London Calling

I’ve learned some really cool things about the Black Hills during the course of my job. Like the fact that there is a secret chamber behind Abraham Lincoln’s head on Mount Rushmore that functions as a time capsule of sorts for future generations. It contains copies of important historical documents like the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, as well as the history of the mountain carving. The idea is that, if some folks stumble upon this mountain carving 1,000 years from now and are like, “WTF is that?!” they’ll have the answer at their fingertips. Assuming they can pry open the 1,200-lb. granite slab blocking the entrance.

The whole thing is a little unnerving though, because if some future civilization has no written record of Mount Rushmore, then we’re assuming a worst-case scenario like an  out-of-hand coronavirus that wipes out humanity. Cheery thought!

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Hidden chamber leading to the Hall of Records.

In any case, once I heard about this Hall of Records, as the hidden repository is called, I knew immediately that I wanted to check it out and asked one of my coworkers if I could “pull my media card” and ask for a tour. After he stopped laughing so hard tears were streaming down his face and realized I was serious, he let me know the chances of that happening are pretty much zero. Once upon a time, the National Park Service used to invite select groups of people to check out the Hall of Records, but then in 2009 a bunch of Greenpeace activists gained access and unfurled a giant banner over the monument decrying global warming, and that put an end to the tours.

But hey, you never know if you don’t ask, right? I’m writing a legitimate story about the Hall of Records, so if they want to pull a Bloomberg and stop-and-frisk me for a hidden banner stuffed in my pants, more power to them.


I’m a huge Jack London fan; as a child, he was the author who pretty much ignited my love of reading. I devoured Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf with the same zeal I hold today for lava lamps and Bloody Marys and Pink Floyd records. I found his writing to be very accessible and lacking the simplicity and gimmickry of, say, a Hemingway. His tales were set in exotic locations and featured colorful characters, both human and animal. One of London’s biggest strengths in my opinion was his ability to anthropomorphize animals. He wrote so convincingly of Buck’s transformation from domestic pet in sun-drenched California to alpha dog of the Yukon who (spoiler alert!) answers the call of the wild that I believed with every fiber of my being the thoughts attributed to the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix.

All of this is to say that when I learned there was a new Call of the Wild movie starring Harrison Ford coming out, I knew I had to see it. And yesterday we did. The reviews have been mixed, with a lot of people deriding the fact that Buck is a CGI creation and not a real dog, but I think this is rather silly given that one of Ford’s most popular roles had him starring alongside an 8′ tall shaggy brown creature whose speech is made up of wails, growls and moans.

Call-of-the-Wild

The movie was pretty good escapist fare. I felt a little bad because it was a sunny, warm day—at least by South Dakota standards—that would have lent itself to outdoor exploration. But I got over that quickly, especially when we followed up the film with pizza and beers at Independent Ale House. They’re one of the few places in town that offers decent sours on tap—the only beer I can even remotely stand.

Tonight, we’re going to barbecue chicken on the grill before the next round of snow arrives tomorrow.

Conflict of Interest

I got burned by an Englishman yesterday.

Not physically burned, as in, he spilled his scalding hot tea on my arm while reaching for a crumpet. (By the way, I’ve never met a stereotype I didn’t fully embrace.) Instead, I refer to the definition in Urban Dictionary:

A usually sarcastic and insulting comment, devised to burn someone’s emotions.

What happened was, our Creative Director at work—the one who made me cut my beautiful words—called me over to his desk. “Could you pad this article?” he asked. “It needs to be a little longer.”

“Wow, this is a change of pace!” I replied. “You’re asking me to add words instead of cut them!”

“That’s right,” he said, and without missing a beat, delivered the barb. “You didn’t write this one.”

Oh, snap! The thing is, he’s not wrong. I do tend to be wordy. Others might call me long-winded, but I prefer to think of myself as simply being an overachiever. Why describe something in six words, for instance, when 18 would paint a much more detailed and compelling picture?

Irony alert: I’m a writer and editor. That latter task requires trimming down copy to eliminate redundancy and more succinctly fit in the confines of a particular space. I’m good at it, too…except when it comes to my own work apparently.

Being a writer AND an editor is a conflict of interest!


This morning, I shoveled snow for the fifth time in 10 days. The annoying thing is, it’s just been a little bit of snow every time, usually an inch or two. Not enough to drag out the snowblower, which we have yet to use. It mostly melts in a day or two, because we’ve been yo-yoing between, say, 18º one day and 47º the next.

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Yesterday’s commute home was treacherous but pretty.

If it’s going to snow, Tara and I both think it should really snow. Go ahead, Mother Nature: impress us! Not that I’m complaining. Even a dusting of snow covers up the barren ground and makes everything look beautifully pristine.

The weird thing about Rapid City is, our “snowy season” is really March and April. 42 percent of our snowfall occurs during those two months.

