Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Harry Potter and the Country Western Dance Craze

Can you imagine Harry Potter doing the Two Step? I cannot. I have no idea of what kind of dance the kids do in the fourth Harry Potter movie, but it looks vigorous. I wonder, every time I watch it, how many girls went flying across the room as their partners hoisted them high in the air and lost control.

The first time I ever took a dance class, so far as I can recall, was in the fourth grade. I was madly in love with a cute girl named Cathy Hutto. I had watched her shyly fir months and never once could think of a thing to say to her. 9-year-old boys aren't supposed to be infatuated with girls, but I was infatuated with Cathy.

Well, one day our class was introduced to Square Dancing. Through machinations I no longer recall, Cathy turned out to be my partner. I was in hog heaven, sitting on cloud nine, flying high, and soaring free. Had I only known then what I know now, I probably could have made her my girlfriend. I think, as I recall those memories, that she actually liked me.

Can't imagine why.

But we danced together. Yes, Cathy was my first dancing partner. I'll always remember her short brown hair, her deep dark eyes, and her skinny arms. She was also my first Girl Scout dream girl. Up until that year, I had only been infatuated with the occasional Brownie Scout (which may not make sense for people outside the United States -- I don't know what the equivalent scouting ranks are called elsewhere in the world).

Except for the fact that I got to hold hands with the girl I had been drooling over for months, not much else stayed with me from that Square Dancing lesson. If you're a teacher thinking about giving the kids a Square Dancing (or any kind of dancing) lesson next year, here's a hint: Give them a weekly dance period. Sounds like a lot of work, but my romance died before I could needlessly connive my way into the girl's heart.

Not that 9-year-olds need to be serious about that sort of thing, but I was crushed not to have had more time to spend with a girl who usually sat on the far side of the room from me. We want what we cannot have.

The next time I took a Square Dancing class, I was in college. For reasons I don't recall, I was avoiding a real physical education class. I taken a First Aid class, a bowling class, and managed to drop out of a Volley Ball class. So I needed one more P.E. class to get my P.E. credits lined up and one quarter despite all my best attempts to arrange a decent schedule, I ended up taking ... Square Dancing.

It's hard to be the only man in a class with 30 women who don't want to dance with each other. The first day of class, as the teacher was laying out the rules, she neglected to mention how I would be partitioned, shared, or otherwise circulated among the ladies. So she said, "Ladies, grab a partner!"

Next thing I know, a gorgeous girl named Paige came running across the room to grab me (she was taken, but by the end of the quarter, so was I -- by a girl not in the class). The teacher immediately sensed the drawing of claws as shrieks of anger and disappointment rang out. "Everyone will have to share the only male partner in the class," she cried out. "And Michael, please make sure you dance with each of the ladies."

BTW -- that class was a major workout. Did I say I was avoiding a "real" P.E. class? Hah!

I did, actually, have a favorite girl in that class. Her name was Joanna, and if I had had sense, I would have found a reason to talk to her a little more often. I could have dated her. I should have dated her.

Alas! It was not meant to be.

Now, Square Dancing is a bit more formal than what most people think of as Country Western Dancing. Around Houston, people usually associate C W Dancing with Two Step or maybe some line dances. We did learn line dances in that class. I wish I could remember them, as I'm terrible at line dances. But they have probably long since gone out of fashion.

Oddly enough, when I go to the Chinese Cultural Center with my friend Maggie, there is an inevitable line dance or two. Why? I have no idea. Those people just love to dance and they don't care what the style is. So one minute you'll see people sweeping across the floor in a graceful Viennese Waltz and the next they're lining up with their thumbs in their belts, yellin' "Yeehaw! Git along leetle dogies!"

Imagine Jackie Chan in a western movie -- a serious western movie -- and you'll get an idea of what I mean.

It's all about having fun, of course. And if you can enjoy being rigid and plastic while doing a tango with a complete stranger, you can enjoy a relaxed spin around the room for a Two Step.

My friend Geno asked me tonight if I thought he could learn Two Step. I think he knows enough basic dance moves that he could pick it up pretty quickly. I don't often dance Two Step myself but I learned the basics a couple of years ago to get ready for a sort of test date. I say "test date" because at the time I wasn't sure I wanted to be seeing the person I'd agreed to meet at a local C W dance bar. She reminded me too much of someone from my past.

But agree I did, and I popped into Gloria's dance schedule in panic, asking if she could give me a primer on basic Two Step. I had seen Gloria do some fancy dancing with another teacher, so I knew she could handle the request. Gloria had, by that time, been teaching me for about a year (I think) and I guess she knew I wasn't quite ready for (Two Step) prime time.

The planned-for evening went off about as well as it should. I soon after decided not to pursue the lady, but I didn't completely write off Two Step. It's a pretty dance when done right and can be downright vigorous.

I've stood in on a couple of Two Step classes in Houston that Gloria has arranged for students. By "stand in", I mean I know just enough to follow a good backlead from a teacher who needs someone to demonstrate basic moves. I was able to lead a beginner about as well as any other beginning man in the room.

So while I may write mostly about Salsa dancing and occasionally about Ballroom Dancing, I don't think poorly of C W Dancing. I just don't fit that into my schedule. I've made my choices and that's that, but you never know. I might end up with another country girl who wants a man who can whirl her around the room. Next time, I'll be a little better prepared than when I was in the fourth.

Happy dreams, Cathy, wherever you are.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Harry Potter and the Week of Recovery

I have five puncture wounds in my abdomen and chest. I had a sixth in my hand where the IV drip was connected, but that doesn't really count. When I woke up Friday afternoon after the surgery, I was in a lot of pain, but not from the puncture wounds where the robot-guided microsurgical instruments had penetrated my body.

My right shoulder was killing me. I was in a lot of agony, and for the first time in my life I couldn't wait to ask for pain medicine repeatedly. I stay as far away from narcotics as I possibly can. I have watched them and other drugs ruin people I have cared deeply about, destroy lives, and end what should have been (in my opinion) careers and lifetimes filled with hope and accomplishment.

But I couldn't get comfortable for the life of me. It was only after friends had brought me back to their home, where I am recovering under their care, that I learned many people experience pain in their neck and shoulders after surgery. Apparently they flop your head back and shove stuff down your throat. Makes sense. But someone could have warned me.

I remember asking for the Demetrol shots maybe 3-4 times while in the hospital. I have ignored the Vicodin prescription they gave me. I am just using over-the-counter pain relief (acetaminephin) for my gradually declining soreness.

To while the hours away, when I'm not exchanging furious text messages with interested parties, I've been re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Technically, I was supposed to read it while I was in the hospital, but hospital beds and chairs are so uncomfortable I never even tried to open the book.

I've also watched some DvDs. Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (should have picked The Phantom Menace, which remains the best of the six movies); How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days; and maybe one or two others. But I've watched all the DvDs before. I'm kind of bored. Even The Incredibles failed to keep my complete attention, although I noticed some new details I haven't picked up on before.

I reread my latest essay at MERP, "Politics: Just Politics", and have cringed at the obvious typos which need fixing.

I called my boss and left him a voice mail saying I'm alive.

But for the past couple of days, when I haven't been sneaking cake frosting into my otherwise bland diet (which today expanded to include a scrambled egg and potato soup), I've mostly walked and read Harry Potter.

Harry is interesting because he ages in the books. I don't know why other people are interested in Harry, but that is why I'm stuck in the Harry Potter zone. I can read about Frodo Baggins and his itty-bitty trinket a few hundred times because people keep asking questions I don't know the answers to, but frankly there are parts of The Lord of the Rings that bore me to tears. Haven't found many passages in the Potter books that slow down as much for me.

In fact, as I reread the Potter books (and rewatch the movies), I find myself wondering more and more where J.K. Rowling is going with this series. Now, I don't mean I want to know in advance if Harry lives or dies. That really doesn't matter much to me (although I'd rather have him live than die, since too many authors end up killing off their heroes in my opinion). What I mean is that there has to be a point to the whole thing, and the more I revisit these stories, the more I feel they are about Tom Riddle and the less I feel they are about Harry Potter.

That's a very subtle message, but we actually see farther into Tom's psyche and motivations than we do into Harry's. In fact, Dumbledore just sort of sums up Harry Potter in one sentence: "You want to kill Lord Voldemort, don't you Harry?" (I'm paraphrasing).

Harry is a means to an end. Voldemort has to die. But the question remains: does Tom Riddle have to die? And if Tom Marvolo Riddle must die, who kills him? I don't think it will be Harry. I think the answer has already been laid in the earlier books, possibly in material only revealed in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince.

We learn a great deal about ourselves if we study what other people think of us. Depending on which characters in the stories speak about him, Voldemort is either the greatest wizard who ever lived or he is the biggest monster to emerge from the Wizarding world. The difference lies chiefly in how one defines greatness.

Remember what Ollivander told Harry? "The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It's not always clear why." But on the basis of the wand that chose Harry, Mr. Ollivander concluded that the Wizarding world could expect great things from Harry. Does that mean Harry is great because of his wand? I think that in Ollivander's eyes, the wand seeks out greatness rather than makes it. A great wand is matched with a great wizard.

But greatness is measured by different standards. Voldemort had a choice and when it came time to make that choice (somewhat prematurely in his life experience, I think), he chose the Dark Path. In Tom Riddle, we see the birth of the Dark Lords of the Sith. We saw Melkor become Morgoth. We see good become evil. And yet Tom was not wholly good in his beginning.

He was born innocent of the sins of his father (who abandoned his mother) and his mother (who magically ensnared his father) but he was never wholly free of sin. And yet Tom was set on a hard path because he had everything stacked against him. As his powers emerged and he learned to use them for his own benefit, there was no one around to temper his judgement and show him the difference between right and wrong.

Dumbledore came along too late to have that kind of influence over Riddle. Or did he? We see in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince that at some point in their teacher-student relationship, Dumbledore had invested time in discussing the power of love with Tom Riddle. But Tom never accepted the truth of Dumbledore's wisdom.

So here he is, 50 years later, spiritually shattered and conspiring (it seems) to take over the world. He has become thoroughly evil by committing evil act after evil act. And yet, how many people are really like that? I can think of a few historical leaders (such as Adolf Hitler) who, by the end of their lives, had become so consumed with their evil values they felt no remorse for what they had done.

