07 August 2012

The York Boys

If you've watched any of the coverage of the Olympics, you may have noticed a few shots of the Tower of London.  It's the most visited spot in that most visited city, and also contains the fabulous crown jewels of the royal household.  It was also the last place that Edward York, and his younger brother, Richard, were ever seen.  Edward was twelve and awaiting his coronation as King Edward the Fifth.  Richard, nine, would have been next in line to the  throne.  The year was 1483, and their Uncle Richard, shortly to become Richard the Third of Shakespearean infamy, was the Lord Protector of the Realm.  He had placed the boys in the tower in order to protect them as befit his title.  A little over the top, perhaps, placing them in what amounted to a prison, but Richard never did anything by halves.  After all, his recently departed older brother, King Edward the IV, had charged him with guiding and protecting his heir until he should attain his majority.  Richard insisted that he was doing just that.  What was he protecting them from, you might ask?  Their mother and her meddling brothers, quoth he.

Since coming out as the winners of the War of the Roses, as it came to be known, the Yorks had been top dogs in Britain for a number of years.  Those who had opposed them and supported the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenet family had been largely silenced and suppressed.  As King Edward's trusted lieutenant, and youngest brother, Richard had been a large and heavy hand in the undoing of their enemies.  Neither his courage or loyalty had ever been an issue.  Upon learning of his impending death, Edward had entrusted him with the welfare of his heirs, as well as that of his kingdom.  At this particular juncture in history, the future Richard the Third, was not a villain, but one of the most respected men in England.  What happened?

Simply put, the princes were seen less and less, until they were seen no more, to paraphrase a famous quote.  What happened to them, and why, has haunted historians for centuries, resulting in near-countless books and theories on the subject.  Kings and clergy, commoners and laity, have been bedeviled by this mystery, at the heart of which lies two young boys torn from their mother, imprisoned, and most certainly murdered.

Traditionalists, from St. Thomas More to Shakespeare, have long laid the blame squarely at the feet of Richard.  The Defenders, as we'll call them, cry nay; that he has been unfairly framed and libeled for crimes he never committed.  Josephine Tey's famous mystery novel, "The Daughter Of Time" lays out an alternate history in which Richard is exonerated. 

Let's look at what is known: The boys' father, Edward IV, died a successful, and largely well-liked king.  He had wrested the crown from Henry VI, a sad fellow prone to extended bouts of insanity, then proceeded to rule in a pretty even-handed manner to the betterment of the nation.  His personal life was a bit bumpy, as he was a serial philanderer and all-round sensualist, but hey, he was king.  His over-indulgence in wine, women, and song, would ultimately result in his death.  It also gained him a wife in the form of Elizabeth Woodville.  The Woodville Clan were a large and ambitious family of climbers that scored big time when Elizabeth reeled in Edward.  She quickly produced the required male heirs and they were set.  All of her brothers, whom Edward got along famously with, received titles and vast estates.  In the blink of an eye they had gone from obscurity to peerage and power.  Times were good.

One problem lay on their horizon, however--Richard did not trust them.  And with his brother's death, he felt it imperative to separate Edward's sons from their baleful influence.  Accusing them of  plotting treason, he succeeded in having one of the uncles executed.  It's possible that he believed his personal estates and titles might be at risk should the Woodvilles poison the young king-to-be against him.  In any event, it's clear he intended to tightly box them in.

What followed is perplexing in the light of Richard's history up to this time.  Firstly, let me point out that unlike his depiction in Shakespeare's play, there is no evidence that he was either club-footed or afflicted with a hunched-back.  It is possible, based on a few portraits, that he may have had one shoulder slightly higher than the other--hardly the debilitating afflictions portrayed by so many actors over time.  The fact that he was a successful horseman and warrior argues against such depictions.  Secondly, he had been his elder brother's right-hand man and strong arm, particularly in the restive North.  There, Richard had brought the tempestuous lords to heel and gained their respect.  The only hint of something sinister in his character stems from the death of their middle brother, Clarence.  Like the boys that would come after, the accusations leveled against him were never fully proven and composed mostly of innuendo.  Clarence had been untrustworthy during Edward's climb to power, switching sides against his brother and then back again; being critical of his actions.  This kind of behavior never bode well for any practitioner in medieval courts.  Remember, this was the age of Machiavelli, Vlad the Impaler, and the odious Gilles de Rais.  Clarence did not appreciate this sufficiently and was said to have been drowned in a cask of malmsey--a type of sweetened wine popular at the time.  That is the legend that has survived and not necessarily the truth of the matter.  He was dead, killed for treason, and that is indisputable.  Life was short, brutal, and nasty even for royals in the 1400s.

It was no different for the princes--by the end of the summer of 1483 they ceased being seen at their windows.  Richard, in the meantime, had discovered a mistress of late brother Edward's that he had "betrothed" prior to his marriage to Elizabeth...and in front of a bishop, no less!  A betrothal at that time was tantamount to a proposal of marriage today, but carried legal, and more importantly, moral weight--it was regarded as an enforceable contract in both civil and ecclesiastical terms.  Edward had routinely used this ploy in order to gain access to attractive young ladies' boudoirs.  It would now come back to haunt his heirs.  It meant that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was invalid...and much more importantly, that their issue were illegitimate!  This was promptly endorsed by the Privy Council and Richard was suddenly the next in line to the throne.  These glad tidings were put out to the people who greeted them with a subdued, and directed, chorus of "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow."  A few voices enquired as to where the "former" princes might be...as they were not a threat to the throne, perhaps they could be produced.  As might be expected, the Woodvilles and their supporters were keenly interested in the answer to this.  They were to be disappointed.

Richard's coronation went forward as planned, and he simply refused to produce the boys for inspection.  He did deny that they were dead, or that he had murdered them.  He remained their protector, it seems, though they were no longer heirs and therefore should have needed no protection.  He got on with ruling his kingdom and eradicating a few problem subjects along the way.  The muted clamor became more an urgent whisper rarely heard. 

By 1485 Richard the Third was dead--betrayed by the Northern lords he trusted, and slain on the field of Bosworth in yet another contest for the crown.  Henry Tudor, with far less claim to the throne than Richard, was now Henry VII of England.  He seems not to have found any princes in the Tower of London.  Or didn't he?