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Rapid City snowfall

In Portland, if you reached late February without seeing snow (as they have this year), then winter is essentially over. Spring is in full swing by March. Out here, we can forget about planting that garden of ours until May at the earliest.

As fond as I am of the winter months, I do long for mild summer evenings spent on the patio, something meaty sizzling on the grill, a glass of wine in hand.

It’s just great to live someplace where I can equally appreciate all four seasons.

I Myth You: Truths About V-Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, if you’re into that sort of thing. Funny, the only time I ever cared about V-Day was when I didn’t have anybody to share it with. Back then, I was all, “Woe is me! I’m all alone while all these couples are having romantic celebrations!” I didn’t even really know what these imagined romantic celebrations consisted of, though I was fairly certain they ended with a romp in the sheets, which was enough to justify their existence at the time.

Not that I ever admitted this to anybody, of course. Instead, I adopted a holier-than-thou stance. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey’s character famously states, “Valentine’s Day was invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” I would repeat this ad nauseam to anybody who cared to listen, proud of my anti-Capitalist rant. When a friend said that Valentine’s Day had been happening since Roman times and the idea that Hallmark invented it was a myth, I replied that the Romans also invented gladiator matches but I didn’t see armed combatants fighting to the death before crowds of bloodthirsty spectators anymore, which is admittedly twisted logic, but I had to defend my position, you know? Plus, I kinda forgot about Black Friday. I’ve seen video of angry mobs fighting over the last 55″ TV in stock, and it’s even uglier than those Colosseum battles.

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When Tara and I got together, our first Valentine’s Day was romantic. We celebrated by getting all dressed up and enjoying a fancy dinner at Jake’s Famous Crawfish seafood restaurant in downtown Portland. I even drew a red heart on the plate using the frosting from our cheesecake.

Our second V-Day as a couple was a little more conservative. It went something like this:

Me: So, would you like to go out to dinner?
Tara: I don’t really feel like dealing with all those crowds. Unless you really want to.
Me: That’s okay. Let’s skip the fancy meal and just exchange cards instead.
Tara: Perfect!

Valentine’s Day #3:

Me: You didn’t want to go out, did you?
Tara: Hell, no! And don’t you dare get me a card, either.
Me: Deal!

And then I proceeded to make an off-color joke about “having a heart on for you.”

Funny how things change once you’re in a committed relationship. It’s not that we aren’t romantic. We’ve been together for eight years now, and we’re actually still sickeningly sweet toward one another most days. Just not on the one day where you’re supposed to be sickeningly sweet toward one another. I chalk this up to our rebellious nature, a sort of damn-the-man ethos, if you will.

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Nowadays, I am pretty ambivalent about the holiday. I don’t begrudge those who like to pull out all the romantic stops and I won’t trot out all that made-up holiday nonsense. When you think about it, all holidays are made up, right?

We’ll celebrate tonight by partaking in our favorite Friday pastime: playing cards in the basement while listening to records and enjoying cocktails. Knowing me, there will be another off-color joke or two.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy V-Day (or not), you crazy fools in love!

Pretzels are the New Pickles

There are surprisingly few things I miss about living in the PNW. Family and friends, of course. Powell’s Books. Liberalism. But most of my fondest memories are tempered by reality: the worsening traffic jams, the median home price inching ever closer to $400,000. Tara longs for the ocean at times, and while the ruggedly beautiful Oregon Coast will always hold a special place in my heart, I have lived within 100 miles of an ocean for 82 percent of my life. Yes, I did the math. I think it’s safe to say I’ve gotten sand and saltwater out of my system at this point in my life.

One thing I do miss, however, is our favorite hangout: Shanahan’s, an unassuming little Irish pub in downtown Vancouver, WA. Many a Friday night was spent tucked into our favorite spot in the corner. We had a server who became so familiar with us, she would bring us our drinks without even taking our order. Tequila soda for me, Bud Light for Tara. Once, she saw us crossing the street, and had them ready for us the moment we sat down. It’s hard to find service like that anywhere.

Always, that first round of drinks was accompanied by fried pickle spears. They were our go-to app, and those are what I miss more than anything else. Hot and crispy, with fresh dill weed mixed right into the batter…that was the secret. You might think a fried pickle is a fried pickle is a fried pickle, but you would be wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s very hard to find the perfect fried pickle. Some places serve them sliced, but then the ratio of batter to pickle is off. Murphy’s Pub in Rapid City is known for their fried pickles, and yes, they’re good, but they come wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with mozzarella. It’s the definition of overkill: tasty but unnecessary. The pickle should be the star, not everything that surrounds it. Like Shakira during the Super Bowl halftime show, not her backup dancers. Her hips don’t lie. Her backup dancers’ hips might be a little looser with the truth, but I’m not invested in theirs like I am hers.

shakira

Err…weird analogy. Hopefully you catch my drift.

