Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Days of Beer 4: The Second Oldest Profession. That is…Bootlegging

NOTE: I'm posting this because it was already written, but after that I won't be posting for a few days, and won't have time to visit blogs, I'm afraid. Some critical family issues have come up that have to be taken care of.

Days of Beer Post:

I went to Arkansas Tech University for my bachelors. My buddy Steve went too, for a year. It was a little over an hour from home. One night, while sitting around with a gang of friends and some perfectly serviceable beers such as Miller and Natural Light (which I had a small crush on at the time), a couple of my friends developed a Coors thirst that could not be satisfied even with pure water.

Now, at the time, (the late 70s), Coors could not be legally sold in Arkansas because of some tax issue. The closest place to get it was Oklahoma. These…friends of mine promptly got in their car and drove over two hours one way just to get Coors. The proverbial “Light Beer” went off over my head, and Steve and I soon went into the bootlegging business.

Where we lived was only about forty-five minutes from Oklahoma and we both went home most weekends to see our girlfriends. We spread it around to folks we knew that we might just happen to pick up some Coors while home, and did they want any. We had plenty of takers, so Steve and I started taking a Saturday night or two a month to head over to Oklahoma, where we would stock up on 10 to 12 cases of Coors for which we’d received orders for.

An added bonus was that the drinking age was only 18 in Oklahoma, but 21 in Arkansas. So we’d go over, get the Coors we wanted to sell into the trunk (along with some real beer for personal use), then hit the bars for a while before coming home. Monday evening would see us delivering our case load to our clients.

Of course, there was a substantial markup on our part. But that was only fair considering the risks. And they weren’t insubstantial. If you were 21 you were allowed to have two six-packs of Coors in your possession in Arkansas for personal consumption. Anything over two six-packs was considered intent to deliver and would cost you $60 per can.

Four buds of ours from our hometown ended up paying just that kind of cost. After seeing Steve and I having success with our little business, they decided to get in on the action for their own universities. But while they had the idea, they didn’t have the strategy. They drove across the Arkansas River bridge into Oklahoma, stopped at the first beer joint they came too, loaded up about 8 cases, then turned around and drove straight back. The cops stopped ‘em right off the bridge and it weren’t a pretty result.

When Steve and I went we bypassed the first few joints along the highway and found a place further removed from the main drag where the police were less likely to be watching. Then we bought the beer but just left it in the trunk while we hung out at the bars for a few hours. And we always took a different route going home than we had coming in. The result was that we never got stopped.

Only a few years into my bootlegging career, I hung up my cash clip. I assure you that it had nothing to do with Coors becoming legal for sale in Arkansas. Profiting off of other folks’ bad taste for beer just began to stick in my craw. So, you could say I gave it up for moral reasons. Yeah, I’m just that kinda guy.

Next: Beer Days go International

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Days of Beer 3: The Age of Found Beer

The Tuborg sanction marked the end of a carefree era. As they say, “it’s all fun and games until someone drinks a Tuborg.” But what of the epoch that Tuborg closed? That era marked the apex of my youthful beer-love. Here’s the story.

Most of my country buds drank beer, but if you had any left at night’s end you dared not take it home. You hid it. I’d considered one of our barns for my caches, and knew my mom would never find it. But my brother might well have. Beer over. Beer over.

Then it occurred to me: if I were hiding beers, maybe others were too. So began, “The Age of Found Beer.” I’d been hiding my stashes under bridges and culverts, so my buddy Steve and I began to check exactly those places. And we scored. Big time. We generally searched on Sunday because folks hid beer on Fridays and Saturdays. We routinely found five to six beers, and one day found thirteen.

The peak of the Age came one Sunday afternoon as Steve and I cruised the back roads in Steve’s Mustang Grande. We passed a glitter of broken glass on the side of the road when I caught a glimpse of gold among the shine. “Pull over,” I called. Steve did so and I got out to find where a whole case of Pony Millers had been thrown out into the ditch. Now, a “case” of Ponies was 48 seven ounce bottles, and although some of the beers from our found case were empty and others broken, we found 22 full ones. Party time!

I’ve wondered quite often about that found beer. Where had it come from? Why was it there? I’ve always figured somebody threw it out while running from the cops, but I’ll never know for sure. It drank like it was free, though.

The Age of Found Beer actually continued on the other side of the Tuborg Sanction, but I took a more mature approach.

During several summers in high school and college I worked at a military base called Camp Chaffee. I generally washed pots and pans and sometimes cooked. Not long after the Tuborg incident, I spent a very enjoyable free-beer summer at Chaffee.

