Primetime Emmy Nominations 2014

It’s that time of year again when Television Academy members like me vote for their nominations for the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards. There have been a few changes since I wrote about the nomination process in a blog post last year. First, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it will now be called simply the Television Academy. All members have now received new membership cards with the new moniker and logo. The reasoning behind the official name change is to align itself with the basic perception of the general public, which sees the Emmy Awards as being presented by the Television Academy, and bring the organization out of the “ivory tower” that the title Academy of Television Arts and Sciences seems to present. Second, it was announced that voting will now be online. No more number bubbles to fill in on a paper ballot to be mailed off to Ernst & Young in a green envelope. The twenty-first century had arrived and academy members will be going to their computers to vote, except for those members who specifically requested to receive a paper ballot. However, I am ready to go online and put in my nominations – after I view a few more DVDs.

In last year’s blog post, I wrote about the general process of the nomination vote and my personal preferences in considering what programming should be considered for an Emmy. I feel I do not need to repeat myself, so I refer interested readers to go back to this post for those general thoughts. I am going to just write about a few highlights from this year’s programming.

In comedy, my favorite series, The Big Bang Theory, had another good year. There were still many episodes that were written more as fillers to help extend the life of the series, now that it has been given an additional three year commitment by CBS. However, the characters continued to grow as Penny and Leonard’s relationship solidified and condescending Sheldon faced a crisis in faith over his genius abilities as the current season ended. IFC’s Portlandia was the only other series I sought out during the season, but its skit based premise allows me watch it irregularly. It was when the DVDs began to arrive that I finally had a chance to check out NetFlix’s Orange is the New Black. The series is about a woman who agrees to plead guilty for a ten year old drug smuggling offense and accept a short sentence in a women’s penitentiary, but she discovers life with her fellow cellmates was not what she expected it to be. The comedy is low key as the naive main character begins to learn how to adapt to her off-kilter fellow inmates and the hands-off prison staff. I’ve watched two episodes and do not feel in a hurry to watch more. However, these first episodes may be spending more time setting up characters and premise and it will require more episodes to be viewed to get into the rhythm of the series, something that NetFlix’s batch viewing model may be dependent on. I have a few more days to consider a few more episodes.

There appears to be more series of interest to consider in the drama category. I am already enthralled by the second season of BBC America’s cult clone series, Orphan Black, as Sarah and her clone sisters continue to unravel the secrets of their existence while trying to defend themselves from the evil corporation that created them and the extremist cult out to erase their existence. For me, character, redemption and growth is important, and Tatiana Maslany is amazing in displaying these aspects in not just one role but in six – no seven – oh, who’s counting, since she is handling the multiple roles beautifully. A new series I was able to check out from the DVDs has been Showtime’s Masters of Sex, the somewhat true story of how Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson came together to conduct their seminal research on human sexuality. It was interesting to see how the characters try and is sometimes unable to tamper their own humanity while trying to dispassionately research that very humanity in their subjects. Definitely a series to consider.

Reality has now been split from two categories to three: reality competition, reality structured and reality unstructured. Reality competition is easy to understand; individuals or teams in competition within a structured  realistic environment. My favorite is still The Amazing Race. Nothing like the entire globe as the competition’s environment. The difference between reality structured and reality unstructured is basically the subject matter and how it is filmed. In a way, reality structured is a planned investigation or experiment within a realistic situation or environment. Mythbusters on the Science Channel represents a fun version of a reality structured series, while TNT’s Cold Justice, which has two professional investigators trying to solve cold cases, shows a more serious version of this reality genre. The reality unstructured category represents a docu-series where a film crew follows an individual, group or family within their everyday life or work. This is the one type of programming I have yet to find any love for. Sorry, Duck Dynasty.

Well, I have a few more days to check out a few more DVDs. If I have time, I think I’ll check out FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective. It has been an interesting year in television.