So, we simply resigned ourselves to a life without fried pickles. It was one of those trade-offs of moving to the Midwest, like giving up the ocean for the prairie or swapping Dungeness crab for buffalo.

And then, a funny thing happened. We discovered the pretzel sticks at Paddy O’Neill’s. Like Shanahan’s, it’s an Irish pub. A little more upscale—it’s in the lobby of the Hotel Alex Johnson, after all—but the Happy Hour is decent, the drinks are good, and the food is on point.

Especially those pretzel sticks.

They’re Bavarian style—soft, chewy, and buttery. Topped with finely sliced green onions and served with a warm queso dipping sauce that has a subtle kick. We’ve ordered them a few times now, and I’m always surprised at just how addictively delicious they are. We stopped by last Friday after work, and after scarfing ’em down, I realized something interesting: I didn’t miss those fried pickle spears from Shanahan’s quite as much as I had in the past. The pretzel sticks at Paddy’s are a worthy successor to the pickles and our new go-to appetizer. I can live with that.

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Not my photo. Not even the pretzel sticks from Paddy O’Neill’s…but they look identical.

I’m not saying we won’t be hitting up Shanahan’s on our next visit to the PNW….but it wouldn’t shock me if I find myself wistfully longing for the pretzels when we’re there. You always want what you can’t have, right?

 

The Verdict is In: My (1st) Experience as a Trial Juror

If I’ve been incognito this week, my apologies. I was called for jury duty and, somewhat to my surprise, actually chosen to serve. I’ve had a couple of close calls over the years, but this was a first. It turned out to be a fascinating experience, one that gave me a rare opportunity to play a key role in the American judicial system. I enjoyed it far more than anticipated. I thought I’d share my story through the eyes of a first-timer, for those who are interested in learning what it’s like to spend three days in a jury box.

The Jury Summons

Like the majority of Americans, when I received my jury summons in the mail, I felt my stomach turn with dread. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most people aren’t exactly eager to receive that piece of paper in the mail. Even the judge acknowledged this. My first instinct was to try to figure out how to get out of serving, and I turned to the internet for suggestions. As usual, Reddit was a great source of information, though the advice people had posted (pretend you never received the summons and ignore it, show up wearing a JURY NULLIFICATION t-shirt, act like a racist, etc.) just didn’t sit well with me. Honesty is, and always will be, the best policy. I decided to show up as instructed and answer all questions honestly while hoping I wouldn’t be one of the 12 people ultimately selected.

I had no legitimate excuse not to attend, anyway. Yes, it’s stressful to be away from the office for days on end, especially when you work for a publishing company and there are deadlines. But my supervisor was completely understanding and encouraged me to “have fun.” Fat chance, I thought. I was still grumbling over the inconvenience of it all as I headed out the door that first day.

Voir Dire

I was instructed to show up at the Federal courthouse in Rapid City Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. After passing through a metal detector—the process reminded me of the TSA experience, only I got to keep my shoes on this time—I made my way to the third floor, checked in with the clerk’s office, and took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the courtroom.

First impression: the courtroom was enormous. Federal courts are much larger than state courts, it turns out. It was also very bright, with rows of overhead fluorescent lights. I’d brought along a book and read a little of it while stealing glances at the other prospective jurors as they filed in, wondering which of the poor suckers would end up being selected. There were 42 of us and they were choosing 12 jurors and an alternate, which meant I had about a 70 percent chance of walking out of there a free man. I liked those odds.

The clerk came in and showed us a 20-minute video titled “Serving on a Jury” narrated by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. Typical propaganda, I thought. Afterward, the judge and lawyers entered the courtroom. His Honor talked a little bit about what to expect. One of the things he said was, “The people who are chosen today are actually the lucky ones.” Per the jury summons, we were on call for a two-month period. The clerk said the court docket for February and March was pretty full, which meant that many—if not most—of the people not chosen that day could expect to end up back in that very courtroom to go through the process all over again at some point before March 31. Around this time, my attitude began to change. I figured, this was expected to be a three-day trial. There was no guarantee the next one would be as short. Plus, the atmosphere felt charged-up, almost electric with anticipation. Maybe being chosen wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought.

The clerk called names at random to fill the 31 seats in front of the bench: the jury box plus two makeshift rows. I was about the 23rd person called. The 11 not initially called were instructed to remain in the courtroom, as some would likely be needed as people were excused. Sure enough, this happened.

