I Didn’t Start the Fire

Almost ready for food.

Almost ready for food.

Oh wait, yes, I did, but it wasn’t intentional. Earlier this year, I promised to share this story. If it makes it to the blog, you should thank my editor for providing her services. This event may not yet be at the point hinted to by the expression: “someday we’ll look back and laugh at this.”

This story takes place at the last bastion of male supremacy, the grill. Early in our marriage, I didn’t want a gas grill. I wanted charcoal. I liked the flavor of charcoal, and charcoal lighter fluid. I also liked adding flavor from wood chips. I chose the perfect intersection of smokers and grills, The Weber. The Weber’s round construction and domed lid made it the idea grill, roaster and kinda-sorta-smoker. Depending on how I arranged the coals, I could cook over direct or indirect heat. I could leave cool spots for keeping stuff warm and created hot spots for searing. The arrangement I liked the best was the one used for roasting poultry.

The first step in roasting poultry was to arrange the briquettes in a circle along the outside edge of the grill. Once hot, I placed the bird in the center. The heat radiated up and around, aided by that wonderfully domed lid. If I wanted the smoky flavor, I simply added wood chips to the top of the coals. The grease dripped out through the vent holes in the bottom and was captured in an old tomato soup can for which there was a wire ring holder. The engineers at Weber had thought of everything.

The original 18” Weber was big enough for our small family’s grilling needs. When I wanted to serve more people, and a bigger bird, I had to step up to the 22” grill. In the mid-80s, I was ready for the big grill and the big bird. The biggest and most important bird of the year, the Thanksgiving Day turkey. I was also ready to bask in the compliments of the big(ger) crowd. Our family unit of three and two grandmothers. I wasn’t ready for the weather.

It rained.

I was doomed. There wasn’t enough room in the oven for a turkey to be cooking alongside the other dishes, bread and pies. Also, since the Weber cooks a bird much faster than an oven, we didn’t have enough time for Plan-B once the skies opened. I quickly began work on Plan-C. I draped a maple tree in plastic, and managed to keep the rain off the grill. My first turkey day turkey added anxiety to the afternoon, but was otherwise successful.

The following year, I checked the weather in advance. No plastic seemed necessary, but I had some just in case. I had charcoal. I had everything I needed, except… a large enough grill. It seems we had purchased a slightly larger turkey, and that critical domed lid didn’t fit.

Undeterred, I quickly fashioned an extension layer between the grill and the lid. Using heavy-duty aluminum foil, I built up the edge of the grill by about an inch. Also, to keep the edges of the bird from burning, I set the turkey on the grill on a sheet of the same foil. Little did I know that I was sowing the seeds of disaster.

A roasting turkey produces way more grease than a chicken. The aforementioned foil under the bird prevented the grease from draining. I folded up the sides of the foil to contain the grease and I borrowed my wife’s baster, the antique Pyrex one we had found at a tag sale. Every so often, I visited the bird, sucked up some grease and squirted it into a soup can.

On what would become my last visit to the grill, I noticed that there was a small grease fire, in the coals at the edge of the bird. I quickly sucked some fuel grease, from the pool that had formed under the turkey, into the baster. Then, for reasons unknown, I poked the baster through the foil. The grease poured into the superheated airspace under the turkey and erupted into a fireball. Also for reasons unknown, I squeezed the Genuine Rubber ball on the baster, atomizing and spraying hot grease into the turkey / conflagration. The fire traveled back along the stream (or was sucked in, I’m not sure), creating a minor explosion inside the baster. Nothing significant, but the baster would never baste again.

The turkey was fully involved.

Tukey fire.

Back in the 80s, there were no camera phones. If there had been, and if I had stopped to take pictures of the fire, I might not be here to write this.

I salvaged enough tough dry meat from under the layers of ash to give everyone a portion. Most everyone felt sorry enough for me to choke it down. I didn’t light the grill again on Thanksgiving for over 20 years.

By the way, in case the title got that Billy Joel song stuck in your head, here ya go.

