red traffic lights highlighted each and every infraction against Carla's angelic temple. How could any man defile her so? What beast would batter someone so pure, so wonderful? I wanted to rip his chest out with my bare hands. My fingers dug tightly into my steering wheel, nearly tearing the leather off. As I sat fuming over the events of the evening in a rage-filled bubble, Carla surprisingly placed her hand on mine and looked at me, not saying a word. She just smiled, then went back to sleep.

That night, I helped Carla get cleaned up, gave her a set of my pajamas then put her to sleep in my bed. Tucking her under my flannel sheets, she just stared blankly at me with a look of polite inquisition. We never talked about what happened that evening, but I knew all I needed to know. Carla buried the despair deep, never to let it see the light of day. Her strength was without limit. Turning the lights off, only the amber shine of a night light illuminated the outline of my bed. The most valuable thing in the world was right there, sleeping like nothing had happened.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of clanking in my kitchen. Peeling my blanket off and rising from the couch, I stumbled upon Carla cooking breakfast. She'd already scrambled some eggs, with a pile of bacon sizzling in a skillet.



She plopped two slices of bread into my toaster and depressed the lever. A kettle on the stove began to whistle. She poured two cups of tea, one for each of us.


Carla pointing at my kitchen table, I took a seat and rifled through the day's newspaper. She eventually brought me a hot plate of food and sat down next to me. We discussed the local events -- a holiday food and toy drive, the annual winter music showcase at the Tarleton Theater, the new hospital being built. As we dug into our eggs, crunched our bacon and sipped the tea, I felt a swelling of emotion hit my face. This was the most perfect morning on the most perfect day. Carla was eating breakfast with me, just like couples do. I tried to choke it back, but I couldn't. A tear fell onto my plate, then another and another. Gathering my composure, I rose from my seat and leaned over the kitchen sink. Letting the moment pass, I wiped my eyes and sat back down, trying to act as if nothing had happened.

"This is nice," she said.

Not fully understanding how to respond, I ate another piece of bacon and remained quiet.

We finished our breakfast and did the dishes, with the sound of the radio in my kitchen broadcasting Liszt's Sonata in B minor in the background. For the rest of the day, we watched television, did laundry and played a couple rounds of Scrabble. Our dinner that night was a homemade pot of chicken noodle soup, to which Carla simply did not stop raving about.

Considering the night before, I couldn't help but feel a twisting knot in my stomach. The irony was sickening. Perhaps the greatest day of my life, preceded by the worst.

As the moon skipped across the cobalt sky, I tucked Carla into my bed once again and returned her to the embrace of the night. Peeling my clothes off in the bathroom, I stepped under the steamy rush of my shower. The hot water soaked my hair, sending every strand before my eyes. I could feel the worry seep through my pores and drip into the hole at my feet. What was I doing? Had I been a good friend? Why was I so scared? Here I was, pretending to live the life I always wanted, knowing full and well that it couldn't last. I'd let the moment slip by, oh so many years ago.

The water continued to drench my spirit.

"She doesn't know," I muttered beneath my breath. The words barely escaped the bubbles on my lips.

With gushing liquid flooding over my face and ears, I didn't notice Carla's hand cut through the steam and grab my shoulder. Her delicate physique pressed against my backside. Every curve, each ethereal contour... it pushed into me. She squeezed my chest and kissed my back. Unable to understand what was happening, I turned around. Blinded by her celestial grace, it was almost too much for me to perceive. She was just so perfect.

"I've known all along," she stated softly.

We must have stood in that shower for an hour, just holding each other. Though, I don't think we ever stopped holding on. It's all we knew how to do.


"That's the happiest story I've ever heard."

"Indeed. I have to admit, I got lucky. It's not every day that a guy like me winds up with an angel. Play your cards right, son; don't make the same mistakes I did."

"I suppose you're right. So, this is my stop coming up. Thanks for making my bus ride tolerable."

"Don't mention it. I appreciate you keeping this older timer company."

"Where are you headed this Christmas?"

"To visit with family."

"That's good to know."

His new-found friend once again returned to the unknown, Matthew rode the bus to the end of the line. Pushing through the bus' creaky folding entry way and stepping upon the frozen, ice-locked ground, he wandered into a steeped maze of snow-covered stones, each bearing a name. Bracing each and every step with his long cane, he made sure not to tumble onto the frozen grass beneath his feat. Looking through the ivory tundra, Matthew finally found one bearing a name he so desperately cared for.

"I met a nice young man today, Carla. You would have liked him."

Friday, November 27, 2015

Deep Fried Turkey Can Be Dangerous If You're An Idiot.

For quite a few years now, the act of deep frying a Thanksgiving turkey instead of cooking it in an oven has become quite common. Deep fried turkey is flavorful, juicy and offers a delectable twist to the traditional method of roasting. I can attest to this notion -- I had deep fried turkey yesterday and it was delicious!

Unfortunately, not everyone employs common sense when deep frying a turkey.

Based upon data collected by the National Fire Protection Association, there are approximately five deaths and over sixty serious injuries across America annually from incorrectly deep fried turkeys. Over nine-hundred homes also catch fire and are damaged from the ensuing flames. In total, this causes a minimum of $15 Million in damages. That's a mighty costly set of repeated errors!

State Farm Insurance publishes an annual list of which states have the most Thanksgiving-related deep fried turkey accidents, based upon filed claims. Leading the pack is Texas, followed by Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, South Carolina and Georgia.

Data provided by the U.S. Fire Administration shows that the rate of house fires and fire-related accidents doubles on Thanksgiving, with upwards of 4,300 or more. That's more than twice the national average on any other day. Considering the amount of cooking that's going on, it's easy to see why. Throwing the element of deep fried turkey into the mix certainly hasn't helped the situation.

All this being said, any reasonable person with an ounce of common sense can correctly deep fry a turkey without incident. Here's some tips.

- Make sure you're using the right amount of oil.
  • Place the turkey in your frying pot.
  • Fill the pot with water until the turkey is covered by 1/2 inch.
  • Remove and dry the turkey thoroughly.
  • Mark the water level. Dump the water, dry the pot very well, then fill with oil to the marked level.
- Completely thaw your frozen turkey. Deep frying a fully or partially frozen turkey is like a time bomb waiting to explode. I would even go so far as to recommend a fresh, never frozen turkey for deep frying.

- Use the deep fryer in an open, well-ventilated location away from your home.

- For goodness sake, do not deep fry a turkey inside your house.

- Wear protective clothing. Don't deep fry your turkey without a shirt on.

- Check your oil temperature regularly and keep it consistent!

- Don't make any sudden movements around your deep fryer. Raise and lower the turkey carefully.

- If a fire does occur, DO NOT SPRAY IT WITH WATER! Grease fires are only made worse with water. Keep a pile of sand or dirt nearby instead. Even better, make sure you have a working fire extinguisher.

Follow these steps and you're sure to have a tasty deep fried turkey meal without any damage to your property or yourself.

