Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer of Loss - and a Lesson Learned

Summer's almost over. Most of the time, I say those words sadly, but this year I'm more than ready to begin a new season. For me, there have been few days to celebrate in the summer of 2018. If you live in the northeast, you may be nodding your head, thinking about the weather - hot, humid, sticky, and generally miserable. But my sadness has little to do with weather.

I lost someone I love this summer, someone who had been part of my life for most of my life. I lost my brother. Jimmy had Downs Syndrome and, since the death of our parents, I was his guardian. In other words, he was a special needs person. Some people looked at him and that's all they saw. But others looked beyond that and saw him simply as a special person, which he was. Born in a time when there were few programs for people who didn't fit what was considered the norm, his needs were indeed many, but mainly due to the untiring efforts of our mother and a very special aunt, Jimmy enjoyed a life that was rich and filled with a variety of experiences. He worked at a number of different jobs, at first in a sheltered workshop and later in the less protected environment of the general community. He participated in Special Olympics, Exceptional Equestrians, a bowling league, and was active in the music program of his church, thanks to the support of a congregation that practiced love in action.

In the months leading up to his death and during the rituals that surround saying good-bye to a loved one, I learned a valuable lesson. I've always believed that everyone, whatever their intelligence or talents, has a gift to give to those in the world who are ready to receive it. I watched Jimmy win medals and awards and make friends with his sweetness and his unique sense of humor. I saw his accomplishments as his gift, an example of what can be accomplished by pure determination. I believed him to be an inspiration, especially to other persons with special needs and to their families. That belief was confirmed numerous times by people who told me, many with tears in their eyes, what a blessing he had been to them. But the real lesson was something beyond that. I came to realize that his disability was his gift. His need for help and support provided people with an opportunity to give of themselves. He brought out the best in others. Can there be a more important gift than that?

I learned the truth of something my mother told me many years ago: sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is to let them do something nice for you.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Scams, Spams, and Nasty Schemes

It’s a jungle out there…and in here, too. I’m talking about the Internet, and right now, email specifically.  You just can’t be too careful when dealing with email.

Because I’m both an author and a web designer, my main email address is pretty well-known across the Internet. Certainly the spammers and scammers know about it.  I currently get 20-30 spam emails a day. Most of them are annoying, but pretty innocuous, trying to sell me goods or services I don’t need. The weight loss tips, get rich quick schemes, special tools, prescription drug, and great rates on shipping from China offers are aggravating mostly by their sheer bulk.

But some of them are less innocuous. By now the Nigerian prince or defecting diplomat scheme is so well-known as to be the butt of numerous jokes. But people fell for it. Plenty of them. And, having seen the amount of money to be made, the schemers and scammers have moved on to more sophisticated tricks.

For a while I got five or six notices a day from various banks that I had an urgent message and needed to log into my account. Generally poor grammar and wording were a dead giveaway that those messages didn’t really come from their supposed senders, along with the fact that I didn’t actually have an account at any of those banks.

The first time I got an email purporting to be from one of my web clients saying she’d been mugged in some foreign country and needed help, I was both concerned and suspicious. I hadn’t heard of this scheme, so I actually responded with a request for more information. The reply I got was so unlike my client, I knew it was a scam and ignored all further emails related to it. I later got four more versions of that scam relating to other friends or clients.

The scammers are getting better at it, though. The emails telling me I’ve won a $50 gift certificate from Amazon look very legit. The messages saying there is a problem with my Paypal account carry the Paypal logo and are nicely worded. It’s only when you put your cursor over the link to see where it’s really going that you can tell they’re trying to get you to enter your Amazon or Paypal login credentials on a page that most definitely isn’t attached to either site.

Any attempt to get someone to click on a bad email link or open a malware-laced document is generally called a Phishing attack. But it gets worse. What are sometimes called “spear-Phishing attacks,” where the link or attached document is tailored to a specific environment, can cause an unfortunate click to produce widespread devastation.

I’ve gotten emails purporting to be business documents from a co-worker. I don’t work in a corporate environment, but if I did, an email from purchasing@suchandsuch.com claiming to have a spending report attached might trick me into opening it or clicking on a link.

