A blog experiment by Brad Mills.

My first grade criminal career

The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed... because it's funnier that way.

When I was in first grade, I bought a milk with my lunch every day. It seems I ate a lot of Andy Capp's Hot Fries at school at that age too, but they're not part of this story... just a memory.

The milk thing was a Big Deal™, and this is because I was entrusted with five cents to buy it — every single day — by my parents. It doesn't seem like much money today, but when you were a kid in 1970s West Virginia buying your milk at school on your own, that nickel was vital.

So, you can imagine my horror when I got to school one day and realized I'd forgotten my nickel.

The way it worked was this: you gave your nickel to your teacher near the beginning of the day, and in exchange, you got a paper milk ticket. This ticket was used in the cafeteria to get the actual milk. I didn't think much about this convoluted process at the time, but seeing it as an adult now, I understand why it was in place. It served a couple of different purposes. First, it got the money out of the hands of the kids, who were just as likely to lose it or play with it or finance Iranian arms deals with it until lunch. Second, it gave the cafeteria a good count of how much milk was being sold at each grade level. I guess the money streamed from each classroom to the cafeteria, which served as a centralized collection point for the funds as well as a distribution point for the milk. From the cafeteria, the money went somewhere else I suppose, and at that age I neither knew nor cared who got it beyond that. Maybe it was Jimmy Carter. All I knew was one nickel got you one ticket, and one ticket got you one milk.

Except when you forgot your nickel.

The tickets were printed on yellow paper and each one had the words "One extra milk: 5 cents" printed on it in that weird-smelling mimeograph purple color. I saw one every day and had a pretty good idea what they looked like. So without a nickel to my name, I had a brainstorm: I could probably make my own ticket. After all, it was just paper, and I was certainly capable of writing at that age, and I even had yellow and purple crayons, so I could make it look just like a real milk ticket. Hell, I could even imagine saving up nickels this way and maybe getting some bags of Hot Fries with the proceeds. (Maybe that's why I associate Hot Fries with this story.)

A few minutes of work, and I had a pretty passable replica of a first grade milk ticket on a slip of paper I'd colored yellow. Everything was written in a light purple to mimic the mimeograph machine. I capitalized everything properly, and I even included the colon for punctuation. It seems like I was so confident that I even added a period at the end of the sentence — the nerve of them, not punctuating the end of the sentence.

When lunch came around, I dropped my forgery into the milk ticket box with the rest, grabbed my half pint of milk, and smugly ate my lunch, knowing I'd fooled the entire school administration, the US Department of Agriculture, and perhaps even President Carter.

Later in the afternoon, somebody knocked on the first grade classroom door. In walked a man I'd never seen before, someone wearing a tie. He whispered something to my teacher, who nodded. The man then spoke, holding up my forged milk ticket. "Which one of you did this?" he said. After a moment's hesitation, I put my hand up. "You need to come with me to see Mr. Ritchie," he said.

Mr. Ritchie was the school principal, and he was not someone you wanted to trifle with. Corporal punishment was quite real back then. Mr. Ritchie had a paddle hanging on the wall of his office, and there was wild speculation on the playground about who had been dealt the business end of it. The business end of Mr. Ritchie's paddle had fire painted on it. In the back of my mind, I suspected it would actually burn you.

When I walked into his office, Mr. Ritchie sat behind a big wooden desk, and the wood was the darkest color wood I'd ever seen in my life. "Why don't you tell me about this milk ticket," he said. I looked up behind him, saw the paddle hanging on the wall, with the fire painted on the end... and I gave the man a full confession. From the moment I realized I'd forgotten the nickel, every little detail of how I made it, how carefully I'd printed. I even told him I put a period at the end because it was a sentence and it needed a period at the end.

Mr. Ritchie took all this in and sat there in silence for what felt like an hour. Finally, he stood up and said, "If you find that nickel and bring it directly to me tomorrow morning, we'll just pretend none of this happened."

This seemed like a very fair deal to me, so I promised him I'd bring the nickel to him first thing in the morning. And I did.

