28 February 2014

Bouchercon Workshop

Bouchercon 2014 is coming up in November. This time, the location is Long Beach, California. For those of you who haven't been to one of these mystery conferences yet, I would definitely recommend attending at least one, and Long Beach might just be the Bouchercon to go to. For those of you who have already attended one of these conferences, you know what I'm talking about. So far, I've gone to those which were held in Austin, Las Vegas, Madison, Indianapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis. I've always met interesting people at these gatherings, plus it's a great venue for networking.

And yes, I will be at the Long Beach Bouchercon. Conference Director Ingrid Willis asked me to put on my Surveillance Workshop. In the past, it's been performed at a Left Coast Crime Conference (Denver), two Mystery Writers of America chapter outings and two Pikes Peak Writers Conferences. And, each time I have been amazed at how good some of the civilian attendees have conducted themselves at this type of endeavor, plus how much fun they have while doing it.

So now, you're wondering how this works and if you should get involved in it. You get two choices; sit in on the lectures or become a player in the game of spies, law enforcement and targets to see and feel what it's actually like. I say register early and join one of the surveillance teams. Here's a rough outline of what the workshop entails.

It's scheduled for Thursday of the conference week. Six to eight celebrity authors are being selected by the Bouchercon Committee as rabbits. Some authors have already been chosen and/or have volunteered. At least two of them I'm aware of have been rabbits in previous workshops, so they should be pretty good at this. On Thursday morning, I will brief the rabbits and have their photos taken and their descriptions written down.

In early afternoon, there will be a one-hour session for any conference attendee who wishes to sit in on the class. During that presentation, they will learn about conducting foot surveillance in teams of four to six people per team. Thirty to forty plus of those class attendees (according to whatever selection process the committee uses) will then be formed into surveillance teams. Each team will receive a street map of the playing area, a description and photo of their rabbit, plus the starting point of their rabbit.

That afternoon at the designated time, the game is on. For one hour, each team has to follow their rabbit on foot through the city streets and businesses. In case they somehow lose their rabbit, each team leader will have my cell phone number so I can tell them where they can relocate their subject at fifteen minute intervals.

At a social hour that evening, there will be a debriefing of team captains on the surveillance results and happenings. Anyone can attend the debrief. This is when funny stories come out on who did what and how various players tried to keep from being burned by their targets. Some players find they can be pretty innovative when they get put on the spot.

So, for an entertaining and fun learning experience come on over to Long Beach for the 2014 Bouchercon. You'll be glad you did. Be sure to sit in on the surveillance lecture and debrief, whether you play the game or not.

See you there in November.

27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.
I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!

26 February 2014

The Dying of the Light

by David Edgerley Gates

I was put in mind of this by a photograph my pal Jack Hrusoff posted on FaceBook. I took it to be Alaska, but it turns out to be Patagonia. The ends of the earth are all too familiar. I asked Jack if he'd read the Bruce Chatwin book, which it turns out he had, at which point my thoughts went South, so to speak.

Chatwin doesn't fit into any easy category, as a writer. He was a traveler, and IN PATAGONIA and THE SONGLINES are travel books, of a sort, but more in the tradition of an eccentric like Robert Byron, and Chatwin himself was a big fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor. THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH is more curious, still, because it's a novel, more or less, but in fact a kind of masquerade. It's about the slave trade in West Africa in the early 19th century, and a very thinly disguised retelling of the life of Felix de Sousa, a Brazilian trafficker in Dahomey, whose career was colorful enough without making any of it up. This was an issue that dogged Chatwin, that he didn't spoil a good story for lack of the facts, and his accounts of both Patagonia and the Australian aborigines were later disputed. That might explain why he chose to call THE VICEROY fiction, so he didn't have to defend his inventions, but it falls between two stools, and ends up feeling incomplete. It's the least satisfying of his books.

Chatwin wasn't above inventing himself, for that matter. He died of AIDS, when he was 48, but he concealed the fact of his illness, and told conflicting stories about it. One could imagine AIDS was simply too generic. He said, for instance, that he'd contracted some weird fungal infection in the wilds of Africa, unknown to modern medicine, or that he was bitten by a Chinese bat.

The sadder aspect of this, aside from self-denial, is that Chatwin was taken over the coals, in some quarters, for not admitting what had actually sickened him. Rock Hudson, when he was dying of AIDS, went public, and used it as a platform, to educate people. This was honorable, and took a lot of balls, on Hudson's part, but why should anybody demand Chatwin turn himself into a poster boy? He was unresponsive to treatment, and suffering from dementia, for openers. It can't have been easy.

The larger point is that we deserve some privacy, at the end of our lives. Dying is a lonely enough
business as it is. Oscar Wilde once remarked, "biography lends death a new terror." Me personally, I can forgive Chatwin his embroideries and evasions. His life was purpose enough, and I don't think he had any obligation to provide an example. The real question is whether we've left something that will live after us.

25 February 2014

Something in the Water

by Terence Faherty

P.G. Wodehouse
In earlier posts, I've mentioned my admiration for two writers:  P.G. Wodehouse, the great humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster, and Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled private eye school and the creator of Philip Marlowe.  I proudly claim both as influences on my own humble writing.  At first glance, Wodehouse and Chandler would seem to have little in common (besides me).  But there are interesting parallels.  Both men wrote popular fiction for a wide audience but attracted their share of admirers in ivy-covered halls.  Both were wonderful prose stylists, admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, despite the handicap of never having set foot inside a university.  And, speaking of schools, both went to the same one at almost the same time. 

