05 January 2013

Problems and (Re)Solutions



by John M. Floyd


Since everybody around me seems to be talking about New Years's resolutions, I figured I should make a few.  Not the kind that one usually makes, though--we all know we won't really stop eating jelly doughnuts or get to every meeting on time or do three miles on the treadmill every morning.  My resolutions will be on the literary front, and therefore might stand a better chance of success.  (For some reason I seem to take my writing more seriously than other things, and I'm certainly more organized there than in the rest of my life.)  Besides, I needed something to put in my column for today.

Without further ado, here are my resolutions for 2013:


1.  Use fewer cliches.  Cliches are slippery little creatures, and often manage to sneak their way into my stories without my ever noticing them.  I realize they're tiring and amateurish and distracting, and I'm quick to spot and criticize them when I see them in the writing of others, but somehow I remain guilty of using them myself.  As a southerner, I can't seem to speak for two minutes without using a few cliches--I grew up with them.  As a writer, though, I should know by now that they have no place in good fiction, unless maybe as a part of dialogue.  Or unless you can change them around enough to make them original.  (To quote Mork from Ork, "You've buttered your bread, and now you'll have to lie in it.")

2.  Don't use passive voice.  This is one of my biggest faults, probably because I once did some technical writing, where passive voice works just fine.  In fiction, however, saying something like "the ball was hit by the boy" is not only dull, it's as backward-sounding as Yoda saying, "Down your weapons put."  I hereby resolve to try to write more sentences that have their subjects and verbs in the correct order.

3.  Put in more character development.  I know what you're thinking.  This is a basic rule of fiction, right?  Of course it is--your characters must be believable and interesting and "deep" enough that readers will care for and/or relate to them, and I think I do a fair job of that in most of my stories.  But I have to work at it.  My favorite kind of writing is dialogue and action scenes, and as a result, most of my characters' traits are revealed via what they do or what they say or what others say about them.  When description and exposition are needed as well, that doesn't come easy for me.

4.  Don't overuse pet phrases.  All of us have little sayings that we like to use, in our fiction.  Maybe your characters like to squint into the distance or impatiently drum their fingers on the tabletop.  Such things are fine when mentioned occasionally--they're part of a writer's voice, sort of like Lee Child's frequent use of the phrase "Reacher said nothing."  On the other hand, their verbatim overuse can be irritating.  I was unaware that I have so many "pets" until I prepared the manuscript for my first collection of short mystery stories several years ago--and found that certain phrases showed up a lot in my grouped stories.  Even some words (blink, turn, stare, sigh, pause) were repeated way too often.  Since then I've tried to prevent that, but--like cliches--pet words and phrases enjoy scooting in under the fence when I'm not watching.

5.  Don't use too many commas and semicolons.  I'm one of those people who like commas and semicolons, and for some time now I've been trying to cut back.  Why?  Well, I've finally come to the conclusion that any commas that aren't absolutely necessary to either grammar or clarity are no more than speedbumps that slow the reader down, and as a writer I want my story's path to be as smooth and uncluttered as possible.  As for semicolons, they feel a little too stiff and formal for my kind of fiction writing.  I still use them now and then because they're so good at their main function: to separate complete sentences that are too closely related to need the long pause provided by a period.  But I'm trying to weed out as many as possible.  I once heard that using too many semicolons can make you an embarrassment to family and friends, and my cliches are already embarrassing enough.

6.  Read more literary novels.  When I do, I usually find that I like and admire them.  (The Shipping News, Daniel Martin, Beach Music, The Cider House Rules, etc.) but I confess that I don't actively seek them out.  I'm just one of those folks who'd rather spend a few hours with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief than with Schindler and his List.  Sincere apologies to my more learned relatives and colleagues.


There.  Those are my resolutions for this year.  The truth is, if I follow through with them, I'll probably be a better writer.  The question is, can--or will--I do it?  Maybe so, now that I've written them down.  And maybe, like a southern lady I once read about, I'll just think about it later.

Right now I need a jelly doughnut.



04 January 2013

Tsagaan Sar


Our traditional New Year has come and gone. Some of us sat at home watching celebrations from various parts of the globe on TV and tried to keep our eyes open long enough for the clock to say it was midnight somewhere and that a new year had rolled in. Others, no doubt, went to parties and celebrated this year's turnover to the next with friends, libation, snacks and loud noise making. Either way, the past was hopefully behind us and we looked forward to a good future. New Year's resolutions were probably made with the best of intentions and then sometimes broken before the week was out. And that pretty much covered most of the Western World as we know it.

Musician with Horse Head Fiddle
On the other side of Mother Earth, in the vast northern steppes of Asia, is an ancient celebration continued on into present times for their new year. For centuries, the Mongols have gathered in large groups to sing, eat, dance and drink to celebrate an occasion known to them as Tsagaan Sar, or the white moon, the first day of their new year. One of their biggest festivals, it comes during January or February, and is celebrated two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice.

