Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Things I Find Fascinating: Farcical, Freaky, And Fairly Funny Florida Place Names

Not unlike Pennsylvania, the state of Florida seems to also have quite a few oddly named towns, cities, and other place names. Again, I'm not going into the history of each one of these – I don't really even care. These are for your entertainment (hopefully) and mine (definitely) only. Enjoy!

1)  I Know There's An Abundance Of Wildlife There, But Did They Have To Give So Many Places Animal Names?  Apparently so. While visiting Florida, you may find yourself in any one of the following animal-inspired places...

Water Turkey Bayou
Manatee County
Horsey Park
Cockroach Bay State Park
Alligator Point
Snake Creek
Whale Harbor
Bird Key
Dog Island
and the ever-popular
Flamingo Heights

2)  You're Making Me Hungry:  Being the best place in the country to raise and produce oranges and other citrus fruits, it shouldn't be surprising that Florida is full of food-related place names. But they are kind of hung up on the citrus thing a little bit much, aren't they?

Fruit Cove
Fruitland Park
Citrus Springs
Citrus Park
Citrus Hills
Lemon Bay
Port Orange
and one non-fruity one...

3)  We Want You To Feel Safe And Welcome Here:  Everyone knows Florida is a great place to live, especially when you're ready to retire. And Florida would like to take the time to remind you how great it is to live there by naming a number of places some very pleasant and welcoming names. Case in point...

Pretty Bayou
Pleasure Isles
Leisure City
The Great Outdoors
and the all-important...
Safety Harbor

4)  Tongue-Twisting Native American Names:  Much like Pennsylvania, I had to pick and choose the best of the best among these, because Native American place names are literally all over Florida. Here are a few that you might have some trouble with, if you had to say them three times fast...

Choctawhatchee Bay
Waccasassa Bay
Homosassa Springs
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
Weeki Wachee Gardens
Lake Okeechobee
Fakahatchee Strand State Park
Loxahatchee Groves
Withlacoochee Bay
Lake Kissimmee
and where would this list be without listing...

5)  I Have The Feeling I'm Somewhere Else Entirely:  Nearly all states have this in common – they name towns, villages, and what have you after other places in the world. This is not uncommon in the least. But apparently it's extremely common in Florida. Observe...

Mexico Beach
Panama City
not to mention a slew of California-
inspired place names, including...
Laguna Beach
Beverly Hills
Golden Gate
and they didn't just stick with this planet for inspiration...
Neptune Beach

6)  It's Heaven For Snowbirds:  As previously mentioned, Florida is a great place to retire to and spend your golden years. And for snowbirds (the name affectionately bestowed upon elderly people, particularly from up North, who retire to Florida) there are plenty of places where they can feel right at home. Take these for example:

Golden Beach
Golden Glades
Silver Springs
Bald Point State Park
Old Town
and when it's their time to go...
Dead Lakes

7)  Just Plain Weird Place Names:  This post wouldn't be complete without a few generally oddball-named places and my appropriately snarky comments. You knew it was coming, right? Prepare to groan...frequently!

Burnt Store Marina  (I don't think I'd dock my boat there)

Greater Sun Center  (which is right down the road
from Lesser Moon Center – no, not really!)

Honeymoon Island State Park  
(this is where you go to...well, you figure it out!)

Sopchoppy  (Kung Fu capital of the world!)

Tate's Hell State Forest  (can you imagine 
trying to come up with the brochure for this place?
"it's, um, pretty hot, and there's trees, and um...eternal torment")

Holeyland Wildlife Management Area  (conversely, these folks 
probably don't have a whole lot of trouble bringing people in)

Micanopy  (as opposed to your canopy)

Hypoluxo  (ask your doctor if Hypoluxo is right for you – 
some side effects of using Hypoluxo may include shortness of breath, 
increased blood pressure, and abject apathy; use only as directed)

Golf  (gee, I wonder what they do for fun there?)

Waldo  (I heard someone was looking for Waldo
a while back; good news, I've solved the case)

Town 'N' Country  (hey, I've got one of those! 
I didn't know they come in actual town size now!)

Frostproof  (well, I'm sure it is – 
it's in Florida, for Pete's sake!)

Land O' Lakes  (suddenly, I'm craving butter) 

Dismal Key  (a top destination for depressed tourists)

No Name Key  (a top destination for tourists
in the Witness Protection Program)

Hundred Acre Woods  (Winnie The Pooh sightings
may occur, as may bouncing Tiggers)

Lake Placid and (nearby) Placid Lakes  
(file under the Department of Redundancy Department)

Coupon Bight Aquatic Reserve  (save 25% when you 
are bitten by wildlife twice within the same calendar year)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Short Story: "The Great One"

This longer piece is possibly my favorite story among all the ones that I've written. If I've done my job, you'll find this tale to be gently humorous, slightly oddball, and yes, even meaningful. I based one of the two main characters on my closest friend since childhood. However, this character is a fictionalized version, and any appearances to the actual "Don Juan Spiffy" are purely coincidental. The other main character is also based loosely on a real person, whose story I discovered in the pages of a National Geographic many years ago. Hope you enjoy it!

Our story begins in the only village of a small kingdom on a small island in Indonesia, not so very long ago...

Than Nam, the leader of the Coconut People, stood upon his purple mushroom throne, his ostrich-feather pen in hand, writing upon the Great Notepad. The words flowed from his pen with the authority of a king, or a god. To his people, he was both. These words were his commands. For Than Nam had not spoken in over seventy-two years.

"Let the good times roll!" wrote the Great Leader, and added, "Eat, drink, and be whoever you are."

The Coconut People bowed before Than Nam, and shouted simultaneously: "As you desire, O Great One!"

The festivities were intended to be a celebration of life. It was Bin Kai The Adequate's birthday, and a party was always in order on occasions such as these. But to Than Nam, the celebration was a sort of going-away party for his life, as he feared his own death was near. His years on earth had now totaled eighty-four. His once-frail body was now quite feeble. He had once stood tall, even though he had always been short. Now he was merely short.

Yet the uncertainty which Than Nam now felt was not because of his impending death; rather, he concerned himself with the question of who would succeed the throne and rule the living. Than Nam had outlived all of his rightful heirs. The only individual on the island who was almost royalty was Inikiki, whose mother had had a fling with the Court Jester.