Raymond Chandler
Seriously?  The very British and frivolous Wodehouse and the very American and serious Chandler at the same school?  Yes, Dulwich College, outside London, England.  In spite of the college part of its name, Dulwich (pronounced dull itch) is a public school (pronounced private school), a very exclusive prep school.  It was founded in 1619 by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's favorite actor, Edward Alleyn.  Wodehouse arrived in 1894 and stayed until 1900.  Chandler arrived in 1900 and stayed until 1905.  So they might have just missed one another, if Wodehouse departed at the end of the spring term and Chandler arrived at the start of the fall term.  (In Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, the mystery writer mentions Wodehouse, but doesn't say whether they'd met.) 

Dulwich College
Was there something in the Dulwich water that stimulated great prose writing?  Was there a particular headmaster or a teacher on the staff who inspired and encouraged these two students?  I'd love to know.  If there's a doctoral candidate out there who's stuck for a thesis topic, he or she should snag this one, delve deeply into the subject, and report back to me.  As an added inducement to potential deep delvers, here are some additional  parallels between the two men.

Both were separated from one or both parents at an early age.  Wodehouse was farmed out to boarding schools and relatives in England while his parents lived overseas.  Chandler and his mother were deserted by his father.  The pair moved to England in part because Chandler's mother hoped to educate her son more cheaply there.  After Dulwich, both men tried conventional jobs, Wodehouse in banking and Chandler in civil service, and both soon quit to try journalism.  Wodehouse made a success of that and honed his prose style while contributing to various papers and magazines.  Chandler didn't; he returned to America, worked his way up in the oil industry and only returned to writing when he lost his job due to the Depression (and his drinking).  He then honed his own prose style writing for pulp magazines.

Both men tried their hands at screenwriting in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.  Both married but neither had children.  Wodehouse loved mysteries and had fairly catholic tastes, enjoying Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh (whose Inspector Alleyn spelled his name the same way as Dulwich's Edward Alleyn), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  But then, mysteries were an escape for Wodehouse, not being his bread and butter.  They weren't an escape for Chandler, and he tended to be critical of other mystery writers, especially Golden Age writers like Christie.

C.S. Forester
In a recent post, I mentioned my love of coincidences.  While researching this brief column, I ran into another one.  Around the same time I was snubbing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in favor of Wodehouse and Chandler, another of my favorite writers was C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, among many other popular novels (including some fairly noir crime stories).  No points for guessing where Forester spent his prep school days.  Yep, good old Dulwich, from 1915 to 1916.

I wish now that during my one and only trip to England I'd stopped by Dulwich and tried the local water.  It couldn't have hurt. 

24 February 2014

My Unusual but Happy Birthday

Jan Grape

by Jan Grape

Have to say, most people don't make too big a deal about birthdays. Mine has to have a special mention. Not because I'll be sixty-fifteen on the twenty-eighth of February, this coming Friday, but because the 28th of Feb. has been extra special since I was nine years old.

When I was seven my mother remarried, she had first been married to my father, Tom Barrow. They divorced when I was three. In 1946, she married Charles King Pierce. Mother, Iva "Pee Wee" Pierce was 25 years old and Daddy Charlie was 35. He had been in World War 11 and they met and corresponded for several months and when he came home, they were married. The three of us went to live in Post, Texas, forty miles southeast of Lubbock, nestled under the Cap Rock formed by the Llano Estacado.  A small town founded by C.W. Post of the cereal fame. He originally had hoped to build his fortune there but the climate was too dry and he moved to Battle Creek, MI where he did well.

Post didn't have a hospital anymore in 1948, but mother had an excellent doctor who would deliver her baby at home. On the evening of February 27th, the parents somehow knew the baby was due to be born so I was sent to my friend, Toni's house down the street two houses and around the corner three houses. The plan was I would come home the next day after the little boy or little girl was born. This was back in the days when sonograms hadn't even been discovered so no one knew the baby's sex before hand.

In the middle of the night the whole household where I was were all awakened by an excited pounding on the door. It was Daddy Charlie telling us my baby sister had arrived and he wanted me to come home immediately and see her. I found my clothes but couldn't find my shoes, I was so excited. Daddy Charlie, said, "Never mind I'll carry you." And he did; down the street, around the corner and to our house.

He actually carried me inside and set me down in the bedroom. My mother was in a bed, looking a bit tired but pleased. I was encouraged to look in the bassinette. I looked and thought I was looking at a baby doll, but it was my little sister. She had big brown eyes and was looking at me as if to say, "Hi there. I'm hoping you're my big sister."

Mother, her words a little strange because she was coming out of her pain medicine said, "Happy Birthday, Janice. This is your new baby sister, Sharla." (It wasn't until I graduated from High School and started X-ray School in Ft. Worth, living with my father and step-mother, that I shortened my name to Jan. I thought it went better with Barrow.)

Wow, a baby sister for my birthday. What a birthday present. Okay, that makes February 28 fairly special in my house. Yet, maybe not anything too unusual.

So this is where things turn extraordinary. Two years later, in 1950, please look at the scenario once more. My mother in once again expecting a baby. I'm eleven years old and Sharla is two. We still don't have a hospital, but Dr. Kahler is still taking care of mother and will deliver her baby at our house. Once again, I'm spending the night with my friend Toni, the night of February 28th. I don't think any of us went to sleep, we somehow expected news shortly. A few minutes after midnight, Daddy Charles came after me. This time I quickly dressed and put on my shoes. Good thing because I was almost too big to carry. Same bedroom, same bassinette, a little baby sister. Mother and Daddy Charles said, "Happy birthday, Janice. This is your second birthday present, your little sister Patsy." Yep, she had actually been born about three minutes before midnight on the 28th.

