Kat’s official tips for having a great birthday


I think we sometimes forget, especially when we have been adults for a while and we forget to play, that our birthday is supposed to be a celebration of ourselves and the fact that we are still alive. Remember when you were a child and everyone would gather and celebrate you? Why do we give that up as we age?

I recommend you don’t. And so, in case you are out of practice, I hereby give you some official tips for making it a great day. Of course, you can tweak them. Because it’s your day, it’s all about you!

These are in no particular order, although I wrote them chronologically based on my birthday this year. All of these tips would be good to fit into other days as well. But only if you want to have a good day. Or a good life.

  • Stay up until midnight, so you get to experience the first minute of your birthday. Be glad that you made it.
  • Sing happy birthday to yourself before you go to sleep. (I even told me how much I love me.)
  • Turn off the alarm and sleep until your body says it’s ready to get out of bed.
  • Snuggle with a German shepherd (or other animal of your choice).
  • Thank God for giving you another birthday. (A lot of people on the planet won’t get one this year.)
  • Hang around the house in your pajamas doing something you just want to do. (For me, that was reading and surfing the Internet.)
  • Eat something healthy first thing in the morning, because you know you’re going to eat things that are not so much later. (I had some of my favorite yogurt.)
  • Go out to breakfast with your dad (or other loved one) and have chocolate chip pancakes made from scratch.
  • Do something nice for someone else. (I helped my dad with some chores, because he still can’t lift much after his surgery.)
  • Take a drive in a vehicle you love. (I had to take Optimus because of the snow and salt. This was the first birthday I’ve had when I didn’t get to drive Cam. Sigh.)
  • Listen to some music you love, really loud. (For me, this included The Beatles, Ultravox, Billy Squier, Journey, Queensryche, A3, Smashing Pumpkins, Supernova and Kristian Leontiou.)
  • Throughout the day, look around for beauty. Really experience it, admire it and enjoy it.
  • Go around and pick up free presents for your birthday. (A lot of businesses will give you something if you ask. Other places have birthday clubs, where you automatically get something on your special day. This year, I got a free pastry, a free makeup kit, a free ice cream sundae and a free cocktail. I still have free popcorn and a free lunch coming.)
  • Get out with a group of friends, the more the merrier.
  • Have a really tasty meal that includes dessert.
  • Seek out and destroy some cake. (This isn’t a suggestion. It’s mandatory. If you haven’t been eating cake on your birthday, you’ve been doing it wrong.)
  • Go to a theater and marvel at how gorgeous Ryan Gosling is for two hours. (You might choose someone else to ogle. It’s your birthday, so it’s your choice.)
  • Laugh. A lot. Every chance you get.
  • Figure out your catchphrase. (You should have some statement that sums up the day and makes you instantly recall a joyous moment you had at some point during the day or evening. Again, if you’re not finishing your birthday with a catchphrase, you might be doing it wrong.)
  • Have a cupcake and a cocktail before bed. (If you don’t eat sugar, see cake rule above. If you don’t drink, have some kind of treat that you don’t often that you really enjoy. Savor it.)
  • Have additional snuggle session with above German shepherd (or other animal) before bed. (This is optional, but I highly recommend it.)
  • Fall asleep at whatever time you please, knowing you truly celebrated you and being alive.

It’s all true: I go to Star Trek conventions and I love them

stlv love

“Oh, you’re one of those people,” a woman said to me when I told her I was heading to the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas for my vacation earlier this month.

What does “those people” even mean? Before I could even open my mouth to reply, she asked, “You dress up in weird costumes and stuff?”

I didn’t even stop to think about whether I cared what she thought and answered.

“Well, I do have a lovely pair of Vulcan ears,” I replied. “And then I have different T-shirts and jewelry for every day.”

I thought she was going to faint. But I doubt if she even knew what I was talking about when I mentioned those ears.

Confession time: I’ve been going to this multiday convention for several years and I love it. And I’ve been to many others. And I absolutely love Star Trek. I love every series, every movie (yes, even that one you think sucks), every character (well, maybe not Kai Winn, who was so evil) and every costume and alien race. OK, not every race. Some of those in Voyager and Deep Space 9 were scary as hell. (Hirogen or Vidiians anyone?)