Now watch these idiots nearly kill themselves.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

In Gratitude This Thanksgiving.

Another Thanksgiving is about to wrap up and I've had quite the day. Having just arrived home to North Carolina after traveling all throughout Virginia has left me quite tired. As I prepare to kick my shoes off and locate a cup of tea, I can't help but show my appreciation for the friends and family in my life.

I come from nothing, to be quite honest. I've never been easy to love or simple to understand. Making friends has never been something I've done terribly well -- I have lived inside my own head for far too long. To call me awkward or different would be a massive understatement. Yet, I have all of these wonderful people filling my life. Some of these people I share blood with. Some welcomed me as one of their own. Either way, I'm damn lucky to call each and every one of you family.

I've always said that you can pick and choose your family. Family isn't about genetics; it's about whom you share a bond of love and compassion with. In that, I'm extremely lucky to have been chosen by so many smart, talented and caring human beings.

If I'm grateful for anything this Thanksgiving Day, it's for these fine folks. Thank you for being a part of my journey. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction when I got a little lost. Thank you for putting a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Thank you for somehow finding a way to decipher the puzzle that is me. I'll never be able to completely repay your gratitude in full, but I'll sure as hell try my best.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Eve On The Road.

Here I am, leaning over a set of drums and watching some family members play billiards. I just scarfed down some tasty, farm-raised turkey. Even better -- I'm somewhat inebriated after quite a few beers and three glasses of wine. Life is certainly good.

Writing from the road is always a blessing and a curse. Sure, I'm on vacation, but it's difficult to publish a blog from your smart phone. I'm an old school writer; I like the feel of a keyboard sitting in front of me. But, the trade off is worth it at times. Spending time with the folks I love is valuable; I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I have learned a few valuable bits of info just now. I'm still terrible at pool and being drunk doesn't improve my gameplay ability. Alas, I guess I'll just keep drinking.

On the verge of this year's Thanksgiving, I want to reiterate the importance of the holiday. Stay home with the ones you love. Don't spend your valuable hours waiting in line at a department store. No television, no video game console, no diamond bracelet is worth the time you could be spending with your family and friends.

The most valuable things in life can't be bought or sold. They can only be shared freely in the spirit of love and selflessness.

Look to the person beside you, no matter who they are, and give them a hug. Say "I love you." It'll be worth it, I promise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Video Shows Laquan McDonald Murdered By Chicago Police Officer.

Just within the past hour, dash cam footage of the altercation leading to the death of seventeen year old Laquan McDonald was released by court order. Below is the police video of that incident. Warning -- this is not for children to watch. The altercation begins in this video around the 5:20 mark.

On October 20, 2014, Chicago police officers responded to McDonald, whom was reportedly stealing radios. While I certainly don't believe McDonald to have been innocent in the matter (he had a knife in his possession), his execution certainly was not called for. McDonald deserved his day in court before a jury of his peers, just like any other American, whether guilty or innocent. His death was not necessary, nor do the police possess the right to administer capital punishment.

Officer Jason Van Dyke initially fired a shot which put McDonald on the ground, incapacitated. For the next thirteen seconds, Van Dyke continued to fire into McDonald's lifeless body, without any threat of bodily harm whatsoever. A fellow officer on the scene finally convinced Van Dyke to not continue reloading his weapon and resume firing. Van Dyke claimed that McDonald lunged at him with a knife, causing him to feel threatened and fire his weapon. As you can see from the video, this simply is not the case.

I ask that you watch this video and form your own opinion on the matter, free from the influence of outside sources, your friends or family. THINK FOR YOURSELF. Upon doing so, I believe you'll agree that the police are clearly capable of murder. The police are not always in the right one-hundred percent of the time. The police can and do exercise unnecessary force, not just in the case of McDonald, but all across this country.

Again, let me reiterate. I'm not saying McDonald was innocent, but he didn't deserve to be put down like a dog in the street. There could have been a more peaceful solution which didn't end in blood.

Why are moments like this important for the public to process and understand?

We have to prevent such barbaric behavior from becoming commonplace for the police. As much as the police serve and protect the common good, they must also remember that they work for the public. The police are not our prison guards. They are not our shepherds. Most importantly, they are not our executioners. If we give the police an inch on this matter, then I fear we teeter on the verge of fascism.

To protect the rights of the innocent, we must also protect the rights of the guilty. Otherwise, the police will be coming for you and I next.

I hope this Thanksgiving holiday is peaceful for the city of Chicago, but I fear for the worst.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Liberals Must Admit Islamic Terrorism Exists.

An ISIS parade in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad.

I'm a fairly progressive guy. Any of you that know me are well aware of this fact. As such, I'm not afraid to exercise the rights granted to me by this fair nation. The First Amendment is one of the greatest protections against tyranny that I have as an American. While I might not always agree with US Government policy on matters, both foreign and domestic, I am a staunch defender of this nation and the principles it was founded upon. Thankfully, I live in a country where I am allowed to express my thoughts in a manner free from physical detainment or harm.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- that's something we can all get behind.

As a progressive, I try my best to promote the notions of equality, justice and constant learning. I want to live in a land where healthcare is available to everyone and administered as a not-for-profit public utility. I want public education to operate in a similar manner, allowing everyone the chance to obtain higher education. I want our roads and motorways to be maintained for our benefit, all the while providing necessary employment to anyone who wants a job. We pay taxes for the common good. If not to support the aforementioned desires, then for what other reason more appropriate? I want women to have full control over their own bodies; contraceptives should always be available and abortion should be the choice of the mother faced with a difficult predicament. Individuals, no matter their gender or race, should be allowed the opportunity to wed in a legal sense, as to provide legitimate defense in matters of healthcare, death and child custody. And yes, I even support the right to worship in whatever manner you see fit, or to not worship at all. I might be an atheist whom dislikes the concept of religion, but I resolutely support a person's privilege to practice it. As long as your religious beliefs don't encroach upon my life, our government or the administration of the public welfare, you can worship however and whatever you want. I support the rights of everyone, whether I agree with them or not.

So what am I getting at?

What I'm trying to illustrate is that I'm about as liberal as a citizen could be. Though, I literally cringe at such a label. I don't like to employ banner-wielding designations when it comes to ideologies. Let a man stand on his own two feet; take him for what he is. His ideas should succeed or fail based upon their own merit. All that considered, I've been called a liberal more than once in the past. For the sake of this article, I'm just going to go with it.

Here's my issue...

You can't take Islam out of the Islamic State.

So many fellow progressives are quick to defend Islam in the face of global terrorism. Such a position exists as a modern tent pole of liberalism. Many will assert that terrorism, like that committed by the Islamic State (aka ISIL or ISIS), is not Islamic in itself. They're not Muslims, just terrorists with a bloody axe to grind. The Islamic State does not represent Islam.

Such progressives couldn't be more incorrect. As a progressive, I wholeheartedly demand better of those whom think like myself. You can't call yourself a progressive and ignore Islamic brutality.