The leaders of Al Qaeda are clearly so steeped in evil they feel no remorse for the thousands of murders they inspire others to commit. Innocent blood to them is only the pavement on the road to their personal sense of glory. They honestly believe they will achieve greatness by committing horrendous acts of gratuitous evil.

Is Tom Riddle any different from the monsters who murder the innocent? Not by the time Harry Potter is old enough to learn about Tom's early life and choices. But just as Osama Bin Laden was once born a human being with hope of redemption, Tom Riddle was once a character who could have made a choice to walk down a righteous path rather than stand in the shadows.

Just as Osama Bin Laden has now thoroughly immersed his soul in evil and sin, Tom Riddle (in his persona of "Lord Voldemort") has soaked himself in the blood of so many innocent victims there seems no hope of redemption for him.

It would, I think, be perceived as an enormous cheat if Rowling had Riddle turn back to the "Light Side" at the very end. Only George Lucas can get away with that because Luke Skywalker, the most unlikely of heroes in any epic adventure, felt the good in his father. No one is feeling any good in Voldemort. No one is feeling any good in Osama Bin Laden.

So Riddle has to complete his journey of self-destruction and it won't matter if Harry kills him or if Severus Snape turns out to be truly faithful to Dumbledore's ideals and kills Riddle or if a really ticked-off Ginny Weasley comes out of the shadows to slam a knife in Riddle's back after he does off Harry.

Riddle is doomed because he has destroyed himself. He cannot win because he has already lost. Who was it who said, "What does it profit a main to gain the world but lose his soul?"

I think Rowling is showing us that Tom Riddle made bad choices, but someone else keeps making bad choices in these stories. That someone is Harry Potter. In the end, can Harry Potter afford to kill off Voldemort without becoming the next Lord Voldemort? For, you see, Harry's only motivation is revenge. It was revenge which spurred Tom to eliminate his last living relatives (on both sides of the family) and, in a way, it was revenge (against an uncaring Wizarding world) that spurred Tom to commit horrific crimes that transformed him into Lord Voldemort.

Harry has come close to crossing the line but he hasn't crossed it yet. Dumbledore has attempted to impress upon Harry the appreciation for the power of love that he failed to impress upon Tom. I think that, if Harry doesn't become the next Dark Lord, it will be because of his love for those around him -- perhaps Ginny Weasley will be the obvious focus of his love, but I don't think Rowling will make it that obvious.

Both Harry and Tom spent their early years living as social outcasts. Both Harry and Tom were introduced to the Wizarding world after they had discovered their powers. Both Harry and Tom had used their powers to extract petty vengeances against those who had done them wrong.

Harry Potter is, for all intents and purposes, Tom Riddle. Tom Riddle is for all intents and purposes, Harry Potter. Each is the other as he could have chosen to be. Each is what he has made himself into. But Harry has not yet come to the final moment where he has to confront the real demon inside himself. He hasn't yet been faced with the temptation of wielding dreadful power that could seduce him into walking that dark path.

I think maybe where Rowling is going with this story is that, if we choose to fight monsters who threaten our world, we have to be very, very careful not to replace those monsters with our own ambitions.

And I've got a few more days to dwell on these happy topics while I recover from the five puncture wounds.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Stop Heartburn: Fix That Hiatal Hernia

This is the icky post, but I'm going to be offline for a few days and I'd rather use this last window of opportunity to say something that I've been wanting to say for a long time.

If you live in the United States or any place where you have been inundated by Nexium commercials, you have probably (like me) begun to tune out the "If you have heartburn 2-3 times per week, see your doctor" message. For the longest time, I thought those commercials were just trying to scare people into asking for Nexium.

While that may be a great marketing ploy, the truth is that the message is right on the money. I've learned that the hard way, although my condition has been diagnosed in time that I have an option many people miss out on.

I told my brother, after I was diagnosed, that if he's having heartburn he needs to see a doctor. I thought heartburn and acid reflux disease were just normal, mild conditions that everyone experienced and there was nothing you could do about them. I was wrong. Worse, these conditions can reach a point where you have some serious medical problems.

I've experienced occasional heartburn since I was a kid. Never thought much about it. I used to drink a glass of milk and that solved the problem. About 9 years ago I had chronic heartburn that was so bad I woke up in the middle of the night and threw up several times a week (I told you this would get icky). My doctor concluded I had an ulcer and he put me on Cimetidine for a few weeks. The heartburn and the vomiting stopped after a few weeks.

A few years ago, I went out to mow the grass in New Mexico. I'd lived there for several years, and everyone told me that Albuquerque was the allergy capital of the world. I never seemed to have an allergy problem, so I figured I was lucky. Well, that day I spent about 20 minutes cutting grass and weeds in the front yard and then went into an allergy attack that lasted 12 hours. I finally took an antihistamine and went to bed for two days. Antihistamines knock me out and I rarely, rarely take them.

When I woke up two days later, I could barely walk. I was so dizzy I could barely stand up. That was my first experience with Vertigo, which lasted for about a month. My doctor put me on antivert (a standard antihistamine that doesn't cause drowsiness). The dizziness gradually went away. I remember laying on the examining table in the doctor's office, watching the ceiling writhe like it was alive with millions of white worms. He was writing a prescription for me and he said, "You can get up now."

"I've tried twice," I replied. He came over and helped me up. I wasn't allowed to drive a car or operate lawn mowers or do much of anything for several weeks.

After I moved to Houston my allergy problems went away. But I took a job with a company that operates a refrigerated environment. During the course of 2-1/2 years I got sick a couple of times but struggled back to health. My doctor here in Houston treated me for a couple of oddball things where the medicines sometimes made me walk into walls. We switched medicines and I moved on.

A little over 2 years ago I caught a cold while working in the refrigerated environment without adequate clothing. The cold turned into bronchitis, the bronchitis turned into pneumonia. By the time my doctor had the pneumonia under control, I was having a massive Vertigo attack. This one lasted for 2 months, and I barely remember a few minutes here and there from that time frame.

The Vertigo was so bad I was referred to an Ear-Nose-Throat specialist who ordered some minor tests, determined he couldn't find what was wrong, and he wanted to start doing massive tests like CAT scans (he still wants to). Well, I left that job and ended up back in Florida without insurance for a while, so I was careful not to do things that might trigger Vertigo attacks. One of the neat things about Vertigo is that you can wake up in the morning, completely incapable of standing up, crawl into the bathroom, throw up, and Voila! You can stand and move about.

Vomiting is one of the body's ways of adjusting itself. The doctors don't really explain how it works (maybe they don't really know), but they all say, "If you feel a lot better after you vomit, why complain?"

Well, isn't modern medical science wonderful?

Somwhere in my Floridian stay I started hitting antacids. Not much, but every few days I found myself with a case of heartburn and I started keeping antacids close to hand.

In late 2004 I moved back to Texas. The heartburn got worse. I eventually decided to just keep a bottle of antacids in my car and one at home. I was chewing antacids every two hours. Thought nothing of it because the heartburn went away. Just before it came back.

Well, last March I took a little trip up to Dallas and I got sick again. Cold turned into Bronchitis, Bronchitis turned into Vertigo. This lasted about two weeks because this time I was on to that trick. I sucked down every antihistamine and decongestant my body could tolerate.

Also, the ENT had told me to take a daily dose of B-100 vitamins. His treatment (which is not a cure) reduces the recovery time from a Vertigo attack to about two weeks. I can almost live with two weeks' impairment. Almost.

The months moved on and my doctor started hinting it was that time in my life where I should do a certain uncomfortable test. "Look," he said. "I'm a man, too. I hate this test. I've gone through it. But I don't want to let anything go wrong down there that's going to kill me. Do you really think that ignoring part of your body is going to keep you healthy?"

Okay, he was almost persuasive. We agreed that because I was eating antacids like candy that he would check out everything at once. Only, for reasons I forget, I couldn't schedule the test last Fall as we planned. Well, what the heck? I didn't want to take the test anyway.

But I got sick again this February. These colds-turn-into-bronchitis situations were getting old. Three years in a row around February or March I've gone through the same crap. This time my doctor gave me some powerful stuff that not only killed the bronchitis, he told me to start taking Claritin and a decongestant. "Don't worry about what the doages say," he advised me. "I'm your doctor and I'm telling you to take THIS much stuff to get the gunk out of your system. And when do you want to do your tests?"

Okay, I let him scope me. The good news is that I'm healthy down there -- no problems. But he then picked up a cardboard flipover illustration. "Have you ever heard of Acid Reflux Disease?" he asked me.

"Sure, I've seen the Nexium commercials. They drive me nuts."

"Well, I'm not ever trusting you again," he added. "And here's why."

He flipped the cardboard thingee open and said, "This is phase 1. This is phase 2. This is phase 3." With each phase, you see more damage in the esophagus. There are only 4 phases. "This is you," he concluded, flipping to phase 4. He held up a picture of my esophagus and compared it to the flip chart. If anything, I looked worse than phase 4.

"Most people in your condition would be screaming for narcotics," the doctor continued. "You? You just pop some antacids and move on." He rolled his eyes.

"Fortunately," he added, "We got in there in time. I can fix you, but you have to make some decisions."

Well, the ulcers were easily healed. He put me on Prevacid and I didn't have to touch my antacids again. I almost donated them to charity, but I've been with them for so long there was a slight sentimental attachment to them -- or maybe just some quiet paranoia.

But the reason why I have Acid Reflux Disease is that the aperture at the bottom of my esophagus (my food pipe) stays open. I have a hiatal hernia. Part of my stomache comes up through that hole every time I breathe. Worse, at night, when I'm laying down, fluid comes up and gets into my lungs. That's why every little cold turns into bronchitis and pneumonia.

One of the most uncomfortable symptoms of this condition is that you cannot sleep. You're constantly throwing up, or gurgling up. When I can drift off to sleep, I'm good for about two hours. Then I wake up choking and hacking and I have to sit up for an hour while my stomache settles. This happens even with the Prevacid. Of course, I sleep with more than one pillow. The more you elevate your head, the better. But that doesn't fix the problem.

