Monday, January 24, 2022

With Paradise In Sight, She Cried Out "Stop Right There!"

I remember the first time I saw him; I’d just gotten home after a date and after flipping the TV on, I settled into my dad’s recliner. As fate would have it, the TV came on just as he put the microphone to his mouth and began singing. The music had a driving rockabilly rhythm to it, but his voice didn’t touch that era at all. Unlike a lot of the rock musicians of that era, who had long hair, his hair was wild and straight and he wasn’t exactly good-looking or skinny and he held a red scarf. Ignoring all of that, his voice was exceptional. Before he sang the first two lines of the song, I knew I was listening to something totally unexpected and spectacular. 

I’ve always been about songs that tell stories, but this ballad was on a whole new level. I had seen Phantom of the Paradise, Tommy, and Jesus Christ Superstar so I knew what a rock opera was. This was a rock opera, but somehow, it’d been condensed down small enough to be a feature on whatever program was on that night. As I sat listening to him belt out the lyrics of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, the entire evening I'd lived was being played out in the song's lyrics. It was as if the songwriter had been along on my date and wrote the events as they happened so that they could be played back for me afterward. Then, just as the events were sliding into home, the lyricist took a fresh track apart from my reality as the girl demanded straight answers as to what he was promising.

As I watched this play out on the screen, my mind split the song into three separate acts as the rhythm, seriousness, mood, and story within the music changed: Part One — A passion fueled search for Paradise, and the process of finding it, complete with an instrumental that included a play-by-play by a sportscaster. Part Two-- The girl stopping it all with three words – Stop Right There! Then she demanded answers to the questions she had before letting it go any further, as he stammers, trying to figure a way out. She also demands a promise which he eventually gives. Part Three—The aftermath and he regret he had for making that promise. All of that drama and passion covered in just eight and a half minutes. Damn!

I’m not sure what program I was watching. Originally I thought it was Saturday Night Live, but I could never find a reference where a performance of that song was performed on the show until years later. The only important part that, aside from the perfromance, was the singer’s name: Meat Loaf.

Unlike today, when you can immediately online and find recordings and videos of an artist instantly, there was no such animal in the late 70s. I called the radio stations I listen to the next day, but none of them had even heard of the song. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that the song, composed by Jim Steinman, had been released almost a year earlier under a different title. Then, Meat Loaf got an album deal, and it was added to the first album of his that I ever bought: Bat Out of Hell.

Another thing that differed between that time and now was there was no way to skip easily from one song to the next, unless you were skilled at lifting and sitting down the needle on an album as it spun or willing to sit through a tape being rewound or fast forwarded. That meant I listened to every song on side to repeatedly. Another song that eventually made it big, Two out of Three Ain’t Bad, was also on that side of the album along with For Crying Out Loud. Side one had two great songs on it: Bat Out of Hell and You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) but Paradise by the Dashboard Light was always my favorite.

Paradise has remained on my list of all-time favorite songs. A few years later, Meat Loaf surprised me by appearing In the Rocky Horror Picture Show as Eddie, he was great in for a big guy he moved gracefully.

Eventually, Meat Loaf released his second album, which included what many say is the next act of Paradise: I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). Another tremendous song that held a dramatic story within it of heartbreak, romance, and desire. A similar theme, but more mature in its view of passion and love.

Today, Marvin Lee Aday, who I and millions knew as Meat Loaf, passed away — but his music will live forever.

Originally published 21 January 2022


Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Tiny Library -- It's a Magical Place

I am not a crafty person...

That is the opening line from my review of an item I bought on Etsy from Katrin Schilke, a vendor in Hamburg, Germany. Maybe I should back up and start at the beginning.

I fell victim to a pop-up ad that appeared on a webpage I was viewing. It was hawking an item it referred to as a book nook. The book nook in its simplest terms is a diorama, about a foot tall by three inches wide. It was geared toward Diagon Alley from Harry Potter, so it replicated the feel of the alley to include the stores on either side. It appeared to be lighted, and because of an angled mirror at the back of the note, it had the illusion of going on into infinity.