Those are perilous emails because a click on a bad link or document can give hackers access to an entire corporate network. Thousands of businesses have been hit with ransomware attacks. The city of Atlanta’s computer network was shut down for weeks when held for ransom. My local church’s computer system was also disabled for several days due to ransomware. Those attacks can almost always be traced back to someone clicking on a bad link or opening a document containing malware. The infamous hacking of the Democratic party started with a Phishing attack.

A few days ago, though, I got an email that topped all the others for me personally in terms of the general nastiness of the scam. It was basically a blackmail attempt. It said that I’d visited a porn site and while I was there, the sender had installed malware on my computer, turned on my web cam, caught me in a compromising action on the camera, stolen all my contacts information and would send the video to all of them if I didn’t pay their demand of sending 3,000 Bitcoin to the sender.

I’m an author. I do research all over the web, including some of its shadier corners. I’ve probably even been to a porn site a time or two, though I tend not to linger in such places. Otherwise I knew that the rest was pretty much impossible (in my case), so I didn’t take the threat very seriously. I suppose there are people for whom some of this might be a real possibility and such a note would worry them.

What did actually give me pause was that the subject line contained my name and an old password I once used in a couple of places.  I imagine the sender got that from somewhere on the dark web, where all sorts of hacked data, including some from famously huge data breaches like the Yahoo and Equifax debacles, is available for sale. And don’t kid yourself. Your information is up there somewhere, too.

I no longer use that password, and haven’t for some time, but this was a good reminder of why you should never use the same password in different places and why it’s a good idea to change those passwords occasionally.

Apparently I wasn’t alone in receiving this email, according to this article I found, which echoes the conclusions about it I came to about it:

Stay safe, my friends!

Some email safety tips:
• Don’t open emails from unknown sources. 
• Never, ever open an attachment unless you’re very sure of what it is and who sent it to you.
• Keep automatic open of attachments turned off in your email program.
• Don’t click on links in emails unless you’re very sure of what it is.  Remember that your friends’ email accounts can be hijacked, and spammers can spoof the names and email addresses of people you know into the “From” field.
• Any time you get an email from a bank or financial institution saying you have a message, don’t click the link. Go to the institution’s site and log in. If the message is legit it will be posted to your account.
• Keep your computer’s virus protection up to date.
• Don’t log into your email account on open, public wi-fi.
• Change all of your passwords periodically and never use the same one at two different places.

Monday, August 6, 2018

On Life, Love and Loss - A Reality Check

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

As writers our job is to create emotions and reactions to those emotions, be it a love story or a murder mystery or whatever. Sometimes we get so used to playing God, creating and manipulating those emotions and reactions in the way we want, that when real emotions from real situations hit us we are blindsided and overwhelmed.

2018 has not been a good year. As you probably know, this spring my long-time, beloved cover artist Dawn Charles was found dead in her apartment. While devastating, her passing was a grief but not really surprising. Her health had been iffy for years, and sometimes it seemed she spent as much time in the hospital as out. Still, we did about 20 book covers together, emailed or chatted on the phone at least once a fortnight - and more often than not a couple of times a week. Though we never met in person, she was closer and more dear to me than a lot of people with whom I share DNA.

Then last week I received the shattering news that Dr. Dirk Huyge had died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Curator of the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels and Director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab, Dirk and I had met online when I was casting about for help on information on the Elkab necropolis for THE EGYPTIAN FILE. We became friends, and after a while he thought that I do a book about the dig house at Elkab, which is widely believed to be haunted by the ghost of its builder, Somers Clarke. I thought he was joking, but as time progressed he suggested that The Husband and I come to stay for a while in the dig house - a thing that civilians never get to do.

I wanted to, I really really wanted to, but we had been traveling a lot and The Husband was on one of his periodic 'we're spending too much and we have to cut down on expenses' kicks. I don't give up easily, though, so after telling Dirk I would see I sat and thought for several hours. marshalling every argument I could think of about why this would be a good thing. By the time The Husband came home I had a huge and cogent presentation ready. He walked in the door and I started in - 'Darling, Dirk has asked us to come stay at the dig house and I think...'

That was the end of it. He looked at me and said, 'Sounds great. When do we go?'

