The Learning Curve

by M. Scott Douglass

So what has our recent experience with shutting down the government and flirting with default taught us about Ted Cruz and his cadre of crazies?

It’s taught us that there are still those who would gladly, even thankfully, drink the Kool-Aid and hold a gun to the head of those who did not voluntarily join them.

It’s taught us that even the kid in Pee Wee football who gathers a fumble and runs to the wrong end zone has fans in the stands jumping up and down, waving pom-poms because they don’t understand the rules of the game well enough to know their kid just scored points for the other team.

We’ve learned that there are districts in America with constituents willing to proudly walk around in clown face as though it were the natural thing to do.

And the list goes on—if you are paying attention. Too many don’t. Too many will be cheering again in January for another government shutdown, another embarrassing slap from the right that will reinforce to the common sense folks that, hey, this was a really fun party, dude, but whose going to clean up before the parents get home?

On a personal note, I’m gratified that the Tea Party and Republicans in general have acted predictably and will do so again in January. This is the Boehner/Rove/Koch brother legacy. The biggest question I have is: Are the voters whose representatives forced us in this direction smart enough to realize this is the wrong way to run a government or will they continue to send the same chuckleheads back to behave the same way?

If they do, I’m fine with that. I can do my best to avoid buying things made in Texas and other places that support this kind of radicalism until they come to their senses. After all, that’s what they promote: a shutdown of commerce on the basis of philosophical beliefs. Happy to oblige.

We’ll know soon if we have learned anything from our experience with incompetence. In the meantime, I’m careful how I tie my shoes. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to Ted Cruz me.

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ECONOMIC TERRORISM

By M. Scott Douglass

 

I had a piece that focused on writing all set to post, but shutting down the federal government…  sorry, that requires a response.

I’m glad the Republicans forced this shut down. No, I’m not a right wing fanatic. I am a proud supporter of the Affordable Healthcare Act.

No, I don’t think we need a further demonstration of dysfunctionality within our two party system, but ineptitude can breed new and better things. And what might they be?

For one thing a moderate third party. All these Republicans who are running scared from Senator Cruz and the crazies within their own party, who are afraid of getting primaried, should just concede that their party doesn’t want them anymore, band together with conservative Democrats and form a party that is willing to do what it takes to do the nation’s business as it pertains to ALL of the nation’s citizens, not 10% who gerrymandered their way into office.

Second, if John Boehner is so afraid of people within his party, then he should step aside and let someone else do the job; someone who would be willing to call a vote on a clean bill and let the chips fall where they may.

We’ve allowed elected government positions to become an oligarchy to the point where we now have families whose chief trade is politics. Examples: Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, Pauls—and the list goes on. So, losing a seat, a job in either house of Congress, is like a black mark against the family legacy. Is this how we want our representatives to decide how the government should be run? As a matter of whether they lose an election as opposed to doing the right thing?

Immediately after forcing a shutdown, House Republicans started a series of political stunts to show the public that THEY are not the bad guys here. These stunts would be amusing if they didn’t use veterans and sick children as tools in their battle to defund Obamacare. That’s what it’s all about—and they believe we’re too stupid to understand what they’re doing.

I heard one Congressman—I believe it was Robert Pittenger—ask the question, “Why can’t we wait another year to enact this law so we can at least see what’s in it?” Which begs a question: “If you couldn’t figure out what it says in four years, what will waiting another year do?”

What it will do is prevent Americans from getting the healthcare they need and being happy with this program. Having people happy with the program will prevent Republicans from ever taking it away.

Waiting a year would allow Republicans something to run against that is ethereal as opposed to real with measurable results. That don’t want math entered into the equation because they would be on the wrong side of it. They don’t want this program to see any measure of success and THEY KNOW, if enacted, it will work and that would make their task of getting rid of it that much harder.

