Steve Woods

Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Getting the Most From Twitter Lists

In Social Media on October 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm

We’ve been awaiting (or dreading) their arrival, and now they are finally here.  I’m not talking about the Kardashian babies – no, I’m going to take a little bit of time to discuss the new Lists feature on Twitter and how you might want to think about using (and when not to use) it.

Last night I received my offer and stared at the screen, wondering how to proceed, while my fiancée stared at me warily from across the table.  I hadn’t put any time into thinking about how I should sort my followers, or even if I should.  As my mental clock thunked loudly away, knowing we had to get out the door and buy a few essentials for the house before getting the kids ready for bed, I began with trepidation to type in my first list name….

Just about everyone should have their List option by now.  If you haven’t, here are some basic changes this will make to your Twitter page:


Changes due to the list feature

The Listed Link — You will see this on the  upper right-hand corner of your page, just to the right of your followers link.  This was real estate typically utilized by the number of tweets you made, but Twitter has moved that to just under your username.  Clicking on the Listed link will provide you a list of lists you have been added to by other list users.

The Lists Link — This is where all of the very helpful lists you make show up for you.  It’s located on the lower right-hand area of your page, under your Saved Searches feature.

Those lists that you decided to make public will be visible to anyone coming across your Twitter page.  Those that you made private will show up here for you when you are logged in; otherwise they are invisible.  Nobody else will ever be able to see your private lists.

Creating a List

You can make up to 20 Twitter Lists, with up to 500 people on each.  When you create your lists you are given a few options or attributes, each having their individual personal weight (and possible consequences.)  The very first time you make a list will be from that special window that shows up at the top of the screen, which is when you discover you have the feature.  Click on the Create List button to begin…

List Name – What you name a list is important, because its occupants may emotionally slide along the scale from elation to nonchalance to anger based merely on the name.  I know it’s a name that is meaningful to you; just remember that it may not have the same meaning to the individuals whose usernames reside in that list.  The list you just created  and named Silly People might say to you “These are people that I think are funny; they exude a jovial vivacity that I adore.”  The same list might say to one of its occupants “I don’t take these people seriously.  They are Twitter’s equivalent of the class clown.”

Description – You get up to 100 characters to add a short description of why this new list is meaningful to you.  This is a fairly new addition to your Lists feature, so if you  previously made your lists, you might want to go back and add this…

Menu for creating/editing your lists

Public vs. Private – This is also important.  Public lists will be displayed on the right-hand side of your profile page, and everyone on it can be seen simply by clicking on the link name.  If you create a Public list and add me to it, the number above my Listed link will go up by one, letting me know that I am on another list.  Like many, I’m likely going to check out who added me, so that I can thank them.  Twitter is all about communication, about sharing what we feel and think, about openness.  So if you added me to a list called People Who Tweet Too Damn Much, I’ll likely get the hint.


Suffice it to say that if you are creating a list called People I Care About More Than the Rest, you might want to make it Private, in order to keep from having to explain yourself to those not on it….  Of course, you will have to be logged in to Twitter, in order to see your personal Private lists.

After you have made your initial set of lists, you can make more by clicking on the little New List link under your set of lists.  Got a lot of lists? You can expand them all by clicking on the View All link next to it.

Following People vice Lists

I believe this part may be a bit confusing to people, so I’m going to cover it.  Here’s how this works…


Following lists vice people

Following a Person on a List

To see other people’s Public lists, visit their Twitter page and look at the same place your lists are shown, the lower right-side.  Click on any list to expand it and see who belongs to it.  If you like someone on it and want to follow them, simply click on their name, visit their Twitter page, and follow like normal.  That person will be added to your list of follows, and their stream will show up on your page.

Following a List of People

Following a list is a little different, and needs to be grasped mentally.  If you follow a list, that list will show up under your set of lists on the lower right-hand section of your Twitter page.  Your lists all start with your name.  My first list is @_stevewoods/techies and the first list that I follow belongs to Jason Pollock and is called @Jason_Pollock/rising-stars It’s important to understand that in order to see what people in that list are saying, you will have to click on that list to view that particular stream, separately from your normal stream.

Another important concept to grasp is that the users on lists you follow will not be automatically added to who you are following!  If you want to see them all of the time, rather than when following a particular list, follow desired people from your chosen lists one by one so they show up in your stream all of the time.  So in a way, you can follow someone’s Twitter list until you’ve sucked it dry of all desired people, then unfollow it.  I know, it sounds like using someone, but it’s not.  You’re getting great follows, and moving on.  If you feel guilty about it, thank the person whose list you followed for awhile.  Think of it this way – if you love everyone on one of my lists and I delete the list, you won’t see their stream any longer. Grab ’em while you can!

Desirable lists to follow are those that are comprehensive in nature, and would be difficult (or impossible) for you to assemble due to knowledge or time constraints, and are just plain irresistible.  You’ll find a great resource, Listorious, below under Resources.  They are assembling a great number of these sort of lists, like the TEDsters list, with people who have presented at TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design forum.

Please note that if you block someone that is on one of your lists, they will also disappear from your list, and your name will disappear from any lists they have with you on it.

Are Lists Doing Away With Follow Friday?

I’ve read a few comments on Twitter from folks saying “Thank God, with the Lists coming, we won’t have to do Follow Friday anymore!” Although I understand the sentiment involved with getting rid of the endless @ lists on Follow Friday, Twitter Lists don’t effectively replace the personal level of shout-outs that we give each other on those Friday mornings.


A great #FollowFriday -- Thank you!

Follow Friday shout-outs allow us to tell all of our followers that we think they ought to follow a few others.  It’s a day also to state WHY you should follow them.  Oh, I think the concept of how you should properly do a Follow Friday shout-out has been more than adequately covered.  Simply said, make it personalized, and honestly tell us why we should follow someone.  Exhaustive lists really don’t help much, and are often ignored.  And don’t try to fit everybody in all at once; maybe you can spread your Follow Fridays out over the span of the day.

Twitter Lists don’t replace a good Follow Friday because they are passive in nature.  For me to discover the incredible wealth of information that @Zaibatsu provides on a daily basis, I would have to stumble across his name on someone’s list.  Of course, with almost 100,000 followers, there is a pretty good chance I’ll run across his name eventually.  Even if I did come across his name, however, I would have to follow long enough to see his content, in order to decide I like what he says.

What about the woman with 257 followers, whose daily tweets reach deep inside of me intellectually or emotionally, but has only tweeted for a few weeks?  Even on a friend’s list of must-follows, odds are against me “discovering” her, unless I spend hours trolling lists.  And sorry, I just don’t have the time.

Follow Friday works because our friends actively shout out accolades about those whose steady stream of information makes them laugh, cry, think and more.  I scan the most thoughtful #FF’s and then give people a try.  It’s how I meet people who have 100,000 followers, and those with even less than 257.

Using a List


My Thrown-Together Lists

Twitter Lists have their place, and are quite useful in that niche.    Use it to produce a steady stream that fits your current (or desired) mood.  Use it to strengthen the stream of great links to news articles, technology information, fashion advice, religious uplifting, loving fellowship.  Use it to make sure you never lose a dear friend’s tweets amongst your thousands of follows, to aid in maintaining that wonderful relationship.

If you are serious in trying to replace your typical method of Follow Friday with Twitter Lists, then create meaningful lists with less than 20-30 people in each of them. Click on the list to get the address for it, and copy the address.  Send out a meaningful #FF with a link to the list.

So go ahead and follow other people’s lists.  Follow a lot of them.  But take the time to find out who on those lists makes them desirable to you, then personally follow those individuals yourself, so you see them all of the time.  Because seriously, are you going to flitter back and forth between your Twitter Lists all day?

Emerging Twitter List Resources

Even though the Lists feature has only been around a little while, programmers have already begun working hard to bring desirable lists to you.  As I come across them, I’ll put my favorite List Tools here:

Listorious – (brought to my attention by Jason Pollock) They call themselves the Directory of Awesome Lists.  Here you can find lists based on popular tags, look up lists from a particular user or by keyword, and follow them with a single click.  You’ll have to provide protected access to your Twitter Account to get full use of it.

Listiti – (brought to my attention by Mashable) They will send you an alert whenever someone on a given list tweets something you are interested in.

Conversation List – If you allow it access to your Twitter account, it will dynamically create a list for you based on who you tend to converse with.

TweetML FOLLOW EVERYBODY ON A LIST! TweetML has always provided a great interface to follow groups of users.  Rather than follow someone’s Twitter list, simply type in the address for it ( like ), in the box labelled Follow a Twitter List and press the Follow button. A list of users will show up and you can follow them all by typing in your Twitter information. It’s secure!