And... I'd like to point out that the milk tickets from that day forward read "One extra milk: 5 cents." With the period.

Aldi, the little store that could

Aldi logo I've recently discovered Aldi, and I've got to say I've become a little obsessed.

Some background is in order. I grew up in a Kroger house. Dad worked there for many years, and when he and Mom were first married, Kroger was their only source of income until Mom started her long career as an educator. It put food on the table, in all meanings of the phrase, for a large portion of my life. I also did my time working at Kroger through high school and college, as did my brother.

This isn't a snobbery thing at all, it's just what I've been used to over the years. I've ventured into other stores, yes — Food Lion, Foodland, Save-A-Lot, Food 4 Less, Harris Teeter, even Walmart and Sam's Club. But for the most part, all these stores are fundamentally the same as Kroger. Shopping carts strewn all over, thousands upon thousands of items to choose from, multiple brands, coupons to juggle, and in what seems to be a popular trend (probably inspired by Walmart), huge aisles and departments and spaces. It almost feels like a visit to a theme park anymore.

I've written here about Kroger before — more specifically, about the niftiness of the Plus Card coupon app. That still works, by the way, and they've added a feature where you can "download" a free item every Friday. It really is free. With the self-checkout, I can pop in, grab my free stuff, scan my card, not pay a cent, and roll on out of there like a smooth criminal.

Aldi is a different kind of grocery store. The stores are small. The one closest to me is in fact tucked away on the fringes of a residential neighborhood in Dunbar, about ten miles away (another one is opening on Corridor G soon). When I say "small" I'm talking about only four aisles in the entire store. That's it. The lot, also small, remains cleared of shopping carts. This is done through an ingenious system — a 25 cent deposit is required to use a cart. Do you want to get your quarter back when you're done shopping? Return your cart, stow it and lock it up properly, and your deposit is returned to you. The company doesn't have to pay anyone to clear the lot, and it doesn't lose any carts because the customer is incentivized to return them.

This is just one example of how the store operates as a whole. The entire operation is incredibly efficient from the minute you walk in the door until you leave. The first aisle of the store begins immediately inside the front door. It makes perfect sense — customers are there to buy groceries, so why waste the space on an expensive lobby which, relatively speaking, is an unprofitable wasteland? And why stay open at all hours when you might make only a few meager sales in the middle of the night? Aldi's hours reflect the shopping hours of regular people — not vampires — so there's another cost savings. As far as bagging groceries goes, you'll be doing that yourself. You can buy the bags Aldi sells at the register or you can bring your own (mine all say Kroger on them, haha) — or, just take an empty display box from the big wire bins in the store, which helps Aldi get rid of the boxes and gives you a free way to carry your stuff through the store and out to your car.

Let's get to the good stuff: prices. On a recent trip a couple of weeks ago, here are some of the deals I found without even trying:

  • "Toasted Oats" (Aldi brand Cheerios): 14 ounce box, $1.19
  • Baby carrots: Two pounds, $1.98
  • Tomato soup: One can, 49¢
  • Sour cream: 16 ounces, 99¢ (all natural ingredients)
  • "Toaster Tarts" (Aldi brand Pop-tarts): Box of 12, $1.99
  • Fresh strawberries: One pound, $1.29
  • Organic avocados: Four for $2.99
  • 2% milk: One gallon, $1.59
  • Potatoes: Ten pounds, $2.49

A trip with just these items (I actually got a lot more) would cost exactly $15. I haven't priced these products elsewhere, but I can say the prices on six of these nine items are the lowest I've seen in years. Milk for $1.59 per gallon? Yes, please. And just so you know, I didn't cherry-pick these items because their prices were lower. Just about everything I saw was inexpensive.

You'll see there are a couple of off-brand things listed. Almost everything Aldi sells is a brand they own. This lets them control the entire supply chain, and they can squeeze out savings all the way down to the point where the product cases are opened and the products are displayed in the store. The cases, in fact, become the displays and are engineered so they can be. And, the product packages themselves have barcodes on multiple sides and at multiple angles so when the cashiers scan them, they can do so in one swipe without having to search all over the box for them. As a former cashier (and a very fast one back in the day), I will say this is a brilliant idea which somebody should have implemented when barcodes were first introduced.

