Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

Nearly four thousand years ago, someone living in what is modern-day Iraq etched into a clay tablet, instructions for making beer. Part recipe and part hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, the etching is the oldest written recipe so far discovered. And the one thing we can know for sure is that people have been making beer even longer than that.

Though the precise beginning of beer has proven tricky to pinpoint, researchers have found evidence of it from as far back as ten thousand years ago, around the time the human lifestyle began to shift from hunting and gathering to farming and domesticating.

beer-2439237__340In the late 1980s, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Dr. Solomon Katz first suggested that the accidental discovery of beer might have even been the driving force behind that shift. Basically, he theorized that when humans left wild wheat and barley outside the cave to get wet, the resulting dark liquid, when mixed with natural yeast in the air, made early man overly confident and inclined to watch football.

Dr. Katz explained that it could have been a desire to find a stable production method for beer that drove humans to plant some seeds and stay a while, beginning the long tradition of plopping onto a barstool and drinking oneself stupid.

One observation that supports the theory is that in some of sites of the earliest Neolithic villages, researchers find plenty of evidence for the presence of grain, but very little for the cooking of it, indicating that beer may have predated bread as a grain-derived food source. Also, astute anthropologist that he is, Dr. Katz has pointed out that cultures all over the world have long gone to great efforts to obtain and produce mind-altering substances. In other words, people like beer, and probably always have.

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Most of my friends seem to prefer a local-ish craft beer. I won’t argue with them.

Personally, I’m not a big fan. I might drink a beer from time to time when a social occasion calls for it, but I have never particularly enjoyed the taste and would almost always prefer a glass of wine or, more often, a Coke.

But I have lots of friends who really enjoy beer and do things like hold beer tastings and talk to each other using words like dry-hopped, cask conditioning, and adjuncts (which apparently does not refer to the part-timers in the English Department, who coincidentally, also tend to like beer).

These are generally the same friends who turn up their noses at a can of Budweiser and then roll their eyes at me when, at their insistence, I take a sip of their favorite microbrew and say something profound like, “Yep. That’s beer alright.”

So, even though it provided a great deal of nutrition and a safer way to consume water and was possibly a major catalyst that launched humans toward life as we know it today, I don’t have a lot of use for beer. Or at least I didn’t until this past week.

Much like our ancient forefathers thousands of years ago, I am a gardener. Also, like them, I mostly do it by trial and error and am not always good at it. This spring, as my baby plants have tried to push their way through the lush soil in my garden boxes, something has been nibbling away at them. The culprit, I believe, is the sowbug.

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Technically, this is a crustacean. That likes beer. photo credit: Wanderin’ Weeta Big pillbug-3 via photopin (license)

Better gardeners than I may insist that these funny pill-shaped bugs are not my problem, but I have performed a pretty thorough study (meaning I Googled it) and have found that these little monsters, while not a problem for larger, established plants might just munch their way through tender young shoots. And apparently one way to deal with them is to get them rip-roaring drunk.

After carefully considering my pest control options for about five minutes, I decided to buy some beer. I went with a craft variety because I don’t know if, like my friends, roly poly bugs are beer snobs and my fresh green beans are worth it. I set shallow dishes of the stuff throughout my garden beds and waited.

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There are bugs in my beer garden. And hopefully, eventually there will be vegetables, too.

It turns out, these critters like beer as much as our ancestors did and they will go to great lengths to get it. As their bar-haunting distant cousins drown their sorrows in beer, great numbers of the sowbugs just drown. I suspect the smarter ones are already trying to figure out how they can make more of it themselves in a sustainable, and possibly less lethal, way.

As I watch this seemingly innate drive for beer, I am convinced that Dr. Katz was onto something. Not every anthropologist agrees that beer was the greatest driving force for giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, citing things like climate change and population growth as other plausible explanations. Still, most admit beer may have been a factor. It seems then that gardening is for beer, and beer is for gardening.

Oh—I See What He Did There

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a writers’ conference for which the keynote speaker was bestselling author Tess Gerritsen. You might know her as the author behind the television series Rizzoli & Isles and several fairly brilliant medical thrillers that, if you are a fan of medical thrillers, you should probably read.