Now, when I say I had fallen victim, I meant that I actually stopped and looked at the ad and then clicked on the link. The pricing of the item was far cheaper than it should’ve been for something so intricate, so right away my scam radar went off. However, my interest did not wane, and I knew that if this scam existed the genuine item had to be out there somewhere. So, I began my search.

There are hundreds of vendors out there selling various versions of these dioramas. The themes run the gamut from Star Trek, to Lord of the Rings, to a basic wizard’s layer. However, the pricing was outrageous. The price went from under fifty dollars for the item I saw in the pop-up ad, to over three hundred. One item I looked at had two prices, one for the item arriving preassembled and the other for a kit. The kit was roughly a third less. I changed the parameters of my search, ran it again, which brought me to Katrin’s shop on Etsy.

Katrin offered basic library kit with bookcases on either side and a ladder to help a reader get the top shelves. I was instantly enthralled, and the price was reasonable for what the kit included. I ordered it. I will say that the shipping cost almost made me cancel the order. It was not excessive for items being shipped from Europe, just more than I was used to paying.

While waiting for my tiny library to arrive, I planned out where I was going to put it and how to add the functionality I wanted to the LEDs mounted inside. After selecting an appropriate eye level spot on a bookcase, I looked at the ad for the nook more closely. I realized the light switch was on the top back corner of the book nook. Because the shelf I planned to put it on had a low clearance, I would have to slide it out to turn it on and off. That was a nonstarter. 

Rather than trying to replace the battery compartment with some sort of remote control, I replaced the batteries with an electric converter and a Smart Plug. This accomplished two things: I no longer had to worry about batteries going dead or leaking inside the item and I could turn the diorama on and off using my smart home system manually or by programming.

When the box arrived, I opened it, and was amazed at how efficiently the thing was packed. Obviously, Katrin plays a lot of Tetris. I pulled all the items out and set them on the table. The first step, per the instruction sheet  (English) was to assemble the 450 individual books that came with the kit. There were three small bags of wood and squares meant to represent small medium and large sized books, and several sheets of book covers. Basically, I had to cut out each book cover and glue them to the small squares that would represent books inside the nook. This was the most time-consuming part.

I broke the task down by assembling a few at a time until they were all complete. While doing this, it occurred to me that I could include my own titles in the library. So, I made some adjustments to the cover graphics for each of my six books and substituted a few of the provided covers with them.

Once all the books were done, I stained the two bookcases and glued all the books into them. Actually, I didn’t use all the books provided, preferring a variety of shelving methods—– as in real life. 

When the bookcases were complete, I glued them into the case of the book nook and then placed the ladder. Rather than hiding the miniature versions of my books on the shelf, I stacked them up on the floor to make them more visible. I added the battery kit to the case before placing the diorama in the empty spot I made on the shelf. Now, whenever anyone enters the room, the lights of the tiny library come on for about four minutes, then turn off. I didn’t realize it until afterward that my bookcases are so full when the lights go off the tiny library almost vanishes into the books beside it.

Of course, my Etsy review was five stars. The kit was wonderful, and on the one instance I needed help from Katrin responded quickly and answered my questions thoroughly. Even if you’re not crafty, I heartily recommend building one of these. It is satisfying and you wind up with an interesting piece of art afterward.

My granddaughter is mesmerized by the little library, and immediately does to it whenever she enters the room. She has asked me what is beyond the turn at the back, since the mirror gives the illusion that the row of bookshelves goes on forever. 

What’s back there?  More books, of course, and they're all full of magic.

I wonder where I can get a kit for this?


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Raised Mobile/Living Permanent

One of the few downsides to being a Military Brat is that you lack physical permanence. You know, everything that you own, including the house it is sitting in, is temporary or at the very least must be mobile. As I grew up, I kept the original boxes to pack them up when time came to move on to the next place. In some ways, it's a good lesson in minimalism because you evaluate everything you get through a lens of the item’s permanence in your life. Besides that, my dad never allowed us to hang more than one thing on a wall, using a single nail, which kept you from having too many things that needed to be hung. The real reason was that it prevented him from having to patch the wall or paying to have the base civil engineers repair it.