With a sad heart and a heavy frown which accentuated the deep, numerous wrinkles in the old man's face, Than Nam scratched his bald head and sighed, knowing full well what must be done. He disappeared behind the stage where he had stood to signal the commencement of the day's festivities, and ran slowly to his Royal Tent.

Once inside, Than Nam sorted through the stack of junk mail he had received in the past two months. He tossed aside the unwanted magazines, the Publisher's Clearing House entry forms, and pleas for money transfers from remote locations in Nigeria in order to find the specific letter he sought. But he couldn't seem to find it anywhere.

A week and a half ago, among the piles of weekly fan mail he received from all over the world, Than Nam remembered reading a real eye-opener. It had come from a young American boy, and the proposition the boy had made was truly incredible.

Where was that letter?

After several hours of searching the small tent, Than Nam finally spotted the curious piece of mail, and opened it up.

In microscopically small handwritten cursive, the letter read:

"Dear Mr. Than Nam,
I saw your picture in an old copy of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and read all about you, and I was just wondering if you're still alive. If you are, I would just like to know if I could please have an autographed picture of you or one of the Coconut  People? I am collecting Dr. Pepper cans to take to my local recycling center so that I can earn enough money to come and visit you, possibly within the next 12 to 15 months or so. Oh yeah, and if you ever get tired of being 'The Man' over there, just let me know. I'd be glad to take over for you. Seriously!
Your fan,
Don Juan Spiffy"

Could the great Than Nam really relinquish all his power and rights as the Coconut People to some dumb kid? And an American kid, at that? Than Nam let the thought cross his mind, cross his eyes, and his fingers and toes. Perplexed and more than a little apprehensive, he knew what he must do. He would have to meet that kid.


Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in a lush green cornfield in Iowa, a wild-eyed, chubby American boy was sitting and thinking. The boy was nearly seventeen years old, but he appeared to be around forty. The boy often sat and thought here in the field. His parents thought he was a lunatic, and they might well have been correct in their thinking. But on this day, there was a purpose for his pondering.

The night before, he'd had an experience which was far too real to be ignored. The great Than Nam, the leader of the Coconut People – that oddly appealing, strange, and mysterious man whose picture he had cut out of an old magazine a year earlier – had appeared to the boy in a dream. 

Being mute by choice, the Great Leader, of course, did not utter a word. Instead, the old man simply floated on a pillow of air with his index finger extended, drawing smiley faces in the neighboring clouds.

Then suddenly the old man's expression changed. It now bore a grave, urgent stare; and with it, the gnarled fingers of the old man's hand turned round and beckoned the boy to come to him.

Still dreaming, the boy had stood and taken an actual step forward, and awakened suddenly as his head slammed into his bedroom wall.

The dream lingered in the boy's head, along with a sizable lump, and he tried in vain to decipher it. Why would such a great and powerful leader such as Than Nam take time out of his busy schedule to appear as a figment of some random kid's imagination?

An avid soda drinker, the boy had collected enough cans over the long summer that – in addition to a minuscule stash of cash he already possessed – he now had nearly enough funds to make the trip to Indonesia that he'd been planning. If only he could accomplish this task without his parents finding out.

Oh well, he figured, they'll find out about it in the newspaper if I die. The boy lacked common sense, but he more than made up for it in enthusiasm. Sort of.

At that moment, since he had already warmed up his brain with some serious thought, he decided to envision what it would be like to actually get the chance to succeed the great Than Nam. The boy irrationally considered the possibility that his crazy dream might somehow be a foreshadowing of things to come.

Imagine me, the boy thought, Don Juan Spiffy, the leader of the Coconut People!  It was certainly a tantalizing thought. What marvelous things he could do with such power and prestige! Imagine me, he thought again, living in the Royal Tent, scratching out my Royal Decrees on the Great Notepad with my Royal Ostrich-Feather Pen!

But that was enough thinking for one day. The mind is a terrible thing if you don't waste it a little.


The Coconut People had been staring up at the sky all day long. Finally, around sunset, the airplane flew over and deposited its passenger. The people let out a collective gasp as they realized that the boy's parachute had failed to open. Than Nam's eyes widened in horror as he watched the future of his kingdom plummeting toward the rocks below at break-neck speed, destined to be crushed on impact.

A little less than four weeks ago, the Great Leader had contacted the American boy and had sent him a one-way plane ticket to the nearest airport. A charter plane would then take him the rest of the way to the island of the Coconut People.

The boy was overjoyed to have been chosen to succeed his hero, and was surprised to find that his parents actually didn't mind his leaving at all. They had always supported the boy's crazy whims, because as they said "it's just a part of growing up." The truth was that they had never really liked their son that much anyway.

Meanwhile, Than Nam's health had rapidly deteriorated. His fevers and coughing spells had become an everyday occurrence, as had his growing dependence on homegrown pain medicines. Sadly, the old man had lost nearly all sense of direction, time, and reality.

The Coconut People, upon hearing the news about the successor – an American kid, of all things! – were at first reluctant to submit to a new leader. After all, Than Nam had ruled them for their entire lives. But maybe things would work themselves out in the end. After all, here was the boy, falling from the sky toward certain death.

At the last possible moment, the bravest and most loyal of the Coconut People, Inikiki, stepped beneath the falling boy with his arms outstretched to catch him. The boy fell in precisely the right spot, but the force of the fall – coupled with the boy's prodigious weight – knocked Inikiki backward, snapping his body in half with a sickening crack.

As Don Juan Spiffy scampered to his feet, he turned and glanced at the mangled mass of arms, legs, head, and torso that had recently been Inikiki, and thanked the dead man for his sacrifice, bowing gracefully and sighing regretfully. Scattered whimpers of sorrow were heard throughout the crowd, but Than Nam knew that there was little time for weeping.

The Great Leader rushed over to his Great Notepad, and wrote. "To our revered visitor: The Coconut People and I are honored to have you grace us with your presence, and subsequently to take over our meager little kingdom. To The Coconut People: Go and bury Inikiki in the sea, and utter great words on my behalf in his honor. I must now converse with our next monarch."