Viral Internet Calendar Myths

Last week, two of my Facebook friends shared an image that had originated from an India-based radio station. The image had the calendar page for upcoming August of this year with the following claim: This is the only time you will see this phenomenon in your life. August, 2014, will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens only once every 823 years. The Chinese call it “Silver pockets full.” So: send this message to your friends and in four days the money will surprise you. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. Whoever does not transmit this message … may find themselves clueless … This is not fun at all. To me, the only clueless people were my friends who shared this, along with the one and a half million other individual sharers noted under the image. Except the friends who did share this I do not normally find to be clueless.

To me, it appeared almost immediately how factually incorrect this message was. This message had been appearing somewhat regularly the past few years as forwarded chain e-mail from a few other friends, only it referred to other months like March of last year. The key is that the phenomenon described applies to any month that has 31 days and begins on Friday, making its three extra days land on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Since there are only seven days in a week and a normal year’s 365 days divides into one extra day beyond 52 weeks, each month begins the subsequent day in the new year from the previous year. After taking into account leap years which will force each month to skip a day in its start day in the following year, it does not take a math genius to determine that any particular month will begin on Friday every five to eleven years, and there is a good chance that in any year, at least one of the six months with 31 days will begin on Friday, giving that month five weekends. This is a lot more often than the 823 years claimed in the myth. In addition, stating the origin of this myth derives from the Chinese depends upon the assumption that ancient Chinese calendars miraculously matched the current Gregorian calendar developed in Western European cultures.

So why did my friends and millions of other people immediately accept this omen and immediately forwarded the image to garner good luck? This is different from other coincidences that cannot be automatically discounted. It is a bald-faced lie that is automatically accepted at face value. Does it mean that for some of us, our lives have become so busy that we do not take the time to consider the information and act on what does it hurt faith? Or have some of us reached a level of frustration or despair that we accept any potential good luck charm to counter the rough patch? I’m not sure why, but I hope that these friends ask a few questions before blindly believing the next odd fact virally sent out into the Internet.

Reader Ratings and Reviews on Book Sites

I was checking through the Goodreads Authors Group the other day and came upon a discussion thread started by a fellow Goodreads author who ranted about the readers who rated his book without adding a written review to the rating. To him, the review justified the rating and provided valuable feedback to authors, so he felt that Goodreads should require its members to add a written review whenever they rated a book, in much the same way that Amazon requires its customers to do when they willingly rate a product. As a fellow self-published author, I could sympathize with his frustration as ratings and reviews are an important guide in convincing readers to buy and read a book, especially with so many works being published in the digital age. However, I recognize that social sites like Goodreads were created for its members to connect with friends, to make new friends and to exchange discoveries and disappointments within a group that share common pleasures. On a site like Goodreads, authors are a small part of the whole. The focus is on the society of readers and the vast library of books available from the history of mankind. Although Goodreads gives current authors ways to promote their books (some for a price), its main mission is to cater to the social community of readers, which means it cannot nor should it attempt to force its broad reader membership to follow tight rules like adding reviews to all books on each member’s shelves in order to cater to the small community of Goodreads authors. It would actually drive readers away from signing up and using a site like Goodreads, which would undercut the very value that current authors get from the Goodreads readers.

For most readers and consumers in general, seeing or hearing what a friend or trusted source feels is a better buy becomes very helpful in making decisions on where and how to spend one’s money. We depend upon others’ tales of happy adventures or woeful experiences to map out our next experiences. However, most of us are not all that eager to broadly record our own experiences with the products and entertainment we purchase. It is as if most of us are too insecure to believe that others truly would respect our opinions about the quality of the entertainment we experience. We would rather follow than lead. But stating your preferences or impressions is not leading the way. It is merely contributing to the group discussion. Any one opinion will not be the one thought to make or break the success of a book, movie or television program. Rather it is the general consensus that will determine the ultimate value of a piece. Opinions that go against the grain tend to fade in the background and are not usually held against the reviewer by the general public. However, until a general public develops around a work of creativity, a current writer must depend upon the first group of readers willing to contribute to the initial discussion in order to determine if the work will be accepted by the larger public.

