Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Racism is funny, because we're past that, right?

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Because once again, I got to hear that since there isn't much Archie Bunkerism in the world today, stereotypical racist cartoons are just innocent fun. ("It was from clipart, so it couldn't be racist".) In fact, I was told that by pointing out the racist stereotypes, that I was somehow making things worse.

Luckily, you don't have to listen to me rant about it. Not because I'm being silent - because silence implies acceptance of the behavior - but because just the day before, Resist Racism wrote up an article that says nearly the same things that I was going to say. (And yes, if you think I'm talking about you in the first paragraph, then you absolutely must read it before getting upset with me. Don't forget the Racism 101 page as well.)

Then take a look at this post over at that really breaks down caricature. And the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a fascinating archive that shows exactly how embedded these racist images have been in our popular culture.

"Have been", you say? Oh, it was worse - or more blatant, perhaps - in the past, but they're still there. Take a look at this Slate slideshow of how racist attitudes and images have been used to sell products - and still do.

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Who Knew - A 100 Word Story

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This week's 100 word story is also entered in the 100 word story weekly challenge. You can vote for your favorite (and mine too) there. You can also listen to all the entries, or if you just want to hear mine (the background music adds to the comprehension, as does the picture with this), you can hear it here

Bob gapes at the holoscreen. "Sally, have you seen the artificial life sim?"

Sally peers over his shoulder. "What?"

"Up in the sky," he says.

Above the simulated people walking virtual streets, a blue and red figure swoops down. It lifts a car over its head, stopping it from hitting a jaywalking alife boy.

"That one," Bob continued, "is using a software exploit! It does things the others can't!"

"Huh," Sally said.

Bob's face was red. "Who could have known about that flaw? Who could have installed the exploit?"

"I dunno," Sally said, hiding the install CD behind her back.

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Turning Veterans Into Sociopaths

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The movie scene we watched in class resonated with me; two war vets confessing their darkest memories of combat to each other. It resonated because it reflected my experiences talking to vets. My grandfather served in World War II. I've talked to vets from Vietnam. There was a commonality in all their stories. If they talked about them at all, it was a sense of sadness, a sense of regret for the things they had to do. They would have done the same things again; the vets I'm speaking of were not pacifists. [1] They were proud of their service; they believed the things they did simply had to be done.

But they did not gloat about them.

I later learned the two boys - they had to be ten years younger than me, so they were "boys" even though they could legally drink - were in the National Guard. They were 11 Bravos - that's infantry for one of you civilian types - and at least one of them was planning to go active duty after his commitment to the Guard was up.

But that was later.

They were talking outside between bands, loud but private. Perhaps they were half-deaf from the band before, perhaps it was just an assumption that nobody else was around. While they smoked, it was easy for me to hear them even ten feet away. It was easy to hear the tones of their voices. [2]

"Yeah, [the Iraqi kids] wouldn't always take lemon-lime Gatorade from us. They thought we were giving them piss. 'Cause some of the guys would piss in the jars on patrol then just throw them by the side of the road. Some guys would piss in the orange, though, and then give that to the kids."

"It was weird, they wouldn't be scared of a pistol, but if I just put a laser pointer on them they'd start pissing their pants. Got to so I wouldn't bother with my pistol - just use the laser pointer or the fifty-cal."

"There were always all these sheep. Once, I [hooked up a bunch of small munitions] and tossed it into a bunch of 'em." [Other guy] "That's like a grenade!" [First guy] "Yup. Boom."

"Though the most [screwed] up thing I did was when some kid was throwing rocks at us, y'know? He was throwing these rocks and I just heaved an [inaudible] at him. It hit him on the head, man. [laughter] There was this big metal thunk, and he just fell down and lay there. Dunno what happened to him, he was still laying there when we left. Serves him right for throwing rocks at us."

It wasn't the words so much. Compared to past atrocities, these things were nothing. What bothered me was the tone. I've heard that tone before. I've used that tone before.