The Islamic State, for all that it stands for, is the living, breathing embodiment of what the Quran prescribes for Muslims. I've thoroughly researched the political and social platforms which ISIS touts. If anything, this terrorist group exerts the message of the Quran in as literal a way as virtually possible. The Islamic State ardently follows the prophecy of Muhammad; they refer to this prerogative as the Prophetic methodology. Being that ISIS is rooted in Salafism, a branch of Sunnism, it subscribes to a reverential emulation of the Prophet and his earliest followers.

Consider the members of the Islamic State as the Amish -- they practice what they preach, down to the very last letter. If you're looking for the group of Muslims that most closely observe the message of the Quran, then ISIS is it.

While I can understand the motivation pushing progressives to detach religion from terrorism, I find their shortsightedness to be terribly harmful. The liberal mind should desire to support freedom from oppression, the right to a fair trial, the opportunity to exist without dogmatic enslavement. ISIS supports the murder of all whom stand in the way of the apocalyptic prophecy laid forth in the Quran. They practice the stoning of women whom are victims of rape; the beheading of those whom don't submit to their supreme authority. Any other group of terrorists which behaved in such a way, were they to be Christian or Jewish or even atheist, would be categorically denounced by liberals as barbaric.

So why does Islam get a free pass?

For far too long, progressive thinkers have turned a blind eye to the Muslim world in the name of religious freedom. Their position being if Muslims choose to subjugate their women as possessions, then so be it. If they choose to murder innocents in the name of their prophet, then so be it. If they choose to shoot little girls in the face because they want an education, then so be it. That is the Muslim way.

I'm here to tell you -- not all cultures are created equal. Some should not be respected or tolerated. This holds especially true for Islam. It is not disrespectful or bigoted to turn a critical eye to Muslim world. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Islam is no different than Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or any other religious group. If you're a progressive that supports equality, then you must critically analyze and question all ideologies equally, no matter their origin. Any other way would be hypocritical, verging on farcical nepotism.

Admittedly, the vast majority of Muslims fail to staunchly practice the Quran like the Islamic State. Like most Christians in America, they pick and choose which parts they want to follow to their own comfort or benefit. Most Muslim sects use the Quran more as a guide and less as an instruction manual. I've met and broken bread with Muslims in the past -- they are a polite and caring people. Many are often misunderstood, unfairly because of their language or code of dress. While I don't support the Islamic tendency to treat women as prized treasures to be constantly guarded and shepherded by men of superiority, at least a Muslim woman in America has the option to leave her situation behind should she choose to do so. Muslim women in foreign lands unfortunately do not share in this advantage, though. I certainly hope the Muslim world continues to evolve with a sense of equality and fairness -- many predominately Islamic states have experienced such a revolution, though this is certainly in the minority.

A makeshift memorial outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris following the terrorist attacks which claimed over 120 people.

I ask all progressives to call a spade a spade. The Islamic State is most certainly Islamic. The terrorism committed by the Islamic State is precisely Islamic terrorism. Don't be afraid to identify injustice where you see it. Most importantly, do not wilt under the pressure of alleged liberals with a subversive and wholly uninformed agenda. To examine Islam is not Islamophobic at all. Call the enemy by its name. Anything less is an exercise in irresponsible cowardice, serving to diminish the forward-looking concept of progressivism.

For more information on ISIS and their pursuits, I suggest reading this in-depth article by Graeme Wood at The Atlantic.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Draw Something: Yawning Rabbit

It's been a long weekend. I've spent the past two days acquiring new items for my business. I don't think I've had a real moment to sit and rest between traveling back and forth across North Carolina. That being said, I felt it appropriate to express how I feel with tonight's installment of Draw Something.

I'm tired. Sleepy time now?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

High Hopes.

The amber haze, illuminated from the burning light above, slightly stung my eyes. Sitting there facing the rest of my life, I couldn't help but consider that cold day in February, oh so long ago. A rushing river diverged at that moment, left to meander and crawl through life's deepest valley. We had our time in the sun. Those memories and regrets were left to be packed away by careless moving men, longing to punch the clock and down a beer. To call the whole thing hopeless would be a massive understatement.

Living apart from someone doesn't mean you stop loving them. In the days and weeks that follow, you tend to love them even more. I came to understand this first hand. It's funny... you miss the things that used to drive you crazy most of all. I hated it when she borrowed my toothbrush or locked her keys in the car. Even worse, those times when she'd call me just to argue over something trivial. Ironic how those trivial matters don't seem so insignificant in the long run. You forget about the fancy jewelry and expensive vacations. You remember getting caught in the rain and impromptu evenings spent in bed.

It occurred to me over lunch the value of a sandwich. Two perfect pieces of bread create this pocket of wonder from which we attain nourishment. The beautiful part is that anything can be put in that pocket -- ham, lettuce, potato chips, tuna salad, mustard, eggs, horseradish, pickles, leftover turkey. As of late, no matter what I put into my sandwich, they all taste like the same thing -- regret.

My lungs are beginning to burn, but in a way I hadn't expected. The best way I can describe it is to imagine swallowing a mouthful of black pepper and glass. Is there an elephant sitting on my chest? No... that's the weight of my guilt finally pressing fully against me.

Where did we leave our love? Was it on that train to the city for Christmas? Maybe on the street with the garbage and happy people. Or was it much later, after the new year? Somewhere along the way, I missed a step. Though, she would say I missed the whole damn staircase. Maybe she's right. It's not like my whole body doesn't ache. When I hit the ground, did I fall on her knife or mine?

Honestly, I didn't know where I'd wind up tonight. The green highway signs and falling snow began to meld into this warped blur of a trailing spectroscape. Just keep going north, no matter what. Keep driving. Through this clearing in the forest. Down this dirt road. A barn up ahead. Overgrown with brambles and thorns, I forced my way in. And now, only an old oil lamp to light my swelling darkness. If not for the rudimentary illumination, I wouldn't know where I ended and the twilight began.

My senses are beginning to play tricks on me. There, behind that stack of logs, a brash gremlin skitters across the floor, umbrella in hand. A sparkling hornet sprite whizzes through my cabin, sprinkling confetti. The apparition in the backseat, clipboard in hand, is telling me to hurry up.

Tick. 11:09 and one second. Tick. Two seconds. Tick. Three seconds. Nothing chimes louder than a watch on a dead man's wrist. The hose coming through my window is the closest I've been to her in what seems like an eternity. As the warmth fades from the lamp and the night paints my skin the color of nothing, I compose one last, fleeting promise. Eternity itself can't keep me from making this right because I have high hopes. On a distant shore, in a different life, we'll make our love grow anew. You can use my toothbrush. Don't worry about the car keys. Let's allow ourselves to get caught in the rain. Next time, I'll know what really matters. Next time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

What's The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes And Yams?

Some folks call them yams. Other folks call them sweet potatoes. Around Thanksgiving, this can become especially confusing. Yet, there's no need to fear... I'm here to set the record straight.

