The actual theme of Fire Prevention Week for 2017 is Every Second Counts, Plan Two Ways Out. This is excellent advice, and you can find out more about it here:

However, I didn't plan two ways out, or even one way in, so I had nothing for Fire Prevention Week this year. Instead this is from the "Best of Slightly Off the Mark", which is a little silly because no newspaper is running Slightly Off the Mark at the moment. What isn't silly is fire prevention, which, you might be surprised to learn, is what Fire Prevention Week is about.

            The National Fire Prevention Association would like to point out that, if your smoke detector is not working, it won’t work.

Sure, it seems obvious. But it’s also obvious that if sprinkler systems aren’t installed they don’t put out fires, safety belts that don’t get used aren’t safe, and people who stay in Washington, D.C. turn into blithering idiots. And yet we defeat sprinkler laws, don’t belt up, and reelect blithering idiots, so sometimes the obvious needs saying.

This is why we have Fire Prevention Week, which is a week during which we try to stress preventing fires. Fire Prevention Week is always nearest October 9th. That’s the historical date of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which took place in 1871, was indeed in Chicago, but really wasn’t all that great.

“Great” is a term used for fires that get so out of control that they get weeks named after them. The NFPA has devoted itself to keeping fires from turning great, and the best way to do that is to keep them from getting out of control. It’s counterintuitive, but they would not then be called “good”.

More important is to keep people from getting killed in a fire, which is the job of smoke alarms, which are just like smoke detectors except with fewer syllables. A working smoke alarm cuts the risk of dying in a fire in half. You don’t have to be Captain Obvious to see the value of that.

Here’s the fun part, though, and by “fun” I mean “tragic”: When talking smoke alarms, you always have to stick in the word “working”. In 23% of home fire deaths, there were smoke alarms—but they didn’t work. Why? Sometimes they were old or damaged, but usually the batteries were dead or missing.

“Honey, the batteries in the camera are dead.”

“I’ll just take some out of the smoke detector. Don’t worry, I’ll remember to put them back.”

Sure you will. Stop at the dollar store and get more for the camera, you schmuck.

But even if the batteries stay in, there’s no guarantee they’re working. Batteries go dead from time to time, and dead batteries lead to dead people.

Thus the idea of changing them twice a year, when Daylight Savings Time comes and goes. Whine all you want about springing forward and falling back (and you will … you will), but it’s a great reminder to put in a good set of working batteries. If the old ones are still good and you’re particularly cheap, put those in your digital camera. Sure, there’s a chance they’ll go dead and you’ll miss catching that UFO hovering over your house ... but the little green men are going to steal your camera and make all the photos blurry anyway, so why bother?

In between changes, you should test your smoke alarm batteries every month. This is about the same rate at which a major celebrity gets arrested. If you’re really paranoid you can check them every few days, at the rate a minor celebrity gets arrested.

If the smoke alarm is more than ten years old, replace it. If you can’t remember how old it is, replace it. If you can’t remember how old you are, have someone else replace it. And yes, if it doesn’t work when you test it, replace it. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

There was a time when experts recommended installing a smoke alarm on each level of the home and outside each sleeping area. They now say to install one inside each bedroom, in addition to the others. By my estimation that would mean five smoke alarms in my house. If you count every room my dog sleeps in, that would mean nine smoke alarms, or more if you count each spot as a separate bedroom.

That may seem like a lot, but I’ve long had a suspicion that my dog smokes when we’re asleep. Have you ever seen hairballs burn? Not pretty.

Can’t afford a smoke alarm? Yes you can. You, put down that beer. You, put down that cigarette. You, put down that game controller. And you, put down that—oh, man. Dude, close your curtains! I can’t unsee that.

Yes, you can scrape up the money to save your life. I did a quick internet search, and found smoke alarms for sale ranging from twenty to less than five dollars. I wouldn’t necessarily go for the cheapest ones, but you can cover your entire home for less than the cost of that 32 inch flat screen TV you want to mount in your bathroom.

On a related note, you do not need a flat screen TV in your bathroom. We’ll talk electrical safety in a future column.
 (Oh, and remember that sales of our book, Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century or So With the Albion Fire Department, go to the fire department's operational fund.)
By now most people have probably figured out that an eclipse is coming this Monday, as it tends to do here in America every so often. Still, I'm not sure everyone's completely clear on all the details, so I thought I'd answer some common questions:

Q: Why does everybody have to scream at everyone about everything these days?

No, I mean about the eclipse. 

Q: What the heck is this thing? Is this some holdover from the 2012 Apocalypse?

This is a reasonable question, since we're still waiting for the 2012 Apocalypse. An eclipse simply happens when the shadow from one body passes over another body. For instance, one day I was lying on a beach when movie maker Michael Moore moved by. Moore blocked out the sun and ruined my tan, thus saving me from skin disease. (He refused to give me an autograph, just because I asked him when his totality would be over.)

That's Michael, in the middle. Not so very big after all.

Q: Huh?

Moore is rather portly, although I've been gaining on him. If you're a liberal, feel free to insert Trump's name. Oh, you mean "huh" about totality? That's the area of the Earth's surface that's completely covered by the Moon's shadow, usually only for a minute or so. During totality is the only time--and I mean ONLY time--when you can safely look directly at an eclipse without eye protection. Unfortunately, the area of totality is only about 70 miles wide. For example, in northeast Indiana the eclipse will cover about 86% of the sun, so go buy those glasses.

Q: What will happen if I look at it without protection?

Have you ever watched that episode of the TV show Supernatural, when the psychic gets to look at the true face of an angel? It's like that. Nothing left but smoking eye sockets. And yeah, that looks cool for a second, but only to everyone else.

It's perfectly safe to look at the eclipse during totality. But if even a sliver of sun is showing before or after, POOF! Seeing eye dog time. (Or, you could maintain some vision but have "just" permanent damage.)

Q: What's so important about this eclipse?