The funny thing is this. People dress up and go to all kinds of things – football games, auto races, costume parties, charity functions – but I bet no one ever says to any of them, “Oh, you’re one of those people.”

Why is it that people can spend money on costumes and clothing and memorabilia for sports teams and they’re perfectly normal, but when we Star Trek fans do it we’re weirdos?

The first time I went to the Las Vegas convention, I went by myself. My friends couldn’t believe I was doing that.

“But you won’t know anyone there,” they told me again and again.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

See, that first year, I met a ton of people and I made friends that I kept in touch with all year. Being outgoing doesn’t hurt. But even if I hadn’t been, I bet I still would’ve made friends. And in each year since, I’ve made even more friends.

I truly love my Star Trek friends. They are a wonderful, sometimes wild and sometimes wacky bunch. But they’re also well-read, well-educated and know more about having a good life than many other people I have met in my years on the planet.

I’ve met many celebrities and some of them have become friends as well. I know, hard to believe, huh? In what other fandom does that happen?

True Star Trek fans care about the same things I do – science fiction, the environment, love, kindness, respect, diversity, exploration, inquisitiveness, education, and not only tolerance but acceptance and even celebration of the things that make us all different.

In the years I’ve been going to the convention, I’ve met more people like myself than anywhere else on the planet. These people are my tribe and I don’t care what anyone thinks about “those people.”

We take funny photos, we dance, we laugh, we have a few cocktails (OK, maybe some people have more than a few), we reminisce, we dress up, we hug (there’s a lot of hugging), we have intense discussions and we support each other’s love for the vision of a better world – one without hate or greed (not to be confused with acquisition) or hunger or caring about a person’s race or gender. We respect each other’s opinions and beliefs. We agree to disagree and we go on caring about one another.

If that makes us weirdos, so be it. I’m all in. And I already bought my ticket for next year. To my Trek friends, I can hardly wait to see you again. To the rest of you, I encourage you to go out and find your tribe, whoever “those people” are.

Do you have a favorite Star Trek or convention memory? Share it with me. And if something in this post speaks to you, please share it with others.

Titanic sinking was tragic, but USS Indianapolis survivors battled starvation and sharks

By Kat Merrill Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

By Kat Merrill
Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

It’s hard to imagine that many people have not heard the story of the RMS Titanic.

The largest Olympic-class ocean liner in history up to that point struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage April 15, 1912, and went down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Because she didn’t have nearly enough lifeboats on board for all the passengers and crew, more than 1,500 people froze to death and/or drowned that night off the coast of Newfoundland.

That was a terrible tragedy, but so was the wartime sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a story about which you may not have heard.

The heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine just after midnight July 30, 1945, in the last weeks of World War II. Of the nearly 1,200 men that were on the ship, an estimated 900 survived the blasts from two missiles and went into the water. They were cold and soaked with oil from the ship, and many of them were injured.

But because the ship wasn’t given an escort by the U.S. Navy, to which it belonged, no one from the American side knew that the ship had been hit and she therefore wasn’t reported missing. For five days, the men battled the cold of the Philippine Sea, their injuries, the lack of food or drinkable water and, even more horrifying, sharks.

One by one, the men, many of them really not much more than boys, drowned, died of their injuries or were attacked by the sharks. When they were finally rescued, there were only 317 left.

I recently had the honor to meet and speak with one of those survivors, one of only 23 still alive today.

I can’t remember a time in my life when a crowd of people was as silent as they were on this night, when Edgar Harrell spent nearly two hours recounting those terrible days, one by one. I was so stunned by the story, and so mesmerized by Harrell’s retelling of it, that I didn’t take a single note. Several times during the former Marine’s talk, I realized my mouth was literally hanging open. I wasn’t the only one.

Harrell was only 20 years old at the time. He’s 91 now. Hearing him speak about the experience, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service were among the best moments of my life. I bought his book, “Out of The Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” and he signed it for me, saying, “God’s best to you. Semper Fi.”

U.S. Naval Institute Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis' photographer, died in the disaster.

U.S. Naval Institute
Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis’ photographer, died in the disaster.