So, why would they want to get rid of it? Aside from the fact that it’s yet another government program and a redistribution of wealth—two things that are against their religion—it would bite into the wealth at the top of the healthcare pyramid and those folks are their contributors. Remember, a recent study showing a breakdown of who actually made up the top 1% of wage earners in America showed that, at the time Ronnie Reagan passed a law to allow hospitals to be for-profit thereby causing healthcare costs to grow 300% faster than the rate of inflation of ALL other sectors in our economy, AT THAT TIME only 6% of the top wage earners had anything to do with the healthcare industry. Today that number hovers near 20%. Tell me, to whom are the Republicans beholding?

Now Republicans in the House have proposed funding bits and pieces of the economy rather than passing one whole thing and they are blaming Democrats in the Senate for not approving these token offerings. This is where they are wedging veterans and children with cancer to tug at the heart strings and show that they are the compassionate dealmakers who want to negotiate, not Democrats. Why shouldn’t the Democrats take this deal?

Have you ever heard the term getting back-doored? Remember the Republicans’ stated goal:  to defund Obamacare. Well, if you piecemeal everything out, it’s the same thing. The Republicans will only approve for vote on items they want to fund and NOT vote on items they don’t want funded. They could go through a checklist until the only thing remaining is Obamacare and then they do nothing.

That’s the plan. That’s why funding the government has to be ALL or NOTHING.

This is no less than economic terrorism. Forty House Republicans cannot be given that much power to dictate what the entire nation wants and whether it should be funded. If we let them, then that favored phrase of We do not negotiate with terrorists will no longer have any meaning.

HALL MONITOR, PART I, By M. Scott Douglass

Sometimes being an publisher and editor is like being a hall monitor in a middle school. I’d say it was like herding cats, cliché aside, I’ve learned that you CAN herd a cat if you offer the right incentives. Our cat, for instance, is an indoor cat. She loves going outside, but knows she doesn’t get to go there unescorted and WE decide when it’s time to go back in. Simple rules.

But this isn’t about my cat. It’s about trying to keep order in the hallways among groups of individuals who are easily distracted by the publishing process.

Oh my, did I just paint with a broad brush (yet another cliché)? Maybe, but think about the hall monitor metaphor. You have stragglers, scufflers, pranksters, princes and princesses who need to be prodded to class, and all you, as hall monitor, are trying to do is preserve order.

Recently, an author received the first copies of her chapbook. Less than a week after they arrived, she emailed to ask whether including poems used in her chapbook in a full length later this same year would violate her contract.

The truth is, the average Main Street Rag chapbook sells about 250-300 total copies in the first 6 months to a year—the primary selling time. When you take into account time investment and materials, our break-even point ranges between 150 and 200 sales—depending on how and where copies are sold. But we don’t want to just break even and 50 sales is not a very wide profit margin. So, as a publisher, I try to ensure our share by asking authors to wait at least 9 months before releasing another book.

But this author’s request was slightly different and it was the fifth time in the past year that I’ve had a similar request: An author wanted to know if it was okay to include a large portion of a book I had just published in another book. I even had one well-known local author take more than half of a full length book and combine it in a Best Of collection with another publisher. Neither asked if there was a contractual conflict and although I had legal grounds to go after him and the other publisher, I did not.

There have been multiple cases of this kind of activity over the years and I have never gone after anyone or prevented authors from re-using their own work, but as hall monitor, let me tell readers what I’ve told a few of my authors when they asked for permission to reprint the same material in a new format.

I tell them they are welcome to do so. If their MSR book did not meet costs, I may ask for a small buyout ($2/book). I also ask them this question:  If you bought a book of poetry from an author whose work you liked enough to buy his or her second book, but discovered that more than half of the poems included in the NEW book were also in the first book, what would you do? You might tell others so they didn’t spend twice the money on a product that was much of the same thing. You might also be wary of the next book this author tried to promote to you and not buy it.

If we are writers, creators of literature, don’t you think we owe it to potential readers to offer something fresh when we are asking them to spend money? Sure, we can keep re-packaging and selling old stuff in a new wrapper—musicians did it all the time (when they could get away with it)—but if we want to expand our readership, it might not be a bad idea to expand and grow as authors as well.

That’s this week’s tip from your friendly neighborhood literary hall monitor.