Well, it's cool, even more cool than smoking eye sockets. Also, it's rare in that, for the first time in almost a century, it will traverse the entire U.S. from coast to coast, over fourteen states. That's happened only 15 times in the last 150 years.

I can block my house from here!

There are between two and five eclipses every year, but a total solar eclipse only happens every 18 months or so. Not only that, but when they do happen it's often in a place where most people don't see it, like over an ocean, or the Pacific northwest. According to this mathematical guy from Belgian, any certain spot on Earth will see a total eclipse once every 375 years. That's an average, and it's math, so I'm just taking his word for it.

This is the first time in 38 years that a total eclipse was visible anywhere in the continuous U.S. For perspective, at the time Jimmy Carter was President, and gas was 86 cents a gallon. St. Louis, which is in the path this time, last saw totality in 1442, when gasoline was even cheaper. Chicago, which saw one in 1806 but will miss this one, will next see totality in 2205, when fueling your flying car might be very expensive.

Scientists have determined there are two small areas of the country--one in northeast Colorado, and one near Lewellen, Nebraska--that haven't seen a total eclipse in over a thousand years. Talk about bad luck.

Q: So I'm guaranteed to get a good show?

Oh, heck no. See above joke about the Pacific northwest; the 1979 total eclipse over that area was largely unseen due to clouds and rain.

This isn't a Hollywood movie: Any number of things could spoil it, from bad weather to having Michael Moore stand in front of you. But I wouldn't sweat Michael (can I call him Michael?) who I've heard is looking after his health much better these days. No, the big question will be whether weather cooperates. My wife and I are heading into the path of totality, and I can pretty much guarantee a day-long driving rain, or possibly a hurricane, will hit central Missouri at about that time.

What I probably won't see

 Q: What effects can we expect?
Fire and brimstone, dogs and cats sleeping together, total chaos, new super powers, pretty much the worst parts of the Bible. Wait, that was in the movies. Well, it'll get dark, 'cause--no sun. In the path of totality you'll see stars (or clouds), and you'll also be in for a rare treat of seeing the sun's atmosphere with the naked eye. One cool thing I noticed during a partial eclipse was that sunlight passing through the trees cast thousands of little crescent shaped shadows.

Some animals might be fooled into thinking it's twilight. In fact, eclipses have been known to thin out the local vampire population.

Geeks like me will geek out. People who don't understand, or don't care about, the difference between reality and Hollywood special effects might be disappointed.

Q: What are the greatest dangers?

As with many things in our modern society, the greatest danger might be driving. Officials expect major traffic jams as millions of people try to get into the path of totality. For those who don't make it on time or aren't expecting it, the danger is that they'll be driving down the road, trying to stare at the eclipse, only to ram someone who pulled over along the side of the road to watch the eclipse. Don't do either of those.

Otherwise, there's that smoking eye socket thing. Interestingly, during partial eclipses when the brightness doesn't seem too bad, infrared waves from the sun can still cause damage by overheating the eye, in a boiling egg kind of a way. Disturbed yet? Me, too.

Enjoy these eclipses while you can: The Moon's orbit is slowly getting larger, so the time will come when it will be too far away to completely cover the sun, meaning the end of total eclipses. Scientists predict this will happen in less than 600 million years, so go look while you still can.
Weathering Indiana Festivals

In one of my books I included a photo of the Onion Days Festival, in Wolf Lake, Indiana. Never mind that it’s called Onion Days—that’s another story—but the photo was taken in the early 1900s, over a century ago.

Hey, I wrote the book; I never said I took the picture.

There are also photos in Albion of what would one day become the Chain O’ Lakes Festival. Those pictures were taken some fifty or sixty years before there was a Chain O’ Lakes State Park … so if the street fair had been called that at the time it would be some pretty amazing precognition.

While researching local history I was shown many photos of fairs, parades, and other gatherings from back a century or so: A late 1800s fair in downtown Kendallville, a 1914 wedding in the middle of Albion’s main intersection … to this day we’re still doing a lot of those same outdoor gatherings. (I assume they shut down traffic for that wedding, but maybe they had to use a team of wild horses to drag the groom in.) )




(Note: This was originally written on February 7th and then misplaced, which isn’t the first time. It was the beginning of what was overall a nice February—for Indiana. You all know how things changed in March.)

Ah, spring.

Or, possibly, &$@# spring!

That’s the way it is, with springtime in Indiana. It’s feast or famine, a saying that goes well for farmers wondering if they’ll be able to get into their fields early, or ever.

I was reminded of spring just a few days after that stupid groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter, a prediction that’s essentially meaningless in Indiana. There are always six more weeks of winter—we just don’t know when. It could start next week. It could start next month. (Note: It did.) If you’re having a mild winter, like we had this year, a backlash is almost guaranteed. I’m worried about whether spring is going to be full of terms like “polar vortex”, “late winter snowstorm”, and “Is that groundhog still alive? Get my gun”.

On this particular day my wife and I got out of the car while shopping and simultaneously cocked our heads, which come to think of it probably looked pretty funny.

“Is that a bird?” I asked.

“That is a bird.”

“But that’s not a bird we usually hear in February.”

“No, it’s a spring bird.”

It was indeed a spring bird, one that was soon to be very, very unpleasantly surprised. On that particular day, the outdoor temperature hit the mid-forties. Two nights before it dipped into the teens. Two days later it hit sixty and we had thunderstorms, followed a few days after that by snow.

A typical March in Indiana, the only strange thing being that we heard the bird in early February. As you read this is should now be March, which means (if you live in the Midwest) you’re dressing in layers to combat both frostbite and heat stroke, possibly on the same day. But for February, that weather was actually pretty good.

February is usually easy to forecast. You have two choices: It’s cold and it’s going to snow, or it’s not going to snow but even colder. (Note: I said usually.) But spring—spring is different. Here’s a typical Midwest meteorologist in, say, mid-March:

“Looks like a blizzard headed our way, folks—oh, wait. The radar just updated, and the blizzard has been sucked up by a tornado! I think we’re going to see some serious snow drifts.”