As can be seen, there is no perfect answer to convince readers to rate and review, nor is there a perfect way to truly evaluate the ratings and reviews that are presented. After reading the discussion thread, I did a quick search in Goodreads for a more renowned literary work and came up with the following member information on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 1,108,499 members took the time to rate the classic work for an average of 3.72 stars, but only 9,514 members decided to add a review to explain their rating. Looking through the reviews, I found the following one star-rated review: “I’m not sure what annoys me more – the play that elevated a story about two teenagers meeting at a ball and instantly ‘falling in love’ then deciding to get married after knowing each other for one night into the most well-known love story of all time, or the middle schools that feed this to kids of the same age group as the main characters to support their angst-filled heads with the idea that yes, they really are in love with that guy/girl they met five minutes ago, and no one can stop them.” If I have to hazard a guess, I would say this review came from a parent of a teen girl, and it only goes to show that there will always be someone that will have an issue with any literary work one chooses. As a self-published author, it shows me that I should be open to the comments I receive in the reviews I get, but not to be too overly discouraged with the occasional bad rating. Even the best get panned.

Twitter: A Lesson in Social Media

Shortly after I self-published my novel, I realized that social media was going to have to be a big part of promoting it to the world, and I was determined to handle it on my own for financial reasons. My social media experience was limited to my personal Facebook account which I still keep restricted to people I personally know and my LinkedIn account which I created strictly to search for new employment; however, I felt computer-savvy enough to dive right in. I now have a Facebook page and a Google page for Legacy Discovered, as well as a more open personal Google account, a Pinterest account, a Tumblr blog, a Goodreads author account, an Instagram account, and – of course – the all-important Twitter account. Of all the means of social media on the web, Twitter is the most beguiling form of social interaction I have run across. In a message of less than 140 characters, it is a quick shout-out to the world among an ocean of shout-outs in the almost impossible attempt to get many to somehow see one among the millions, yet it appeals to that inner child that desperately seeks the attention of the world around it. It has also become a quick and simple way for businesses small and large to spread quick ads and promotions into the social sphere. I saw Twitter as a social game where I needed to walk in slowly, learning the rules and developing an understanding of the strategy for interacting among the many Twitter users. What follows is just a small portion of what I have learned.

One of the first things that my steady approach taught me is that it is okay not to truly follow the implied social etiquette for Twitter, because these rules are easily gamed. For instance, the implied social protocol is that if a Twitter user follows your account, then you should follow back; otherwise, the follower will quickly unfollow you for the snub. However, it didn’t take me long to see how this social rule is gamed. In one early extreme example, I got a new follower, a young woman just starting college in another state, who was following over 2000 users and had over 2000 followers of her own, even though she had yet to post one tweet. Without a tweet to judge her, I saw no reason why I should blindly return the follow, and after a few days, she unfollowed me, since I wasn’t following the rules.

For many, the true game is to get followers, as many as possible, to gain credibility in the Twitter-verse, which many believe will lead to more dedicated followers. As I gained a few more followers, I soon uncovered a more underhanded way to gain followers – click farms. About six months after creating my account, I got a sudden bump in followers, but was surprised to see that despite the different profile photo, header bio info and global location of each account, all the accounts miraculously were posting the same series of tweets. The tweets led to a site that promised to provide 10,000 followers for $10, plus other cheap deals for groups of 100,000 followers. A quick Google search of “false followers” led me to blog postings about these click farms and how they have been used to boost follower stats for many political and celebrity Twitter accounts. To me, quality means more than quantity and I refuse to follow or buy any false followers. As these click farms become more known, it will be harder to use Twitter follower stats to prove credibility.

One of the most important concepts about Twitter to understand is that every post is public to the entire Twitter-verse, not restricted to your followers. The difference is that followers receive your tweets in a feed, while other Twitter users must search for your tweets. It was Twitter that introduced a quick means to make a tweet more searchable, by use of the “hashtag” (#) which old typists know as the number sign and recorded telephone menus refer to as the pound sign. In essence, placing a hashtag before a key word or phrase with no spaces “tags” the word or phrase making it more searchable. However, when a hashtagged word or phrase is searched for, how many followers a tweet was sent to is one of the determinations of where the tweet will land in the search results list, so tweets that are retweeted become more discoverable in searches. This leads to another social protocol that retweeting others makes you a good follower. This protocol convinced many users to take advantage of a web app called RoundTeam that automatically retweeted specific hashtags requested by the user. However, I realized that once I uncovered a RoundTeam user and figured out the hashtag phrase they were retweeting, I just needed to incorporate that hashtag in a few of my tweets to get an easy retweet. I was able to game the gamer.