Voir dire is the legal phrase for the jury selection process. It was a little bit intimidating, but also, very interesting. Both attorneys asked questions of everybody, and we had to pass around microphones when answering. I found myself trying to figure out the intent behind each question in order to determine what the lawyers were looking for. Some questions were pretty obvious, while the intent of others is only clear now that the trial is over. I was asked, for example, whether I’d ever bought a house, and if so, did I buy the first house I looked at. If I had children, did I ever have to mediate an argument between them, and whether the child I assumed had been the victim had actually turned out to be the instigator. Whether I thought a witness who appeared nervous while testifying might be hiding something. When I answered honestly that it could lead me to perceive guilt, I was asked whether I was nervous answering questions in court and had to admit that I was.

Touché. Message received.

Let me make one thing clear here: anybody who truly wanted to get out of jury service at this point could have done so very easily. The judge, who exuded fairness at all turns, made it clear that if you had a prior commitment or were morally opposed to the jury system or were simply uncomfortable being given the burden of deciding another person’s fate could speak up and he would excuse them without prejudice. Nobody did so, though a couple of people had legitimate health concerns and were dismissed.

I will say, it was pretty obvious to me who would not be chosen. There were a few pretty vocal people who you just knew would cause trouble in the jury room. There was also a 78-year-old woman with concentration difficulties and a 19-year-old college student who had never heard the phrase “reasonable doubt” before.

We were excused for lunch at 12:00 and asked to return at 1:30, at which time, the jury would be seated.

I went home, called Tara, and said I kind of hoped they would choose me. Quite a change in attitude from just a few hours earlier.

The Trial

I returned to the courthouse as instructed, and the lawyers were tasked with eliminating 18 of the 31 people in order to arrive at their jury. We were told their decisions weren’t personal and we shouldn’t feel badly if we weren’t selected. They then passed a sheet back and forth for about 15 minutes, deciding on peremptory challenges, which allow them to strike potential jurors without reason. Of course, there are reasons on both sides, though I’m sure those vary based on any number of circumstances.

They began calling names and asking those people to stand. I had just started to think I wasn’t going to be selected, and actually felt a pang of remorse about this, when they called my name. I was about the ninth person chosen. It appears that the people selected for jury duty were mostly those who had flown under the radar, hadn’t rocked the boat, and were neither young nor old. There were seven men and six women. All white, but this being South Dakota, that’s not exactly surprising.

Everybody else was excused and we were sworn in. The judge gave us instructions, we were shown the jury room, led back to the jury box, and the trial started immediately. It took about 15 minutes for me to get over my disbelief. It felt very surreal to be seated on a jury hearing a federal case…one that turned out to be very exciting.

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I am allowed to talk about the case now that the verdict has been delivered, but at the time, we were instructed not to discuss it with anybody, including family members, coworkers, and the other jurors. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but it was a criminal case in which the defendant was charged with five counts involving possession of guns and distribution of methamphetamine. Over the course of a day and a half, the prosecution called 10 witnesses, ranging from the arresting officers to drug analysis experts; an agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Alcohol, Tobocco, and Firearms Agency; a cellphone data extraction specialist; and a shackled inmate transported by a Federal Marshal. We watched body cam and dashboard videos from tribal police officers and I learned more than I ever imagined I would about Glock 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. These firearms made it a federal case; Glocks are manufactured in Austria and shipped to Smyrna, Georgia; the only way they can possibly reach South Dakota is by crossing state lines. The defense offered up plenty of rebuttals and cross-examination, but didn’t call any witnesses. We never even heard the defendant speak, except briefly on video during the police search.

The judge has a rule in which everybody in his courtroom stands up and stretches every 45 minutes. I cannot stress how much I liked him. He was personable and polite, the epitome of fairness. Judges sometimes come across as stern and intimidating, but he was anything but. He treated us with respect at all times, stating that in his courtroom, people don’t just rise when he enters the room, they also stand for the jurors. Sure enough, they did so every time we entered and exited. He also made occasional lighthearted comments throughout the trial, and even joked at one point that he had an extra robe if his clerk wanted to play judge. All of this served to humanize him. At the same time, when somebody stepped out of line, he was quick to admonish them and keep order in the court. This only happened once or twice.

We were given frequent breaks, including 90 minutes for lunch, and released both days a few minutes before 5:00. I was home, sipping a glass of wine 15 minutes after listening to testimony in a federal criminal case. This made the whole experience palatable.

On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecution and defense rested.

The Deliberation

Thursday morning, both attorneys gave their closing arguments. The prosecutor went first, speaking for about 25 minutes. He went over each count against the defendant, explaining how the burden of proof had been met by the government, as required. The defense attorney was up next; he spoke for about 15 minutes, followed by a 10-minute rebuttal from the prosecution. After that, the alternate juror was dismissed. Sucks to be her; I’d hate to get that far without being able to see the whole thing through. The case was officially handed over to we, the jury. It was almost an emotional moment for me. I felt in awe of my own responsibility as we adjourned to the jury room for deliberation.