Posted in Family, Humor | Tagged , , , , , | 55 Comments

Back Where I Come From

socs-badge-2015Linda is away this week, but Helen Espinosa, a friend of SoCS has given us a prompt as challenging as Linda might have done on her own:

“Your Friday prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is: “to/too/two.” Use one, use them all, but most of all, just have fun!”

Helen didn’t mention any extra points for using all three forms, but I’m going to assume that a proper accounting will be made. Anyway, let’s see where those struggling voices in my head want to go with this.

Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when, after his mea culpa, the Wizard started handing out brains and hearts and whatnot? I always liked the part where the Wizard says:

Back where I come from there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phila… er, phila… er, yes, er, Good Deed Doers.”

I was reminded of that this week, albeit in a curious way.

I was trying to get credit in a rewards program for activity that seemed to have slipped into a dark corner of the accounting department. Maybe my activity happened near month-end, I’m not sure, but I paid the bill and I should be granted the points. Apparently, it can take up to 10 days, so I waited. 11 days later, I visited the company’s website and I filled out the form to get credit for missing activity. That seemed simple enough. I jotted down all the relevant details and I uploaded a copy of my invoice.

Nothing happened.

I was instructed to wait 10 – 14 (more) days.

Waiting. Ooh, that reminds me of another great movie scene, the one in Ocean’s Eleven where twin brothers are staging a drag race between a monster truck and a model of the truck. Waiting for his brother to go first, the brother in the real truck says:

I’m going to get out of the car and drop you like Third Period French.”

Anyway, back to where I was, which was waiting for 12 more (23 in total) days, I went back to the website to see what my other options were. It seems that since I waited the requisite amount of time, I was now entitled to speak to a human being. Actually, I could have spoken to a human earlier, but being one of the geeks who builds web-based things, I trust the system more than I should have. I say that, because the human being I spoke to said:

Oh, when you submit an issue via the website, it just goes into a pile. If you want things to be reviewed quickly, you need to call so you can send the information to the attention of someone specific.”

Well, back where I come from, see, you thought there wasn’t going to be a connection, we treat web-based requests differently. We have people who do nothing all day but answer these questions. OK, that’s not true. We don’t get enough questions to keep anyone busy, but we do treat them all as if they were going to a real person. Because they are. Sure, you can call our office and talk to a human, but if you submit a request for information via our website, your request goes to a real live person, immediately.

Of course, the real live person that it goes to is based on what you say your request is related to. So, if you’re looking for information about an invoice and you select “Engineering” for the subject, things may take a bit longer. Giving an engineer an invoice is like, as one former engineer once said, giving a monkey a hand grenade…the odds of it ending well are not great.

My point, yes, I do have one, is that if you are going to try to add value / save money by having web-based or otherwise automated points of contact, treat the people who take advantage of those points of contact with respect.

By the way, lest you think that my “this / that” option above is curious, the motivation for putting customer contact in the hands of a machine is usually to save money. Money that the company behind the curtain of automation is unlikely to pass back onto you, the customer. Home Depot isn’t going to lower the cost of that two-by-four just because you twisted your back trying to scan the barcode, located at the other end of your cart, at the self-checkout. They might reduce the hours of the person standing lonely at the next counter, but they’re going to keep that savings. It goes in the same jar as the money they save when you picked the two-by-four and when you carry it out to your car. I’m sure their accountants don’t really keep money in jars, except maybe at month-end.

One thing is certain, if there are accountants and jars involved, there will be two jars. One for debits and one for credits, don’t you know. You won’t get anywhere with an accountant just because you give money to Home Depot in exchange for a two-by-four. No, you have to take the money from somewhere and put it somewhere. You can take money from “Cash” and put it toward “Construction Expense,” but you can’t just say “I gave Home Depot money and I’d like to be reimbursed.” Pbbbbft, no, uh uh, that would be too easy.

Posted in Customer Service, Humor, Prompt, SoCS | Tagged , , , , | 56 Comments

Thursday Doors–Walk to Javits


Always a good source for doors.