The National Guard was using the base that summer, and man did I prefer these guys to the regular army. For one, most of their cooks were cooks in real life and we ate pretty darn well. Two, one of the cooks in my mess hall rented a car and parked it outside the building just so he could go out during breaks and sit in the AC. (There was none in the buildings.) Typically, I took my breaks along with him and we sat in the car drinking beer in the cool air while listening to KISR, the local rock radio station.

The best thing about the summer was that at lunch they filled huge plastic trash cans with ice and beer for the Guard soldiers, and I had the evening duty of emptying those cans out. Every single day I found between four and fifteen leftover beers, which went straight into a personal ice chest in my car’s trunk. I didn’t buy a beer that whole summer, and, in fact, became known as a generous fellow who often gave his friends beer. This was the first time that ever happened.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my love for beer was about to take a darker turn!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Days of Beer 2: The Tuborg Sanction

I was eighteen before I realized you could actually open a beer and not have to drain it all the way to the spittle-laced dregs. I might never have learned that simple, mind-freeing fact if it weren’t for a single brand, a beer known as Tuborg Gold. I’d seen some great ads for Tuborg. It showed rowdy Vikings swilling the beer from drinking horns. I wanted to be a Viking, (a real one not a Minnesota one), so I decided I must get some Tuborg.

My brother, Paul David, who was also apparently susceptible to the Viking ads, brought some of the “Gold” home first, though. I remember, we were in our old green pickup, headed out to feed the cows, when Paul David unveiled the Tuborg. We clicked bottles and I took a Viking-hearty sip…and nearly spewed the entire contents of my stomach and various pieces of my intestines and bowel onto the dashboard. My first thought, after I managed to fight down the successive waves of nausea, was that: “No wonder the Vikings were such bad asses. How could anyone drink this slop day in and day out without 1) wanting to kill something, and 2) becoming inured to pain.

Four full bottles and two ‘one-sipped-from’ bottles were poured into the dirt that day. Over thirty years later, nothing has yet grown on that spot. Cattle avoid it. Insects mutate if they build burrows in that soil. There have even been...disappearances.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether Tuborg was, in fact, that awful, or whether we just got a bad six-pack, (as happens with every six-pack of Bud). I’ve occasionally thought I should try Tuborg again, but I’m afraid I lost something important that long ago day. I lost some testicular fortitude, and a lot of innocence. I just don’t have the jewels to try another Tuborg. Not while the painful memory of that first taste from 32 years ago is still so fresh.

Next post: The Age of Found Beer

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Days of Beer: The Early Years.

And now for something completely different:

The first beer I remember drinking was Country Club Malt Liquor in the half sized cans. That was the beer my dad drank when he drank, which wasn’t often. I remember a rare party we had at the house when I was 8 or 9, and how Dad filled some big silver tubs with ice and nestled the “Clubs” down in it. I wasn’t supposed to drink, of course, but I managed to sneak a few when no one was looking. They just looked so damn good all rimed with ice.

My first beer crush was on Schlitz. When I was a teenager of 15 or so, my friend Steve and I would pay this guy to pick us up a case of beer when he went to Fort Smith for work. (We lived in a dry county and you had to drive 25 miles or so for beer.) He always bought Schlitz, most likely because it was cheap and he got to keep the rest of our money. But man, I kinda liked Schlitz. I got some good buzzes off that stuff.

I eventually moved on to Schlitz’s big brother, Schlitz Malt Liquor in the 16 ounce cans with the Bull logo. You could have a “party” good night with a couple of sixers of that. But before the Bull I went through a Blatz phase. Steve and I drank so much Blatz, which was both cheap and pretty decent tasting, that we stopped talking about getting drunk and told folks we were gonna get “Blatzed” instead. Sadly, Blatz disappeared from the stores at some point though, so we made the move to the Bull and never looked back.

When I wasn’t interested in getting drunk but just wanted a beer I’d drink Miller, which was smooth and didn’t give me headaches like Budweiser did. I drank a helluva lot of Miller Ponies in my time. They were just right on a hot day, because even if you were just sorta sipping you’d finish those 8 golden ounces before they started to warm up. My brother Raymond and I used to fish a lot and we’d always take Pony Millers along. We’d get out in the boat and get all set up, crack the first Pony, and say: “Now if the fish just don’t bite we’ll have a good day.”

There was a tradition in my part of the south concerning bringing beer to parties. Most people brought beer because it was expected, but they didn’t want the moochers to drink all their refreshments. So, many folks brought beers they didn’t think anyone else would have the intestinal fortitude to imbibe. One of my brothers brought Pabst Blue Ribbon, for example, because everyone else said it tasted like crap. I came to like Crapst Blue Ribbon myself, so my brother started bringing Red, White, and Blue, which was a cheaper Pabst. (Made from rotted hops, I believe.) I must admit I never worked up the courage to get drunk on RWB.