Our cellphones were confiscated, the door was closed, and we elected a foreman. Then we discussed each count in detail and took votes by raising our hands. This, at least, was pretty much like you’d see in any John Grisham book or legal thriller. Pizza was brought in for lunch as we talked our way through the case.

The evidence was also brought into the courtroom (minus the bullets, wisely). It isn’t every day that you can say you held a Glock semi-automatic handgun, a bag of meth, and $2,500 cash in your hands, but today I did just that.

For me, the decision was easy. I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt on all five charges. We were unanimous on three of the five counts pretty much right off the bat, but really had to discuss and (politely) argue a little bit about factors like possession, intent, consistency of testimony, and character before everybody was on the same page on the other two. We could have found him guilty on some of the charges and not guilty on others, but in the end, we came to a unanimous decision across the board: guilty on all five counts.

I was nervous when we filed back into the courtroom and the judge read our verdicts. I’m not sure why; maybe I was expecting some last-minute courtroom dramatics, perhaps an angry outburst from the defendant or somebody in the audience, but none of those things occurred.

A few minutes later, the judge came into the jury room to chat with us and answer questions. Again, this is testament to his personability. He speaks to every jury after every trial to gain their feedback, explaining that he is appointed for life and will never do anything else, so he wants to make sure he gets it right. Somebody asked whether he thought we’d made the right decision, and he assured us that, based on the evidence, we had.

Sentencing takes place in 4-5 months. The judge said anybody interested in attending could let the clerk’s office know on our way out, so I did just that. I think I was the only one, actually. Call me a completist, but I really want to see this through and am curious what sentence the defendant ends up receiving. I know it will be significant given some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that must run consecutively.

Final Thoughts

Yes, this is a very long post. I’m almost done—I promise!

This whole experience was nothing short of incredible. It may be a cliche, but serving on a jury is a rare opportunity to not only witness democracy in action, but to play an active role in the process. I’ve never been the type to wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but it really is a privilege to serve and makes me proud to be an American. Just witnessing the dynamic between opposing lawyers, hearing from expert witnesses, and learning how to dissect and apply law is exhilarating.

I’m off the hook now for two years and won’t be called for jury duty again in that time, but should I receive a summons in the mail at some future point, I won’t be nearly so opposed.

Doing your civic duty kinda rocks!

 

Delightful to Frightful

Anybody searching for proof that South Dakota’s weather is bipolar need look no further than Saturday morning’s forecast.

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We didn’t quite hit 70º yesterday, but came damn close. 68.7º, to be exact. It was so warm that Tara and I took a walk around Canyon Lake wearing nothing but t-shirts! Well, okay…we had pants on, too. It was weird because the lake is half iced over, yet it felt mild enough to have a picnic and toss around a frisbee if you were so inclined. Then we came home and I washed my car. After that, I gassed up the snowblower. Because, record high notwithstanding, the weather’s about to go from delightful to frightful. They’ve issued a Winter Weather Advisory and we’re expecting anywhere from 2-5″ of snow.

Not that I mind. I love the cold and snow. Plus, it’s been a lot milder this past month than it was a year ago. We really haven’t had much weather of note since our blizzard two months ago.

If you’re wondering how I know the exact high temperature within a tenth of a degree, it’s because I bought myself a weather station and set it up last weekend. I have always had a fascination with weather and climatology and decided at the age of 8 I wanted to become a meteorologist. Ten years and one Introduction to Meteorology college course later, I realized that a whole lot of math was required. I just wanted to look at clouds and stuff, so that was a hard pass.

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I have to admit, the weather station is pretty nifty. I can see all the stats right on my phone. When I attended high school in South Dakota lo these many years ago, I filled up spiral notebooks with weather information culled from the mercury-filled, wired thermometer on my bedroom wall. Now it’s all transmitted wirelessly, with colorful charts and graphics and historical information down to the hour. Highs and lows, rainfall, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, solar radiation, UV index, sunrise/sunset times, moon phases, etc. About the only thing it doesn’t do is brew coffee (I’m hoping for a future software update to resolve that). I have my data going out to Weather Underground, a nationwide network of personal weather stations. Teenage me would have been amazed! I’ll never be more than a backyard hobbyist, but it’s pretty fun anyway.


Thank you for all the feedback on text justification, both here and on Facebook. There was an overwhelming consensus for left-aligned text, so I’m trying that out. I’m always willing to change things up, whether that means packing up all my worldly possessions, quitting my job and moving 1,200 miles away, or redoing my blog layout.


Super Bowl Sunday, eh? Wish I were more excited over the teams, but the Chiefs are division rivals and I spent too many years ostracized by 49ers faithful as a Broncos fan in the Bay Area to ever get excited about them. Don’t get me wrong: we’ll watch the game and have all the usual snacks that go along with it. Any excuse for guacamole and Bloody Marys, right? I just have no vested interest in the outcome.