Harrell’s appearance was part of the opening of a traveling exhibit of photos from the ship’s photographer, Alfred Sedivi, who took photos of the sailors and Marines during their time on the ship. He also “captured the aftermath of the battles on Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Tarawa and Iwo Jima,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute. “His photos survived the war because he secretly sent them home to his family until the days before his ship’s fatal mission.”

He also gave them to his buddies, who also often sent them home.

The photos are moving and poignant, and I was brought to tears several times while viewing them, thinking about the fact that most of the men in them didn’t survive the ordeal.

A treat that night was that the people in the audience were the first to see the trailer of the coming film “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” starring Nicolas Cage. I will definitely be at the theater to see it.

You can learn more about the exhibit and the ship here.

And you can learn about and purchase Harrell’s book here.

U.S. Naval Institute The USS Indianapolis

U.S. Naval Institute
The USS Indianapolis

NASCAR, nudists, firewalking and the Green River Killer do not equal a bad job


Being a newspaper reporter is one of the worst jobs you can do, according to a report released by Career Cast.

The report cites “fewer available jobs, a worsening industry forecast and paltry pay” as reasons for the ranking.

Those are real conditions and fears. Other studies cite the danger faced by reporters, some of whom are killed while doing their jobs.

I mourn them, and agree that the newspaper landscape isn’t as rosy as it once was. But even though I was in some dangerous positions and did deal with low pay as a newspaper reporter for much of 30 years, I am here to tell you, that job has been awesome.

There was the time I spent covering NASCAR for a small community weekly paper. Going to races, and being in the pits with the cars, drivers and crews, was so much fun. Tell me you wouldn’t have gotten a kick out of walking by drivers like Davey Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Ernie Irvan and Kyle Petty and having them call you by your first name.

There was the time I got to spend weeks with a police officer and his new K9 partner, attending their training sessions and learning about the bond dog and man form during that precious time before the pair puts their life on the line in the streets.

I even got to take my German Shepherd to a world-class K9 training facility and get instruction on how to teach my pup in German, something I have done with every one of my shepherds since.

The night R. Cork Kallen taught me about mind over matter, and I then walked on a bed of nails and on a bed of red-hot coals, changed my mindset about my limits. If I could focus and do those things without being injured, I could do anything. I still believe that to this day, and that one experience has allowed me to be brave enough to try things some people will never have the courage to try.

I was a “celebrity judge” at events too numerous to count, but they included pies, cakes and ice cream; singing and dancing; and counting nudists at a Guinness World Record attempt for the most people at a naked skinny dip.

I reviewed concerts and restaurants, and covered and/or met celebrities, rock stars and two presidents.

I got to try my hand at beekeeping, indoor skydiving, roller derby, race car driving (NASCAR again!), stand-up comedy, and making ice cream and butter just by using ingredients and a glass jar. I got to be the grand marshal in parades and the girl who waved the starting flag at a race. And I became what I call an expert for a day on many topics, including maple syrup making, cake decorating, quilting, base jumping, breakdancing and skateboarding.

I got to write about and participate in the search for a little boy who was missing in the freezing cold overnight. I cannot to this day describe the jubilation we all felt when he was found curled up with the family’s Golden Retriever.

I wrote stories about a man who lost his legs in a fire – how he lost his job and home after that and how he needed help. The day he drove up to my newspaper office and got down out of a van donated and equipped with hand controls by a local dealership, and came in to thank me for changing his life, still makes me cry.

I covered the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, arriving on the scene less than 12 hours after it happened, when you could still walk right up near the front of the building. No pictures, and not even video, ever did the destruction justice.

In my years covering crime, I got to meet and help many victims and/or their families with the way I treated them and my stories, and I was privileged to have their trust.

With much investigation and several factual stories, I helped keep a wrongly accused man from going to prison. And I will never forget him leaping toward me, picking me up in the courtroom and swinging me around, calling me his angel after the judge announced he was free to go.

I met and interviewed killers, some of them who had committed absolutely horrifying crimes, in my attempt to understand why such things happened.

I covered the entire case of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, from his arrest to his sentencing. I even have a copy of the book I co-wrote about him with his signature and a message from him inside it.