At these large gatherings, small bands of people see relatives again after long absences and also meet other Mongols they had not previously known. Many times, a celebrant met his or her future spouse at one of the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. The traditional greeting at this festival can be roughly translated as "Are you rested?" [NOTE: In the old days, if I were resting on New Year's Day, it was probably because I had been over-served, but then that has been Western tradition.]

Days in advance, the women prepare buuz, a dumpling stuffed with minced beef or minced mutton seasoned with salt and onion or garlic. Some flavor their's with rice or cabbage or various herbs according to personal tastes. The dumplings are then frozen until ready for eating, at which time they are steamed. Other dishes eaten are dairy products, rice with curds or raisins, a grilled side of sheep and a large platter filled with traditional cookies formed into a mountain or pyramid. Airag, fermented mare's milk, is served and gifts are exchanged.

The Communist government once banned Tsagaan Sar and tried to replace it with a Collective Herder's Day, but after the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia, the Mongols returned to their old holiday and they still celebrate it today.

A Ger, or traditional Mongol residence
Bituun, the name for their day prior to the new year day, is a time for cleaning around the home and for herders to clean their livestock buildings in order to have a clean start. This day is also a time for the immediate family to be together before the large celebration of Tsagaan Sar begins. Candles are burned and three pieces of ice are placed near the doorway so that the horse of the deity who visits each household that night can have something to drink. All old issues for the Mongols are settled and all debts for the year repaid by this day, so as to start out the new year with a clean slate.

My reason for researching the Mongols was that early on I had inserted a little Nogai boy into my Armenian series as a piece of local flavor for some of the many peoples residing on the steppes along the Terek River during the mid-1800's. Then later at a breakfast with my editor in NYC one April, I happened to ask if there was anything she would like to see in my future writing. She immediately replied, "Yes, a story from the POV of the little Nogai boy." Prior to that, the kid only had a few lines of narrative at best in any of the stories. Now, he had to have his own story. Much research soon followed.

SHORT HISTORY: After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongols separated into two groups: the greater horde also known as the Golden Horde, and the lesser horde also known as the Nogai Horde which carried the name of their general. Now you know where the name Nogai came from.

Anyway, this once-minor character, the little Nogai boy, soon ended up with his own story. Being an orphan on the frontier, he needed to be tough, so I named him Timur, the old Turkish word for iron. The editor bought this story and it became a Derringer Nominee in 2011. Well, there's your history lesson on Mongol culture and one of the characters in my Armenian series.

Hope all of you have an excellent and prosperous new year.

03 January 2013

Apocalypso


We all have our little interests in life.  Mine is cult-shops and apocalypses.  I am to them as the Mentalist is to psychics.  I love to hear about them, read about them, and laugh my head off at them.  Every "Apocalypse" show has me riveted as I watch previously ordinary people succumb to fear and greed, stocking up on ammunition, food, water, and miscellaneous crap in underground cells in order to live through the next mutation.  Classic. 
Some of this is because I grew up in southern California, where it seemed like every cult in the world bloomed, flourished, and spread crazy ideas like wildfire.  1970 was the prime year, if I remember right (which I may not; like so many of my contemporaries, I enjoyed the hell out of the 60s and early 70s):  the very first Church of Scientology and the first Hare Krishna temple opened up in Hollywood, and began what would be an amazing rise for the one and a near disappearance for the other.  (At the time, you wouldn't have bet that way, because the Hare Krishnas offered free food daily - which meant huge crowds showed up - while the Scientologists charged - which meant attendance was minimal. I guess it proves that if you want to last, you'd better charge - heads up, Internet!) We also had Jesus Freaks, Moonies, Children of God, the Urantia Foundation, Wicca, Satanists, Rosicrucians, and innumerable independent cult-shops that ranged from worshiping aliens, drugs, sex, the leader, and/or all of the above.  And - very rare - the occasional really weird one that seemed to actually practice something like peace, love and tolerance. 

Apocalypses fit into the whole cult mentality very well, of course.  Both are based on fear and exclusion:  if you don't join, you will be lost, perhaps even die.  If you do join, you will be among the lucky few who will survive, thrive, and start a new heaven on earth, either all by yourself in your hard-won enclave (battling zombies and orcs with your endless supply of weapons), or in a loving cocoon of community that will always nurture, love, and support you, until you piss the leader off.  

Anyway, here are some of my favorites from the Apocalyptic hit parade:

Y2K, the Steampunk edition - I could sort of understand when they said that payrolls and Social Security checks would get all screwed up.  But when they said that our coffee machines would roll over to January 1, 1900, and quit working because somehow the machine would know that that was before modern electricity...  then I knew we had launched into crazy land.