Third-Party Clients – Seesmic and Brizzly both have support for lists, and I hear that Tweetdeck has it in the works.  If you would like a Brizzly invite, feel free to contact me in Twitter at @_stevewoods.

Found another great Twitter List resource? Feel free to leave me a comment below.

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Coming Down From the Mountain

In What Day is it? on October 29, 2009 at 5:51 am

After days and nights of it, the laughter of the children echoing up from the foothills below began to grit on him, and he had to find out why there were so many children in the wilderness.   This was supposed to be a quiet place, away from it all.  Slowly and deliberately, he made his way down the familiar paths, pulling up and swinging his wooden leg as he walked, sniffing the air for the musky sign of bears…

The Clemmie Gill School of Science and Conservation


SCICON, nestled in the Sierra Nevadas

SCICON, the Science and Conservation camp nestled in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range since 1950, provides to local students an immersion course in nature conservancy, far from city life and amenities.  Prior to leaving for SCICON, all technology is eschewed by the 6th grade students, a fact that with each passing year brings ever-louder groans, as they sadly set aside the cell phone, PSP, Nintendo DS and iPod at home.

For 5 days under beautiful, open skies, students are led by interns on long hikes, where they learn about predator/prey relationships, nature’s fire cycle, area flora and fauna, recycling, composting, and man’s relationship to nature.  Fireside chats and performances draw laughter almost nightly, as children drew nearer to each other, drawing comfort in each other, away from the hungry mosquitoes.  And there are songs, always songs to be sung…

A Life of Connections, a Life of Distancing

My life is spent connected.  I am online all day as a function of my job, and after homework is complete, my children have spent many an hour chasing after avatars in Disney’s ToonTown while I look up a recipe for dinner.  Into the late evenings, my fiancée and I like to find out what our connections are up to on FaceBook, and I connect as much as I can on Twitter, play more than I would like to admit, and blog away.  Am I too nestled, too comfortable?  Just how near do I draw to others, when I in the online world?


The Hermit Cabin of Irvy Elster

Born in 1889, 61-year-old Irvy Elster lived in the hills above SCICON in a cabin of his own construction, by a flagpole upon which he was known to fly a pair of ragged, red long underwear, likely to help him locate his home after long days in his many hand-dug quartz mines.  Irvy was a hermit, speaking to nobody for months on end, except when he came into town to sell his quartz and purchase supplies.  I am sure his rare visits caused quite a stir, as townsfolk gawked and mothers pushed their gaping children along.  And I am also sure that Irvy wanted nothing more than to get back home again when done shopping, to his familiar places…


What IS this guy buying?

Becoming Social Hermits?

I have always been fearful that the Internet would stifle my social life, that my online relationships would be shallow and short-lived.  I was basically concerned that with all of this connectivity from home and my propensity to shyness, I might wind up an Internet hermit.  Would I peel myself from the keyboard only to scramble for short jaunts to the grocery store, throwing together a hodgepodge of bare necessities and snack foods, thrumming my fingers on the shopping cart as I waited in the too-long line?  Would I forget to actually go places and meet people in person?  Would I develop social ineptitude to such a depth that I too would be gawked at when about town?  Would it bother me if anyone got too close?


Dangers around every corner...

SCICON was built far enough away from the rest of us to mentally remove the students attending from civilization, so they could focus on the beauty of nature all around.  It was this desire for remoteness that brought it so close to Irvy Elster’s cabin, and into his life.  For so many decades Irvy had been used to being alone, just as he had wanted it.  He knew how to handle the foxes, the bears, the mountain lions, even cold and snowy winters.  Life had been rough; nobody knew how Irvy had lost his leg, but everyone was aware that the wooden replacement was hand-carved and self-installed.  It was considered best to leave him alone, and Irvy had no problem helping to propagate that belief.


Learning to expand horizons

Walking Away From Familiarity

After arriving upon SCICON, Irvy wandered its outskirts, around the new cabins, staring suspiciously at the wooden bridges placed over streams and rough-hewn dining hall.  But what pulled Irvy in from the invisible boundary separating his world from theirs was the children.  Hundreds of bright, smiling faces, listening carefully as interns and teachers spoke reverently of the forest, animals, flowers, skies and stars.  Children were told to be careful among the fragile, newly-emerging saplings, to pick up and examine the scat and attempt to name the animal that had deposited it, to identify tracks on the ground, to classify the flowering plants all around.  This was not a world encroaching on his own; no, this was his world slowly, surely, finding its way into the hearts of these young ones.

Irvy carefully let his presence be known, and the children grew to love his presence.  He visited SCICON often, eating with the children in the dining hall, loudly regaling them with stories of his time in the hills above.  He shared his knowledge of the plant life, the habits of both the smaller, skittish animals and larger, dangerous predators.  He led the children on hikes to his cabin and mines, letting them pick quartz from them.  In short, Irvy Elster became a fixture of SCICON.


Taking a walk on the Sky Trail

Irvy passed away in 1965, and was buried in the neighboring Springville cemetery.  To this day, the favorite trail in SCICON is the Sky Trail, a 2 1/2 mile hike into the wilderness above SCICON, to what is now known as the Hermit’s Cabin, and to the nearby quartz mines, where children search for wayward pieces of loose quartz and ponder on the once-lonely life of the man who moved away from what he knew, joining in with the happy voices of the world around him…

Social Media as the Less-Walked Path

Today has two holidays that weave together so well… It is both the Anniversary of the Internet, and Hermit Day.  What I have discovered about Social Media is quite the opposite of what I feared, but only because I wanted it so, and steadily worked toward it.  Social Media and the Internet in general has become, to me, a method to share who I am, and to learn from so many others.  Each and every day I mine the steady stream of news, blog posts, e-zine articles, and daily lives of hundreds of others.  I revel in the very personal photos shared with all, the thrown-together poetry of child-rearing and broken hearts, the one-liners and pleas from all sides to join in another cause.

In Social Media there is a mountain of love to climb and build one’s home upon, and the laughing voices carry from all directions.  After taking the time to scout out and understand what was going on, I am so happy that I left my worries behind, and joined in the fun.  Oh, I have so many stories to tell, too…

The Song of Liberty’s Muse

In What Day is it? on October 28, 2009 at 5:50 am

The U.S.S. Madonna

It was a cool morning on board the U. S. S. Madonna, the quiet of the day broken by the revving tug engines straining the mooring ropes, pulling the gray ship into the dirty, crowded piers of Ellis Island.  On this day, March 14,1911, my great-grandfather, 40-year-old Manuel Bettencourt, stared up at the Statue of Liberty, like so many before him.  Manual was ready to step off the sea-worthy home he had spent the previous two long months aboard, on his great journey that had begun on the Island of Pico, Portugal.

The Statue of Liberty


Rare photo of construction of Lady Liberty

Today is Statue of Liberty Day, the 113th anniversary of our Nation’s ultimate icon of freedom and acceptance, of transition from a nation of relatively homogeneous settlers to a home for immigrants far and wide, whose journey under Lady Liberty’s great shadow welcomed over twelve million of them into our melting pot.

Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned by the French and American governments to create a statue to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  America was to create the sturdy foundation, and France would make and deliver the statue.  Lotteries, concerts, and art exhibits were among the methods used to fund the work.  Prize-founder Joseph Pulitzer used his newspaper The World to extol the virtues of donating to the cause.

The statue was completed in July of 1884 and delivered to American soil in June of the next year on board the French Frigate Isere.  The pedestal, however, wasn’t finished until April of 1886.   To transport the enormous copper statue, it was cut apart in 350 pieces and shipped in 214 crates, carefully lifted piece by piece and reassembled on its new foundation over a span of four months.  In 1956, the island where Lady Liberty resides was renamed Liberty Island.  In May of 1982, a daunting 6-year, $87 Million restoration of the statue and foundation began.  Following the horrific events of 9/11, concerns regarding terrorism closed the extended arm and crown of the statue until earlier this year.

Ellis Island and America’s Journey to the Face of Liberty

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Next door, only half a mile from Lady Liberty’s visage, sits the small 27-acre Ellis Island of New Jersey.  Three Million visitors stop through Ellis Island each year to take pictures, stare across the water at Liberty, and think about their roots. It is believed that 40% of all Americans can trace their lineage through Ellis Island’s immigration station.  On this day let us ponder a bit on the difficult journey so many of our ancestors took to this great land.

Why Did People Make the Journey?

Immigrants made the decision to come to America for a variety of reasons, including famines, disease, civil unrest or wars, natural disasters, or to simply join family members already there.  From the Potato Famine to the Jewish Pogroms of Eastern Europe, as many came to American fleeing nightmares as those that pursued dreams.  Stories of family members becoming wealthy through hard work or obtaining religious freedoms sang to them like the muses calling to Odysseus.