My doctor says I'm lucky because I have no scar tissue in my esophagus. If there were scar tissue, I would have to live with this for the rest of my life. But we diagnosed it in time and I've elected to have a laparoscopy, which is a relatively new surgical procedure. The surgeon will use microtools guided by little cameras to go in and tie off my esophagus. The really inconvenient part of the procedure is that I'll be on a liquid diet for a few days.

I'm not looking forward to that, but my doctor and the surgeon assure me that I won't need the Prevacid or antacids any more. I'll be able to sleep normally. I won't have to be afraid of getting a cold. Who knows? Maybe there is some connection to the Vertigo.

But there was one little catch. They wanted me to take a "motility test". What was that? A nurse sticks a tube up your nose, snakes it down your throat, and then asks you to swallow. The tube has some gizmo in it that gauges your ability to swallow. There is no point in performing a laparoscopy if you don't have the strength to force food down your newly closed esophagal aperture.

I was kind of put off by the description of the test, but I went ahead and tried to do it. I say, I tried to do it. I choked and gagged so much the nurse kept saying, "Do you want me to take it out?"

"I just want to get through this," I insisted. "I don't ever want to do this again." Against my pleas she pulled it out. I was in so much pain tears were streaming down my face. I was sore for several days afterward.

So, my doctor conferred with the surgeon, the surgeon conferred with my doctor, they all said, "Maybe you should see an ENT."

Conveniently, I knew one. My doctor agreed to refer me back to him. The ENT gave me the, "I'm not going to lie to you. I need lots of data before I can figure out what's wrong. So it's up to you how much we learn" speech.

He ended up having one of his assistants try to stick a tube up my nose. It didn't go any better than the first time.

Well, by this point I'd scheduled the surgery but couldn't get cleared for it. I called the surgeon and said, "I really don't want any tubes up my nose." My doctor warned me he might not approve the surgery.

"What's the worst case scenario?" I asked.

My doctor shrugged. "Worst case? It doesn't work."

"Yeah, but what does that mean? What happens when you try to eat?"

"Oh, well, the food has to go somewhere. If you cannot swallow, it comes back up."

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. "I can live with throwing up," I said, feeling like a Bulimia victim. "I just don't want you to say 'Well, you could die.' I'll sue you if you kill me."

He laughed. "You won't die. If the surgery doesn't work, they just undo it. But the purpose of the test is to see if they can do it safely. 1% of people are not candidates for the surgery."

He proceeded to tell me in graphic detail about how many of his patients fall into the 1%. I'll spare you the details, except to say that some of his patients are not out of their teenage years and they have to take Prevacid or a similar medicine for the rest of their lives. Children can have hiatal hernias, and if they go untreated the scar tissue develops and then they cannot have the surgery.

Meanwhile, back at the surgeon's office, he just shrugs off the lack of a motility test. "It would be better if we could do it," he said. "But I'll just assume you failed it."

"So I don't get to have the surgery?"

"No, I'll do the procedure, but I won't do a full 360 degree wrap. I'll just do a partial wrap. You'll be able to swallow."

Now they tell me....

Look, I don't know how many people have chronic heartburn, but I know what you're going through. If you think the Nexium commmercials are just trying to make you paranoid, think again. When left untreated, Acid Reflux Disease can cause lesions that turn cancerous. And other things happen, too. Eventually, you become too old for any kind of surgery. And the impact on your quality of life is tremendous. Do you really want to wake up choking in your sleep every night?

I don't.

So I'm going for the surgery. As far as the Vertigo is concerned, there may or may not be a connection. Doctors have lots of theories about Vertigo. I just know that if I can diminish the chances of developing bronchitis, I probably won't have to suffer another massive Vertigo attack. I'm tired of losing weeks and months out of my life.

And that's all for now.

Recovery time from the laparoscopy takes up to a week. I may be able to return to work before the end of next week. I picked Memorial Day weekend for the surgery because I wanted as little disruption to my life as possible. I'll try to start blogging again around Monday.

Have a great weekend.

And those of you who know where I'll be, remember to call me Friday evening like you promised. I'll be going stir crazy about then.

I can only imagine what I'll be like come Sunday evening....

Lou Dobbs goes off the deep end

I occasionally check news headlines throughout the day. Rarely does anything really catch my attention. But today I saw "Dobbs: Bush, Congress to working folks: Go to hell" and thought, "Okay, CNN is doing some rabble rousing. Let's see what the Militant Media has to say."

Apparently, Mr. Dobbs feels he is more qualified to determine wartime strategy than our generals. Frankly, I'm glad he's sitting in his armchair, preaching to the liberal choir. Much as I would like to see our troops come home from Iraq, we don't need another Bill Clintonesque retreat from Mogadishu. CNN made Mogadishu into a disaster as much as President Clinton did. By every military measurement, we won the battle in Mogadishu. But CNN doesn't want the U.S. to look like a winner. They want us to look like losers so they can bash whomever is in office.

I'll give CNN that much credit for their yellow journalism: they are only Democrats for as long as it takes to get the Republicans out of office. And then they are Republicans until the next Democrat takes control. Responsible journalism is supposed to rise above the politics. That is what they teach journalism majors, but at some point the media eschew responsible journalism and they begin whacking away at political parties and elected officials.

You know, if a Congressman gets caught with $90,000 in his freezer after the F.B.I. just videotaped him accepting what is allegedly a $100,000 bribe, I say let's spend some public money and see what is going on. Maybe there is something there.

But there is a reason for why the Country Music industry is panning the Dixie Chicks. They have eschewed producing good music in favor of proving they don't know a thing about international politics. It's just so weird how all the critics don't care who we trample in our zeal to be the biggest nation on Earth, but when it comes time to make amends and pay the price for our selfishness, we're all supposed to be anti-war activists.

We are in Iraq because of 50 years of policy-making by both Republicans and Democrats. We are not in Iraq because George W. Bush has a personal vendetta. He may not be the best President we've ever had. He may not be calling as many shots as Dick Cheney is. But he's man enough to stand up for what's right and try to do the right thing.

I hope and pray he finds a way to get us out of Iraq because my biggest fear is that some anti-war Democrat will be elected in 2008 and we'll pull a Spain and run for the hills like cowards. And then we'll really be in a mess, because every terrorist organization in the world will know that the United States can be intimidated and frightened and bullied.

War is not an answer to anyone's problem, but as soon as the bullets start flying, you have to make a stand. History is filled with the sad stories of nations and armies that turned tail and fled. They were stabbed and shot in the backs by the thousands. And in today's shrinking globe, we have nowhere to run for cover.

We don't need to let the news media determine national policy. We need to start accepting the fact that there are consequences for every policy-decision that is made in Washington. We just have to work through those consequences and strive to find the best possible path together.

Right now, the terrorists are winning the war because the American news media is terrified.

Being on the short list of life

I'm supposed to make a lot of phone calls these days, but over the past month or so I have found my most productive days tend to be the ones where I make the fewest phone calls. That's contrary to the whole "It's a numbers game" philosophy about sales. Then again, they say that quality is more important than quantity. We go through life wondering who they are, those nameless experts and spewers of conventional wisdom. I've begun to think they are space aliens (although some people have identified Them as radioactive giant mutated ants).

Quality-over-quantity is a powerful rule of thumb. It works well in search engine marketing, where good SEOs advise their clients to focus on conversions and sales rather than just boosting traffic (for clients who need sales). It works in your social life, where having a few good friends is better than having many faux friends. It works in your garage, where having a few good cars is better than looking like you run a cheap used car dealership. I once had four vehicles. I'm not sure of why, since at no time were more than two of them being used anyway.

That was when I lived in New Mexico. It seemed like I spent my Saturdays ferrying vehicles down to the gas station, washing them, and getting basic maintenance work done. And yet, oddly enough, when I started to reduce the size of the fleet, I felt like something was missing from my life. We become so used to quantity that when we finally start to get quality, we don't appreciate what we have.

Quality might be a cute text message about cookies that comes when you're sitting with three other people. What do you do? Laugh and joke with the decision-makers, or take the text message?

Quality might be a girl who comes up and says, "Do you dance Viennese Waltz"? What do you do? Say, "Nope. Sorry. But call me when you're ready to Cha Cha" or do you say, "No, but if you hum a few bars I can fake it"? Take the waltz, for we may never pass this way again. At worst, you'll look like a fool. But what do you look like when you wimp out?

Quality is a Three Musketeers bar. Quantity is M&Ms (which do melt in your hand if you hold them long enough) or Reese's Pieces.

I'd rather be that rare individual someone stops and takes the time to say "Hi" to, than one of the faceless Everymans populating an Incredibles movie.

I'd prefer to be the kid being dragged into the lake by Grandpa Bass than the kid reading the comic (although I had a 1500 comic book collection when I was a kid).

I once met a businessman on a flight from Atlanta to New Mexico. We did the "So what do you do?" thing and when he found out I was a programmer he made some comment about how Windows was looking so great. I tried to explain that Microsoft has never provided quality, just quantity. He didn't get it. He thought Microsoft was innovative and cutting edge. Why? Because he had been inundated with Microsoft ads that say they are innovative and cutting edge.

Repetition is often the key to success. Keep telling people how great you are and eventually you'll have an army of drones mindlessly repeating how great you are. The U.S. drills its soldiers endlessly (when the budget is there) in the execution of their basic tasks. We have the best army in the world (or so we say). Repetition is where quality and quantity blur their distinctions.

Or, to put it another way, practice makes perfect. So I always tell new dance students when they start complaining that they'll never get the steps and the rhythm down. "There is so much to learn," they say. Yes, there is. And that is part of what makes it fun. Learning itself is fun, when it's a quality experience. I think so many kids hate school (I did) because it's more about quantity than quality. Which is not to say that teachers don't try to make it about quality, but they are under the gun. They have to cycle their students through the system each year and start over with a whole new batch of students.

Experimental schools try to emphasize quality, but I'm not sure they get it right, either. They are under pressure to turn out graduates who can compete in the "real" world. But every time I listen to the Louis Armstrong song "What a wonderful world", as he approaches the end of the song he sings, "I see babies cry, I watch them grow. They'll learn much more than I'll ever know" and I think, "That's our education system. Is life really supposed to be like that?"

I can do things today that the average Roman soldiers and Greek philosophers could not even imagine doing. And yet, would I be able to conquer their worlds or lay the foundations for a future science? My car is air-conditioned, upholstered, and has a CD-player and satellite radio. I drive around in more luxury, at higher rates of speed, and travel farther than did Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Jesus. But will I have as much of an impact on humanity as they have had?

