Road Trip to Denver – Part 2

On the first two days of my road trip, I had driven a lot of miles and had the chance to explore two national parks, Saguaro National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had also ended the second day zipping into Guadalupe Mountains’ more well-known sister park on the New Mexico side and finding out when the main attraction would be open. Now, at 8AM on the third day of my trip, I was entering the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preparing to enter the caverns. Realizing that temperatures in the cavern were significantly lower than the upper desert region, I bought a zippered hoodie sweater in the gift shop and put it on over my short sleeve t-shirt. Now, I was ready to investigate the cave.

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main body of Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room, 755 feet below the surface, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is by an elevator that was built down directly from the visitor center to one end of the Big Room, where the comfort of visitors superseded nature with the installation of restrooms and a lunch counter. The other avenue to the Big Room was by walking down through the Natural Entrance and following the paved path down. I had time so I went by way of the Natural Entrance. The paved asphalt path with hand rails swaybacked down a nearly vertical shaft to a small open area where bats congregate during the day in the summer months. Since I did not see any bats, it is possible that they had not yet migrated from their winter Mexican home. The path then wound down slowly through a section called the Main Corridor, passing by interesting formations like the Whale’s Mouth or the Witches Finger. It is at the Iceberg Rock that the path entered the Big Room and headed over to the Big Room Trail. All along the way, lighting had been wired into the cavern walls in such a way to allow visitors to see the cave structures without disrupting the subterranean ambiance necessary to understand the natural processes at work. The Big Room Trail circled around in a cross pattern within a somewhat open cavern full of decorative columns, stalagmite giants, stalactited grottos, and small spring pools. One massive stalagmite named the Rock of Ages looked at one part of the trail like a dragon about to spew fire on the defenseless rock creature spread out before it. I was told at the visitor center that it would take me three and a half hours to walk the full trail on my own, but I was able to do the two miles in two and a half hours, more in line with the pamphlet’s estimate. I was also proud that I was able to hold still and take some very good pictures without flash, something I was able to show the park ranger who rode up in the elevator with me from the Big Room. Why didn’t I walk back up the Natural Entrance Trail? That trail was set up as one way only, making the elevator the only way out of the cave.

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Once I had finished exploring Carlsbad Cavern, it was off to Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. I headed north, then cut west over a mountain pass to get to the Tularosa Basin. After stopping off at the visitor center for preliminary information, I drove down the ten mile Dunes Drive into the Heart of the Sands. The white starkness of the sand was amazing to view and created some amazing images in my camera. Usually, white gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves quite easily in water and is quickly carried off to oceans or seas, but the Tularosa Basin has no access to external rivers, so the gypsum remains when mountain water runoff quickly evaporates in the arid conditions. The result is white sand dunes. After getting my pictures, I headed back to Alamogordo to check into my motel.

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

The next day, I headed north to Albuquerque to explore Petroglyph National Monument. This protected rocky section on the westside of Albuquerque features some amazing early Native American communication art. Because the rocky terrain was formed by volcanic outflows over 200,000 years ago, Native Americans discovered that they could scrap the darker exterior of the rock, revealing a lighter rock underneath, thus forming the image and message to others. Many of these images are nearly 2000 years old and are considered sacred to many American Indians. The visitor center directed me to the Boca Negra Canyon trail as one of the best viewing spots. A small rocky trail up to a shaman’s circle gave me a chance to view many petroglyph images, a stark view of the five volcanic cones to the west, and a wonderful overview of Albuquerque to the east.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I headed north to Taos, the small art community town up in the mountain foothills of north New Mexico. The town is well-known as a haven for local artist as I found out when I checked into my motel and found a small gallery of art in one of the lobby hallways. In front of the motel was a genuine Frederic Remington statue. I walked down the small main street and went into one of the local galleries to enjoy some amazing artwork for sale. Unfortunately, all I could do was admire, not buy. After enjoying the creativity, it was time for sleep, ending the New Mexico portion of my trip. Tomorrow, it would be off to Colorado.

To be continued…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 1

Just last month, I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of some good friends of mine in Denver. Instead of just flying in, I decided to make a road trip out of the journey in order to check off some more national parks and sites from my bucket list. I had been fiddling around with a southwest trip itinerary on my computer for about a year and decided to incorporate these plans into this trip, one that would take me to five national parks, a couple of national monuments, and one notable art community.

I started out early on a Sunday morning and headed east on I-10. Interstate 10 is the southernmost east/west Interstate Highway that reaches coast to coast. It has always had a special significance in my life as I grew up near the eastern terminus of I-10 and am now currently living near the western terminus. I stopped for gas just east of Palm Springs and the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park at a small stop called Chiriaco Summit and discovered a hidden treasure next to the gas stations, the General Patton Memorial Museum. I did not have time to actually visit the museum beyond taking pictures of the statue and memorials outside the front, but it added somewhat to the significance of traveling I-10. It was the ease that General Patton had in moving US tanks across Germany on the Autobahn system at the end of World War II that convinced Eisenhower to champion the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency. I contemplated this as I headed east towards Arizona.

