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Mind Over Matter

A Halloween to remember

The Halloween when I was eleven, my folks were as broke as Job's turkey, and my younger brother and I knew we were on our own for costumes. He picked the venerable sheet-over-the-head with the eye holes cut out, but I wanted to be an alien (the Outer Limits TV show was my favorite).


I found an old ping-pong ball in my dresser drawer, which I meticulously cut in half with my Cub Scout pocket knife. Then using the same knife I cut a dime-size hole in each side, drew red squiggly lines on them, and inserted them into my sockets like monocles. Bingo, bug-eyes. Then I took an old eyebrow pencil I fished out of the den wastebasket and drew scales on my face. So far, so good. But what about a ray gun? An alien needs a ray gun. I scoured the house, and finally found an old turkey baster in a drawer.. I taped a wooden handle to the bulb end and glued some blue buttons down each side. Finally I was ready to unleash havoc on the hapless planet.


My brother and I left to make the rounds, but as we did, a strange thing happened. As we went to each house, every woman who answered the door would point at me and laugh helplessly like a lunatic, even going so far as to get friends in the room to come over and take a look. That ticked me off to no end. Wasn't I scary? wasn't I intimidating? Stupid Earthlings.


Two hours later my brother and I were done and home. I was in the process of sorting my loot on the floor when my mom walked in.


"How did you make out?" she asked.


"Not bad," I said. "I even got a couple of popcorn balls from old Mrs. Toomey. Those are always good."


Then my mom stopped dead in her tracks, and with a trembling finger pointed at my gun, her face ashen. "Where ... did you get THAT?"


"This?" I replied airily. "It's just an old turkey baster I found lying around."


Only she told me it wan't a turkey baster. It was her ... woman's tool ... that she used to clean her nether regions.

I hadn't even known such a thing existed, and wouldn't have touched it if I did. No wonder all the neighbor ladies laughed.


Needless to say, that was the last year I went out.

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"But mom, they only show just a little blood!"

Got to thinking about movies the other day (as is my wont), and the subject of ratings--and their history--floated by. The idea of categorizing films was the late-60s brainchild of one Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America. It was Jack's plan to come up with a rating system so the studios could begin experimenting with darker and edgier stuff without making families nervous.


When the system was first birthed the order went "G-M-R-X", meaning General Audiences, Mature Audiences, Restricted Audiences ("no children under 17 admitted without a parent or adult guardian"), and X, which is... well, YOWZA. I even remember the radio ads trying to sell the concept to the masses, with a nerdy guy saying "Gimrix? What's Gimrix?," to which a smooth-voiced guy would explain it all. It seemed to work, with the G solidly separating the M ("yes, Junior, you can watch the Disney movie, but not that awful one where everybody gets shot … and no, I'm not taking you to see M*A*S*H! That's R!!").


As I said, the system was perking along fine when suddenly one day the MPAA folks switched from M to GP. Why? No one knows (or will admit to it), but the change really muddied the waters. A lot of people thought the acronym stood for General Patronage  .. which it most assuredly didn't. The confusion was rampant, and within a year the GP was switched to PG (parental guidance) and then in the early 80s with Red Dawn the PG-13 rating was added. And then several years after that a new rating between R and X was added, NC-17 ("no children under 17 admitted" ... at all, one would hope).


Anyway, now you know. Go forth and bloviate at length about the checkered history of the movie ratings system. Impress your friends! Win prizes!

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From bad to verse

I'm going to address something near and dear to me: scam houses and shady agents, because here is a true and incontrovertible fact: unless someone is already a household name (and maybe not even then), publishers won't come looking for a writer. They don't need to; they already have more on their plates "than they can say grace over," as my Granny used to say.
No, getting an "offer" from a slick talking, pay-to-play yahoo--especially if it's unsolicited-- is worse than useless, because many times it's worded in such a way as to play on a writer's vanity. "Your prose is superb," the mustache-twirling villian crows. "Priceless, they are. Golden. Why waste time with other houses? We'll put you on the fast track to publication."
Why indeed? I'll tell you why. Because at the end, all the scribe will find that's been "fast-tracked" is the emptying of their wallet, and the shame of being rooked.
Another good indicator of a shady operator is their placing of Google ads. Right now I type this, on another site are side-by-side come-ons from two of the worst scammers in the business. One's a supposed "publisher" (actually a reverse-vanity printer who charges on the back end, and offers a contract on literally everything they receive before close of business on a given day). The other's an erstwhile "agent" who's continuing to post his slow winking come-hithers even as the Florida attorney general is squaring him up in her sights. That's indicative of a man in possession of steel balls, utter cluelessness, or hubris on a breathtaking scale.
However you want to put it, these guys deserve a go-around. A big go-around. A serious writer deserves better than a short road to oblivion. "Here there be dragons," and all that.
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Marketing Minefield

When I was a wee lad of nine, one of the Kentucky State Fair sideshow exhibits that year was called "The Pygmy King and the Deadly Serpents." The poster outside the tent … well, you can imagine. It was probably done by the same Fletcher Hanks-esque artist (look him up; you'll be stunned at his story) who did most of the lurid displays at carnivals across the country. Anyway I begged, wheedled, and generally pestered my folks all afternoon until they finally relented and we went in.


Once inside, instead of dim lights and slithering danger a-plenty, what we found was a bored African-American little person sitting on a wooden stool while he puffed away on a foul brown stogie. As far as the "deadly serpents," he was surrounded by what appeared to be a dozen non-venomous black and king snakes drooping on top of each in such midday summer torpor it was like they'd been shot. And that's when I first realized the first of life's hard lessons: many (if not most) things are not what they're advertised to be.