We have something called March Madness, which most people think is about basketball playoffs. But in Indiana, March Madness translates to ice season: that time of the year when sleet and freezing rain fall as often as snow.

“Aren’t those icicles on the electric lines pretty—oh, the power’s out again.”

Occasionally we’ll have a dry spring, and instead of frozen precipitation you can see columns of smoke in every direction, often accompanied by sirens. This is called grass fire season, and generally comes just after March Madness. People realize they can finally walk outside without fifty pounds of outer clothing, and their first thought turns to the mess their lawns have become over winter.

“What shall we do with all these branches, leaves, weeds, and trash? Oh, I know—we’ll burn them! The ground is still wet; what could possibly go wrong?”

Pro tip: All that dead plant life around your fire is plenty dry, fella. The ground being wet simply means fire trucks can’t go off road to extinguish that wildland fire you just started. And then firefighters end up out there, ironically, trying to beat the heat with their own fifty pounds of outer clothing.

But it’s spring, so who knows? I’ve helped fight a few grass fires that I had to walk around snow drifts to reach. I’ve gone out on tornado watches in March. (Terrible idea, by the way—the basement’s way calmer.) I’ve shoveled snow in May. And all the while those poor, confused birds are flying around up there, trying to figure out whether they should be heading north or south.

They’d better decide fast, because if they head west they’ll run into a blizzard, and if they fly for the East Coast they’ll run into an even bigger blizzard.

So yeah, I’m worried about that bird. What is he living on, anyway? If he pecks the frozen ground for worms he’ll break his beak. The first bugs don’t come out until … well, about now, if you include mosquitoes.

In fact, it’s not uncommon in Indiana for the big piles of plowed snow to still be melting off in July. Sometimes, on the first really warm days, you can see kids skiing down snow mountains at Wal-Mart, then surfing on across the parking lot.

It’s why I often call Indiana the greatest place in the world, except during winter. Luckily, surviving winter is like surviving pain: Once it’s over, you tend to forget how bad it is. By the end of May you can put your snow shovel away (you might want to keep the gloves and wool hat out, just in case), and enjoy the outdoors, until it gets hot.

Maybe the hot is why we’re not all living in Florida.






ozma914: new novel cover art by Kelly Martin (Default)
( Feb. 8th, 2017 08:00 pm)
Cheating on Indiana
I’ve had the strangest feeling lately that I’m cheating on Indiana.
As a writer, I mean—get out of the gutter. You see, my new novel is about to be published, and it’s set in Michigan. There’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of authors do this thing called using your imagination, in which their stories are set somewhere other than where they live. One of the best authors I know routinely sets her stories in California, even though she lives in Missouri. One of my favorite authors, L. Frank Baum, set most of his stories in places that don’t even exist.
But up until now, all my published works have been set in Indiana.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In fact, when I first started writing, none of my stories were set in Indiana. When you’re a teenager—at least, an introverted, emo teenager like I was—all you care about is getting out. Half my stories were set in space. Half were set on a fictional fire department, somewhere generally to the west. The other half either took place in other areas of this planet, or started here and then journeyed away.
(What, that’s three halves? That’s why I took up writing: I suck at math.)
But things happen and, long story short, I stayed in Indiana. Why? Because it’s an awesome place, when it’s not winter. I also moved from science fiction and action to romantic comedy—see above about things happening.
Years ago I had a literary agent for a time, and of the three novels he looked at he thought the first one I wrote, Radio Red, was the best. It was set in an area of northwest Lower Michigan where my family vacationed at the time. Why? Because my in-laws had a cottage there, and I had … debt.
Michigan is almost as beautiful as Indiana, but even colder.
 For whatever reason, Radio Red never sold. Maybe editors don’t like red—they’re always complaining about red ink. Instead the second one I wrote, Storm Chaser, sold first. It’s not only set in Indiana, but in my home county of Noble. I didn’t have to research a setting; there’s a fine line between brilliance and laziness.
I told my publisher that I was writing some short stories to help promote Storm Chaser. Showing awesome overconfidence in my ability to make them money, they said, “Great! Put them together, we’ll publish a collection.” All but two of the stories in Storm Chaser Shorts are set in Indiana.
Are you detecting a pattern? You should, because along came The No-Campfire Girls. Although inspired by a Missouri Girl Scout Camp, I set it in southern Indiana. Why? Because I stole some of the characters from another book of mine, an unpublished mystery set in, yes, southern Indiana. The rest of the characters I stole from Storm Chaser. Is it stealing when it’s from yourself? Or just another case of brilliant laziness? I’ve coined a new term.
The Storm Chaser sequel, (hey, it works for Hollywood) is The Notorious Ian Grant. Now, it’s not essential that a sequel be set in the same place as the original. But except for the main character, I didn’t have to invent new people or locations. Creating Ian Grant was exhausting all by itself; in Storm Chaser he’s mentioned in exactly one line, in which his sister calls him an “ingrate”. Great introduction, sis.
My first entry into non-fiction, Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights, can be described entirely by its subtitle: A Century or So With the Albion Fire Department. Granted, there are more than two dozen Albions in the United States; but come on—pay attention to the theme, here.
My unpublished “Slightly Off the Mark” columns were collected into the imaginatively named Slightly Off the Mark: The Unpublished Columns. See what I did, there? You can argue this one, but many of the columns are about Indiana, and by gosh they were all written in Indiana by an Indianian, so there.
(Indianian? No wonder we call ourselves Hoosiers.)
After that was what I call my picture book: Images of America: Albion and Noble County. Kidding, I never called it that, but it’s historical images and fun stuff about Albion and Noble County. Which are in Indiana. Any questions? I didn’t think so.
Last year we released Hoosier Hysterical: How the West Became the Midwest Without Moving At All, and if I have to explain how that’s about Indiana … well, I just don’t.
(I also had a short story in Strange Portals and a humor piece in My Funny Valentine. I usually don’t count them as my wholly published work, but in this case what the heck—they’re both set in Indiana.)
So that’s … how many is that? Jeez, the other day I told someone I’m about to get my tenth book published, but if you don’t count the parenthesis above, Radio Red will only be my ninth. It gives me the warm and fuzzies, to say “only” nine. I’m on track to beat Isaac Asimov’s publishing record! Only 500 more books to go.
And now … well, Radio Red, like the Storm Chaser series, is set in a real place; but that place happens to be in Michigan. It’s been bought by Torrid Books, and has an official release date on March 7, and …
And I’m cheating on Indiana.
But I feel Hoosiers will forgive me. And if they don’t … well, then I can only imagine what they’ll think of my first spaceship story.
There’s No Cure for Chicago Driving
This first appeared in the 4County Mall, in print and online:
I thought I’d seen bad traffic. I thought I’d seen crazy drivers.
Then I went to Chicago.
I’m a small town boy. When I was younger, my idea of heavy traffic was Fort Wayne, which is about half an hour from my home. With a population of 250,000, Fort Wayne is the second largest city in Indiana, which isn’t saying much—but the fact that most of Indiana is not city is one of the things I like about it.
Years ago I drove to Atlanta, Georgia, and got a new definition of heavy traffic. We arrived during morning rush hour, an ironic term considering I could have walked over the jammed-up cars without ever touching the ground—and gotten there faster.
About ten years later, I had the occasion to drive U-Haul’s largest truck model through New York City, while towing a car on a trailer. It was two months after 9/11/01. Naturally, I got waved to the curb the police, who at that point were looking over every rental truck that came along.
The irony, though, is that the proximity to 9/11 actually made the experience easier. The cops were friendly, and other drivers gave us space—whether out of that temporary sense of brotherhood, or the fear that I might be carrying a load of ammonium nitrate, I couldn’t say.
Then there’s Indianapolis.
In all fairness, Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the U.S., and the second largest in the Midwest, so there’s bound to be traffic. But it’s also the Crossroads of America: Indiana has more interstate highway than any other state, and more converge on the capital than any other city. Whole families have been known to drive onto the 465 beltway, and never be seen again.
I used to think that was the worst this side of Los Angeles, a city I have no intention of every driving in.
But Indy’s only the second largest city in the Midwest. Then there’s Chicago.
My wife wanted to go see The Cure, which is an English rock band, or post-punk, or new wave, or possibly gothic rock. (I’m post-pun, myself.) It’s not normally my kind of music, but I like them okay … or at least I did, until they made me come to Chicago.
By the time we got to the concert venue in the shadow of downtown, I was clenched in a fetal position in my seat, eyes squeezed shut, whimpering and clutching at the dash. This was an especially bad thing because I was the driver.
But I don’t want you to think Chicago drivers are bad. That’s what I thought at first, until therapy for my PTSD. After several flashbacks, I realized the problem isn’t that they’re bad—it’s that they’re very, very good. Like, NASCAR good. It’s the only way to survive.
Yes, there are cars there; the camera couldn't capture anything going at that speed.