As for quality — it's pretty good. There are a few food things I'm very picky about (Cheez-it crackers and Grape Nuts cereal are two of these, a few others are here), so finding substitutes for those will be a futile effort, of course. Strawberries are... well, they're strawberries. I will note that some of the strawberries were spoiling on the day I went, so it's probably wise to check any produce item for obvious problems — but really, that's not a bad idea at any store that sells fresh produce. Yes, even Kroger. But for the prices, I was rather impressed with everything. It's almost like the food industry is profit-based, and Aldi is approaching it from the angle of spending less in other areas and passing those savings on to the consumer.

Pretty novel idea, I know. With my regular Kroger store being incapacitated due to flood damage, it's a good chance to try some different stores. Aldi is turning into a new favorite.

Fortune cookies

I cleaned my wallet out this morning and found quite a few fortunes from Chinese fortune cookies. There was a time when I posted the best of these on Facebook, but I stopped that practice when I left the site. Apparently I thought I might do that again at some point and kept collecting them.

I've decided to share them here instead. Calling these "the best" is a somewhat relative and subjective measure. From the looks of the fortunes, it looks like it could have meant funny, ironic, goofy, wise, interesting, or mildly prophetic. Further, I have no idea how long I've collected these, but I'm pretty sure some of them are four years old or more.

By the way, for those who don't know: the fortune cookie is not a Chinese tradition at all. It originates from a similar cookie sold in Kyoto, Japan in the 1800s and then again in Japanese restaurants in California around the late 1800s and early 1900s. During World War II they became more closely associated with Chinese culture (a shift likely influenced by the war). But that mental association is more marketing ploy than reality — fortune cookies in their modern form are very much an American creation. In fact, the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies is Wonton Food, Inc. with its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and two additional locations in Texas and Tennessee. They even let you order cookies with custom fortunes inside, which is pretty cool and a unique promotional idea. And let's face it, nothing screams America more loudly than unique promotional items from New York, Texas, and Tennessee.

Here is my now discarded collection of fortunes, with all punctuation and grammar copied as printed.

  • Stop searching forever, happiness is just next to you.
  • Fate will find a way. (Note: Received twice)
  • Be on the lookout for coming events; They cast their shadows beforehand!
  • This could be an almost perfect day. Enjoy it.
  • All the troubles you have will pass away very quickly.
  • People make plans; fate makes the plan successful.
  • What makes an apple fall to the ground?
  • Big things coming in future. Only matter of time.
  • This instant is the only time there is.
  • Time to collect those good
  • Good things are coming to you in due course of time
  • You will stumble into the path that will lead your life to happiness.
  • All thing has a cause. Look into your pass for answer
  • You will strike it rich soon.
  • We are what we think.
  • A good way to keep healthy is to eat more Chinese food.
  • If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.
  • You are a happy man. (Note: What if a woman or child got this one?)
  • The one waiting for you when you get home will be your friend for life.
  • Actions speak louder than talks.
  • Your next interview will result in a job
  • First learn to "give" and then the universe will reward you. (Note: Received twice)

A dream chased into reality

Last weekend, at the West Virginia Writers Annual Conference, I submitted what I thought was a throwaway prose piece. It was a mostly polished page from my paper journal, slight edits applied and names removed to protect the... well, the guilty (based on a true story, as they say). In general, I don't feel as comfortable with prose as I do poetry, but I figured what the hell. Print it out, grab a pushpin, stick it up on the wall, and see what happens. It's not like it's doing any good gathering dust in a notebook, right?

WV Writers Award Much to my surprise, I got an award for it — second place. So I am now officially an award-winning West Virginia writer, an honor bestowed upon me by the largest, oldest, and most prestigious writing organization in the state.