"But," replied Don Juan Spiffy more humbly than was necessary, "I am not yet leader. I am only myself."

"Yes," wrote the old man, "but tonight I die. Tomorrow, you are leader."

The two briefly suspended their conversation and bowed their heads in respect as Inikiki's body was gathered up in a sack and dragged respectfully to the sea.

"But," replied the boy, "how can you know, O Great One, that you will die tonight?"

"I will kill myself." The letters of the words the old man had written seemed to sear a hole in the parchment paper of the Great Notepad.

"But you mustn't, great Than Nam, sir," pleaded Don Juan Spiffy. "You must first teach me of your ways. You must impart to me your lifetime of knowledge so that I, too, may be a great and wise leader."

"Greatness and wisdom," wrote Than Nam, "are worthless. All that matters is that you can pretend to be great, and that you can imagine yourself to be wise. If the people never notice, then they never need to know. All that matters is the appearance of wisdom and greatness."

"Are you truly great, O Great One? Are you truly wise?" The boy raised his eyebrows, a faint glimmer of hope and eagerness shining in his eyes.

"No," the old leader spoke aloud, and added, "that is why I have chosen you. One cannot pretend forever. One day it is time to move on. That day, that time, is now."

"You spoke!" the boy cried. "You spoke aloud! Why here, why now?"

"Why not?" Than Nam said. "But no one else must know of this. The Coconut People have lived their entire lives under my command, and they have never heard me speak. If they had, they would have heard the uncertainty in my voice. They would have sensed the quiver in my speech. They would know that I was pretending. They must never know."

"So," replied the boy, "Must I also not speak? Must I hold my tongue as you have done for so long?"

"That is entirely up to you," replied the ancient leader. "If you have nothing to hide – speak. If you are truly great – speak. If you are good at pretending – speak. But I must never speak."

The boy did notice a slight quiver in the old man's voice, and knew that the things he had said must all be true.


That very night the feeble, sick old man took a bite of a special poisoned cookie in the presence of all his people and their soon-to-be new leader. Than Nam collapsed back onto the purple mushroom throne, sighed silently, and breathed his last breath.

There was much weeping, as the Coconut People mourned the death of their Great Leader, their wise and powerful king and god. Many more wept as Don Juan Spiffy himself carried the old man's body to the raft by the sea. The boy helped the people – his people now – cover the dead leader's body in flowers and shrubbery, and push the raft out to sea, never to be seen again.


Over the next fifty years, Don Juan Spiffy ruled the Coconut People wisely and fairly. Not once did he disgrace the name of his people or that of their former leader. Throughout the world, he became known as the greatest and wisest leader of them all, even though his kingdom was among the smallest. And he spoke to his people in the clearest, most confident tones that a man could – for every word he spoke, he truly meant.

The Real Than Nam – this looks like the same picture I saw 
in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC all those years ago; 
but that one was, of course, a lot less grainy and it was in color. 
That headband he's wearing is red, and his toga is mustard yellow. 

Another picture of the real Than Nam. His followers affectionately 
called him "Dao-Dua" – I don't know what that translates to in English.

Monday, February 27, 2012

5 Things I Should Probably Be Embarrassed About Or Ashamed Of...(But I'm Not!)

Okay, so I know I've been inundating you all with my fiction of late, and for those of you (which may be most of you) who don't like my stories, it's either been torture or you've tuned me out entirely. Hopefully, you're still here, though – if so, "Hi!" and "Thank you!"

There's a reason for all this story business – I'm hard at work editing and rewriting my old stories, and am actively mining for ideas for new stories in preparation for a short story collection I plan on putting together later this year. I need to have around 20 or so solid stories to make it worth the effort, and I'm not quite there yet. So bear with me as I test the waters by posting things I'm currently writing or rewriting. I won't put fiction posts up every day, I promise (although I likely will tomorrow).

So, to give you Readers a break from the torture of my fiction, I have come up with a short list of the things which I should probably be embarrassed to admit...but I'm not.

1)  Leaving My House Wearing A Ratty Old T-Shirt, Battered Crocs, And Bright Green Christmas-Themed Peanuts Sleep Pants To Pick Up Breakfast At A Drive-Thru.  Yeah, I did that this weekend. Last weekend, too. Ah, the poor folks at Hardee's and Bojangle's who had to be subjected to that hideous sight. But then again, they probably see a lot worse on a daily basis. At least I didn't go inside either establishment. After all, I have my pride. And my dignity. Sort of.

2)  Liking And Listening To Cheesy Pop Music That's More Commonly Enjoyed By Teenage Girls.  And I even sing along! Sure, music by artists like Taylor Swift, Colbie Caillat, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Paramore might be more geared toward the younger (predominantly female) set, but I can't help liking it. It's fun to listen to, and they're all very talented singers. (I've also been known to listen to Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and others of that ilk in my time, though not so much anymore.) I will, however, draw the line at Justin Bieber. I don't care for The Bieb or his music in the least, and I don't think I ever will.

3)  Playing Music So Loud That The Windows In My Mini-Van Rattle.  To clarify, I don't play the cheesy pop music that loud – I'm not that unembarrassed about it! This one more applies to whenever I'm listening to Christian rap music. If it's a song or an artist I like a lot, the louder the better! I know what you're thinking – I'm going to ruin my hearing. But it's too late for all that, as I'm sure my hearing's already half gone by now. I've been cranking my music up louder than is reasonable for as long as I can remember, and annoying tons of people along the way, I'm sure. So, if I pull up beside you at a stoplight and my bass is bumping too loud, and you roll your eyes or cut me a dirty look, I won't be offended – been there, done that.

4)  Watching Paranormal/Ghost Hunting TV Shows And Enjoying Them.  While I do believe in the supernatural – because God Himself is supernatural – I don't put a whole lot of stock in ghost-hunting or in spirits haunting people or locations. But it's sure entertaining to watch! There are a ton of these shows out there now, and I don't watch all of them. But I do like several of them for different reasons. There are the ones that intentionally try to scare you by adding jump cuts, erratic editing, creepy music, and sound effects. Those kinds of shows appeal to the horror movie aficionado in me. Then there are the ones where they take a more scientific approach to their ghost-hunting. Those are interesting to me, because the investigators are actively trying to debunk the paranormal phenomena as natural occurrences or human hoaxes. Sometimes they can, and sometimes they can't. There are other varieties of these shows that take a darker, more occultist tack toward their investigations, seemingly tracking down a new demon every week. I don't like those at all. For one thing, they're playing with fire, doing seances and fooling around with Ouija boards and the like. Demons are real – read your Bible – don't be stupid! For another, those shows seem to be more sensationally motivated than actually seeking any kind of truth about what they're investigating. I don't waste my time on those.