Khan bucked the rule-of-thumb and went for quantity over quality. He conquered more of the world than anyone in history. He killed more people than anyone up to Napoleon Bonaparte's time. And by the time he died, he had an estimated 30,000 living descendants. He was the most successful Alpha Male in human history. Supposedly 6% of all Asians today are descended from him.

It's good to be the Khan, but the last time anyone tried to rack up his kind of success the United States intervened with a Coalition of the Willing. Mankind has learned its lesson about world conquerors (for now). The lesson tends to be, "Get them before they get the rest of us."

So, we can no longer dream about slaughtering our way to the top. Instead, we have to work methodically on improving our skills, one dance at a time, one box of cookies at a time, one phone call at a time. We have all become players in the game of life because it's too dangerous and risky to live life. We keep practicing for the final exam that never comes.

We're constantly improving the quality of our lives with a quantity of experiences. So when quality comes knocking, what do you do? Say, "Good stuff but not quite what I'm looking for?" or stop and smell the perfume?

The point is that each day brings a new decision to make, even if it's the same choice you made yesterday. You make your bed and you sleep in it regardless of whether it's flat on the floor or high off the ground. It's your bed and no one else can decide what to do for you.

Or, to put it another way, "I don't know the Viennese Waltz yet, but if you don't mind getting dizzy, I'll be happy to whirl you around the room before the music ends and the dance is over." After that, we'll just have to wait and see....

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This space intentionally left blank

As the end credits roll in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Matthew Broderick comes out of his room, looks at the camera, and says something like: "Are you still here? The movie's over. Go home."

The blog will go on, but I haven't had time to write about anything.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

My chemical romance: Stop and smell the orange perfume

I wear a few colognes and a fragrance oil. I have several scents that I use on a varying basis. Sometimes I wear strong mixes and sometimes I barely put on anything at all. Occasionally I go without. For as long as I can remember, people have associated me with one scent or another, and I have associated people and places with various scents. In fact, most of us can identify about 2,000 scents without any training.

When I was kid, livng in Miami Beach, when I would visit my friends I often noticed that certain homes had a pungent, "something's cooking" smell. Some homes had a sharper, crisper sophisticated fragrance. Some homes seemed "flat" to me, having no smell at all. I occasionally wondered, in my child-like way, why that should be. I came to feel more comfortable with my home's "flat" smell, but some homes were so cool to visit just because the kids' moms kept them smelling so nice.

Many years later, while watching a rerun of Sanford and Son in those awkward late Saturday afternoon hours where there is no point in going somewhere because you have a date or a party or are going out with your friends, I caught an episode where Fred and Lamont visited a white family's home. Fred (played by the late Red Foxx) complained that the home had no smell. The audience, apparently sensitive to remarks about homes smell to some people, whooped and hollared. I laughed because I knew what he was referring.

When I was really young, I spent some time with African American women in their homes. They were my baby sitters, or maybe maids who had offered to watch me for a day or an afternoon. I remember their homes vividly. They had what I would call slightly musky odors, which are common in open-air homes in south Florida (or used to be common). One summer my family rented an open air house that had a similar musky odor. It was undoubtedly due to the mold and mildew forstered by south Florida's high humidity. But to a child's nose, a slight tinge of musky odor is not necessarily a warning sign. It's just a curiously different scent that gives a place character.

For years, when I would pass by a diesel bus, I'd be carried back to innumerable youthful afternoons spent exploring Miami Beach with my freinds as we rode those old, un-airconditioned buses with the bars over the windows. The city had air conditioned buses which on really hot days provided welcome rides, but my richest memories of buses come from those older metro models where you could smell the diesel fumes each time the bus stopped. I remember looking out the windows, the people walking along the sidewalks, and how excited my friends and my older brother were about whatever trouble we were about to get into.

When I was fifteen, my family lived in central Indiana. They had cheeky little buses for their "metro" service which I thought were smaller than the outdoor trams I had loved to ride in Miami Beach. These midwestern buses were built for a small town that needed mass transportation. It was a college town so plenty of people needed to ride buses.

One day I was taking the bus downtown and a woman got on. She was dressed in tight white slacks and a white top to match. It was a pretty sexy outfit. I would guess she was in her mid-20s. She was attractive but not incredibly beautiful. In fact, I hardly remember her face at all. Her hair may have been light brown and shoulder length. Her perfume, however, was to die for. 15-year-old boys are still just learning to deal with the hormonal surges of adolescence, and this woman was wearing a scent that would drag grown men down to their knees. She enveloped the bus in a cloud of exotic fragrance and I spent the rest of that ride, until she got off, in a euphoric state of mind. People today would say I was in a DIHL mode -- deer-in-headlights.

If you have ever seen a deer standing in the middle of the road late at night, stairing your headlights as you try to bring your car to a screeching halt without hurting yourself, the animal, or your vehicle, you know what a DIHL looks like. But unless you have been sent off to la-la land by a fragrance so out-of-this-world that you are left totally unfocused, incapable of any coherent thought, you have no idea of what it feels like to be the deer. I have been the deer.

Women occasionally ask me what the fragrance was. I have no idea. An older friend of mine sometimes wears Chloe and it sort of reminds me of that fragrance, but she doesn't put me into a DIHL state. Maybe I am now partially immune to the effect. Maybe it was some other product that smelled like Chloe.

A couple of years ago a girl who used to go dancing with my group at Sullivan's Ringside and Tropicana came to the club one evening wearing an absoluetely incredible fragrance. It wasn't like the one from my youth. It didn't drive me to complete inaction, but it was captivating. She told me it was called Intuition. I assume there is only one perfume called Intuition and that would be the product by Estee Lauder. Would it smell that great on every woman? I doubt it. Fragrance experts and some salespeople have told me that perfumes and cologne mix with our body oils and that changes their scent.

One fragrance I almost bought for Linda last year was (I think) Miami Glow by J.Lo. But I decided against it because I had no way of knowing what it would smell like on her, or if she would like it. But just coming out of the bottle it was an intriguing scent and well worth a try, I think. I asked someone else to wear a perfume for me a couple of years ago, and she surprised me by doing so a week later. The test fell flat because I couldn't detect the scent. I did not win any poins for that faux pas.

I went out with a friend last night and at the beginning of the evening I gave her a short ride in my car. When I got into my car this afternoon, I was carried away by an overpowering aroma. Wow! I don't know what she was wearing, but I hope she keeps it stock piled by the gallon. The whole evening came back in a flash. That's the stuff memories are made of. Of course, the fragrance is gone now. Or maybe now I'm trying to detect it my mind is just converting it to flat fragrance. I don't know.

I actually have a terrible sense of smell. Many odors that make people gag barely register on me. And I have occasionally been told I put on too much fragrance oil. One girl I used to work with said to me one day, as I changed work locations, "I'm going to miss the smell."

"You mean I stink?" I asked, quickly estimating how much money I would soon be tossing down the drain.

"No," she said. "You smell great. But sometimes it's just a little strong."

"But you'll miss it?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," she confirmed. "You smell great."

That wasn't always the case. When I was a younger man, my mother gave me a cologne for Christmas. I think it was English Leather. I didn't really like it and only tried it on one date. I have no idea of what my date thought of it. Back then, I didn't know much of anything, though she did agree to go out with me again. A couple of years later, someone (perhaps my sister) gave me another cologne with a strong citrus-like scent. I didn't get the message then, either. It's bad when the women in your family are buying colognes for you (or maybe they were just subtly saying, "Michael, we like our men to wear colognes and your dates will appreciate that, too").

I wasn't entirely without a fragrance. I fell in love with Coast deoderant soap. Love the scent. Use it to this day when I'm not letting someone else buy the soap. But I had to wonder, one day when I was in college, if I was making the right choice. I had car trouble one day and got down under the hood to do whaever ineffectual things I knew to do to car engines. A couple of neighborhood boys, seeing a car hood up, came over to learn how to be a real man from an older guy. So, there I was: surrounded by wannabe Alpha Males-in-training, trying to figure out how not to look completely stupid and incompetent (although I may have just been putting coolant in the radiator -- still trying not to look stupid and incompetent), and one of the boys said, "I know what soap you use."

Well, I couldn't help but smile in that manly, what a creepy thing for a kid to say way and I said, "You do, do you?"

"Coast! The Eye Opener!"

That might have explained why I wasn't dating anyone at the time.

When I did start wearing colognes, I took the plunge carefully. I bought something without knowing anything about it. There was a citrusy scent to it. I splashed it on, went to work, and snuck up to my cubicle. Thinking I had gotten away with changing something about myself, I was about to start relaxing when I heard a sniffing sound. An older lady I worked near was walking around the room, sniffing the air like a hound dog. She tracked me down quickly.

"What are you wearing?"

I had to fess up. She decided I had made a good choice. She was just so surprised to catch me wearing a cologne. But after that day, I became bolder and tried more fragrances. My favorite is now a product by Amouage, which is not something you'll find in any department stores. I'd seen a few references to Amouage Gold on the Internet and decided to try it. Houston has a good selection of perfumeries and it turned out that one of them was the only licensed distributor for Amouage in the United States (the cologne is made in Oman). The saleslady persuaded me to try the Dia because they were out of the Gold. I've stayed with the Dia although another saleslady there has occasionally suggested I try the Ciel.

I knew the Dia was good for me when I went grocery shopping one day. A couple of really cute girls came walking past me and as I turned a corner one of them said to her friend, "He smells so great".

I'm not entirely sure what's in the Amouage. I'm sure I may still have a little card somewhere that tells me some of the ingredients, but I just go with what works. And I like it, though occasionally I can get a little headache.

Perfumes (and colognes, which are perfumes) can cause headaches, other allergic reactions, and in some cases even toxic effects. Some people are highly allergic to them. I learned that one day when I was visiting a doctor's office. A man who was just checking out started sneezing. The receptionist asked if he was all right. He said, "I'm allergic to his cologne," nodding at me (I don't think I was wearing the Amouage). I was hardly wearing any. I felt really sorry for the guy, considering how popular colognes and perfumes are. He undoubtedly charts a different course in social life than I do.