Last week, I was in New York for a company meeting. Since we were going down on Wednesday for dinner, I decided to go a few hours early, to visit the exhibit hall of a conference being held at the Javits Center. It had been raining earlier in the day, but by the time we got to our hotel, the rain had stopped, leaving a dull gray overcast day behind. I love to walk, so I decided to walk from our hotel on Lexington Ave. to the Javits. Always thinking about Thursday Doors, (I mean, that’s what we do isn’t it?) I thought I would just snap pictures of the doors I spied along the way.

New York is always changing. Buildings, including their doors, are being built, being torn down, being renovated, being cleaned, being ignored and being visited. The other thing about New York, is no one seems to care if you stop to take a picture of a door. Even a crummy door. They probably just looked at me taking a picture of a service entrance and thought “tourist.” Yeah, I know, it’s New York, there was probably an expletive before the word “tourist” but I can handle it.

So, I didn’t go out of my way to get the perfect door photos. What you see in the gallery is pretty much what I saw as I weaved my way from 50th and Lexington to 38th and 10th Avenue.

I continued to take photos after leaving the Javits Center, but I’ll share those doors another day. Today, let’s just take a walk. Most of the doors are described in the gallery, but I have to point out one. The door inside the Javits Center, where they are building a Starbucks made me think of this scene from a Simpson’s episode. Take a look, I think you will understand.

As always on Thursday, this post is part of Norm Frampton’s fun series called Thursday Doors. You can see all the doors being shared this week visiting Norm’s page and heading over to the linky thing. I usually add that in this post after I find it. You can also add your own door, and Norm makes it easy ‘cuz you can add Thursday Doors up until noon on Saturday.

Posted in History, Photography, Prompt, Thursday Doors | Tagged , , , | 66 Comments

His Revenge

Are you looking for a nice fresh thriller to read? Do you know someone who loves reading a fast moving, well considered, keep-you-flippin-pages-long-after-you-should-have-turned-off-the-lamp book? If you answered yes to either question, then you should pay attention to the announcement below.

Earlier this year, I purchased “My GRL”, John W. Howell’s first novel. It sounded like the kind of novel I like to read, and I had been enjoying John’s writing style for quite some time. My GRL did not disappoint. I enjoyed every page. When John mentioned that there were going to be more books in the series, I made a mental note: “buy his next book.”

I know that many of you who read my blog also read John’s blog. If you’re like me, you follow the crazy adventures delivered every Wednesday, including the dysfunctional family where John has yet to produce a character we can like. You know the feeling. You look in your inbox Wednesday morning and you smile at the sight of “Wednesday – Story Day – AKA Hump Day” on the subject line. Well, if you want the real deal, the extended version, a great story, then follow one of the links below and get yourself a copy of “His Revenge” – Seriously, this is a good idea. 

Announcing His Revenge by John W. Howell is now available in paper and ebook on Amazon and KDP Select

His Revenge

The sequel to My GRL titled His Revenge is available and a new story continues where My GRL left off. This book is near the top of my reading list

His Revenge is available in the US in Paper and Kindle editions
In Canada in Paper and Kindle editions
In the UK in Paper and Kindle editions

A Little Bit About the Book:

America loves John Cannon, its newest hero, and the President wants to present him with the highest civilian medal for bravery for saving the Annapolis midshipman from a terrorist plot to destroy them. While in Washington for the award ceremony, John unwillingly becomes an accomplice in another plan by the same group to attack the credibility of the US President and the stability of the worldwide oil market. There is no way out as John either becomes a traitor to America or causes thousands of innocent people to die if he refuses.

The second John J Cannon Thriller moves from a barrier Island off the coast of Texas to Washington DC, then to Northern California, and finally to Ecuador. John is on the receiving end of an offer he cannot, refuse. His avowed enemy Matt Jacobs now wants John to help him shake the reputation of the US in the world political arena and disrupt confidence in the government at home. If John refuses, Matt plans to murder innocent Americans including John’s latest relationship. John’s only way out is to pretend to go along with the plan and hope for a miracle.