5)  Being Slightly Obsessed With True Crime TV Shows And Books.  I don't know why I have such a fascination for true crime. I just find real-life stories of horrible crimes terribly compelling. I'm especially captivated by books and shows that attempt to delve into the minds of serial killers. I've read books about all the major ones – Jack The Ripper, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, and etc. Ann Rule, a very famous true crime writer, is among my favorite authors to read. I'm not a criminal, nor do I ever aspire to be one. I'm not in law enforcement, nor have I ever seriously aspired to be in law enforcement. I can't explain the interest, but it's always been there. Even as a young teenager, I read these books and watched the shows. There's probably deep, twisted psychological reasons for it, though I've never been psychoanalyzed to find out for sure. (Probably not a bad idea.) It's probably why I also like horror movies/novels, and why some of my fiction is much darker than my actual personality. Who knows?

WAR AND PEACE UPDATE:  I'm 19% of the way through this gargantuan novel, but still (surprisingly enough) enjoying it thoroughly. I don't read it every day, just mostly when I go to the gym – which is roughly four times a week. Speaking of which...

WEIGHT UPDATE:  I'm now down 17 pounds for the year. It was 18 pounds the other day, but then came the fashion-challenged trip to Hardee's and another self-defeating trip to KFC yesterday, so the number is up just a little. Back to eating like a bird and working out today, I suppose.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Short Story: "George's Ashes"

Another oldie-but-goodie from my repertoire of short fiction pieces. Having recently rewritten it, I was tempted to make it less of a dark tale than it was originally intended to be. But that would defeat the whole point of the story, and rob it of much of its bleak irony. Love it or hate it -- it is what it is. Hope you'll enjoy it!

I'm sitting here debating whether or not George is worth a decent eulogy, or if I should simply stand up at his funeral and blurt out, "You all knew him. You know what he was like!"

That particular option may not be ideal, but then neither was giving me -- George's worst enemy in life -- the dreaded responsibility of delivering his eulogy. But, seeing as how no one in his family, except George himself, realized the extent of my hatred for him, I may have seemed to be the logical choice. After all, apart from his family, I was George's closest friend.

Back in high school, before George had made anything of himself, he and I got along fairly well. We played on the same sports teams together. We were both on the high school drama team. We may have even double-dated a few times -- me with Lynda, George with his flavor-of-the-week.

But then graduation came, and college followed; and even though we attended the same college, we were studying very different subjects, so we saw very little of each other.

Of course, after college, the rest is history. I went to work for an insurance company -- not selling it, just doing the paperwork for the people who do. George got funding -- from his family's seemingly endless supply of capital -- to start his own restaurant, which did well enough for him to be able to open another one, and another, and so on. While his success was great, his business ethics were easily compromised, and he made few friends along the way.

Over the past fifty years, George has continued to get richer and richer, and more and more of full of the wonder he always found in himself. Meanwhile, I have toiled away at one respectable but not-very-well-paying job after another, always hoping that the next one just might be "the one" where I'd find my niche.

After years of accumulating a wealth of jealousy and bitterness toward my friend, I decided about a year ago that I would finally have it out with George -- tell him honestly and directly that I thought he was the scum of the earth, and that he owed me so much for being his friend when he was a nobody and when he was a somebody. I didn't say it was a rational argument; but it was how I felt.

When I finally got up the courage and the opportunity to speak my mind to him, George's simple yet profound response surprised me. He said, "It makes sense that you should hate me. I don't blame you at all."

Even though I felt what he said was true and right, and I had no reason to be unnerved by his declaration, I felt a murderous rage boiling within me. It was a new feeling, a rather curious sensation. I rather liked it.

But I did not give in to my urge to kill George, even though I hated him. What would it have solved anyway? In the end, George still would have lived a more productive, more successful, and more fulfilled life than I could ever hope to. I would have merely put an exclamation point at the end of an already brilliantly exclamatory existence.

In fact, George himself was ultimately responsible for his demise. It has been reported in all the newspapers that George died of a sudden heart attack while feasting on caviar -- a supremely delightful way for a rich man to die, I suppose. This, however, is only the story the family has released to the press. The true cause of death has been made known to me, and it has fully satisfied any urge for revenge I might have exacted upon George myself.

George had, in fact, been eating caviar on the night of his death. He'd even stained his teeth black with the stuff, as was apparently his custom. But it was several hours later when the events leading to his death were set in motion.

Having finished supper and bade goodnight to his butler and maid -- George didn't truly need house servants, but thought it made him seem more important if he had them -- George retired to his recreation room to shoot a game of billiards and indulge in a libation or two. An hour or so into his playing, George lit up his fourth cigar of the evening and took a few puffs before returning to his game.

The next shot was a particularly difficult one, and he executed it masterfully, textbook-perfect. As is common among great egotists, George raised his head high and looked about the room for anyone who might have seen him ace the shot. Of course, being alone in this part of the house, there was no one who wished to congratulate him on his skill. Disheartened, George returned his focus to the billiards table.

Before shooting, George once again raised the cigar to his mouth, but it slipped from his grasp as he touched it to his lip, and the lit cigar slid flame-first down his throat. George dropped to his knees, struggling to scream, as the cigar -- somehow still lit -- lodged in his esophagus and cut off his air passage.

To make matters worse (or better, depending on one's perspective), an errant spark had dropped from the cigar just before he swallowed it, and George's designer suit had also caught fire.

The butler and maid, having retired to their separate quarters on the opposite side of the mansion, did not hear George's gurgled cries.