My Dog Has Cancer

My dog has cancer. In fact, she has two kinds of cancer and both are very aggressive. We were told that, untreated, she has three to six months to live. We’ve known this for about a month and in that time have learned a lot about medical care both animal and human, directly and indirectly.

Directly we know that there are different kinds of cancers—even in animals—and each needs to be treated differently. We’ve learned that treating an animal for cancer is only slightly different from treating a human being. The options are about the same, but humans can tell you when something hurts and where. Our dog never acted sick at all. If we hadn’t found a growth on her, we would not have known what is going on inside her.

We’ve also learned about the expense of treating a pet for cancer versus treating a human. While pet insurance is available, it’s rigged to ensure profitability over coverage. I examined this option several years ago and calculated that the cost of insurance plus co-pays for annual check-ups and shots was actually more than just paying for service as needed. What surprised me about treating my dog for cancer was that the cost was actually less than I expected.

Here is where indirectly comes in. I’m not to the point where I want to ask these questions—right now I’m focused on treatment, but it struck me that, with insurance, humans often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat cancer and using the most aggressive means on my dog would only cost me $6K. They use the same treatments, so why the discrepancy?

I’m only speculating, but the phrase that comes to mind is: because they can. Medical practitioners in America charge so much because they can get away with it. They play on our sentiments, our familial relationships, and know we would do everything we can to save a loved one. So, they throw the whole smorgasbord out there and charge us through the nose for it. Because they can.

On the other hand, my own mother has criticized me for even thinking about spending $6K on the treatment of a 13-year-old dog. And I’m beginning to think our veterinarian and the doggy oncologist agree with her. I have the good fortune to live within 5 miles of the region’s best pet healthcare specialist center. While I was there, a woman brought a dog from Columbia, SC, another from Winston-Salem, and yet another from Asheville. All of these places are at least an hour and a half away. This place is my only option.

The oncologist charged me $165 for a consultation to tell me we needed one more test that (supposedly) only takes 2 days to do and didn’t need additional samples from my dog. That was three weeks ago. I’ve made three follow up calls. No test results. No plan of attack. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to treat this beautiful friend of mine who (now) only has 2-5 months to live by their estimate.

So, what is the point of this piece? Call it sharing. Call it frustration. Call it venting. The truth is we know when we bring a pet into our homes that they will only have a limited amount of time with us. Katie is nearing the end of her expected life cycle. I want what time remains to be as pain free and pleasant as possible, but I also want as much time with her as is possible. I just wish the monopoly of medical options I’ve been given understood that and addressed it with the same compassion, respect, and attentiveness as they do their billing procedures.

M.Scott Douglass

Boston Strong

There’s a phrase that’s gotten a lot of play recently and rightfully so. As an avid Steeler and Penguins fan, I often find myself rooting against the Patriots and the Bruins. They are rivals. What prompts a good sports rivalry is respect for the opponent. More important, there is no rivalry without fans rooting for both sides. But this segment isn’t about sports. It’s about life, facing hardship, overcoming adversity.

I suspect the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon will mark another event in American history that many of us will remember always. It was one of those where-were-you-when-this-happened moments. Some will remember the terror of it, some the heroics—and there were plenty of the latter. Some will remember it as a senseless tragedy, a near miss, an omen of things to come. There are so many perspectives and so many ways to interpret the events that occurred on this day and the days that followed.

I don’t have the 20-20 retrospective insights of a Lindsay Graham (Republican Senator from South Carolina) and even if I did, I wouldn’t criticize the FBI as he and others have done. I was awestruck at the way the community went into action immediately—immediately. These people were prepared for the unexpected; for the unpredictable. They rose to the occasion at all levels: from elected officials to law enforcement to medical caregivers all the way down to civilians, average Bostonians. People saw what needed to be done and they did it.

As this saga unfolded, we mourned the losses, shared the anger and frustration, felt the relief and pride for a job well done when the remaining criminal was captured. For at least that week, we were all Bostonians and proudly so.

When I think of this week, I will remember it as a moment of triumph, a measuring stick of resilience that I can only hope to be able to live up to if confronted with similar circumstances. As I said, rivalries are born out of respect. Those kinds of rivalries never die. I may never find myself rooting for the Bruins or the Patties, but the people of Boston have raised the respect bar a considerable distance. I will always root for them.