You see, Chicago traffic is the same bumper to bumper gridlock I found in Atlanta, except they don’t sit there unmoving—they continue driving as if they’re the only ones on the highway. Go watch a NASCAR race right after the start, before the first ten or twelve cars have crashed, when they’re all still jammed up and fighting for position. I’ll wait.
Yeah, it’s like that.
I saw drivers who knew their off ramp was coming, so they dove all the way over into the left lane to get ahead of other cars, then swerved across all three lanes of traffic, including that semi in the center lane that was blocking their view of anything in the right lane, and … right onto the off ramp, easy as a Blue Angels jet flight.
If someone ahead is going 60 and they’re going 90—they just keep on going. The guy in front will speed up, or get out of the way … or he won’t. Whatever. Orange cones aren’t a warning, they’re a challenge. There are signs that say: “Accident reporting lane ahead: If you get into a crash, for God’s sake, don’t stop at the scene.”
Where I come from, everyone wants a car. We passed Chicago’s train depots, where people without cars were relaxing in the knowledge that an hour waiting for a train beats two hours drinking yourself down from the edge after the evening drive home.
When the concert let out, we stayed in the auditorium until the only people left were sweeping up or throwing up. Then we went to the parking lot and sat in our car, shaking quietly, until the security guy pointed out we were the only people left and could he please go home now? He took the train. It was 1:30 a.m. when we finally took to the streets.
"Maybe we'll get lucky, and the zombie apocalypse will strike before we have to drive."

The traffic was exactly the same. It might as well have been 5 p.m. on a Friday.
We had to make a left turn to reach our off ramp, but there was a delay ahead and, if we went through the light, we’d end up stuck in the middle of the intersection. So we waited like we were supposed to, and a car load of laughing Chicagoans passed us on the right, cut off the oncoming traffic, and stopped in the middle of the intersection. Then a taxi passed them on the right, and they both stayed there, blocking the cars that had the green light, until eventually they could move on.
We almost abandoned the car right then and there. A few day’s walk home? Good exercise. But we eventually made it out of that insane city racetrack, vowing never to come back again even if Robert Smith personally invites us to play drums for The Cure.
And why did we decide to man up, brave the insanity, and drive on instead of walking?
Well, what are the chances of a pedestrian making it out alive?


Holy cow, I just got notice of my deadline for the September addition of 4County Mall! The paper doesn’t publish in July and August, so it’s easy to get out of practice.

It’s been a big adjustment for me, going from writing a weekly column to a monthly one, even without the summer break. Deadlines can be a good thing. I wonder if I shouldn’t start writing humor again, say twice a month, on my own regular deadline? Then I could either have a few columns saved back in case of illness or other delay, or put the extra material into another Slightly Off the Mark book.

Or I could just dedicate myself to writing another thousand words of fiction on a weekly schedule. What would you do?



ozma914: (Dorothy and the Wizard)
( Jul. 10th, 2016 11:59 am)




Nothing makes a person feel older than when they start telling those “when I was a kid” stories.