My brother-in-law always won at these kinds of parties though because he drank things like Stag, and Lone Star, and Falstaff. About the only thing these “brews” had in common with beer was that they were mostly liquid. I called them Gag, Lone Puke, and Falshitt.

I was a beer trooper, though. In an emergency, meaning nothing better was available, I could even drink Sterling or Coors. I always regretted it the next day, but hey, you gotta have some regrets in your life. Next post, though, I’ll tell you about the one beer I actually, kid you not, poured out. I wouldn’t even inflict that swill on my brother-in-law.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Causeway Library Talk

Wow! I'm quite stoked. I gave my talk this morning at the library and I think it went really well. I had twenty-nine folks there, most of whom I did not know and who came because of the advertising the library did. That's actually the biggest crowd I've ever had for a talk/signing. And almost everyone bought a book. Yeah!

I talked for about 45 minutes and figured we'd have maybe 10 minutes of questions, but we had questions that ran almost 45 minutes themselves, followed by a lot of signing and chatting with folks who came up. We filled the whole 2 hour time slot, and quite a few folks have said they'll be visiting my blog. I really love talking with people about writing.

The library was very pleased at the turn out and I certainly was. Lana was her usual supportive self and took some photos. I'm gonna post a few below.

Thank to all my friends in the blogosphere who sent me their best wishes from afar. It must have worked.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Novel Spaces: Gems

Just a note that I'm guest blogging over at Novel Spaces today. I'm talking about GEMS, and it has something to do with writing.

Like you couldn't guess that!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lovely Blog

James Reasoner has given "Razored Zen" the "One Lovely Blog" award! Thanks, James!

The rules:

1) Accept the award, and don’t forget to post a link back to the awarding person.
2) Pass the award on.
3) Notify the award winners.

Although I don't visit blogs that aren't lovely in some way or another, and so there are many that deserve this award, I must pass the award along to a few folks who live close to me. First, Lana, who lives very close to me and who makes it all worthwhile. And Candy, who I've been in a writing group with for quite a few years now. And Sphinx Ink, who is mysterious to some but whom I know quite well.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Upcoming Week: Upcoming Month

I’ve got quite a week coming up, followed by quite a month after that. I hope I can get everything done. First, I’ll be guest blogging over at Novel Spaces this Friday, the 18th. I’ll be talking about a concept called GEMS, and I hope you’ll stop by.

Next, my first signing for Write With Fire is this Saturday, September 19, at the Causeway branch of the St. Tammany Library system. Everything starts at 10:00 in the morning, and I’ll probably talk on writing for half an hour to forty-five minutes, followed by a question and answer period and then a signing. Although the signing is primarily for Write With Fire, I’ll have copies of the Talera books and Cold in the Light available as well. I know that most of you aren’t in position to come, but come if you can and if not send me good wishes.

The address and phone number for that specific library branch is:

Causeway Branch Library
Address: 3457 Highway 190
Mandeville, LA 70471

Telephone: (985) 626-9779
Fax: (985) 626-9783

E-Mail: causeway@mail.sttammany.lib.la.us

As for actual writing, the novel, Razored Land, is at a complete standstill at 144 pages. That’s where the “month” comes in. I’ve got a 7,500 word story due at the end of September, a book review that I agreed to do at the same time, and a 1000 word story due by the first of October. Immediately after that last story I’ve got roughly three weeks to do a scientific article on Charles Darwin, all the while preparing for the Louisiana Book Festival on October 17

This, of course, is secondary to that pesky…“Day Job.” After all that is done I’m going to take a week off writing.

I want to also thank Erik Donald France for his great review of my book at Write With Fire, and for his follow-up commentary. Check it out. And thanks so much Erik for your support.

And to all my friends in Detroit, no offense, but Go Saints!.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Learning on the Job

First, let me offer honors to those who died and suffered on September 11. You know which one. I arrived at work that day with no knowledge of what was happening, but my secretary had a TV and was watching the news. I’ll say no more than that it was heart wrenching, and if you want there are many, many fine blogs focusing on that event today. I’m going to talk about something different here.

Most, if not all, jobs require some learning on the job, but some types of work require more than others. Teaching is a prime example. I lament at times that the field of psychology continues to change at an incredible rate. It would be nice once in a while to teach the same facts in the same class for two years running. Of course, not every fact changes from year to year, but enough new and revised information is introduced every year to keep me hopping. Even though I’m simply unable to keep up with all the new information, I like the fact that my field is not static. It’s dynamic and exciting to discover new things, and to anticipate the discovery of more.