Some theorists, including Tey's bored detective, come to the conclusion that it was Henry that had the boys killed.  That after discovering them, and understanding the threat they represented to his newly-won crown,  he promptly had them murdered and their bodies hidden away.  It's a good theory, but it is predicated on the boys being alive in 1485.  If so, then where were they for all that time?  And why wouldn't have Richard produced them?  It could have made life easier for him.  Of course, young Edward V might have become a rallying point for Richard's enemies in spite of his so-called illegitimacy--there were many who did not buy the betrothment story or Richard's claim to the throne.  But, it would also have demonstrated that he had been a true protector of his brother's children and not their murderer.  In any event, he didn't do it, effectively damning himself as a usurper and regicide...not to mention a really bad uncle.

Others claim that the boys were murdered by the Duke of Buckingham, an early supporter of Richard's who may have acted on his own in hope of preferment.  Some split hairs and blame James Tyrrell, a lackey of Richard's who got a lot of nasty work done for him.  If so, he did it on Richard's orders, which is all of one piece to me.  He had no known motives but that of pleasing his boss.  Henry VII later had a confession tortured out of him, for what that's worth.

As to what really happened to the princes, we shall probably never know.  Yet I will side with the traditionalists on this one.  It just makes the most sense to me.  I'm not sure, of course, that Richard set out to murder his nephews, or even to assume the throne.  But once he had them, I suspect it dawned on him rather quickly the chance he had seized--why settle for only maintaining his estates upon the ascension of young Edward and his grasping family, when he could have it all?  He simply couldn't resist.  Perhaps, at first, he was content to only make them bastards in the eyes of the law, but at some point, after gauging the simmering opposition, he decided to remove them altogether--there would never be an heir to build a rebellion around.  But as Sir Walter Scott pointed out, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."  Richard had created a conundrum for himself--he could no longer produce the boys, though by his own words, there was no legitimate reason for him not to do so.  Perhaps it wasn't just a new king that arrived less than three years later at the Battle of Bosworth, but justice.

As a somber postscript, the disarticulated skeletons of two children were unearthed in 1647 during renovations to the tower.  These were believed to be the remains of the two, long-missing princes.  Befitting their status, they were reinterred in Westminster Abby.  Their grave was reopened in 1933 for modern medical examination, and the remains determined to be between the ages of seven to eleven, and eleven to thirteen, respectively; closely matching that of Richard and Edward.  This was all that was definitively learned, and there has been no permission given since for further examinations.   


06 August 2012

Surprise Endings

O. Henry was one of my favorite writers when I was a child.  I loved the surprise endings in each of his tales.  Almost everyone is familiar with some of his short stories, especially "Gift of the Magi" and "Ransom of Red Chief."  My favorite was "Mammon and the Archer." 

Periodically, I survey my universe and eradicate the negatives, which has frequently led to breakups with gentlemen friends. This tends to correspond with "cleaning out my library" which results in my giving away books which I later wish I'd kept.  Inevitably, I've changed my mind and wanted those stories back, (though not the gentlemen friends), so I've bought numerous copies of the Complete Works of O. Henry through the years. I enjoy his work now as much as I ever did.

William Sydney Porter
aka O. Henry
aka Olivier Henry
William Sydney Porter was born in Asheville, North Carolina, but began receiving recognition for his writing under the pseudonym Olivier Henry while living in Texas, where he was convicted of embezzlement and spent time in prison.  Upon his release, he moved to New York City and began writing under the pen name O. Henry

Since his death at age forty-seven, O. Henry has had several supporters offer evidence that he was innocent of the embezzlement.  There is an O. Henry Museum in his honor in Texas. 

Regardless of  his youthful guilt or innocence, O. Henry remains one of my favorite writers and an inspiration for the unexpected ending.  Needless to say, he immediately came to mind when I discovered PARAPROSDOKIANS.

Sir Winston Churchill
PARAPROSDOKIANS are figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected and frequently humorous.  Sir Winston Churchill loved them, and I'll bet O. Henry would have, too.

Some examples:

1.  Where there's a will, I want to be in it.

2.  The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it's still on my list.

3.  Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

4.  If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5.  War does not determine who is right--only who is left.

6.  To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

7.  I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted paychecks.

8.  I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

9.  I didn't say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.

"I'm sexy and I know it!"
10.  Women will never be equal to men  until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy.

11.  A clear conscience is a sign of a fuzzy memory.

12.  You don't need a parachute to skydive; you only need a parachute to skydive twice.

13.  I used to be indecisive; now I'm not so sure.

14.  To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

15.  Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

16.  Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

17.  Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

18.  I am neither for nor against apathy.

19. Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

20.  Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.

How about you?  Do you have a favorite of the twenty PARAPROSDOKIANS above or perhaps one not listed?  Better yet, make one up and share it!

Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU!

05 August 2012

I Write Like…

IWL sounds like a labor union but it stands for "I write like…" found at a web site called IWL.com. I don't recall if this came up in Criminal Brief, but it's fun to tinker with it, sort of a literary horoscope.
Crawling Through the Carpal Tunnel

At the moment, writing anything has become irritating because of pain, possibly carpal tunnel related. Some people's wrists go numb, mine hurt like hell, especially when picking up silly things like a cup or turning a doorknob.

I know, I know…gotta take care of myself. When I'm heads-down writing, I tend to block out my environment– chills, hunger, fatigue, and paying bills. ADD specialists call it 'hyper-focusing'. (Note to self: Been cutting those emergency bathroom dashes a bit close recently.)
A. Conan Doyle
Stephen King
Anne Rice

Making the Grade

I'd been editing math textbooks, grades 5-7, and was 'rewarded' (he says dryly) with an assignment to write for grade 9. A number of equations are involved, so I'm using MS Word 2011's new internal equation editor. It's not bad, not bad at all as long as colleagues don't try to edit in an older version of MS Word.

Anyway, a note in my eMail drew my attention to IWL, so I gave it 'I write like…' a whirl. My first attempt said I write like Arthur Conan Doyle. Yay! My second submission came up Stephen King. Wow. And analysis of my third story claimed I wrote like William Shakespeare. Forsooth!

Biting the Neck that Feeds You

And then I tried a fourth sample—Anne Rice? Hmm? This particular piece might have been a bit dark and sexy but there was nary a vampire to be found.

The IWL web site's for fun– I imagine even the worst writing will be given a positive twist and attributed to a great author. Is it possible someone's writing is so bad it could be linked to that kid in the third grade who picked his nose?

Nah, not me. My editor thinks I write like a 9th-grader.