Example: When I was a kid I really did have to walk to school, through rain or snow. The winters really were colder back then. And, through some trick of physics, it really was uphill both ways.

Actually, the alley I used to take to school is only uphill part of the way. The rest of the way it’s downhill. So that memory, like most, was only half right.

Still, overall that “when I was a kid” story is true. When aiming to impress, the trick to this particular tale is to never mention that I only lived two blocks from school.

I found myself telling one of those stories after May’s spring cleanup week. That’s when you drag all the junk that’s too big to fit into trash bags to the curb, where the town has someone haul it away. It’s an effort to keep people from dumping their junk, which they probably should never have bought anyway, into a ditch somewhere.

When I was a kid people just tossed junk into ravines out in the country. A wonderful place to explore—when I was a kid. They didn’t have recycling, and pollution was someone else’s problem.

You’re in “when I was a kid” mode when actual kids roll their eyes, while people your age nod in agreement. Actually, when I was a kid people who are my present age seemed ancient, but now they don’t seem very old at all.

Sorry, when I was a kid I didn’t go off on tangents like that. Now, some time back my son-in-law gave us a tube TV—when I was a kid we just called it a TV. Officially they’re CRT sets, which just means they have huge backsides … insert your own booty joke here. It was the biggest TV I’d ever owned, with a 32 inch screen.

It weighed 75 pounds.

Later, we found a flat screen TV on clearance. It was an off-brand, but the price was right and it had an even bigger screen. It was awesome: not just the size, but the better picture.

It turned out I’d been wrongly blaming the networks: “When I was a kid, ‘Star Trek’ was bright and colorful! Now I can hardly see what those Winchester boys are doing on ‘Supernatural‘, it’s so murky!” When you’re hunting demons it’s usually at night, but never mind.

I dragged the big booty TV off to the back porch. It didn’t seem to mind, being old and tired.

Sometime after that I needed another computer monitor, for writing projects that required extra screen space. We bought a smaller flat screen TV, which could be hooked to the computer. When not being used for that it’s in the kitchen, so I can turn it on and complain about how, when I was a kid, they actually had weather on The Weather Channel instead of “reality” programming.

Which is untrue, because when I was a kid there was no Weather Channel.

Soon I realized we had a bunch of tube TVs we just didn’t need anymore. Surely someone would want them, so we set them out for sale, for $15.

No one wanted them.


No one wanted them.

$5. Nope. Finally I put a “free” sign on them, and put the word out on social media. Free TVs! Free! They work just fine! No one wanted them. Even Goodwill didn’t want them. Nobody wanted CRT TVs. Nobody. And I had four—four working CRT TVs.

Think about that. My wife and I grew up poor, and are still clawing our way through the lower middle class. But we had SIX working television sets. It killed me, to consider throwing away something that worked just fine. Well, more or less just fine—on “The Walking Dead” you had to squint to tell which ones were the zombies—but still.

As I dragged the old sets out to the curb (somehow, the biggest now weighed 95 pounds), I caught myself grumbling …

Well, you know what I grumbled, and it shows my age. When I was a kid we had one TV, a console set. You older people, explain console sets to the younger ones. It was black and white, and probably 19 inch. Once, it stopped working. You know what my brother did? He went outside and played. You know what I did? I read a book. Nobody panicked; nobody ran out to go into debt on a rent-to-own set.

By the time I moved out on my own I’d already become a consumer, and didn’t want to be without a TV. Luckily, I was given a free one, just like the ones I tried to give away. Well, not just like. It was a 13 inch black and white set. I always had two weights on top, all the way on the right end, carefully laid so that they dented the case in just a little.

Without the weights, the sound wouldn’t work.

Yeah, things have changed. I no longer have to hang a coat hanger from the curtains to pull in a scratchy, snowy channel. I don’t have to worry about the sound suddenly cutting out in the middle of “Buck Rogers”.

But I had a TV and, oddly, I think I appreciated it more. In other words, to quote still another phrase that makes me feel old:

I was darned glad to have it.


The original flat screen


ozma914: (Courthouse)
( May. 18th, 2016 04:05 pm)