How Often Was Separation From Family Involved?

Immigrant family on board their ship

Immigrant family on board their ship

Most families immigrating to America lacked sufficient funds for the entire family to make the journey.  In these cases, quite often the father and oldest sons came over and worked at whatever jobs they could, scrimping and saving enough for the mother and rest of the family to join them.  Often it took long years to bring families back together again, and no small number of marriages did not survive the ordeal, as men fell under the spell of America’s often more liberal ways…

What Was Considered a Carry-On in Those Days?

Due to space considerations on the ship (and often for profitability’s sake,) the amount you could carry onboard a ship largely depended on how much you paid.  Those with First- or Second-Class fares typically had a storage location for crates of possessions, as well as in their rooms.  Steerage passengers (the majority of all who made the journey) typically stored what they could rolled up in bundles under their tiny bunks, or shoved in corners, carefully watched by family members or new-found friends.

Were There Physical Requirements to Make the Journey?


Immigrants sitting topside during their journey

Because it was a requirement that shipping companies pay the return voyage for all passengers who were turned down at Ellis Island, many had their own doctors inspect closely for diseases or other conditions that would disqualify them in America.  Most shipping companies required the hair of boys to be close-cropped and girls to undergo fine-tooth combing to prevent the spread of lice.

Despite precautions, over 2% of all passengers were returned to their country of origin for either health reasons or due to lack of finances to adequately begin their lives in America.

Where Did People Sleep and Eat During the Journey?

First- and Second-Class fare holders had their own rooms and beds to enjoy during the long journey, and a dining area for their meals, with a comfort and culinary level commensurate with the amount paid.  Steerage passengers slept in three-high suspended cots, seasick for weeks as they bobbed about in rough waters.  They ate on the floors in the same cramped compartments in which they slept.  Food served tended to be slightly warm soup, near-rotten boiled potatoes and mottled beef.

How Did People Keep Themselves Occupied?


Families awaiting processing at Ellis Island

If the ship stewards allowed it, the children of steerage customers would play topside in the open air, simple games like dominoes, cards, marbles, and other diversions taken from back home and altered for a shipboard environment.  Some people, unwilling to simply lie down for the entire journey, helped the sailors care for the ship, scrubbing and mopping surfaces and repairing damage.

How Dangerous Was the Voyage?

Although death from other than natural causes was relatively rare during the journey, it happened.  Untreated illness, food poisoning, falling into open spaces (or overboard) were examples of hazards if one was not careful or unlucky.

What Happened When You Arrived at Ellis Island?

After arriving at the Hudson or East River piers of New York City, steerage passengers gathering up all personal items, and were shuttled by barge to Ellis Island to be documented, inspected by doctors, and finally sent on their way.  For many, it was the ultimate in “sink or swim.”  First- and Second-Class citizens were cursorily inspected on the ship and sent off into New York without further question, as it was assumed that they were unlikely to become a financial ward of the state.

Back to My Beginnings


My Great-Grandfather's Ellis Island Registry

As the tugs cast off lines and chugged away from the Madonna, Manuel Bettencourt didn’t know what future lay ahead of him, how successful he might be.  Perhaps he turned and stared at Lady Liberty and said a prayer.  Perhaps he kept looking straight ahead with purpose, and began his journey.

Manuel was lucky in that he travelled with others from his community, including neighbors, brothers and cousins.  They worked together to protect each other in the bustling culture of New York.  A farmer by trade, and desiring to join family far west, Manuel and his group began looking for ways to cross our land of opportunity, to the rich, fertile farmland of California.  That’s another story…

A Sea Story

In What Day is it? on October 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm

It was a confluence of sensation.  It began with my feet: a gut-wrenching downward movement of the submarine, and a guttural, rumbling shudder.  Then my eyes and ears were brought to bear, as a massive column of salt water shot down the stairs next to me, shouts from above, and the clarion call of the collision alarm went off.  The last two jolted me out of my quiet, purposeful oblivion.  Was this really happening?

Fear shoved my entire body forward one inch, chest first, as I heaved a heavy, loud breath.  The gasp did its job, breaking my paralysis and turning my mind back on.  My legs carried me around the first bend, as I trod through now-ankle-deep water flowing outward into every nook and cranny, each filled with electrical cabling, switches and equipment, shouting all the while “Flooding, flooding!” at the top of my lungs.

An older chief, known for his light-hearted joviality, rushed past me, now serious and wide-eyed in fear, rapidly unlatching and closing the hatch that separated the forward compartment from the one with the massive missile tubes and accompanying crew’s quarters.  As the door was shoved shut, I could see through its narrowing opening a variety of still-sleepy crewmembers leaning out of their bunkrooms, some bolting out semi-nude and dressing in the hall, fumbling in unlaced boots to their battle stations.  As the old chief turned to face me, both of us trapped in the affected forward compartment, I could hear the rush of the water still coming down the stairs….

Today is Navy Day, a set-aside if you please to ponder on our first military branch, our sea-borne projection of power (and hope for peace) around the World.  It is a day to think about the engineering marvels we put on and under the World’s oceans, and the incredible men and women who serve on them.

Basic Training


Yes, it's me...

I celebrated in silence my 23rd birthday on the first day that I showed up in Orlando, Florida for Basic Training, not wanting to draw one iota of attention to myself.  As soon as we arrived, our personal items were looked through for contraband, and stored until we finished boot camp, as nothing was needed but our bodies and minds for the ordeal ahead.  Names were called, and we rapidly were assembled into groups by bored staffers, then led to and bunked down for the night in large rooms on squeaky, lumpy beds.  Over the next few days we were given immunizations, filled out piles of paperwork, were measured and weighed for proper clothing, and issued workout gear.

The U. S. Navy processes over 54,000 new recruits through its facility at Lake Michigan (the Orlando facility shut its doors years ago,) with much of the training occurring indoors, including marching, drills, confidence courses and weapons training.  Recruits must learn Navy conduct and values, the various parts of a seaworthy vessel, how to properly care for their bunk and clothing, and how to survive tortuous physical exercise, all the while living under the constant scrutiny of two Company Commanders, men and women with an eagle eye for weakness and non-assimilative attitudes.  Additionally during the 8-week course, recruits give up smoking, eat, sleep, shower and use the restroom by strict schedules, learn to swim, handle fire hoses, and fight their way out of a tear-gas filled room.  In boot camp, you learn to work as a team, the value of supporting each other and making sure all get through an ordeal.


Navy recruits in line for the next thing...

While serving my basic training, it was noted that I had a keen ability to learn the large assemblage of trivia provided to us during long, hot training sessions.  Fighting off the urge to fall asleep like so many others, I took concise notes, and utilized rapidly-drawn illustrations to bring concepts together.  One of my Company Commanders noted this, and after a short conference with his partner, informed me that I would be in charge of follow-up training for my company of over 70 men.  I spent hours drawing ships at varying angles and labeling the parts (forecastle, port, starboard, quarterdeck, stern, rudder, keel, cleats, etc) while the rest of my Company scrubbed and polished the floors.  They did not seem to mind the disparity in jobs, as our Company’s academic awards rolled in, providing for a loosening of restrictions against us by our Commanders.

“A” Schools


Learning the tools of the trade...

Following the 8-week basic training course, many sailors are sent to short-term training environments, or “A” Schools, each with an area of emphasis, depending on what field of work you are entering.  It’s important to iron down, in writing with your recruiter, what job you are going into when enlisting in the military, or you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised at this point.  Before enlisting, I had obtained a rock-solid guarantee that I would be entering the Navy to become a Nuclear Machinist Mate, which meant that on whatever vessel I was stationed, I would ultimately be tasked to watch over, maintain and repair the propulsion-related equipment of the nuclear reactors and engine rooms.  For the next 3 months I attended the Nuclear Field A School for Machinist’s Mates, where I learned how to use those tools used in an engineering setting, from your run-of-the-mill wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers to bearing presses, pressure switches, micrometers, calipers and depth gages.  I also gained knowledge of how to transition to the rigors of boot camp to the somewhat more relaxed environment of navy training.

Advanced Training Schools


Nuclear Power School patch

Although many sailors move from A School to their first at-sea assignment, there are a number of fields in the U.S. Navy that require advanced training in order to perform in them.  Navy Cryptographers, Sonar Operators, Missile Technicians, Torpedo men, Nurses, SEALs and those operating the nuclear reactor equipment are among those that must attend this additional instruction.   After completion of my A School, I went on to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Training Unit in Orlando for 6 months of intensive training in what is billed as one of the most difficult educational environments in America (a whopping 40% drop-out rate.)  During my tenure, I completed rapid-fire courses in physics, metallurgy, reactor plant thermodynamics, and more.  There were weekly tests administered, late night cramming sessions every night for most, and an even looser after-school environment.