In almost all instances, there is no difference between a yam and a sweet potato. In fact, they're all sweet potatoes! A true yam is a totally different root vegetable which comes from the Caribbean. True yams generally have white flesh with a brown, scaly exterior. Conversely, sweet potatoes come in many different color combinations. They can have orange, purple or white flesh. Their exterior is typically orange or bronze.

Americans began referring to sweet potatoes by the yam nickname thanks to food-based corporations in the mid-Twentieth Century. As a marketing ploy, various producers started labeling their canned sweet potatoes as yams. The name yam was derived from the West African word nyami, which means to eat. Those sneaky devils! Decades later, the nickname yam has somehow managed to stick.

So there you have it. Yams and sweet potatoes are the same thing. I prefer calling them sweet potatoes, but that's all a matter of personal preference. Call them what you will -- just make sure you eat them!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sweet Old Lady Morphs Into Hateful Christian Fundamentalist.

There I was, approaching the entrance of Wal-Mart earlier this afternoon and acquiring a shopping basket. An older woman of diminutive stature entered just before I did. She retrieved a sanitary wipe to cleanse her basket's handlebar, then passed me a wipe out of courtesy. It was quite nice of her, I thought; I was going to get a wipe anyway.

She complimented me on the color of my red hair, to which I gracefully responded and explained that it's gotten darker the older I've gotten. Explaining further, my hair used to be a brighter shade of red than my beard is now. Carefully ruffling my beard, I pointed out that my chin hair is starting to turn white. I'm getting older!

Turning to Crystal, the granny asked if she was my girlfriend. I confirmed that she was my spouse, to which the older lady complimented her elegant beauty. I tend to agree; Crystal is gorgeous.

And then... our friendly rendezvous all fell apart.

Her next question was "Do you two have a church at home?"

I felt a lump of disappointment swell in my throat. In an effort to side-skirt the question and politely escape from her crafty claws of entrapment, I stated that there was indeed a church near our home. In this, I did not lie; there are multiple churches within a mile of my house. What followed was a frightening, uncomfortable and altogether unpleasant series of questions and diatribes.
  • Crystal and I must uplift each other to better serve the lord.
  • We must have children.
  • Our future children must have the message of Jesus Christ DRILLED (she said this very emphatically) into their minds, no questions asked. They MUST go to church and they MUST believe, or else.
  • We must not have friends whom aren't Christian, otherwise they will drag us to hell.
  • Non-believers are definitely not to be tolerated and should not be allowed to live. They're a one way ticket to hell.
  • Judgment day is coming, sooner than we think.
  • The time for Christians to stand together and defend God from all sinners and non-believers is coming, too.
  • We must spread the word of Christ wherever and whenever possible.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. She transformed from a sweet, innocent old woman into this hateful, fire-and-brimstone witness.

Now you probably know me... I'm an atheist. Typically, I'd have countered this sort of venomous hatred and put her in her place. Considering how old and frail she was, I simply couldn't do it. Honestly, I was worried that anything I'd say in response would literally give her a heart attack or stroke. Imagine how terrified of me she might have been if the nice guy with red hair turned out to be a blasphemous non-believer! The sudden shock could have sent her into cardiac arrest!

So, I bit my tongue, swallowed my pride and nodded in agreement. Slowly inching my basket farther and farther away, I finally saw an opening in her spiel and escaped with a "Have a nice day!" Boy, if she only knew the truth about who she was talking to.

I find it strange how so many people accept this sort of activity as acceptable. Let's swap the roles in this encounter. Pretend I was the one who used a friendly opportunity with a stranger to spread the 'word' of atheism. I'd be held before a judge for disturbing the peace, chastised by the local news and practically run out of town. Thankfully, I can discuss such matters on the world wide web without fear of persecution.

Who really exists behind the mask?

Consider all of the unknown people whom we walk by every day. While out shopping, eating lunch, visiting the library, at school, at work, at the dentist -- how many of those people are Christian? How many are Jewish, Hindu or Muslim? How many are agnostics or atheists? There's a disturbing facade of normalcy that provides refuge to monsters and marauders of free thought from all walks of life. Yet, their particular brand of reality makes it all okay.

I tell you what... I'll never look at another sweet old lady again without wondering if she's a vile fundamentalist whom would rather see me dead.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Trapped On Hold With Terrible Music!

As I write my blog this evening, I'm trapped on hold waiting to speak via telephone with a customer service agent at a web hosting company with which I do business. It's been twenty-two minutes at the start of this article. While I don't mind waiting to speak with someone (I do realize that there are only so many agents to assist callers), I can't help be annoyed.

Their hold music is driving me insane.

Here's the gist of the tune that repeats over and over and over again.

Woo woo woo woooooooo
Random guitar strums
Loud group clap follow by "HEY!"
Do-do-do-doooooooo, hm-hm-hm-hmmmmmmmm

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Aaaaaah!

This music is absolutely terrible. It makes me question why the company would even use it. Surely, they realize that long hold times for customers can raise their stress level. Yet, why antagonize customers even further with annoying, repetitive music? To alleviate the situation, couldn't some smooth jazz be played instead of this third-rate elevator music? Maybe the talents of Chuck Mangione, Mindi Abair or Keiko Matsui could soothe the nerves? Let jazz music fix the problem for you and calm all of the raging beast-mode customers during the long hold times.

But noooooo... Woo woo woo woooooooo.

How about woo woo up your arse?!

Thirty minutes later... still on hold. I've heard this song dozens of times and its eating into my brain. Another idea has occurred to me. Why not play comedic audio plays while on hold? That way, at least the customer would have something to enjoy while waiting to speak with an agent. Heck, play old recordings of comedians for all I care. Just something to break up the monotony.

Woo woo woo woooooooo.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Ode To The Duck.

Webbed wonder of the murky depths
Stoic master of the indifferent
I watch you float from moment to moment
With little regard for the past
Your bill eternally points to the future
Like a compass on the edge of tomorrow
Your transformation is a glorious sight to behold
From the ivory cloak to owning the moat
So easy to disregard your unwitting facade
Dare to break bread and learn your secrets
A breathy cackle like thunderous innuendo
Quack at the notion of being caged
Freedom to fly lest threatened to die
Furious threshing of nature's fabric
Anything less to the liberated simply wouldn't do
There you go with the answers I sought
Sailing the quivering membrane of the universal enigma
Neptune's gatekeeper forever more
Mighty waves of veracity rock me to sleep
And then I finally see it
The duck knows more than we could ever forget

Monday, November 16, 2015

Most Humans Have Mobile Phones, But Not Toilets.

It's hard to believe that in 2015, the vast majority of humanity still doesn't have access to clean running water, along with something you and I probably take for granted multiple times a day -- the toilet. The World Health Organization recently released a study indicating that India and China are the chief offenders of poor sanitation. Between the two nations, over 1.4 Billion people still dispose of their waste the old fashion way -- on the ground, behind trees, in shallow holes, in rivers or in a bucket.