04 August 2012

Just for (Side) Kicks

by John M. Floyd

I watched--actually, rewatched--a movie the other night that made me think of a plot device that fiction writers often use: giving the hero a sidekick.  The movie is Rustler's Rhapsody, and its sole purpose is to poke fun at the traditional Western.  If you've seen it you'll know what I mean, about sidekicks, and if you haven't seen it I suggest you put it in your Netflix queue.  I'm not overly fond of the term LOL, but this movie will make you do it.  It'll even make you ROFL.

By the way, I said "giving the hero a sidekick."  The villain's sidekicks are usually called "henchmen," and the Oddjobs and Rosa Klebbs of the world deserve their own column (in fact, I gave them one, in the old Criminal Brief days).  A sidekick and a henchman do, however, sometimes serve the same purpose: each gives the author/director someone the boss can confide in, thus revealing needed information to the reader/viewer.  One of the differences is that if he's a henchman he usually dies, and usually does it earlier in the story than the boss does, in order to save the biggest confrontation until the end.

Note 1: I find it interesting that most fictional heroes and villains do have some kind of sidekick, whether it happens to be a friend, colleague, relative, employee, or spouse.  I can think of only a few bad guys who didn't; among them are Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, and it might be argued that those two didn't need a lot of help in the villain department.

May the dark side of the Force be with you

The kind of hero-helpers I'd like to consider here, though, aren't along the lines of Dr. Watson, Friday, Tonto, Huck Finn, Kato, and Samwise Gamgee--or even Nora Charles.  The ones I'm talking about are the ones you wouldn't expect the hero to have.  The kind that come from the dark side, and in fact often reflect the protagonist's dark side.

I'm reminded of three of these lethal "weapons": Robert B. Parker's Hawk, Harlan Coben's Windsor Horne Lockwood III, and Robert Crais's Joe Pike.

Guardian angel

Hawk, Spenser's best friend and sparring partner, was introduced early in the series and served several purposes, including the aforementioned role as sounding-board to the hero.  He also saved Spenser's bacon on a regular basis and added a level of pure menace to Parker's already suspenseful plots.  But Hawk's biggest contribution to the series--and its success--was that he could do things that the hero's moral code would not allow the hero to do.

Here's what I mean.  I'm paraphrasing, but in one of the novels Spenser and Hawk had just had a shootout with the opposition, and one of the bad guys was lying there suffering but still alive.  Both of them knew they'd have to kill him or he'd come after them.  Spenser said something like "I can't kill somebody who's lying on the floor."  Hawk said, "Hell, I can," and shot him.

Note 2: Supposedly, Hawk's and Spenser's paths first crossed when a Boston crime lord hired Hawk to kill Spenser--but I suspect they really met at one of those conferences for People With No First Names. 

Me Myron, you Win

Another example is Windsor Horne Lockwood, the longtime friend of sports agent Myron Bolitar, in the series novels of Harlan Coben.  Like Hawk, Win is fiercely loyal and fiercely fierce; he thinks nothing of breaking the law, or of breaking the necks of anybody who stands in his way.  Myron (despite his name) is no wimp himself--he is, after all, the hero of the series--but Win is a killing machine with absolutely no conscience or scruples.  He can do things without blinking an eye that Myron would never be willing to do, even if he physically could--and thus Win allows us readers to meet our violence quota while we continue to like and admire the main character.

Win (again, like Hawk) is a complex and mysterious guy, and a flashy dresser as well.  He is, however, flashy in a different way: he's an aging-preppie corporate executive, a buttoned-down and pinstriped product of Old Money.  As such, Win is even more dangerous, because he doesn't look like a killer.

Not your average Joe

A third example that comes to mind is Joe Pike, from Robert Crais's novels featuring L.A. private eye Elvis Cole.  I think of Pike as occupying the middle ground between the other two sidekicks I've mentioned--he's neither as physically intimidating as Hawk or as unfeeling as Win.  But he's just as deadly.  And, once again, he steps in--usually unrequested, of course--anytime the situation demands the kind of ruthless and often illegal solutions that would violate Cole's sense of right and wrong.  Elvis Cole remains the hero with the strict code of honor; Joe Pike is the loose cannon who'll do anything to help his friend.  We wind up rooting for them both, but we have more respect for Cole.

Note 3: I've used the present tense in discussing Win and Pike since Coben's and Crais's series are ongoing, and I've used the past tense in discussing Hawk since Bob Parker passed away in 2010.  The good news is that my fellow Mississippian Ace Atkins has been chosen by the Parker estate to continue writing the Spenser novels, and I'm pleased to report that the first one (Lullaby) was excellent.  My only regret is that Ace didn't instruct Spenser to throw Susan Silverman over a cliff--but that's a subject for another day.

Seconds in command

Other "dark-side" assistants to protagonists are Bubba Rogowski (author Dennis Lehane), Clete Purcell (James Lee Burke), and Mouse Alexander (Walter Mosley).  I know I've left out plenty of them, but those top my personal list, or at least fit easily into slots alongside the ones I mentioned earlier.  If any of  you know of others, I'd be happy to add those to the roster.

Bottom line is, as long as there are heroes there will be sidekicks.  Their duties will always be (1) to help their bosses get out of trouble and (2) to help them look good to readers.

As writers, we know the second task is as important as the first.

03 August 2012

Me and the Mini-mystery

I hesitate to write this article, mainly because there is one amongst us who has much better credentials than I do in this particular area. And, that area now in discussion is writing mini-mysteries for Woman's World Magazine, I feel pretty good about having recently sold then my 10th story (that's a total of $5,000 so far), and I don't feel too bad about my .400 batting average. However, it seems to me that our John Floyd has placed at least four times as many mini-mysteries with them as I have and while I have no idea what his batting average is, I suspect it is a lot higher than .400.
Okay, I'll admit to being slightly hard-headed and making my own learning curve in this market. Sure, I could have purchased a copy of the magazine on a regular basis to study how other authors were getting accepted, but I always feel like the person behind the cash register is looking at me funny when they hand me my change and inquire if I'd prefer paper or plastic to carry this woman's magazine out of the store.

Anyway, trial and error showed me that the WWM editor did not want anything related to spies, violence, scary suspense and several other ideas I tried in order to differentiate my stories from the mass in the slush pile. I also found that the stories could not be too complicated.

In my mind, the mini-mystery has similar components to a joke. With a joke, you have the setup and the punch line. In the mini-mystery, you have the setup and the close out.