(Originally printed in the 4County Mall:!mark-hunter---slightly-off-the-mark/qu1l6)
(And here’s your first look at a chapter from our new book!)
In all my years of writing this column, only once was I accused of using it to promote my books. That’s strange, because it happened all the time—apparently I was sneakier than I thought. But it didn’t start until 2011 … because, well, I didn’t have any books published before 2011.
Last month, in my winter-weary state of mind, I was looking forward to spring flowers, so I stole from my next book to write about how the Indiana state flower came to be. So the plan this month was to avoid mentioning the book, and to write about something that fits right in with the times: politics.
If you can’t make fun of politics … well, you’re not paying attention. Especially this year.
Approaching Indiana’s May primary, I found myself full of double negatives: That is to say, I flipped a coin to determine who I least wanted to vote against. Maybe that’s not technically a double negative, but many of the candidates are.
Despite my determination not to steal from my own work, there is indeed something in Hoosier Hysterical that fits the times. In fact, it has at least two sections that cover politics: “Crime and Puns”, and “Primary Colors”.
No, wait … “Crime and Puns” is about famous Indiana criminals. Sorry, I get the crooks and politicians confused.
Anyway, as I wrote this, the 2016 Indiana primary promised to do something most presidential primaries don’t, in the Hoosier state: matter.
While other states have their primaries earlier and earlier, Indiana stubbornly insists on doing what the rest of them should do: keep to a more reasonable date. If every state did that, maybe the election season could have a sane time frame, say less than a few freaking years. Starting the elections in January means starting the fund raising, campaigning and endless speculating around November 10th … November 10th of the previous election year.
The other day I caught an old Tonight Show clip of author Gore Vidal, who suggested elections be legally limited to 6-8 weeks. Even back then, somebody had the right idea.
So Indiana stuck to its guns and did the right thing, and in turn we get to have absolutely no say in who the parties pick as their presidential nominees. Usually. This year we mattered to a degree, as we did in the Clinton-Obama battle. That’s not the norm, but as you’ll see in this section of the book … well, you’ll see.
I’m tempted to make some bombastic boast about this being your first, exclusive look at Hoosier Hysterical, but nah … this is an election year. There’s plenty of bombast as it is.
Primary Colors 
Hoosiers will be stunned to learn their state used to matter in national elections. 
No, seriously. 
The primary system has morphed in such a way that the nominations for US President have pretty much been settled by the time Indiana has its primary election in May. In addition, the state has become solidly red—Democratic presidential contenders might as well not bother to spend money here, and in the general election the Republican pick usually gets the nod. It’s still up in the air from time to time, such as the Democratic primary fight in 2008, but mostly the national candidates don’t bother. Campaign weary Hoosiers tend to breathe a sigh of relief. 
But it wasn’t always that way. Just the opposite: After the Civil War Indiana became a swing state, and often a deciding factor in the general election. The state echoed with rallies, parades, and speeches. Voter turnout? 
You might want to sit down for this. 
Voter turnout usually reached over 90%, and approached 100% in the elections of 1888 and 1896. 
I told you to sit down. 
Although outright fraud was surprisingly rare, it was common for party members to pay their supporters to vote, especially in rural areas. It wasn’t unheard of for them to pay supporters of the other side not to vote. Yes, alcohol was also involved. 
Indiana became so important that, between 1880 and 1924, a Hoosier was a member of the ticket for one party or another in all but one of the general elections. You might recall Benjamin Harrison, who won in 1888. 300,000 people came to hear him speak from his Indianapolis front porch during the campaign (a very nice front porch, I might add). Five Hoosiers have become Vice-President, although none since 1988. 
Now it seems as if Indiana no longer attends Electoral College … or at least, we’re no longer head of the class. 
(Author’s note: I’m not suggesting you’ll find Hoosier Hysterical: How the West Became the Midwest Without Moving at All in a few weeks by going to my website at But you will.)
Benjamin Harrison's Indianapolis home saw more politicking than a lobbyist's yacht.

From Scher Maihem Studios … my voice before I had sinus surgery!


And probably still my voice after, too. But here’s my column about winterizing, which you may have read last month under “Winterizing’s Not for the Weak” – now on audio with some whimsical video to go along. Personally I’m not a fan of my own voice, although I sound just find singing, as long as it’s in the shower without witnesses.


Don’t forget, you can always see my Slightly Off the Mark column first in the Kendallville Mall!




From Scher Maihem Studios … my voice before I had sinus surgery!


And probably still my voice after, too. But here’s my column about winterizing, which you may have read last month under “Winterizing’s Not for the Weak” – now on audio with some whimsical video to go along. Personally I’m not a fan of my own voice, although I sound just find singing, as long as it’s in the shower without witnesses.


Or see below if my computer talents work ... but I doubt it. Don’t forget, you can always see my Slightly Off the Mark column first in the Kendallville Mall!



<iframe src="" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>
<p><a href="">Winterizing-SOTM</a> from <a href="">Scher Maihem Studios</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>


Apparently this is the last couple of days you can order something and still be sure to get it before Christmas, which includes my books if you don’t buy them locally. I know … usually I try to hide my sales pitches behind humor, but honestly I’m exhausted.

A few days ago Noble Art Gallery asked for more copies of Images of America: Albion and Noble County, and I’m told Albion Village Foods has sent off for additional copies three times now. I don’t know how sales are going at Doc’s Hardware, Black Pine Animal Sanctuary, or the Old Jail Museum (which isn’t open this time of year), but as soon as I get medical clearance I’m going to do my happy dance.

Meanwhile I just finished another polishing of my newest book, now with the working title of Hoosier Hysterical: How the West Became the Midwest Without Moving at All. Emily has it for a fresh-eye review, and if we don’t get a bite from a publisher, we’ll probably self-publish in mid-Spring.

Also meanwhile, look for a free Christmas themed short story soon, as a present from us to you.

As always, check us out at, because sometimes you just need a little book … or a big book. But most of mine skew shorter.




“(My first) apartment was slightly smaller than my ’76 Pontiac Ventura, but contained what I needed: a table just large enough to hold my manual typewriter, a stack of scrap paper with one clean side, and a dictionary. The rest would be history, and someday there’d be a little plaque on the front door (okay, the only door) of that one room salute to literary beginnings.  


“Years later, after I’d moved on and my writing career hadn’t, the building burned down.  

“Boy, I wish I’d gone to college.”


Slightly Off the Mark: The Unpublished Columns is just $8.75 in print, or $1.98 as an e-book … I’m not sure you can even get movie popcorn for nine bucks, anymore. Maybe one of those small bags that’s half spilled before you reach your seat. If you spill a book, you can just pick it up. If you like to bring books into the theater (and who doesn’t?) and you’re worried about the pages falling on a sticky floor, read it on your phone (but only until the movie starts). You’re already seen all the ads, anyway.


But if you like coming attractions, I'm also in need of reviews, recommendations, and reposts.



ozma914: (Dorothy and the Wizard)
( Sep. 27th, 2015 03:21 pm)


I’m a little late posting my column, but hopefully you’ve already picked it up on the Kendallville Mall. If not, please check it out for free, or even consider sponsoring my column—but at least leave a comment on its official site here:







My war with mice has gone on for decades. Like the zombie apocalypse, I keep killing ‘em off, and they keep coming back.


Except zombies don’t like peanut butter. I guess it would be better if they did.


If I had to choose between spiders and mice I’d take the mice, although I’d rather not have either. Spiders don’t chew through wiring or eat your food, and as far as I know they don’t do their business in your cupboards. Nobody ever pinned the bubonic plague on a brown recluse. Instead it was that other brown recluse, the rat.


Now, I’m not an animal hater. In fact, thanks to the brush pile I’ve been intending to remove for years, my property is home for rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and so many varieties of birds that I made the Audubon Society’s honor roll.


At this point the federal government probably wouldn’t even allow me to remove that brush pile. It’s a wildland zone, according to EPA Rule #1A24-782.237-BB1442.