The past two weeks at work I’ve hardly been in the office because of interviews with about a dozen different people, from Custer to Hill City to Deadwood. Finally, this week I don’t have any scheduled…

…but I’ve been called for jury duty.

I wish I were excited about this. Democracy in action, civic duty and all, yadda yadda. It’s just not something that thrills me, especially with deadlines looming. My supervisor is totally supportive, at least. I have to call a number tomorrow to confirm that the trial is still a go, and if so, report for duty Tuesday morning. There’s not even any guarantee that I’ll be selected. Twice in the past I’ve been called, but never landed on a jury; the first time, in San Jose, they whittled down a large pool of potential jurors to seven before they were all set, and never got around to questioning me. The other time, in Vancouver, the parties reached a settlement before they ever called any jurors and we were dismissed. I’m hoping for similar luck this time around, but fully expecting I’ll be called. If so, the trial is estimated to last for three days, so I suppose that isn’t too bad.

Maybe I’ll just walk in there and tell ‘em how excited I am to serve on a jury because I want to see the bastard fry. Even if it’s a jaywalking case.

[Name of Business]

The Pitfalls of Copy-and-Paste

I fell victim to my own copy-and-paste transgressions this week. I’m not really surprised that it happened, but rather, that it took so long to happen.

I’m working on a feature story about locally-owned bakeries for the upcoming spring/summer issue of our visitor magazine and have been reaching out primarily through Facebook and website contact forms to set up interviews. Yesterday, I sent out the following:

I’m the Senior Content Writer/Editor for BHV magazine. We are planning on doing a feature story on local bakeries in our upcoming Spring/Summer issue and would like to include name of business. Would you have time to meet with me for a few brief questions about your business? If so, let me know if there is a day and time that would be convenient for you.

I spotted my error two seconds after hitting SEND. Sadly, you can’t unsend something on Messenger. Remember when Harry tried to retract his assertion that men and women can’t be friends in When Harry Met Sally and Sally said “you can’t take it back” because “it’s already out there”? Same concept here. Once words have been typed and sent out into the webisphere, you can’t take them back. They’re already out there.

Armed with the irrefutable knowledge that I couldn’t take them back, I did the next best thing: tried to deflect attention from the fact that they had ever appeared by immediately following up with another message. I told them that I’m a big fan of [actual name of business] and no story about Black Hills bakeries would ever be complete without a mention of [actual name of business]. In other words, I pulled out all the stops and kissed ass like crazy.

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I was sincere in what I said. These guys have been in business longer than any other bakery in town. We used to buy donuts and cakes from them when my dad was stationed at Ellsworth AFB, and that was…

Well. A long time ago, rest assured.

Fortunately, if they noticed my gaffe, they were too polite to point it out. They got back to me and we have an interview scheduled for Thursday morning.

I just really need to be very careful before hitting SEND!

Am I Justified?

I’ve been having an internal conflict over text alignment lately. I’m pretty sure this is something only a writer or designer would think about.

I’m either very visually/spatially oriented or simply neurotic. (For the record, I hope it’s the former. Therapy is expensive.) In any case, for years I have been using justified text on my blog. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, justified text is aligned with both left and right margins and white space is added between words in order to make all lines equal. I like it because it looks cleaner and neater, though some people find the extra spacing distracting. This paragraph is justified.

By contrast, left-aligned text—as the name implies—is aligned with the left side of the page, leaving a ragged right edge. The ragged edge adds an element of white space. Left-aligned text is considered more informal and friendlier than justified text, and some people consider it easier to read. This paragraph is left-aligned.

Right-aligned text is another option. In this layout, text is aligned with the right side of the page, leaving a ragged left edge. Unless you’re wrapping text around a photo positioned on the left side of the page, I find no earthly reason to ever use right-aligned text. It makes me want to gouge my eyes out, actually. This paragraph is right-aligned.

You can even center-align text, but unless you’re writing a headline, I don’t see the point. This paragraph is center-aligned.

Arguments can be made for either of the first two options, I suppose. Typically, blogs are left-aligned. Informal and friendlier, right? I’ve always been a very organized, detail-oriented person, which is why I’m drawn to justified text. But I am curious to learn what you, as readers, prefer. Does justified text make you cringe, or is it something you’ve never even paid attention to before? If you guys prefer left-aligned text, I am open to change.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. While you’re at it, I’d love to know if you have ever sent an email you wish you could take back.

 

I’m Putting My Faith in Technology

Remember how I hinted that I wanted a snowblower for Christmas last month? My parents did, because they generously got us one. We picked it up on an appropriately snowy Saturday a few weeks ago.

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Naturally, it hasn’t snowed since.

What it has done, in fact, has been warm. It was 56º on Tuesday. Fifty-six! In January!! In South Dakota!!! And then yesterday, it actually rained a little. Rain! In January!! In South Dakota!!!