The setup in a mini-mystery is the plot or storyline which the author uses to present the mystery to the reader for solving. Like any mystery, appropriate clues must be planted in order to give the reader a "fair" chance to come up with the correct solution. Naturally, these clues may be hidden in plain view by throwing them  in with false clues, planting them at a distance in the story from a description of the crime, or even distracting the reader's attention to some other action going on.

 Any character arc is so short as to be almost negligible. As for setting or character description, the author has a maximum of 700 words to move around in. In one of my stories, in order to place a memorable image of my detective (sporting a large mustache) into the mind of the editor and that of potential readers, I once described him as looking like a soaked cat coming out of the rain. And, yes, the rainy weather also had to do with a clue to the solution in this one.

Since it often becomes difficult to create a mystery plot for these stories, much less 25 of them, I have adopted the strategy of mining plots from other books, such as those series which present five-minute or two-minute mysteries. I type up all those solutions in a long list and number them. Then, the next time I need to write a mini-mystery, I merely go down the list until one sparks an idea I think will work. This method saves me a lot of downtime scratching my head trying to figure out what to write from Square One. Instead, I get a running start from Square Two. Naturally, my settings and characters are different from the original mining operation. Look at it this way, there are only so many plots or "tribal lays" (according to Rudyard Kipling, there's nine and sixty), so I'm merely acquiring them in the order someone else wrote them and then forming those plots to my own purpose.

The close out part of the mini-mystery actually consists of two separate  parts, the Question and the Solution. They look similar to the following.

Question:  Why did (your detective) think (something) was wrong with the scene or the suspect's alibi?
Question:  Who does (your detective) think committed the crime?

Solution:  (Author explains the clue(s) which solve(s) the mystery.)

Simple, huh? Just write short.

A couple of suggestions. You can write Why-dunnits, where the reader has to figure out what the detective is suspicious of and why, or write Who-dunnits, where the reader uses clues to select from a variety of suspects. Hey, I just realized I haven't tried a How-dunnit, where the reader has to figure out how the crime was committed. Well, there goes my learning curve again, unless John can give me some tips here. Actually, I'd like to see a column on this subject from John or at least hear how he managed to come up with those 40+ sales to WWM. That's amazing.
And now I must confess that a few days after receiving a contract from WWM for my 10th mini-mystery as mentioned in my last blog, I went to the mailbox and found another white, #10 business envelope postmarked from Seattle. Sadly, there was no contract in this one. My .400 batting average just took a dip.

It's my own fault. I violated one of my own learning curve rules, the one about not having the solution depend upon a little known fact. Rob can tell you I mentioned this rule to him last year, long before I wrote this latest rejection. One of these days I've got to start listening to myself. But, it was such a good story and I was in a hurry to get on the road to South Dakota for a few weeks to help take care of my mother-in-law (my biggest writing fan), so I sent it anyway. Otherwise, I'd have run it by Rob and he could have saved me the postage. Next time.

02 August 2012

Sovereign Citizens

by Eve Fisher

Every once in a while I can't help but wonder what is in the water.  Something is making people crazy. Conspiracy theories abound, general insanity rules, and most of them revolve around various schemes to get rid of government (national, local, whatever).

We have a wide variety of crack-pots up here.  I remember one who showed up in court stating that, since there is no mention of traffic laws in the Constitution, therefore said laws were unconstitutional and illegal to enforce.  That was fun.  But we also have the real jerks who tie up the court system with endless bulls**t lawsuits, from suing lawyers and judges, down to trying to claim their neighbor's land using bogus "quitclaim" deeds.  And we have endless tax protestors, from the casual kind who just mouth off (includes all of us, I'm assuming, at some point), to the Sovereign Citizens (or any of a hundred other names, from expats to strawmen) who decide that they not only don't have to pay any taxes (including local), but often are up to their necks in some of the shadiest "investment" deals you've ever heard of.

Yes, they don't just claim tax immunity for themselves, they make money in the process.  They sell phony insurance, fictitious United States Treasury obligations (so-called “private discharging and indemnity bonds”, “private offset bonds”, and “bonded promissory notes”), and "sovereign citizen" ID cards.

The ID cards supposedly let you out of obeying the laws of the United States by making you an American Citizen, rather than a United States Citizen, which (!) are two different things.  (Or you can claim to be a non-resident alien, which makes me think of blue skin and gills.)  According to Florida Barrister Austin Gary Cooper of Taking Back America:

“American Citizens are to abide six laws; U.S. citizens are subject to 60 million statutes.  What would you rather do -- obey six laws or try to obey 60 million statutes?"  He claims that the split came with
  1. the 14th Amendment, the one that freed Negro slaves and made us all U.S. citizens and thereby slaves &
  2. the Expatriation Act of 1868, passed by the 40th Congress which says:  “An Act concerning the Rights of American Citizens in foreign States...Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that any declaration, instruction, order or decision of any Officers of this government which denies, restricts, impairs or questions the right of expatriation, is hereby declared inconsistent with the fundamental principles of this government.”
 — United States Statutes at Large, Volume 15, Chapter 249, page 223, 40th Congress. [MY NOTE:  This Act was passed to stop British impressment of American sailors into the British navy.]

Now,  Cooper  says that the use of the term "American Citizens" had a hidden meaning:  that the United States is the proper name for the federal government and its territories and possessions and is, therefore, a state foreign to a person born into American citizenship. “The 40th Congress, knowing what was coming the following day, gave us the ability to expatriate ourselves from the U.S. side, and repatriate ourselves back into the American side, where... you [have] all the power in the world to do anything you want so long as you don't injure a person or his property, or take the rights of others.  As a U.S. citizen, you are a possession of the United States government and therefore are subject to its 60 million statutes.”

You also don't have to pay taxes.  If you buy one of Mr. Cooper's packages (they're $1,600 each, but what price freedom, eh?), you never have to pay federal income taxes again!  You'd be amazed at the number of people who buy these packages, at least up here.  Some just have them; others try to live by them, and end up in court.  And then they end up in prison, because neither Mr. Cooper nor any of his ilk come to anyone's aid.  They take the money and vanish.  It would all be hilarious, except one of the most famous members of the Sovereign Citizen Movement was Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing...

01 August 2012

Two Golden Threads

by Robert Lopresti

Talk about procrastination... I have been meaning to write this one since John Mortimer died  in 2009.  When that news came out I had just written memorials to Westlake and McGoohan and I couldn't bear to write another one.  Then time, as is its habit, slipped away.   But today we have a moment; let's seize it.