 

Written by M. Scott Douglass

Excerpted from The Back Seat section of The Main Street Rag, Spring 2013 that will ship April 30.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? By M. Scott Douglass

BookHard2Love

The title of my 2012 poetry collection is Hard to Love. During editing, some editors suggested a title change to Mustang Days after one of the featured poems. I remember the first time I read that poem in public. It was still a work in progress when I read at Western Kentucky University. The audience was mostly students.

When asked by an instructor the next day what they thought about this poem, female students called it the car poem; male students called it the love poem. Interesting how the impression was split along gender lines—especially since the audience I thought would have been more inclined to see it for what it is, did not.

This demonstrates a good reason why Hard to Love was a better title than Mustang Days. I played on an existing perception in a way that was humorous to many, but to potential readers, it was broad enough to appeal in a way that Mustang Days might not have if it was perceived as a guy thing.

I’ve often scratched my head over titles authors choose for books, particularly when entering our poetry book contest. One author turned down publication when I suggested a title change. Another said he’d have to consider it. The latter was recent. He’s still considering.

A title is a label is a marketing tool. If the reader can’t get past the title, they won’t buy or read the book. Given that, we must choose titles carefully. Content by itself can be limiting, but we don’t want to limit readership based on a misconception.

I’ll bet you think you know where this is going. You’re thinking: Ah hah, Scott is finally going to talk literary stuff in his blog. No, I was thinking about cars—Mustangs to be exact. The car in the poem “Mustang Days” was traded in 2010 for a Fusion Hybrid for my wife. It was a sad moment for me, but I was sure I would eventually buy another. I’ve been targeting the 2014 (and a half) because it’s the 50th Anniversary and everyone expects Ford to offer something exciting as a result.

But I’ve seen the advance material, viewed images online of the new design. For the first time ever Mustang will be a world car—offered overseas as well as in America. As such, Ford has styled it to appeal to a European audience. Which brings me to what is actually in a name. I like Mustangs for many reasons, but the nameplate has come to mean tough, agile, powerful. What Ford is offering is refined in un-Mustang ways. It looks like a Fusion. We already have a Fusion.

I guess the moral of this story can be summed up by one of my favorite phrases: You can call a horse a pig, but you’re not going to get pork chops from it. Ford is trying to rebrand a Fusion into a Mustang, so I went out and bought a Harley. Think about that next time you title your work.

Dinner is (not) Served

I like eating out even when it interferes with my diet. I think I’m a reasonable customer as far as culinary expectations go. I like my food cooked—usually—and appreciate receiving it in a timely manner—nothing extravagant. I’m even a decent tipper.

I’m also an habitual diner; a regular, if you will. When I find a place I like, I stick with it. I learn quickly the menu item I like best and that’s usually what I order. I’m so predictable, waitresses at New Asian Cuisine and Lang Van (Vietnamese) often order for me.

Bad service is the best way to lose me as a customer. As easily as being a regular, I can be the guy who never comes back. I’ll let bad service slide once or twice if the food is great, but give me consecutive bad service experiences and I’m gone.

In Charlotte, our reading series is hosted at a wine bar called Vin Masters. Wine bars are the absolute best place for readings: no coffee grinders; no unsupervised children running around.

We’ve been at this location for over a year and love the place, the parking and the fact that there are a variety of nearby restaurants. I like Big Ben’s best, but they can’t handle the group size we bring to pre-event dinners. Across the parking lot is Ice House. I like this place, too, but they don’t serve Guinness. Around August Zucca’s, opened beside Vin Master. It’s an Italian Bar/Restaurant.

We’ve held event dinners there for several months. The first two times, the service was good. Then it started sliding. My menu favorite is Buffalo Wing style calamari with a Caesar side salad. They also offer both together as one item, but you get more calamari and less lettuce when you order separate. Since I’m dieting, I’ve been ordering the combined version.