After a year of promoting through irregular tweeting, I began to realize that successful promoting required tweeting throughout the heart of the week at times that were not available to me. In a fellow indie author’s blog, I discovered a web app that solved my dilemma – Twuffer. Through Twuffer, I was able to write my week’s tweets over the weekend and schedule them to be sent throughout the week. Twuffer is not perfect. A scheduled tweet would tend to fail if it was over 130 characters and it forced me to learn and use in my Twuffer tweets the tiny URLs that Twitter created for my standard weblinks. Still, it became a very helpful tool to improve my Twitter presence. Recently, I came across another potentially useful web app at JustUnfollow, which analyzes my followers and following lists, allowing me to seek potential users to increase my following list and in return my followers list. However, I will be exploring another website that has been mentioned in skill requirements for social media jobs – HootSuite. This is an app site that allows users to handle multiple Twitter accounts, schedule future tweets, and creates its own tiny URL base. According to its homepage, it is free for users with less than five accounts. There is still a lot for me to learn in working with Twitter and social media.

A Year with 826LA

It has been a little over a year since I started volunteering for 826LA, the Los Angeles chapter of the national non-profit organization dedicated to helping elementary to high school kids with tutoring assistance and projects to enhance their literary creativity. My volunteer work has focused on the afterschool tutoring sessions for elementary students, scheduling my time for the Tuesday and Thursday sessions during the school year. I also volunteered the same two days a week during a four week summer camp in July which focused on group writing with theme weeks. When I first started with 826LA a year ago, the basic process was very flexible. Volunteer tutors would spread out among the various tables, and then students would seek out open spots as they came in. When homework was done and a student was encouraged to write a story for the upcoming chapbook, the story was written, revised and approved for publication on the same day. However, in the course of the year, staff evaluations, parent/staff meetings and volunteer feedback helped design a more organized process that was more beneficial in guiding the students. Within each six week publishing cycle, students were assigned to a specific seat, as were regular volunteers, separating students that tended to distract each other and allowing students and tutors to bond over a longer period of time. For the first four weeks of the publishing cycle, students were encouraged to write stories based on a theme, reflected in the written prompts on the blackboard and put them back into their binder. In the fifth week, the student was to select one of the stories he or she had written and work with the tutor to edit, revise and expand it for final publication. Tutors were encouraged to be more critical before approving it to be shown to the staff coordinator. Tutors were also asked to be more detailed in each student’s daily homework log, providing detail on the student’s work habits and emotional disposition, giving the staff valuable information during parent meetings. A little structure has gone a long way in providing guidance to these students.

Another change was the addition of a “Barnacle” bag under each table that contained various school and art supplies to encourage the students, and I have been credited with the addition of one of the elements in this bag. After my first week of tutoring, I realized that demonstrating or having a student practice math or spelling with paper and pencil was not efficient, so I bought a dry-erase board and markers from a local drugstore and added it to my backpack. Lesson demonstrations were quickly presented, student practice errors were quickly erased and corrected, and the board also became popular for quick art projects when extra time was available. The value of the dry erase board was quickly noted and a couple of boards are now in each of the “Barnacle” bags with an erasable marker. However, the bags also have a set of permanent color markers for the color art sheets and I’ve noticed that some of the boards have been permanently marked by the wrong markers. Still, the boards continue to show students that errors will be made while learning, but they can be erased, corrected and overcome.