Advanced training can often include hands-on learning environments, to ensure knowledge level, and provide for more tactile learners.  After Power School, I headed to Nuclear Prototype for 6 more months, oddly enough to the deserts of Idaho’s National Engineering Laboratory.  I rode a bus for almost 3 hours in each direction daily, sleeping against a cold window.  I studied continuously, seeking clarification from staff members, and performed a variety of tasks in the A1W Nuclear Prototype plant, which was essentially a fully-functioning replica of one of the engine rooms from the U.S.S. Enterprise, replete with reactor plant and steam-driven propulsion system.  I did so well that I was picked up as a staff member, and served there for 2 more additional years, enjoying the rarity of shore duty before time at sea…

Surface or Submarine Assignments

Nearing the end of one’s initial training, sailors are given the opportunity to decide whether or not to become surface sailors or submariners.  Where one actually serves is almost entirely taken out of your hands, but a sailor is provided a few requests and a prayer…  I decided from day one that I wanted to hide out under the waves in the silent service, as a submariner.  And in particular, I wanted to serve on the Cadillac of submarines, an Ohio Class Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine.  And as luck would have it, that is exactly what I got.


An Ohio-Class Nuclear Missile Submarine

The Navy has a variety of types (or classes) of vessels in use: Aircraft carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates, Corvettes, Patrol Vessels, Minor Surface Combatants, Mine Warfare Vessels and Amphibious Warfare Vessels.  Each has a very specific set of armaments, compartments, propulsion capabilities, and working surfaces to perform its job.  The ships that project the most power are the Aircraft Carriers, capable of launching a variety of heavily-armed advanced fighters airborne at a moment’s notice.  Working in tandem with other classes of vessels, it is almost impossible to attack and/or destroy a modern American Aircraft Carrier.

Interestingly enough, my first (and only sea duty command,) the U.S.S. Nevada, is considered only to be a Minor Surface Combatant, despite its array of advanced torpedoes and 24 Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles, each capable of carrying up to 8 individual warheads.  It’ll do a lot more damage than any fleet of navy jets, but of course is maintained as a weapon of last resort, as it should.  It is the modern equivalent of the big stick President Theodore Roosevelt alluded to, but hidden away under the ever-moving ocean waves.  Our job as submariners was to get underwater, transit unnoticed to a predetermined sector of the ocean, and make very large figure eights while staying as quiet as possible.  It is said that to find an American ballistic missile submarine, one has to look for quiet spots in the ocean, little black holes of noiselessness back dropped against the cacophonic clicking of krill and other sea life.



So many things to do underway...

I spent five years stationed on the Nevada, spending a total of 2 years underwater.  Patrols were around 2 ½ months in duration, monotony broken by the almost-daily drill schedule of pretend fires, floods, hydraulic leaks, reactor SCRAMs (loss of reactor power,) steam leaks and any other disasters dreamed up by our supervisors to keep us alert and knowledgeable.  We had half-way parties filled with pizza and king crab legs, held ugly beard contests, watched movies incessantly, and drank tankards of coffee.  And we spent long hours at our watch stations, thinking about those still at home while cleaning, painting, making adjustments to equipment, and logging activity.  Showers were short and unconvincing, but one of the few bastions of alone time we got.

While underway I crawled all over the inside of the submarine (or boat as we called it,) learning how to shut down and restart systems vital to survival.  I qualified to supervise operations in the reactor plant and engine room, helped cooked breakfast in the galley when fancy struck me, learned to cut hair and performed for a time as ship’s barber, clipping many a head prior to pulling into shore at San Diego or Hawaii.  I hung out with all variety of sailors on board, learning a bit about their jobs, their families, their lives.  I explored the philosophical values of a variety of individuals while standing watch, and learned the value of liberal thought and acceptance.  In short, I had a good time underway.

Finishing Where We Started

For certain, I could regale you with so many stories from my time in the Navy, but this is a blog, not a book….  I’ll end with the one I started at the beginning:

While on my very first patrol, I served galley duty, as all new sailors have to do.  We were transiting out from Alameda through an area known as the “Potato Patch” due to its exceptionally rough waters.  It was mid-November, and the sea churned admirably, causing half of the crew to lie down at their watch stations, between throwing up in trash cans.  The ship’s doctor was busy handing out motion sickness pills while admonishing everyone for not visiting him before the transit out.  The Nevada was buttoned up tight for the journey out of the bay with the exception of the conning tower, which had its hatch open a full 75 feet above the missile deck, and wherein stood the officer of the deck, an old crusty chief and a brand new fresh-out-of-boot-camp sailor.


Ohio Class Submarine Conning Tower

As the submarine maneuvered on the surface, the boat steered in a manner that drove it over a very massive swell, lurching the front of the submarine up and then down, under the crest of the following wave.  The propeller (or screw) pulled slightly out of the water, cavitating momentarily.  As soon as the submarine bit into the oncoming wave, the propeller caught again, and pushed the submarine down, a full thirty feet over the open hatch and the heads of the three surprised men.

The Officer of the Deck held tightly to the lip of the opening atop the conning tower and held his breath, as he watched the young seaman momentarily suspended overhead in the water, as the old chief held his hand, one hand tightly gripped the edge of the opening.  And as soon as the wave passed over, it pulled away again, and the water level dropped almost 100 feet, exposing once again the conning tower and occupants.  The chief never let go of the sailor, who went over the edge of the tower and hit the edge of it with a thud, quickly pulled back in as everyone coughed and sputtered wildly.

During the submersion, a thick, brackish column of water shot through the open hatch into the conning tower and down the stairs, right by the tiny compartment I was working in, smashing trash to shoot out later in deeper waters.  After the chief closed the compartment hatch to isolate the damage to our compartment, I noted many small calamari littering the floor of the path.  Everyone in the forward compartment rushed to and fro in preparation for significant damage, as nobody knew what had happened yet.  After the men came below and the conning tower hatch was secured, the compartment hatches were reopened, and we all got to work mopping up and drying the water.  A few in their haste to control the water from causing damage in the torpedo room pulled mattresses from bunk rooms and put them on the floor and over the stowed torpedoes, much to the dismay of the individuals who had been previously sleeping on them.  It was a mess for weeks, as we continued to find salt deposits in obscure locations.

The flooding incident was one of the more exciting adventures that took place on the Nevada.  Perhaps as the months progress, a few more might make their way out of me…

A Stubborn American Icon

In What Day is it? on October 26, 2009 at 10:38 am

What is a Mule?

The Mighty Mule

The Mighty Mule

Today is National Mule Day, a day to celebrate an animal that science says should never have happened.  Mules are the product of cross-breeding an ass (Equus Asinus) and a female horse (Equus Caballus,) two animals whose genetic disposition scientifically works against actually producing offspring.  All males (Jacks) are born infertile, and most females (Hinnies) are as well.  Fertile females are known as Mollies, and are extremely rare (only 60 documented cased since 1527.)  Because female horses come in a variety of sizes (all the way up to Clydesdales,) mules can be produced from light-weight to heavy duty size, ready for a variety of tasks.

Mules can pack up to 20% of their weight in a load, or up to 30% of their weight in passengers.  They are lb. for lb. stronger than a horse, require less food, and can travel up to 26 km. without the need to rest.  They are largely disease resistant, have stronger hooves than horses, and tend to not give up in situations where something big has to be moved (hence “stubborn as a mule.”)

Mules in Ancient Times

Due to their docile nature and ease to train, Mules have been purposefully bred since early ancient times.  The Egyptians referred to the animal as being domesticated as early as 3,700 BCE.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans preferred mules over horses for transportation when heavier loads or greater distances were involved, as mules were noted to be surefooted, albeit slow. The Hittites held them in esteem, higher even than the horses which drew the chariots of their leaders.  In Biblical times, Israelites cherished the additional courage the mule possesses, noting that many celebrated figures, including the Kings of Israel, rode mules.  Christopher Columbus brought domesticated mules on his journey to the New World.

George Washington’s American “Compound”

George Washington, a renown breeder of Mules, wrote to King Charles V of Spain, seeking to purchase some Spanish asses.  Two females and a male named “Royal Gift” were sent over, arriving in December of 1785 at Mt. Vernon.  From France, the Marquis de Lafayette sent a Maltese Jack named “Knight of Malta” to Washington, and crosses of the two breeds began in earnest.  Animals produced from the cross-breeding of Washington’s early stock were known as “compound,” and by 1840 could run as much as $5,000 each.  Mules from Washington’s stock “…helped build our country,” as the motto of the American Donkey and Mule Society states.