By the way, remember all the ads on TV for Y2K?  the see-in-the-dark-tape to let you find your telephone?  The places you could order your Y2K supplies?  100 pound tins of whole wheat?  Gold coins?  And all those people who set up in bunkers in the desert?  Did any of them ever come out?

I'll Figure This Out Sooner or Later, or The End of the World Keeps Changing -   In 1844, William Miller - founder of the Seventh Day Adventists - predicted the end of the world and the Second Advent of Jesus Christ for March 21, 1844.  Didn't happen. Changed it to April 18, 1844.  Didn't happen.  Then October 22, 1844.  Still didn't happen.  Now, Mr. Miller wasn't the only man to predict the end of the world and then change the date, multiple times:  So did Cotton Mather (multiple 1700's), Herbert W. Armstrong (1936, 1943, 1972, and 1975), Harold Camping (September 16, 1994, May 21, 2011, and October 21, 2011), Ronald Weinland (September 29, 2011, May 27, 2012), and many, many others.  (To be fair, Mr. Weinland was in the process of being tried and convicted for tax evasion, so he might have seen this as his way out of a jail cell.)  I understand their thinking, if at first you don't succeed, change the date:  what I don't understand is the followers, who are just as fervent believers the second/third/fourth time. 

The Planets are Coming!  The Planets are Coming!  Or, Planetary Alignments are Going to Destroy Us All:  the earliest prediction I found was (thanks, Wikipedia!) was that of Johannes Stoffler, who in the 1500's said that an alignment of all the planets in Pisces would wipe us all out on February 20, 1524 (didn't happen, so he changed it to 1528).  Jeanne Dixon - who in the 1960's was America's Favorite Psychic - said that the alignment would come on February 4, 1962; and the 1974 book "The Jupiter Effect" warned about our threatening neighbor to the north - or whatever direction Jupiter is.  And of course we all remember that the whole universe was going to align along an inter-galactic fault-line on 12/21/12 that would tear the earth apart.  HINT:  The earth is always in alignment with something very large, very heavy, and very far away.  Get used to it.

Future Apocalypse Alert (again, thanks, Wikipedia!):


  • May 19, 2013 - Ronald Weinland is back, but this may be his get-out-of-jail card.
  • 2129 and 2280 - Two Muslim predictions of the end of the world by Said Nursi, a Sunni and Rashad Khalifa, respectively.  And, according to some Orthodox Jewish Talmudic scholars, you can split the difference, because D-date begins 2240.
  • The Year 10,000 - Yes, folks, some people are already getting nervous about the upcoming Year 10K problem - how are they going to get 5 digits in a 4 digit date-space?  (Repeat everything that was said about Y2K here.)  Before  you buy any more gold coins, however, two points:  (1) none of us are going to be around then and (2) come on, we can't even read 5 inch floppies from 1982. I don't think the Morlocks of 10,000 are going to be reading Huffington Post via pdf files... 
  • 500,000,000 – James Kasting says that, despite our best efforts, by this time the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drop, making the Earth uninhabitable.  Keep driving?
  • 5,000,000,000 – the Sun will swell into  a red giant, and that’s it.  
I still prefer Red Dwarf.



02 January 2013

Being Resolute, Third Person


by Robert Lopresti

January 2 seems like a good day to make New Year's Resolutions.  Not for me of course.  If I got any closer to perfection I might be carried bodily off to heaven, and then poor David would have to blog every Wednesday.  But since it is better to give than to receive I have developed some resolutions for other people.  I hope they take them to heart.

Sherlock Holmes resolves to lay off the 7% solution.

Miss Marple resolves to patent her formula for removing bloodstains from hand-knitted woolens.

KInsey Milhone resolves to join the twenty-first century.

Jack Reacher resolves to buy a second pair of underpants.

John Dortmunder resolves to stick to the straight and narrow, as soon as he can steal a compass.

Doctor Watson resolves to write a piece for a medical journal about the curious case of his ever-moving wound.

The Black Widowers Club resolves to get through one damned meeting without investigating a mystery.


Nero Wolfe resolves not to work so hard, and to spend more time at home.

Perry Mason resolves to let the D.A win one for once.

Father Brown, Lieutenant Columbo, Parker, and Spenser all resolve to get first names.

Archie Goodwin resolves to memorize the address of the brownstone where he has been living for forty years.

Trompie Kramer and Mickey Zondi resolve to stay the hell away from Winnie Mandela.

Hawk, Win Horne Lockwood III, Joe Pike, and Snake resolve to form a Union of Sociopathic Sidekicks, and demand  better treatment.

The boys at the 87th Precinct resolve to make a list of all variations of  "The Deaf Man" in all romance languages, so they'll recognize his pseudonym if the bastard shows up again.

Professor Moriarity resolves to avoid chills, such as may be found on Alpine hills.

Sam Spade resolves not to play the sap for you.