This past weekend, the “super volunteers” were honored at a party given by the 826LA staff in the rear of a West Hollywood comic book store. I was able to meet some of the other volunteers who help out at both the Mar Vista and Echo Park locations, assist the in-school programs and work on the field trip projects, all to promote the literary creativity of students from grades 1-12. In a presentation by the staff, we learned that 826LA serves more students than all of the other 826 organizations across the country, but many more students are on waiting lists to take advantage of the 826LA programs. It makes me proud to continue to provide my services to the deserving kids in the 826LA program.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

A New Year

The holidays and bowl games are behind us, and 2014 is fully upon us. So, as I do a quick audit of the past year, I wonder how was my 2013? Well, in the debit column, after a couple hundred resumes uploaded and positions applied for, a few phone interviews and attendance at several networking events, I am still unemployed with my unemployment benefits about to expire. My medical insurance and covering of my deductible for one medical procedure that confirmed I was perfectly healthy took up one third of my basic expenditures last year. A discarded newspaper that swept up into my radiator grill as I was going through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway was all it took to cook my car’s engine and leave me without personal transportation for two weeks while a rebuilt engine was installed. My base savings account has definitely taken a hit. However, in the credit column, my retirement accounts are solid and have grown, my home is secure with good equity and a healthy emergency investment account is still at my disposal. My somewhat regular bike and walk schedule through the year trimmed thirteen pounds from my weight. I kept busy donating my time to a worthy education non-profit organization, 826LA, by volunteering as an afterschool tutor for 1-5 grade school students twice a week during the school year and a month long summer camp. The rest of my time was focused on promoting my novel by the expansion of my social media presence and by re-releasing it through AuthorHouse to increase the distribution outlets through which it would be available

One part of my promotional campaign was to connect with fellow independent authors, many of whom were reaching out to me. I began to buy and read from the selection of self-published works being presented to me over Twitter and several author websites. After reading, I would write an honest review and post it on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, then announce the review on Twitter so the author would be aware. I realized that in the current online environment of book retailing a growing number of broadly and honestly received reader reviews were important to elevate a book to the recommendation level on Amazon and other online booksellers, and hoped that some of my fellow indie authors would find time to read and honestly review my book to add to my count. I was able to read 22 indie books in 2013, ranging from several murder mysteries, some character relationship dramas, a few sci-fi and fantasy opuses and some historical romances. There were flaws and issues with some of the works, but in general, I was impressed with the creativity and passion within many of the books I read. It makes one realize that the art of storytelling and emotional revelation is not limited to a few master writers in history, but appears to be an integral part of our collective DNA.

So where does this leave me for 2014? Basically, I have the strong hope that I have built a good promotional foundation for my book as more readers discover it. The job market appears to be improving, but maybe I will have time to focus on my next book. I feel the assistance I have provided to the students in the 826LA program will give them the foundation to be major contributors within their generation. And I hope I am prepared for the new challenges that are always around the corner no matter what year we are in.

A California Mini-Tour – Part 3

In just two days, I had headed north from Los Angeles, visited the newest national park, Pinnacles, checked out the interesting Winchester House in San Jose, and explored the hydrothermal elements of Lassen Volcanic National Park at the southern end of the Cascades. Now, it was time to head back around towards Los Angeles. But I had a few small stops planned for the way back.

I headed east from the Chester Best Western early to connect with US 395, which runs north-south through the eastern Sierras. Going south, I slid into Nevada, driving through the heart of Reno and Carson City, where I found some bright autumn colors along the Sierra foothills to capture in a few pictures. US 395 crossed back into California, climbing into a high pass through the Sierras. As the noon hour approached, I came upon the turn onto the road spur to my next stop, the historic ghost town of Bodie.

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

The first ten miles of Bodie Road is smooth black asphalt, lending a false sense of security to the visiting traffic until it comes upon the tortuous last three miles of rocky rills into the town. At 7000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, Bodie lies in stark contrast to the high desert landscape around it. Only five percent of the buildings remain of the town that arose after its founder, Waterman (William) Body, discovered gold in 1859. By 1879, its reputation for lawlessness was unmatched in the West, leading one young girl, whose family was moving to Bodie, to write in her diary, “Goodbye, God. I’m going to Bodie.” The gold and the town hung on long enough into the next century for the automobile and electricity to make an appearance, but as the gold output shrank, the town lost its population. As I walked along the streets, taking pictures of the homes, church, schoolhouse and firehouse, I thought about how the former residents survived within this isolated location. In a way, the town has become a homage to man’s persistence at civilization in the harshest environments, and how modern man is now able to turn these periods of persistence into museum stops.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