I don't remember what the odds are that three girls would be born to the same mother on the same day, although the age difference was obvious. Birthdays in our house were fun. Mother somehow managed to have our parties on the same day, but once that one was over she didn't have to worry
about birthdays for the remainder of the year.

A few years later, my mother's younger sister had her second child on February 28th. She called my mother and said, "You thought you had a monopoly on February 28th. That made four out of five grandchildren (on mother's side) with the same birthday. Any mathematician want the figure out the odds on that?

I love my birthday and my sisters, we don't have the chance to all be together on February 28th, but sometimes we can and when we do, it's extra special.

Next post: back to writing.

Patsy, Janice, Sharla, Easter-1951

Birthday: 1955,  Patsy's fifth birthday
Sharla's seventh birthday
Janice's sixteenth birthday

23 February 2014

Two More From “The Dead Witness”

by Louis Willis

The Parody
For this post, I read two more interesting stories from the Dead Witness anthology. One is a Sherlock Holmes parody , and the other involves a missing body part.
I sometimes have difficulty recognizing parodies because I’m too serious and tend to over analyze. But, through “inductive and reductive ratiocination,” I had no trouble recognizing Bret Harte’s “The Stolen Cigar-Case” as a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the greatest cerebral detective who ever lived, greater even than that master of ratiocination, C. Auguste Dupin. What tipped me off you might ask. The name of Hart’s detective: Hemlock Jones. Sherlock is a perceptive person. Hemlock is a poison that was used to execute criminals (and of course to kill Socrates). Hemlock Jones is poison to criminals. And Jones rhymes with Holmes. 
The story is a parody of the Holmes/Dupin method of “inductive and reductive ratiocination.” Hemlock Jones accuses the narrator (his Watson) of stealing his cigar-case and proceeds to present the evidence that without a doubt proves the narrator is the culprit. Jones is so convincing that, after the narrator left and never saw him again, he “often wondered, pondering on that wonderful man’s penetration and insight, if, in some lapse of consciousness, I had not really stolen his cigar-case.”  

The Missing Body Part
I like to read stories in which the title suggests a missing body part, which is why I chose the story “The Mysterious Human Leg” by James McGovan (1845-1919). I wondered how would a 19th century detective find the body, alive or dead, the part belongs to without the aid of forensic science? 
James McGovan was the pen name of William Crawford Honeyman, a professional violinist and orchestra leader who published books on the violin under his real name. In my search for information on Honeyman, under both his real and pen names, neither Google nor Bing was of much help, though Google listed the book How to Play the Violin by William C. Honeyman. Google Books was a little more helpful. From the site, I downloaded a collection of McGovan’s stories, Traced and Tracked: or Memoirs of a City Detective. I found no books on the Gutenberg website under McGovan or Honeyman. I declined Wikipedia’s invitation to create a page for McGovan. All the search engines wanted to change “McGovan” to “McGowan.” 
Searching for information on McGovan/Honeyman, I felt like a detective on the trail of the missing writer. Luck came my way when I visited the Birlinn website and read a review of McGovan’s book The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburg. The review provides a brief biography, and claims that, although McGovan’s books are mostly forgotten, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie admired his stories.
McGovan/Honeyman, having no experience in police work, pretended he was a real police detective writing stories about real crimes. The stories were so convincing that in 1888 Publishers’ Circular “proclaimed McGovan’s articles ‘the best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with.’” But he tells a pretty good story in “The Mysterious Human Leg.” After a young boy brings a left leg full of carpet tacks to him, detective McGovan notices that the leg was expertly cut, suggesting a doctor had performed the surgery. This initial observation leads him to medical student Robert Manson and eventually to the owner of the leg.

Without, I hope, spoiling the ending, my question to the firearm experts is this was it possible in the 19th century to load carpet tacks in any type of firearm and fire them like bullets?

22 February 2014

Is it okay not to win?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The first few months of the new year are a season of awards and competitions. In the world of mystery and crime fiction, we're waiting to hear who the finalists for the Derringers will be and looking forward to the Edgars and the Agathas. In the general culture, we're recovering from the Superbowl and the Grammys and anticipating the Oscars, which are just around the corner. And the Winter Olympics in Sochi have had most of us riveted to our TVs for the past two weeks.

In American culture, we have a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about being good at something. We adore those with talents and accomplishments, but we expect them to disavow at least some of the pride and pleasure they may feel in their success. And in recent years, we’ve been encouraged to idolize “celebrities” whose visibility has nothing to do with merit or achievement, but rests solely on the accident of their attracting media attention.

I fall somewhere in the middle along that vast continuum between humble, self-effacing saints and narcissists in love with their own importance. For better or worse, I care what people think. In the many years I spent as an unpublished writer, I didn’t exactly doubt my own abilities, but I feared that others would conclude my writing wasn’t good enough.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mother, an energetic high achiever who went to law school in 1921. My mother faced the world with confidence, no matter what, because she could always say, “I am a lawyer.” Yet she didn’t practice law successfully. Like most of the handful of women lawyers of her generation, she had to find a niche on the sidelines, in her case writing and editing legal books. But so powerful was the illusion created by her sense of her own identity that she was always “my mother the lawyer” to me.