Now it is a long and expensive way from Dallas to Luxor to Elkab, especially for less than a week, so The Husband I decided to make a real holiday of it. We contacted Jane Akshar, who rents luxurious holiday flats on the west bank of Luxor for what to American eyes is a ridiculously low rent, and arranged to stay with her. I met Jane online at the same time I met Dirk, and she too has become a dear and beloved friend (as well as a gifted and creative webmistress for my website) as well as my go-to reference about the minutiae of being in Egypt.

Dirk invited us in the middle of January; on March 15th we boarded the plane for Egypt. We didn't get to stay as long as we liked at the dig house (don't know how long that would be - I'd like to be there still) but the house is not all that large when a full dig crew is in residence, and we had to be sandwiched in between the visits of our dear friend Salima Ikram and a film crew from the BBC. And in order for us (non-professionals in the field of Egyptology) to come to the dig at all Dirk had to work his way through several layers of mind-boggling Egyptian bureaucracy to get us permission to stay. The Egyptians are very protective of their antiquities, and as a consequence very few civilians get to see archaeology from a dig house perspective.

When the day came for us to leave Luxor for Elkab, we had agreed to call Dirk on the way to the train station and he would come get us, as we would never be able to find the dig house on our own. He was right about that; to reach the dig house involved a long drive through a road-less wasteland populated with a few mean little huts, a couple of dead cattle and two enormous cemeteries.

But that was to come. We called Dirk from the pre-arranged spot on the road, and just as we pulled into the train station a big old and sort of battered Land Rover pulled in beside us. Out of it stepped a tall, ruggedly handsome man of a mature age (think an older Indiana Jones type) who started walking toward me. 'Susan?' he asked. 'Dirk?' I replied. Then he swept me into an extravagant, MGM type of embrace.

Now make no mistake and don't misconstrue this story - Dirk was married to a lovely woman whom he absolutely adored. I am more happily married than most to the most wonderful man in the world - and he was standing not ten feet away from us. But... that enthusiastic hug in the dusty parking lot of a small-town train station in Egypt is STILL one of the most romantic moments in my lifetime, and I will always remember it fondly.

Our stay at Elkab was magical and much much too short. The crew was welcoming, helpful and a great deal of fun. After we went home Dirk and I stayed in contact by email - not as much as perhaps we should have been, but then we had no idea that time was so short. We had begun to play with the idea of doing a mystery with him as the sleuth - but only after he retired. We had talked about it when A KILLING AT EL KAB was in the inception stages, but I didn't want to risk casting any kind of a shadow on his excellent reputation as an archaeologist and a scholar... but I did want him in the book. So, he became the only 'real' person featured in the book, but only in two quick appearances. Now the Dirk-as-sleuth idea in a future book is permanently retired, as I couldn't do it without him.

One final, bittersweet note. On Sunday I received a sweet email from Dirk's wife, telling me how much he enjoyed A KILLING AT EL KAB and asking permission to use my description of him in the book at his memorial service. I don't mind telling you that made me weep, and of course I gave my permission. Her request is a lovely tribute to both of us.

We always think we will do whatever-it-is tomorrow, but sometimes it is brought forcibly on us that we are never guaranteed a tomorrow. So - embrace your friends, tell you family that you love them, do what is important to you today. Sometimes there is no tomorrow.

RIP, Dawn Charles.
RIP, Dr. Dirk Huyge.

The world is poorer for your absence.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


Writers have a most extraordinary need to know. We're like small children when it comes to knowledge, always asking "Why?" and if that is so, "Why?" and "Why?" again, until an adult in the room says "Because!"

We are the adult in the room by the time we begin our careers and finding the answers to our "Whys?" is our job,

So, at times in my career, I have asked and found the answers to the wonderings below.

Wondering about ... colors/colours:

Why is the sky blue?

What is a rainbow?

Why is the nighttime sky black?

Why are the clouds white?

Why do we say "Red sky at night, sailors delight?" and "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning?"

Why is a coward called 'yellow'?

Why is a novice called 'green'?

Why is some prose called 'purple'?

For that matter, why is purple associated with royalty?

And the one question I haven't found an answer to but suspect I can guess "Why do some people hate 'orange'?