I’d keep going, but I don’t want to wear out the ! key.

Meanwhile, in Florida, frozen iguanas are falling out of trees. What a topsy-turvy world in which we live.

Our rain wasn’t anything to write home about. More like a light drizzle that was barely enough to make a decent puddle. The highlight of the day occurred about 4:45 p.m. There I was, focused on work, when I happened to glance out the window…and spotted an amazing sky. The setting sun was lighting up some rather ominous-looking mammatus clouds. So I did what anybody would do in that situation; quit writing mid-sentence, leapt from my chair, and raced outdoors. I didn’t even bother grabbing a coat; I just wanted to get a picture, and when the sky is on fire like that, it only lasts a few minutes.

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Mission accomplished.

And can I just state for the record, once again, that the sunsets in South Dakota are unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. They take my breath away, again and again.

Our weather forecast looks pretty uneventful over the next 10 days, so for now, the snowblower is sitting in the garage. But considering we had snow up until mid-May last year, I’m sure at some point we’ll have a chance to use it.

I’ve got a busy day today with interviews in Deadwood and Rapid City. Speaking of, I’ve finally gotten smart and started recording them on my phone. It only took eight months! I am paranoid about technology failing me or the sound quality being poor or operator error (accidentally hitting DELETE instead of PLAY and losing everything) so it took me awhile to come around. Up until this week I’d been lugging my laptop everywhere, but I found that to be impersonal. I’d ask questions and furiously type away while also trying to maintain eye contact so as not to be rude. Inevitably, I’d miss things and end up piecing together quotes. Well, the voice recorder app on my phone solves all those problems. All I have to do is go back and transcribe everything afterward. This is great because it allows me to catch everything and I can take my time writing. I tried this for the first time while interviewing a family in Hill City on Monday and it went off without a hitch. It’s a great interviewing hack!

My aunt, however, shared a scary story about her days as a reporter. She said this in a Facebook comment:

Worst experience ever in journalism. Was sent to the Tampa airport in 1983 in the middle of the night to interview medical students returning from Grenada after the US invasion. I used a tape recorder. I started to listen to it in the car on the way back to the office (photographer was driving) and there was nothing on it. I madly scribbled down what I could remember and managed to write a story.

I can only imagine the sense of dread she felt when she hit PLAY and nothing happened.  I don’t even know what I would do in that situation. Curse, cry, both. Just in case, I am bringing along a notebook, but I also feel that defeats the purpose of recording in the first place.

Guess I’ll just put my faith in technology and my ability to distinguish between the different keys on my phone.

Burn, Beetle, Burn!

What an interesting getaway we had this weekend.

Tara and I decided to check out the annual Burning Beetle festival in Custer. Back in the 1980s and 90s, there was a mountain pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills that wiped out a lot of ponderosa pines. These epidemics occur about every 20 years and pose a serious threat to our forests. The city of Custer decided to turn adversity into something positive and created a community-wide celebration focusing on the human connection with the environment in the Black Hills. The goal was to raise awareness and support the arts, so they cooked up (no pun intended) this festival idea in 2013 that includes a variety show, torch parade, and burning of a giant wooden beetle, followed by a pub crawl.

Cool, right? Think Burning Man but a thousand times smaller and 70 degrees colder.

Because we are responsible adults and wanted to take advantage of the pub crawl, we booked a room at the Super 8 in town. Custer’s pretty small; the motel is about a 90-second drive from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown. But it’s quaint and charming; I could actually see myself living there someday. We arrived early in the afternoon and settled into the Buglin’ Bull (a very typical restaurant name in South Dakota) for some cocktails and appetizers. We killed a couple of hours that way before checking into our room, then it was off to the festival.

We got there about 4:30 and man, was it cold. The actual temperature wasn’t bad—mid-20s or so—but the winds were whipping up something fierce, turning any exposed flesh raw and numb. There aren’t any naked people at Burning Beetle, that’s for sure! Despite the cold, this turned out to be a totally unique experience unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The beetle effigy is mounted atop a pile of discarded Christmas trees, so Custer gets bonus points for their recycling efforts.

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We gathered around the beetle, bundled up to ward off the chill, and waited. We heard the approaching mob before we saw them, drumbeats echoing in the distance as they crested a hill before descending upon the field crowded with spectators. There were maybe 100 torch-carrying marchers, led by the aforementioned drummers. Tara and I had debated participating in the march—you could buy a torch for $10—but it was simply too cold.

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The self-proclaimed “Torch Mob” formed a circle around the sacrificial bug and the crowd started chanting “Burn, beetle, burn!” Over and over again, the chorus growing progressively louder as the excitement built. Then, on cue, the Christmas trees were lit and the whole thing was quickly engulfed in flames as fireworks exploded overhead and the crowd continued their frenzied chant. Before long, flames were shooting 50 feet into the air and the heat was so intense we forgot we were even cold.

