19 November 2012

Random Thoughts


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Seems like I've used the "Random Thoughts" as my article title before, but not sure and even if I have it's here again. Mainly, because I had a rather good idea earlier this week on what I was going to write and silly me didn't write it down or make notes and I've forgotten what it was. So all day today, I'm been searching my brain to remember and since I didn't remember you're stuck with my random notes.

I was watching Sixty Minutes a little earlier this evening and one segment was on thorough research being done with babies to see if they are able to show that their little brains are not exactly a blob or sponge. That they actually can think. The researchers had babies three and six months old watch little puppet shows with a Teddy bear in blue shirt and another bear in a yellow shirt. The bear in the blue shirt does a good action and the bear in the yellow shirt does a bad action. The researcher then would let the baby choose which bear they want. Over 84% of the babies chose the bear in the blue shirt. who had done the good deed. Strangely enough the three-month-old baby would look at the bear who did the bad thing for only about five seconds while the baby would look at the bear who did the good thing for 33 seconds. This showed that even the babies who couldn't reach for the bears, in fact, made a choice. In the test with the six-month-old babies, the baby would reach for the bear in the blue shirt...the one who had done the good thing in over 87% of the time.

More of the tests consisted of the babies choosing a bear who liked a certain food offered as the baby was offered. The baby would choose the bear who chose the same as he or she did. This test indicated the baby had some bias by wanting the same thing. Because it wanted the food object that the bear seemed to choose. These researchers in the Baby Lab have published their results so they may be examined and duplicated by other researchers.

I have no idea how this plays out in the future but the researchers did go on to say that babies do go on to learn likes and dislikes from parents, teachers, and religions, all the things making up their environments. I guess it is true that evil and hate can be taught but we are actually born with some prejudices and biases inside us from the beginning. We just learn right from wrong and suppress those wrong things if we become a "good person" and never do suppress them if we're a "bad person."

It was quite interesting and I may not have gotten all of the information exactly right but I imagine you can go to Sixty Minutes online for details. It does, however, seem to be something we might consider when writing our good guy and our bad guy characters. The old good verses evil and nature verses nurture comes into play. Someone being born bad to the bone. And where does empathy come in? Is that something we're born with or without? I also remember reading a while back about names defining a personality. I guess if you name your child Adolph Hitler or Judas or Jezebell you can expect him or her to grow up to be bad. But if you choose a name like Matthew, Mark, Mary or Esther you child will be good.

Yet here's another random thought about babies having some ability to think even when only three months or six months old. Is it possible that the baby is a old soul? A person who lived before? That reincarnation is real? Perhaps in the previous life they were "bad" and have to come back to earth, live again and try to learn to be "good." That you have to keep coming back until you learn the lessons of being "good" until you finally get it right and can evolve or go to heaven?

Like I said, random thoughts. And one final one...and it's a good thing I watched Sixty Minutes tonight so I'd have something to write about. (All because the Dallas Cowboys played an early game...which they won in overtime by the way.) Another segment on the TV show tonight was about ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents) taking down a strong, powerful, rich drug cartel which operated in South America. The leaders made billions of U.S. dollars and yet lived almost like someone without much of anything. That was one reason it was hard for the agents to identify them. Living it up with millions is somewhat of a give-away to agents. When the mastermind was captured, one of the agents asked him why he lived so frugally when he had all these millions of dollars?  His answer..."Power." Remember that in your next story. Money, power and greed. To some people, POWER is what matters most.

I personally have much to be thankful for and I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.

18 November 2012

Florida News


by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcardFlorida madness continues, not merely in the political arena. It's not the heat, it's the humidity. Read on, MacDuff.



Humans: 352 — Roaches: 1


Man wins roach-eating contest. The rest of the news: won contest, lost life. They said he was the life of the party; and then he wasn't.

Usually kids just carry the ring.

Two weeks before her marriage, 32-year old Destiny Witte had it all… dream wedding planned, three wonderful children, handsome fiancé, sparkling engagement ring, sex with a 14-year-old boy in a public toilet… Oops. (Psst, guys. She's available again.)

Just pay the bill, man!

Orlando police arrested Jeremie Calo not for having sex on a restaurant table but refusing to pay the bill. Meanwhile, off-duty Orlando police drove 115mph to arrive at the scene.

Inspector Javert's kin is alive and well in Sarasota

Sergeant Anthony Frangioni arrested a homeless man for theft of services when the out-of-work man charged his cell phone in a public park. The electrical socket is normally used by picnickers and maintenance. Electricity used? 1¢. Bail? $500. Arresting a homeless man in need? Priceless.

Happens in snowstorms, too.

Dumb and Dumber, two dim-witted teen burglars, got lost, circled back to scene of the crime.

Not cool, man. Didn't you watch Jurassic Park III?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Eric Prokopi, "commercial paleontologist", for smuggling dinosaurs into the US.

Mother-in-Law loses gambit, wins title.

Murderous MiL is back in the news again, winning the web site mom.me's Mother-in-Law from Hell award, although her entire family plotted the kill. These four linked videos indicate if her son-in-law had accepted her invitation to step inside her parlor, he probably wouldn't be alive.

With a twin, you're never alone.

[We’ve been asked by one of the parties to remove her name. Although we quoted police sources, we remind readers that parties are considered innocent until proven otherwise and it is not the intent of SleuthSayers to cause needless distress. For more information, see take-down request.]

Florida Governor Scott's hot phone sex line

You would think a man who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history would know the difference between meningitis and men in tight places, but not so. Maybe that's where Benjamin Ashauer went wrong. At least he wasn't like the Seattle perv who told police to wait.