Excerpt from Chapter one

The water rushes over my head. I’m sinking and don’t know why. With my breath held, I have trouble stopping the air from escaping since the pressure drives the air up and out. I try to keep my mouth closed, but the water pressure pushes the air out more and more. Will I pass out? In the distance, the light is dim. To rise to the surface in time might not be possible─I need to breathe right now. Toward ending the pain in my chest, my rambling mind rationalizes taking a deep breath—even knowing it will end my life. In conflict with the irrational thought of ending it, my body won’t let me suck in the water, as it fights to retain the little bit of oxygen left to fuel my brain.

The despair is nearly overwhelming, and my mind considers other ways to battle the feeling. What more could I have done with my life? The pressure becomes more intense, and I’m about to lose it all, and I decide I’ve lived the way I wanted and have no regrets. I close my eyes and hear only the roar of the sea. I’m so tired. Exhausted. Sleep will fix everything, and I want to give in

About the author

John W. Howell

Photo by Tim Burdick

John’s main interests are reading and writing. He turned to writing as a full-time occupation after an extensive career in business. John writes fictional short stories and novels as well as a blog at http://www.johnwhowell.com. John lives on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of south Texas with his wife and spoiled rescue pets. He can be reached at his e-mail johnhowell.wave@gmail.com, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/john.howell.98229241or Twitter at @HowellWave



John’s first book and one of my favorite reads of 2015.

His first novel, My GRL is available on Amazon and wherever e-books are sold.

Posted in Promotion, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

I Wish I Could Tell You

socs-badge-2015So many things started flowing through my head when I read Linda’s SoCS prompt for this week:

Your Friday prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is: “indescribable.”  Use the actual word in your post or just base your post on something that defies description. My suggestion on this one; think about something that you’re passionate about and just start writing. Have fun!


Oh yeah, I got this one.

My first thought was about that candy bar that was Indescribably Delicious, you know, Mounds. I immediately started humming “sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes, you don’t. Almond Joy’s got nuts, Mounds don’t.” Sometimes, I feel like a nut.

Other times, though, I feel like something that I can’t describe. An indescribable feeling of satisfaction that cannot be explained. It can be shared, but not entirely. I mean, you can let someone else have the same experience, but you can’t ever know that they feel the way you do. There are so many things like this that I can’t possibly list them, but, of course I’m going to try:


My daughter used to like to play with these. Now, my wife will use them with kindling to start fires in the wood stove.

Using a plane, a spokeshave or a really sharp chisel – If you have used one of these tools, you know the feeling. Well, maybe you know the feeling. You know a feeling. I’m not sure it’s the same feeling I know, but you know. The sound, the feel, the transformation happening in front of your eyes, guided by your own hand(s) and the certainty of the curling evidence being left behind.

The view from the top – This summer, my daughter reintroduced me to hiking. Granted, I only made one significant hike with her, but I was able to experience the view from the top. I can show you pictures of it. I can tell you what it was like, but I can’t describe how it felt. The satisfaction. The wind. The realization that we had to hike back down and that that was going to be harder in some ways than hiking up was.

Fair food – If you work hard and choose your words carefully, you can describe a good meal. Restaurant critics do this every day. There’s a whole vocabulary dedicated to conveying the presentation, texture, spices and flavor of a fine dish. There’s nothing that adequately describes a sausage grinder, cooked on a flat-top grill that makes you think: “it’s probably not clean, but how many germs could live on that?” served in a napkin and eaten while walking along the midway. It doesn’t get any better, and yet it’s indescribable. You have to have been there and ate that to understand.

Fresh tomatoes – Not fresh form the store. Not even fresh from the farmer’s market. No, I’m talking about fresh from the garden. Your garden, or in this case, my wife’s garden. Cherry tomatoes, picked off the vine and eaten while walking the dog around the yard. Fresh large tomatoes cut into a salad, stirred into a sauce or sliced onto a sandwich. Fresh bread, oooh add that to the list, ‘cuz there’s no way to describe the smell and warmth and sensory overload associated with homemade bread. Oh, I got off course. Fresh bread, real butter – we get ours from a farm, nothin’ but moo – and a few generous slices of right-off-the-vine tomato. Earlier this year, a fellow blogger mentioned butter, peanut butter and tomato sandwiches. Don’t knock them until you try one, because they’re, well, you know, indescribable.