John Mortimer was a British barrister turned author, and his greatest creation was Rumpole of the Bailey, a series I  loved before I saw (or read) it, because I knew it was going to star one of my favorite actors, an odd one-eyed Australian named Leo McKern.  I had admired him in Help, The Prisoner, A Man For All Seasons, and a weird movie I saw in college in which he played Socrates in a tuxedo.

Which brings us to one of the oddities of Horace Rumpole.  Unlike just about any other character in crime fiction he is a true hybrid.  There are countless detectives in books, and others who have been created just for the screen, but how many float freely between the two?  Sure, there have been thousands of "novelizations" creating new episodes of TV shows, but I don't think any of them other than Rumpole were written by the same author who created the character and wrote all the TV episodes.  Mortimer provided us with original Rumpole stores for the screen, the page, and even the radio.

But I think most of us agree that Horace's finest incarnation was the aforementioned McKern.  As our own Janice Law said "John Mortimer is a good writer, but I suspect that I am not the only reader to find the Rumpole stories a tad on the thin side without Leo McKern's rotund person and orotund phrasing..."

I have often pondered the attraction of the series.  The plots are, generally, not brilliant.  Often they relied on Rumpole accidentally being in the right place at the right time to notice something he would otherwise not have known.  There were flashes of brilliance: Rumpole's Return and "Rumpole For The Prosecution" both turned on extremely clever clues, for instance..

Not surprisingly, Mortimer often reused plot ideas.  (Rumpole defended clergymen three times; in each case the defendant had the same innocent reason for his behavior).  Like many series there was a problem with stretching it out indefintely.  After all, Rumpole was supposed to be an Old Bailey hack who lost more cases than he won.  As years went by he started scoring more and bigger wins, because Mortimer kept finding new dragons in British society and wanted Rumpole to succeed in slaying them.  

Mortimer noted that one reason he created the Old Bailey hack was that opinions that would sound dangerously radical from his own mouth seemed charming coming from Horace. (McKern himself was much more  conservative than the character he played, by the way.)    Mortimer's  other reason for creating Rumpole, of course, was for money to see him through his retirement from the bar.

I think it was also a desire for variety that caused Mortimer to send his hack to courts far from the Old Bailey.  Rumpole fought cases before military courts, medical tribunals, medical panels,  an African court (with death penalty on the table), and, least likely of all, even a Church of England investigation of one of those clergymen I referred to earlier.  In one case he was the defendant, in one and one only he worked for the prosecution (inevitably scuttling it).

I suppose it was character that made the series so carming and rewatchable.  Rumpole -- manipulative, vain, stubborn, opinionated - was like so many great characters, a person you would probably want to avoid in real life, but a treasure to watch.  And when he went into the courtroom he was always the underdog and relished the role..

Surely the person who knew him best was Phyllida Trant, "the Portia of our chambers."  In one episode his son suggests that Rumpole should be thinking of retirement because he is "in a hopeless postion, with the judge and police dead against him."  Trant responds "I should think by now, he's just starting to have fun."  (When Trant became a judge Rumpole lamented that she was scrupulously fair, which was the worst thing in the world for the defense, since it deprived the jury of a reason to side with the defendant.)

Another attraction of the series was the language: the jargon of the other barristers and government officials versus the flowing phrases and quoted poetry of our hero.  Rumpole often noted "the Golden Thread" thar runs through British justice:"the immutable principle that everyone is innocent unless twelve good men and women and true are certain that the only possible answer is that they must be guilty."  But he also noted that there is another such thread: "Rumpole presumes every case to be winnable until it's lost!"

And perhaps it is that spirit of defiance, personified by McKern, that kept us watching so long.

31 July 2012


"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."
    --   Niels Hendrick David Bohrs, Danish physicist
The (doctored) display from Doc's DeLorean
    Late last month, along with several million other folks, I encountered a post on Facebook proclaiming that June 27, 2012 was, in fact, the date in the then far away future that Doc programmed into the DeLorean in the 1985 movie Back to the Future.  I immediately texted this “fact” to my elder son, Devon, who is quite the Back to the Future fan.  His disgruntled reply was immediate:  “Where is my flying car?”

     As it turns out the Facebook post was a hoax – a photoshopped version of the DeLorean screen.  In fact the actual date that Doc flew off to in the movie was October 21, 2015.  But Devon’s larger disappointed point is still valid – unless we come up with flying cars in the next three years the movie’s view of the future turns out to be definitionally anachronistic. 

    Two weeks ago I wrote about Michael S. Hart, who had the prescience to foresee a world that would embrace e-literature long before the internet or the home computer existed.  Hart’s foresight is all the more remarkable when one considers how poorly most of us perform in the prediction department. 

    A prime example of failing this challenge is the Stanley Kubrick film 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  I remember seeing this movie  for the first time in 1968 and being completely blown away.  I think it was the only movie I saw that summer and I also think I saw it seven times.  Viewed today the movie is . . . well, . . . dated.  Twelve years after Y2K we are nowhere close to Kubrick’s vision of future space travel.  In fact, we were closer in July of 1969, one year after the film premiered, when we were actually walking on the moon. 

On board the 2001 space station -- HoJo's sign at right
      Not only was Kubrick’s vision of a space station woefully out of sync with what came to pass, he couldn’t even get the restaurants right.  Remember the Howard Johnson’s “Earthlight Room” that showed up in the space station?  As of 2005 there were reportedly only five Howard Johnson restaurants left anywhere in the world, and it is completely safe to observe that the chain never reached outer space, and to predict that it almost certainly never will!

    But to my mind just about the best examples of stumbling over the future are sprinkled throughout Robert Heinlein’s classic novel The Door into Summer.  I need to note at the outset that Heinlein’s book, even with its predictive flaws, is one of my all time favorites and I re-visit it regularly. The Door into Summer was originally serialized in three issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in late 1956 and then published in hardcover in 1957.

    The novel opens in 1970 and then jumps to 2000, giving Heinlein the opportunity to prophesize about not just one, but two different future eras and us the opportunity to shake our heads as to how wrong he got it since we have now lived through both.  I read the novel for the first time in the 1960s, when I could still wonder at whether the author foresaw the 1970s and 2000s correctly.  I then re-read the book again in the 1970s, when I was able to see how the 1970s predictions didn’t work out, while still holding out hope for the 2000s.  Alas, I then re-read the novel most recently a few years ago.      From those perspectives it has been interesting to watch, over the course of a lifetime, how the novel’s view of the future vectored from reality as I caught up in time with each era portrayed  in the novel's timeline. 