After enjoying a few hours exploring Bodie, I braved my way back over the road to US 395 and headed south to my next planned stop. I passed by Mono Lake, stopping for a few vista shots, and within an hour was turning off into the Mammoth Mountain resort area. On the western side of Mammoth, I reached the entrance to the small protected stretch of canyon with a wall of volcanic columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument.  It was amazing viewing how nature could create the nearly straight and symmetrical columns, rivaling some of the best man-made constructs in the world.

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

I drove back past the Mammoth Ski Resort, which was still waiting its first major snow of the year, and stayed in a nice little bed and breakfast in Mammoth Lakes. When I left the next morning, I turned north on US 395, instead of south, in order to experience another route I had missed during the grand California tour of 2006. During that tour, the plan was to get to Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Pass, but the heavy snows over that winter had kept the pass closed well into June, forcing me to use the farther north I-80 pass to reach Yosemite Valley. Now I had the chance to experience the high elevation views along the pass within Yosemite National Park. The views were amazing, but the highlight was Olmsted Point where I could almost look down on Half Dome. While I was at Olmsted Point, a Korean War vet and his wife drove in to the parking area in a uniquely-designed remodeled 1927 Model A truck, instantly attracting the attention of the Australian and Austrian tourists whose tour buses had made their scheduled stops. It was an interesting contrast between human and natural creativity.

From Yosemite, it was a direct shot home to Los Angeles. I had set aside four days to explore three national parks, a national monument and two historical sites and had accomplished it efficiently and economically. The keys were to do the necessary research, avoid over-planning, and maintain flexibility during the actual trip. Not a bad four days.

A California Mini-Tour – Part 2

The first day of my four day mini-tour had gone well, exploring both Pinnacles National Park and the Winchester Mystery House. My plan for the second day was to focus on exploring only one stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. I got an early start from the San Jose Motel 6 and headed north.

I had already checked Lassen Volcanic off my national park bucket list, but the check mark had an asterisk next to it that I wanted to clear. In late May of 2006, I had visited Lassen as part of grand Californian road trip I had planned for my mother and her friend. However, the previous winter had been a very wet season, leaving a very heavy snow coverage at the higher elevations that extended deep into spring. The resulting road closures kept us from being able to circle the northern side of Crater Lake, to enter Yosemite over the scenic Tioga Pass and to only go two miles within the southern entrance of Lassen Volcanic. We were able to experience the steam vents of the Sulphur Works which had powered their way through the heavy snow drifts, but this was only like putting a foot within the door of the wonders of Lassen. To fully check Lassen off my bucket list, I felt I needed to revisit and explore deeper within the park.

I got to the southern park entrance shortly before noon and discovered a four year old visitor center just beyond the gate, which was sorely lacking during the 2006 grand tour. Unfortunately, because of the time of year, the main gift shop was not open during the week and the rest of the center was lightly staffed. I shot some landscape views from the rear viewing area, then I ate my packed lunch in a small open-air lecture arena next to the center. I could envision park rangers giving nature lectures to visitors in this arena during the busy summer months. After lunch, I drove north along the park road and made my first stop at the Sulphur Works, revisiting the only location I had explored on the first tour. It was interesting seeing the steam vents without the snow. Then, I drove on to discover the full experience of Lassen.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

It didn’t take long before I caught my first sight of Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug volcanoes in the world and the high point of the caldera rim of an ancient composite volcano. Lassen is not dormant. It last erupted over a three year period from 1914 to 1917, prompting Congress to create a national park around it. I knew I did not have time to hike up to the 10,415 foot peak, but I did have time to hike from the Lake Helen parking area to one of Lassen’s most notable hydrothermal spots, Bumpass Hell. Even though it is 8,000 feet in altitude and wraps around a sharp drop-off into Little Hot Springs Valley, the Bumpass Hell Trail is even and easy to walk, providing magnificent vista views into the caldera, and the elevated walkways at Bumpass Hell allows park visitors a safe, close-up view of the scalding hot springs and bubbling mud pools. After exploring Bumpass Hell and hiking back to the car, I drove on to Summit Lake, the halfway point of the road through the park and my planned turnaround point. Enjoying the alpine lake with just a handful of fellow visitors was amazingly restful, but it was now time to turn this tour back toward home. I retraced my route south back out of the park, then turned east to the small mountain town of Chester, where I had my second night motel reservation at the local Best Western.