My father, a lawyer too, was one of those crossword puzzle demons who did the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink every week. When I asked what something meant, he would say, “Look it up.” In those days, this meant not a quick romp through Google but dusting off the Webster’s Unabridged or worse, plodding down the wooden stairs to the cold basement to consult the multi-volume encyclopedia.

In seventh grade, I became a spelling bee champ. We were all natural spellers who played fierce family games of Scrabble when it first came out. I still remember the sense of triumph I felt—I must have been nine or ten—when I gave the correct spelling of “exhilarated” after my mother insisted that middle “a” was an “i” and my dad thought it was an “e.” We settled the argument by looking it up, and I felt—exhilarated.

At my junior high in Queens, we were invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee. It was a big deal back then and is still an annual event that’s covered by the media. Nowadays, they even televise the finals.

I had never had a significant failure in those days. I scored high grades on tests and was praised by teachers, and I did well enough in sports to please my intellectual family. I easily won the seventh grade spelling bee and then the whole school’s, competing against older kids in the eighth and ninth grades. I remember studying long lists of abstruse words with more pleasure than anxiety. Spelling came easily to me: if I’d seen it, I could spell it. I instinctively fell into the pattern of spelling with pauses between syllables to break each word down into manageable parts.

I remember my class breaking into spontaneous applause as I returned to the classroom after winning the schoolwide bee. It had been announced on the PA system. They did the same when I won the competition for the whole school district. Overhauling my paper files, I recently found the newspaper article in which my name was listed—one of only five kids in Queens who qualified—as a participant in the citywide bee. I was proud of my achievement. Why shouldn’t I be?

Then came the New York City bee. Alas, I lost it. I fell afoul of not one of the difficult words I’d studied but a simple one I’d never heard before: “intermittent.” I got that second “e” right, but I failed to double the “t,” and that was it. No trip to Washington DC to compete in the national finals against kids from all over the country. And no applause when I slunk back into the classroom that afternoon.

I’ve never misspelled “intermittent” again.

Since then, life has provided plenty of disappointments and only occasional applause. As a culture, we still love a winner, whether the arena is the Olympics, the Oscars, or the Derringers. There’s even a certain cachet in being nominated for an award or making the finals of a competition. But with so many others clamoring for attention, we’re in trouble if we can’t find self-esteem and validation from within.

21 February 2014

Writing Over the Hump

by Dixon Hill

   Before we begin: I have to apologize for being absent from the Comments section of so many blog posts on SleuthSayers over the past few weeks. I’m afraid I’ve been having a hard time getting online, lately, largely due to computer problems. In fact, I used my daughter’s laptop to post this, today, because I couldn’t get my computer to do it.  (And, I'm afraid, I wasn't permitted to upload pictures for some reason.)  Another culprit, however, is also to blame:

I’ve been riding the rails.

   Not literally, of course. I’ve been riding these rails figuratively. But, though my rides may have been imaginary—emotionally speaking, they felt very real indeed. They also ate a lot of time, but I’m absolutely not complaining.

   I’ve written here in the past, I believe, that writing a story sometimes seems to me, a lot like grabbing hold of a speeding freight train. And that’s what’s been going on.

 For me, sitting down to write is rather analogous to going to the station and trying to catch a train running to a great destination. And, if I’m lucky, it provides a wild ride with highly memorable scenery.

 The station in my imagination isn’t a large one, though. It’s no Grand Central, or Eastern Pacific terminal. Nor is it bustling with a throng of people. It’s a bit less traveled, a bit more rustic, and sort of like the train station in Bad Day at Black Rock.

 When I’m already working on something, I walk in knowing the direction I need to travel and the destination I need to reach. So I check the wall where the schedule is posted, to see if I can find the train I need. If I don’t currently I have a work in progress, my search is less directed and I’m more apt to just check out what’s running that day. In either case, though, I’m not looking for passenger trains, because I have a problem with them.

Problem is: Passenger trains seldom seem to fit the bill. 

 Passenger trains are designed to get people to wonderful destinations, while wrapping them in as much comfort and safety as possible during the journey. That’s just not the sort of story I’m after. Not that stories like that are bad. Long, slow sweeping sagas with vast panoramic vistas and luxurious turns of phrase can be magnificent. But, that’s not what I enjoy doing.

 I’m looking for a story that’s a combination train-ride and roller coaster. It needs to run fast, and direct, stopping or slowing as seldom as possible. It’s okay if the pace slows as the train crawls up a steep mountain grade, but those mountains need to be cruel and foreboding, even threatening. Naturally, this isn’t a route sensible executives would schedule passenger trains on; it’s the sort of route they reserve for pushing freight rapidly from point to point, with an eye on money.

 I also need certain elements to be present for the entire journey, so I can trot them out in the story when I need to—even if I’m currently unsure what those elements should be. Consequently, it helps to know what’s stored in the train cars hooked behind the engine.

 So: I need a train scheduled on a freight route: that’s a freight train. And I need to be sure my chosen freight train is hauling certain cargo. I can check the route schedule on that wall-mounted board in the station. The place to inspect the cargo, however, lies just outside town in a switching yard.  In my head, I have a mental hump yard, and that's not a play on words.