For much of my adult life, since I served in the military, I maintained this kind of mobile attitude. Even now, if you go into the storeroom, you’ll find the original boxes for many things I own, in case I have to box them up to transport them to a new place. I’m not really sure why, because even though I did extended tours in the Middle East, my home has remained the same for almost sixteen years. I think about this from time to time and have a reckoning that causes me to throw away a few boxes, but the rest remain.

This mindset of mobility probably caused me to avoid permanence in the mounting of my Lynyrd Skynyrd autographed guitar.  After bringing it home, I bought a display case, used a temporary adhesive to mount some interior lights, and taped a few additional items like the M&G passes, concert tickets, and commemorative brass plaque next to the guitar. Even my Skynyrd guitar pick collection was just woven into the strings on the guitar to keep it temporary. The guitar is mounted perfectly level inside the case to avoid drilling additional holes. The kick block for the bottom of the guitar is not secured at all, held in place by gravity. It is passable, but I was never really satisfied with this setup. 

In the intervening years, the taped items fell off. The lighting was battery-powered, which required deconstruction to put in new batteries. A special lithium battery powered the remote for the lights — so I rarely turned them on. Some picks warped from the pressure of the guitar strings. I sat the display case on a table rather than wall-mounting it, even though it is unstable because of the flip-up locks on the bottom side. 

I looked at it recently and couldn’t figure out why I didn’t fix things, even if it meant giving up the item’s mobility. So rather than just letting it go, I decided on a plan to improve the display while making it permanent.

The first step was to take out everything from inside the case. This included removing the guitar mounts—– I wanted to start with a blank field and plan out a new way of displaying the guitar.

I changed the guitar’s angle from level to a diagonal and centered the instrument horizontally. Then, I added some mounting foam to the guitar’s back, which brought the guitar’s body further out and added depth.

Initially, I had ordered two sets of lights to use in the case but only mounted one. So I placed one set of lights at the top to the far left, focusing on the autographs. Then, I put the second set on the bottom right, focusing on the items mounted in the open space under the guitar neck. The first time, both sets of lights were permanently screwed to the case.

The light sets came from sfDisplay, a great company from which I’ve purchased several mounting cases and accessories. I really like the way the lights look, and they are also thin enough to not be overly distracting. In addition, each of the four lights can be aimed individually. The only drawback is the requirement of remote control and batteries.

Each light set requires six AA batteries, in banks of three each. Quick math will tell you that means each light pair requires 4.5 volts. I was battery replacement kits, having replaced batteries in several accessories in my home. I just needed to find the right one. The Gerson 93974 - AAA Battery Replacement Power Supply is a perfect match, giving me five separate leads, with each supplying the required voltage.

NOTE: I am supplying this link to Amazon for reference. I can’t recommend buying it from any of the sources available. This was by far the most cumbersome item to get for my project. I ordered five of them through Amazon only to have each change delivery date from the one day promised to four weeks or more. Eventually, I found the item on eBay, but that source no longer has the part in stock.

With power needs handled, I needed to remove the need for the remote, as I planned to use a Smart Plug to control the lights. This required me to rewire each light set to always be on. I won’t go into detail, but it took me under ten minutes to rewire each of them, including the time necessary to remove/replace the twelve screws holding the unit together. A straightforward job.

Luckily, I had a Leviton Smart Plug on hand to provide lighting automation. I am surprised to see how its price has gone up.  

The brass plaque inside the case was deeply scratched, so a replacement was needed. The new one came from sfDisplay, who created and delivered it in under a week.