When you take into account the rest of the world, over 4.2 Billion humans fail to have even a rudimentary sewage system and toilet.

These people have no throne to sit on in peace and flip through social media or play the latest iteration of Angry Birds. You may laugh, but there's another alarming statistic that this connects to. Of the world's population, more than 6 Billion people own or have access to a mobile phone.

Tell me how that makes sense!

There are more cell phones than toilets on this planet. Once you wrap your head around that statement, consider that the lack of sanitation in under-developed and impoverished nations causes a broad range of illnesses, chiefly diarrhea. Sure, you or I can get diarrhea and be just fine. Yet, when you're a starving person in a third world hell hole, diarrhea is practically a death sentence.

While I feel like we should be willing to assist people in impoverished nations with improving their sanitation, I can't help but point the finger and call out the hypocrisy. These people can't afford to build a municipal sewer system, but they can afford to install high-tech cell towers and purchase mobile phones? Give me a frickin' break.

Priorities people... priorities. There's no point in owning a cell phone if you don't have a toilet to use it on.

More information on the global sanitation crisis can be found here:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Draw Something: Birthday Cake On Fire!

I turned 33 years old today. Being that my birthday coincides with this week's installment of Draw Something, I thought I'd illustrate a cake with perhaps a few too many candles.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lost And Found In The Snow.

Have you ever walked through a room so crowded with people that you couldn't tell where one person started and another began? This was the reality of Tina, twenty-one and lonely.

Every week was a confusing stream of cocktails, mindless bros, annoying house music and predatory drinks. Tina would drift from one club to the next, not even aware at times of where she was. Concurrently, no one else seemed to know she was there, either. The flashing aurora of the non-stop party would envelope her in a shrink-wrapped tomb of hollow depravity. One more drink. One more dance. One more guy to forget.

Unfortunately, this was the high point of Tina's existence.

Most of Tina's days were spent in class at her university, surrounded by other students, drifters and phantoms. Three days a week, her evenings were occupied by a middle-aged professor and his recitations about long-dead philosophers. The stale nonsense wasn't her cup of tea, but she needed the credit. The class usually let out around 9 PM, with the city coming to life soon after. Tina would glide out of the cold brick gateway of the school and meander to the warm glow of downtown.

On this evening, a shiver crawled beneath Tina's skin as a light snow began to fall. She remarked at how the chill cut right through her, but the snow seemed to not tickle her skin at all. Unfortunately, Tina had lost her coat a few days before in a random bar and was forced to huddle her arms together for warmth. As she walked past the front of a recently closed bakery, a young man inside with a broom in hand caught her eye. He swiftly handled his instrument back and forth, trying to tidy up the establishment before heading home. The fellow glanced up for a bit, catching notice of Tina's gaze. Most of the lights were turned off, but a string of lamps in the ceiling behind the service counter seemed to give him a peculiar aura. Placing his broom against a corner, he approached the front door and unlocked it. His dark black hair was a stark contrast against the ivory snow, now falling a bit faster. Peeking his head through the doorway, he called to the girl in the snow.

"Summer vacation ended months ago. It's warm in here, though. Care to come in?"

Taken aback at someone actually noticing her existence for once, Tina fumbled through her thoughts for a second.

"I could be a deranged serial killer. Wanna take that chance?"

The young man smiled.

"I have a broom... and I know how to use it."

The awning above the bakery's entrance was quickly turning from striped black and green to a solid white. Fearing she wouldn't make it downtown without freezing to death, Tina accepted his offer of warm refuge. A series of tarnished bells clamored as he braced the door open, allowing her to rush inside and shake off the snowflakes. Honestly, she looked like a wet, depressed dog.

"Sit, sit! I'll grab you a cup of coffee. You walked by at the right time. Hadn't yet poured out the pot I brewed before closing."

Tina thanked her host as he spun around the kitchen. The interior of the bakery was quite catching, with a cheerful explosion of pastel green and orange all throughout. A display case next to the counter still had a few stragglers left from the day's business -- a couple of bear claws, a trio of strawberry tarts and what looked to be a giant cinnamon bun.

"I'm Emil, and you're my last customer of the day. Though, I've already closed my register, so I guess you'll be dining on my tab."

Emerging from the kitchen like a whirling dervish of aprons and silverware, he placed a steaming cup of coffee, a fork and a plate next to where Tina had taken a seat.

"Do you like cinnamon buns? Because I love them. Would you share the last one with me?"

Before Tina could release a single word, Emil had already placed the lone pastry on her plate and sliced it in half.

"Baked it myself this afternoon. I promise... nothing to hurt you in it. That is, unless you count the calories, which if so then this is a nightmare of edible terror!"

For the first time in what must have been ages, Tina smiled. It was tiny like a wispy eyelash lost to a sudden gust of wind, but a smile nevertheless. Parting her chapped lips to accept the first bit of the dessert, she couldn't understand why this stranger was being so nice to her. Was he dangerous? No, couldn't be. His soft eyes and humorous nature didn't possess the stench of a monster. The spicy taste of cinnamon danced on her tongue, only to be outdone by the crispy glaze of sugar resting between each delicate fold of the pastry. She swallowed, thinking how this cinnamon bun must have been the greatest thing she'd ever tasted. Admittedly, it could have been the juxtaposition of the cold weather influencing her opinion, but such context was irrelevant this evening.

"I have to be honest with you... I see you walk by the shop a few times each week around this time. I've always wondered where you're going with such a sad look on your face. I never seemed to have the courage to speak to you until tonight. And to think, I don't even know your name."

Placing her fork across the plate, she could barely bring herself to look at him directly.

"My name is Tina. I go to college here. All the clubs and bars are downtown, so I usually walk there at night."

Emil wiped a smudge of the cinnamon bun off his chin and retorted.

"I figured you might be a student, but wasn't sure. You always look so focused on where you're going. I never see you with anyone else, or talking on your phone."

Tina looked down at the crumbs on her plate, wishing there was more of the bun. She kept her head low, unsure if she could look at Emil without bursting into tears.

"You're the first person that's talked to me like I'm real in ages. Most of the time, I wonder if I'm a ghost. If not for my footprints in the snow, I might believe it."

With that, Emil realized that Tina was not in a good place. She'd probably not been joyful for quite the while. She was vulnerable and scared... of life, of herself, of what could go wrong. He had to be careful in what he said. Tina was fragile, much like the pastries he prepared.

"Of course I can see you! You cast a shadow along the floor. Your cup is now only half full. The cinnamon bun has been thoroughly enjoyed. Indeed, you are here!"

Emil reached for the empty plate and silverware, ready to run them into the kitchen. Tina placed her cold hand over his. She didn't say anything, but just continued to stare at the empty plate. He could feel her squeezing ever more slightly, not wanting to let go.

"Hey now, it's alright. Look at us; we've been given a wonderful gift. We get to become friends under a light blanket of snow. Who else can say they've done that? You'll have a memorable story to share with your grandchildren one day!"