 A hump yard, for those who don’t know, is a type of switching yard used to conserve motive power. When a train comes in, workers uncouple and drive away the engine(s), leaving the cars sitting on the track. Then a small yard engine hooks to the back of the line of freight cars that comprised the train, and it begins to push the cars slowly forward. The initial destination, for each car, is the yard’s namesake—the place where the track runs up over a small hump in the ground.

 In simplest form, things work like this: When the first car crosses the hump, the yard engine stops the train. Yard workers standing at the hump uncouple the car and let it roll down the hump and into the network of branch-lines spanning the yard. Sometimes they give it a kick with one foot, to add a little impetus.

 As the car moves into the yard network, switches are thrown, shunting it to the track where the train cars heading for a particular destination are being lined up and hooked together, awaiting the engine(s) that will pull them there. Meanwhile, the yard engine continues to push each car over the hump, stopping to let it be released and roll down to join the new train it will soon be part of.

 Occasionally, of course, two or three cars in a row happen to be heading for the same destination. In this case, they’re rolled over the hump, and unhooked from the train cars behind, but the group of cars heading for the same place is left hooked together to negotiate the yard network as a unit.

Which reminds me of a funny story. 

 I’m a bit familiar with a hump yard, because I had the opportunity to tour one while studying Target Analysis in the Engineer portion of the SF Qualification Course. We spent a full day closely examining all details of the hump yard’s mechanisms and inner workings, even climbing in and around a diesel-electric train engine—the cab, engine compartments, drive components, etc.—so we could learn the Achilles’ heels inherent in the operation, and the intricacies of how to put the yard or engine out of business for any particularly specified period of time, using the minimal amount of leverage or explosive force, when called upon.

 While we were there, one of the fellows told us that his buddy was trying to remove and replace a frog, one day—a frog being a particular portion of a switch rail. The frog had been in place for decades, however, and the nuts and bolts that held it were locked solid, the metal nearly fused by rust and time. So the yard worker grabbed a long pipe—or “cheater bar”—and slid it down over the large wrench he had locked to the nut, because this added-length significantly increased the torque of his leverage.

 Unfortunately, the nut and bolt were so fused by rust that they snapped off while he was hanging all his body weight on the long pipe. The result was a broken leg. His buddies carried him up to the nurse’s office, where the nurse rapidly began splinting his leg as the ambulance was called from town. As she ministered to the man, the nurse asked how he’d done this to himself. The guy answered honestly: “I was tryin’ to bust the nuts off a frog.”

 The nurse, incensed, harangued him for being ungentlemanly, until the Yard Master, drawn by her yelling, arrived and explained what the yard worker had been trying to accomplish.

Back to my analogy:

 The station in my imagination is located not far from a small hump yard that is overlooked by a hill. After checking the schedule at the station, so I know where the trains being assembled on the different tracks below are going, I pull out binoculars and start looking at the freight cars and cargo.

 It’s hard to explain how I decide which train to choose. Sometimes I’m overcome by a desire to work with the strange combination of cargo carried by freight cars coupled in a certain order. At others, I might be intrigued by the mysterious look of certain cars; perhaps they have evil-looking odd protuberances, or are painted in garish colors that look as if they were splashed across in a fit of violent emotion. Occasionally, I spot a human form darting furtively among the train cars being assembled below, and I want to find out what he’s up to. Sometimes, it’s just a sunny day and the freight below looks like a fun ride, so I take a chance.

 The thing is: It’s always a gamble. When trains run, sometimes they get sided. Another train might be coming along the same track, for instance, so the train I’ve hitched a ride on has to pull into a siding and sit there for hours, waiting for it to pass. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the train I choose to run hot and fast for several miles, then break down and sit dead on the tracks.

 When the latter happens, I look at the papers posted on my office wall, which encourage writers to forge ahead, not waiting for inspiration to do the heavy lifting for them. Obviously, a writer can’t stand around all day just waiting for inspiration. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever sold a story, unless I felt that freight train pull while writing it. If I’ve got to get off the train and push it up a steep grade, it’s almost a guarantee that the story won’t sell.

 For some reason, in my experience, a story has to have a motive force of its own, or it just doesn’t go anywhere. If I can’t get the train rolling within a few minutes, I’m in trouble. Pushing a train with a dead engine is a sure way to break a lot of sweat and raise a lot of dust, but the only result will be a deep whole where your feet have been churning-in-place. So when the train grinds to a halt, it’s time to dismount and look for the problem.

 Train cars aren’t just connected by the metal coupling that holds them physically together. There are hoses and cables that run between the cars and have to be connected for the train to operate properly. One of those hoses, for instance, is the hydraulic hose that connects all the brake lines on the cars. If that hose breaks loose between two cars, the hydraulic pressure drops and the brakes in all the cars slam on. They can’t be released until the pressure can be pumped up again. To pump up the pressure, the entire system has to have integrity, so the dropped hose has to be reconnected.

 Disconnection can be a show-stopper in a story too. When two elements of a story don’t work together, the thing just won’t hang right and run. Sometimes the work required is minimal, but sometimes it's as if I have to bodily shove a group of recalcitrant box cars up to where the rest of the train sits, so I can hook everything up and get it rolling again.

 Other times, I might find that a portion of the train has come off the rails; that can be a mind numbing repair problem. But, if after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I can get everything lined up again, the train will run, carrying me forward to my destination.

 Occasionally, however, the problem is so large I can’t figure out how to fix it. At times like those, I let the engineer call it into the yard. And I walk away, to come back and check on progress at times. Because, while I’m away, the army of yard workers in my subconscious mind will work to get that train back on the track. And that’s a large part of what’s been going on in my life, over the past two weeks.