They described inhuman treatment in the same tone you use when you're telling someone about a really great party, or a fun movie. The way you talk about how things were when you hung out with your friends in high school, or at the last convention.

That was what struck me about these new veterans. That was what scared me. That these boys talked about such dehumanizing brutality (including a possible murder) the same way you'd talk about that party when your friend had the lampshade on your head. It's that kind of attitude that breeds atrocity. It's this attitude that explains why studies of veterans from prior wars [3] don't have the same huge increase in domestic violence that we're seeing in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is the real cost of this war. We will be paying that cost far, far into the future. [2]

[1] Pre-emptively: I served active duty in the US Army for eight years. I did oppose our invasion of Iraq, I did not oppose our invasion of Afghanistan. I get really annoyed with people who never served telling me I'm not as patriotic as they are.
[2] These are excerpts, with the profanity removed, and probably distorted slightly by my memory. I've also clarified pronouns a bit and cleaned up the text for space considerations. Or in other words, this isn't a transcript.
[3] Note the date of 2005. This statement was issued less than 24 months after the start of combat in Iraq. The CBS article is from 2009, after there's been time for the effects to really start to show.

You are Never Alone (when libertarianism is stupid)

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In the aftermath of a car crash, we can see where the worlds of medicine and driving meet. The other similarity isn't quite so obvious.

The United States has a lot of mental energy wrapped up in the idea of individual liberty. Each of us wants to be in control of our own lives, and don't want someone else to tell us how to live. They are our lives, our choices, and we can each individually deal with the consequences.

Here's some quick examples:
  • How much coverage we have
  • Smoking
  • What care we get

  • How fast we drive
  • Wearing seatbelts/helmets
  • Using a cell phone

In each of these examples, it's pretty easy to find those who say these should all be individual choices. If someone doesn't make a good coverage a priority in their finances, then that's their choice [1]. If someone decides to not wear a seatbelt, then they'll be the ones hurt in a crash.

And these libertarian arguments - while not very empathetic - are absolutely accurate if and only if driving and health choices are activities done in isolation, with no impacts outside the individual.

It doesn't take much thought to realize that practically never happens. We drive on the roads with other people. If I'm careless, I'm not only risking myself, but everyone else on the road. We live and work around other people. If I'm more susceptible to diseases, I become infected more easily and put other people nearby at risk of being sick as well. And that's without considering insurance [2] - which is supposed to be a mechanism for spreading that risk out among a group of people. [3]

Both driving and caring for our health are public activies with public, shared consequences. Treating them as individual, private matters is denying the basic observable reality of our society and world.

[1] Yes, I am well aware that for many, that is a choice between health coverage and basic needs. That's a separate point.
[2] Saving part of your income to pay for medical costs doesn't do you a lot of good if you get sick early in your life.
[3] If my co-worker is riskier with thier health, it may end up making my premiums go up. Again, a separate point.

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Pirates - A 100 Word Story

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[Side note: I submitted this to the Weekly Challenge. You can read (and hear) the rest of the stories at their site; be sure to vote for your favorites! If you want to just hear the audio of my story alone, it's here.]

Smoke billowed from the ship's wreckage. Captain Saunders and his crew baked on the sun blasted island beach. In the near distance, the pirate ship sailed back out to sea.

"This is a right mess, Cap'n," his first mate said. He stroked the grey stubble of his beard. "Those pirates marooned us here, wrecked our ship, and stole all our cargo!" He stomped his boot in the sand. "And them pirates was just women!"

Captain Saunders sighed. "They stole more than our cargo, Smitty." He
touched the ragged hole in his chest and smiled.

"She stole far more than that."

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Reigniting the Spirit of Pirates

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Since Talk Like a Pirate Day is upon us, I'm presenting this today.

A little over a year ago, I was invited to give my feedback on a seminar about caring for patients. It is - was, take your pick - an effort to change hospital culture from something out of House to something more... caring. It applies to anybody in any industry, really, but especially to those in healthcare, sales, education, or anywhere in the service industry. Even if you've never heard of this program, I think you can get something useful from this analysis.