With her face steadily rotating upwards to meet the eyes of her impromptu dinner date, Tina smiled at Emil again and accepted his silliness.

"I don't know what to say, really."

A giant grin blossomed upon Emil's face, only matched by the pure light beaming from his eyes.

"Nothing for you to say Tina, but lots for us to do. Come with me into the kitchen. My mom owns this place. She's told me for years that the best way to feel better is to bake something delightful. I can't believe I'm quoting my mother to a girl I just met... but life is funny like that. Have you ever tasted fresh zucchini bread, just popped out the oven and warm?"

"You mean you can make bread from a vegetable? And it tastes good?"

Helping his new found friend to her feet, Emil walked hand in hand to the kitchen with Tina. She appreciated his gentle grip -- not too firm, not too soft. It was just right, much like this accidental evening. For the next few hours, they mixed and stirred, baked and laughed. The zucchini bread came out wonderful. As Emil locked the bakery up, he lent Tina a jacket and escorted her back to her dormitory. They didn't scuttle their night with awkward glances and passion. There was plenty of time for that later on. But tonight, this oh so serendipitous night... it was all about just being there in the moment.

That evening, the clubs and bars downtown still bustled as they always did. Drinks were served. Promises were made. Hearts were broken. Tina wasn't there to see any of that, though. She baked her first loaf of bread and met someone amazing in the process. Emil, just by being a decent human being, pulled Tina back from the edge. And sometimes... that's all you need.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Now We Can All Crap Shiny Glitter Poop.

Just when you think you've seen it all, someone out there decided that your crap needs to sparkle.

I came across a rather strange series of listings on the retail website Etsy recently. Apparently, a fair number of sellers are offering poop glitter tablets. These gelatin capsules are filled with non-toxic (or so they claim) glitter. A person can swallow the capsules and wait for the shiny magic to squirt out of their butt!

I've been on the internet since its inception in the '90s. In twenty plus years time, I've seen a lot of weird stuff on the world wide web. But this... it really takes the cake. Taking a crap isn't something you want to particularly enjoy. Shit is the enemy. It needs to get away from my body as soon as possible. Not once in the thirty-three years that I've been having bowel movements did I ever stop and say "Gee, I want to gaze at my poop just a little while longer... let's make it sparkle!"

Most of the glitter pill retailers make it emphaticly clear within their item descriptions that you shouldn't swallow their product, even though the items are labeled in such a manner that this is obviously what you do with them. Of course, this is the retailers' way of avoiding a costly lawsuit in our highly litigious climate.

A glitter poop retailer's disclaimer.
If the pills aren't intended for consumption, why point out that the glitter is non-toxic?

So... if you ever wanted to void what looks like fairy turds from your bottom, your wish has now been granted!

Makes you wonder where her mouth has been, doesn't it?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's Time To Kill The Laugh Track.

You're watching a comedy program on television. The characters are conversing back and forth, trading one witty comment after another. With every joke and one-liner spoken, suddenly an invisible audience begins to laugh, whistle and holler.

Where the hell did that 'canned' laughter come from?

What you just heard is called a laugh track, and it has been around since 1950.

Created by sound engineer Charles Douglass, the laugh track is a marvel of television production. In use for nearly seventy years, the laugh track has touched nearly every aspect of comedic programming in the United States. From Hogan's Heroes to I Love Lucy, to Taxi and Cheers... a plethora of television shows have all used laugh tracks. In fact, many modern programs like The Big Bang Theory employ the laugh track to dramatically punch up their studio audience reactions.

I'm here to tell you... it's time to kill the laugh track.

I can understand the laugh track's use in the early days of television. Programs were filmed live before a studio audience. If there were multiple takes of a scene during filming, there would be continuity gaps between the takes. Obviously, as a scene was filmed two, three, four times or more, the audience would stop laughing at the same jokes being repeated. To make the takes blend together in a seamless scene, the laugh track of prerecorded laughter would be inserted to bridge the inconsistencies. As television progressed through the 1960's and early 1970's, many programs came to rely upon the laugh track heavily, often for pure comedic effect in their own right -- The Munsters, Scooby-Doo and Gilligan's Island were notorious for this. Other times, the laugh track would facilitate the total illusion that a program was filmed before an audience, when in fact it was recorded on a small, closed sound stage with no audience at all.

As television evolved to present more relevant social and political themes in the 1970's, many producers thankfully tried to avoid the use of the laugh track in their comedies. Instead of speaking down to their viewers, they wanted the home audience to think and laugh on their own accord. The laugh track had been used to tell viewers "when to laugh" for so long... much to the detriment of viewers' critical thinking ability. Garry Marshall's The Odd Couple used a laugh track during the first season due to network pressure, much to the chagrin of stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. They demanded that the program revert to being recorded before a live studio audience. By the second season, Klugman and Randall had won out; the laugh track was removed and all laughter heard was genuine. Producer Norman Leer employed the same approach to All In The Family, which was also recorded before a live audience during all but its last few seasons.

The laugh track is offensive and obtrusive in multiple ways. Chiefly, it inserts a pause in the natural flow of character dialogue to prompt the audience to laugh and applause at a joke. This does not take into account whether the joke was decent or funny. Instead of letting a scene progress at a normal pace, actors must create gaps between their lines to provide space for post-production laughter to be inserted. In reality, who talks like that?! Another irritating aspect of laugh tracks is that they introduce a totally foreign element to the program. The laughter isn't from characters in the program itself, nor is it a sound effect caused by an item or action in a scene. Instead, the laugh track is glazed over the program like fungus growing on a rock. It's unnatural and often times distracting from the program's content. I've lost count the number of times I've yelled at a television program because a laugh track attempted to convince me that a joke was funny, when it was truthfully dull or uninspired. It took my attention away from the actors and their scene. That's simply not funny.

We should expect more from ourselves and the content that we consume. Watching comedies on television that don't cue us when to laugh is a profound first step in that direction. Consider this scene below, for example. Admittedly, I have watched The Big Bang Theory for many years. Yet, as the show has aged, the jokes have become more rudimentary and predictable. The characters haven't experienced any real personal growth, much to my displeasure. The situations that the characters find themselves in are a little more stale and tiresome. If not for the characters being quirky themselves, short of any potential comedic situation, I'd probably not watch the program any more. As they continue to employ a laugh track to highlight a joke, my disillusionment with the show broadens. Watch this scene and understand what the show would be like if the laugh track wasn't used.

It becomes blatantly clear that The Big Bang Theory is crafted a fair amount of the time around the laugh track, and not vice versa. Without the laugh track, the show would present as hollow and boring. If anything, the laugh track adds a sense of life and not comedy. Here's another show that I watch essentially for the characters and not the jokes, which are quite terrible at times -- 2 Broke Girls. The video's editor has removed the laugh track. Perhaps more so than The Big Bang Theory, this show relies almost exclusively on a laugh track to deliver its comedy. The laugh track makes you feel like it's funny, when it almost certainly isn't.