I stripped the old adhesive off the tickets and M&G badges — the warped guitar picks went into a vice to help flatten them to allow for proper mounting. One problem I ran into in doing this was the amount of dust and extraneous schmutz that seemed to multiply all over the black velour background of the case. So I tried a lint roller and, failing that, I went to my trustee Pet class Dyson stick vacuum to get rid of it. I also took the opportunity to clean both sides of the Plexiglas.

Since I was not using the flip-up locks, I removed them to no longer cause an issue with the case’s balance. Unfortunately, this left a problem with the key-lock hardware. To add sufficient height, so the key-lock was not touching the tabletop, I attached chair leg footpads on the four corners plus two in the middle. This added stability to the case and prevented the table from being scratched by the case’s hardware.

When the Gerson unit arrived, I installed and tested both light bars to ensure everything was good. Because of each connection’s six-foot cable length, I removed the unused lead to eliminate clutter. After drilling holes through the back, I passed the power lines through and then secured them with Gorilla tape.

After adjusting the lights, I brought the bottom of the guitar out to add a slight inward tilt at the top to show off the autographs better. Next, I placed the plaque, tickets, and VIP passes under the guitar’s neck and positioned the picks along the left end before vacuuming out the case and cleaning the Plexiglas once more.

After closing it up and putting it back on the table, I made several adjustments to the angle of the lights to make them more targeted and eliminate flare. Then, after plugging it into the Smart Plug, I programmed it to turn on the guitar’s lights when someone entered the room, turning off automatically nine minutes later.

Voila! My Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar is now permanently mounted, and I think it’s much more attractive than when I started.

As I stand and look at my completed project, I have to admit that after patting myself on the back; I mentally plotted out how to prepare the guitar for eventual transport. Since everything is firmly mounted, I can stuff it with bubble wrap and place a piece of cardboard over the Plexiglas to keep it from getting scratched before wrapping it in a moving blanket. Apparently, my Military Brat culture will be with me for the rest of my life.

I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

Being Of An Age

My brother and I were going through some stuff in a closet at my Dad's house, when he mentioned he wanted to keep one of the good wooden hangers. His wife, who entered as he said this, said flatly, "All wooden hangers are the same." Immediately, the two of us launched into a fifteen minute explanation about why all wooden hangers were not created equal.

We finished the job but as I walked away; I felt a strange urge to do anything that would make me feel young enough to not know what a good wooden hanger is.


Monday, December 27, 2021

A Modest Lesson for a Better Life

There are many things you are taught by your parents that remain a part of you during your entire life. One of the best lessons my parents taught me was that no matter how bad things are, someone is worse off and you should do what you can to help. This help can be goods, money, or simply using your time to assist using the talents you have. As we head into 2022, it is time once again for me to establish my base level getting for the coming year.

When I worked for the Department of Defense, one of the extra duties I was given was to head up the annual Combined Federal Campaign for my location. If you’re not familiar with CFC a program designed to solicit monetary contributions from all federal employees for the coming year. One aspect of the program is that you, as the donor, can select specific charities you want to receive your money rather than it going to a central fund for a slate of pre-selected donees. Because of this, local charities who normally would have been left out of such a nationwide program in the past can take part simply by submitting the proper paperwork. As one who helped manage the CFC, I was part of a group that reviewed this paperwork annually to ensure that the charity met governmental regulations. One of the biggest was overhead to benefit ratio.

This ratio is very simple to understand. It is the percentage of total donations that went to cover the overhead costs of the organization versus the amount that went to the people the charity was supposed to help. I am sure we’ve all heard of the charity that spent all their money on overhead and gave zero dollars to Haitian disaster victims it was supposed to help. One of the biggest failures of understanding is that just because a charity is nonprofit does not mean it is non-salaried. In fact, many charities spend millions on their staff overhead, and covering personal expenses (housing, travel and meals) while spending very little for those who were supposed to benefit.

Armed with this experience, I became a better donor in the years since. Every December, I select three charities to give money to for the next year. Aside from checking out their overhead figures, I also contact the charities that make the first cut and ask them if it is possible for me to donate anonymously and not be placed on our mailing list. 