Citizens Grand Jury

In Florida, politics is an ugly blood sport. Larry 'Ku Klux' Klayman (that's spelled with a 'y' and not an 'n' and that's an opinion, not his sobriquet) claims to be a former Justice Department prosecutor. He hit the internet with his "citizens grand jury" (a three-way oxymoron), a "true bill", which seeks to indict President Obama in the alternate universe of Ocala, Florida for bat-shit loony stuff like:
  • treason against the US, Israel, and Arizona
  • treason: nurturing the Arab Spring
  • treason: sending foreign aid to Hamas
  • revealing SEAL Team 6 got bin Laden
  • financing the so-called Ground Zero mosque
  • being financed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard
  • falsifying his birth certificate and place of birth
  • treason: a "black Muslim-in-chief" in "devilish whoredom"
He doesn't much like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts either.

But hey, this is Florida. Come for the sunshine, stay for the madness.

17 November 2012

Big Words and Little Words



by Elizabeth Zelvin

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

Besides being clever, these two statements express a profound philosophical gulf between two kinds of writing. As a college English major in the early 1960s, I found Hemingway’s language too plain and Faulkner’s so ornamented as to make the stories he was telling incomprehensible.

That is not to say that I reject plain diction. As a poet for thirty years, I was proud that no reader ever said to me, “I didn’t understand your poem.” My second book of poetry, if I remember correctly, contained only seven words of four or more syllables. Nor have I ever been afraid of “big words.” As a kid, I could rattle off “antidisestablishmentarianism” with the best of them.

Since my college days, the English language and its literature has endured what I consider the toxic embrace of Deconstructionism, with its irritatingly opaque invented vocabulary. (Can you explain what “semiotics” means?) Thank goodness that instead of going on for my doctorate, I ran away and joined the Peace Corps—and discovered mysteries and other genre fiction. I’m told that Deconstructionism lasted longer in American academia than anywhere else. And yet it’s Hemingway whose approach to language has triumphed. With my own ears, I’ve heard Stephen King (very much a writer’s writer) declare that his advice to aspiring writers is, “Read, read, read; write, write, write—and lose the adverbs.”

In the past few years, in the process of developing my craft to the point where I realize that the ability to self-critique is a never-ending process, I have come to understand what’s wrong with adverbial writing. Those tough action verbs can serve the writer well. But I still think it’s pretty weird for the arbiters of language to shun an entire part of speech. I have enjoyed reading work in which adverbs are used deliciously and evocatively to enhance the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs. So it’s a different style. So what? Why not?

Hemingway and Faulkner, like cozies and noir, are too often assumed to be the only alternatives. Let’s hear it for the middle ground. Language can be rich without losing the reader and strong without being stripped stark naked. But what’s really dangerous is allowing any one literary style to be considered the only right way to write. By all means, let expansive writers rein themselves in by deleting adverbs and replacing Latinate words with their Anglo-Saxon-based equivalents. But let’s also invite the hard-boiled heirs of Hemingway to spread themselves a little. Stick in a couple of adverbs on every page, if not every sentence. Go on, try it. You might find it’s fun.

16 November 2012

The Power of Babeu


by Dixon Hill

Well, the elections are behind us… almost.

In Arizona, as I write this, there are still about 100,000 uncounted ballots. These are a mix of Early Ballots and Provisional Ballots – both of which must be counted by hand for some reason. And, because of this, the fate of a house seat in Tucson still remains too close to call. The difference at the moment: less than 300 votes.

And all those uncounted ballots wait, no one knowing how many will effect this particular race.

Interesting, isn’t it?

I have to tell you: I don’t relish the campaign season.

But, I LOVE voting.

I don’t vote early. I don’t vote often (only once in each election! lol). And

I vote at the polls.

In my district, that means I go to a little church on 82nd Street in Scottsdale, less than a half-mile from my home.

As I approach, I see the front lawn is filled with campaign signs for every party: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, and a few others I can’t even recall. They sprout like strange vegetation, mixed with signs supporting or condemning certain propositions.

The signs grow so thick I can’t see the grass on either side of the drive as I turn my Jeep into the little church entrance. But they stop abruptly at the “75-Foot Limit” sign.

The campaigning goes right on up to that imaginary line demarcated by those signs.  That far, and no farther. On the other side? Campaign respite. The peace of voting one’s conscience.

When I pass the 75-foot limit, I always feel it. An invisible cloak of Americana, the pleasure of voting at the polls, descends upon me once more. And I’m not the only one.

As I pilot my jeep forward, other folks are walking out. They wear little stickers that proclaim: “I Voted.” I smile at them. They smile at me. Big smiles! bursting with more than a simple greeting. Those smiles they wear are filled with joy, temporary abandonment of strife. Recognition of a fellow traveler. They and I may be voting diametrically opposed tickets – opposites in every category. But, in that moment, it doesn’t matter. We’re united by a bond of fraternity that runs much deeper than politics. A fraternity created by the very Americanism of the practice we’re here to participate in on this fateful day. We– from all walks and all parties– are united, celebrating this distinctly American style of practice, inherent from our forbearers. In that moment– the moment just before and after the act of voting– we’re neither Democrat nor Republican, Green nor Libertarian.

We’re American.   And I LOVE IT! 

I see it and feel it, as I pass those who are finished, as I walk from my parked jeep to the voting line. There is an energy here, a silent buzzing of excitement, of greatness grown from the common person. We stand in line, young and old. The youngest rock back and forth from heels to toes, in anticipation.

I’m telling you, I’m not making this up—it happened! It happened this year. Less than a half-mile from my house.  I saw a young guy, maybe 19 or 20, standing in line at the polls.  And I wasn’t sure his clothing could hold him in because he was so filled with swirling energy, bursting excitement. Silent old ladies, they smiled at him and he nodded and smiled back. Somebody made a small quip, and that was all it took. Laughter rang out up and down the line. Laughter—that pressure valve that lets off the excess energy steaming up inside each of us.