 I started work on a story three or four years ago (I can’t be sure). It was a great story; the train ran hot and true through valleys of stark resonance and across ridgelines of jagged rock. But I was called away from the train too many times—often for extended periods, so I could help my parents. The engine sat there running, waiting for me to come back, but it used up all the fuel while I was gone, and I didn’t know how to get more fuel out to it, in the middle of nowhere, where it sat.

 Two weeks ago, however ...

When I opened that story to look it over again, I found the fuel stores had been fully topped off. As I crossed the track in front of the engine, the train horn sounded, so loud it nearly took my ears off. The engine leaped forward—from zero to sixty in about a second-and-a-half. And I was pasted, bodily, on the front of the engine cowling, wind tearing at my hair and clothes.

 I knew better than to try climbing into the cab, of course. Sitting there is too much like sitting in a passenger seat. Instead, I stayed where I was and started writing everything I saw as it flashed past. If I were a better liar, I’d tell you I stayed there 24/7, and didn’t climb down till the ride was through. (My dream is an office with a red and green light over the door. The red light would mean I’M WORKING: NO ADMITTANCE, and I’d stay there until the work was done.) But, I’ve got a wife who told me long ago that this sort of behavior didn’t wash with her. She expects me to be there for the family.

 I love my wife, so I had to shut it down at nights and meal times to do my duty. Every morning, however, when I returned, I’d find the train sitting on the tracks, engine running and engineer anxious to be off again. I’d climb back on the front, and away we’d go. I finally finished the first draft of that story—one that I started three or four years ago—late last week.

 At which point I discovered the freights are running hot and hard at the moment. I’ve caught some monster freights that have carried me to surprising destinations, a few of which have stalled, but two of which roared straight to the promised land.

 Yesterday, I caught one that I haven’t finished riding yet. It’s sitting just off on a little siding as I write this, the engineer anxious to get rolling. So I hope you don’t mind if I disappear again for a little while.

 And, who knows? Maybe, one day, we’ll meet up by the tracks: both of us sneaking down to the local switch-yard, looking for the right freight train to hop.

 See you in two weeks!

20 February 2014

The Thunderbolt

by Brian Thornton

A few years back I wrote a couple of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.
A contemporary bust of Alexander the Great

Our current "bastard" comes from the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.

During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

And one of the most notorious of these bastards was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.

And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Ptolemy I ("Soter")
Ptolemy (pronounced “Tah-lemm-mee,” the “P” being silent) was the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of kings that ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death.  The Thunderbolt was the eldest of Ptolemy I’s legitimate sons to survive childhood; a product of Ptolemy’s marriage to his third wife, Eurydice (“Yur-id-iss-see”), and at least initially was designated as the first Ptolemy’s chosen successor as pharaoh.

The early Hellenistic period was an incredibly chaotic time.  The passing of Alexander the Great left a power vacuum too tempting for the generals he had set in place as local governors in his empire to resist for long.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

The kingdoms of the "successors" shown here around 301 BC
And their children, often pawns in Hellenistic dynastic marriages, learned from their example.

In the case of Ptolemy the Thunderbolt, he might have learned some of these lessons too well.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred action.  Ptolemy Soter had from an early age developed a talent for picking the right side in any dispute.  His son did not possess the patience to weigh options.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace (modern-day northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and European Turkey) and the court of another diadochos, Lysimachus (“Lie-simm-muh-kuss”).  Lysimachus was married to Ptolemy’s half-sister Arsinoe (“Ar-sinn-oh-ee”), and his son by a previous marriage was married to another sister, Lysandra.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other: Lysandra intent on seeing her husband Agathocles (“Uh-gath-uh-kleez”) succeed Lysimachus (who by this time was in his late seventies), where Arsinoe sought to secure her husband’s blessing for one of her three sons to succeed him.  In the end they were both foiled.

Arsinoe succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having his eldest son and erstwhile heir executed.  Lysandra fled, and Ptolemy Keraunos went with her.

They traveled to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other of Alexander’s generals still left standing aside from Ptolemy in Egypt and Lysimachus in Thrace.  Seeing an opportunity, Seleucus agreed to raise an army on the behalf of the two, and assured them that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.  During that same year Ptolemy I died.  The succession of his easy-going son Ptolemy II to the throne went off without incident.

The site of the battle of Corupedium in modern-day Turkey

Seleucus and Lysimachus faced off at the battle of Corupedium (“Kohr-up-ee-dee-um”) in 281 BC.  Meeting in single combat, the 77 year-old Seleucus defeated and killed the 79 year-old Lysimachus (now that must have been a sight: the Clash of the Geriatrics!).  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

For Seleucus, a battle-hardened veteran of Alexander’s wars of conquest, and now the last of the diadochoi left alive, reckoned without the hot-headed son of his old rival Ptolemy I. Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Seleucus to death in his tent. The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name "Thunderbolt".
Seleucus I (Nicator)

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia (a title up for grabs since its previous owner had died in captivity in 283 and his son was in no position to press his claim).  The only problem was that Arsinoe still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

Arsinoe agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoe’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  You can guess what happened next.