The Santa Fe Trail and the Civil War

Mule Team, Civil-War Era

Mule Team, Civil-War Era

In the 1820s and 1830s, the Santa Fe Trail emerged as a major trading route, with mule-drawn wagons pulling a variety of products across the West, while riders kept a watchful eye for thieves and tribes angered by the encroachment.  The mules were so appreciated for their strength and endurance during these runs, that county fairs across the West and Mid-West began to have mule-breeding contests and shows.

During America’s Civil War era, thousands of mules were enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies, typically by force, many dying along with the soldiers in battle, and it took many years for the population of the pack animal to recover during the Reconstruction period.  The recovery of the mule population post-Civil War runs parallel with the slow re-emergence of the cotton industry in the South.  The British Empire became embroiled in the Boer Wars of 1898, and the mule industry, particularly in Missouri, exploded, supplying 115,000 animals to the Brits.

Origin of the Famous Twenty Mule Team Symbol

Original 20 Mule Team

Original 20 Mule Team

The famous 20 Mule Team formation made famous by the Borax cleanser brand has its origins in the heat of California’s Death Valley.  William T. Coleman began mining for borax there in 1881, finding one of the World’s richest deposits, and formed a company, Harmony Borax Works.  Borax was used in those days for a variety of reasons: as a digestion aid, to sweeten old milk, to clean their faces and wash their hair.  It was used to scrub a variety of household objects and even as a curative for a variety of medical needs, including epilepsy.

Sensing opportunity, Coleman’s superintendent of operations J. W. S. Perry wanted to find an efficient and fast method of getting the mined borax moved 165 miles out of the desert valley and over the mountains to the nearest railroad junction, which was in Mojave. Perry talked with a local mule skinner, Ed Stiles, and they decided to move from the typical 10 mule hitch to double that amount, a train of animals and cargo that stretched over 100 feet.  Special, extremely sturdy wagons were created for the journey at a cost of over $900 each, an enormous sum in those days.

The trips began in 1883, took 20 days to accomplish, and moved 10 tons of borax over grinding sand and gravel (1/10th the capacity of a modern freight car.)   Over the next 6 years, over 20 million lbs. of borax was hauled out of Death Valley.  Making only 17 miles per day, the wagon train made constant stops on the steep and narrow mountain trails, shifting donkeys in order to keep them from trying to move in a straight line (and thus over the precipices.) Wagon train members earned $100 – $120/month, a very good wage for the time. During this time not a single mule was lost, and not a single wagon broke down.  The spread of railroads closer to Death Valley relieved the men (and mules) from such dangerous duties.

The Pacific Coast Borax Company registered the 20 Mule Team symbol in 1894, and began imprinting the famous wagon train on their boxes of cleaning products in 1894.  Borax no longer recommends medicinal use of the chemical borax; however it is widely used in the glass, porcelain, ceramic, detergent, cosmetic, building material, electronics and agriculture industries.

Modern Use Today

Enjoying a mule ride, Grand Canyon style

Enjoying a mule ride, Grand Canyon style

Of course, modern agricultural machinery (tractors, trucks, etc.) have supplanted the mule as the top  performer in modern American farms; however they are still used in more rugged areas of the wilderness, including the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.  The Grand Canyon is among the many recreational locales using mules to cart people and supplies within its magnificent (but dangerous) geography.  America’s Amish population still use 6- or 8- mule teams to pull their farming implements.  The Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California still trains our soldiers how to best use the multitude of mules found in Afghanistan to bring supplies deep into the Afghan mountains.  China is the chief user of mules in the World, followed closely by Mexico, Central and South America, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

There are a variety of mule appreciation societies, still carrying out breeding programs and displaying the best of the result at shows nationwide.  And, as for everything else, there exists a cable channel, dedicated to the raising and training of both donkeys and the mighty mule.

A Welcoming Nature

In What Day is it? on October 23, 2009 at 6:00 am

Each year, my family and I have made it a point to return to Sequoia National Forest, to settle in for as long as we can stand it under the enormously tall, beautiful, welcoming Giant Sequoias.  We invite as many family members as are willing to hang out together, circling the campgrounds for the perfect location.  Spying the site most likely to mask our great noise (we have many children between us,) we get busy pitching a plethora of tents, gathering firewood and placing all of our food in cabinets, as it is bear country.  This is our second home, out in the open….

The Swallows of Capistrano

Poster celebrating the swallows' presence

Poster celebrating the swallows' presence

In Capistrano, the swallows have been there since March 19th, seven warm months of chirping, nestling together, preening themselves and their new children in temporary but comfortable homes.  They have spent their days looping the skies in rapid flapping dances, and watching the visitors with tiny eyes, as they are led through the Mission.  It’s now time for the swallows to return to their second home, until next year….

Mating and home-building skills

Where is your second home, that special place you find yourself needing to return to often?  What little corner of the Earth holds a familiar, comfortable nest for you and yours, and why do we need our escape spots?  Is it perhaps a deep-rooted need to show to loved ones our ability to find shelter anew, to provide sustenance in strange places? To prove our worth as a mate?

Nobody really knows why the swallows return to Capistrano every year.  It’s thought that the swallows likely made their choice to settle there long before the mission was ever created, thousands of generations earlier.  Perhaps they originally settled nearby, only moving over to the mission after it was built, seeing a great location for building their special nests.  By any account, the new babies born in Capistrano soon learn to see the Mission as their home, and they remember it well.

A welcoming nature

After Mission San Juan Capistrano was created, a town formed up nearby.  Legend has it that as the birds settled in under the roofs of the new buildings, residents began chasing the “filthy birds” away.  The local priest, Father St. John O’Sullivan, felt sorry for the birds and invited them to settle inside the safe confines of the Mission.  His welcoming attitude brought more and more birds each and every year in gratitude.

Towering giants, watching over us as we sleep...

Towering giants, watching over us as we sleep...

For my family, I think it is the trees of Sequoia that bring us back, and holds our continuing affections when gone.  They are like thick walls surrounding and protecting us; yet when we raise our heads we see the sky above, and remember we are still outdoors.  The trees are like beautiful brown and green nails, hammered into the mountains by a God bent on restoring all of our lives through natural beauty.

In Capistrano, the visiting birds were well known locally, only gaining national attention in the early 1900s when birdwatchers began following their return to study them.  The swallows brought incredible notoriety to the Mission, as throngs of tourists, after having heard the story of the annual migrations, began to stream in.  The income allowed the Mission to be restored and kept up, a reward perhaps for Father O’Sullivan’s welcoming arms.  Mission San Juan Capistrano houses Father Serra’s Chapel, the oldest building in California still in use.

The “other” home for the swallows

So where do the swallows reside during the colder Winter months?  This question has evaded people for decades.  Jose de Garcia Cruz, also known as Acu, was the bellringer for the Mission for quite awhile. Thought to be one of the last of the Juaneno Indians, the local indigenous people, Acu had his own story.  A highly religious man, Acu believed that the swallows made their way across the waters to the Holy Land, returning with twigs in their beaks, used to float in the ocean when tired.

Migratory path of the Capistrano Swallows

Migratory path of the Capistrano Swallows

I have often wondered when camping in our special place, are we loud, noisy marvels to the beers, deer and squirrels?  Do they often wonder where we go, what mythical place we return to after our temporary, noisy hiatus in their back yard?

Recent investigation using modern techniques to follow the birds led to the discovery of where the famous swallows call home when not at Capistrano.  Their Winter home is the city of Goya, Argentina, 7,500 miles from Capistrano.  The swallows leave Goya every year on or about February 18th, flying for 30 successive days at an incredible elevation of 2,000 ft.  They fly that high to take advantage of wind currents and to avoid predatory birds.  When they return to Goya, they have flown a distance almost equal to circumnavigating the Globe.

Have you made your plans for a return this year?

Sequoia is only half a tank of gas away, calling to us each and every year, when the Sun’s warmth lingers long enough for pleasant mountain days, yet the mornings are crisp enough to make the coffee seem incredible, the bacon heavenly.  How far away is your special haven, and have you made plans to return yet?  Take your family, and show them that your love drives you to provide for them, to care for them, anywhere you are.  That you will always be there, that no matter where life brings you, you’ll always return to their welcoming nature…

What Are You, Nuts?