I laughed too. You would have, if you’d been there. I’m sure of it. It wasn’t something a person could help. It just… came out. A great peal of laughter. The designer of the Liberty Bell would have given all he had to craft a bell that made such a sound. But, the hands of man are small, while the excitements of voters are huge. And perfect.

Maybe it didn’t work this way in your hometown, or at your polling place. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to hear it. Because, I know what you’re missing. Thankfully, here in Arizona, it’s easy to register to vote. You can even do it online at the Department of Motor Vehicles website. And, for those who speak Spanish and might not have internet access, tons of small businesses thrive throughout The Valley, where Spanish-speaking shop owners provide DMV services – including voter registration – to anyone who comes through the door. At the polls, the Spanish language ballots are stacked right beside the English language ballots. I know; I got one by accident this year, and had to trade it in for an English language ballot.

The voting I described above – that’s the way it went this year at my polling place. And, that’s the way it’s gone every time I’ve voted at the polls. I really missed that feeling when I was in the Army. Living in another state, I had to vote by Absentee Ballot, and that was a lonely, singular disappointment each time.

That’s why I reveled in hitting the ballots that very first time I was back, after getting out of the Army in 1994. It felt, in some strange and inexplicable way, like coming home again. I was struck by a feeling identical to the one I felt when my U-Haul truck topped that last cactus-studded rise before I dropped down into the great Valley of the Sun, as I made my long way home from Fort Bragg for the last time, and saw Phoenix laid out across the panorama before me. The way I felt when I smelled that scent of desiccated desert dust, the smell of home and hearth, of childhood and all I love about the world rising up to swamp my senses. That feeling rose up from the voting booth floor and engulfed me, all over again.

If problems make it so it doesn’t work this way in your hometown, or at your polling place, I wish you Godspeed in getting things changed! Because everyone deserves the chance to vote his/her conscience.

That’s the thing that counts, in my book.

After over thirty years of voting, I've decided:  The people we vote for? I have to tell you, I don’t think it matters much. Politicians don't run the world; they just think they do.  The people who vote – they’re the one’s who count.

Maybe you disagree.  And, if so, that's fine by me.  It's your business; not mine.  After all, you have your beliefs.  And, I fully support your right to believe what you want.  It's no skin off my nose.  And, it's a large part of the reason I spent roughly a decade of my life dragging an M-16 or M-203 around the jungle or through the bush.

Maybe you didn't even vote.  Maybe you've never voted.  Some folks might condemn you for that.  I won't.  It's your business;  not mine.  Nor anyone else's.  Just yours.

As for me, though --

I love to vote!

My 23-year-old son left the house soon after I arrived home from the polls.  He's young, he has tatoos, and he enjoys skateboarding in the sun.  He rode his skateboard the short distance to that church. And, he came home wearing the same “I Voted” sticker I had stuck to my shirt. He didn’t vote for everybody or everything I did. But, let me tell you something.

I DON’T CARE!

My son is a voter. And that’s what counts, to me.  He's part of the fraternity.

Later, my wife returned from work. She wore the same “I Voted” sticker. She voted a different ticket from mine in many respects. But, let me reiterate.

I DON’T CARE!  It’s the voters who count. And, the act of voting.  Who we vote for pales by comparative importance, in my opinion.  I honestly don't believe it matters all that much.  The fraternity of voters -- they're the ones who count.

On the other hand, if my wife had chosen not to vote, I wouldn't have run her over with our car or jeep.  Voting is a personal decision, in my opinion.  A personal choice.  It has to be, or I believe it's meaningless.  If you're chased to the polls, or forced to pull the lever at gun point -- that's not voting.  It's coercion.  Even if the person forcing you into it, isn't trying to make you choose a certain candidate or cause.

That's the way I see it.

Now, I promised to take some of Florida’s heat off of Leigh…

Maricopa County (in red)
So let me tell you that here in my home county– Maricopa County, a body of land larger than the state of New Jersey – Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the man somebody dubbed “The Toughest Sheriff in America” (and I strongly suspect this sobriquet is emblazoned across the Arpaio’s bed head) was reelected by a whoppingly huge margin, once again, this year. Even though Joe is now 80 years old.

Sheriff Joe wearing his standard expression.
So, all you Sheriff Joe haters can now stop griping at Florida, and turn your attention to Arizona. Because, I can assure you, there is no way on Earth that old man is going to stop rounding up Illegal Aliens. He doesn’t care that the Justice Department sued him over it; he’s not going to stop. Believe me, Ol’ Joe cares a lot more about seeing his face in the papers, than he cares about a DoJ lawsuit. That’s the way he’s built. And, the surest way to keep his face on the front page, these days, is to keep rounding up Illegal Aliens. The only way he’d stop, is if we ignored it. Then he’d have to get his deputies started on some other controversial practice, so he could get press coverage again.

But, on to a more interesting Sheriff – rumored to be just as tough as old Arpaio, but running a county just south of here.

This man is Sheriff Paul Babeu (BAB-you), the sheriff of Pinal County– Arizona's third largest county with an area that's nearly the size of Connecticut.

Babeu, originally from Massachusets, has been Pinal's sheriff since 2008 (the first Republican elected Sheriff in Pinal– ever!).  And, when it comes to illegal immigration, he's just as tough as his Maricopa counterpart– perhaps even tougher.

Pinal County (in red)
Perhaps with good cause, as Pinal County is recognized as one of the most heavily traversed counties in the U.S., when it comes to human or drug smuggling.  Cartels reportedly maintain listening and observation posts in the county to facilitate the flow of narcotics and other illegal goods, while Babeu and his 700 deputies try to stop them.

Oh, and one other thing ....

Babeu's bid for congress, earlier this year, was cut short when an ex-boyfriend claimed that Babeu had threatened to have the guy deported if he outed Babeu.  Babeu denies the claim, saying the only factual part of it is that he is gay, and the fellow was a lover at one time.