Answers in the Comments, please!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Favorite Old Movies

          These days we all have concerns about identity theft.  As a senior and regular Facebook user, I’m statistically a target. My son, who left FB ages ago but knows me well, warns me about filling out one of those on-line surveys about favorite foods, first pet or the name of the street I grew up on.  He says it will make me a target of hackers.  The survey questions are usually the same ones (along with my mother’s maiden name) that are security questions to unlock our credit card accounts.  It’s not hard to understand why some hacker would come up with such a diabolical plan. But it won’t happen to me.  I still don’t know how to cut and paste on FB and now that I know how dangerous it is to respond to such surveys, I’ll never learn and thus won’t be able to participate.  (And note to all my friends who ask me to do it, maybe you shouldn’t be participating either.)
But back to the surveys, they can be interesting.  I don’t mean the ones that ask the name of your first pet or your first grade teacher, but surveys that focus on favorite restaurants, vacation spots, beaches and movies.  Movie lists are always interesting.  My list of favorites usually is made up of romantic comedies. I guess as a romance writer, that shouldn’t come as any surprise.  In no particular order, my top movies would be Love with a Proper StrangerBarefoot in the ParkBreakfast at Tiffany’sGuess Who’s Coming for DinnerGigiLove ActuallyMy Fair Lady, and any movie written and produced by John Hughes. I’m always on the look out for good ones to watch. I know there are movies out there that I haven’t seen and don’t know about and will love as much as the aforementioned. I’ve since discovered in the age of Google, such lists are easy to find and, in the process of procrastinating and avoiding writing this blog, I found one that lists the top 50 romantic comedies of all time. 
I’ve seen a lot of them, was happy to be reminded of some, and intend to make it my goal to see the rest.  Interestingly, there are several really old movies that are still on the list and several newer ones, such as Pretty Woman, that are not.  Pretty Woman, unfortunately, along with Bull Durham and Officer and a Gentleman, was once in my top three, but time moves on. Also on the list were several that seem to be there for sentimental reasons.  I will always opt for a Cary Grant movie over most others, and he’s represented with three, all great—of course I’ve seen them—and in the top 15, but I really wonder if Charlie Chaplin’s City Lightsshould be included.  I guess I’ll have to watch it to find out.  Fortunately, with Netflix that’s not hard to do. 
I’m ready to line up my choices and settle in front of the TV to watch them.  Waitresssounds intriguing and it’s been a long time since I saw It Happened One Night.  Now all I need is a quiet night without my husband. He’d never want to watch any of these. He’s more of a History Channel guy.
But back to those surveys, are my choices of movies predictable? Probably.  And my husband’s choices probably are too.  I can’t believe I’m the only woman married to a man who would rather watch the History Channel than catch up with Grey’s Anatomy.  Just as a footnote, in our house, we watch what I call, Compromise TV, i.e. NCISChicago PD and The Americans, the latter because it’s simply excellent.  Seriously, I’m curious about what everyone else watches or wants to watch—and not because I’m going to hack you. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Our Four-Generation Photos

From the time she was little, our daughter wished for a daughter of her own, a wish that found fulfillment this spring. Along with that wish came her desire for a four-generation picture. She wanted to get her beloved Grammie (my mother, Anonna Hubbard), in a photo with me, herself, and her daughter.

When Macy was born in April, our daughter began planning for that picture she had always wanted, but she was living in Washington, my mother was living in northern Utah, and I was in Arizona, serving a full-time Mormon mission. The picture seemed unlikely.

Last month, a series of unexpected (and frequently unfortunate) events sent my husband and me to northern Utah on medical leave. He needed a procedure to correct an irregular heart rhythm. That gave me the opportunity to visit my 93-year-old mother, an opportunity I hadn't expected to have for another year.

Elder Aylworth had his heart procedure, but a series of unexpected complications kept us in the area for a week longer than we anticipated. That week became a huge blessing. 

Two days before we left on our Utah trip, my mother fell and broke her arm. Because it could not be immobilized (and, at 93, she was not a candidate for surgery), every motion was agonizing. A week later, and the day before my husband's surgery, my mother went on hospice. Again, it seemed unlikely that a four-generation picture would ever happen.

In a coincidence of timing that can only be considered providential, our son-in-law accepted a new job within 40 minutes' drive of where my mother was living. On Sunday, July 1, my daughter and her daughter arrived at my mother's apartment. Mom was in a hospital gown with her arm in a sling, but the four-generation pictures finally happened.