As much as I wish I could say that it had, death did not take long. If the choking had not been sufficient to kill him -- which it had -- the alchohol which George had spilled on his suit just minutes before, had been sufficient to transform the errant spark into vibrant flames. In mere minutes, George had been reduced to a blackened mass on his own recreation room floor, ironically looking not unlike an extinguished cigar stamped out underfoot.

I suppose it's wrong for me to feel cheery upon hearing of a fellow human being's death, especially that of a long-time friend. But I think an exception can and should be made in this case. All good things must come to an end. All good people too. Even George, though I'm not sure he was either a "good thing" or a "good person". Now the question begs -- what do I say in his memory? I can only state the obvious.

George was someone that I knew for a long time. He was very determined, very successful, and as a result, very rich. He loved life, but he loved himself even more. He made something out of himself, which is something I could never quite do. I called him my friend, but that was more out of habit than out of relationship. He wasn't really anybody's friend. What more can I say?

Perhaps I'll just read all this out loud.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interview With My Grandfather

In dredging up some of my old writings for the first time in years, I found this piece that I had completed for a writing class in college. The assignment was to interview someone that we knew personally, and let them tell their story in their own words. My step-grandfather, Carl Kinion, who at the time (sometime around the year 2000) was facing the end of his long marriage to my grandmother, was already spending a lot of time reflecting on his life and the paths he had taken; so I thought he would be the perfect subject for my interview. What follows is the interview in its entirety, prefaced by my brief introductory remarks.

It's peaceful out tonight. It's going to be a good night for traveling – not across space or distance, but across time and memories. Carl Kinion, my step-grandfather, leans back in his recliner and lights the first of what will be a seemingly endless chain of cigarettes. The fumes are so thick in his small apartment that I can already feel my head starting to hurt and stinging tears welling up in my eyes. But I'm here to do an interview, and my own concerns must take a back seat to the story I'm about to hear. I wanted to ask Carl about a cross-country journey he took twenty-five years ago because I love to travel. I'd love to be able to visit all the places that Carl went – though I'd prefer not to go about it in the same manner that he did. The circumstances under which he left originally, and under which we now meet are unfortunate, but virtually the same as they were all those years ago. Carl and my grandmother, his wife of thirty-six years, have separated. This time – due to truly irreconcilable differences which it is unnecessary to go into – it appears that they will never be together again as man and wife. Carl is a fascinating storyteller. He has so many vivid memories of his past; and only now, after years of feeling repressed by his wife, is he able to tell them to someone who wants to listen. As we begin, the television competes with our two voices – JAG is Carl's favorite show, but he's devoting more of his attention to our conversation...thankfully.

CARL:  I left here and I hitchhiked all the way to L.A. California.

JASON:  Why did you go?

CARL:  Well, I left my wife. And I went all the way to L.A. I worked my way out with A-1 Van Lines.... I'd pick up odd jobs along the way. I spent the nights in city jails out there, 'cause – you know, you can't do it in North Carolina – but out there, they'd rather have you in jail [and] know where you're at all night than have you out on the streets.... I went out there [to L.A.] and I stayed about three days, and I headed back this way.... Got a meat-cutting job in Claypool, Arizona, which is between Globe and Miami, Arizona, at two dollars an hour – which won't much, but it was enough to get by.... What else you want to know?

JASON:  Okay, you answered some of my questions already, but I'll ask them in different ways. When you left, did you ever plan to return? Did you think you were coming back?

CARL:  No, I didn't think I was, and I had seventeen cents in my pocket.... In fact, out in Arizona, I told them I was gonna settle right there. 'Cause the first thing they asked me, "Are you a tramp butcher?" See, in Arizona, they got those copper mines. And a tramp miner, he'll spend thirty days at this job, and go somewhere else. And I swore up and down, I was gonna stay right there. But just as soon as I got me a couple of paychecks, and called your grandmama...and she accepted the charges on the phone...I was headed back towards the East.

JASON:  Okay, you already said a little bit about this, but what did you do for food and sleeping arrangements?

CARL:  Well, I'd go to the Salvation Army, if there was one handy, and they'd give you a bowl of oatmeal – that's all, no cream, no sugar, just a bowl of oatmeal. And these rescue missions would give you a night or two of sleep. But most of the time I slept under a bridge, a viaduct, where one road goes over the other one. And if you walk up that steep embankment, you got an eight-foot slab of cement all the way down, you know...and you can crawl up there, and get that first spot. You're out of the wind, the rain, the cold, and you can hear the cars going over...the highway. I spent many a night in there. But now, I got hungry too. I went eighteen days without eating anything solid.

JASON:  Why?

CARL:  Well, there ain't nobody gonna give you nothing, and I didn't have no money. So, if somebody'd buy me a cup of coffee, they got these packs of sugar. I put all I can in my pocket. And if you keep a little sugar, it gives you energy. And if you keep your belly full of water, you don't get hungry. Now, you can't go but so long that way.... But you keep plenty of water. You've got to have water.

JASON:  Did you meet any interesting people along the way?

CARL:  Yeah, I met a lot of nice people. There's a lot of people that don't mind helping somebody. Sometimes somebody might give a five-dollar bill to help me on the way – most of the time they didn't. They all wanted to know why I was...going across the country. And I told a different story every time.   [Laughs.]  I didn't think it was none of their business.

JASON:  Where were a few of the major places that you stopped? I know you said L.A. and Arizona.

CARL:  Well, I'd never been to the capital of New Mexico, which is Santa Fe. Now, I was hitching a hike on Interstate 40.... Well, when you get into Albuquerque, if you make a right in Albuquerque, then you go right on in to Santa Fe, which was a good little ride. But I went to Santa Fe – I'd never seen or been there – walked around and looked at the buildings, which was adobe, then I come back to Albuquerque, and started on back. Spent one night in the desert, and it gets cold, and that's a fact. And you do dehydrate. You can't even speak the next morning till you take just a little sip of water.

JASON:  So, it's really hot during the day and cold during the night?

CARL:  It really is.

JASON:  I know you said you did meat-cutting. What other jobs did you have – in different places?

CARL:  Well, I'd wash dishes and I'd load and unload furniture...and I did meat-cutting...about anything [I could so] I could get a few dollars to help me.

JASON:  Of all the places that you went, which place did you like the best?