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoe began plotting against him.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoe’s two younger sons.  The eldest, Ptolemy-son-of-Arsinoe-not-to-be-confused-with-Ptolemy-Keraunos fled the kingdom.  Arsinoe did as well, heading home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thracians asked for his help against them.  When Ptolemy short-sightedly refused, the Thracians were forced to ally themselves with the invaders; a group of Celtic-speaking savages known as the Getae (“Get-tay”).  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

A fifteenth century French depiction of the death of Ptolemy Keraunos while fighting the Getae. Note how the artist has portrayed all the combatants as if they were contemporary French knights, right down to the plate armor.
As for the sisters of Ptolemy, Lysandra and her children disappear from the historical narrative around the death of Seleucus (did Ptolemy or Arsinoe kill them as well?), and Arsinoe?  She talked her brother Ptolemy II into setting aside his first wife and marrying her.  She served as his co-ruler for the remaining ten years of her life.  Ever afterward Ptolemy II was known as “Philadelphus” (“sibling-lover”).  In the end, who was the bigger bastard?  The relatively straight-forward, hot-headed Thunderbolt, or his constantly scheming half-sister Arsinoe?
A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus portraying the king and his sister/wife/queen, the formidable Arsinoe II
A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus portraying the king side-by-side with his sister/wife/queen the formidable Arsinoe II.

19 February 2014

Best Question

Writers have been known to gripe about certain questions  they receive over and over.  But human nature being what it is, we don't spend so much time talking about the questions we like.  (And if you have any favorites, plunk 'em into the comments.)

I want to concentrate on one question in particular, because it is vital to our business. 

Donald E. Westlake wrote an essay called "Tangled Webs For Sale: Best Offer,"  which appeared in I, Witness, an excellent collection of essays by mystery writers about  their experiences with true crime.  In his essay Westlake regales some strangers at a party with the true tale of some French criminals who stole the plan for a kidnapping from a novel by Lionel White.  Westlake is interrupted and then:

"What happened next?" demanded two or three fringe members of the group.  (They were, had they but known it, exemplifying not only the human need for narrative which creates jobs for storytellers like me, but also the professional need which at times drives writers to seek the answer to that question in other writers' books.)

What happened next?  That hunger to find out is what keeps folks turning pages, God bless 'em.

Back in 1979 my first story was published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (and yes, that was the cover).  I thought it had a reasonable ending.  Basically, a boy in a South American village has saved the life of his employer who is a very bad man indeed.  The employer is moved by the boy's action and it looks like his whole outlook on the world might be changed.  But the reader learns that the boy is simply keeping the man alive until he is old enough to sell him to a higher bidder.

When the story was published naturally I showed it off to some people.  A lot of people.  One of them was my wife's co-worker, Dorothy.  When she read it she immediately asked "What happened next?"

I assured her that I had no idea.  This did not satisfy her, and every time I walked into that office after that Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened next?"

Finally I told her that the day after the story ended the boy won the lottery and his family and the employer bought a house by the seashore together.  Oddly enough, this didn't please her either.

Which brings up another point, doesn't it?  Wanting to know what happens after the ending may not be a good idea.  Or, maybe, instead of the ending. 

Connie Willis, one of my favorite science fiction writers, wrote a book called Remake in which technology had advanced sufficiently that anyone could remake a movie, essentially Photoshop it, so that , for example, Sonny doesn't get shot to death in The Godfather.  (Oops, spoiler alert there!)   She noted that one of the most popular changes was to "fix" Casblanca so that Rick ends up with Ilsa.  But, her main character points out, there is no way to make that happen without turning  Rick and Ilsa into  bad guys. 

I have been pondering this because my last story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a sequel I never expected to write.   I didn't feel any need to know what happened next with that character.  Then suddenly I did.  And more to the point, my next story in AHMM is a sequel to another story I never thought needed any company. 

Do you want to hear about that?  Come back in two weeks, because that's what happens next.

18 February 2014

Gone South: Doing Something About February

by Dale C. Andrews
 Shakey crashed through the door of the bar looking like the last day of February
                                                     Herschel Cozine
                                                     Shakey's Debt
February, when the days of winter seem endless and no amount of wistful recollecting can bring back any air of summer.
                                                     Shirley Jackson
                                                     Raising Demons
February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.
                                                     Dr. J. R. Stockton

Frazz, February 1, 2014, ©2011 2011 Jef Mallett/Distr. By Universal Uclic

     When my wife and I each retired in 2009 we had a shared goal. We wanted to never again endure the month of February in Washington, D.C. So far we have made good on that quest, and this year, as in previous Februaries, we are holding forth in a rental condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

       Mao Tse Tung was an advocate for the battle tactic of planned retreats, and in no year has a planned retreat from the frozen north made more sense than this one. When you look at those weather maps that have been so common this month, with that bulge of blue swallowing up the Midwest and the entire East Coast, we are right down there at the bottom -- where, in the course of a few scant miles, the color of the weather map on most days shifts from blue, to green, and then finally to yellow, where we are. It doesn't always work -- this year in our first few days here we did find ourselves in the path of that ice storm that hit the south, and that left us apartment bound for a day, but by and large we enjoy 60s when our home in D.C. has to tolerate 20s.  And this week it is all sunshine and mid-70s.

The only time this year that February
caught up with us at Gulf Shores
       So we run away before the cold. And in doing so we escape the dreary and dreaded month of February, at least as it is experienced up north. Paradoxically, while only 28 or 29 days, February nonetheless plays out as the longest month of the year. It is cold, the days are short, and it invites the onset of cabin fever. When you are held captive by the deranged beast that is February -- that is, when pressures of life conspire to hold you in place, precluding that planned retreat -- the result challenges even the stalwart optimist in each of us.  It can tempt us, in fact, to retreat from rational thinking in our quest for an escape.