What does that have to do with pirates?

You'll see.

(It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. These opinions are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the official opinion of my employer, the university I'm enrolled in, the people who created the seminar, or sentient fungi from Pluto. Or anybody else, for that matter. Unless you want to hunt for your own Death Star with me.)

When evaluating any training program, you have to analyze how well does the training prepare its graduates for overcoming the obstacles of the real world? Both aspects of a program are important, but too often as educators we get overwhelmed with the minutiae of how we teach, and forget why we teach.

There are a lot of good stylistic techniques in this seminar. Our expectations were broken from the very beginning, starting with the toys on the tables, the hands-on activities, and dynamic changes in the ways that we sat and addressed each other. The ritualistic nature of the "circle" created a sense of positive - but honest - truth-telling. Finally, there was a structured effort to address all styles of learning and convey the information accurately to all participants.

The program is, however, imperfect

There are elements missing from the program.

  1. The step-by-step HOWTO aspect of implementing changes was often unable to be addressed due to time limitations.

  2. While materials and bibliographies were made available for later review, that was a marked difference from the multiple learning style approach of earlier topics.

  3. There was a large focus on personal improvement, but a lack of looking at structural effects. To avoid the flavor-of-the-month whitewash of management fads, we must ensure that it is a structural change at both the top and bottom of the structure.

Oh - and there was little room for pirates.

Let me explain.

We had to choose a name by consensus. A name that labeled and defined our whole group and the experience we had over those three days. We were split about 2 to 1: the Caring Kindlers versus the Spirit Pirates, Yaaar! While these names seem wildly different, they are complementary and required needs.

During the seminar, we saw a brief clip from the movie Patch Adams. In that sequence, Patch, still a med student, first conned his way into a beef convention, and then snuck into a hospital. Patch - unlike the official doctors and residents - asked a patient's name instead of simply discussing the patient as an affliction. And that's where he was acting like a pirate.

I don't mean a historical pirate, or the hyper violent pirates of modern seas. I mean Veggie Tales pirates. I mean Pie-Rats. I mean, look at Patch Adams.

Does he look like he has more in common with House or an animated cucumber?

Patch Adams broke both formal rules and social expectations in order to do the right thing. And that is the whole point. As we emphasize - in our practice and in our teaching - that we are caring for patients, it is vital that we also remember that the rules are there in service of that goal. And if the rules no longer serve that goal - then we must foster a willingness to hijack the bureaucracy when necessary in order to meet that goal.

This is where the program could flounder. This is a complete culture change in medicine across the United States. Our medical culture is changing from one that centers around rude, hyper efficient, but knowledgeable so-called "professionals" to those who are competent, caring, and patient – and a focus on the patient. But change creates conflict. We can neither treat just one part of a body or just one part of a sick medical culture. The graduates from this seminar - the graduates from your institutions - must not only be able to be fluffy caring people - but also be pirates willing to take risks and break social norms in the service of doing the right thing.

Management - typically risk-avoidant - must become tolerant of people working towards the goal (patient care) instead of working to perpetuate the bureaucracy. We cannot afford to simply let this be a top-down culture anymore. Ideas and improvements come from everyone, everywhere. It doesn't matter what their title is, or how many years in service they have. We have to learn to hear truths from all people with the firm goal of patient care in sight. This is a horribly countercultural idea. The aide or housekeeper might notice something the nurse or doctor does not. In my own department, an aide noticed a safety risk because she happened to be shorter than the people who made the original decision. Without honestly listening to her - and acting quickly to resolve the issue - her input might have been lost forever. We must remember: Good ideas come from everywhere.

The things you and this seminar must impart are not simple scripts to mimic. It is a process of truly understanding and analyzing. We speak of “Treat people the way they want to be treated", but forget how hard it is to do when that person wants something we do not.