That's right. Babeu is gay.

Sheriff Paul Babeu
The guy's a hard-core sheriff in a county that's fighting drug and human traffickers on a daily basis, he was a Major in the Arizona Army National Guard who spent a tour in Iraq, he's Republican, and he's as gay as they come, saying he made no secret of his life style and that, "People who knew me, knew I was gay. I didn't hide it."  

What do I think?  I think having a macho, ass-kicking, hard-charging gay sheriff in my state is GREAT!  If I lived in Pinal County, I'd vote for Babeu in a heartbeat.  I liked him before I knew he was gay, but– and I can't explain why– I like him even better now.  Which is strange, because– as my wife can testify– I'm not necessarily known for going around touting gay rights.  In fact, that's one area where our votes often conflicted on past ballots.  But, discovering that Sheriff Babeu is gay has me reconsidering.

Maybe the next time a gay marriage initiative comes up I'll vote "Aye!"

After all, a hard-charging gay sheriff deserves the state's sanctity, when somebody  kisses him hello at home, after a long day of fighting bad guys.

That's my view, and if it's different from yours . . . well, that's what makes the world a fun place to live in.

So, here's to you, and to wishing you:  Many happy votings in the future!

—Dixon

15 November 2012

Distractions



by Deborah Elliott-Upton

Distractions are everywhere. Sometimes, I just want to sit and read, but other things prod me from doing what I want. As an adult, a parent, an employee, I am forced to be responsible.

Reading has to take a back seat and wait its turn, I remind myself.

As an American, I was responsible in making sure I was aware of the politics in the election year (which began immediately following the last presidential election). That took some time away from frivolous "fun" reading.

Debates to watch and discuss with those whose opinion I admire and deciding who I wanted in the White House for the next four years meant I allowed my to-be-read list to vacation a while longer without me. I voted. The country voted and the electioneering ceased (sort of). Bickering will likely continue until the next presidential election, but that seems to be the way of politics. I, however, can move onto the next important things in my life.

With relief, I head back to the book stack on my nightstand. I think while I was busy with life, it multiplied like rabbits. There seemed to be more, and then I remember dear friends who gifted me with their newest "must-read" they wanted to share. I see the book I had gravitated to following a coffee date with another writer at the book store cafe. Another nonfiction to better my life scrunched next to my water pitcher is now garnering my attention. All are inviting, but which to read first?

While I am pondering, I decide to check my e-mail. I'm awaiting news of a sale to a magazine, but when that particular e-mail isn't in the queue, I let my fingers wander down the list in hopes of something that really interests me, but all I see are claims to make my penis larger (good luck with that one!), send me photos of single people in my area (I'm very married!) and web site sales that I may have purchased from once a long time ago (If I haven't been back, I am probably not interested in your merchandise!)

Still, the Internet has dangled its distraction and before I know it I am headfirst in social media.

When my stomach growls, I glance at the clock and am surprised to see it is past lunch. I have spent too much time finding out where my friends ate lunch and seeing photos of said lunch while I obviously missed mine.Very little good has come from my time "checking in with my pals" only to see what restaurants they preferred today.

Already online, I decide to take a short break and get something to satisfy my cravings and refill my coffee cup. The snack is another diversion as I end up cleaning out the vegetable drawer. While I'm in the vacinity, I shove a load of laundry into the washer.

Back at the computer, I promise myself to stop dawdling and get to work. When I find I am on Google yet again, I tell myself I will find something to ignite an idea to help me write the Sleuthsayer column. Instead, I am distracted away from writing ideas to read a short article about how to better invest my time and energies to uncomplicate my life. This seems like something I should research, but in the end, it is simply the same-old, same-old: make a priority list, stick to it, pat yourself on the back. I wish I had the time back while I was procrastinating in disguise. Guilt creeps over me like syrup on a waffle. Nothing to do but shake it off and vow to do better with time management.

I make a decision to give it a try. I sit down and prioritize everything I need to do for the rest of the day.

I have placed reading at the bottom of the list. It is certainly not really at the bottom of my list, but it seems so selfish to not finish up all the "chores" of life before giving into the relaxation to sit and simply read.

Life is supposed to be full of living and yet, I am filling it with loathing chores and relinquishing true enjoyment to the margins of my existence. Why? Because that's what I am supposed to do? Who says?

I leave the computer, put the washer load into the dryer, turn my cellphone off and refill my coffee cup. Returning to the list of Things to do Today, I grab a red pen and deliberately re-number the list from top to bottom giving priorities a massive shake-up.

Tomorrow I will read first and squeeze in the "have-to's" later. There is always time to finish the laundry. NOT reading is wrong. As Queen of my own kingdom, I decree a new law for myself: I will begin each day with reading something fun or entertaining or instructional. I intend to keep the content varied.

I am not completely throwing caution to the winds; there are a few rules to keep the whole thing more honest. The reading must come from my nightstand stack. I can't allow myself to buy new until I read what I have. And, yes, I do have to do the laundry eventually.

I reach for the mystery magazine. I will read just one story and then I will see what other Sleuthsayers have to share.

After that, I am required to do something on the To Do List that originally took precendence. That seems only fair.

I feel in control and better already. What a wonderful way to start each day.

14 November 2012

ALAN FURST: The World at Night


by David Edgerley Gates

[I had thought to preempt this post with remarks about SKYFALL, the newest Bond picture, the best in years, and I decided, not; or to comment about the fall of David Petraeus, but anything I had to say would be speculation at this point.]

Alan Furst, no more than Charles McCarry, shouldn’t need an introduction, or at least I hope not.  He was, for a time, something of an acquired taste, but then a hot agent got ahold of him, he jumped publishers, and they turned him into a household name, at least in my household. 