But when they’re outside my house, they’re wildlife. When they’re inside my house, they’re pests. The only animal allowed to roam free inside is our dog, who doesn’t chew on wires and doesn’t do his business in the kitchen cupboards. I’d know if he did. Otherwise we have the fish and Lucius the snake, all in tanks.


Mice are welcome to visit those tanks, but it wouldn’t end well.


After we got the snake I tried some live traps, and if you’re squeamish you might not want to think about why. In my case live traps were very humane indeed, because they never caught any mice.


So I went back to my standby, the good old fashioned spring loaded mousetrap. I own seven thousand of them. Did I mention my house has a mouse problem? They come down with a force strong enough to put a good sized dent in a finger and cause a guy to yell, and I should know.


In a year mice go through seven hundred and forty generations, and they pass down how to get a free meal. So use peanut butter, because it’s sticky; they’ll have to work at it, and that force will mean it’s last meal time.


It works—about half the time.


Mouse hunting season is in the fall, when the little guys go looking for a warm place to spend the winter. If I had the money, I’d head south and leave the place to them.


Over the years I’ve learned their travel patterns: The superhighway is behind the stove, with main streets going to the refrigerator and an elevated freeway to the kitchen counter.


There’s also, oddly, a bit of a side road between the basement and the kitchen. I’ve caught a fair number in the basement, which is odd because it’s cold, and has less nutrition than a bachelor’s diet. Apparently that’s low income mouse housing.


Now, there’s a little ledge in the basement stairway. It’s about eight feet above the concrete basement floor, and I’ve caught more than one mouse in that area. Maybe it’s a little mouse dance hall.


The other day I threw some clothes down the basement stairs—don’t judge me. When I did laundry (it was the same day, I swear), I noticed a mousetrap on the floor. Clearly it had fallen from the ledge; not only had it been tripped, but the peanut butter was gone. Either my thrown clothes caught it and the mice got to it later, or a particularly sneaky little guy got the meal, and dropped the trap like a hot mike at a poetry slam.


Or so I thought.


Later I picked up the last of the laundry and there he was under a t-shirt, dead as a … dead mouse. Not a mark on him. I did some quick physics calculations, and came up with a new scenario:


My friend the mouse managed to get himself a meal all right, but in doing so he tripped the trap. Surprised by the sudden noise, he jumped back.


Only there was no back.


The poor guy managed to get into the house, survive the trap, and you could even say he survived what, to him, would be about a ten story fall.


It was the concrete floor that killed him.


Well … at least he didn’t have to fight off peanut butter eating zombies.


I found some cats to help, but they seemed uninterested in leaving their kitty pool.


I’m posting this mostly for my benefit, so you can ignore it or, preferably, embrace it and send it to your friends all over the world. I’ve had a few (rather surreal) moments this summer when I struggled to remember all the works I’ve had published. Not that there are that many, but I’m putting them up as a list here so I can refer to it in a hurry, and/or refer it to a potential reader. This has made me realize my next book after Images of America: Albion and Noble County will be the tenth publication my name has been on! That’s assuming you don’t include newspapers.



Storm Chaser (2011): A famous weather photographer runs afoul of an Indiana police officer, who suspects she may be manufacturing disasters to photograph.


My Funny Valentine (2011): I have a piece in this anthology about Valentine’s Day, and how very wrong it can go.


Storm Chaser Shorts (2012): A series of short stories featuring characters from Storm Chaser and The Notorious Ian Grant. (E-book only)


Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century Or So With The Albion Fire Department (2013): This illustrated history of my volunteer fire department was written for its 125th anniversary; proceeds go to the department.


The No-Campfire Girls (2014): When a group of teenage girls find out a drought will prevent campfires at their annual summer camp, they go to extreme lengths to bring on the rain. (Half the profits go to Girl Scout Camp Latonka in Missouri)


The Notorious Ian Grant (2014): A B-list Hollywood troublemaker tries to redeem himself by coming to Indiana to plan his sister’s wedding—whether she wants him to or not.


Strange Portals: Ink Slingers’ Fantasy/Horror Anthology (2014): Two of my characters from Storm Chaser and The Notorious Ian Grant have a Christmas encounter in this holiday themed fiction anthology.


Slightly off the Mark: The Unpublished Columns (2015): A collection of humor pieces published to “celebrate” being downsized from my weekly humor column job, and picked up again as a monthly.


Images of America: Albion and Noble County (2015): A photo-filled journey through local history, covering the settlement and early growth of this northeast Indiana county.



Coming soon to an ear near you:

A preview for audible episode 2, where I tell the graduates like it is …


Well, I didn’t sell enough books to make my grappling hook throwing skills necessary, but it was for the best: Turns out my Batman suit doesn’t fit anymore. I promised that if I sold enough at the Saturday book signing I’d scale the Black Building, but over the years I’ve grown from Christian Bale Batman to Adam West Batman. It’s too bad, after all the work I did to find a Robin costume for Emily.

Still, we made some sales and had fun hanging with Dan Gagen at the Noble Art Gallery. And it goes on, in a way: Dan kindly allowed signed copies to be displayed in his gallery, there at the corner of Orange and Main in Albion.  I don’t know if I’d call it art … but if you want to pick up a copy of Slightly Off the Mark, Storm Chaser, Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights, The Notorious Ian Grant, or The No-Campfire Girls, you can get them there while perusing the real art. (Friday and Saturday, 10-5.) You might also be able to pick them up in other local places soon, if I get off my butt and get it done.

Now I can just kick back and relax and … *insert hysterical laughter here* Nah, I’ve got another book coming out in a month and a half, and I’m already hip deep in the next project.




Remember, election season is coming: You’re going to need lots of books to read, so you can turn off the TV and save your sanity. Come to the Noble Art Gallery in Albion between 2-5 p.m. this coming Saturday, and get a deal on some reading material you’ll never see on a teleprompter.