Suggestions?

01 January 2013

New Year's Day


The old order changeth, yielding place to new.
                                    Alfred Lord Tennyson
 The times, they are a-changin
                                    Bob Dylan
Things aren't the way they used to be.  And they never were.
                                    Lee Hays

    What better day to contemplate change than New Years, the day when many of us re-resolve and the world goes through its latest re-boot.  I tend to get a bit contemplative at this time of year, and it is not simply out of concern lest auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.  It is also a recognition of how the world around us, with speedy abandon, sheds that which had been commonplace while rushing to embrace things that previously were the unimaginable.  Try to find a television set for sale today that is not a flat screen, go shopping in search of a package of VHS tapes, or an album on a cassette tape.  Remember when LP records disappeared from the stores?  It happened almost overnight.  And now the same thing may be happening with CDs and the whole concept of album music as musical appetites turn to downloads and individually created playlists.

Isaac Asimov
    While ruminating over all of this I recalled (dimly) a science fiction story that I read when I was an adolescent – so that would be about 50 years ago, probably in 1962.  The story was set in a future so remote that computers did all calculations and, as a result, the ability to solve simple math problems in one’s head became a lost art.  Well, apropos of the theme of all of this, all I had to do today to find that story, The Feeling of Power, written by Isaac Asimov and first published in 1957, was to run a simple Google search -- “science fiction doing math in your head.”  In Asimov’s story (readily available, of course, on line) one man manages to re-invent the ability to work out multiplication problems in his head.  At first there is disbelief among his contemporaries, but this eventually gives way to sheer awe. 
Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don't need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.
And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.
     Asimov’s story is not as far-fetched as it at first seems.  A recent issue of Harvard Magazine comments on studies conducted by Dr. Daniel Wegner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, that bear witness to Asimov’s conjectures of over 50 years ago.  What Wegner’s studies suggest is that search engines such as Google and Bing make obscure knowledge so readily available that we are remembering fewer and fewer facts on our own.  The reason for this is simple:  Like the contemporaries of Shuman in Asimov’s story there is, as a practical matter, no reason to clutter our minds with such things.  It is true that to write this article I had to remember that there was a relevant story written 50 years ago (and maybe, in that respect, I get closer to Shuman).  But finding the story, and then jumping to Dr. Wegner’s study, can all be done with a laptop and a good wifi connection, all in the comfort of my living room.

    Similarly, as Wegner’s study suggests, we tend no longer to memorize telephone numbers because they are stored on cell phones.  We are less likely to remember how to drive to a given address because we more and more depend on GPS to take care of that for us.  Such matters were previously either committed to our own memories or to the memories of others who we knew we could rely on for the phone number or the directions.  These latter situations, where we keep track of those who are, in turn, keeping track of factoids we may need, Wegner refers to as “transactive memory.”  The Harvard article explains this as follows:
[T]ransactive memory exists in many forms, as when a husband relies on his wife to remember a relative’s birthday. “[It is] this whole network of memory where you don’t have to remember everything in the world yourself,” he says. “You just have to remember who knows it.” Now computers and technology as well are becoming [the] virtual extensions of our memory.
And what we lose (can you hear Asimov chuckling in the background?) is the ability to accomplish these same tasks without depending on others, and now, on the computer.
 
    If you keep your eyes open you will see other examples of this same phenomenon.  One of the most apparent, it seems to me, results from the evolution of the cell phone.  With the advent of Apple and Android “smart phones” the telephone, a device previously used for spoken communication, has evolved into one predominantly used for internet access and message texting.  A recent New York Times story reports that the CTIA wireless industry association has found that the average number of voice minutes used per consumer in the U.S. has dropped, while the number of text messages sent per user has grown almost 50%. The report also notes  that data usage (e-mail, Internet browsing, streaming video, etc.) has also surpassed the amount of phone calls on a mobile phone made last year.  We purchased a new car last year, and among its bells and whistles is the ability to read incoming text messages to you as you drive.  And my Droid smart phone allows me to compose text messages by talking them into my phone.  So.  I talk to the phone, my voice becomes a text message, and the reply is spoken back to me by my car.  How would the Asimov story end?  Doubtless with someone coming up with the idea of actually speaking directly to someone using a phone.

    Another example:  An attorney who worked in the same office as me before I retired had an eight year old daughter who, according to the attorney, came home from school one day absolutely bubbling with news.  It turned out, she explained, that someone had brought the most amazing machine in for show and tell.  It was called a typewriter and, the girl explained eyes wide with incredulity, when you typed something onto it it printed the words out immediately, right there on the machine, without a printer or anything.  Yet another Asimov moment.