I will never forget a $50 donation that I made to a charity, named for an American coin denomination. I was immediately deluged with requests for additional money. I wrote them several times, asking them to remove me from the mailing list, but to no avail. Now, fifteen years later, I still get at least one solicitation from them a month. It goes directly into the shredder. I know by now they have spent far beyond the $50 I gave them originally, but rather than accepting that, there was a push to get even more money. I can’t blame them. I just don’t want to be part of it.

After I get an assurance, I set up an automatic payment which is sent every two weeks to the charities I chosen. If it any point during the year I receive mass mailings requesting more money, I write them a simple letter asking to be removed from the mailing list and reminding them of my initial contact and their assurance that I would not be added to any such mailing list. If I continue to get more solicitations, I remove them from my list of donees and split the money among the remaining charities. It may sound harsh, but if I’m sending them a donation which, instead of going to their stated aim, is being used to solicit me for more funds, I don’t want to be part of it. It’s nothing less than a self licking ice cream cone. 

I will not list the charities that I chose for 2022 here. Some would agree with the ones I chose, others might think of charities they felt were more worthy. Since I think charity is a personal decision, which should be done quietly rather than shout it from the mountaintops, I will omit my decisions and just encourage you to give to whoever you feel will do the most good.

Besides those I select to get regular donations, there is one charity that I have always donated to rather randomly throughout the year. That charity is Modest Needs. I found out about them many years ago, and I liked what they did and feel they do it most effectively.

The Modest Needs organization is there for people who need a single short time bridge because of unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances. For example, someone may have gotten behind on bills because the company they work for cutback their hours or maybe an unexpected medical expense that is ripping a hole in their budget. Modest Needs checks out the requester’s story and documents it. Then the approved case is placed online with thousands of others. You, as a donor, have a choice. You can read the individual cases and choose specific ones to donate to, or you can place the money in their general fund and allow Modest Needs to make the choice. 

What I like best about Modest Needs is getting to see what the actual need is not some sort of generality written by an advertising wonk. You will always find at least one need to which you can directly relate. Also, you can request to see the closing statement of the case after it is fulfilled. You actually get to see the change you made it happen. What a great way to feel good about what you’ve done.

For further information on how Modest Needs operates, I encourage you to check out their website. 

We live in strange times, and the need to connect with others on a personal level has never been greater. Charity is one way to connect—after all, you can always find someone who needs and will appreciate your help.

NOTE: You may have noticed that for the month of December I am once again making weekly blog entries. It is a resolution I made to get back into the writing groove and shrug off the funk of the last eighteen months. I think we all need to shake off some funk and, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, get the world back to spinning in greased grooves.


Monday, December 20, 2021

MacBeth - the Best Puppy Ever

On the seventeenth of this month the best puppy in the world, MacBeth, was born. It was a month later when I met him for the first time. There’s lots of information on the web about how to pick the best puppy out of a litter, but the one thing MacBeth did from the very beginning was wrap his paws around your arm when you held him. Instant endearment.

He quickly got bigger and was always eager to explore everything that was around him, from the lake to the snow. He also loves to travel, particularly when I take him to places where dogs don’t normally get to go like the Hard Rock Cafe in Gatlinburg. Once he completed his Canine Good Citizen class, I used that to get permission for him to stay in a rather well-known chain of hotels that rarely allows dogs. The CEO was nice enough to provide me with a letter granting him admission. There’s a certain amount of stuff you can get away with in life if you are well behaved and cute. He is both.


I can only remember two negative instances in his life. One was when he dug up a bush in the front yard. Before I discovered that, he ran into the house excitedly with mud covered paws to brag about what he had done while covering a tan colored carpet in mud as he went. The other was when I let them eat several garlic bread sticks before I ran out of the store. Luckily, we were keeping him in his crate when we went out as part of house breaking. I will leave the details to your imagination, but suffice it both he and the inside of the crate were coated. When I first saw him, the look on his face was so pitiful. 