In December they held my calamari until everyone else’s food was ready. Though spicy, it was cold. January was the same thing with a twist: they didn’t deliver it until 6:20 and I have to set up sound equipment for the reading at 6:40.

In February I tried to head off time issues by going earlier and letting them know about table space and time matters as soon as we sat down. We were one table short. There were two by the door that could be brought over and they said it would be done right away. I ordered salad at 5:50. One featured reader arrived late. If not for the confusion that ensued finding a place for her party to sit, I would not have realized how late it was (6:25). I still hadn’t received my salad. Thirty-five minutes to make a salad? Are they growing the freaking lettuce?

Anyway, thus ended my last visit to Zucca’s. I usually pay for featured readers’ dinners for our events—over $100 every time we have an event. Zucca’s won’t see that again. I paid for our guests and left without eating. If you decide to go here, be advised: the food is good, but the service is erratic. Even if it’s nearly empty, allow ample time.

M. Scott Douglass, Editor

Books: The Cure for What Ails You

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Last month I read five books in five days. I’m not talking little short books, either, but full-length novels, which are my reading drug of choice. I was able to read this much because I just too sick with the flu to do anything else. Emails were neglected, kids had to fend for themselves and even the dog had to go without his ball game. Sitting up at the computer was unthinkable, but I could huddle under the covers with a book propped up next to me and revel in another world.

So that’s what I did for five days: Read. And I realized how much I had missed it. Being a natural busybody, I am fascinated to see what everyone is doing on Facebook. I get sucked in by the “News Feed” until way past bedtime. I get caught up in homeschooling the kids, paying bills or cleaning the house. I forget to pick up a book. I forget how marvelous it is to be so involved in a story line that I forget everything else. I forget how a masterful storyteller can bring you into another life in a way that cleverly reveals your own.

A good writer lets me slip into someone else’s skin, feel their pain, celebrate their successes and relish their revelations. I am caught up, swept along, whisked away to foreign lands. Last week I visited Alabama and Indiana, went swimming in the clear blue waters off Hawaii and romped around Scotland, all without leaving my bed. I am surprised by how much I need this, how good it feels to escape, how it helps me cope with my own life. This is the gift of a good book. It gives us perspective, insight and if it’s a really good one, a rollicking good time.

As I come out of the fog of illness, I realize something else I gained from all that reading. I have a renewed excitement for my own writing. In all the stress of revising and receiving critiques and exploring options for publishing, I had forgotten the whole point of the thing. I forgot how much joy a book can bring to the right person and I forgot just how much people can read, if they have a chance.

Spending as much time in the publishing world as I do, I began to feel there were just too many books out there, that no one would ever have time to read them, that there was simply no point in publishing one more book. But my reading reminded me that not every book appeals to every person. Some of what I read made me wonder what the publisher was thinking and some kept me absolutely spellbound. And I’m pretty sure that the ones that held me in thrall would bore someone else to tears. It’s an individual and very subjective thing. I can’t stand mysteries, but my mother reads three of them a week. I love Anita Shreve. My mother can’t stand her novels.

My reading helped me remember that there is room in the world for as many books as there are people who have time to read them. Getting those books into the hands of readers who will love them is a worthy occupation, even if it does take me onto Facebook where I’m fascinated to hear about the Westminster Dog Show or what you ate for breakfast, or who else is battling this terrible flu. Are you in the cough phase or have you, like me, progressed to the RustyDaggerInTheEyeballSinusHeadache phase? A good book was the best medicine for me. But, I warn you, it’s highly addictive.

Travel vs. Diet (and a New Pair of Boots)

I made a bet with my sister-in-law over the holidays: the first to lose 30 pounds gets a $30 gift certificate from the other; the first to lose 50 pounds gets a new pair of boots. She rides horses. I ride a motorcycle. We like boots.

The problem with dieting is the food. I was a skinny kid who added 80 pounds since graduating high school. That’s only 2-3 pounds a year. I’ve eaten steaks that (almost) weighed that much, but I’ve been yo-yoing the entire time; hit an unacceptable high three years ago and turned serious about dieting. I set a goal: lose 53 pounds; a reward: a new Mustang; and wrote everything down to chart my progress. I lost 35 pounds in three months, then lost momentum after realizing my reward wasn’t realistic and floated back up.