A cargo cult's "runway"
       When I was a sociology major back in college I remember studying the cargo cults of the South Pacific -- island tribes that, watching the cargo-rich U.S. air fleets in World War II fly overhead, were inspired to build mock runways on their islands in hope that the planes would land there as well. We smile and shake our heads at the naive innocence of all of this, pinning hopes on magic.  But every year on February second, no doubt in trepidation of what lies ahead, we trot out analogous witchery. We gather in ritualistic regalia, we sometimes require that only German is to be spoken, and we scrutinize awakening groundhogs in an attempt to discern whether they will see their shadows.  All in the hope that ritual can somehow foreshorten our misery.

       This year, as reported in the Washington Post, Phil the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania saw his shadow, which, per legend, meant six more weeks of winter.   The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has dismissed statistically any soothsaying abilities of Phil and his cohorts, and on bright and warm days we smile and shake our heads at the whole cargo cult ritual of this annual event. The planes do not arrive for the cargo cults, and spring does not arrive for us.  But that does not stop us from showing up each year to watch the groundhog. And this is not limited to that town in Pennsylvania. The Washington Post reports that other groundhogs, also sought out each year in a quest to short-hop the miseries of February, include:

       And in Washington, D.C., we add Potomac Phil to the list. The Washington would-be prognosticator is actually a stuffed Groundhog, but it nevertheless somehow manages to impart a prediction annually at a gathering at Dupont Circle.

       It is not just those of us in the United States who behave this way. In Serbia, for example, on February 15 during the feast of celebration of Sretenje or The Meeting of the Lord. celebrants watch a bear that is awakened from winter sleep. According to legend there if the bear sees its shadow it goes back to sleep for another 40 days, and winter continues. European folklore generally also looks to badgers or bears, usually on February 1, in hope of a signal that winter will end early. But, again according to NOAA, approximately 75 percent of the time there is no early spring, and our hopes are in vain. Regardless of the vagaries of animals’ shadows we, like those South Sea islanders tempting the planes to land, get nothing.

       In fact we do worse -- we get February.

       All of these February rituals simply evidence our desperation. Those who face February without the possibility of retreat can be rendered senseless and desperate in their endurance. A resort to witchcraft is but a small step where nothing rational works.

       So. Where did this affront that is February come from in the first place? As one might suspect, the dratted month owns a checkered past. No such month existed in the early Roman calendar, a ten month affair that simply left the period that is now January and February a nameless blot of bleak days. In effect the early Roman calendar at the end of December said That's it.  See you in March.  When February (along with January) eventually was added to the Roman calendar, around 700 B.C., it was a period of varying lengths -- 23 to 27 days -- and a thirteenth month, Intercalaris, was inserted between it and March as a device to re-align the calendar with the seasons each year, a necessary tool since the year, but for Intercalaris, was calculated out at 355 days.

       Under the reforms instituted with the Julian calendar, Intercalaris was abolished, the year was set at 365 days, and February was likely assigned 29 days. I say “likely” because there is some argument as to how February became a 28 day month (except in leap years). According to popular history this reduction occurred as a result of rivalry between Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. Julius Caesar had already requisitioned and re-named the seventh month of the year “July,” in honor of, well, himself. Then, so the story goes, when Augustus Caesar ascended to power he decided he needed his own month as well, and we were given a re-named eighth month -- “August.” Up until that time all months (except for February) were either 30 days or 31 days, alternating on an every-other month basis. But Augustus wanted his month to be as long as Julius Caesar’s, so he robbed a day from February and placed that day in August, making it 31 days as well.

Washington, D.C. earlier this month
       Fear not. There is a demented rhyme to the madness of today’s discussion. Our dread of February, as evidenced, among other things, by that groundhog fetish, coupled with our willingness, evidenced by the Romans, to first invent, and then re-invent the length of February, provide something of a spring board for creative thinking. Even when we are not free to run south in front of the dreaded second month of the year, might there still be some other alternatives that we could pursue?  Something that does not exactly solve the problem of February but still offers more than a mere placebo? We cannot end winter sooner, but is there some lesser measure that, while realistically ineffective at combating winter, could nonetheless help to avenge the wrongs done to the tortured and shivering masses better than that resort to groundhogs, bears and badgers?

       I have a modest suggestion.

       We all accept that February already differs from other months in the number of its allotted days. And the Romans have already fiddled with that number, as discussed above, before agreeing on our present 28 day (and 29 day leap year) approach. Since the month is already demonstrably too long at 28 (or 29) days, my proposal is simply this: Chop another week off of it. Make it 21 days -- a three week sprint from January to March. And then take that extra week, the one we just chopped, and plop it down smack dab in the middle of June -- a month that often seems too short.

Gulf Shores Alabama -- View from our condo
February 17, 2014.  72 degrees.
       What about leap year? you ask. Simple, again. Leap year day should be designated a national holiday. The holiday would float, and would be used, as needed, as an extra day adjacent to July 4, thereby ensuring that Independence Day would always at the least be a two-day holiday. I know, I know -- I see all of you math majors waving your hands, eager to point out that the extra day would be needed whenever Independence Day falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and that these alignments occur more than once every four years. The solution remains simple -- just take those extra days, as needed, out of February.  If the second month of the year ends up less than 21 days, I mean, who is going to complain?

       I could go on. But I am off to the beach.