In What Day is it? on October 22, 2009 at 5:20 am
Olduvai Gorge, Africa

Olduvai Gorge, Africa

In the Olduvai Gorge of Africa over 1,000,000 years ago, they enjoyed them, placing them on top of rocks and gingerly tapping them, one by one, until each was released, a repetition leaving small circular indentations in the stones surviving to this day.  Because they could be collected from all around, were lightweight, and could be stored for great periods of time through tough winters, nuts (mixed with other dried foods) allowed for the formation of base camps and hunting exhibitions.  The carrying of dried nuts allowed groups to travel great distances without the necessary concern of what to eat along the journey. In other words, the variety of nuts found in ancient times, in part, allowed our ancestors to comfortably spread out across the globe.

Today is National Nut Day, and I’m torn between celebrating either the guy who wears dirty sweaters and shouts at the walls as you transit from your parked car to the office door (and you pray he won’t notice you) or that little delicious, crunchy, culinary delight in the big grocery bin.  Maybe in some weird way, I can figure out how to do both…

Chestnuts - ask a botanist!

Chestnuts - ask a botanist!

If you asked a botanist

Ask a botanist what a nut is and he’ll likely first think of you, because you’re bothering him, and frankly he doesn’t know you.  After he moves past that, he’ll tell you that a “true nut” is a dry fruit with a hardened ovary (Ovary? Really?) and softer, detached seed center, and that it stays shut even at full maturity.   I don’t know why it has to be described in that way…ask your new botanist friend!  Examples of what a botanist would call a “true nut” are chestnuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts and filberts.  I’ll bet when a botanist is at Baskin Robbins and is ordering toppings for his girlfriend’s ice cream sundae, he says nuts, even if they are not “true nuts.”  He does if he wants to keep dating her….

If you asked someone who cooks for a living

In the world of cuisine, the definition of a nut is fast and loose.  If you spent your day around sharp knives and open flames, you might be a little loose with the definitions too.  Any large oily seed extracted from a shell and used to cook with is considered a nut in the world of the kitchen.  Because we have much closer relationships with those that cook our meals than botanists, we tend to view pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashews, coconuts, pinenuts and even peanuts as “nuts.”  Everyone likes to remind the lowly peanut that he is actually a legume, or bean.  The peanut never asked for such dichotomy.  If some of us can call Perez Hilton a celebrity, why can’t we just call a peanut a nut?

Nuts are the Ultimate Health Food!

Nuts are the Ultimate Health Food!

Health benefits of eating nuts

A diet that includes nuts has a variety of benefits to the eater.  The Omega 3 oils in nuts reduces hypertension and the risk of heart disease, and may add years to your life if you replace sweet treats at breaktime with them often.  Studies have shown that putting out a bowl of walnuts and almonds can actually reduce the level of “bad” cholestrol in our bodies, and increase the number of health-conscious hotties hanging around your desk.

Nuts are rich in fiber, protein, antioxidants, and vitamins.  Because of a very low glycemic index, nuts are typically suggested as a snack for anyone with insulin resistance problems, such as diabeties. Nuts contain linoleic and linolenic acids that help with proper skin, hair, brain, blood and immunilogical development.  They are considered to be one of the “perfect” foods, due to the large cross-section of identified benefits in consuming them in moderation.

Types of nuts

Here is a non-comprehensive list, in alphabetical order, of the types of nuts you can eat.  Some may require special preparation, so don’t run out and grab just any one of them off the ground!  Have you had the opportunity to try most of these?  I’ll bet you haven’t!

  • Acorn
  • Beech
  • Butternut
  • Brazilnut
  • Candlenut
  • Cashew
  • Chestnuts (Chinese, Malabar, and Sweet)
  • Colocynth
  • Cucurbita Ficifolia
  • Filbert
  • Gevuina Avellana
  • Hazelnut
  • Hickory (Pecan, Shagbark Hickory)
  • Kola
  • Macadamia
  • Mamoncillo
  • Maya
  • Mongongo
  • Oak Acorns
  • Ogbono
  • Paradise
  • Pili
  • Pistachio
  • Walnut

From nut to “nutter”

So how did such a good little food, responsible for the survival and spread of our species over millenia, become a derogatory term meaning “insane?”  Although there are no really direct explanations for it, there are regional cultural cues in our language that may’ve led to this…

Watch out for him! And the sweater!

Watch out for him! And the sweater!

From the 18th to 20th Centuries, the slang version of nut or nuts was used in a positive manner, denoting an extreme desire toward something.  This was highlighted in Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn, circa 1884: “Tom had his store clothes on, and an audience — and that was always nuts for Tom Sawyer.”  It was not uncommon in literature to describe the height of love as being a form of insanity.  Sometime around the mid 20th Century, the word nut became synonymous with describing one’s head, with terms such as “tough nut to crack” being used to describe one with very guarded thoughts or emotions.

Somewhere in the mid 20th Century, all of these terms seemed to converge, and the term nuts came to be used to describe someone whose sanity was in permanent (rather than temporary) question.  A variety of terms came about, including nutter, nuthouse, nutty, nuthead, etc., all demeaning in form.  In the last 30 years of so, the term nuts has taken back some of its original meaning, and is used once again to describe a pleasant but strong desire toward something.

Add some nuts to your life

Knowing how the wonderful nut has contributed so greatly to our survival and in no small way to the fact that you live where you do, why not take some to the office with you?  And say hello on the way to the guy with the stinky sweater. He might want some too…

A Return to True Beauty

In What Day is it? on October 20, 2009 at 10:13 pm

In thousands of beauty pageants across America, she stands there, an aura around her as she tries with all of her might not to squint under the bright, hot kleig lights causing tiny beads of sweat to form on her forehead, as she focuses on holding that perfect vasoline-covered smile, praying not to trip on the dress while walking past the dimly-lit judges’ table in front of the stage….

Origin of Modern-Day Beauty Pageant

Original Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City

Original Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City

In 1921 the Businessman’s League of Atlantic City, a fun-loving group of guys to be sure, decided to hold what they called a “Fall Frolic.”  Sticking wheels on 350 colorful wicker chairs, the organizers decorated them and assembled together scores of attractive women to pose on the chairs, as men pushed them down the Boardwalk.  The spectacle was such a success (go figure) that organizers decided to ask cities far and wide to run photo pageants in their newspapers, perform state-wide runoffs, and send all the winners to Atlantic City the following year as state representatives.  A local newspaperman, Herb Test, spoke up and stated that the ultimate winner should be crowned “Miss America.”  Although only a handful of states sent women the next year, an empire was born, changing how beauty was perceived for decades to come.

Rubber-stamping Beauty

Miss Margaret Gorman, 1st Miss America

Miss Margaret Gorman, 1st Miss America

The nationalizing and glamorizing of beauty pageants significantly helped to standardize what it means to be “beautiful” in America.  Oh, I’m not trying to villify the Billion-Dollar pageant industry…. They were only building on the commercial success that came with parading a steady stream of female cinema bombshells in Hollywood.   It’s no coincidence that the first winner of the Miss America Pageant was 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, noted to have been popular because she looked like then-famous movie starlet Mary Pickford.

Little girls in small towns scattered across America read about the annual winners, pouring over photographs of the contest in their local papers. Quite a bit more than a handful of young women began that dream of competing someday in what has become over 1,200 local and state-level pageants leading to the now televised national pageants, hoping to be picked (by the new pageant “experts,” tape measure in hand) as perfect.

Eating Disorders : The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room

How Do We Rescue Her?

How Do We Rescue Her?

A Johns Hopkins University study showed that the average contestant on Miss America is 5’7″ talls,  weighs in at a feathery-light 120 lbs., and has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 18.5, placing her squarely in the undernourished category for her height.  This is to be compared to the average American woman, with a height of 5’4″, weighing 142 lbs., with a BMI of 24.4.  In other words, to be considered as the next nationally televised representative of American beauty, a young women has to put serious consideration in joining the population of those residing deeply in the territory bordering an eating disorder.

My three young girls see the woman who is pressed forward by the crowd, to cut the ribbon on the new mall’s ground-breaking with impossibly large scissors.  They see the happy young girl waving from the car passing by on the parade, the one in the beautiful white formal. My girls are health, having been known to turn down seconds at the dinner table many a time.  Despite these continual exercises in self-control, they don’t see the same figure in the mirror as those that represent our shared ideals of shapeliness.  How easy it must be for them to equate success in life with that waif-like figure paraded in front of them in magazines and on television, in music videos and commercials.  I work hard to make sure they understand the difference between perception and reality…

It is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that between 5-10% of all women in America suffer from eating disorders, and up to 15% have had issues with them in their lives.  Women have begun to fight back at this impossible body image, demanding a more realistic view of what is considered beautiful by the media, often lashing out at the beauty pageants, television conglomerates, and fashion industry.

From Skinny to “Fit”

She looks fat?

She looks fat?