Nonetheless, some fragrances actually have medicinal properties. One study indicates that citrus fragrance acts like a highly effective anti-depressant. There is a difference, of course, between a natural fragrance source like oranges and a commercial perfume, many of which use alcohol as a carrier. I try to avoid the Eau de Toillette (alchohol-based) fragrances, but that is no guarantee that people with allergies won't have a reaction to my scents.

Being (I think) reasonably tolerant of the fragrances I wear -- enjoying their scents -- I continue to wear them. And I appreciate the occasional fragrances people wear around me. But I'm no expert, and I don't pretend to understand all the reasoning behind advice that fragrance experts provide on how to select perfumes and colognes. I won't buy a cologne without getting a couple of women to share their opinions with me, although saleswomen may just be telling me they like something without caring. I think I once bought a cologne on the basis of bad advice. Or maybe the salesgirl did like the way it smelled on me, but I couldn't work my way through the entire bottle. I eventually threw it out. It was just too wrong for my own sense of smell.

But I know when I like the way someone else smells. I almost wish my car could smell so nice all the time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

When you ring my bell...

There was an annoying disco song from the 70s where some girl kept singing over and over again, "You can ring my bell, you can ring my bell...." I wish I could forget it, but it is indelibly etched into my mind.

One day when I was in the fifth grade, our teacher was called away from the classroom. The kids sat quietly for a few minutes until we realized she had really gone far away from the classroom. First one kid and then another started whispering to a friend, and our voices grew louder, and we started talking across the room, and finally kids started laughing and joking out loud. I was teasing some girl and yelled out, "You can ring my chimes!"

Immediately, the loud speaker above the door blared out, "Who said that?"

Oh, how quickly 30 kids can drop into whitless, guilty, we've-been-caught silence. The administrative audience had been listening in on our conversation. My one remark, spoken out of pure ignorance (and repeated only because I'd heard someone else say it a few days before and thought it was a cool expression) earned me yet another trip down to the principal's office (I have many memories of those various principals and their cramped, ugly offices).

I had no idea of what that expression means. In fact, that was a bit before I entered adolescence. Of course, I'd already kissed my first girl by then. In fact, I started kissing girls a few years before, when boys still thought it was an icky thing to do (I guess it depended on the girl, but I thought Leslie Bouillion was just really cute and kissable). But chime-ringing had not yet entered into my world as anything other than a cool expression that I vaguely understood meant something like, "Make me very happy."

What's funny is that "Ring my bell" and "Ring my chime" started out with a very different meaning. It goes back to ancient Rome, prior to the scandalous age where every Roman citizen supposedly engaged in casual debauchery. The Romans were, for most of their history, a very pious, conservative people. They had high moral standards and did not approve of sexual activity outside of marriage. Now, people being what they are, I'm sure there were Romans through all generations who stretched the boundaries and occasionally crossed the lines.

But marital fidelity was, for a long time, one of the chief Roman virtues. Women, especially, were expected to remain faithful to their spouses. The primary reason for such concerns is really simple: Men want to know that the children they are raising really are theirs. Plain and simple. Whole tribes have been killed off, with the exception of young women of child-bearing age, just to ensure that other men's children did not live.

The Romans were pretty merciful to their enemies. They often hobbled men who surrendered in battle, maybe cut off a hand, turned them into slaves, and shipped them out to plantations to toil in the fields. Millions of acres of land were tilled by Roman slaves for centuries. The women were turned into domestic servants, prostitutes, and personal attendants.

However, it's often been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the Romans became more powerful, they became more interested in abridging their strict moral standards. Adultery, while not formally accepted, became a passion of lonely wives whose husbands often spent years fighting in foreign lands or long days associating with other men (or other women) in the baths, brothels, and other places wives were not permitted to go.

Older, wealthier men often took young virgin brides, begat their children, and then left the brides to raise the kids at home. The young mothers may or may not have desired to remain virtuous, but if they were particularly beautiful they found they could curry favor and influence politics by attending the right parties. Roman emperors occasionally seduced their followers' wives. Some emperors made these wives into long-term mistresses.

The trickle-down effect ensured that as the elite members of Roman society engaged in more and more debauchery, the middle classes would experience it, too. After all, those elite members of society had to find someone to discreetly debauch with, and seducing a lonely soldier or merchant's wife or daughter might be easier than competing with an emperor or prince for elite women's attentions.

There were laws against such activities, and penalties. Men, if caught engaging in adultery, might have to pay a fine. Their wives could divorce them. Wives sometimes dumped their husbands but sometimes they just got their revenge by cheating on the cheaters. However, Roman laws were often created to ensure the integrity of Roman (male) dignity. The Romans had been humiliated many times and in many ways through history. They always came back and ensured they would not suffer similar indignities again.

So, somewhere along the way, indignant Roman husbands passed a law permitting any husband who discovered his wife's indiscretions could immediately take her to a brothel and leave her there. The wives were not only divorced by such actions, they were completely disowned. And to heap humiliation upon disgrace, they had to accept the attentions of any men who wanted to be with them. Furthermore, the men were required by the law to grasp a rope as they reached their final moment of union and pull hard. The rope would ring a loud bell, notifying the citizens that yet another unfaithful wife had performed a public service.

This penalty was left in place for several generations, but it failed to deter Roman wives from fleeing the households of their unforgiving husbands to find (temporary) love and pleasure in the arms of other men. The bells began ringing more frequently. And they rang and rang at all hours of the day and night. They kept ringing until one of the emperors, driven to distraction by the constant bell-ringing, had the bell-towers torn down.

Once I learned that bit of history behind bell-ringing, I lost all interest in the expression that I had thought so amusing when I was a naive young lad. Maybe some of those women enjoyed the life under the bells. I don't know. At some point, it had to be pretty obvious to Roman wives just what they would be enduring if they got caught committing adultery, but apparently a fair few of them took the chance anyway. That doesn't say much for the quality of their marriages.

Well, the Romans eventually turned in their empire for a set of Dark Ages and the expression "Ring my bell" evolved into something about pleasure and joy. People forgot where it came from, and maybe now they only think it came from an annoying disco song from the 70s.

On the other hand, we've incorporated bells into all aspects of our lives. We have bells on telephones, doors, animals, cars and trucks, computers, and everything else. And we make music with them. In fact, were it not for cowbells, I'd probably lose the beat for many Salsa songs while dancing. I can usually stay in time when I hear the cowbells.

Keep ringing. I'm enjoying the dance.

The Evolution of Dance

I received a couple of emails from my brother and his wife the other day. Both had the subject line "Evolution of Dance". I thought, great! they've been infected by a virus. But yesterday my brother called me to just to say "Hi" and he asked if I had watched the video. Nope. I thought you had a virus and hit DELETE.

So, I undeleted the emails and clicked on the link to The Evolution of Dance. It's a great review of dance styles from the 1950s to the 2000s. Very funny. And guys: only a comedian can get away with wearing white socks and black shoes.

Don't really have time to discuss much else this morning. I doubt you'll be reading about Pedicure Girl in the future. I decided to drop by that nail salon I mentioned and got slathered with lotion. I said, "No lotion, please." The lady said, "Okay." And then she creamed my arms with lotion.

That's just not my thing. Won't be needing a manicure for a while....

I've been getting requests for private dance lessons. I don't teach privates. Don't really know enough to teach them, but the requests are flattering. Of course, the last 3 or 4 requests have gone something like this:

Excited girl at end of class comes up and says, "Do you teach privates?"

"Sorry. I have taught a few classes but I don't teach privates. You can ask Gloria to arrange some private lessons."

Look of disappointment on girl's face. "Oh, that's okay."

So, all right, maybe they have a little flirting in mind. Maybe it's just that they don't want to take privates from Gloria. I don't know.

Technically, if someone were to ask Gloria about taking privates with me, she might discuss it with me. I could teach some basic stuff for a while, I think, and I am under contract with Gloria. But there are many aspects to teaching dance that I'm still not proficient with.

Remember: I don't always move with my center (although if you're a beginner, you wouldn't know that). The point is, if I'm not doing it right, I'm not going to teach you how to do it right, either.

There are a lot of pointers I do share with beginners in class. Last night I worked with several girls in quick succession on how to maintain a frame. We also worked on Cross Body Lead basics. The most common mistake (besides not maintaining a frame) that women make when learning a Cross Body Lead is that they turn too soon. They keep trying to face me as they pass by me. I finally had one girl drop her left arm from my right shoulder so I could literally force her to walk past me before turning. She began to understand after that.

Well, I have to run. Plenty of dancing to do this weekend. My legs will be mush by Sunday....

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

About Matt Tinaglia, editor of Parma Endorion

Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd Edition is one of the most popular eBooks in the world. With more than 1 million downloads, only electronic works by Seth Godin and Stephen King have been downloaded by more people. Although I wrote the 1st edition of Parma Endorion as a collection of Web essays in late 1996 and early 1997, it didn't achieve the breakthrough worldwide recognition it has realized until the English language edition of the Ebook was released in January 2002.

Within 3 weeks, more than 25,000 downloads prompted eBooks'n'Bytes to proclaim Parma Endorion as the top download of the year. It didn't hurt that the Parma Endorion 2nd Edition Web site had just been selected as one of the most scholarly Tolkien resources on the Web by writer Angela Gunn for the now discontinued Yahoo! Internet Life Web site. Angela's article was published in December 2001 to coincide with the release of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".

Since January 2002, Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd Edition has been translated into Spanish and Italian. Portions of the eBook or earlier versions of the essays have also been translated into Greek and Polish. A Portuguese language translation of the eBook was started in 2005 and should hopefully be finished in 2006.

As a free download, Parma Endorion has been widely distributed across the Internet by authorized and unauthorized distributors. Our estimate of more than 1 million downloads is most likely extremely conservative. Fans around the world cite Parma Endorion as a source for their reserach. Thousands of students, teachers, librarians, and research students have used Parma Endorion as a resource for their literary papers, theses, and dissertations.

All that is to say, this eBook which has touched so many people's hearts and minds would never have been published had it not been for Matt Tinaglia. Matt not only edited the English and Spanish language versions of the book, he designed the eBook format and layout. He inspired me to update my research and produce a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. The Parma Endorion eBook is my Silmaril. As Feanor said he could never reproduce the Silmarils, I don't see how I can ever produce anything that will enjoy the success of Parma Endorion. Its popularity and influence have amazed and humbled me in many ways.