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The very gracious Tess Gerritsen with Sock Monkey Steve.

She is a wonderful speaker and had many insightful things to share, including this one bit I am holding onto particularly hard at the moment. Bestseller Tess Gerritsen confessed that during the course of reworking nearly every project she writes, there comes a time when she no longer believes the story is any good at all. Of course, her point in sharing this was that sometimes you just have to put your head down and keep forging ahead.

I find myself at this point with my current work-in-progress. I suppose I might call it writer’s block except I don’t think that’s really what it is. I’m not having trouble coming up with ideas or even getting words on a page. I mean, I am mostly working on short story and essay submissions and not my novel, but I am writing. I’m even writing some things I’m pretty proud of.

But when it comes to this historical novel, of which I have plowed my way through a terrible first draft and have completed a good portion of a hopefully somewhat less terrible second draft, I’m kind of just having a hard time finding traction.

Writer’s block of all forms has plagued mankind probably since the first cave dwellers agonized over whether a bow and arrow or an antelope would better communicate the inner transformative journey of the central stick figure. Fortunately, the condition has been widely studied.

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The bull is a bold and clever choice here. image via Pixabay

And no one’s research has yielded more fruitful answers than that of Dennis Upper of Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, whose findings were published in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Dr. Upper titled his insightful paper “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block.’”

Other than the title, one footnote, and a single peer review response, the article is entirely blank. The footnote explains that findings in the paper had not been presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association. The review heaps praise on the concise nature of the article and recommends no changes, stating that the journal should find room for Dr. Upper’s fine work “perhaps on the edge of a blank page.”

The point of the “study,” of course, is that psychologists, if not always super helpful, are at least pretty funny. light bulb

But there is probably a lesson to be learned from the not-an-article, that really did appear in a respectable peer-reviewed journal, even taking up a full page, and not just the edge of one. The point, I suspect, is that leaving the page blank will clearly not solve the problem and, as Gerritsen suggests, there comes a time when you have to just put your head down and keep forging ahead.

Oh—I see what he did there. It turns out, psychologists, if not always super funny, are at least pretty helpful.

No News is Good News

On April 18, 1930, at 8:45 pm British citizens who gathered around their radios to listen to the BBC news segment heard the following: “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” That announcement was followed by fifteen minutes of piano music and, I’m guessing, a fair bit of stunned silence in living rooms throughout the country.

Can you even imagine a news outlet making such a statement today? And if they did, can you imagine how we, the consumers, would react? I suspect the very absence of news would be viewed as a story in itself. Other media outlets would likely report that the BBC was losing its edge and failing in its duty to bring the news to the citizens of the world. Pundits might jump in with their own form of criticism, loudly arguing with one another about the new role of the media in propagating the nonstories of the day and longing for the good old days of the 24-hour news cycle.

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The news never stops. Even when it does. photo credit: San Diego City College 2018-0510-SDCCRTVFx010 via photopin (license)

Because we definitely live in a world driven by news. Whether it’s good, bad, fake, or irrelevant, it’s around us all the time, demanding our attention and affecting our mental health.

I’ve written about this before, about the need to occasionally take a little break, something I think all of us should consider occasionally doing. But I recently had a pretty lengthy experience doing just that.

I am not a strict adherent to the tradition of fasting from something during Lent. Still, this year, it occurred to me that I might have something in my life that I would genuinely benefit from giving up.

I chose, for forty days, to give up the news. I didn’t give up the news entirely of course. I’m on the internet a lot and I saw plenty of headlines. Also, scrolling through social media I occasionally spotted a story that had people riled up. But I tried very hard not to engage much with the stories I saw. I even entirely gave up my primary source of news, which for quite a few years has been talk radio.

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Most of the time I really would rather listen to piano music. If only it didn’t make me sleepy behind the wheel. photo credit: San Diego City College 2018-0510-SDCCRTVFx008 via photopin (license)

For about two weeks, it was hard. Like really hard. I had this constant, nagging feeling that I was missing out on important discussions about important events that would dramatically shape the future of the world and how human beings relate to one another.