CARL:  I guess Spokane, Washington. I liked Spokane for some reason. California I didn't like at all. I hurried up and got out just as quick as I could. You can't get no work there...unless you buy it.... You go to Manpower or somebody, and they'd get you a job, but they get most of the money. You're working less than half price for what you would draw....Then I stopped at Globe, Arizona, and found out about that meat-cutting job, and I got it. The head butcher was leaving to a better job, and they hired me – they liked me. But I sure hit the road. I went to the bar, and I got tore up, and I told the bartender, I said, "Give me ten dollars in quarters." I went over to the phone outside. And I called your grandmama...collect. I said, "If she won't accept, I'll pay for it on this end." But she accepted. It was two hours' was about twelve [here] when I called, so it was about ten o'clock [there], and I knew she was still up. She took the call. The next day I was out there, heading East.

JASON:  What made you decide to return?

CARL:  Well, I missed her, you know...and I'd been gone almost a year....

JASON:  Do you feel like you gained something from your trip?

CARL:  Well, I gained a lot. Like you say, I met a lot of nice people. I did it the hard way. I wouldn't do it today because of the way things are...but back then you didn't have a whole lot [to worry about].... Most of the time, if anybody's going several hundred miles, and they pick you up, the first thing they ask is, "Have you got [a] driver's license?" I say, "I got North Carolina." They say, "That's good enough." As long as they're in the car...they want you to drive, see. Especially somebody going cross-country. They want you to drive twenty-four hours a day, or drive and let them sleep, you know.

JASON:  If you had it to do all over again, what would you have done differently?

CARL:  I don't know, really. I may have stayed home and listened to [her] mess.

JASON:  Do you think, if you had it to do all over again – knowing what you know now – that you would have stayed somewhere across the country, and not come back?

CARL:  Yeah, I do now, the way things have turned out. I wish I had stayed in Arizona or somewhere. 'Course I missed her then, and I miss her now. I missed her a whole lot. We got married in '62, and we'd been married about ten or eleven years [then]. Now, we've been married almost thirty-seven... August'll be thirty-seven years. And I never thought she would do the things that she has done to me. I tried. I went without food myself to make sure she had something on the table.... But...things changed, and I saw it.... I still love the woman, even though she has done me so wrong.

Carl and my grandmother never reconciled, both living the remaining years of their lives apart. Carl Kinion died on July 12, 2003, at the age of 66. My grandmother, Ruth Kinion, died on April 8, 2010, at age 85.  I loved them both.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Slumbering Thoughts, Or How I Spent My Dozing Hours With Pen In Hand And No Direction

Hold on to your hats, folks! If you're not wearing hats, hold on to any other loose clothing. The short pieces that follow are my own personal exercises in stream-of-consciousness literature. Some of them don't make a whole lot of sense. And some of them I like more than other pieces I put a lot more time and effort into writing.

These pieces, all written ten or more years ago, are what I like to call "Slumbering Thoughts." For a while, it was my custom to take a pen and notepad to bed with me; when I was at my sleepiest, before surrendering to sleep, I would then proceed to write whatever came to mind.

Often I would go back the next morning and see what I had written, only to find it completely indecipherable. It also wasn't uncommon to see a word or sentence stopped midstream and a line of ink streaking down toward the bottom of the page. Some of these "thoughts" have never and will never see the light of day. But a few of them aren't half bad, and even the ones that are bad are at least entertaining.

So here you have five examples of my "Slumbering Thoughts" – the salvageable ones, the best of the oddest stuff I've ever written. And that's saying quite a lot. Enjoy!

There must be something. For so long there has been nothing. Waiting in the wings or poised to fly away. Love? Life? One makes the other matter. The other is nothing without its counterpart. I struggle with words to properly express the activity of inaction. If I were trying, I would be doing. Because I do not try, I do not. Opportunity knocks softly; the rest of the world carries on noisily. How can I hear them both? The pursuit of happiness is happiness. There is only excitement in the assured existence of absolute uncertainty. But what if there are no fish in the water? Can they be caught? Looking backward, I have forward thoughts, and yet I wonder, would I truly be moving at all? Or would I be returning? We return because we want more of what was good before. Can you want more if what seemed good was only an illusion? And if so, is there joy in such returning? Deal me the aces – I'm ready to go.

I had the means by which to do it. It was a sad day for a happy man, though. Right now I am thinking, which is more than I can say for you. Skip the details. Get straight to the point. I can see the big picture. What is a man if he is not slovenly? Sometimes they generalize, and who suffers most? The better your work is, the harder you will work. Slowly close the lid, of which you spoke, when you threw me into the ocean. Good things always happen at night. It's best when you don't know. It would be a delight, and she, the woman I know, would be behind it all, sometimes checking one of this with a very look. I'm not sick, though we walked another one today when she could. I took my pills, stop nagging. Step to the lightning, and you see the lightning – great ghosts of upward condescension – to judge which of six does seven choose by too many chairs. Putting on the crater – left by tornadoes. I'm in a bag, don't sift through me. Creamy on the inside. Commissioned by a cow, but don't it make you want to sing and dance?

Words and stuff by one who knows words like the back of nobody's business hand. ~ A master painter builds his house on a hill and looks down upon the world and paints life in aerials. Are those ants, you ask? No, but people, large in stature, tiny in the perspective of the big world itself. Going about their business, oblivious of one another. Each carrying his or her own special burden, often a burden greater than the person feels he or she can handle. And yet they carry on. From up here, you can't see the problems. You can't feel the pain. But this detachment naturally attaches. You feel for those who do not seem to feel at all. You watch them move across the green canvas and wonder what they'd do if they reached the edge? Maybe someday he will paint houses. The pay is poor, but you get to talk to people. You see them as they are, even if the truth is disturbing. For now, he watches, and waits, in wonder.