It is infeasible to have a massive rollout of these seminars, which again reinforces the need for a caring pirate mentality. As it is, it will be extremely difficult for our original flames to buck the inertia of the system. They are working against a huge amount of peer pressure and inertia. We must give them the tools to withstand that pressure, and then support them as much and as quickly as possible.

Think of it this way. Relationship Based Care means that we must always remember that there is no "that's just the way things are". There is the way you are doing things right now. We must teach ourselves, our students, and our colleagues that each of us holds the choice. Do we focus on social norms and rules - or do we focus on our patients?

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A Shaggy Zombie Story

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Bob the Zombie looked over at his friend Sara. She was busy scooping
the brains out of a young man's head. Bob had the woman's date half
out of the car.

"Sara," Bob said (although it sounded like "Gwddaaarrrgngg", because,
well, zombies), "why are we eating brains?"

"MmmmNmphmmm," Sara said (because, well, she had her mouth full of dura mater).

"I'm not sure I want to eat this brain," Bob said.

"Don't you like the taste?" Sara asked. (She had swallowed.)

Bob shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. I guess I'd just rather have a
nice pepperoni pizza."

Sara stuck out the remains of her tongue. "Eww. I'm a vegetarian."

They both let this moment pass in a short silence before Sara ripped
off the woman's nose with her teeth.

"Seriously, Sara," Bob said. "I don't want to eat brains anymore."

"You have to," she said. "You're a zombie."


"You don't have to like it Bob. Zombies eat brains. It's one of
those things you just have to do after you die." Sara gave the
woman's ear a few thoughtful chews.

"It's de rigor."

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Women in Astronomy - TONIGHT 7pm

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September 14th, 7:00pm to 9:00pm: Professor Lori Cutright of Sinclair Community College will be giving a presentation, "Women in Astronomy," as part of our organization's observance of the International Year of Atronomy 2009 global sub-project "She is an Astronomer" ( The talk will take place in the Millett Hall atrium (1st floor) at Wright State, and light refreshments will be served. Our co-sponsors are the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, the Women's Center, the WSU Department of Physics, and the WSU chapter of the Society of Physics Students. Wright State is at 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway in Dayton.

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Peas in a Pod - A Flash Fiction

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We will meet the enemy soon. I wonder what their name is.

"Papa company, fall in!" Sarge is one of us too, just decanted from the vat two weeks earlier than the squad leaders like me. I'm two weeks older than my squad members. I'll need the extra training in battle.

"Squad leaders, report!" Sarge yells.

"First squad, all Philips present and accounted for!" I shout.

The squad leader behind me shouts his report next. "Second squad, all Philips present and accounted for!"

Once all the reports are done, Sarge has us fall out to our drop pods. A sea of identical faces - identical Philips - shoulders their rucks and heads to the pods. We strap in. Soon we'll drop onto the enemy from low orbit.

"Maybe the enemy is named something exotic, like Adam. Or John," I say to the Philip beside me.

"Philip, once we get there," Philip says, "their name is going to be mud!"

Philip and I laugh for a moment. The pod detaches from the ship, and all the Philip clones hush for a moment.

And I still wonder what the enemy's name is.

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Just off I-75, my son lets me know I'm irrelevant. Not in so many words; he’s not cruel. It’s hard to hear him, words whipped by summer wind through the open window. I am driving him home from college, and I don't live in his world anymore.

The first half-hour was safe. Leaving the college by interstate, we spoke of nothings. He told me how he doesn’t need a car on the small campus. Nobody mentions that neither of us could afford it, anyway. We talked about his roommate from Centerville; we remembered the girls in too-tight shirts and too-short skirts. We talked a bit about sports, though he’s not following the Reds like he used to. Safe things.

Then our exit arrived, and we pulled onto the county road. It's different from around his college. The houses seem smaller and shabbier; the roadside mailboxes are ugly, not quaint. The smell from the plant is already noticeable. The wind’s down, though, so it's not too bad. Twenty years on the job will get a man used to most any smell; the stink lets me know I'm coming home. My son's nose wrinkles; I ask about his classes before he can say anything about it.