    As I’ve said before, I don’t do “spoilers,” but there are still aspects of the novel that can be discussed without giving away too much.  For example, the protagonist, Dan, is an inventor of robots -- “Hired Girl” (yeah, I know, even the name alone wouldn’t work now) and “Flexible Frank” -- which, in both 1970 and 2000 perform virtually all household chores.  Never quite got there, did we?  Those inventions and many other projections concerning life in both 1970 and 2000 that did not in fact come to pass provide an interesting, if unintended, subplot to this otherwise fine little story.

     But my favorite Heinlein creation is Dan’s namesake invention:  “Drafting Dan,” a machine that can automatically create engineering draft drawings.  Drafting Dan creates these drawings using computer driven arms that draw on a drafting easel utilizing directions inputted from  (gasp) a keyboard.  The computer needed to power this invention has been shrunken to near room size by the use of super powerful new vacuum tubes.

The earliest mouse!
   So Heinlein’s prediction of the computerized future missed, among other things, the advent of computerized chips (and the attendant demise of the vacuum tube), the development of display monitors and printers, and the evolution of the mouse, which did not appear in prototype  until 1963 and which, even then, was abandoned only to be resurrected from the dead with the release of the Macintosh Lisa in 1984.

    Like most predictions that go wrong, the blame can hardly be laid solely at Heinlein's feet.  If anything has proven itself, it is the difficulty involved in figuring out what happens next. To envision the computer of the future Heinlein likely turned to those who in the 1940s and 1950s were at the forefront of the then-incipient computer industry – an industry that at the time involved figuring which of the spaghetti mess of multi-colored wires should be plugged in where..  Andrew Hamilton, a noted computer expert of the time, had the following to say in a 1949 article in Popular Mechanics hypothesizing on the future of computers:  “Where a [computer] calculator . . . [in 1949] is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”  (“Hmmm,” we can almost hear Heinlein thinking.)  In 1957, the year that The Door into Summer was published in hard cover, the editor of business books for Prentiss-Hall had this to say:  “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year.”  At least Heinlein saw past naysayers such as this, and boldly chose a future where computers thrived.   Other rejected paths include the prophecy of Ken Olsen, then chairman of DEC, who twenty years later, in 1977 “presciently” observed that “[t]here is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”  And printers and copiers?  Here is IBM’s 1959 advice (to a team that later went on to found Xerox) concerning the future of the novel copying device the team was attempting to sell:  “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most.”

    Well enough of this picking on Heinlein.  In fact, we are surrounded by prophetic mistakes that rear their humorous heads in literature.  And they are not confined to technology.  I have read a number of Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford books, all set in Florida, and many dealing with Cuba.  Five years ago, when the press was telling us that Castro lay dying and would not last the month, White apparently viewed that as gospel and took what looked to be a safe leap – he submitted a new installment in the series to his publisher in which Castro was already dead.  Oops.  White now has authored several additional books in the series over the last five years, each of which treks an alternate reality from ours, a world in which Castro has indeed already departed the mortal  realm. 

    And, as illustrated by the computer quotes above, prognostication errors are not relegated solely to written fiction.  They spring up all around us.  Here is one of my favorites:  During the Civil War it is reported that the last words of General John Sedgwick as he looked out over a parapet toward the enemy lines during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House were the following:  “They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist . . . .”

30 July 2012

Brain Exercises

How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.

29 July 2012

Now That Is Funny

During the first week and half of July, the temperature here in Knoxville ranged from 95 to 100 degrees. My air condition system quit at the beginning of the heat wave, and the temperature in my house climbed to over 90 degrees. All I could do was sit in front of my 20 inch fan, watch TV, and think about a subject for my post this month. I decided to comb my local and online newspapers for funny stories about the bizarre behavior of us humans.

Nudity Prohibited
A guy here in Knoxville did chores in his house and yard buck naked until he was arrested for indecent exposure. He has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years and during that time has embarrassed his neighbors as he traipsed about his property in the nude. He rode his lawn mower naked while mowing his lawn. Although the neighbors called the sheriff’s office many times, the deputies weren’t able to catch him until a neighbor recently saw him using a chain saw to cut up the branches of a toppled tree while naked and immediately called the sheriff’s office. A deputy arrived just as the guy ran into the house and caught him before he could put on his clothes. Being arrested probably won’t stop him from practicing his constitutional right to go naked on his property.

Butt Enhancement
You all probably read this story in the NY Times. A woman in Georgia visited several cities and set up a pseudo doctor’s office in hotel rooms. Her customers were people wanting big rear ends. She would inject their buttocks with commercial silicone and use glue and cotton balls to prevent leakage. I wonder whose intelligence is the more questionable: the pseudo-doctor who thought she could get away with practicing medicine without a license, or her customers who were stupid enough to go to her for buttock enlargement? 

Hooray For The Bear
With nothing else to do, and sitting in the cool of my new air condition system on July 14 about 9 in the evening, I watched a reality show for the first and probably last time. The show was called “Stupid Daredevil Stunts.” The scene that caught my attention involved a big black bear and a bear trainer. The bear was in an enclosure in a nature reserve, and when the trainer entered the enclosure, that bear stood up on its hind legs as if to challenge him. The trainer picked up a stick and started hitting it on the head and nose. Well, sir, that bear knocked him down and started smelling and pawing him. Outside the enclosure, the trainer’s helper tried to call the bear away: “here chubby, here chubby.” 

That bear ignored him, probably because his name wasn’t “chubby.” Anyway, the trainer played dead and after a little more smelling and pawing, that bear walked away. I imagine the bear was thinking: “if I kill this fool, that other fool will call those idiots with guns, and they’ll come and kill me. They ain’t gonna listen to my self defense argument that I was just standing my ground. I just better get the hell away from here.” 

As you all know, I’ve been keeping up with the case of the three men who were tried, convicted, and sentenced for the carjacking, torture, and killing of a young couple. The original trial judge, Judge P, admitted using pain pills and engaging in other criminal activities during the trials of the three men. He was replaced by Judge G, who ordered new trials without holding hearings on whether Judge P’s behavior caused any errors in the cases. The DA is appealing Judge G’s granting of new trials. Recently one of the defendants decided to take matters into his own hands. He filed a motion invoking his constitutional right to a speedy trial. 
John Hancock Signs Constitution

Like a lot of folks, I don’t think any one of the murderers should get a second chance to prove his non-innocence.