It really happened! I wasn't there, but I was taking notes. Imagine me, smelling the roses in the middle of a stop. I got the horse this time. He created a situation, and I defied it. They tried to trick him, but he wouldn't let them. Playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, that's where he is! No one ever plays anymore. Too much work can ruin your thunder if it has been stolen while you were playing. It's too complex for me to break it down. I merely ask, in hopes that they might answer. My pen travels faster than my brain. A shower of words fall, fall, fall to the ground, and shatter into a million tiny fragments. If I could find my voice, I would sing, and while I'm at it, take a time out for a Coke and a good vibe, if there ever was such a thing. I want to know the truth. If I'm standing in line, how can I get out of it? Frenetic, frenetic, it's all in the genes, I believe. DNA means "do not answer." Cause for alarm, if by chance there is a conflict. But do not worry. I can still dance. I am as limber now as I was twenty years ago, when I was but a tot. Or not. I'd like to think it ends somewhere.

She isn't anybody you'd know or imagine, were you given the task to respond. But it's not whether or not you're willing; rather if, in doing, you can see what the differences are. I try to make sense, though I never know till later. One-zip, no margin for error. Step up, crank out. My door is always open, and I chant with a lesser musical tone than most. I cheat occasionally on the good news or bad. If more is bad, I stress the good. If good prevails, bad sneaks in conspicuously. There is no honesty in this game. What are we doing? Is it our job?  Candles burn, but the darkness is greater. It must be a dungeon, because the world passes by above. Something dank and dusty hovers with a creepy American feel and no fine tuning. Can it be? I'm watching, but my eyes deny themselves. It's time for a chocolate chip cookie. Marvel not that sweet things are hard to come by, and even harder to keep. If only I knew what to think or say. It will come to me then. But how much of the meaning will be lost in translation?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Flash Fiction: "Monkie's Bad Habit"

This is another recent revision of an older piece, probably written sometime during or recently after college. Admittedly, this is a darker story, but it is fiction – please don't forget that as you're reading it. I don't know where some of these bleak tales come from, but when I'm inspired I just have to go with it, for good or ill. I'd love to hear any feedback you're willing to give. Hope you enjoy reading it! ~ JH


Monkie isn't guilty, at least not like you and I are guilty. The way she sees it, guilt only exists if you want it to; it isn't necessary, and it most certainly isn't automatic. So, when Monkie does what only she does best, and you I turn a disapproving eye toward her, Monkie doesn't mind – after all, she isn't guilty, because she doesn't choose to be.

"The tenets of good and evil," says Monkie quite often, "are not written in stone by some fantastical creature which has deemed itself the Great Arbitrator. Good and evil are simply two sides of the same coin that we ourselves are flipping. No one is either wholly good or wholly evil."

"So I can choose to be good, or I can choose to be evil?" she asks, speaking through her Otherself, the side of Monkie that is always argumentative.

"Or you can choose to be neither," Monkie answers her Otherself.

I can't say that I quite agree with (or even understand) all of her philosophies, but Monkie's logic is definitely worth considering. I ponder the enigma that is Monkie every day, yet I still come up empty. I guess that's why I'm madly in love with her.

Monkie always seems to find reasons to be defiant about the most commonplace things, which I've never understood. For instance, she refuses to acknowledge that she was born with any name other than Monkie. I don't know if she thinks it gives her distinction or distance; but I think Priscilla Monk is a nice name, too.

Sometimes I sit and watch Monkie for hours, gnashing my teeth and biting my nails, while she tirelessly bashes her fists against the wall. Every time she cries out in pain, yet still she rears back her fist again and again to feed her habit.

"Why, Monkie?" I cry. "Why are you hurting yourself like this?"

"You don't understand," she tells me, "it's something I simply must do."

Why must you?" her Otherself chimes in. "You're not just hurting yourself. You're hurting me, too!"

"That I can deal with," replies Monkie. "I've never liked you much anyway."

"But what about me?" I, the only other person in the room, inquire. But Monkie ignores me, and continues her assault.

I've long since gotten used to the blood, though I'll never accept that what she is doing is for the best. Time and time again I've contacted professionals, people who could give her the help that she needs. But Monkie refuses to be helped, and won't even admit that she has a problem.

It's wrong, I tell her. Even if she does claim to gain a tiny bit of enlightenment from doing it, that's nothing compared to the pain and scars it leaves behind. But she won't listen to me. Curiously enough, in every other subject she seems to value my opinion. But on this point Monkie will not waver.

"Don't you even feel guilty about it?" I ask her, already knowing the answer.

"Of course I don't," she snaps back. "That word means nothing to me."

"It would mean something if you hurt some thing or someone else, wouldn't it?" her Otherself replies. Though she often discredits her Otherself as insensible and overly obvious, it is the only voice of reason within Monkie.

"On the contrary," retorts Monkie. "I hurt people and things all the time, and I couldn't be less concerned about that."

"You mean like you hurt me?" I ask.

"I most certainly do not hurt you," says Monkie, adding, "That's absurd!"

But Monkie does hurt me, and she must realize that. Every time I see her wipe away her desperate tears with bloodied fists, I hurt with her. Yet she continues.

I've often thought of ways to solve her problem for good. 

I could tie her hands together behind her back. But in doing so I would be taking away her freedom to gesticulate; and for someone like Monkie, gesticulation is terribly important.

I could tear down the walls, not only here in our home, but all walls everywhere. But in so doing I would be taking away her right to privacy – and, indeed, everyone else's right to privacy.

In the end, there's only one thing I can do which is best for both of us. I must kill my beloved Monkie. With death comes ultimate enlightenment, rest, and restitution. I know she would do the same for me.

We even talked about it once. It's a rather long story, so I'll summarize. She was mouthing off about something in a particularly loud and boisterous manner, all the while bashing away at the wall with her fists.

She suddenly stopped and said to me, "Stanley... " (Though it's not my name and she knows it, she prefers Stanley over my given name.) "Stanley, do be a dear and murder me."

I replied that I wouldn't do that, and she inquired as to why not. I told her that I could never do that to someone I loved.

I don't recall Monkie's exact words, but it sounded something like, "Do it because you love me." Then she added, "I can't very well do it myself."

She spoke the words thoughtfully, like she'd already tried to kill herself – besides the thing with the fists, I mean – and I felt sorry for her. Because it was in that moment that I realized that Monkie did have a problem that was bigger and tougher than she was able to handle.

Now I see, after months of the same tired discussions and nothing having changed, that ending her suffering is the only reasonable solution. And so my dear Monkie, devoid of some good but not entirely evil, has chosen her fate, and chosen me to be her honorable murderer.