Well, earlier this year, when I launched this blog, I offered members of the Endor Discussion Group (which used to be Xenite.Org's Middle-earth Mailing List) an opportunity to win a feature article. The first person to find the correct URL for my then unannounced blog won the contest.

I didn't think to disqualify Matt, and he found the URL within a day.

So, after many months and considerable effort, I have finished the official Xenite.Org profile of Matt Tinaglia.

Please drop by and read Matt Tinaglia: Six Sigma Meets Middle-earth. You'll learn a little more about Matt and something about an industrial processing revolution that helps explain why American industry's productivity has skyrocketed over the past 10 years.

The Wednesday Girl Report

Not much unusual happened Monday evening in the dance classes, although Anna (one of the girls I've mentioned before) told me she cannot feel my lead. "You're not moving with your center," she whispered. Hm. Well, normally I don't put much into the feedback offered by people who have been dancing only a short time, but this time something in the back of my mind said I'd better pay attention. So when I got a chance, I took Gloria aside and said, "Anna says I don't move with my center." Gloria said, "That's because you don't."

Now, after 3-1/2 years, I figured I'd be moving with my center without having to think about it. This is something Gloria and I covered in my first year of private dance lessons on more than one occasion. So, what happened? I don't know. Ballroom Dancing is not very much like Salsa Dancing, but you have to move with your center in both styles. If I'm not doing it in Ballroom, I'm probably not doing it in Salsa.

Since we had a few extra guys than ladies Monday, I spent about 30 minutes with a couple of the other guys practicing moving with my center. One guy, Gary, who actually teaches Country Western dancing, explained that you can tell if you're moving with your center by picking one foot up. The idea is to move forward (or back or to the side) in such a way that you keep your weight over the foot you are moving. You should immediately be able to pick up the other foot without losing your balance or falling.

That is, you want to move your full body weight in the direction you're moving. I've done this exercise before. So why am I not dancing properly? All I can think of is that I have gotten so used to dancing with beginners that they just don't know when I'm doing something wrong, so I've picked up some bad habits. Occasionally one of the advanced ladies will say I'm doing something wrong, but we're usually learning new moves and techniques in the advanced Salsa classes. I have to keep up with a lot of things.

So, I'll be watching how I move in future classes. I don't want to be told "I cannot feel your lead" by someone again. That's kind of embarrassing, although I've been switching dance styles so fast I really don't expect to be continually smooth for a few more months. It just takes practice.

In other dance class news, I observed some interesting body language from Noor, the little girl who joined the Beginner Ballroom last week. I say little because she is so tiny. I hope she doesn't read this blog, but one of the other guys mentioned it while she was standing next to me. I haven't told her my last name. Anyway, Noor is -- I am pretty sure -- a teenager. I don't often see people that young in the dance classes. I think I've danced with 3 young girls since joining Gloria's dance classes.

A few weeks ago one teenage boy came in with his family. He was obviously unhappy and uncomfortable being there. I took him aside and said, "Look, I know you don't want to do this, but if you stick with it and learn how to do it, I promise you'll be glad you did in a few years."

I probably shouldn't be giving out man-to-boy advice like that in the dance classes, but boys for some reason just tend to look at dancing as something only girls do. And then we grow up to be men and we learn too late that women want their guys to dance. Dance lessons should be a mandatory part of every teenage boy's education.

Anyway, Noor came into the dance class when I wasn't looking. I was standing near Chris, one of my friends, and chatting with him when Gloria started the class and said, "Everyone grab a partner." I usually wait to see how many ladies there are. Since I'm a warm body, I cannot grab a partner. Well, Noor came running up to me. I didn't think anything of it, but in retrospect I think she wanted to dance with me rather than one of the other men whom she didn't know.

I did make an effort to help her relax and enjoy the class last week, so I became a safe known quantity. It never occurred to me that I might so quickly put a young girl at ease. I don't spend much time with teenagers any more, although I have five nieces and have always gotten on well with them. I've got lots of practice at teasing girls in a non-romantic way and just treating them like kid sisters. I don't like being the Stern Uncle with my nieces, although one of them lived with me for several years and we had more of a father-daughter relationship.

Noor doesn't make eye contact. Okay, young girls probably should not be making eye contact with older men. I've never really thought about it. But she is almost the only dance partner I've ever had who consistently looks over my right shoulder. That is a pretty good place for a woman to look when she's dancing with a man she doesn't want to be intimate with. Most women look down at their feet when they are just learning to dance, and looking down throws your balance off and really messes you up.

Noor, in fact, has a great natural gift for dance. She swears she doesn't dance in her room or with her friends, but she picks up the moves pretty quickly. She is so far only struggling with Cha Cha, and I think that is more because of anxiety than anything else. She says she doesn't like it, but I have told her if she stays with it she may come to love it. People take longer to get that syncopated cha-cha-cha step worked out than in other dances. I do my best to help her relax but Cha Cha just takes practice.

At one point during the Cha Cha phase of the lesson, Gloria separated the ladies from the men and that was when Noor started looking at her feet. From across the room I began whispering loudly, "Look up! Look up! Don't look at your feet." I must have been pretty loud because Gloria stopped talking to the class, turned to me, and said in a mildly reproachful way, "Would you please?" That was when Noor stopped looking down. Timing is everything.

I don't know what it is, but sometimes I just feel all protective towards women and girls. I don't stop to think about what people are going to think about that. A few years ago, people where I was working all thought I was in love wiht a girl I had to work with on a project. I guess she had a crush on me. I didn't pay any attention to it, although sometimes I suspected that might be the case. She was always playful and would call me up to report the least little problems. I was actually trying to date another girl in the office at the time. But people still tease me about the one I had to work with.

And then sometimes there are the misses and near-misses. I don't write about all the girls here, but Monday afternoon one of the others I've been speaking to reminded me that the universe really doesn't revolve around my blog (and me). She walked right past me without saying a word.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Google Engineer Matt Cutts to SEOs: Think Before You Link

Google rolled out a new search engine in January that was dubbed Big Daddy. That is, they changed the way they crawl the Web and the way they index the Web. The update lasted from January through the end of March. As of April 1, the old Google was turned off and is no longer active.

Many Webmasters have complained over the past few weeks of losing many, most, or all of the pages from their sites in Google's index. Rankings have changed for some sites, too.

Google engineer Matt Cutts has devoted numerous posts on his personal blog over the past few months to an educational campaign in which he has stridently advised Webmasters to avoid certain practices that have become widely accepted and promoted throughout the Search Engine Optimization industry. In particular, Matt has questioned and challenged the practices of trading links (known as reciprocal linking in the industry) through exchange services and buying text links, often through text link brokerage services.

Yesterday, widely respected SEO specialist Mike Grehan published an interview with Matt in which he quoted Matt as saying: "I think a lot of what's perceived as the sandbox is artefacts where, in our indexing, some data may take longer to be computed than other data."

The Sandbox Effect was first noticed around the beginning of 2004, when new domains failed to achieve any significant rankings in Google's search index. People reported delays in achieving desired rankings of anywhere from 6 months to a year. A few high-profile domains with lots of publicity and news links zoomed past the Sandbox Effect.

It is apparent that Google has long been working on ways to determine which Web sites can be trusted (in terms of following their outbound links) more than others. The criteria for selecting Trusted Content Sites have not been publicly disclosed, although much speculation has been shared on SEO forums, blogs, and Web sites for about two years.

Today, Matt published a very lengthy post on his blog in which he responded to a wide array of criticisms directed at the Big Daddy rollout. I have posted what I feel are the most important excerpts from Matt's post and his followup comments in Spider-food's Matt Cutts discusses the Sandbox and EXPLAINS discussion, as well as in HighRankings' Matt Cutts on Big Daddy: Major Message to SEOs discussion.

Matt basically admits that Google is looking not only at who links to your site, but also where your site links to. If they decide too many of your inbound and/or outbound links are going to pages they don't trust, they won't trust your page and they will crawl your page less often.

He implies that removing untrustworthy outbound links from your site should help it to regain trusted status, but one can guess that Google will be comparing images of pages captured through several crawls to see if untrusted links are removed temporarily or for the longer duration.

When Webmasters simply swap links because they like each other's sites, that's okay. Webmasters have been swapping links on that basis for years, and Google has no problem with such exchanges. As long as it is clear to them that your links are editorially chosen. But if you link out to other sites that are linking out to other sites that are all obviously trading links, and if Google detects the trading pattern, if they decide you have some undisclosed percentage of these types of links, they may trust your site less and crawl your site less often.

As best I can determine, Google is only going to ignore links it doesn't feel are trustworthy. In the short run, this shift in priorities may affect the rankings of Web sites that depend on linkage to achieve high rankings in search results. But Google's algorithm looks at over 100 factors and bad or mediocre search optimization specialists have ignored those other 100 factors for years.

Personally, my sites are doing fine in Google. I have never relied upon link building to achieve high rankings in search results. I get high placements on the basis of content. Furthermore, I stopped swapping links years ago. I now link out to sites because I think they have good content and for no other reason.

People like me have weathered the storm. Many other people, including some people who have paid for search engine optimization, have now lost visibility and/or rankings in Google because they played the link game and didn't listen to the warnings coming out of the Googleplex.

The bottom line is: it's Google's search engine. They can do whatever they want with it, and when they want to change the way they do things, they have every right to do so.

In 2006, Google invoked that right in a huge way.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Got a Web site? Tell Google what you think about NOFOLLOW

Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who actively fights Web spam, has a personal blog where he occasionally discusses how Google views the Web. For the most part, though he provides insight from Google's perspective, Matt is expressing his own opinions, which may not necessarily be the same as Google's official position.

But one area where Matt has been championing Google's cause through his blog is the REL=NOFOLLOW attribute. This is an HTML attribute Google proposed that Webmasters begin using last year. Supposedly the other major search engines have agreed to support the attribute, although there appears to be no consensus on how much they are doing so.

The attribute was designed to address a very specific problem which is usually referred to as "blog comment spam". In reality, the comment spam afflicts guest books, forums, classified ads sites, and any Web site that allows people to post information about their Web sites. Blogs, however, have been especially hard hit by comment spammers who drop in links to their sites.