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

My goal that first day was to reach Tucson and Saguaro National Park by mid-afternoon. Saguaro National Park is somewhat unique in that it preserves two separate sections of the Sonoran Desert on either side of Tucson. During an earlier road trip around Arizona a few years back, I had visited the eastern section next to the Rincon Mountains, but had arrived after the visitor center had closed and had to be content with taking pictures in the late afternoon before the gates closed at sunset. This time I wanted an opportunity to check for playing cards at the visitor center, and it made sense to use this return trip to see the western section next to the Tucson Mountains. I was not disappointed. The saguaro forests seemed more plentiful and photogenic in this western section. There was also a special treat along the loop drive at a spot called Signal Hill. A quick walk to the top of Signal Hill revealed a small section of petroglyphs, symbols marked into the rocks by early Native American cultures, basically an archeological treasure.

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

After spending the night in Tucson, it was back onto I-10 eastbound to El Paso on the way to the next national park. At El Paso, I left I-10 and headed directly east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park protects a section of the Guadalupe Mountains as they extend into Texas from the New Mexico border. These mountains were formed from a horseshoe reef that grew in a tropical sea that covered this section of Texas and New Mexico hundreds of millions of years ago. As the sea disappeared, the land uplifted and exposed the now fossilized reef as the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8750 feet along this Capitan Reef. However, this park did not have any roadways into the mountains, only hiking trails for dedicated campers, so I was limited to taking photos from a small hiking trail around the visitor center.

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After I finished exploring the little trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I realized I had time to make a quick stop at the star highlight of this road trip, the much more recognized sister park just north on the New Mexico side of the state border, and find out when the star attraction would be opened in the morning. I got to the visitor center as the park rangers were lowering the flag for the day and got my answers, so I took exterior photos on my way back down to the nearby motel where I had reservations and had a relaxing night’s sleep in preparation of entering Carlsbad Caverns at eight-thirty in the morning.

To be continued…

Collecting Playing Cards

Nearly everybody finds something to collect within their life. For some, it is an investment in worth, consolidating items of value as a security measure. For others, it fulfills the goals of completing sets or items in a list for display or self-satisfaction. Still, others collect and store items that connect or remind them of a history that provides a sense of identity. However, most of us build collections out of a combination of all three of these reasons – value, achievement and history. For me, I find these reasons behind my main collection of playing cards.

Both of my parents grew up in rural upstate New York where the family game of choice was Pinochle. At weekend gatherings on my grandfather’s farm, a small group of his friends and family would gather around the dinner table, partnered in two teams, to prove their worth in serious games of Pinochle. Children were not allowed to join in until they could prove capable of playing at an adult level. My parents brought the game down with them to Florida to play with their friends on occasion. Pinochle combined both the concepts of laying down sets of cards as in Poker and winning tricks as in Bridge, building scores through both methods. What is particularly special about Pinochle is that the game uses a special deck of just the Ten through Ace of each suit doubled. A Pinochle deck will also include Nines for use in a game variation. Because of this, it often was difficult while I was growing up to find a normal deck of fifty-two cards in our closet to play the children games of War and Rummy with visiting friends. This led me to start buying my own deck of cards for these instances. This is how I came to notice that playing cards were often sold as souvenirs at tourist locations and started me on a path of collecting decks.

This collection has not demonstrated much in the way of being an investment. I have a few decks that may have some historical value, but playing card decks have not been known to be that rare lost attic treasure like baseball cards or comic books. Among my decks, I have Bicycle decks from the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympic Games, a double set of Air Force One Ronald Reagan cards, a tenth anniversary M*A*S*H double deck, and a Kennedy Kards political satire deck from the JFK era. Despite the historical significance behind these decks, I have no illusions that these have any significant monetary value behind them, but I cherish having them in my collection.

In general, I would buy or receive decks during my travels or attendance at events, but as friends and colleagues began to learn of my collection, they would get me decks on their travels. This got me close to completing representative sets, which would lead me to the Internet seeking a missing deck in a set. It was last year that I finally able to complete a representative set of souvenir decks from each of the fifty US states and the District of Columbia. I may not have visited every state yet, but I now have at least one deck of playing cards from each one. It may be a little more difficult to find a deck from each European country.