I cleared the table so I could use my laptop.

That look – You know the look, the one you get from your wife, your mother, your child, the dog or the cat. Yeah you know. The look that sends shivers down your spine. The look that says you’re probably not going to die, but if it were an option, you might consider it. The look that tells you that everything in the world is about to change and you can’t stop it. You can’t describe it, but you know it’s going to happen.

Draft beer – Not just any draft beer. Not even your favorite draft beer. I’m talking about the indescribable feeling you get when there’s an unexpected beer on tap. I was in New York earlier this week. When the waiter asked what kind of wine I would like, I replied: “what kind of beer do you have on tap?” It was one of those places where, when you ask for beer, you get that look. Not that look, not the world changing look, but that other look. The one that says this waiter’s opinion of you just dropped. As he rambled through the list, I heard a mumbled “Brooklyn Lager.” Stop the presses. I’ll have that, Brooklyn, yeah, that’s the “wine” I want.

That sound – Fortunately, I don’t know what this feeling feels like but I was there when our daughter Faith, dropped her iPhone on the unforgiving hard floor of my garage. I can only imagine. In other words, indescribable.

Now I have to find some pictures.

Posted in Prompt, SoCS | Tagged , , , , , , | 54 Comments

Thursday Doors–ISU Horse Barn

Today's Doors

Today’s Doors

When I was visiting my brother in Iowa last month, I told him that I needed to find a door or a few doors to photograph. He understood. Of course, I think that he may have felt that that requirement had been met after we had breakfast in Colo at Niland’s Café. I did feature those doors, but I was still looking for an interesting door.

A few days later, as we were heading back to his house, after picking up my mom at her apartment, I spied the door(s) I wanted to feature. I think my mother might have thought further confirmed her belief knowledge that I am a nut case, when I asked my brother to pull into the parking lot next to the horse barn at Iowa State University (ISU). For those that don’t know, my brother lives in Ames, Iowa, the home of Iowa State.

I would have imagined that ISU would have lots of photo-worthy doors, most universities do, but I wouldn’t have thought that they would have had a rather remarkable horse barn. Iowa, as far as I knew, is all about corn, soy beans and pigs.

I didn’t have my camera with me when I noticed the horse barn, but I had my phone. We talked about the possibility of coming back later, but I was only there for a few days and I decided that the adage: “the best camera is the one you have” needed to be in full force on this door-shoot.

Apparently, ISU has been serious about horses for a long time. The two long barns on the sides were built in 1923. In 1926, they added the section that bridges the two sides and forms a large U-shaped barn. The program has a lot of horses and each year they add more (horses have baby horses). This is actually a pretty cool part of their program. Junior and senior horse majors (I don’t think that’s the actual name) get to take care of an expectant mom horse and her baby. Check this out to see one of the newborns – soooo cute.
I don’t have pictures of the Equine Center, but that is where they hold horse shows and exhibitions. You can read more about that in the ISU Equine News.

I also want to point out one set of doors. A few weeks ago, Norm, the founder of the feast here at Thursday Doors, featured what he dubbed a trifecta. Of course, I took that as a challenge. In addition to doors, I needed to find a doorfecta. It’s in the gallery. Three levels, three doors.

This post is part of Norm Frampton’s fun Thursday Doors series. You can follow the doors on his page each week. You can add your own door too, and you don’t have to add it on Thursday. Norm will let you slide one in as late as Saturday morning. You can see all of this week’s doors here, but make sure you stop at Norm’s.