For the most part, these links lead to junk, auto-generated content sites that were only created to host Yahoo! Internet Marketing or Google AdSense advertisements. The spammers are therefore achieving two things with their heavy linking: they are bringing in random traffic from click-throughs on their links and they are boosting the link popularity of their pages.

Link popularity has a more direct impact on Yahoo!'s search engine listings than on Google's, but it is possible to boost pages to the top of many Google searches. Recent research still indicates that most surfers don't know enough about how to use search engines that they continue to click mostly on the first five listings. Generally speaking, on any random search, the odds are pretty good that you'll find equally useful and sometimes more useful content 2-3 pages past the 1st page, but about 80% of all searchers stay on the 1st page of results.

So the spammers do whatever it takes to get their junk sites in the top ten results on Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and Ask. From there, they just count on people clicking on one of the advertising links to get away from the junk. Advertisers hate these kinds of sites because they don't bring in any sales (or very few) but they cost a lot of money.

I personally disagree with the REL=NOFOLLOW approach. Google wants Webmasters to insert this tag on any link they don't trust. It is intended to be automatically inserted on comments and in forum posts, signatures, and profiles. But in my opinion, REL=NOFOLLOW does nothing to address the problem, which is that Yahoo! and Google are paying the spammers to abuse the Web.

If you operate a Web site, and if you are familiar with this issue, check out Matt Cutts' latest comment on NOFOLLOW. I think it's important for the Web community to speak up and let Google know (they often read Matt's blog at work) what people feel will or will not help.

This is an opportunity for Webmasters to share honest feedback with Google through someone who truly listens and cares about what happens on the Web. But be quick, because Matt will be leaving on vacation this Friday and he'll be offline until the end of June.

I moderate comments here on this blog. So far, it doesn't take much of my time. Eventually, the comment bots may find me. But if they do, using NOFOLLOW won't stop them. I'll still have to moderate their junk posts.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dancing, Dating, and Decisions: What A Man Wants

I knew it was a strange way to get a pedicure because he was filling a small pool or an oversized jacuzzi with a lot of water. A girl came in and told me to take my shoes and socks off. And then as I walked around the pool Linda came by pushing a mail cart and sporting a huge diamond engagement ring on her finger. That was when I knew it was time to wake up.

I hate to admit it, but I do sometimes feel like there are moments when I'm in a competition with Linda to see which us can replace the other in our hearts first. Does that go with the territory of breaking up? We're both stubbornly not calling each other, and I'm still obviously thinking about her. But in my defense, it's not like I don't run into many stimuli that remind me of her.

So, let me go back to Thursday. If anything happened earlier in the week that I haven't posted about here, it's forgotten until some strange moment where I'll be gently reminded of it. But Thursday set new forces into motion in my life. Some of them are only gentle pushes in interesting directions. For example, Dr. Jane Chance, whose books many Tolkien fans are familiar with, came to the Thursday dinner party for the Inklings Roundtable of Houston. Jane is a great lady with a wonderful sense of humor and insatiable child-like curiosity.

She has been wanting to learn how to Salsa dance. Her schedule has been pretty intense this year. College professors often juggle many eggs, and Jane not only continues her research and writing, she has made a few trips. But her academic year is over, so after Thursday's dinner she approached me about showing her some Salsa venues. I promised to put something together this coming weekend (May 19-20), although my calendar is looking full. Jane is happily married, so far as I know, so don't anyone get the wrong idea here. We're just friends.

Anyway, agreeing to go Salsa dancing with Jane Chance was just the capstone to an interesting evening. The real adventure actually started earlier in the day, before I arrived at the Black Labrador. You see, I do a terrible job of giving myself a manicure. I was out on a date about two-and-a-half years ago and my girlfriend (at the time) looked down at my hands and said, "You know, a man's manicure only costs about $10.00". Women are rarely that blunt and obvious, so I took the cue and started paying for occasional manicures to keep my fingers from looking like the dog tried to eat them along with my homework.

Well, come Thursday my hair was feeling a bit long and shaggy, so I decided to get a haircut. I drove down to the West Gray area of Houston and found a strip mall with a discount hair styling chain store. I'd been there once before last year and felt it was an okay place to go for a haircut, but I wasn't about to go out of my way to give them my business. So I walked in and one of the hair stylists asked if I wanted a hair cut. I said, "Can you take me now? I've got to be someplace in an hour."

She signed me up and took me back to her station. "Do you want scissors or electric?" she asked. Now, I've been asked this question before and I have never had a clue as to what the difference is. So I just shrugged.

"Just make it look good," I said. And then I caught myself. "No. I want it to look hot."

She smiled and said, "Scissors it is." She proceeded to give me a haircut that even I think is good. Normally, I don't pay much attention to how my hair is done as long as I don't look like someone put a bowl over my head and trimmed off the excess. But she did a great job, and when she finished I asked why there is a difference between scissors and electric.

"You have enough wave in your hair that scissors will work better for you," she explained. And then she added, "And you won't need to use a comb with this haircut for a while." She was dead on. I've barely needed to use a comb in the past few days. That's a big deal in the windy city of Houston, because normally a few minutes outside is all I need to look like a mad scientist who has stuck his finger in the wrong power socket once again.

As I exited the hair salon I passed one of the thousands of nail salons you'll find scattered around Houston. I'm pretty sure that Vietnamese nail salons are more common than Starbucks, although I don't have scientific data to back up that conclusion. There is a rumor that Houston lays out streets and neighborhoods on the basis of where all the Starbucks stores are situated. How Starbucks makes money is beyond me, because there is one on every corner. And right behind it is almost certainly a Vietnamese nail salon.

This one was kind of upscale. It looked expensive. I glanced in and saw some cute girls. Hm. Well, glancing at my hands, which I had been tending to for a few weeks, I figured it was time to try a new salon. I went back on Friday. I think the same cute girls were in there from the day before, but you have to understand that I only glanced in as I walked back to my car on Thursday. They were busy when I stopped in on Friday after work, and I had places to be, but the girl giving the pedicure was by far way too cute for any man to pass up.

I did not get a pedicure. I just let the oldest lady in the group (who was the only one free) give me a manicure. But the other girls checked me out and I checked them out, and the really cute one made sure she found many reasons to walk by me and glance my way in the mirror. The other girls knew the score because one of them eventually spanked her, but when I asked if that was because she gave bad pedicures they all said, "No, she give GREAT pedicures."

I was almost tempted to go find out today, except my legs were so sore I could barely walk. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Just let it suffice to say that if you start to read about Pedicure Girl in the future, you know where I met her. She is, I am almost positive, NOT a traditional Viet girl. At least, she spoke with relatively little accent. The other two young girls both sported body tattoos and maybe some piercings. I'm not thrilled with tattoos on women. In fact, I don't really like them at all. Why spoil a natural beauty with something that doesn't compare even closely?

Well, enough with Pedicure Girl. Now I have to talk about Friday evening. My friend Maggie has been trying to fix me up with a friend of hers since last year. Almost since I started seeing Linda seriously. Maggie met Linda and while she said the usual approving things that good friends say about your new "someone", I always sensed some reservation from Maggie about Linda. And as the months rolled by Maggie became even more reserved. I'll admit that she probably had more to do with my breakup than any other reason. But Maggie is one of those people who reads others well. And, besides, I know there were times when I wished my friends would listen to me about guys or girls they were seeing, and they didn't. So, this time I listened to a close friend.

But I would not have stopped seeing Linda if things hadn't begun to tank anyway. My interest began dying somewhere in January, I guess. By then, Maggie had arranged two evenings for me to meet her friend Sylvie. Sylvie is very sweet, very attractve, and very Viet. By that I mean she grew up in Vietnam and is conservative and traditional. You have to be extremely patient with conservative Asian girls. They don't give their hearts away very easily. They like to know a guy for a few years before they'll consider him potential boyfriend material (which means marriage is a real possibility). My Asian friends were amazed I got as far as I did with Linda, though some of them (who have not met her) remained skeptical.

So, when Maggie began mentioning her friend last year, I couldn't help but think, "Well, I don't know if I want to spend another two years just saying 'hello'." That's unfair to Vietnamese girls, but sometimes it just feels so frustrating to try and get to know someone who draws very strict lines. When I was in college I tried to date someone whose family opposed our relationship. After about six months of sneaking around behind Daddy's back I decided to press her for a decision on whether we were going to become an open couple. All our friends knew we were on to each other. But she was a conservative American girl and she ultimately chose not to go against her family's wishes. So far as I know, she has never married, but I lost touch with her years ago. I don't know what her story is.

If a conservative American family can prevent one of its daughters from marrying a guy who is too something, multiply that tenfold for a Vietnamese family. That is what you're up against when you're an American man of non-Asian descent trying to win the heart (and hand) of a very traditional Asian girl. Linda warned me when we first met that I would have to invest a lot of time in such a relationship. At the time, I was actually trying to date a friend of hers. It really took a long time for me to look at Linda in that way. But as long as that took, it would have taken even longer for her to commit to me -- if she ever would have.

Maggie (who is Chinese but married an American man) tried to explain all this to me. Other Asian friends did their best to explain it to me, too. But once Linda caught my attention, there was no turning back. When I left Houston a couple of years ago, I moved back to Florida to be near my brother and his family. After a few months, I knew I wanted to come back to see if something would happen with Linda. My oldest niece told me many months later that I had said something to her about "going after Asian girls". I don't remember that remark, but it shows how much Linda had crept into my thoughts.

Well, Friday evening I had asked another friend of mine to go dancing with me. She and I have occasionally gone dancing together, most of the time with a group. I'll admit I was testing the waters to see if there might be some potential there. She is not Asian, but she is fun to talk to and dance with. So, she had an after-work function Friday evening but agreed to meet me at Plaza 59 as soon as it was over. She called me Friday afternoon and said she had just heard the dinner thing would go on for several hours. Once again, I had no backup plan. I have to quit doing that.

So I stopped by Maggie's work and talked to her a little after getting my manicure. I mentioned that my evening was looking like it might fall apart. "You aren't seeing Linda again, are you?" she asked in a very disapproving voice. Haven't talked to her, I swear. "You should see Sylvie," she said, satisfied I wasn't sneaking around behind her back.