Unfortunately (sometimes), my second job is worse than my first. Writing fiction as a field dwarfs the learning requirement for psychology, and I’ll bet for most academic disciplines. Yesterday, because of writing projects I’m currently engaged in, I had to learn about wombats, badgers, and digging animals of all kinds, about river cane, bamboo, and sugar cane, about moonlight and werewolf mythology, and about child development, childhood aggression, child soldiers, and symbolic intelligence. My brain was pretty tired by the time all that was done.

To write convincingly, even if you’re writing fantasy, there is a tremendous amount of information and detail that you need to know. But correct details are not always enough. I’ve found readers to fall into three general categories where story details are concerned. First, we have the largest group, who merely want the facts of the story to sound plausible! These folks read for the story and as long as you don’t have any glaring errors you can get away with little twists on detail.

For example, take my question the other day about the age at which a boy might successfully sneak a dagger out of an unsuspecting enemy’s sheath and stab that enemy. I got a variety of answers, ranging from 5 all the way up to about 12. This told me a couple of things. First, the actual age at which a boy might carry out such an act is undetermined. Second, whatever age I choose, I have to make it sound plausible that “my” youthful character could do it. If I achieve plausibility, then probably 90 percent of the readers aren’t going to care about whether I’m absolutely correct or not.

The other two groups of readers are much smaller. One group actually ‘knows’ the absolute details. They are experts or well educated in that particular field. For example, if I get a gun caliber wrong in a story, most readers won’t care, but this second group will care a great deal and will be irritated with me for the mistake. This group can only be responded to by making your story facts as true to real life as can be. And I think that is a good thing. Although most novelists will occasionally take “liberties” with true events or facts in order to craft a compelling story, we certainly need to know the facts before we manipulate them.

The third group of readers, also small, is the hardest to please. These folks believe themselves to be experts but, in fact don’t know the true details. However, and I think many historical novelists will agree, this group can be very vocal in pointing out what they see as wrong. (Even if it’s correct.) I’ve been lucky that I’ve only had this happen to me a couple of times. It can be frustrating, however. I work hard to get the reality straight in my stories, but I have made mistakes and, although I feel chagrined, I don’t get upset when someone corrects my mistake. It’s the non-mistakes that are called mistakes that get to me.

So what kind of reader are you? Do small inaccuracies bother you? Is story more important to you than 100 percent factual accuracy? Do errors in some fields bother you more than in other fields? Just curious.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Question

OK, here’s a question for my blog colleagues.

I’m working on a fantasy story in which a young human boy sees his father killed by raiders. The raiders are armed with crossbows. The boy runs at the raider who shot his father and tries to hit him, but the raider only laughs and kicks his feet from under him. The raider turns to his friends laughing, but the boy, lying on his back, notices a sheathed dagger at the raider’s hip, leaps up, grabs the dagger, and stabs the raider in the groin. He doesn’t kill him but wounds him pretty badly.

Now, here’s the question. What do you think would be the youngest age at which a boy might be able to carry out such an act? That means, he’d be old enough to realize what to do, how to do it, and physically carry out the act. I need the boy to grow up with the raiders and have very little memory of his own people.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is when a person believes in a process that breaks the currently understood rules of our physical and psychological sciences. For example, believing that “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day” works. Magical thinking is a common characteristic of what Jean Piaget called the “Preoperational Stage” of mental development, which occurs between the ages of 2 and 7.

Piaget believed that children grew out of magical thinking but we know today that most adults still show elements of it. Anyone who carries a good luck charm is exhibiting magical thinking. Superstitions, like the #13, the black cat, breaking a mirror, etc., are illustrations of magical thinking.

There are, of course, levels of magical thinking. Believing in ghosts is magical thinking but I don’t put it into the same category as “Rain, rain, go away.” The reason is that it is clear that humans don’t yet know all the rules that govern the natural world. Science could discover mechanisms that govern ghost phenomena, while I see no chance of that happening for phrases like “Rain, rain…”

Even though some apparently “magical” phenomena may turn out to have a basis in reality, there is little doubt that society is better served by limiting magical thinking. It certainly should not be a part of the policy making process. And allowing magical thinking to creep into science would destroy the scientific process.

The problem for eliminating magical thinking is that humans are not really rational creatures. Almost everyone believes themselves to be rational. They are mistaken. No human is fully rational in all aspects of his or her life. The very structure of the brain works against it. I do believe, however, that most people can become aware of where they are being irrational, and adjust their behavior accordingly. We can, and should, take steps to minimize our irrationality in places where we need to apply reason.