So it is with marketing. There are a lot firms out there who'll promise you the moon and the asteroid belt … for a fee, of course. Many time what you'll get is a handful of dust, and not the lunar kind.


Caveat emptor.

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Words to ponder

"I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will." -- Edward Everett Hale

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Ugly clothes

I'm a child of the sixties/seventies (graduated HS in 1970), but it takes stuff like looking through my old annual to remind me of how utterly ridiculous the fashion sense (?) was in that benighted decade. Now that I'm an old dude past sixty, I wonder if when I'm eighty I'll likewise look at pictures of current clothing with equal horror.


I'm going to say yes, but qualify it with the fact that some of what today's flaming youth is sporting is downright hilarious. To wit, the blue jeans with the shortened legs, hung low so the wearer's underwear-wrapped bony hinder is paramount.


I see these sideways-hatted lads waddling penguin-like down the street, and two thoughts come to mind. One, I hope these kids never have to suddenly run–-say, from a cop–-because they wouldn't get two steps before doing a faceplant on the sidewalk. And two, for all their up yours, tough guy posturing, they look very much like the old "Stringbean" character from Hee Haw.

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Movie sequels: yay or nay?

I got to thinking about movies the other day (I do that a lot), and about the market for sequels and remakes. Most films don't require a remake. Citizen Kane comes to mind, as does The Day the Earth Stood Still (although that didn't keep 'em from re-doing it … and failing miserably).


Sequels are bit different. A few movies--like Iron Man, the Mad Max films, and the Lethal Weapon franchise--beg for one, while others such as White Heat, Casablanca, and Red River are perfect in their singularity (yes, I know that's an astronomical term; I'm stealing it anyway).


And then there are the sequels that simply tick me off (I'm talking to YOU, Alien franchise). For me there are only two Alien films: the first one, and Aliens. The third installment ragged me off to no end. I simply didn't buy the fact that Newt and Hicks (and poor old Bishop) were killed of for no earthly (hah!) reason, so in my universe I changed it. Ripley made it back to Earth, she and Hicks got married, and they adopted Newt.


Oh yeah, they're both instructors at Starfleet Academy (I said this is my universe!), and Bishop the android is their wisecracking next-door neighbor.


And Vicki from Small Wonder is Newt's best pal.


So there.

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It's voting time again, and here we go.

Your right to vote was bought with a price. Use it.



In less than four weeks mid-term elections will be upon us, with the victors popping champagne corks while the losers eye high bridges. Lock your vaults and hide your daughters.


This time out it seems every politician, known and unknown, from both sides of the aisle is throwing his or her hat into the ring. Or since hats are passe, "forming exploratory committees." You know. Like a colonoscopy.


The run-up to these things is political Darwinism at its most elemental. "Dog eat dog" is too bland a phrase; "slash and burn" says it more plainly. And brother, does it seem to take forever, this time we're soon to enter. If farming season lasted as long we'd be harvesting green beans the size of dugout canoes. What we Americans put ourselves through every few years puts me in mind of a childhood memory.


When I was a boy my family would sometimes take Sunday drives. Long Sunday drives. Endless, bleak, soul-killing, waiting-for-Godot Sunday drives. There we'd be, my dad behind the wheel of our Ford Galaxy (Clark Kent hat tilted at a rakish angle), with my mom beside him. In the back seat were my little brother and yours truly.

Along about the eighteenth hour (or so it seemed) of the drive, my brother and I would grow bored, although "bored" doesn't really say it; that's like calling the firebombing of Dresden a "warmish day." Anyway, Scott would casually throw his leg over mine. I'd toss it back. He'd do it again with a bit more force. I'd toss it back. He'd stick his tongue out at me. I'd look back and pretend to eat boogers. He'd pinch me. I'd slug him. And so on.


The only thing that could end the fun was my dad with his eyes still on the road screaming obscenities and flailing his arm over the back of the seat, hoping to nail one of us, or both. My mom would laugh behind her hand, but I still saw it.


That's kind of like what election season is reminiscent of. Yeah.

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Risk = Opportunity

We heard risk is the price you pay for opportunity. So true. 


What do you think?

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Adventurous? Try this.

Ever had a distress call? John Brenner has. Here's the Distress Call, a drink of his own design. Pour three fingers of Maker's Mark bourbon into a bar glass, then add one drop of Meet Your Maker Retribution Sauce. Mix well and drop in a twist of lime. Lay one-quarter finger of grain alcohol on top. Light it and let it burn for three seconds. Blow it out, and slam it back. It's good, so be sure to include your friends. 



With a shriek of tortured metal another bullet slashed by my face, tumbling end for end by the sound. Ricochet.


Tucking myself further back into the three-by-three steel cubbyhole at the end of the hall, not for the first time in the last ten minutes I questioned my inability to say no to pie. No doubt about it, if I got out of this alive I was going to buy a Stairmaster. Maybe two, one for each leg. In circumstances like these, inches could mean death.


Resisting an urge to panic, I quickly pushed it away as I glanced down and checked my weapons again. One was still hopelessly jammed, the other one empty. So much for that. I know it's weird, but rounds just don't seem to last as long as they used to; I lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of Rosie O'Donnell. It would have been sweet for a bullet fairy, Disney-like and with a soft blue neon glow, to come flitting in right about then to bring me some fresh ammunition, but truth to tell what I really needed was something with a little more authority. Like maybe a rocket launcher.

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