28 July 2012

Remembering Anne Frank

by Elizabeth Zelvin

We had some Dutch friends visiting this summer. Thinking about Amsterdam, where we had a wonderful time visiting them in 2003, always makes me think about Anne Frank.

Is there anybody who doesn’t know who Anne Frank was? A young German Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during World War II whose family was forced into hiding for two years before they were betrayed to the Nazis, Anne became a heroine and an archetypal figure when her diary was found and published after the war.  If she had been Catholic instead of Jewish, she might have been considered a saint. But what I think inspires us about Anne and endears her to us more than sixty-five years after her death in a concentration camp at the age of 15 is not her suffering but the survival of the unquenchable spirit her diary revealed.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl at the age of 11, not long after it was first published in English. I consider it one of the books that made me a writer. I started a diary of my own modeled on hers, learning from Anne to examine and reveal my emotions and to observe and record the nuances of relationships—my own and those around me—to the best of my ability.  Like Anne, I was a Jewish girl living a secular life in the diverse society of a big, modern city. It would have been unimaginably shocking to me, as it was to her, to find myself singled out, forbidden such everyday privileges as going to a public swimming pool, shunned by friends and neighbors, and finally in danger of my life. Her unfolding sexuality with all its ambiguity made me more aware of my own. Her quarrels with her older sister didn’t seem so different from mine. Yet Anne had to paint her emotional life from such a limited palette, within the confines of such a small frame, and with an underlayer of constant fear.

I’d like to say that at 11 or 12, reading about Anne made me realize how lucky I was, but if I had that much depth in early adolescence, I certainly don’t remember it. I do know that Anne seemed very real to me. I was a constant reader at that age, and the people I found in books, especially other girls, did feel real to me: Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jo March and her sisters and all of Louisa May Alcott’s other girls. The shocker was that Anne Frank was not a work of fiction. She really did live and die.

The house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Amsterdam. I made my own reluctant pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House during our Dutch visit. As an American Jew who was too young to have experienced the full horror of the Holocaust, I didn’t know how I’d feel. My parents had both been in America for almost forty years by the time of World War II but certainly knew people who were lost. They tried to instill in me a sense of how fragile and terrifying being Jewish could be. But it’s hard to pass fear and horror on from one generation to the next, especially when a child experiences so many other cultural influences. I have always avoided the most graphic depictions of the Holocaust. On the one hand, I was afraid I’d find Anne’s Secret Annex too upsetting. And on the other, I feared I might not feel enough.

I needn’t have worried about feeling nothing. Tears streamed down my face for the whole hour or so we were there. The Secret Annex was bigger than I expected: I had pictured a tiny space like a 17th century priest hole. In fact, it was more like a New York apartment—except that two families shared it and they could never go out or even be seen at the windows. The horror was not in the confinement, but in how vividly being there brought Anne’s reality home to me—not real like a beloved character in fiction, but real like me.

Dramatizations of Anne’s story tend to end on the high note epitomized by the best known line from her diary: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” We would like to believe that Anne was able to hold onto that belief in the nightmare of Bergen-Belsen. But what has haunted me most since my visit to Amsterdam is a glimpse of the terrible reality through a recording in the voice of a non-Jewish friend of Anne’s (in Dutch, with a projected translation into English). She recounts how she made her way to the camp and talked to Anne through the wall, though they couldn’t see each other. Anne was starving. The friend threw a loaf of bread over the wall to her. But a woman snatched the bread and ran away. The friend tells us she could hear Anne crying.

That’s what really happened to this lovely teenage girl, and it’s hard to find a perspective on it that offers any comfort. Anne died of typhus a month before the liberation of the Nazi death camps. But more than 30 million copies of her diary have been sold, and almost a million visitors a year make a pilgrimage to the Secret Annex to bear witness to her story.

27 July 2012

Erma Between Haboobs

I’m not sure how it happened.

 But, somewhere between ending my career as a steely-eyed Special Forces sergeant, and beginning a career in writing, I seem to have turned into Erma Bombeck.

 Maybe it’s the wife and kids — you know: family life. Our cats and kittens definitely figure in too. As does the cigar store where I work part-time, the kids in my Sunday school class, and my battle to coerce our front yard into growing grass instead of baked dirt. Each seems to conspire with the others, to beat me into the shape of a male-version Erma Bombeck. (Well, assuming ol’ Erma smoked large cigars, wore a beard and — If you can believe what my wife says about me! — scratched her crotch a lot.)

The late, great Erma Bombeck
 Now I'm sure Ms. Bombeck never did these things.  But, some days, even I seem to be inadvertently climbing on the Erma band wagon.

 Take last night, for instance.

 Well . . . actually, first I’ll have to explain about the “Cat Bathroom.” 

 We have three grown cats and two kittens in the house. Two of the grown cats are Frisky, my daughter’s cat, and James Bond Jr., my son’s cat. Frisky and James are sisters (that’s right—James Bond is a female cat). The other adult cat, a male named Sandman, is Frisky’s son from a previous litter, while the two kittens (male and female each) are the last hold-outs from her most recent litter.

 Now . . .  long ago, James Bond noticed that humans used the bathroom for certain non-washing functions. Consequently, she tried to follow suit. Since two attempts at using the toilet ended up getting her wet, she shifted fire and started doing her business in the bathtub. Not something we welcomed. Our house has three bathrooms in it, however. So, we learned to keep the doors to the master bath and hallway bathroom closed at all times, while leaving the door to the small half-bath at the back of the house wide open.

 Since this postage stamp sized bathroom has only a sink and commode, we closed the commode lid and added a cat box — and James was happy; he could do his business in a bathroom, just like a human, but didn’t have to chance falling into the toilet. After some discussion with my wife, I agreed (my wife claims “agreed” should be amended to “grudgingly admitted”) that balancing the sandbox atop the toilet was probably tantamount to tempting fate. Thus, the sandbox wound up on the floor. 

James did not resent this.

 The two new kittens have changed the dynamics of the cats’ ablution practices, however. And, this, James clearly does resent.

 The two adult sister cats haven’t been getting along very well since Frisky started having kittens. The kittens don’t seem to realize this, however, and they keep trying to play with their aunt – which makes her hiss and often earns the nearest kitten a set of boxed ears.

 This, of course, does not deter the kittens.