So, when someone announces that the job of a newspaper reporter is one of the worst jobs, I just shake my head. In my opinion, it was the best job anyone could ever have.


I’m definitely back in the Midwest…


After living in various parts of the country, and recently moving to a new one, I have realized that you can tell where you are by traditions, “customs” and quirks in different areas.

For instance, even if I was blindfolded, I could tell I’m in the Midwest by things such as:

  • Having the choice between unsweetened tea and what is known as sweet tea (sometimes pronounced as one word – sweettea): And if you don’t specify which one you want, you get something as sweet and sometimes as thick and syrupy as pancake topping. Shudder. (This is also prevalent in the South.)
  • Being called hon (short for honey), darlin’ or sweetie (they also do this in the South): It wasn’t until a waitress said that to me in my first week back in the Midwest that I realized I have been doing that to other people for years. It’s a habit of years of Southern and Midwestern living.
  • Every driver in every direction pulling off the road for a funeral procession: In some states, it’s the law that funeral processions get the right of way. But in the Midwest, and even more so in the South, it’s the people’s law that you pull over, now, and wait until the last car has gone by. I like it.
  • Roadside memorials: Yes, I realize people do this all across the country, but nowhere else (except maybe the South) do they go all out, and even put flowers and other objects at them for years after someone died in a traffic accident. I’ve seen memorials that are fresh and clean more than 20 years after they were started.
  • Rural driving: When you are driving rural, stop signs are just suggestions and there are no speed limits. And tractor trailers on interstates in rural areas refuse to move over when you’re getting on. I’ve had to almost come to a complete stop, because a big truck just wouldn’t move. You have to drive defensively in the country far more than anywhere else.
  • Flowers in the cemetery: There is a huge local cemetery that is always heavily decorated, year round. I assumed that the cemetery workers do this or maybe the funeral homes. After all, many graves go unvisited and even neglected in most of the cemeteries I have visited. However, I asked a relative about this the other day and he told me the families and others left behind do the decorating. “Wait until it gets warm out,” he said. “You’ll see people out there having full picnics at many of the stones.” All I can say to that is wow.

And then there have been things that have caught me by surprise here, such as:

People often mispronounce words or use the wrong words. (A few examples: 1. I was helping a woman today with her computer and she told me I needed to launch Godzilla if I wanted to get on the Internet. I had no idea what she meant until she pointed at Mozilla Firefox. 2. I was at my local library’s coffee stand and the woman at the counter told me they only had “two of these lovely blueberry sconces left.” Needless to say, those were not things to hang on the wall to light up the place, but rather delicious scones. 3. A waitress asked me the other day if I wanted naynays on my sandwich. A dining partner had to tell me that was a local pronunciation of mayonnaise.)

A trip to my local Walmart (the most affordable grocery choice for a writer trying to make a living on her own) brought anger from a sales clerk. I had been told the store price-matches other stores; you just have to tell them the price and where else it is and they’re supposed to match it. I’ve been having great luck with that (and have gotten some good deals without having to go from store to store for things I want/need) until a clerk on a recent trip angrily whipped out her phone and spent nearly 10 minutes keeping me and everyone else in line waiting while she tried to find the ad I was talking about. Was the 18 cents off per can coming directly out of her paycheck?

A trip to my local Goodwill store for used books brought an interesting encounter with a judgmental sales clerk. I asked whether they had any books from the “Twilight” series. (I’ve been upgrading my paperbacks to hardbound books when I can find them reasonably priced and in good condition.) The clerk glared at me and said, twice, “We don’t carry THOSE kinds of books.” When I asked her what she meant, she said they don’t stock books with the devil or vampires in them. (However, they did have many religious books, which some of them no doubt mention Satan…)

And here is one of my favorite encounters. A trip to my local library brought even more judgment. I saw on a shelf a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck.” As I smiled and jokingly apologized to the older women at the checkout counter about the title, one crossed her arms and said, “Oh, we know what book THAT is.” Another said, “I don’t approve of THAT word.” The great thing was when I said, “Well, I thumbed through the book and it looks like it has some great lessons in it, like not caring what other people think,” the irony sailed right over their heads.

What traditions, “customs” or quirks do people have where you live? Leave a comment below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with family and friends, and on social media!