He speaks, but I don't understand the words.

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Shelter - A Flash Fiction

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She had done a fabulous job with him.
It had taken years. Years of patient molding, sculpting, bathing, and cleansing of body and mind. The hours spent encouraging him at his studies or the gym. The late night phone calls scaring away the hussies who had been forward enough to call her little darling.

"Golly, Ma," he said. "I would sure like to go to college some day."

Her lips tightened like her hand around his tweed-jacketed arm. She stared at his eyes until he looked away. There was a pale shadow of beard across his cheek. She sighed. Shaving him twice a day wasn't enough anymore.

"College is a sinful place, darling. Now let's go home so you can rub my feet."

She found his jury-rigged TV antenna that night, and put it in the rubbish while he slept.

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Your unreasonable expectations...

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I have never made quite enough money.

Every time my income goes up, expenses seem to rise to a point just above what I can afford. You may have noticed the same events in your life. After a week on a diet, I start to get used to less food. After a week off the diet... well, the less said about that, the better.

We humans are wonderfully adaptable creatures. It does not take much effort to find other examples where our expectations change as our situations change. Pop culture is full of tales of rock stars who need just the right mix of food in their dressing rooms, or of athletes finding a salary far higher than ours to be "unacceptable". Similarly, we can find people who survive - and even thrive - in conditions that the industrialized world finds unacceptable.

This is a frequently overlooked problem in measuring customer satisfaction. It is increasingly common to find superlatives in mission statements, promotional materials, and surveys. Exceeds, surpass, and great - often with exclamation points - have taken the place of words like meets and satisfy. This change was well meant; nobody wants to have a merely mediocre experience. We want our employees to do a great job, to surpass the basic requirements, and exceed our expectations. Of themselves, these are not bad things.

When combined with real people, it gets troublesome.

Consider airline food. The first food on airplanes - a ham sandwich and apple or banana - was served in 1935. The first passengers fed that sandwich that on a long distance flight were probably grateful to get it - but within two years, passengers wanted quality hot foods. I remember my father's descriptions of the first televisions: Small orbs in huge boxes, showing black and white shows only part of the day. Now, we expect not only continual programming - but also instant availability of shows we personally find fulfilling and enjoyable.

And let's not talk about screen size.

Yet both of those examples are reliant on technological advances, not customer service. No matter how we try, the limits of our current technology serve as an upper constraint on consumer expectation. In the service industry, the concept of "exceeds" becomes much more fluid and dangerous. Employers rightly expect workers to make that extra effort to exceed our initial expectations. Yet even as they do, they change the customer's expectations for the next and following encounters. At the same time, the customer does not expect the price of that encounter to change. If it does, then it is no longer exceeding their expectations. It has simply become a routine business exchange. The concept of exceeding expectations means that within short order our businesses become obligated to provide extra services without changing their income. Our employees become overworked and overstressed, leading to decreases in morale and later decreases in actual customer satisfaction.

When the standard becomes exceeding the standard, it risks inflated expectations, devalued service ratings, and decreased profits for everyone involved.

Striking the balance between high standards of excellence and inflated expectations is a difficult task that today's business leaders face. We must retain high standards of excellence - in manufacturing and service industries. At the same time, exceptional service and quality should remain exceptional, and not be mistaken as the new norm.

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Sexual Politics of Murder

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There's something deeply disturbing about "The Sexual Politics of Murder" - and I don't think it's what Ms. Caputi was aiming for. What I think she was trying to say - and I'm extrapolating quite a bit here - is that the patriarchal systemic dominance of women contributes to and is expressed in individual acts of violence against women. That's an argument that is pretty hard to refute, and a disturbing notion indeed.

That's not quite what Ms. Caputi says.