Sylvie is quite beautiful and I'm sure many men would love to get to know her. But the problem with Sylvie is that I've only met her at ballroom dance socials. She's been dancing for several years. I've reluctantly let Maggie invite me to a couple of ballroom events a year. When Gloria Jones started teaching Ballroom Dancing Classes again this year, I offered to be a warm body for the Beginner Ballroom class. She occasionally needs extra men. And now I'm starting to spend some time in the Intermediate Ballroom class, although I'm a bit behind the curve compared to the regular students.

So, every time Maggie and I talk about Sylvie, I quite honestly tell her I think I've made all the impression on Sylvie that a dead slug does. I mean, I can barely dance with her and trying to chat up someone with loud music blaring in the background is a waste of time. So Maggie has been trying to figure out a way to get me and Sylvie together where we'll have something in common other than dancing, but which won't be crossing the lines of conservative Asian propriety.

Inspiration struck Maggie Friday. She mentioned that Sylvie might want to go dancing this weekend. So she insisted on calling Sylvie, who mentioned a USABDA function was being held Saturday at the dance studio where Gloria teaches. I occasionally hear about these events but rarely go because I don't dance ballroom (except Cha Cha -- I'm socially acceptable at Cha Cha now). So, as Maggie negotiated with Sylvie (who knows the score -- Maggie has been upfront with her about trying to set us up), Sylvie suggested she wanted to go dancing that night (Friday).

Well, here I had planned to spend the evening with someone else, and now I was about to meet up with Sylvie, our self-appointed chaperone, and make it an interesting foursome. My heart said, "Give it a shot." After all, my other friend and I are just friends. She hasn't really indicated that she wants to date me.

So, there I was later in the evening at Plaza 59, trying to figure out how much dancing I could do with three women before graciously saying "Good evening, I have four dance classes tomorrow." Eddie Lopez had a huge class but as often happens he was a little light on men, so after he finished teaching the basic step he invited me to join the group. I partnered with several ladies and along the way noticed my friend Trent (we celebrated his birthday a few weeks ago) standing by. After the class, I invited Trent to join me, as the ladies do not enjoy waiting to take turns dancing with me.

Two guys and three girls is not a great mix, but there are usually other men who will come circle my group like hungry vultures waiting for the old lion to miss a trick. I figured this would work. Trent agreed to hang around for awhile, but 45 minutes later when I went to get a drink, he cut out on me. 5 minutes after Trent left my three ladies came in the door. And to cap off a challenging evening, Lan was also there (she often dances at Plaza 59 on Fridays). All I have room to say about Lan is that she is another person who is in a different place in her life than what I'm looking for. She has nonetheless made her interest known to me, and I've been sorely tempted a few times to take a shot. She is one of those raven-haired (Vietnamese) beauties who seldom has fewer than six men chasing her. I, of course, am the one who won't chase her. I suppose that is part of what makes me interesting.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Lan let me know in class Saturday morning that she did not appreciate my refusal to ask her to dance Friday night. Of course, I had a legitimate excuse. Unfortunately, being with 3 other women is the one excuse no woman will accept. Enough about Lan.

After Salmerum finished playing their first set, Maggie and Sylvie said good-night and left the club. I was going to hang with my friend a while longer and try to salvage the evening, but suddenly Sylvie came back in and invited us to go get something to eat. I instantly recognized Maggie's hand in the invitation and knew I had to accept. I made as gracious a choice as possible, but I managed to snub my second woman for the evening (technically, three if you count the club hostess, whom I've been flirting with occasionally -- but I think she just enjoys the flirting).

So Maggie, Sylvie, and I went off to a Chinese restaurant that serves Vietnamese dishes. This is actually a sort of ritual with Maggie. She seldom gets a chance to eat dinner before she goes dancing, so she eats afterward. Sylvie knows this. I know this. Nonetheless, we all understood this was to be my and Sylvie's first chance to spend some time together outside a dance venue.

The meal was fine. Sylvie and I talked and I think I made a better impression on her than that of a dead slug. She opened up a little and seemed genuinely interested in the conversation. Of course, I had to say something stupid like Com Ga Chi instead of Com On (I said something like "you're welcome" instead of "thank you"). It does make a good impression on the Vietnamese people if you try to learn their language, but I was always careful to do some homework before writing a little note for Linda. Winging it with Vietnamese, where the same word can have six different meanings depending on how it sounds, is about as advisable as walking over molten glass in your bare feet.

We tentatively agreed to meet up at the dance studio for the USABDA event. Maggie said she would call Sylvie and coordinate. I should have known right then and there I would need a Plan B. But I was tired and needed to get some sleep.

So, Saturday morning came and I got up early to do four loads of laundry. I only mention that because I lost 1 sock each from 3 pairs I had just bought a couple of weeks ago. I no longer buy cheap socks. So my day started off with a minor fashion faux pas. No big deal, I guess, as I have other socks to wear. But these three pairs all have unique patterns. There is no hope of making them spares.

Well, Gloria mentioned she was expecting some new students to join the Beginner Salsa class, so I ducked out early to wait for them. An absolutely gorgeous (non-Asian) woman was waiting to sign up. I suppose I shouldn't say much as I foolishly gave her my card. Why did I do that? I don't know. Men do dumb things around beautiful women. I guess they get used to it. So, anyway, she'll probably read this blog, assume I'm just another jerk player, and move on. That's okay. Things are getting worse by the hour.

I went home and collapsed into bed for a few hours. I don't normally go dancing on Friday evenings when I know I have four classes on Saturday AND an evening of dancing. But I went and did it anyway.

I got to the dance studio in time for the 8:00 PM Waltz class (that was actually a FoxTrot class taught by Tonya from Johnny Walden's West Side Dance Centre). A USABDA function is one of the rare events where all the dance teachers can come together, socialize, and mention each other's studios with some professional courtesy and the understanding from everyone that students are off limits. No preying on the competition's students, although it's inevitable that the students ask each other who their teachers are.

Some day, I may blog about the dramas of a dance teacher's life, as seen through the eyes of a student. But I digress more than usual.

There was a cute Asian girl in in the Foxtrot class. Her name was Yen (or something like that). She seemed to be with an American man, who may have been her boyfriend, her wannabe-boyfriend, her husband, her classmate from another studio, or her teacher. I couldn't tell anything except that they knew other pretty well. Nonetheless, Yen indicated some flirtatious interest in me when I expressed some in her. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her in case my Slug personality showed itself to Sylvie during the evening.

There was another cute Asian girl, Lily, in the Foxtrot class. I detected no signs of interest from her durng the class, but she didn't seem to be with anyone. Trent was there along with his dance partner. Trent latched onto Lily after one of the breaks and our friendship almost tumbled right there. He's single. He knows the score.

Well, I called Maggie at some early point in the class and left her a voice mail saying I was in the back part of the studio taking the class. She called me back a little later to say she was really tired from working and was just going home. She offered to call Sylvie to tell her another lady she knew was there, but we both knew the evening was shot. So, I sighed deeply and debated whether I should call MCR and say, "Please come back. I've been a fool."

The class ended with me being partnerless (too many men again) and I went off to find a seat. My friends invited me to join them at their table. Lily just happened to be wandering around looking for a seat, and she asked if she could join us.

Well, this is getting long. Several people whom I know came in to enjoy the evening. I danced with Lily for the better part of an hour. She was impressed with my Cha Cha and tolerated my FoxTrot and Rumba. Where I think I scored points was when the Viennese Waltz started playing. I can do a basic Waltz (1-2-3, 1-2-3) and maybe turn my partner, but Viennese Waltz is something else. Lily has been learning International style Ballroom and I've been learning American style. She impressed the major differences upon me at one point by hugging me closely to her chest as we blazed away across the floor. I forget what I was trying to dance with her.

So the Viennese Waltz started and Lily asked in her least confident voice, "Do you know Viennese Waltz?"

By this point in the evening we had gotten used to saying to each other, "No, please show me."

Well, I figured, what have I got to lose? The most distinctive feature of the Viennese Waltz (that an untutored non-dancer may notice) is the basic has a quick double-step in the middle. So I just grabbed the girl and went winging my way around the room like the dance scene in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". I almost got away with it. There's just one thing I didn't know about Viennese Waltz: you have to change direction every few spins or your partner gets dizzy.

I know enough about closed dance positioning to keep my eyes on my partner's eyes. That's not only a mesmerizing experience, you don't pay attention to the room whirling around you. You can go much, much longer without getting dizzy. Okay, I've been dancing 3-1/2 years. Lily has only been dancing 6 months. Even though I'm a total klutz when it comes to International Ballroom Dancing, I still know far more about dancing in general than she does. I was so blown away by being with someone who knew steps I didn't know that I forgot there were still disaparities in my favor (and that underlies my confidence -- I know I can learn any dance step, given enough time). It helps that I have perfect peripheral vision, and a lot of experience at avoiding other couples in clubs. I did a pretty good jb of avoiding collisions, for the most part (and the only one wasn't my fault).

Lily had to ask me to stop long enough so she could explain about the change in direction. I couldn't figure out how to do it gracefully, so she finally just said, "Dance," and we went whirling around the ballroom, spinning in one direction, our gazes locked upon each other's eyes (she picked that trick up from me, I guess). That is the first Viennese Waltz I have ever tried to dance, and it was magical, no matter how badly it must have looked to all those teachers whirling and dipping so gracefully around us. I didn't care. I was just glad I could get the basic step down right.

And Lily has really beautiful eyes.

Well, all good things come to an end. As I had friends who were showing up (not my regular dance group, but other people I've met through dancing), so she had friends who started to appear. Lily retreated in typical conservative Asian fashion to the far side of the dance hall with a group of other Asians. One guy in particular sat close to her but I was pretty sure, after observing them during the evening's showcase (yes, I watched the dancers, too), that he is not (yet) her boyfriend. Lily eventually came back to retrieve her street shoes and purse (like she was so overjoyed to see her friends that she forgot about her personal stuff and left it with complete strangers -- riiight).

I thanked her for dancing with me and mentioned I'd like to dance with her again. Not that I get out to these ballroom things on a regular basis, but she dropped some hints about where to look for her in the future. Problem is, my calendar is looking very full for the next few weeks. I might as well mention here I'll be having some minor surgery over the Memorial Day weekend.