Beauty pageant marketers have heard the complaints, simply moving their message from thin to the more popular image of “fit,” adding the word “fitness” to describe swimsuit competitions, as though to wear a skinny slip of fabric is akin to a sporting activity.  My Dad used to watch pretty much any sport that was on television, including of all things Bass Fishing. If they had grass growing competitions, I am sure he would have owned a hat with Kentucky Blue Grass emblazoned on it. To my surprise, he also loved to watch Women’s Baskeball.  I’m not always sure it was for the right reasons… The players looked pretty fit to me.  The average female Olympic women’s basketball player (a Hell of a lot taller, fitter and thinner than the average woman) coincidentally has a BMI averaging 24.4, same as your typical, much shorter red-blooded and totally hot American female.

There is nothing fit in the rapid (and dangerous) weight-loss regimen that one not-long-ago Miss America winner underwent, going from a size 7 to a size 2 in just four months in preparation for the competition.  I seriously doubt she played basketball to get in that condition.  Our girls cannot (and should not) try to keep up with this dangerous example of American “fitness.”  They don’t wind up on stages with tiaras after that type of behavior.  They wind up in hospitals.

The Addition of “Good Causes”

National and International Beauty Pageants have further pushed away the issue of eating disorders by brandishing before them (and perhaps hiding behind) a variety of wonderful causes they support financially, including AIDS Education, Women’s Rights, School Violence and Breast Cancer Awareness.  They are certainly incredible, worthy causes.  I believe in and support them all, in case an apologetic wants to bash me over the head with one.  But the pageants continue to fail to take on the 800 lb. gorilla in the room head-on,  undertaking the loosening of what body style has to be met to compete and win.  What better way to create a more healthy, positive body image for our daughters, one that empowers them to stop looking in the mirror so much and begin looking more seriously at their educations, than to change what they physically see in beauty pageant winners? In that girl who cuts the ribbon or waves in the parade?

Even Barbie is No Longer Skinny Enough…

Cankles? Really?

Cankles? Really?

French Shoe Designer Christian LouBoutin recently complained that he felt that Barbie, the perennial American doll that pretty much everybody acknowledges has impossible proportions, has cankles. Yes, fat ankles.  He wants the doll redesigned to have skinnier ankles.  Thanks, jerk.

Ralph Lauren model Filippa Hamilton (size 4) sparked controversy in the news recently, stating she was let go for being too fat to fit in the clothing provided to her for photograph sessions.  In support of these statements, fashion shots of the 5’10” 120 lb. model were produced to the media, doctored in order make her hips appear even skinnier than her head, because a size 4 was not small enough to produce the desirable eye-candy on a sailboat look…

The Power of Beauty

There is no mistaking the power of attractiveness.  Have we been trained to believe that beautiful people somehow possess greater faculties of the mind, or a deeper reservoir of essential, earthy goodness? Researchers have shown that when handing in homework of equal merit, more attractive students get higher grades on average by their googly-eyed teachers.  More attractive criminals tend to get lighter sentences from their jurors.  Less attractive people earn less than average-looking people, who make less than more attractive workers holding similar positions.

Where Does It Stop? Who Will Take a Stand?

Thank you Miss American Rose!

Thank you Miss American Rose!

The Miss American Rose Pageant is very unlike other pageants.  Competitors of all ages are not invited to attend at a particular location, instead mailing in their applications to pageant headquarters.  That’s right, mail-in.  There are no travel expenses, no clothing and hairstyle costs, no hotel rooms and trainers, no poise school and singing lessons, no tape under the boobs, no wardrobe malfunctions, no stupid answers to canned questions.  And definitely no itching powder in a competitor’s swimsuit.

The competition is based largely on a girl (or woman’s) lifetime achievements, rather than being almost wholely focused on one’s  appearance and poise.  There are optional competitions based on academics, talent, community service, career, and finally beauty.  But before you roll your eyes, the beauty portion of the pageant is based on either photograph or written essay, as outer and inner beauty are each being considered as having their merit..

I have to stand and applaud the Miss American Rose Pagaent.  They have shirked the standardized beauty specifications, put down the tape measures and scales, and allowed the definition of what is beautiful to return to the eye of the beholder. They have drawn forth and celebrated the inner beauty in each and every girl and woman, empowering and pushing them to be leaders, teachers, and examples for all of us.

From the bottom of my heart I thank you, Miss American Rose Pageant.  My daughters and I love you.

Looking in the Dark Places

In What Day is it? on October 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm

“The great thing is, if one can, to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions in one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.”  ~ C. S. Lewis

Does work feel like this?

Does work feel like this?

You’re home sick for the umpteenth time, opening that familiar box of DayQuil and eyeing the remote control, box of lotionized Kleenex by the bed, ignoring the ringing phone.  Despite a beautiful, warm day, you refuse to open the box that has the swimwear in it, because your method of coming to terms with your weight is to simply accept it as fact.  Monday’s alarm clock is a clarion call of sadnesss, as you roll over and jam the blankets back under your chin, dreading facing another day at work…

Today is a day meant to remind you that no matter where you are in your life, you remain responsible for it, as well as where you go from here.  It’s a day to spend as much time as needed looking both at yesterday and today, in order to figure out the path for tomorrow.  It’s a day that could eventually lead to you re-inventing you.

Let’s first talk about the past and modifying what’s going on in the present.  Afterwards, I will talk a little about changing how you approach life in the future.

Let's learn to push ourselves...

Let's learn to push ourselves...


Modern marketing psychology tells us that in order to move people in a particular direction, you have to “sell” it, marketing in such a way that the message’s receiver decides for himself to change direction. Rather than filling this day with regret in acknowledging failings, spend the next few weeks in actions that just might inadvertently market to you a new way of looking at your life.  Let’s call it Accidental Self-Help

The Accidental Self-Help Process

Evaluate the Dark Places

We all have dark places.  These are the waystations of memories and projects, shoes and photographs, files and winter coats.  They are the purgatories of projects that once resided squarely on your desk, shiny with newness and prospect, making its way into the wire folder holder between last week’s other projects, last month’s other projects, eventually things to do someday, and finally into a drawer with the other clutter.  It’s time to bring these places into the light…

The Dark Places Where We Work

Do we need to keep everything?

Do we need to keep everything?

If you are reading this at your office desk, let’s start by taking a few hours and pulling out all of your folders, evaluating what you’ve kept.  Toss what you don’t need, and be liberal about the tossing, bordering on throwing caution to the wind.  When a co-worker asks you if you are leaving or were fired, you are moving in the right direction… Can you combine files?  Can you scan documents and keep on a shared server drive?

If you have a calendar program on your computer, quickly schedule a date to evaluate and/or kickstart completion of those items you have left undone. Was someone recently hired and looking to make a good impression, willing to run with one of your old projects to completion?  It is important to view this as work for work’s sake, another thing you are required to do for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness for your employer.  Do your best to leave your emotions out of it…

Consider purchasing plants or other ways to change how you look at your workplace.  Plants, funny saying calendars, photographs, cartoons, simple toys, interesting coffee cups, etc. will suffice to begin the process of re-inventing your workspace.

The Dark Places Where We Live

Time to drag out the memories...

Time to drag out the memories...

At home? Determine a good time to begin pulling out and evaluating items in your home’s dark places. Different from your work environment, allow your emotions to come into play during this process.  Start with someplace simple and easy, such as under the bed, or perhaps in a closet.  Leave the day-long dirty project of the garage for later.

As you go through your little boxes of mementos and chotskies, think about what you kept and why.  Are there hopes and dreams within these items, reminders of what you wanted to do, or where you wanted to go, in your life?  This is not time to fill your mind with regret; rather, think about the happiness you felt when gathering the items you stored, how you felt about those days, about creating those dreams, about the people you were with and may be still a part of your life.

The Re-evaluation Honeymoon

Journals always help to keep us on track...

Journals always help to keep us on track...

After tackling the cleanup at work and then at home, you may find yourself excited about so many things to begin again, or you may find yourself still dealing with regrets about procrastination.  Wait one week for your recharged mental life-change honeymoon to be over, then take out a journal and begin writing down what you are still interested in changing about your life.  Those things that still burn bright after seven days can be considered important, and worthy of another good try.  Bullet them and keep them short, like a PowerPoint for life change.  Be specific in writing down the changes you want (i.e., I want to weigh 135 lbs., or I want to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing, etc.)

What Needs to Change Now

Go out for coffee or tea.  Get away from work or home.  Go somewhere neutral and quiet, like a coffeeshop or restaurant for lunch.  Go alone.  Re-open your journal and begin looking over the bullet points.  So what needs to change in your life to move in the “right” direction?  Do you need to start a job search or look into the requirements for returning to College? Do you need to make an appointment to talk to your doctor about starting a weightloss and workout regimen? Do you need to call a loved one and talk frankly to them for once about your desire to change?