According to the most recent polls, much of the humor in my books is funny. Also, while some of my books are fiction and some non-fiction, it’s easy to tell which is which—unlike campaign ads.


My most recent is Slightly Off the Mark, and although one chapter does cover politics, it’s clearly marked so you can avoid it. Don’t you need as much humor as you can get to make it through until November, 2016? Sure you do, so vote for me—I mean, see you Saturday, at 100 E. Main.


If you’re in the area, the newest “Slightly Off the Mark” column is out in the Kendallville Mall, in various locations including the outside newspaper box at Albion Village Foods. This month I give a graduation address …


If you’re not in the area, here’s something to tide you over. Remember awhile back, when someone edited “Mary Poppins” to look like the trailer for a horror movie? Well, somebody had similar fun with the pilot video for my column:




When Roger Lawrence tagged me for the Versatile Blogger Award, I thought I’d done that before. So I looked back and sure enough, I was nominated by Rosanne Dingli – in 2011. Here’s Roger’s post, in which he tells 7 fun facts about himself:


The man once cussed out Cary Grant—I can’t outdo that. Since it’s been four years since my time around, I thought I’d put my original answers here for those who’ve come along since, and see if there’ve been any changes along the way. I’m not going to tag anyone—because I already have:


1.       Last year I got my 30 year pin as a volunteer firefighter (I joined on my 18th birthday), and this year made 20 years as an emergency dispatcher. (Ahem … I hit 35 fire years this July 14th.)


2.       I have Seasonal Affected Disorder: Winter quite literally drives me crazy. (But stupidity also drives me crazy, and that happens all year ‘round.)


3.       My fiancée is half my age – and twice my maturity.  (Married! But she’s still more mature.)


4.       I can’t stand America’s two great drinks: coffee and beer.  (Earl Grey—hot.)


5.       It took me over three decades from the moment I first ventured into fiction writing as a child to getting my first novel published. (Now I kill myself trying to get a new book published at least twice a year.)


6.       My humor column, Slightly Off the Mark, was named after a line in a newspaper story about a bowling league. (And it’s not related to the comic strip “Off the Mark” by Mark Parisi, which is very funny.)


7.       I was known throughout my school years for being painfully shy.  (At least, by those who knew I was there. For those of you who watch “The Middle”, I was a mix of Sue Heck, the invisible geek, and her brother Brick, the bookworm.)

The good news is, thousands of writers report they’re making a pretty good living.

Unfortunately, that’s a proverbial iceberg tip, being held up by several hundred thousand writers deep underwater. Have you ever tried breathing while being held underwater by thousands of writers?

The median income for authors is less than the amount they spend on computer equipment, Starbucks membership cards, and books about how to write for a living.

Now, I’m not telling you this so you’ll feel sorry for me, a writer. No, I’m telling you this so you’ll feel sorry for me and buy my books. That’s the way it is, for a working writer: It’s not work if you don’t sell it. Until then it’s a hobby that saps your health and makes all your relatives question your sanity, but you still can’t stop

In other words, it’s an addiction.

There’s no Writer’s Anonymous meeting to go to, because a real writer is unwilling to quit. Oh, they’ll keep saying they will … but they can be found late at night, hiding in their home office also known as the basement, attic, or spare bedroom, working by the light of a computer screen. “I can quit anytime I want. Just … one more novel. And this one will sell for sure!”

So, if we write for the joy of it, why do we try to sell? It’s an art, right? We’re supposed to starve for our art. Somebody said it, so it must be true.

Yeah, you go ahead and starve.

Are there really that many artists who don’t care to make a living at their art? I’ll bet not. I’ll bet, deep down, that most artists dream of selling enough paintings, pottery, or macramé wall hangings to make a living. If it’s your joy, you want to do it all the time, right? With just enough break time for lunch?

So when I published my latest book, I decided to go on an all-out selling frenzy, to see if I could possibly push enough copies to encourage me toward that eventual goal of taking early retirement. The good news is, in eight years I can take full retirement, at which point I can expect a regular check of half what I’m currently making.

In other words, one way or another, in eight years I’m going to be taking another job—whether it’s writing or not.

The experiment started when my wife and I decided to drop the e-book price on my already-published book, The No-Campfire Girls. It wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves, partially because it can’t be found on a lot of shelves. We dropped the e-book price to 99 cents, which is less than you’d pay for a trip to most soda machines. We also increased how much of the profit goes to support my wife’s former Girl Scout camp, from a third to half.

Yeah, I know, that flies in the face of my earlier desire for a living wage, but sometimes it’s nice to do something nice.

I sent notice of this to all the local media, and to the local media down in Missouri, where the camp is. I also hit a heavy rotation on social media, blaring the word as far and hard as I could. I became so annoying that some of my internet friends flew in from other countries and knocked on my front door, just so they could slap me.

“We get it! You have a new book! But you’re interfering with our cute kitten videos!”

I sold four copies.

Not long after that my newest book, Slightly Off the Mark: The Unpublished Columns, came out. This was a book of my unpublished Slightly Off the Mark columns. You probably figured that out. I’m writing a column now for the Kendallville Mall, but I had a lot of material left over after being downsized from my old job.

I spent two weeks being as obnoxious as I possibly could about this book, which to be honest I’m pretty proud of. I blabbed about it on Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, and I’m pretty sure I got it up on a site that normally caters to people who dress in Wookie costumes to go swinging in Rio. I sent it to newspapers in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Well, the one newspaper. I sent it to CNN. I sent it to that guy who used to publish Penthouse magazine: “Dear Penthouse Letters, I never thought this would happen to me, but I published a book!”

I sent my grandkids out with sandwich boards. I decaled my website ( on the side of the car. I wrote the book title in white paint on several area streets, thus causing an incident I’d rather not talk about. (It did NOT look like a railroad crossing sign!)

The result? Mediocre. I have not turned in two weeks’ notice at my day job.

Now, we’ll see what happens when my next book comes out, on August 24th. But that’s another media blitz.


ozma914: new novel cover art by Kelly Martin (Default)


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