    Not all things left behind by the passage of time are completely lost.  It has been theorized, particularly in the arts, that each evolving mode of expression frees the previous mode from the need to speak to the public at large, thereby allowing it to be utilized more freely for artistic expression.  Thus, the theory goes, movies freed the theatre to become more of an art form, and color movies did the same thing for black and white films, allowing them to become a media of the artist.  And CDs did it for LPs, which are now in the midst of a mild artistic resurgence.  One wonders if there will be a similar effect on hard cover books once the revolution to e-books, seemingly well underway, claims the major market share toe hold.

    And then there are some things that float into the past not because they are outmoded, but for other reasons.  Fifty years ago, about the time I was reading that Asimov story, my grandfather used to talk to me about the days of his youth, when people traveled by horse drawn carriage.  I don’t as yet have grandchildren, though I am just about the age my grandfather was 50 years ago, in 1962.  What would I tell my grandchildren?  Why, you won’t believe this, kids, but back when I was young we walked on the moon.

    Good night Dr. Asimov, wherever you are.

    Happy New Year.

31 December 2012

Five Red Herrings IV


1.  Scientists find cure for writer's block

Well, not really.  But my advice to anyone struggling for an idea: go to this collection of photographs captured by the Google Street View cameras.  Pick one at random, and write an explanation of what you are seeing, and what happened next.  Extra credit: start with one photo and finish with another.


2.  Word needed

There are wonderful terms for certain quirky errors of speech: spoonerisms, maleprops, mondegreens.  I suggest we need one for the weirdities that autocorrect and spellchecks occasionally throw our way.  Maybe: malcorrects?  For instance, I had a tough police chief unholster his gun.  Microsoft word suggested that he might upholster his gun instead.  Gave me a whole new insight into the guy.

3.  Rube Goldberg meets John Dillinger

If you don't read Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine website (and why not?) you probably missed this feature from Cracked Magazine: The Six Most Needlessly Overcomplicated Crimes Ever Planned.  Reminds me of a dream I had once about breaking a man out of prison by filling a fast food restaurant with Jell-o.  No, I have no idea how that was supposed to work.

4.  Her Little Corner

And while I am plugging websites I hope you are all reading Sandra Seamans' My Little Corner.  Not only intelligent commentary on the mystery field, but a great source of marketing information.


5. A glorious opportunity



Are you a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society?  Free to join.  All you have to do is subscribe to the list.  Join by the end of the year (that is, TODAY) and you can vote on the Derringer Award nominees in a few months.  Think of the power!  The glory!  The chance to read some really good stories.  Cheers.

30 December 2012

Snapshot Descriptions


I had a difficult time finding a word to describe the kind of descriptions I’ll discuss in this post. It’s those short, sometimes one word, sometimes two or three, and sometimes a sentence or two, descriptions of characters and objects. I thought of calling them “generic,” but that didn’t seem quite right. I tried “minimal” but that seem too much like the minimalist school of art. How about “stock” descriptions like stock characters? No. Finally, lying in bed one night unable to sleep, it hit me: they are more like a photographic snapshot--short descriptions that leave an image in the memory for later reference.

The idea about such descriptions came to me while I was reading Trip Wire, a novel by Charlotte Carter, and read this description of Oscar, the father of one of the characters: “He was considerably shorter than his wife, but in his severe dark suit he cast a long shadow.” The wife’s height is never given, and Oscar’s face is never described. Whenever he is mentioned in connection with his estranged son Wilton, only his name is given, and I would see a short, severe man in my mind’s eye. 

Snapshot descriptions work best in short stories. For a look at how they work, I read a story from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine (Volume 1, No. 6, June 1975) and four stories in the May 2012 AHMM by SleuthSayer members. 

In “Manna From Heaven” a story by Edwin P. Hicks in McBain’s Mystery Magazine , one character, Deacon Joshua Jordan, describes his enemy Big Bill Yandell: “You’re a big man, Bill Yandell, a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than me.” Joshua is never described physically, so I had to picture Big Bill first and then imagine Joshua’s size. I imagined Big Bill as a six three to six five foot, 200 to 250 pound tight end, and Joshua as a five eleven to six foot, 180 to 230 pound line backer. The description worked so well that all the author had to do for me to see both men when they finally confronted each other  was use Big Bill’s name. 

The narrator in “Lewis and Clark” by John M. Floyd describes two bad guys through the eyes of one of the young protagonists. He turns at the sound of a voice and sees “two men in denim jackets, one wearing a cowboy hat and the other a mane of long red hair.” In this case, I referred in my memory to the old cowboy movies that I saw every Saturday at the Gem Theater when I was a kid. What I saw was one bad guy in a black hat and the other with no hat but with dirty red hair down to his neck, and the jackets were also dirty, having, maybe, not been washed in months. I even pictured both in muddy cowboy boots. 