He himself names Eric Ambler as a chief influence, and you can easily see it.  The darkened Polish railway stations, or perhaps French, the dubious alliances, the quiet men in the shadows who admit no loyalty either way, or the loud patriots that generally don’t survive chapter two.  This is the slippery no-man’s-land of real espionage.

The earlier books, NIGHT SOLDIERS, for example, work on a broad canvas: the Iron Guard, the Spanish Civil War, the world war itself, and even after.  The later books curl in on themselves, narrower, more hermetic, if no less fluent and convincing, but sideshows of sideshows, Greece, or Norway.  The trick is that we know how the war turned out. But in 1939, or 1940, or even 1943, nobody on the ground had any real confidence Hitler was going to be beaten.  And his proxies were everywhere, the Fascists going after the Italian press in exile (THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), or a local cop trying to save Jews leaving Germany (SPIES OF THE BALKANS), knowing the Gestapo already have him in their sights.  They are often stories about everyday heroism, and if not bravery, then endurance.

THE WORLD AT NIGHT came out in 2002.  One reviewer remarked that it was like seeing CASABLANCA for the first time.  I think this is pretty much on the money.  “These papers have expired…”  Paris, the German occupation.  Gas rationing, and so on, ordinary and everyday life made inconvenient, if not always for the privileged.  The guy at the center of the story is a French movie producer, who keeps working under the Nazis.  He makes silly comedies, nothing politically inconvenient.  Because he can move easily between France and Portugal, or France and Italy, he comes to the attention of British intelligence, and this of course bodes ill.  But the point of the story isn’t the spook shit, it’s his increasing moral burden.  It reminds me of André Cayatte’s PASSAGE DU RHIN (TOMORROW IS MY TURN in American release, terrible title), which is also about the occupation of Paris, ambiguous loyalties, and difficult personal choices. 

The question posed in THE WORLD AT NIGHT is how we ourselves might behave, not in the face of inhumanity, per se (the Holocaust is far off the page), but in the actual daily humiliation of living under an occupying power. Why and how would we resist, or would we simply accept it?  The dog barks, the caravan passes.  The lights stay on, the cafés and brasseries are open, the wine gets poured, the choucroute garni is served. “This ought to take the sting out of Occupation,” Sam says in CASABLANCA, lifting his glass to toast Ilsa and Rick.  The difference, in Furst’s story, is the lack of romance– Casson, the hero, gets into bed with enough good-looking women, but it’s not romantic in the sense of being a fairytale, of taking place in a world of heightened, and reductive, passions.  The book is anchored in very simple, pedestrian realities.  What the guy gets sucked into could easily get him killed.  (There’s a terrific set-piece of a jailbreak, for instance.)  And something else, that his choices are incremental, as ours in life so often are.  They aren’t sudden.  They don’t add up to a turning of the earth, until it’s too late to go back on them.  Casson, essentially, backs himself into a place of no retreat.  It feels very real, but also entirely necessary, as if, without foreknowledge, he took the path of least resistance, and found himself, or honor, something he never expected.

The ending is a jaw-dropper, which I won’t give away.  Suffice it to say that it seems so uncharacteristic, but when looking back over the book, so utterly characteristic, it takes your breath away.  I was flattened by it.

Heroes, like spies, often wear odd uniforms, and change their clothes more than once, if not their stripes.  THE WORLD AT NIGHT is about a man who refuses to change his clothes.  It’s about the intransigence of human nature, or its resilience.  We’re mortal, and of course weak.  When we rise to the occasion, as some of us have, it’s generally accident.  Here, too.  But the occasion of accident doesn’t mean our motives are false.  Intentions count for little, in the end.  To my mind, this is why THE WORLD AT NIGHT is so compelling: a man’s worth is in what he does, not in who he hopes or imagines himself to be.

13 November 2012

The Great and Billowing Sea


by David Dean

I grew up hundreds of miles from the sea, and during my early years the idea of the ocean meant very little to me.  My only trips to the beach when I was a kid consisted of two trips to Jekyll Island, Georgia when I had a cousin that lived there, and a single family vacation to Panama City, Florida.  Oh yes, I almost forgot, we got to tag along with Uncle Jack and family when he won a contest vacation to St. Augustine.  During that trip I don't even remember seeing the sea, as my cousin Nicky and me spent most of our time exploring the great and gracious Ponce de Leon Hotel.  This Spanish style resort was unlike anything we had ever been exposed to; we knew we had entered a more rarefied atmosphere when on our first visit to the dining room we had an array of forks to choose from; their mysterious arrangement appearing as a test to determined who really belonged in such a place.  I remember mom and dad appearing uncomfortable as they studied the baffling silverware.  I have no memory of how we resolved the issue, but I don't recall going away hungry.

The other visits to the sea I mentioned were not without challenge, either.  My very first time in the Atlantic my very life was in peril.  Nicky and I (I always seemed to be with Nicky when things went wrong) had waded out to our waists at low tide and were splashing merrily about, as eight-year-olds are wont to do, when he returned to land to retrieve something.  In the meantime, I lost myself in the warm water and gentle waves, feeling almost sleepy beneath a very hot sun, only remotely aware of a distant shouting.  After a few moments of this dreamy inattention, it suddenly broke through to my consciousness that this shouting was drawing closer and closer.  I also became aware of a lot of splashing.  Turning back to face the beach, I could see that everyone to my right was fleeing toward shore, and even as I stood there, amazed and uncomprehending, the people to my left began to very actively join in this stunning migration.  Then a single word separated itself from the others and floated from shore to me, somehow rising above all the din..."Shark!"