Then I realized, I wasn’t. Because any of the big stories, like the shootings in New Zealand, the fire at Notre Dame, or the bombings in Sri Lanka, managed to get through. And thankfully some other stuff didn’t. For example, for 40+ days, I had no idea what snarky tweets President Trump had sent out into the world, or what new candidate had thrown his or her hat into the Democratic presidential primary race, or what any of the Kardashians were getting up to.

And that felt kind of amazing.

For that forty days plus Sundays, my mind became a little less cluttered, my stress level became a little lower, and my perspective became a little bit healthier. It was like a great big mental cleanse. I thought I’d probably more or less stick with it by intentionally limiting my exposure to constant news.

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Some news I can definitely live without. photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer Kim Kardashian via photopin (license)

Then today I had to make a long, early morning drive. Because music tends to make me sleepy behind the wheel I turned on talk radio. I found out that former Vice President Joe Biden is now the twentieth person officially running for the Democratic presidential nomination and that President Trump has already tweeted snark about it.

Neither of these two pieces of information was much of surprise. It kind of seemed like there really was no news to report, at least not at that time of today. Or perhaps the news outlets I tuned in to just weren’t reporting on the most surprising or fascinating stories. I mean, I still don’t know what the Kardashians have been up to lately.

 

A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

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Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

Edgar Allan Poe
EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

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So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would appreciate our wide variety of cough drops.

A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

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Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

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There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

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A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

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Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.

 

All Your Kazoo Questions Answered

On January 28, 2019 American kazoo enthusiasts celebrated the 167th anniversary of their favorite instrument on what has come to be known as National Kazoo Day. I missed it this year, because I had no idea it existed. In fact, I’d given little thought to this funny instrument that anyone who can hum can easily master. But as I recently learned on a family spring break trip, there’s more to the humble kazoo than I had ever not even bothered to imagine.

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I can honestly say I never imagined this.

Looking to make some quirky vacation memories, my crew headed to the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only producer of plastic kazoos in the United States.

As you might expect, it’s not a large operation, but the little factory does produce about one million high quality (they’re even dishwasher safe!) kazoos per year. More importantly, they give tours. And they answer all your kazoo questions—Yes. All of them.

It was there in the factory that I learned of African American Alabama Vest who conceived of the idea for the kazoo sometime in the 1840s and approached German-American clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg in Macon, Georgia to mock up a prototype. The two men then exhibited the new instrument, which they called the “Down-South Submarine,” at the 1852 Georgia State Fair. Though it wouldn’t be mass produced for another fifty years, the kazoo was born.

Or so the story goes. I tend to want to believe any story in which historical figures are represented on video as brightly colored kazoos with googly eyes, but it turns out the story might not really be all that reliable.kazoo patent

The first actual documentation of the kazoo comes from an 1883 patent issued to a W. H. Frost. Frost didn’t call his invention the “Down-South Submarine,” and it didn’t look a whole lot like the modern-day, boat-shaped kazoo found abandoned at the bottom of every kid’s toy box.

Something more similar to the classic design as we know it today was patented by George D. Smith in 1902. Within a few years, several factories had gone into production. The only remaining metal kazoo factory in the US can be found in Eden, New York, which claims to be the “Kazoo Capital of the World.”

If you ever spend spring break in New York (though I’m not sure why you would), you can tour The Kazoo Factory and Museum, too. I suspect you’ll have a good time. But for some great, silly family fun in Beaufort, South Carolina, I doubt you can beat Kazoobie Kazoos.

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Kazoo + Wazoo Horn + Bugle Bell = Wazoogle

At the end of the tour, each of the guests (and there were quite a few of us) got to make his or her own kazoo. Then we tested them with a moving rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There were tears. Well, maybe not tears, but there were definitely giggles.

Next, we made our way to the store to trick out our new instruments with more kazoo accessories than I can honestly say I ever dreamed of. Yes, there are kazoo accessories. There are even electric kazoos, in case your death metal band is looking for that unique buzzing tone.

A few bands through the years have incorporated kazoos into their music, though the instrument hasn’t proven to have a lot of staying power on the professional music scene. It’s mostly been relegated to the bottom of the toy box. But on January 28, or thereabout, or really any day you want since the origin story is so sketchy anyway, consider digging out the kazoo you surely have lying around somewhere, and hum a little tune. It may not be fine music you produce, but it will probably make you giggle.