Here's an edited version of Friends with the laugh track removed. I have never liked Friends, but the absence of the laugh track really drives home how terrible this show actually is.

So what does this all mean? The laugh track has to go. It's ravaging programs with plenty of potential, thanks to their interesting characters, and dropping them into a vapid echo chamber without any sort of comedic integrity. Writers shouldn't rely on the crutch of a laugh track to support their creations. As viewers, we're smarter than this. Shouldn't the programs that we watch be crafted with that same sense of wit and intelligence? Let comedy stand on its own two feet. Otherwise, programs developed to serve a laugh track are nothing more than terrible prop comedy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Today Was Stressful.

Stress has been ever present in my life today. Seems like I have been stressed out since I woke up this morning. Not sure why, but it sure did snowball as the day went along. Today was just one of those days --nothing seemed to go right and everything annoyed me in one way or another.

I dealt with terrible drivers, which is a persistent problem in North Carolina. Folks are absolutely frightening here, with the lack of turn signals, running red lights, cutting other drivers off without warning and swerving from lane to lane. Road rage really boils my anger over at times. This is highly unfortunate, considering I enjoy driving. Being in a car and just moving down the road is therapeutic... but only if I'm not being assaulted by other dumb-ass drivers.

Leave it to a poorly-designed game disc to piss me off. I just purchased a brand new Playstation 3 with a copy of LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. I've barely had it for a month and of course the game started to act up. After going through a few too many tedious troubleshooting steps, I determined that a single, tiny smudge on the edge of the game disc was to blame.

Grocery shopping, as discussed in my article from a few days ago, has become troublesome. Retailers are raising their prices unnaturally, thereby causing me more stress in trying to locate better deals. I can usually find what I'm looking for, but damn if grocery stores aren't pulling the wool over most consumers' eyes.

Apparently, the local Burlington City Christmas parade is just ten days away on November 21. When I heard the news, I became enraged. Though, I have little reason to be pissed off about this. It's not as if I'm even going to attend the parade. Parades themselves send me into fits of anger. Yet, having a Christmas parade a week before Thanksgiving really grinds my gears. What about celebrating Thanksgiving, eh? Why not have your parade within the month of December? Don't feed me crap about it being a scheduling issue -- those in charge of setting the date are just aloof nitwits.

I yelled at Crystal this morning because she made the point that I don't always fully consider her special dietary requirements when planning out meals. She was right; I had no reason to get upset. I take criticism poorly. I was also in the wrong for yelling. The sore throat serves me right, I suppose. Even though I'm not the angry man I once was, I can still have my moments when I'm stressed out. Doesn't make it right, but I've learned to identify when I am most likely to get angry.

Here I am, writing about myself for a change. Yet, I sat before my keyboard for an hour without any inspiration as to what to write about. As I've grown as a writer and tried to expand my content, sometimes I forget that this blog began as a means to soothe my inner beast. Writing about my feelings and getting out my anger was the best therapy I ever went through. When times get stressful, I shouldn't be afraid to speak from the heart. Getting out my feelings is perhaps the best thing I can do to feel better.

I have a difficult time processing stress and letting things go. It's just in my nature to hold onto the things that trigger my rage. While it's almost certainly related to my upbringing, I'm an adult now. Releasing the things that perturb me is fully within my capability. Finding a sense of calmness and balance is more important, especially on days like today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The 'National Lampoon's Vacation' Series And My Siblings.

My brother James made a comment earlier today concerning the link between the film National Lampoon's Vacation and my other brother Joshua. Essentially, he asserted that Clark Griswold and Joshua were symbolically linked.

A-ha! A light bulb went off in my head. There are four Vacation films and four Manning siblings. Perhaps we're all theoretically linked to one of the films. Let's analyze the four films and go from there, shall we?

National Lampoon's Vacation -- A well-meaning family man, Clark Griswold, wants to give his wife and kids the classic road-trip vacation they deserve. Come hell or high water, he overcomes every hurdle placed before him -- losing their money, getting lost in the desert, a dead body, etc. Even a closed theme park (Walley World), won't keep his family from completing their vacation. One BB Gun and a SWAT Team later, Clark delivers what he promised -- a vacation they would never forget. Vacation is all about having a no quit attitude. No matter what, Clark will deliver as promised. To sum the film up in one word... determination.

National Lampoon's European Vacation -- After winning an all-expense paid vacation to Europe on an absurd and degrading game show, the Griswold family proceeds to endure one dopey, goofy experience after another. In England, Clark continuously drives on the wrong side of the road and causes major problems, even getting himself stuck in a roundabout for hours. He also manages to knock over Stonehenge and incite a riot at a German folk dance festival. The whole film is driven by a foundation of silliness and folly, all at the expense of the Griswolds as stereotypical American tourists creating havoc for a wide swathe of unsuspecting Europeans. To sum the film up in one word... happiness.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation -- With the holidays upon them, Clark Griswold desperately wants his family to have an old-fashioned, traditional Christmas. Yet, his ineptness continues to cause problems for everyone. The trouble begins with a frigid trek into a snowy forest for a Christmas tree, but somehow forgetting to bring an ax or saw to cut it down. Before long, Clark is hosting his entire extended family in his home, which he's painstakingly covered in thousands of holiday lights. After much trial and error, he finally gets the lights to work, which nearly sends the entire city of Chicago into a blackout. Things continue to spiral out of control, with the final nail in the proverbial coffin being the news that Clark's highly anticipated monetary Christmas bonus is nothing more than a membership in the "Jelly of the Month" club. Upon having his boss kidnapped and enduring another encounter with a SWAT Team, Clark finally realizes that he's had the Christmas vacation he set out to have. No matter how bad things seemed to get, there was always faith in a bright outcome. To sum the film up in one word... hope.

Vegas Vacation -- The oddball film in the series not linked to National Lampoon, this outing sees the Griswolds take a high-rolling trip to Las Vegas. What starts out as a family vacation quickly spins out of control. The four Griswolds soon parts ways, with no sense of family at all. Even worse, Clark manages to gamble away their entire savings, with nothing to show for it. Wife Ellen is seduced by Wayne Newton. Son Rusty becomes a card shark with a fake alias. Daughter Audrey rapidly falls into the seedy underbelly of the city by attempting to become an exotic dancer. Yet, Clark realizes the error of his ways. It was never about the vacation or the money; it was about keeping his family together and spending time with them. In a last-ditched effort to recover their money, Clark spends his remaining two dollars on a keno ticket. While waiting for the results, he meets a lonely old gambler. They become very sentimental and friendly, with Clark naively telling the old timer he was now part of the Griswold family. Unsurprisingly, Clark fails to win at keno and is heartbroken. Ironically, the old timer finally wins the keno jackpot, but passes away before being able to accept it. He gifts the winning ticket to Clark and his family with his dying breath. Vegas Vacation is all about atonement and cherishing our loved ones more than anything else. To sum the film up in one word... redemption.