I worried during my time in Kuwait that he might forget or lose some of his attachment to me. But when I came home, I went to public school to pick him up, and as soon as he saw me, he leaped over the half door that separated the puppy area from the lobby and nuzzled me excitedly. He didn’t forget. But that kind of welcome is something that I’ve gotten used to because that is how he greets me every time I walk into the house. If I am going anywhere, he also always expects to go along. I can’t say I discourage it, he is splendid company. 

As he has gotten older, a lot of health issues have not plagued him, except for one that was genetic. He has slowly gone blind. I realized it when he had issues in dim light and then they asked me to no longer bring him to doggy daycare because it simply wasn’t safe for him. Later, we were going outside to play fetch, and he took off running and ran full force into a large tree in the front yard. He made a sound that terrified me. I took him to the University veterinary hospital but gladly he was okay. Later, I took him to a veterinarian ophthalmologist who told me there was nothing that could be done for his eyesight. It was a sad reality. 

The ophthalmologist spent a lot of time telling me he was healthy and happy other than his sight issue. It wasn’t until I was going home that I realized the point the doctor was trying to make was there was no need for him to be put down simply over being blind. That thought never entered my mind, but I guess many people see it is the only alternative. I really don’t understand why.

I still play fetch every day with MacBeth. We go into the backyard, which has trees only along the edge, and after I throw the ball, I tell him which way to go in order to find it. He’s a smart dog and figured it out right away. I’ve also added a motion sensitive light to the location where his food bowl is so that if he gets near it, a light comes on that helps guide him the rest of the way. It works, but he never really had a problem finding food.

As I write this, MacBeth is laying on the floor near me snoozing. He may think because he is laying in front of the door he's guarding me. Let him think what he wants; I appreciate the company while I write.  By the way, did I mention he goes out at night and fights crime? 

I can only wish that everyone who adds a dog to their family gets as lucky.

"Hey, wait!  He's thirteen now and you still call him puppy?"  Yes.

In his heart and mine, he'll forever be a playful and loving puppy.



Other MacBeth related blog entries:

Three-Day Weekend ... A Trio of Dog Tales

Shut Up and Let The Dog Drive

It Is Nice To Be Missed, But It Is Even Nicer To Be Loved

I Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription...Is More Cowbell!!

Echo Part II: Alexa Moves In

Still At It

Still Too Damn Cold To Hit It On Two Wheels

Best of the Blog – The Deep South

I Don't Know From a Double Dribble, But I Do Know an En Passant

Kinda Like Running Into a Burning Building -- Well, Someone Has To

Did You Hear the One About the Welshman, the Brit and the Yank?

What's In a Name? A Little of This a Little of That...


Monday, December 13, 2021

An Itty Bitty Door to the Universe

I was sitting in my car waiting on my puppy MacBeth (he was getting a mani/pedi) when I saw the little bookshelf near the door. I immediately knew what it was having seen them on TV shows, but this was the first one I had ever seen in the wild — a mini book exchange.

Basically, these exchanges are a collection of books in a weather proof bookcase and you are free to take one to keep (or return) or leave one. The hope is the library will be self-sustaining and provide a variety of books for those who use it. When I saw this on TV, the owner encouraged people to leave a review in the book when you returned it to the shelf. Since they are outside, they are open 24/7 and is great for folks strolling through the neighborhood ,although you can also drive up to the ones I have seen so far. 

This one was chartered to a group called the Little Free Library, and it was a deluxe version boasting both an adult and children's shelf — although I wondered why the kids' books were on the top shelf versus the bottom, where they could be easily reached by a child. 

I looked up the LFL's website, and it has an easy-to-use search engine which revealed there were fifteen libraries nearby.  Impressive. It is impossible to be a writer without being a reader and I support initiatives like this that puts books in people's hands.  

Take a minute to visit the LFL site to see if there is one close to where you are — if so, drop by and pick up your next favorite book.

To my fellow authors, I challenge you to do what I did — donate one of your books in the libraries near you and expand your readership. I have eight more books to drop off at the ones near me.