I'm not bragging about this or tooting my horn, I promise. But this is the first award I've gotten for writing since 1988, so I'm quite happy about it and have basically been floating for the last week. This is also the first award I've gotten as an adult writer (not to be confused with a writer of adult things), so there's a little vindication for me there. Specifically, it's a proof: you've got it. You can do this. You are doing this.

I've placed the ribbon and certificate so they're the first things I see when I wake up in the morning. A reminder that yes, indeed, this is actually happening and it's not a dream. Or if it is a dream, it's coming true.


Enjoying the silence

This morning, I enjoyed a rather lengthy and rare period of silence. Life has been hella crazy busy for many weeks now, so it was nice to have some time to just be and not be somewhere or do something or anything but just sit and exist and enjoy.

It was a gray and quiet morning. At the same time, not. Rain fell — fast then slow then fast again as showers drifted through. Birds sang randomly in a language only they can understand. Up above my backyard, on US 119, cars passed — their tires pushing against the wet pavement, a sound as familiar as the surroundings in which I dwell.

My internal mental dialog silenced itself as I took everything in and poked around on the Internet. Eight, nine, ten browser tabs, some of my usual haunts. I am always online, consuming knowledge, absorbing all I can. But then, "online" is no longer a thing we do, but a thing we carry with us everywhere.

Part of that knowledge today: I learned that the universe is expanding faster than any speed we will ever reach. This means that eventually, the area around the Milky Way Galaxy (including us) will be completely isolated from everything else. We won't even be able to see anything else in the universe except what's fairly close to us. Separation — isolation — is thus, it seems, first: an intrinsic property of reality, and second: getting more pronounced as time advances.

In an era when we have — and carry with us, in our pockets — the means to contact every corner of the globe simultaneously, it's strange to think everything else in the universe is rushing away from us so fast that we will never get close to it.

And listening to the rain and birds this morning, a brief and welcome pause in the midst of chaos, I couldn't completely decide if that level of isolation was a good or a bad thing.

Butterfly Nebula

Faking it (and I guess making it)

A few months ago I polled — rather unscientifically — several people in a few diverse groups whose lives currently intersect mine. My poll consisted of only one question, to wit: "Do you have a plan in your life?" And if asked for clarification, I offered: "Do you feel like you're faking your way through life, making it up as you go?" I realized at some point that I don't have a real plan, at least not one that makes any sense. Most days I get up out of bed and just go at it. And I guess I needed to know if I was unique in that regard.

The answer was very strongly skewed toward the "I don't have a plan" camp. Honestly, there was relief in knowing I wasn't the only one.

I mean short term, yes, I guess we all have some plans... I plan to finish out today, and then join some friends for a (fast!!!) trip to Morgantown and back. I plan to go to a stupid meeting this afternoon (it's on my calendar, anyway). I plan to mow the lawn at some point between now and Sunday (blah). But these are all small things. I don't have a so-called bucket list. I used to, but the bucket kind of got tipped over, so now if I make any kind of list, it's more akin to the one Toad made (and lost):

The point to that story, I think, is that the best-laid plans — even the short-term ones — can easily become futile, and sometimes you have no choice but to roll with it and see what happens (or I guess sit on a hill with Frog and do absolutely nothing).

I've found that I often write in this manner — just jump in and start throwing things together, see what develops. Last night I passed a work in progress around at my writing group, and I was surprised at how many people picked up on an underlying theme. It developed on its own from what I thought was just a series of images. I didn't go into working on this piece with the idea that it would be a cohesive work at all. But there were apparently things happening at a deeper level, things I wasn't aware of consciously. With that in mind now, I can enhance the theme a little by choosing the right words and phrases and make it look like I had a plan all along. I didn't, though. I'm not sure if that's cheating or not, but it seems to work.

So perhaps similarly, our lives develop themes based on countless small actions, and we lack the objectivity to see it. I don't view my life as a cohesive whole in any way. Maybe it's developing (or has) a theme, but if so, I certainly don't see it here in the day to day. I'm just faking it, faking it, faking it... every single day, in some kind of smoke and mirrors sideshow. But — again — it seems to work.