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The whole thing was really cool and kind of crazy. It reminded me of what it must have been like during the Salem witch trials, when angry mobs embraced ritualized murder. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement; I found myself chanting “Burn, beetle, burn!” just as loudly as the rest of the crowd, and relished with glee when that sucker lit up the night sky. Mob mentality is real, yo.

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It took about 20 minutes to burn away to embers (and by the way, what looked to be the entire Custer fire department was there in case anything went awry). Afterward, we made our way downtown for the pub crawl, affectionately called a “bug crawl.” Custer was hoppin’, at least by Custer standards. We managed to snag the last table available at the Gold Pan Saloon (a very typical bar name in South Dakota) and ordered drinks while a classic rock cover band played some good music. One of Tara’s coworkers and her posse were in town for the celebration and joined us. We grabbed a pizza to go from another place and headed back to our motel with a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade so we could take advantage of the pool and hot tub. Both were great, although on the way to the hot tub I slipped on the concrete and fell. What am I, 80?? Banged up the ankle joint on my left foot and I’ve got a pretty nice bruise as a souvenir. I have no idea how this happened. I swear I wasn’t drunk.

After a restless night thanks to my bruised foot and the noisy guests who apparently decided to run laps around their room at 5 a.m., we grabbed the free so-so motel breakfast and hit the road. We were home by 10:30 after stopping at Safeway for groceries.

I wish I had MLK Jr. Day off tomorrow like Tara does, especially since she’s having a bunch of coworkers over for brunch, but alas some of us have to work. Gah. I’ll try not to think about how they’re going to be drinking Bloody Marys while I’m toiling for the man, and if you’re thinking I’m bitter about this, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s okay though; this is going to be a busy week at work. I’ve got about a million interviews scheduled and stories to write as we are deep into preparing our spring parenting magazine. I told my supervisor not to expect me around the office much as I’ll be traveling to Hill City and Deadwood and Custer this week.

At least the weather should cooperate. Knock on wood and all that jazz.

Leisure

Apparently, there is a trend in which people choose a word of the year, one that  is meant to represent how they envision their year unfolding. Everybody’s word is unique; it should serve as a compass to guide you toward a personal goal. And apparently, this is nothing new; people have been choosing words of the year for quite some time now.

Weird that I’d never heard of this before, given that I’m a writer. Words are my bread and butter. You’d think I’d be all over this scheme. But nope! Much as with “The Sopranos,” which Tara and I just started watching (tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999…literally), I’m late to the game.

In fact, when my supervisor Slacked the team a few weeks ago and asked us if we had a word of the year, I replied like a real smart-ass. “I’ve got two,” I told her. “Widows and orphans.

What can I say? I’ve always been a master of the callback.

Word-of-the-Year-2020

Once I realized this was a real thing, however, I decided to jump on the bandwagon myself. Better late than never! I mean, Tony Soprano is still a compelling character 20 years after his debut, right?

Without further ado then, my word of the year is…drumroll, please…

Leisure.

It’s not that I plan on being a lazy slug in 2020, but I am going to focus on slowing down. I plan on taking more time to stop and smell the roses. To just “be.” If that sounds all hippy-dippy, sorry-not-sorry. The past couple of years have been rollercoaster rides. To wit:

  • In 2018 I quit my job, packed up all my worldly possessions, and moved halfway across the country.
  • In 2019 I started a job, quit a job, started another job, bought a house, and moved again, all while working on 25-ish freelance blogs a week, every week, for the entire year.

I’m exhausted.

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Maybe my word of the year should be “bada-bing!”

My goal for 2020 is to embrace leisure in all its wonderful, carefree forms. I’m already off to a flying start; instead of dashing out a freelance blog every weekday morning before breakfast, I sip coffee and skim through the newspaper. I even changed my alarm to allow me a few extra minutes of sleep every day. There is no painting of walls or unpacking of boxes, but rather, books on Kindle and Tony Soprano. I even hooked up the old PlayStation 2 in the basement and fired up Ratchet & Clank. I haven’t played video games in years.

I mean, it won’t be all fun and games, but there will be a hell of a lot more fun and games than there were last year. Or the year before. We’re heading to Custer for an overnighter this weekend to burn a wooden beetle in effigy and then do a pub crawl, for instance. We also booked a room in Lead for a March weekend, will be traveling to eastern South Dakota in July for a chislic festival, and have a couple of camping trips planned. Best of all, in September, we’re having a family reunion right here in Rapid. I’ve taken the planning reins on that one, but it’s okay: I’ve got time now. This “leisure” thing and I are going to get along just fine.

What’s your personal word of the year?