I don't want to do it, but I want Monkie to finally be happy. She looks at me now, as if to say (even though I haven't expressed it in words) she approves of what I'm considering. As if to say that I should proceed with the utmost assurance and the least amount of guilt.

I have no doubt that I will be found out and punished for my actions. I have accepted that already. But this is the right thing to do. 

For the love of Monkie. For the banishment of Otherself. And once and for all, to help Monkie overcome her one bad habit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By The Numbers

I may have been blogging for over a year now, but that doesn't mean I know what I'm doing.

For instance, I just recently discovered the "Stats" bar on my blog (I'm assuming this is something only I, the blogger, can see), and have quickly become fascinated with analyzing the blog's statistics. Well, as much as a non-math-inclined person like myself is able to analyze them, at least.

The results are both encouraging and disheartening. I can see in cold, hard numbers when a blog entry has been viewed frequently, and when it's barely been read at all. (Was it something I said? Did you hate the title? Am I losing my touch? Paranoia is setting in.)

It's not all bad. Here are a few interesting (to me, at least) facts I have gleaned from the "Stats" bar on The Plural Of Hyena blog:

1)  As Of This Writing, There Have Been 5,371 Total Page Views For The Blog.  This number, unfortunately, does count my own page views (which hopefully don't consist of half that number!) because I haven't yet figured out how to exclude my own "hits" from the total. I see where I'm supposed to click to exclude my numbers, and I've clicked it, but for some reason it doesn't work. Anyway, being the armchair statistician that I am, I can quickly figure out that my blog has been viewed an average of 14.7 times per day over the roughly 366 days of its existence thus far. Approximately 1,269 of those page views took place last month alone, which is an average of about 41 page views per day for the month. So, either I was going back and editing them a whole lot, or people are actually reading this masterfully written prose junk. Go figure!

2)  The Most-Viewed Entry All-Time On This Blog Is "Things I Find Fascinating #3: Zebras And The People Who Love Them."  (Incidentally, when did I stop numbering those? Oh well, who cares!) To date, there have been a total of 1,798 page views on this entry alone. What's that all about? Well, it could be that, in that post, I used the word "zebra" a total of 26 times, and massive occurrences of one word in particular like that can cause the page to show up higher in search engines for specific words, like the word "zebra". Which brings me to...

3)  The Words People Are Actually Searching For When They Unfortunately End Up At My Blog.  You'd think they'd arrive here by searching for words that are actually in the blog title, like "plural" maybe, or definitely "hyena." Not so much, actually. Approximately 165 page views originated from a search for "baby zebra" – this was the highest number for any word or phrase. "Zebras" generated another 157 hits, "riding a zebra" another 110 hits, "zebra riding" another 74 hits, "baby zebras" another 69 hits, "zebra" another 66 hits, "riding zebras" another 52 hits, "riding zebra" another 25 hits, and "zebra baby" another 19 hits. The only word or phrase that was not in any way related to zebras off the top searched-for words was the name "Googie Withers". You may or may not remember, but actress Googie Withers was one of the recently deceased celebrities I profiled in my "Personal Reflections On Dead Celebrities: 2011 Edition" post back in July of last year. Oddly enough, none of the top searched-for items was "fascinating" or "perusal" or "war and peace" or any other words and phrases I use often on this site. Just zebras. All zebras. (And Googie Withers, of course.)

4)  Sites And URLs Sending The Most People To My Blog.  It shouldn't be at all surprising that the top URL referring to my site was Facebook , since I always post the links to these on my wall; and I believe the majority of you who read what I put here see the link there first. (But I could be wrong.) Incidentally, also high up on the list were the Byrds' Nest blog (thanks, Stacey!) and the Letchworth Shenanigans blog (thanks, Ashley!). Some of the referring sites look like gobbledygook web addresses to me – maybe spam sites linking to me or something (um, thank you?). Among the other sites or URLs that I recognized were Google (including the US, UK, Canadian, and German sites!) and Linked In. Good to know, I guess.

5)  I'm Ten Times As Popular In The United States As I Am In The United Kingdom.  To date, 3,816 of my total page views have originated from these United States, and only 358 hits have come from the UK. Oh well, I wasn't really writing for them anyway! Other major countries where I am being read – or at least being accidentally stumbled upon in Google searches gone wrong – are Canada (198 hits), Germany (147), Russia (118), and Australia (99). I'm not quite as popular in India (only 22 hits), Finland (19), Netherlands (19), or the Ukraine (18) – but the fact that people across the world are actually (intentionally or accidentally) seeing this amazing ludicrous blog is pretty mind-boggling!

6)  Most People Access This Blog Using A Windows Or Macintosh Laptop Or Desktop Computer.  Why is this important? It's probably not, but I think it means I haven't quite caught on with the mobile internet users that much. While Windows (3,484 hits) and Mac (1,516 hits) lead the operating systems list, only 1% each of my blog readers access the site using an Android, iPad, iPod, iPhone, or BlackBerry. I don't especially care one way or the other how people find the site, as long as they find it and enjoy reading it. Just thought someone out there might find it interesting. Because I sure didn't.

7)  How High Does The Blog Show Up In A Search?  This is one that I didn't find on "Stats," but is something I've been checking periodically over the past year. Currently, if you type in the phrase "the plural of hyena" (without the quotation marks) on Google, you will see this blog listed as the fourth result from the top. The first three listings are from online dictionaries, which I guess makes sense. If you do the same search on Bing, this blog is the first site listed. YAY!

I'm not really sure how to supplant those online dictionaries to make sure I'm the number-one hit on Google, but I've heard that the results are generated by how many times the particular searched-for phrase appears on each website. You'd think that having the The Plural of Hyena as the title heading on every page of the site would be enough. But I guess I'm going to have to work harder at putting the name The Plural Of Hyena into my actual blog posts, so that The Plural of Hyena will show up higher on the list whenever you Google the phrase "the plural of hyena", or any variation of the words "plural" or "hyena", and specifically the phrase "the plural of hyena", or even "plural of hyena" or "plural hyena".

I'll reach the top yet, just you wait! As long as I keep repeating this mantra: The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena,  The Plural of Hyena!!!!!!