 Further, in their youthful exuberance, they evidently decided that Aunt James’ toilet setup was really cool. Consequently, they tended to do their business in her box. After a lot of cat screaming, and much struggle, and some quite ridiculous carting of kittens from James’ cat box, down the short hall to the utility room, where they could use Frisky’s much larger box, we finally surrendered to nature and installed additional boxes in what has now come to be called “The Cat Bathroom.”

 While James the dowager duchess still prefers to perform her daily constitutionals in private, the kittens also use the Cat Bathroom — when their aunt isn’t looking. (Trust me: you need to know this.)

 Steer Manure Between The Dust 

 So, last night, my 9-year-old son, Quentin, and I were spreading steer manure across the front lawn because the city would really like to see some grass out there.

 In fact, the city wrote me a letter to that effect, which I found most depressing, because — until my mom started going downhill, and I had to spend so much time at my parents’ house (now my dad’s house) — I’d actually had a pretty nice lawn going. All the bald spots were filled in, and nary a weed dared raise its head. The dark green grass was thick, soft against the bottoms of bare feet, and the trunk of our orange tree was painted bright white.

 Now, however, the city letter reminded me that “…bare dirt is not considered desert landscaping in the city of Scottsdale.” I know this fact, of course, and have never mentioned to city officials that — though I grew up here in the Sonoran Desert, and have hiked and camped throughout untold miles of its most remote terrain — I have never in my travels crossed a single patch of natural desert in which the scorched ground was covered with plastic sheeting beneath a thin layer of gravel (this being the city’s definition of “desert landscaping”). Nope! Not gonna mention it!

 So . . . Since Scott’s Turf Builder, grass seed and several 97¢ bags of steer manure are cheaper than plastic sheets and tons of gravel: Last night, my son and I were spreading steer manure across the lawn, between dust storms that blew in from the desert south of us.

 These dust storms, sometimes followed by rain, are blown up by the Monsoons, created when seasonal wind patterns change, which drags cool moist air across the hot desert. The result is high wind, high humidity (in desert terms), and often some flash flooding.  And — just a note! — though I was rated at an 8th Grade level in reading, writing and speaking Modern Standard Arabic, as well as the Egyptian Dialect, on multiple occasions in the past, I have yet to meet a native English speaker who calls our local dust storms “Haboobs” (which, technically, I believe, should probably be more correctly transliterated as: “Hibub”) — with the exception of newscasters who’ve never seen a dust storm before, and those who garner their vocabulary from such inexperienced sources. In fact, I asked one of my Arabic friends, who runs a local Indian Jewelry store here in town, what he thought of the term, and he responded: “What am I, an idiot? I call them dust storms. What do these people want? Next, we start calling eggs ‘beydah’ because that is what we call them in Egypt.”

 So . . . anyway . . . we’re spreading steer manure, which means my son, Quentin, is wearing a layer of manure from head to foot. And, naturally, he needs to go to the bathroom. I grab the hose and hit him with a high-pressure stream as he strips off his shirt and pants, still standing on the lawn because I paid 97¢ a bag for that stuff he’s wearing. Then I move him to the porch and hose off his underwear and shoes.

 All washed off, he drops his shoes, preparing to make a dash for the bathroom. And my 17-year-old daughter comes home from her boyfriend’s house.

 Enter My Daughter 

 Now, my daughter’s bladder is 17 years old, and that bladder has learned to detect its surroundings. If that bladder isn’t in a safe location, such as our home bathroom, or the bathroom of a girl friend’s house, it DOES NOT empty!

 And, over 17 years, that bladder has learned how STORE, buddy! Whenever she comes home, my daughter makes a mad dash for the bathroom. And she’s in there so long, we’re clearly talking multi-gallon-capacity. Contrary to what you may be envisioning, however, my daughter is very thin and quite petite. In fact, when I look at her, I sometimes think: Good Lord! That girl must be 90% bladder.

 And now, my daughter comes tearing up the front walk, repeatedly whispering her home-coming mantra: “Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee.” She shoots past us and slams the front door behind her. 

And my 9-year-old son looks at me in horror. Because, his legs are crossed, but he knows: Our master bathroom has a plumbing problem that placed it off-limits until the plumber can get out the next day.

 I give his shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “It’s okay, little buddy. You can use the Cat Bathroom.”

 He shakes his head, eyes huge. “I’ll never make it past the cat boxes! There’s too many!” 

“You can do it. The boxes don’t touch each other; there’s a few inches between them. You can make it, if you stay on your tip-toes.”

 He shakes his head. “No way! I’ll never make it.”

 I hesitate for a moment, thinking I might need to go move cat boxes out of his path. But, the next dust storm is boiling in fast. I can see the black night sky to the south being eaten by a brown, amorphous shape glowing in reflected city lights. I’ve got to finish spreading the manure, and get everything watered in, before it gets here. Otherwise, 97¢ a bag, plus Scott’s Turf Builder and grass seed is going to get picked up and carried away, spread across 20 miles down-wind. But, my son needs assistance, guidance, leadership — outside the box problem-solving.

 Quickly stooping, I snatch up one of his hosed-off shoes. Shaking out as much water as I can, I hand it to him. “Here. If you can’t make it, and have to use a cat box, dig with the shoe instead of your bare hand.” 

He grabs it. “Great idea!” Then runs inside.

 And that’s when it hit me: I’ve turned into a cigar-smoking version of Erma Bombeck.

 See ya’ in two weeks! (Maybe with something to say about James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.”

Quentin and me, after a dust storm in 2011 (He had a shower before the pic was taken.  I'm still covered in gray dust.)

26 July 2012

Poetry Words

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

A few years ago, a poet literally gave me a box of words. He said, "These are meant to be for fun, but you will find they can also be taken very seriously, so be careful."

The box holds magnetic words that you can place on a magnetic board (or the side of a refrigerator) to "compose" sentences or haiku or really anything your heart desires.

I love to reach in a pick a word. I never know what I will find, so it is a bit like opening an unexpected gift every time.

Trying my hand at poetry is fun, but it isn't where my passion is best expressed. The words I use usually lead to a mystery, but I have come to the conclusion they certainly did not have to ... it is the choice of the person holding the word to decide what it becomes.

In the above photo, which words did your eye immediately choose? Mine saw think, watch, men and girl.

My imagination thought of a man thinking about watching a girl. Sounds like a romance story? Not in my scenario.

I'm going to a dark place where a man has been thinking about a girl so much he has been following her -- in other words --stalking her and that usually doesn't end well.

Words are fun to play around with -- but be careful: they can be taken very seriously, too.