I’ve been disgusted ever since. Having someone challenge me to a dietary duel was the incentive I needed. But what method to use?

I tried Nutrisystem once. It worked, but I didn’t like most of the food in their kits. One of their scientists must have decided tomatoes are the secret ingredient that washes weight away. Tomatoes were in almost all their dinners—even recipes in which they don’t belong. I’m sure, if you read the fine print, they’re in the snacks and deserts also. If you like tomatoes, this diet’s for you. I’m not a big tomato fan, so I ordered a la carte (which costs more). After tiring of the food and the cost, I tried something else.

South Beach Diet worked well for me. I like meat and have known for a long time that my enemy is carbs, but Phase One is austere and lasts for several weeks before the diet relaxes to Phase Two which slows weight loss, but broadens food options. The only thing is, my partner in this diet is my wife and she’s a vegetarian.

So, we devised our own individual plans. I’ll keep mine to myself until I’m wearing new boots. My sister-in-law might be reading this, you know. I’ve dropped over 2 pounds a week overall. I say overall because some weekends have caused spikes.

At a pace of almost 3 pounds a week, my plan works great—when I stick to it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t travel well. I’ve had two weekend trips since the first of the year. Each created a spike on my progress chart that took days to erase and I’m traveling every weekend in March.

I’ve lost a total of 19.4 pounds. My goal is to have $30 more gas money for a family gathering Easter weekend, so, if you see me out and about at a conference, please refrain from offering the Guinness you know I crave and have worn prominently for several years. Buy me a shot of Crown Royal. In dietary terms: It’s a better buzz per calorie.

M. Scott Douglass

It’s About the Jelly

I want to say today’s subject is jelly, but it’s not. I even tried to find a word to properly describe my relationship with the subject. As a word guy that should be easy, right? It’s not an addiction. I am attracted to it, but not in that way which also eliminates the word affinity. Although the word fetish was an early contender, placing it in close proximity to jelly implies something kinky.

So, I’m falling back on Facebookian profundity: I really like black raspberry jelly. But not just any black raspberry jelly. It must be Smuckers. I have sampled others. Some—most notably the Amish—do a pretty good job, but no one does it better than Smuckers. Unfortunately, it’s harder to find in North Carolina than in my home state of Pennsylvania. For years I’d pick up a couple jars at Giant Eagle with every visit north.

Harris Teeter doesn’t favor the stuff. I guess they think that, if someone really wants black raspberry they can mix a jar of red raspberry with blackberry. Sorry. A black raspberry is a separate critter. Comparing it to a blackberry/raspberry duet is like calling a catfish a bass because they swim in the same water.

Two years ago Lowes Grocers built a store a mile from my house. They carried Smuckers Black Raspberry. I’d shop there over other options because they carried that one thing unavailable anywhere else. Life was good. Then Harris Teeter learned that Publix was expanding into the region and bought up all Lowes locations to prevent them from selling to a competitor it feared more. Now I have five—yes, five—Harris Teeters within 4 miles of my house and none sell Smuckers Black Raspberry.

On top of that, last year’s intern stayed with us over the summer and discovered my stash of SBR. She, too, became addicted, attracted… liked the stuff. Our pantry got wiped out down to the last jar which I managed to stretch through October. But I waited so long to order directly from Smuckers—which I’ve done before—that I did so in a hurry and made a mistake. When it arrived, I was in a rush to taste it and didn’t read the label. I’d accidently ordered blackberry and I can get that anywhere.

I called Smuckers the next day, explained my mistake, and asked if I could return the 5 unopened jars for 5 jars of SBR. They let me. They wouldn’t even accept additional payment for shipping a second time. To my surprise, when the box arrived, it was a full 6-pack. They now have an even more devoted fan.

So, is this about jelly? Brand loyalty? Is it about how companies value customers? How they try to keep them? Is it about customer service or how the internet makes shopping for specialty items easier? I’ll let readers decide. I just heard the toaster pop up. Gotta go.