Considering Poll Dancing*

In 1936, Alf Landon did not become the president of the United States. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt handily won a second term. That surprised a few people. Mostly, it surprised the folks conducting polling for the Literary Digest, which had become accustomed, over the course of the previous five presidential elections, to getting it right.

One person that wasn’t surprised was journalist and ad executive George H. Gallup. He’d conducted a poll of his own, sampling a mere 50,000 likely voters while the Literary Digest received responses from 2.3 million of its subscribers.

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George H. Gallup. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture surrounded by incessant talk of bias and misrepresentation of data, it might be fairly obvious the Literary Journal failed to take some things into account. It was certainly obvious to Gallup, who insisted that a large number of respondents didn’t matter nearly as much as making sure the collected sample was representative of a wide range of demographics. His rival pollsters (though they weren’t yet called that), were listening only to the folks who gravitated to their publication.

Gallup called the election of 1936 correctly and went on to develop the Gallup International Association, a world-wide collection of polling organizations, and later his own analytics company based in Washington, D.C. called Gallup, Inc. His name now represents the gold standard of scientific polls, and more often than not, they serve as pretty good predictors.

Of course, polls can still be wrong. The wording of questions can subtly introduce unintended bias, the timing of polls and the news cycle can interfere with results, or basic human nature can influence respondents to be less than forthcoming. But even knowing this can sometimes happen, I think opinion polls can still perform an important service in politics, in advertising, and in publishing.

 

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There will always be people (like me) who won’t answer their phones.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional pollster, and though I did fairly well in a statistics class in college, I’m probably not the person you want to call on to analyze your data. But I do have a question for you.

Some of you have been reading this blog for a long time, but others have discovered this little corner of the Internet more recently. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about me, let me first give you a little bit of background:

I am a writer of historical fiction who, at the advice of a friend, started writing this silly little history blog almost seven years ago. Much to my surprise and delight, some people kind of liked it and so once my first novel was under contract with a small press, I self-published a collection of some favorite posts from the first five years of the blog, as both a way to celebrate the silliness I seem to get away with in this space and also promote my forthcoming novel.

Then, like so many rotten small presses evidently do, my publisher essentially vanished, temporarily holding hostage the rights to my first novel. It’s a sad story you can read about (here) if you really want to. That’s when I decided to self-publish a companion novel to the first. It’s called Gentleman of Misfortune and I think it’s a pretty good book that you would like.

In less than a year my rights to the first book will return to me and I will finally share with the world another story that I am proud of and that I think you will like.

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I don’t have cover art for the new book yet, but as the two novels are closely related, it will be something that jives with this.

This novel also had a title I liked very much and that I had a very good reason for wanting. As publishers will sometimes do, mine disagreed with me. After much deliberation, we came to a compromise and found a title we could both live with. So, here’s my question, in the form of a terribly informal, nonscientific poll:

Not knowing anything about the book outside of the fact that it’s a historical thriller closely related to Gentleman of Misfortune (I realize you may or may not have read it), which title do you find more compelling?

1. Smoke Rose to Heaven

2. Burned Over

If you have read Gentleman of Misfortune and the accompanying author’s note, or my other book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which includes a preview of this finally forthcoming novel, then you probably can figure out which title is my original and which one is the compromise with a rotten publisher.

If that’s the case, please don’t let that influence your choice. I really am fond of each title. I’m just realizing that as this book returns to me, I once again have the freedom to choose and I’d love your (now hopelessly biased) opinion. You can either hop over to my Facebook page (here) and participate in the poll, or drop your choice in the comments below. If you feel really strongly one way or the other, you can even do both.

I know this poll wouldn’t hold up to the standards of George H. Gallup, and I might end up with the wrong title for the book, the one that means I’ll sell a handful of copies instead of the millions that will land me on the New York Times bestseller list. But that’s okay. I’d love your opinion anyway. Thanks!

*If you clicked on this post expecting an insightful consideration of POLE dancing, try this link instead. 😉