However, most of my decks have become a symbol of where I have been, what I have accomplished and what I hope to accomplish. The decks I have from the Los Angeles Olympics remind me of being able to be at the LA Coliseum during those games. Souvenir decks from European countries, famous art museums, and US National Parks remind me of the places I have seen and experienced, as well as places I have yet to visit. Magic decks and science decks demonstrate the knowledge I have gained. Decks with special face card characters and non-standard card decks ground me in the history of multiple cultures. Playing cards represent the evolution of gamesmanship in humanity, and I am fascinated by the history behind the games. I have almost one thousand decks in my collection from five continents. There is still plenty of space on my shelves to cross that thousand mark barrier.

Tis the Season for Christmas Movies

A couple of holiday seasons ago, shortly after I created my website, I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Gathering. I started out the post by writing that I set aside time for all of the new holiday movies that run on a few cable channels. Since then, the number of holiday movies have expanded tremendously over a number of channels, as LMN, UP, ION and AMC has joined Lifetime, Hallmark and ABC Family in presenting a new Christmas treat once a week. In fact, Hallmark really gets into the spirit as it has been running holiday movies from previous years 24 hours a day with two new movies every weekend since the beginning of November. It is almost impossible to take them all in. After bingeing a few days over the Thanksgiving weekend, I began to start categorizing the holiday films in order to determine what makes a good Christmas film and which ones were missing the cut.

Holiday movies basically end well with a positive message and a good feeling. The biggest group of Christmas movies find this message through myth and fantasy magic. Many of this group works with the myth of Santa Claus, the jolly old saint who brings gifts to all of the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Kids are told the basics – Santa lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and elves making toys leading up to Christmas. However, do not let those true believers watch too many of these Santa movies as it will only confuse them. After all, is Santa really hundreds of years old or is the job passed from father to son – or even daughter? Is the North Pole really at the top of the world in a rustic village or is it in Canada or Alaska with a modern day factory ramping up production? The best idea is to choose one good Santa movie to share with the children and enjoy the various other creative incarnations amongst the positive older fantasy lovers.

The next group of fantasy holiday films are the “angel” films. In this case, an angelic figure appears to help a main character find redemption or two worthy individuals to find true love with each other. Sometimes, this guiding figure could be Santa or one of his elves, but since the focus is on helping another individual during the season, I do not count these movies in the Santa group. Santa is only a supporting role in the story. Often the magic is gentle, giving a comic tone to the movie, but there are a few that are more dramatic and sometimes darker until the redemption comes. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is probably the first and best of this dramatic type, which is why the original story has been filmed several times for movies and TV, and then re-imagined, modernized, and sometimes twisted with several versions with Scrooges of different cultures, careers and genders. A key component in A Christmas Carol is the element of time travel, which has become a common element in many other current Christmas films. Sometimes the character needing redemption is magically sent back in time and given a chance to correct a regret, and sometimes the character is placed into a possible future to prepare him or her for an upcoming defining decision, but the newest time twist is having the character relive the same day over and over, ala Groundhog Day, until he or she learns the right way to live the day and the rest of his or her life. It is only in these films where we see the appearance of snowfall as a moment of joyous redemption and not a dreaded moment of foul weather.

The next group of Christmas movies are the non-magical set, a more realistic storytelling that still embodies the redemptive and giving ideal of the holiday. As with all movies, these range from the dramatic to the comedic. The dramatic tales usually centers on a character or set of characters who must face a challenge to reconnect and redeem themselves, like my favorite, The Gathering, or on a character or family facing hardship who becomes the object of a community coming together to help them. The comedic movies generally are a nostalgic slapstick view of a family gathering or a light romantic comedy which makes Christmas into the second most romantic holiday after Valentine’s Day. A comedy with the interactive blending of multiple stories, like the modern classic Love Actually, is able to touch the Christmas spirit in many enjoyable ways.

Finally, I have a small set of films where Christmas is merely a backdrop or prop for a basic story. Many are romantic comedies like The Sure Thing, While You Were Sleeping, or even the best picture classic, The Apartment; however, even an action adventure film can find a little Christmas mojo. My prime example is Die Hard, which takes place during a Christmas party in a near empty skyscraper. In the end, a little Christmas tape saves the day.

ELL Summer Camp at 826LA

It has been a very busy July for me this year. I had just released my video book trailer for “Legacy Discovered” into the social media universe two months ago and have been building my Twitter following and joining Google+ communities to help get the word out. I have also helped a few friends out with some projects this month. However, an important part of my July was volunteering for the ELL summer camp for 826LA.