Write down a flowpath to begin accomplishing just one of the things in your journal, listing the short steps you will have to take to complete it.  Close the book, and sip the rest of your drink, imagining yourself completing each step, and how you will feel in making that change…

The Power of the Post-It

Aren't Post It notes great?

Aren't Post It notes great?

I’m not offering you a life-coach, a virtual Richard Simmons clapping maniacally and shouting “Good job!!!!” shrilly every time you walk past the snack machine to get that little apple from the office fridge.  You will have to create your own coach, without the inappropriate shorts.  Thank the 3M Corporation for the simple yellow sticky, a pocket life-coach in a tiny 2-inch square.

You are going to need a lot of reminders to stay on your path. Take a post-it note pad and write down gentle, short reminders of what changes you decided to make, and why you decided to make those changes. Hang them everywhere, especially in those places where you might fall off the path… Use those little yellow squares as opportunities to re-commit yourself to your life-project, to keep yourself from ending up in the dark places.

A Little Help…

Tell your close friends what you are trying to change about your life now, and ask them to provide gentle support when needed.  Join support groups either in real life or online, and share often.  Tell your pastor, rabbi, or church elder about your desire to make a change, and ask them for advice and prayer.


The Divine Superpowers of the Five-Year-Old

We can learn from him.

We can learn from him.

It’s one thing to get ahold of things you’ve held off on, and another thing entirely to make sea changes in how you respond to and reside in the world around you.  Here are a few simple tips to change our lives, brought to us by the ever powerful five-year-old:

The Power of CuriosityWant to change directions?  Get curious again.  Take night classes, check out library books, or join groups that cover interests you have but are unsure about including in your life.  Turn on the TiVo, go for walks and take photos of nature. Look at maps and visit places you haven’t before, rather than staying home on weekends. Attend other churches, synagogues or mosques and learn a little first-hand about other faiths and the people who belong to them. Say hello to stranges and strike up conversations.  Visit those strange little markets rather than just the big box stores.

The Power of Honesty — Those of us who have gone through our children’s honesty stage have cringed at the manner in which they publicly fling open our closets and rattle the skeletons inside for all to see.  Any quiet and unassuming mother who has had their daughter shout out at at the lingerie section of Sears “Look, Mommy, they sell the little panties you like to wear!” knows what I mean.  Our children don’t have preconceived notions about what can be shared with others, and are simply proudly sharing what they know.  Is there a way to work toward living a more open, honest life, setting aside concerns of what others may think?  You may lose “friends” by living a more honest life, but the more open you are to others, the more joyful your life will be.

We can accept each other, too...

We can accept each other, too...

The Power of Not Knowing — As children, we swam through an ocean of the unknown, quick to question anyone who might have an answer, happily trying to figure new things out on our own. Experiences that came our way were exciting, and often scary.  As adults, it’s easy to get in a rut, thinking we already know everything needed to function in life, how the few individuals we interact with will respond in most situations, how the very mechanics of our tiny slice of the world works.

In order to open ourselves up to new (and life-changing) experiences, we have to stop seeking to get away from those exciting and scary places, and slowly (and at our own pace,) start moving out of our comfortable places, away from what we “know.”

The Power of Acceptance — Children will typically accept any other child that comes into their lives, unless blocks are put up to this process. If a new kid shows up at school in a wheelchair, he is sure to be immediately questioned over and over as to why he is in the chair, how fast can he go, can he walk a little, how does he go to the bathroom, etc.  To be sure, it is rather embarassing for the new kid, but the open-ness with which communication occurs among children also allows for rapid acceptance.  How much of what you “know” about others in your life is based on preconceptions, stereotypes, or misunderstandings?  Work on establishing a working level of communication with the “strangers” that frequent your life, in order to comfortably get to know and celebrate those differences with them.

Go ahead, try it on...

Go ahead, try it on...

The Power of Play — Are you having fun in your life?  We often go to the mall and set our teens off to enjoy themselves, while we get down to the business of shopping for them.  Why is it that they get to have fun while we feel we must toil?  Can you take the time to visit the bookstore and peruse the magazines too?  If you have a few more available minutes, can you take the time to try on an impossibly ridiculous outfit, and laugh at yourself in the dressing room mirror?  Figure out ways to simply waste time enjoying yourself, too…

I’m no scion of change or acceptance.  My life is not all-together.  I’m home sick today with a bad cold, having an intimate encounter with The Cough, and not loving the flavor of the only cough drops I could find behind the bottles of medicine.  I need to at least walk inside the local gym once to get some ideas.  I have stereotyped others, and still catch myself doing it from time to time.  There are a variety of places in my little town I have not frequented yet.  I don’t play enough in life either.  I consider this post a call to myself to be who I ought to be, who I’d like to be, who I need to be.  I call to you to join me in this process of change, to remove our preconceptions of adulthood and discover within ourselves the Divine Superpowers of the five-year-old.  Fly with me.

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Noah Webster’s American Language Revolution

In What Day is it? on October 16, 2009 at 10:56 am

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”  ~ Noah Webster

The year was 1827.  Students at Cambridge University had gotten used to the elderly man sitting behind the dusty stacks of thick books, busily pouring over them, scratching his head and taking notes at one of the wooden private desks.  It was always best to not disturb one whose manner of self-employment held such a note of gravity, and so the man was left to his own pursuits.

Noah Webster at Yale

Noah Webster at Yale

The Beginnings of an American Icon

Born Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster grew up in Hartford, Connecticut on a farm that had been a part of his family since earliest Colonial days.  At 16, Noah attended Yale University during the Revolutionary War, breaking from his studies for a time to serve in the Connecticut Militia.  Noah taught school after graduation from Yale, in order to pay his tuition while pursuing a law degree, which he obtained in 1781.  Being a lawyer did not suit young Noah, who then went on to teach.  During his teaching tenure, Noah scoffed at the English-made textbooks used in American classrooms, and developed grammar books that sold quite well.  Ultimately his scholarly success led to Noah becoming a schoolmaster of renown in his quiet New Haven, Connecticut community.

A Man of Constant Innovation and Reinvention

Noah's Speller Began a Prolific Writing Career

Noah's Speller Began a Prolific Writing Career

While schoolmaster, Noah Webster decided that the English dictionaries provided to his students were unsuitable, as they did not include the distinct vocabulary of American-style English used in everyday life.   Noah Webster decided to develop a new form of dictionary, a uniquely American dictionary, filled with both the old English and still-emerging “American” language.  Noah wished to break from the stylistic dictates of England’s dictionary writers upon the American spoken word.  Noah was brewing a linguistic revolution…

Sacrificing a Life for a Language

Noah was 43 when he undertook this endeavor, soon discovering that he was in over his head, as he realized even his own knowledge of word derivations was lacking.  In order to complete such a challenging project to his own exacting specifications, Noah would have to make a choice: either stay on as headmaster and continue enjoying the comfortable company of friends, and a community that respected his position in life, or dash it all aside for the hard work of helping his fellow American’s vocabulary.  The choice, at least to Noah, was clear.

The First American Dictionary

The First American Dictionary

For 7 years Noah toiled with little success on his project, discovering that in order to gain the necessary  grasp of word origins (etymologies,) he would have to leave America, and immerse himself in the culture and language of those countries that had contributed so greatly to the English (and American) language.  For the next 20 years of his older life, Noah lived first in Paris and then England, where he continued his research in the vast libraries of Cambridge University.  During his overseas tenure, Noah learned an incredible 26 languages, including German, Latin, Old English, Italian, Spanish, French, Arabic, Hebrew and Ancient Sanskrit.

The First Truly American Lexicography

After so many years of hard work and self-improvement, Noah Webster completed his first edition of what was the then titled An American Dictionary of the English Language, the first English dictionary to include the unique lexicography of American life, the first truly American Dictionary.  Noah was 70 years old, and fiercely got to work in seeing that every American got a copy.

Today, over 55 million copies of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary sell each year.  It is still, to this day, considered to be the modern lexicographer’s dictionary of choice.  Noah Webster set the benchmark as to what it means to be a scholar, to roll up one’s mental sleeves and get the damn job done.

Chronicling How We Express Our American Spirit

Remembered forever...

He would've embraced what is happening with language today...

Noah Webster believed in democratizing our language, arguing that its sovereignty lay in the hands of the people, who would control its evolving lexicography through its daily use.  No longer would stuffy dictionary writers tell us how we should talk; we would teach them instead how to tend to their dictionaries, adding the special nuances we developed as we worked together, expressed our joys in close companionship, brought forth our needs and affections in common pursuit of happiness, and shared that sacred spark of Life, so very close to the ground….