For example, there is no rational reason why the Arkansas Razorbacks should be my favorite college football team. It’s irrational but causes no harm to anyone, as long as I don’t take it seriously enough to fight over. Some people, however, take loyalty to a sports team so seriously that they come to truly hate their opponents.

Politics is a particularly dangerous place to have magical thinking, and yet our political landscape is rife with it these days. It may be na├»ve, but it seems as if ‘some’ of the current plague of magical thinking could be minimized if people just took a deep breath and asked themselves: “Does that seem reasonable?”

Here are two examples.

The United States Government orchestrated the September 11th attack.

President Obama is not really an American citizen.

Do those statements really seem reasonable?

Certainly, even very bizarre things could be true. Processes that we think of as magical today might be explained scientifically tomorrow. But should we really waste a lot of mental effort on such things? Should we decide policy based upon the most irrational scenarios? Should we not at least recognize that we are being irrational, and proceed from that knowledge?

So, what’s your favorite “Does that seem reasonable” moment?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Obama's Latest Evil

I interrupt my planned posting schedule to discuss something I read on the internet today that just really chaps my ass. Those of you who have been visiting my blog for a while know that I very seldom get into politics, but this time I can't help it.

Our new president wants to give a nationally televised speech directly addressing our school children. In it, he apparently wants to tell kids that education is important and that they should stay in school. Furthermore, he wants to address the issue of improving education and why education is important to our country.

Do you see the evil in that approach?

OK, I must confess, I don't see it either. In fact, it sounds like a fine idea to me. But apparently I'm missing something because certain Republicans, like Jim Greer and Katie Gordon of the Florida Republican Party, have attacked the plan as the equivalent of brainwashing.

I feel comfortable in saying that Greer and Gordon should be recalled before they do more harm. Let's face it, their argument is just ignorant. I don't care whether you like Obama or not, the man is not some kind of sorcerer who can spend 20 minutes talking to kids and turn them into Obama zombies. Anyone who thinks this is just, flat out, unequivocally, wrong. And plain silly to boot.

Actually, of course, I believe Greer and Gordon know full well how silly their argument is, but they think their constituents are too stupid to realize it. If I were a Republican I'd find this to be a horrible insult to my intelligence. To imagine that a sane person would believe it just boggles my mind.

Any time now I'm expecting intelligent people to stand up and say "enough."

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely don't think people have to agree with President Obama on everything, or on anything. There are legitimate debates to be raised about issues such as education and health care. But let's at least try to keep our debates in the realm of reality and not fantasy.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Time to Hang Up Your Guns: Part 1

Ernest Hemingway killed himself when he thought he’d lost it. Robert E. Howard spoke of the same thing in letters before he put a bullet in his brain. Jack London drank himself into oblivion at least in part for the same reason. There are many other examples but these are ones I know something about.

All three of these men were writers, and all three believed their best years and best work lay behind them. Two of them killed themselves when that happened. The third might as well have. Whatever “it” was, their gift, their muse, their will, they all felt they’d lost it.

I do believe that artists, writers, painters, musicians, etc, can indeed ‘lose’ it. Whatever powered the majesty of their imaginations and creativity can disappear. I certainly don’t suggest that such folks should kill themselves, but I wonder if they should…quit. Should they stop writing, stop painting, hang it up? I wonder, will it happen to me? Will I lose it? Will I know it when it happens? Or has it already happened?

What causes creative people to lose it? I suspect there are many possible reasons. Age is one, and along with age, health issues. I find, myself, that I typically don’t seem able to concentrate for as sustained a period of time now as I did when I was younger. And physically, sitting four hours at a keyboard takes a bigger toll on me now than it used to. Ray Bradbury’s style has changed dramatically since he was younger. Does age have anything to do with it?

“Will” is another factor. Before you’re published, the drive to reach publication is intense. But once you’ve seen your name in print a few times, other motivations have to come to the fore. Those may be to produce bigger, more complex works, to increase your audience, or your markets. But what about Stephen King and Dean Koontz? What makes them keep writing? Both probably have enough money coming in without it, and both have seen their names in print, and on films, numerous times. Some will say that both King and Koontz have lost “it,” at least some quality that their work once possessed but which no longer does. But have they lost it, or merely changed their priorities? I’d love to hear them tell me, honestly, what they think about their own skills as creative writers, both now, and in the past.

I’m going to post a second part to this discussion in a couple of days, but for now I’d love to get your feedback on the topic. What is the “it” that some folks seem to lose? What causes them to lose it? And is it ever possible to get it back?