Traveling during the off-season has many advantages in being able to avoid crowds and traffic, but it does have the occasional drawback like my discovery that most of the cafes and restaurants in Chester were closed for the season. Still, the microwave in my motel room and a packaged burrito from the nearby food mart proved to be a very cost-saving dinner. It was two wonderful days down, with two more days to go.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 1

Back in July, I posted about my travels and my bucket lists for future traveling. One of the main bucket lists I had focused on was the opportunity to visit every designated national park in the US. I mentioned that the newest national park, elevated from national monument status, was practically in my backyard. A little over a week ago, I took my chance to visit this park, Pinnacles, as well as add a few more stops in a quick four day road trip in California. Taking advantage of the off-seasonal and cooler autumn period of late October allowed me to avoid crowds and make my off-the-cuff travel planning work. I jumped in the car early on a Wednesday morning with plans to be back home that Saturday evening. I was looking forward to a very exciting trip.

The key to making this trip work was to get an early start on Wednesday, so by 6 am, I was in my car and off to the first stop, Pinnacles National Park. There are two entrances into the park, but there is no road that transverses the park, so I decided to head to the eastern entrance as park maps seem to indicate more choices of trails to explore from this side. With my gas tank down to a quarter full, I made it to the east entrance by 10:30 am, noticing that the nearest city and gas services from this exit was 30 miles away in either direction. Entry fees are collected in the visitor center, although my annual park pass precluded me from having to pay anything. After gathering the informational brochure and seasonal park paper, I drove to the day use parking at the end of the east entrance road.

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

In some ways, our national parks can be grouped into the famous parks that are identified by an iconic image or environment, like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, the massive multi-striped gorge of the Grand Canyon or even the Everglades’ extensive sea of grasses; and the less iconic, but just as informational parks. Pinnacles fits into this second category. The rough hewn rocky peaks of the Pinnacles ridge line may not be recognized or immediately bring wonder to travelers around the world; however, they do have a major story to reveal about the San Andreas Fault that lies along it eastern foothills. This is a land of coastal uplift along the grinding of two major tectonic plates, and the boulders and rock columns I passed along the two trails I hiked revealed the amazing erosion patterns on the brittle volcanic walls. I hiked up to one of the cave trails in the park, created not by underground water cutting through rock, but rather by falling boulders that fell into the gulch and formed a rough tunnel over the gulch. Even though I could have hiked through the full length of this cave to another exit, I decided to just explore the one entry, then hike back to the day use area to eat my packed lunch. After lunch, I hiked up the Condor Gulch trail to an overlook on the trail, just below the high peaks ridge, which gave me an expansive view of a southeast panorama of ridges. Pinnacles is not a high mountain range as its highest peak is just a little over 3000 feet, which makes it a very accessible park to hike in. However, based on the information in my brochure, I chose the best time to enjoy the hiking trails as temperatures in the Pinnacles can reach over 100 degrees during the summer months. I say good planning on my part.

My day wasn’t over yet, as I quickly set out, stopping once for gas, to make it to San Jose in time to catch the final tour of the Winchester Mystery House. The house is well-known for stairways to nowhere and doors into walls, as the common history states that Mrs. Sarah Winchester kept the mansion under constant construction to confuse the spirits of the victims of the guns manufactured by her husband’s family business. However, Sarah never left any written evidence for her motives behind her construction plans as the tour guide was quick to start the hour long tour with a proclamation that her motives could have been psychic beliefs or poor architectural skills. Still, the séance room with three exits, but only one entrance, and the prolific integration of 13 within the design of the rooms gives high credence to the psychic belief explanation. What is known is that after the death of her baby girl and her husband, wealthy Sarah Winchester left New Haven, Connecticut and moved across the country into a small unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clarita region of California, which she kept in a constant state of construction until she died 38 years later. The tour is interesting and amazing, but I’m not sure amazing enough for the $33 fee for the tour. What I find even more amazing is that this mansion, which was surrounded by acres of fruit groves and fields, is now engulfed within the bustling city of San Jose, which is probably doing a better job of scaring away the ghosts of the Winchester victims.