When I think of determination, I think of my brother Joshua.
When I think of happiness, I think of my brother James.
When I think of hope, I think of my sister Julie.
When I think of redemption, I think of myself.

Somehow, the four original Vacation films presented a theme that links us all together. How that managed to happen, I'll never know. It's just one of those weird things that happens in life, without need for an explanation. Just go with it, you know? Now... let's get traveling down that Holiday Road!

Monday, November 9, 2015

You're Getting Robbed At The Grocery Store.

When it comes to using deceptive and outright ridiculous marketing practices, nothing perturbs me more than grocery stores. So often, I walk through grocery stores and remark out loud about how terribly overpriced many of the items are. Take this afternoon for example. I went to my local Lowes Foods location to purchase some groceries. Here are a few examples of items "on sale" directly from this week's flyer (Week of Nov. 4, 2015 - Nov. 10, 2015).

I'll begin with this sale on Bird's Eye Steamfresh Vegetables. Lowes has them "on sale" at two packages for $3. The average schmuck shopper would look at that and say "that's a good deal, by golly!" BZZZZZZZZ! Wrong, you brain-dead moron! The packages are $1.50 each. Even worse, they're at most only 14.4 ounces, so not even a pound. Comparatively speaking, you can obtain full pound bags of frozen vegetables at other retailers for $1 or $1.25. Not only are you paying more per bag, but you're receiving less product. So no... this item is not on sale. You're getting ripped off.

Here we have a couple of deceptively priced items. Granny Smith Apples are "on sale" for $1.79 per pound. That price is absolutely atrocious, especially considering apples are harvested in the Fall and are currently in season. Typically, I won't pay more than $1.29 for a pound of apples (any variety)... and that's at my absolute high end. If you visit your local farmers market, you can obtain apples for much, much less from growers right in your own backyard. Next, take a look at the four-pack of Bell Peppers. Lowes has them priced at $3.99 per pack. That equates to $1 per Bell Pepper. Considering the average Bell Pepper weighs around seven ounces, the per pound price is around $2.28. That is certifiable highway robbery, considering Bell Peppers can regularly be purchased not on sale around $1 or $1.50 per pound. You're paying over twice what the Bell Peppers are really worth... but because they're "on sale", nitwit shoppers will buy them.

Glance at these packs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They're "on sale" as BUY 1 GET 1 FREE! Must be a good deal, right? Nope, you dingle-puss... your wallet is being raped right under your nose, and you don't even know it. Let's do the math. The packs are priced at $5.99 per pound. If you're getting one pack free for every one you purchase, then the packs are really $3 per pound. Considering boneless, skinless chicken breast can be obtained routinely between $1.50 and $2.50 per pound, you're getting bamboozled. BOGO should stand for Bought Only by Gullible Oafs.

While these examples represent items "on sale", by no means are they the only bouts of theft within a grocery store. Lots of items at normal price are themselves highly inflated. I encountered this evening:
  • Spinach wraps for $3.49 (a dollar higher than competitors)
  • One pound pouches of pre-sliced turkey lunch meat for $5.99 (I never pay more than $4 per pound for most deli meats)
  • 16 ounce jars of Skippy Peanut Butter for $3.50 (that's almost $1.50 more than what you should be paying)
  • Packs of White Button Mushrooms for $2.49 (about $0.70 more than competitors)
Can I afford $3.50 jars of peanut butter and $6 turkey meat? Sure. Will I purchase those items at those prices? HELL NO. How do you think I live so comfortably and don't struggle paycheck to paycheck like most other Americans? I've learned to save money and not get robbed by retailers. Saving money begins with where and how you shop. You have to be smart, because grocery retailers are out to swindle you.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Is this an indictment of Lowes Foods and their absurdly high prices. Sure... but they're not the only guilty party. Just within my area, Harris Teeter, Wal-Mart (yes, the supposedly low-priced retailer) and Food Lion are just as bad, if not worse in many instances. Nearly every grocery store outrageously prices a swathe of items at prices far beyond their actual value. And yet, they get away with it because consumers fail to object to such nonsense. Our nation just keeps on paying whatever prices massive corporate retailers demand like a pack of brainless zombies.


Every time you enter a grocery store, you're bombarded with carefully crafted marketing schemes to make you feel like an intelligent shopper. Buy One, Get One! Two For...! Half Off! And yet, this doesn't even account for rewards card programs, which confuse and befuddle the common consumer even further. This is why I appreciate local grocery stores and farmers markets. No sly marketing schemes. No rewards cards. Just decent food at a decent price. And yet, local retailers like this are rapidly fading away.

The fabricated reality packaged by most grocery stores couldn't be any farther from the truth. You have to be crafty and insightful when grocery shopping, or you'll be taken advantage of... and you can take that bit of advice to the bank!

*I fully realize that prices fluctuate based upon geographic region. Certainly, the prices I've quoted could be considered "cheap" in other parts of the United States. Then again, grocery stores are undoubtedly pulling the same hi-jinks all across this land. Prices are merely scaled up and down in relation to location.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Draw Something: Leaf It All Behind!

We're nearly halfway into the Fall season. All of the leaves on the tree in my front yard have fallen to the ground finally. It's so nice to see them scattered everywhere. Honestly, the onslaught of falling leaves is one of the best aspects of Autumn. Yet... I wonder what the experience is like from the perspective of the leaves. Hmmm...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Tearing My Computer Apart.

There's a funny bit of context attached to my blog article this evening. The story I published was not the story I originally intended on writing. While composing the original tale (which you'll get to read next Saturday night), I was listening to an old compact disc in my computer. Suddenly, much to my horror, the disc rapidly gained warp speed and exploded into a million tiny pieces. Faced with a possibly destroyed CD-ROM drive, I had to make a decision. Would I let the disc drive sit filled with a horde of crystalline shards and contact a computer repair shop... or open my computer up, remove the compact disc drive, disassemble it and remove the broken remnants?

Mind you... I have never opened a computer in my life and done any sort of hardware tampering. This would be a first for me.

I said screw it... I can do this! An hour later, I'd opened the case on my computer, removed seven various screws, disconnected three internal cables, unbolted a cooling unit, taken the CD-ROM apart, reassembled everything and turned the computer back on. Somehow, I'd managed to repair the CD-ROM on my first try. Either I got lucky, or fortune just favors the bold.

Faced with a rapidly approaching deadline, I decided to finish a tale I'd started many weeks ago and send it to print. What you read this evening was the end result. I'd say, given the circumstances... that's pretty damn awesome.

Concurrently, I believe I've gotten the itch to build my own computer. Or, at the very least, start modifying the one I already have.

Oh... the compact disc that exploded? Sadly, it was a disc entitled Kindred Spirits that I've had since high school. My talented friend Brian Warshaw​ had self-published an album of original compositions on the long-defunct website (remember them?). Hopefully, I can obtain the digital tracks from Brian. Let's hope he still has them.