In “Spring Break” by R. T. Lawton, a guy who is supposed to work with thieves in a Florida heist during spring break is “The Thin Guy.” More specifically and sinister, he is “That skinny undertaker,” just like the tall man in a black suit whom we kids would see sitting in a chair in front of Old Man Wheeler’s Funeral Home as we walked past on our way to the Gem Theater every Saturday to watch two cowboy features and a short, probably the Three Stooges. 







In “Wind Power” by Eve Fisher an older man panting after a younger woman “…dived into the dating ocean with all the grace of an aging walrus. Or maybe a bear with a potbelly, and, as you can see, a comb-over that rivals Donald Trump’s.” This is funny and better than merely saying a dirty old man chasing after women young enough to be his daughter. 

I have given examples of snapshots of characters, but they work as well for objects. In Robert Lopresti’s “Shanks Commences” the narrator describes a desk in the library as “a big antique desk,” kind of like the desk in my junior high school library. 

I like snapshot descriptions because they sneak up on you. Sometimes I don’t realize until I’ve finished a story that I didn’t get a full description of a character or an object but just enough to print an image in my memory bank.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.

28 December 2012

Five Years to a Cactus Christmas






























by Dixon Hill

For those of you who had a white Christmas:  We salute you!

Because we never do.  Well . . . almost never.  After all, we (my family and I) live in the Sonoran Desert.  A great place, in my opinion.  But, not a location that gets a lot of snow.

As a kid, I always dreamed of a white Christmas.  And, one year, my friends and I were overjoyed to discover that we'd finally gotten one!  On Christmas morning, we discovered the ground covered with a thin layer of sparkling stuff that HAD TO BE SNOW!  Right up until our parents explained that it was actually just frost on the grass.  Oh, well.

My kids keep up the tradition, however.  Quentin, our 9-year-old son, being the latest to lament snow's absence.  And to opine that he's never even seen the stuff, because we -- his parents -- are too cruel to drive him a couple-hundred miles up to the northern regions of our state during the winter months.

Some things never change.

But some things do change, and you wish they hadn't.

Back when I was a kid, there was a house four or five miles away, with three Saguaro (pronounced "su-hwar-roe) cactus in the front yard.

My dad drove us past, every Christmas, to see those cactii, which the owners always turned into The Three Wise Cactus (seen right).

Unfortunately, the house sold several years ago, and the new owners don't keep the tradition.  The Valley is poorer for its absence, in my opinion.  If we ever have the wherewithall to own both house and import three mature Saguaros, the Wise Cactus will ride again.

But, don't hold your breath.

It's been an interesting holiday season here.

To start with:  We managed to get the homestead decorated.

Inside my wife and kids put up the tree.

Outside, I got the Christmas lights running along the front of the house until, at the far end, they dropped onto the orange tree in the corner of the yard -- where I changed the lights from multi-color to white, in honor of Dan Pitzer (more about him below).  And, since our Holiday Penguin sidewalk lights finally bit the dust over summer, I splurged on a 7-foot length of snowflake lights that I hung across the roof eave over the front entryway.

The street sign that sits in the front corner of our yard, a few feet from the orange tree, has been festooned with Ornaments (you can't see 'em in the picture, but they're there!), and the pole holding it up is wrapped in shiny red and green garland, topped with a large red bow.  Everything is capped off (or made much more garish, depending on your point of view) by a large pinebranch wreath (I bought it off the Boy Scouts at church) mounted on the column arch nearest the entryway.

Of course, I still couldn't figure out what to do with the small hay bale and uncarved pumpkin we had left hanging around after Halloween and Thanksgiving.  So, I left those out front, thinking maybe the Druids would like it.  I don't know.

For a short while, I did contemplate using a piece of string to hang the pumpkin from the eaves, by its stem, as sort of a "natural ornament," however visions of Quentin and his friends grabbing bats to play a quick round of "Pumpkin Pinata" put a quick end to such ruminations.

About a week before Christmas, the fuse that controlled the 220-volt electricity for our drier blew out, taking a chunk of the busbar with it.  And, this morning, I lost all power in my home office -- located where a previous owner (whom a buddy of mine calls "The Handyman from Hell") walled-in the carport, and ran all the wiring through the outlet reset button he installed in the bathroom he built there.

That's right.  The guy built a two-room apartment, plus bathroom and kitchenette, and ran all the wiring through a reset button in a bathroom outlet.  But, to give credit where it's due, it worked fine -- right up until the busbar in the main fusebox blew up.  LOL

Which is why, as I'm writing this, my computer is powered by a 100-foot extension cable I've run over from the house.  It's also why I'm wearing a coat and have a blanket over my legs, where they stick out below my shorts (and I really wish I could see my keyboard).  But, these hardships pale in comparison to those being suffered by so many others, this holiday season, and past seasons, which brings me back to explaining why I put little white lights on our orange tree at Christmas time.

I met Dan Pitzer at SERE School.