Posted in Family, Prompt, Thursday Doors | Tagged , , , , , , | 61 Comments

The Problem with Metrics

On-time Performance

Given the way the airlines manipulate the on time statistic, I’m not sure it means anything.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I don’t know who coined that phrase, but I have to tell you, I have some problems with the concept. My primary problem is that “it” often refers to a person, or at least the activity of a person and I think people should be managed more holistically. I wrote a version of this post on my technical blog, several years ago, but I was reminded of it recently by the folks at WordPress.

WordPress recently offered a “how long will it take to read this post” plugin. My guess is that it’s an attempt to be more like Medium.

I’m not a fan (of the metric/plugin, not Medium. I like Medium just fine). The plugin seems pretty accurate, if all I want to do is consume the words someone wrote. Sorry, that’s not how I read your blogs. I think about what you wrote. I study the pictures you chose to accompany your words. If you’re a poet, I think about the shape and the form you chose to use. Sometimes, I look up words, follow links or Google things that you make me think about. The metrics can’t account for that.

Another problem that I have with metrics is that since we are managing or influencing people, we are dealing with people who know they are being managed or who know that I’m (you’re) being influenced. That leaves us at the mercy of folks who might use the metrics to game the system.

My first job after college was as a programmer/analyst for Burroughs Corporation, working in one of their manufacturing plants. I was responsible for payroll, Human Resources and work management systems. Our plant made memory sub-systems for various Burroughs computers. I was exposed very quickly to two problems with metrics. Problem one was the ease with which metrics can be manipulated.

Our plant manager, aware that a key metric of his performance was the elapsed time between receiving components and shipping an assembly, purchased a used trailer from a trucking company. Material that arrived before we were ready to deal with it was unloaded onto our loading dock and reloaded into his trailer. When we were ready to start building the assemblies, he backed his trailer to the dock and the components were “received.” This little bit of subterfuge kept that metric, and his bonus, squarely in the “you rock” range.

Inside the plant, and much more problematic for me, was the fact that we measured every operation that was conducted by every person on the assembly floor. Several people were operating machines that stamped memory chips into circuit boards. One of the systems I was responsible for would calculate and report the cost per chip inserted.

Unfortunately, the collection system didn’t differentiate between new assemblies and repair work. So, while a guy building new circuits was feeding racks of memory chips into an automated press, the woman at the next station was unsoldering and re-soldering defective chips by hand.

Joe Pressguy might mindlessly insert hundreds of chips per hour, while Rosie Rework struggled to get five just right. Mine was an ethical dilemma caused by a math problem. The nature of the repair business meant that sometimes we would receive a part for repair that was no longer in active production. In the reporting side of my system, when I had to do the math that involved “average insertion times” the results were too small to measure and, after rounding and truncating to fit a corporate defined file structure, they would lead to a divide-by-zero error. Discarding these results made the woman look bad, including them crashed the system.

There is a similar ethical dilemma for bloggers concerned about the word-count-driven-how-long-it-will-take-to-read thing metric. WordPress counts the words you use in photo descriptions. I could skip those, but then people with vision problems wouldn’t know why I had included the photo.

WordPress Insights

So, write more on Tuesday? Post more at 8:00 AM? Does this tell me anything?

One last new metric that I don’t understand is the new “Insights” page. This tells me that the most popular date and time that you’re reading this blog is Tuesday at 8:00 am. What does that mean? Should I publish more often on Tuesdays? Should I always publish at 8:00 am? I tend to schedule my posts for just after 6:00 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Are they suggesting that I should publish more of the kind of stuff that I publish on Tuesday? That wouldn’t work because, well, you know, Thursday Doors, SoCS and If We Were Having a Beer.

If you like my old plant manager’s tactics, there are ways to game your WP stats so you fill opera halls instead of subway cars. You can fork over a few dollars to some sketchy character who will spam-visit your blog and cause your views to skyrocket. Nobody else is really reading your blog, but if you like the metric, go for it. As for me, I’ll stick to writing what I want to write and hoping you will read it. I’ll also be following the people whose writing and photos I enjoy. If you write a long post, I’ll stick it aside and read it later.


Now this is a metric I can trust.

Posted in Blogging, Opinion | Tagged , , , , , | 51 Comments