Though I had never given sharks much thought, and the book and movie version of "Jaws" was yet many years in the future, that single word managed to convey to me a keen sense of terror.  As if dreaming, I turned my head in the direction the exodus had begun, and there, not so terribly far away, a large fin sliced through the calm waters further out, following the coastline at a leisurely pace.  I could even see its tail whipping along behind it.  Then I did what every rational person does in such a situation, I began to wade as quickly as my short, little legs would carry me toward terra firma, splashing and thrashing away; neither in a position to run nor to swim.  It was then that I realized how life hangs on a moment...especially when it involves the great and billowing sea.  I made it to shore unscathed, though rather shook up.  I was told that despite all my agitation in the water, the great shark never wavered in its course, obviously uninterested in bony little boys...at least for that moment.  I used this experience in a story entitled, "Natural Causes", which appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's November 2003 issue.

On my next visit, I was stung by a very small sting ray.  It hurt, but didn't require medical attention.  The only catastrophe of note that occurred during the Panama City visit was a sunburn that I shall never forget.  Lest you think Cousin Nicky escaped unscathed, during the St. Augustine trip, on our first trek beyond the safety of the walls of the hotel courtyard he was attacked by a dog and bitten several times.  A short time later he would make headlines by becoming stuck between two buildings and having to be removed by the fire department.  My aunt keeps a yellowed copy of the local paper covering this extraordinary event which contains a grainy black and white photo of my favorite cousin wedged into a small gap between two brick office buildings.  I was not with him, so can offer no explanation.

The second half of my life I have spent cheek-by-jowl with the Atlantic.  And though time and experience has improved my overall opinion of the sea, it has certainly not lessened my respect for its power and capriciousness.  Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that just recently.  We were largely spared the worst of it here, but to the north of us there is great devastation.  There could have been no hurricane without the cooperation of the mighty sea.

Sandy is only one of many, many storms I have lived and worked through; not to mention floods.  The sea is always at work trying to reclaim the land.  It also claims people.  Hardly a winter goes by that a clamming or scallop boat is not lost at sea off our coast.  During the balmy summer months swimmers are taken by rip-tides.

Sometimes the sea returns things: A lady once came into my police department to speak with a supervisor.  As I was the sergeant on duty, I met with her and inquired how we might be of service.  Opening her rather large hand-bag, she extracted something yellowish, placed it on the desk between us and asked, "Do I have to turn this in?"  It was the lower jaw bone of a human being and still retained most of its teeth.  Some bore fillings.  My own lower jaw may have hit the desk; I don't remember.  Being a crack investigator however, I cried, "Where the hell did you get that?"  You might guess her answer.  "I found it on the beach after a storm."  The next statement surprised me a little.  "I've been using it as a paperweight on my desk."

With little grace, she reluctantly parted with her prize.  I had obtained enough information to both identify and locate her should I need to.  Perhaps you can also guess what my first line of inquiry was?  Yes, that 's it--I quickly determined whether any significant other in this strange lady's life had gone missing.  She had a divorced husband, but he was still amongst the breathing.  The jaw appeared quite old, though this can be very deceptive after not a very long time in the ocean.  It did strike me that the fillings appeared to be made of steel, not something commonly, or at all, used in the U.S.--many foreign freighters pass our coastline, and men overboard are more common than it is comfortable to think about.  In any event, the jaw was packaged off to the state medical examiners office.  To my knowledge, a match with a missing person has never been made.  It remains a mystery of the deep.  Other things have been brought ashore by the sea, but are too grisly to discuss here.

Even so, most of us are very drawn to that same dangerous sea.  On sunny days there's nothing more pleasant than lying on the warm sands as the sea laps the shore mere yards away, and gulls wheel in a flawless sky.  It is, after all, where life began...even if it is also where it sometimes ends. 

Countless mystery and suspense stories occur on, or next to, the sea.  Most of mine do.  I suspect you could name dozens of stories and novels inspired by the sea if you put your mind to it.  In fact, if the sea were to vanish tomorrow (and we were to somehow survive this catastrophic event) half the stories yet to be written would probably remain so.

12 November 2012

Known Only to God


by Fran Rizer

Are you off from work today? Although yesterday, November 11th, was Veterans Day, today is the official legal holiday for government workers and bank employees. I never understood why educational districts in SC didn't (and still don't) schedule Veterans Day as a holiday for students and teachers. After all, what's a parade without kids there to watch and how does the non-holiday instill an appropriate respect among youngsters ?

A little history: World War I, "the war to end all wars," stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. November 11 was proclaimed Armistice Day. If, indeed, that war had ended all wars, we would still have an Armistice Day, but in 1939, World War II began in Europe.

On November 11, 1947, Raymond Weeks organized a parade in Birmingham, Alabama, to honor American military members for loyal service. He called it a Veterans Day Parade. Later, US Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation that changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day and issued a Presidential Order for Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. In 1968, Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Friday of October, but in 1978, the date was returned to November 11 because of its historical significance.

A little explanation: Some people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Aren't they both meant to honor and thank our military? As I used to tell my elementary students, Memorial Day honors the dead while Veterans Day honors all veterans, both living and dead. They understood that and gladly took part in assemblies and making cards to send to those in the military. (We watched the Veterans Day Parades on television.)

National Veterans Day
Arlington Cemetery,
November 11, 2011.
What they didn't understand was the Tomb of the Unknowns--originally called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when the unidentified body of an American soldier was buried on a hillside in Virginia in 1921 and put under military guard twenty-four, seven to symbolize dignity and reverence for all of American's veterans . "But, why, Ms. Rizer, why didn't they send him home to his family?"

I explained about the national ceremony every November 11 when the President of the United States or his representative lays a wreath on the tomb and there's a parade of flags and many dignitaries giving speeches, but the question remained, "But why, Ms. Rizer, why was he 'known only to God' and why didn't they send him home to his family?" Back then, it was okay to mention God in the classroom, but even back then, the symbolism of the unknown was difficult, and I didn't want to explain war and corpses to children.