Instead, she ascribes individual motive throughout, nearly insisting that Ted Bundy - and other male killers - are inherently, consciously, and deliberately enforcing the patriarchy as the KGB enforced Communism. That male serial killers are explicitly intending to terrorize all women and enforce a patriarchal reign.

I don't think that makes a whole lot of sense.

Her thesis is not necessary to explain their behavior - and in fact, seems counterproductive to their egocentric tendencies. This does not absolve the system of culpability, nor does it remove the unintended effects. Yet Ms. Caputi seems unsatisfied with this, and draws a near conspiracy of men actively conspiring to deliberately keep women down.

Further, her examples leave much to be desired. She paradoxically uses a demonstration of people joyous at Ted Bundy's execution to demonstrate his appeal, and forgets basic logic when asserting that porn is in itself evil. This latter fallacy is obvious on the face of it; were porn nearly as horrible as she claims, then a much greater percentage of persons should be serial killers. This is manifestly not the case.

Instead, it is not difficult to find killers using all sorts of texts and influences to justify their own decisions and excuse their behaviors. That these killers were consumers of pornography - especially with her loose definition making it ubiquitous - is not surprising; that does not imply the causal link that she asserts.

It is definitely a different way of looking at the world, and brings some potentially uncomfortable questions to bear regarding our culpability in sustaining a system that works so steadily against women. Ascribing individual motivations, however, is a step too far.

(the image selected isn't quite on the topic that Ms. Caputi has - she was talking about serial killers and the like - but brings another and perhaps more apt angle to her thesis.)

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Going (a lighter shade of) Green

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They're going green.

That's the campaign, anyway. The cups and packaging container are now made of vegetable fiber instead of styrofoam and wax paper. They give a discount on drinks if you have a refillable cup.

But there's problems.

The discount is only available if you buy their cup. Bring your own, you don't get the discount. You have to pay extra for the biodegradeable packaging.

Once items are packed into a landfill, air can't get to them - so a normally biodegradable paper bag may last nearly as long as a plastic eyesore. There are no recycling containers for the bottled water still sold here, or for the cardboard the pizza still comes in. The freaking laundromat has recycling bins - why can't one of the largest employers in the region figure this out? Without those specific waste streams, the "biodegradeable" label may relieve your conscience, but it's not helping the environment.

And let's not add in the energy footprint of shipping the food here, the inevitable waste at the end of the day, or of maintaining this climate-controlled building.

Ultimately, the most "green" thing the customers could do would be to bring their own lunch from home.

You won't hear advertising campaigns about that. Because businesses are interested in green. It's just not environmentalism.

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An unheld hand

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The nurse did not hold the second patient's hand.

I watched the nurses. I paid attention as the patients came through their department. I watched the tests, watched the patients, watched the nurses.

I saw the difference.

Everyone was professional. Always. You wouldn't notice the difference if you were the patient. But the difference was there.

One nurse, white. Two patients, almost in a row, who had a rough time through the test. One patient was white. One patient was black. They held one patient's hand throughout. The other patient was reassurred, but did not have that physical contact. Guess which patient's hand was held?

Another nurse, black. It's almost more subtle until you're looking for it. One patient was white. One patient was black. They were friendly and smiling with one patient, sharing details of their personal life. The other patient they treated with a professional detachment. Guess which one was which?

I don't know if either nurse is aware of this. I don't know how to point this out without provoking defensive reactions. And I want to emphasize this: They're both professional with every patient. The differences are subtle. But the differences are there.

If nobody else notices, does it matter?

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Hurricane - A 100 Word Story

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My roommate said he moved to Florida from Hurricane, West Virginia, though he pronounced it Hurr-eh-cun and threatened to fight me over it.

"It's where the hurricane names come from," he told me. "One at a time, we get sick. It's alphabetical, but skips around. One year boys, the next girls. As we get sicker, the storm gets worse."

"But you live here now," I said.

He shook his head. "The sickness follows us. It's where you're born that counts."

He went to bed early that night. The next day he had a fever, and clouds massed on the horizon.

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