Sgt. Major Dan Pitzer long before I met him.
SERE stands for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape.  The real name of the course is:: "The SERE 'High Risk' C Course", and it's considered "High Risk" in psychological terms (I still can't remember the bank account PIN I used for five years before I went through the course; it just vanished from my head.).  Well, maybe there is some physical risk, too, since you do things like putting a thing on your arm and getting attacked by an attack dog, so you can learn the best way to handle such a situation -- and what NOT to do.  You also practice negotiating some large, tall obstacles, similar to walls, with broken, jagged concrete chunks lying about on the ground, thirty feet or so below -- not a healthy place to fall..

This is the course that concludes with a "laboratory" in which you get turned loose, with two or three other soldiers, on an Escape and Evasion Lane.  You spend a few days, with no rations or equipment, except a map and compass, working your way cross-country to a specific location, while trying to avoid soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division who are out there trying to "capture" you.

When you finally reach the grid coordinates in question, of course, instead of being "rescued" you get captured and taken to a POW camp that's been built out near Camp MacKall, NC.  And, this is what you've really come here for.  This is the thing you've been sitting in classes, over the past few weeks, studying to prepare do deal with.

Because this is where you're going to get tortured, beaten, brainwashed and interrogated.  Which is what puts the psychological "High Risk" stamp on the course.

Fun stuff.

And, this is where I met Dan Pitzer, because he was a civilian instructor at the school.

Back when he was a young sergeant in Viet Nam, on October 29th, 1963 to be precise, Dan was captured by the Viet Cong -- along with Colonel  "Nick" Rowe, a name that's probably familiar to some of you.  I met Dan at SERE School, but I'd known who he was for long time.  Because, I'd read about him in Col. Rowe's book Five Years to Freedom.

Dan Pitzer was held in the jungle -- usually in a small cage -- tortured and mistreated by the VC, until he managed to be released on 11 November, 1967.

Years later, when the army asked Col. Rowe to help design its new SERE Course, the colonel brought Dan on board to help out.  And, that's where I met the guy.  He taught several classes to us, explaining in great detail what he had dealt with as a POW, warning us against the pitfalls he had seen others fall to, and giving us tips on how to make it through, if we ever wound up in a similar situation.

Dan Pitzer bared his soul to us, in those sessions.  His words were deep and brimming.  He shared many things with us, but one of the most poignant (and I can't do it justice here) was this one:

Dan told us a personal Christmas story

It happened one dark night, when he had reached his lowest ebb as a prisoner, heartbroken and dejected.

Among other things, he'd been left naked against the mosquitoes -- again! -- as punishment for some small infraction.  And now he lay huddled in his cage, being bitten continuously . . . when he looked up.

About six feet away, he saw a beautiful Christmas tree.  It was all lit up with white lights, winking on and off. He stared at it, wondering how this Christmas tree had come to him, in the middle of the jungle, on Christmas Eve.  Oh, God, he silently asked himself, Have I finally gone mad?

And then, he realized:  He was looking at fireflies -- hundreds of them -- collected on a nearby bush.  They had collected in an inverted V-shape, just like a Christmas tree.

In SERE School, they constantly stress the importance of "The Little Victory Each Day Brings."  For Dan Pitzer, that Christmas tree made of fireflies gave him the "Little Victory" he needed that Christmas Eve -- a victory that healed his heart and steeled his mind, enabling him to live through the rest of his captivity, and emerge whole.

After his release, he made it a practice to always fill the tree in his front yard with little white lights each Christmas, to remind him of that tree.  To pay homage to it, and to the way it had come to him.  And in honor for any POW being held far from home in enemy land.

Dan is gone, now.  But, that's why I carry on the tradition -- as do several men I know -- in honor of our mentor Dan Pitzer.  And for any POW being held far from home, in an enemy land.  Perhaps the loneliest existence known to humankind.


See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

27 December 2012

A Different Story about Santa


I enjoy discovering a new-to-me story and wanted to share this one with our readers as my last gift of 2012 to you all. (I am so glad the Mayan thing was wrong!) Everyone, enjoy the story, count your blessings and we'll see you next year! — Deborah