On that Sunday, my mother was clear and cogent. Blinded by macular degeneration, she couldn't see us, but she could hold the baby, touch her, comment on her long, strong fingers and long, thin toes, and share the wonder of new life with all of us. Only two days later, my mother was gone.

These last two pictures show our daughter crying happy tears, grateful for the small miracles that made her visit and these pictures possible, and my mother, enjoying holding her great-granddaughter.

I will forever be grateful to my daughter for the effort she made to arrive "on time," to my mother for hanging on the way she did, and to my sweet sister, who took these precious pictures. Our four-generation photos may not be ideal, but we will treasure them as we treasure the memories of this last four-generation visit.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Watching the Tour de France

by Karen McCullough

Years ago our son got me and my husband hooked on the Tour de France. I started watching it mostly for the gorgeous pictures of the French countryside, the chateaux, the cathedrals, and castles that were featured to accompany the race. The bicycling itself didn’t interest me. But I gradually was sucked into the intricacies of the race itself, which proved to be fascinating.

Prior to this I knew the Tour de France existed and heard about it occasionally. But it sounded ultimately boring. A lot of cyclists racing around the country. Whole lot of pedaling. Yawn.

There are long stretches that are fairly boring, too. That’s one of the reasons you get all these lovely views of the countryside and sites of historical or esthetic interest. They do need something to fill in some of the time.

(By the way, all images here are from my television screen.)

Like a lot of things that appear simple on the surface, however, cycle racing is much more complex than it appears at first sight. There are a lot of things going on and it’s been fascinating to learn about some of them.

These are just some random thoughts about the Tour de France:

Grand tour racing is a team sport. (The Tour de France is the best known of three Grand Tour races – those that are 21 days long and include a variety of types of courses.) A single rider cannot hope to win one without a huge support staff, including team-mates riding with him. Although teams may come into the race with different goals, most teams have a single intent and build their team around it.

A good part of the team advantage grows out of one simple principle of aerodynamics. Because a rider can ‘draft’ off other riders, maintaining the same speed without having to do the same amount of work as the person in the lead, a group working together can generate more power for a much longer time than a single rider on his own.

There are races within the races within the races. Of course, there is only one overall winner, but there are other prizes available. The overall winner gets a yellow jersey, but there is also a green jersey for the best sprinter, a polka dotted jersey for the best mountain climber, and a white jersey for the best young rider. Each stage has its own winner as well, and those are coveted prizes.

The race is set up to test different skills. Some stages are long and relatively flat, while some are brutally mountainous. The idea is that the overall winner has to be good at all those things. Riders who are trying to win the whole thing are called “GC” (General Classification) contenders. But some teams bring a specialist in either sprinting or mountain climbing to the race and concentrate all their efforts toward winning those competitions.

The long and relatively flat sections of the race normally end with a furious, all-out sprint for the finish by riders who specialize in just that. They’re racing for the stage win, but also points are awarded to the top ten or fifteen finishing positions and the total of those points decides the green jersey competition. Some stages also have “sprint points” within the course that award points to the first few people across that line.

Probably the most brutal stages are those that include several long mountain climbs and the even more terrifying long, winding descents most riders take at speeds that wouldn’t be wise in an automobile, let alone on a bicycle.

There are also stages that are just time trials, where riders race against the clock rather than each other.

Unexpected things can always occur. On a long flat stage, a crosswind can play havoc with the peloton. The bicycles are complex, finely-tuned instruments and they sometimes break. Flat tires are common. Chains sometimes come off the gears. Teams are set up to respond quickly to these, but it can still cost a rider time, especially if it occurs near the end of the stage.

Crashes happen. At least some of the race is on narrow roads. Sharp bends and the frequent roundabouts of European roads can create havoc. The competitors tend to ride bunched tightly together so they sometimes just run out of road space. And when one goes down he usually takes several more with him.

Not all the riders who start the race can finish. Some become ill during the race, but most withdrawals are the result of injuries suffered during crashes.

Although tactics plays a huge role in how the race plays out, the amount of courage, strength, stamina, and sheer guts all the riders need to compete is almost beyond imagining.