This isn't the photo that went
viral, but it's my favorite of
the Tomb of the Unknowns
because of the lighting.
A photo that went viral on the Internet during Sandy showed the Tomb of the Unknowns being guarded by military during bad weather, and many thought this was actually taken during Sandy. I immediately thought, "What a great teaching tool!" and saved the picture though I'm no longer teaching. Turned out the picture was made in September, but it still made a valid point because the guards did remain on duty during Sandy.

Recently, I cleaned out my mother's bedroom closet. Hanging way back in the corner was a World War II soldier's uniform. It brought back memories. Not that I remembered my dad wearing it though I'd seen pictures of him in uniform, but I recalled a story I'd heard hundreds of times. When the USA entered the second World War, my father was deferred because he was a professor. As he told me,

I knew that one day I'd have a son and he'd ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?" I didn't want to have to tell him I stayed home and taught, so I joined the Army. Well, later, I did have a child and I've never been disappointed that you are you and a girl, but could you just one time ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?"

And being the sweet spirit I've always been, I always answered, "But Daddy, I love you no matter what you did during the war." I was grown before I realized he really did want me to ask about what he did during that war of national unity, common goals, and war rationing that our generation and especially our children's generation will never understand.

As a child, I assumed that my daddy was
probably one of these men photographed
in February, 1945,
Since then, my life has been filled with military men and women. My father-in-law was retired Navy; my sons' father served in both the Army and Navy; my sons' service has been both Marine and Navy; and my grandson's mother was in the Navy when he was born.

Uniforms have surrounded me most of my days--both personally and in everyday life since Fort Jackson, U.S. Army training facility, is located in my hometown and Shaw Air Force Base is only about forty minutes away.

The recruits look handsome and healthy in their uniforms when they're downtown on leave but sometimes they come back in different conditions.

During World War II, my father suffered permanent injury that led to his being bedridden most of his adult life, and I remember hearing of men who were shell-shocked. (I was grown before I realized they weren't saying "shell shot.") Is there any difference now? Men and women still come home with permanent injuries and with post-traumatic stress disorder.

World War I turned out not to be "the war to end all wars." Why? Students asked, "Why, Ms. Rizer, why is there war?" It's easy to say wars are fought because of differences in beliefs and goals, but I believe the real answer to that question is like the identity of the unknown body in that grave under military guard in Arlington Cemetery--known only to God.
Some of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

Veterans Day means more than little flags on graves in our cemeteries and big flags folded and placed in survivors' hands as "Taps" is played. It's more than American Legion and VFW clubs. It's more than the many veterans organizations who provide help and scholarships to vets and their families. It's more than projects like the national program to preserve veterans' memoirs. It's more than flag-waving and parades and a day off from work. It is a time to honor all vets, the living and dead, the healthy and the injured, and to give them our most sincere
THANK YOU!

God, please bless America, our veterans, and their families.

11 November 2012

Red, White, and Blue


by Leigh Lundin

Today is Veterans Day. Saying "Happy Veterans Day" doesn't seem right, but like Thanksgiving, this is a day we say thanks, especially to those who didn't survive to see a Veterans Day of their own.
 Bish
© Bish
Florida Fallout

The election is over, thank God. We can clap ourselves on the back for yet another peaceful transition of power. The year was long and the invective sometimes nasty, but I admired the symbolism of Chris Christie and President Obama. They stood shoulder to shoulder helping storm victims, reminiscent of days when opponents respected each other. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were known for hiring their admirable adversaries, which is the way it should be.
 Wiley
© Wiley Miller

I'm grateful we had decent candidates. Despite differing political persuasions, both were decent family men, both well educated, both moderate, both dedicated to improving the country, and both seemed better than their parties. (I know, I know… opinions vary.)

But in Florida, we have a problem. The past half year alarmed me. I gathered news clippings– 55 to date– about my home state's attempts at voter suppression. As an independent, I disdain both parties, but coming up to the election, how could I document voter suppression without seeming to zero in on one party? I couldn't; the only solution was to let the problem become so evident it could no longer be ignored.

By now you know Florida's governor and legislature made it difficult to register and vote. Changes in state law reduced the number of days to vote by 43%, reduced the number of hours, and reduced resources. Worse, the law provided harsh, harsh penalties for the simplest of mistakes when helping others to register.

League of Women Voters– out of Florida

Penalties were so draconian, the League of Women Voters– sneered at in Florida as 'leftist'– abandoned its registration drives for the first time in 72 years.

What we took for granted was no more: Civics teacher Jill Cicciarelli headed New Smyrna Beach's student government association, which encouraged students to take part in democracy. She tripped over the new regulations and found herself subjected to prosecution and 'massive fines' for helping qualified students to register.

Why restrict new registration? Florida is a magnet for several groups, including retirees and Hispanics. Florida's percentage of voters past a certain age tends to top other states. Health care is of great concern to the elderly as insurance premiums and outright rejections shoot up while income plummets. The aged was only one minority group targeted by strategists, but that was where another part of the new restrictions kicked in.

Not Just Any ID


Originally an applicant's details were gathered during registration including address and signature. On voting day, we once simply identified ourselves in the book, we signed in, precinct workers matched the signatures and addresses, and we were free to vote. The new law required not merely ID, but Florida photo ID. An out-of-state license would not do, nor would student ID, or a utility bill to prove residence, or even a passport if it still had an address from 'up north'. On election day, hundreds of new residents were turned away because, as per the new law, they hadn't updated their IDs.

By the end of October, former governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush had had enough and spoke out. Charlie Crist sharply chastised Governor Scott reminding him he was supposed to serve all Florida citizens, not just his own party.
Voting Overseas

Although I've often lived and worked in other countries, this is the first time I've filled in a ballot overseas. The process takes two steps.

For federal election, you can request a mail-in package from your embassy or consulate, or visit the nearest consulate, in my case Durban, South Africa. Before 911, a reception center might have looked like an old-fashioned drawing room where avuncular employees called you into wood-paneled offices for conversations. These days consulates are found on secured floors in secured buildings with lexan and more lexan, rather like banks. Once you're admitted, you wait at a teller-like window until an employee comes to help.