With reservations at a Motel 6 a few miles away, the day was over. It was planned as the longest day of the trip, and since it worked out perfectly, I was very confident in my plans for the next three days.

To be continued…

Charity Membership – A Cautionary Tale

I admit that computerized algorithms and donor database programs have tremendously increased the efficiencies of charitable organizations, allowing them to reduce overhead costs and push more donated funds into actually helping the causes they were set up to support. However, mailing list and marketing programs still need human oversight in order to comprehend, catch, correct and atone for the robotic behavior of the programs and the data entry personnel interacting with those programs. When the human empathy is removed from the pitch and interaction with current and potential donors, it eventually disappears from the care and concern the organization has toward the very cause it is trying to solve and manage. I feel I am witnessing an example of this with one of the organizations I have been supporting, the American Film Institute.

I discovered the American Film Institute shortly after I came out to attend UCLA’s motion picture/television program in the mid-70’s. At the time, AFI was considered one of the top four film schools in the country with UCLA, USC and NYU. Of course, AFI’s school was specifically focused on the art of filmmaking and was not attached to any other school or university. Its other main focus was the promotion and preservation of the film and video arts throughout its history in America. I decided to sign up as a member and began receiving its monthly magazine. Since then, up to about a year ago, I set aside money in my budget to renew my membership every year in December, faithfully checking the box to waive all benefits so that my annual contribution would fully go to AFI’s mission. AFI would receive my check and send me a membership card with the following year’s December expiration date, making me a 30-plus year member.

Last year, I received an early generic renewal form, asking me to consider renewing early in order to help AFI reach a goal. I felt I could handle this, so I sent my check to AFI in October. Imagine my surprise when I received my annual membership card with an expiration date of October of this year. I was befuddled by this, but felt it wasn’t anything serious to make a fuss about. Then, in July, I received a generic form letting me know it was time for me to renew my membership for this year. Now, I was concerned. Was AFI trying to change the definition of annual as a period of 8 months? Was this cycle of early renewals just an underhanded method of trying to pull in more money from inattentive donors? I could not let this pass, so I wrote a letter to the membership department regarding my concerns, adding a scanned image of my membership cards for the past three years to demonstrate the shortened “annual membership” I had already received this year. A few days later, I received a message on my answering machine from a membership manager, giving me a simple apology. She stated that I was a longtime valued member and the early expiration date was obviously a human entry error. Then, in a very laissez-faire manner, she added she understood why I would decide not to renew and she would put a note in my file providing an explanation. If I had any questions, she provided a number I could call. Even though my letter was harsh, I could not understand why she had called if she was going to be accepting of the situation, instead of trying to demonstrate how the error would be corrected in order to convince me to stay with AFI.

A few weeks ago, I received a new standard renewal notice, which was more in line with the October expiration date. Since I had such a long relationship with AFI, I thought about not letting a minor error or the singular reaction from one staff member distract me from the primary reason I had been supporting AFI every year. I seriously considered sending my renewal check to AFI in October. Then, I received another renewal notice informing me that since I was such a loyal member and partner all these years, my membership expiration date was being extended to November. I shook my head in amazement. Was AFI so generously giving me back one of the two months that had been taken from me in error last year? Did not the message from that membership manager state that a notification about the error was being put into my account, so that the membership drive would not ironically boast to me about giving me back half what they had taken from me in my current annual membership? I realize that these notices were all computer-driven outreach programs, but considering the earlier personal message I had received and the resulting lack of follow-through, I saw an indication that AFI had lost the human empathic oversight to forward their mission to preserve American film history and help educate film storytellers into the future. It’s time for me to search elsewhere to further that cause.