This was the second summer camp for which I have volunteered and it had a more creative mission for the elementary level kids who signed up than the afterschool tutoring and writing sessions done during the school year. For one thing, there was no school or homework assignments so the camp could fully focus on the creative writing projects it encouraged the children to take on. ELL stands for English Language Learning and the four week camp used theme weeks to get the children to improve their grammar skills and inspire their writing creativity. Each theme week was led by a different summer associate who devised the daily lesson plans and the week’s special clap, a special cheer the children would do after one of them has shared something he or she had written. Each day, each student had to come up with a word related to the current theme and write it with their definition on a note card to be handed in. The kids were grouped as teams at different tables with a volunteer or two to assist and encourage them as the program was presented. There were two sessions every weekday, the morning session for the younger children up to third grade and the afternoon session for the fourth through sixth grade kids. There were a couple of days during the camp period when both sessions were combined for a group field trip. I did not volunteer for the field trips, but my plan was to sign up for two days a week as a volunteer for the afternoon session with the older kids.

The first week was Food Week and the daily clap was two claps and a rub of the tummy while saying “Yum, Yum!” Early in the week, the room was turned into a cafe with horrible food like peanut butter and pencil shavings sandwiches, prompting the kids to write critical reviews. On another day, a food truck came to visit and thank you letters were written. These were some innovative ways to get the kids interested in food, but for many of the boys, good food was not all that exciting.

The second week was Nature Week and it started with a nature walk field trip, which I did not volunteer to join. However, Andrea, the summer associate responsible for this week, felt I could present something special to the kids. The Tuesday lesson plan was to introduce the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, which included the Grand Canyon. She asked and I provided her with a few of my photos from my visit a few years ago to the Grand Canyon, then she had me come up during the afternoon session to give a personal description and valuable information about this wonder protected as a national park. The writing project for the day was to create a travel guide for a real or imagined vacation place. I was able to provide picture and national park guides at my table to help our team. As kids read their guides, the others would cheer them with two claps and a chirp with our hands put together, flapping like a bird.

The third week was Space Week, which included the penultimate field trip to the California Science Center where the space shuttle Endeavor was on display. I did not volunteer for the field trip, but I brought in my photos of the space shuttle Columbia landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the 80s the day before the field trip to further enhance the kids’ enjoyment of the trip. The main writing project for the week was to write a story about saving the earth from an asteroid collision. Now this was a subject to get the boys excited about.

The final week of camp was Future Week, but for me, it was about trying to schedule my volunteer time with potential jury service and two Television Academy networking events. My deal with the 826LA team was that I would not sign up on the schedule, but rather just show up if I was not needed for jury service. I was able to show up on Monday and Tuesday to help the kids write letters to their future selves, but I really had my fingers crossed to be available on Friday for the book release party. The best stories were being gathered and published as a book for the 826LA Time Travel Marts and Friday was the day the kids got to read their best works to the group. However, the LA County Courts did need me to show up for jury selection in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. My name was not selected for three potential juries, but time was ticking away. Suddenly, by mid-afternoon, the remainder of us in the jury room was informed that we were no longer needed and I rushed off through early afternoon rush hour to be able to get to the party in time to hear many of the stories being read. I walked into the party with my jury certification raised over my head to the cheers of all of the kids. I was glad I made a difference in their lives.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Health Insurance and Religious Freedom

A few days ago, I came across an article in the paper about the suit challenging the new healthcare law’s dictate that corporate health insurance benefits for employees must include coverage for standard contraceptives, including the “morning after” pill, was heading to the Supreme Court. The suit claims that this part of the law would constitutionally violate some company owners’ religious freedoms, since it would force them to support a practice that is against their tightly held religious beliefs. According to the article, the debate turns on whether a company can be considered “a person” that has religious beliefs protected under the First Amendment. However, I see this argument as being spurious because it does not matter whether one is making this case for a company, a person or even a religious organization. After all, how can any entity claim a First Amendment right to freedom of religion as a defense to deny that same right to another citizen?

In essence, all jobs are basically inherent contracts between parties requiring services and parties providing the services needed, whether the relationship is between an individual and an independent contractor or between an employer and employee. For services rendered, compensation is provided, and the payer has no further ownership or control over the funds provided, and therefore, no control over what the payee does with those funds going forth. For example, a vegan company owner cannot force his employees to use their salaries to purchase only vegetable dishes for their families.

Employee benefits are just as much a form of compensation as salary for an employee’s service. Considering that no individual or party can control or impose any sort of restriction upon how an individual uses that compensation within the freedoms guaranteed to that individual by the Constitution, it is up to the employee to decide how to use a health insurance benefit within his or her own religious beliefs. If an owner of a company is a Jehovah’s Witness, should he be able to restrict his employee’s health plan benefit so that it does not allow any form of emergency blood transfusion? I think not. A health insurance plan should cover most legally acceptable forms of medical services that an individual may find acceptable to his or her own religious beliefs, which is why the new healthcare law included contraceptive services. A business owner, like any other individual, has a right to preach his or her religious and moral beliefs to his or her employees, but the employees’ rights to their individual beliefs and morals must be respected and accepted in return. That is the price for living in a non-theocratic democracy.