The federal package contains questionnaires and identification forms, then a couple of envelopes and a ballot, or 'smart ballot' if you vote by party rather than candidate. What that means is if you don't happen to know your congressional candidates or senators, as long as you select a president, the rest will be filled in automatically by residence and party affiliation. To split a ticket, fill in your candidates as you please.

Place your ballot in the small envelope and seal it. Place the small envelope and the questionnaire in the large envelope and write your county and state upon it. Your ballot is delivered, presumably by diplomatic pouch.

For state, county, and local, you have to contact your county elections office and request a packet well in advance of elections. Fill in the questionnaires, fill in the ballots, and mail them before election day. Florida ballots are huge as is the postage required.

Sim-Florida

The Speaker of the House of the Florida Legislature ducked acknowledging the obvious when he said he'll investigate what went wrong during the election. Cynics perhaps unfairly say the investigation will be how his party failed to deliver his party's vote. For his part, Governor Rick Scott still insists the election worked exactly as planned– precisely what most people feared.

Who is Governor Rick Scott? He engineered the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in US History. The fines alone were $1.7 BILLION. That didn't touch the great wealth Scott socked away. Records show he spent $71 million of his own money to acquire the governorship– actually $71 million of our money.

Florida should feel embarrassed even if Scott isn't. Since then, he's run the state like he's playing a Sim-City game. In doing so, he's managed to become one of the most unpopular governors ever.

Meanwhile in America

I once lived in a forest in the distant north. I got to know two men– one young, one not– each who caused fatal DUI accidents and spent time incarcerated. Each petitioned the state for restoration of civil rights including the right to freely travel and vote.

We're taught in civics classes once a felon pays his obligation to society, he's free to rejoin and live his life as normal. But that doesn't always happen. Some people endure continuing punishment: sex register lists, restrictions on foreign travel, and often curtailment of voting rights. Not all states restore civil rights when a sentence ends.

A California sheriff is taking a different approach. He encourages inmates in his jail to integrate into society by voting. And, as long as an inmate isn't a convicted felon, he helps inmates register.

Who knows how that might work out? I admire lateral thinking and any experiment that offers a chance of reducing our exploding prison population deserves a shot.

On this Veteran's Day, I'm pleased this election year is behind us. For many of us, a shorter election season now looks attractive. Whatever your political party, whoever your candidate, we owe a debt to others who can't be with us. Have a good, good Veterans Day.

10 November 2012

Cowboys and Aliens


by John M. Floyd


Since it's been awhile since we've had a column just on movies, and since I love movies, and since my wife's been out of town again (during her absence, I wound up once more watching a bunch of oldies from my DVD stash and a bunch of newies from Netflix), I thought I'd spend some time talking about stories on the screen rather than stories on the page.  Bear with me--I promise I'll reprogram my GPS and get back on the mystery/literary freeway two weeks from now.

As fate would have it, I ran into an old friend from my IBM days in the supermarket earlier this week (yes, I was in there buying more TV dinners) and he asked me if I could suggest any good movies.  Movie maniacs love to hear that question, and I dutifully rattled off a few titles.  Afterward, it occurred to me that some of the films I had recommended to him might not be considered great--or even good.  They were just movies I happen to like.  Sure, sometimes the ones I like are good, in terms of critical acclaim, but sometimes they're not.  A lot of my favorites never took home an Oscar or even came close, but they remain my favorites.  Know what I mean?

I'm sure Rob and Leigh will know what I mean when I say that all this gave me the uncontrollable urge to make a list.  A list, in this case, of what I consider to be the best movies I've seen.  All are based on my opinion only; as they say on the news, this study is not scientific.  In fact, the word "favorites" here simply means "the ones I found most entertaining."  (Can you spell "guilty pleasures"?) 

Enough excuses.  Here are my thoughts regarding bests and favorites:


Mystery/Crime

Best known: The Godfather
Best crafted: The Silence of the Lambs
My favorite: Die Hard


Western

Best known: High Noon
Best crafted: Shane
My favorite: Once Upon a Time in the West


Sci-fi/Fantasy

Best known: Star Wars
Best crafted: Blade Runner
My favorite: Aliens


Romance

Best known: Gone With the Wind
Best crafted: Casablanca
My favorite: The Graduate


Horror

Best known: Halloween
Best crafted: Psycho
My favorite: Silver Bullet


If you go beyond the basic five categories and wander into the murky forest of other genres and subgenres, I like To Kill A Mockingbird (drama), Raising Arizona (comedy), The Natural (sports), Dumbo (children), Apocalypse Now (war), It's a Wonderful Life (classics), Holes (young adult), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (adventure).

And don't forget cross-genre movies.  My personal favorites are probably Blazing Saddles (comedy/western), Witness (mystery/romance), Galaxy Quest (sci-fi/comedy), Somewhere in Time (romance/fantasy), Sleepless in Seattle (romance/comedy), and yes, Cowboys and Aliens (sci-fi/western).

Taste test

What are some of your favorite films, by genre?  What are some that you consider well constructed, and/or well written?  Do you find that the ones you enjoy the most are seldom the ones that got the best reviews?  Or even the best comments by your friends and neighbors?  For some reason, everyone I know (including critics) hated Lady in the Water.  I loved it.  And everyone I know (including critics) loved the remake of The Thin Red Line.  I hated it.

I must confess that the above list would probably have been different a year ago, or even a month ago, and would probably be different next month or next year.  I change my mind more often than a presidential candidate.  But I do have a pretty reliable litmus test for which movies I think are good and which are not.  The good ones are the ones I will happily watch over and over again.  (I need to be educated--or bored silly--only once; I need to be entertained constantly.)

I feel the same way about novels and stories.  Which reminds me--

Recalculating route