A Kidnapped Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year's end to another. It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme. On one side is the mighty Forest of Burzee. At the other side stands the huge mountain that contains the Caves of the Daemons. And between them the Valley lies smiling and peaceful. One would think that our good old Santa Claus, who devotes his days to making children happy, would have no enemies on all the earth; and, as a matter of fact, for a long period of time he encountered nothing but love wherever he might go. But the Daemons who live in the mountain caves grew to hate Santa Claus very much, and all for the simple reason that he made children happy. The Caves of the Daemons are five in number. A broad pathway leads up to the first cave, which is a finely arched cavern at the foot of the mountain, the entrance being beautifully carved and decorated. In it resides the Daemon of Selfishness. Back of this is another cavern inhabited by the Daemon of Envy. The cave of the Daemon of Hatred is next in order, and through this one passes to the home of the Daemon of Malice--situated in a dark and fearful cave in the very heart of the mountain. I do not know what lies beyond this. Some say there are terrible pitfalls leading to death and destruction, and this may very well be true. However, from each one of the four caves mentioned there is a small, narrow tunnel leading to the fifth cave--a cozy little room occupied by the Daemon of Repentance. And as the rocky floors of these passages are well worn by the track of passing feet, I judge that many wanderers in the Caves of the Daemons have escaped through the tunnels to the abode of the Daemon of Repentance, who is said to be a pleasant sort of fellow who gladly opens for one a little door admitting you into fresh air and sunshine again. Well, these Daemons of the Caves, thinking they had great cause to dislike old Santa Claus, held a meeting one day to discuss the matter. "I'm really getting lonesome," said the Daemon of Selfishness. "For Santa Claus distributes so many pretty Christmas gifts to all the children that they become happy and generous, through his example, and keep away from my cave." "I'm having the same trouble," rejoined the Daemon of Envy. "The little ones seem quite content with Santa Claus, and there are few, indeed, that I can coax to become envious." "And that makes it bad for me!" declared the Daemon of Hatred. "For if no children pass through the Caves of Selfishness and Envy, none can get to MY cavern." "Or to mine," added the Daemon of Malice. "For my part," said the Daemon of Repentance, "it is easily seen that if children do not visit your caves they have no need to visit mine; so that I am quite as neglected as you are." "And all because of this person they call Santa Claus!" exclaimed the Daemon of Envy. "He is simply ruining our business, and something must be done at once." To this they readily agreed; but what to do was another and more difficult matter to settle. They knew that Santa Claus worked all through the year at his castle in the Laughing Valley, preparing the gifts he was to distribute on Christmas Eve; and at first they resolved to try to tempt him into their caves, that they might lead him on to the terrible pitfalls that ended in destruction. So the very next day, while Santa Claus was busily at work, surrounded by his little band of assistants, the Daemon of Selfishness came to him and said: "These toys are wonderfully bright and pretty. Why do you not keep them for yourself? It's a pity to give them to those noisy boys and fretful girls, who break and destroy them so quickly." "Nonsense!" cried the old graybeard, his bright eyes twinkling merrily as he turned toward the tempting Daemon. "The boys and girls are never so noisy and fretful after receiving my presents, and if I can make them happy for one day in the year I am quite content." So the Daemon went back to the others, who awaited him in their caves, and said: "I have failed, for Santa Claus is not at all selfish." The following day the Daemon of Envy visited Santa Claus. Said he: "The toy shops are full of playthings quite as pretty as those you are making. What a shame it is that they should interfere with your business! They make toys by machinery much quicker than you can make them by hand; and they sell them for money, while you get nothing at all for your work." But Santa Claus refused to be envious of the toy shops. "I can supply the little ones but once a year--on Christmas Eve," he answered; "for the children are many, and I am but one. And as my work is one of love and kindness I would be ashamed to receive money for my little gifts. But throughout all the year the children must be amused in some way, and so the toy shops are able to bring much happiness to my little friends. I like the toy shops, and am glad to see them prosper." In spite of the second rebuff, the Daemon of Hatred thought he would try to influence Santa Claus. So the next day he entered the busy workshop and said: "Good morning, Santa! I have bad news for you." "Then run away, like a good fellow," answered Santa Claus. "Bad news is something that should be kept secret and never told." "You cannot escape this, however," declared the Daemon; "for in the world are a good many who do not believe in Santa Claus, and these you are bound to hate bitterly, since they have so wronged you." "Stuff and rubbish!" cried Santa. "And there are others who resent your making children happy and who sneer at you and call you a foolish old rattlepate! You are quite right to hate such base slanderers, and you ought to be revenged upon them for their evil words." "But I don't hate 'em!" exclaimed Santa Claus positively. "Such people do me no real harm, but merely render themselves and their children unhappy. Poor things! I'd much rather help them any day than injure them." Indeed, the Daemons could not tempt old Santa Claus in any way. On the contrary, he was shrewd enough to see that their object in visiting him was to make mischief and trouble, and his cheery laughter disconcerted the evil ones and showed to them the folly of such an undertaking. So they abandoned honeyed words and determined to use force. It was well known that no harm can come to Santa Claus while he is in the Laughing Valley, for the fairies, and ryls, and knooks all protect him. But on Christmas Eve he drives his reindeer out into the big world, carrying a sleighload of toys and pretty gifts to the children; and this was the time and the occasion when his enemies had the best chance to injure him. So the Daemons laid their plans and awaited the arrival of Christmas Eve. The moon shone big and white in the sky, and the snow lay crisp and sparkling on the ground as Santa Claus cracked his whip and sped away out of the Valley into the great world beyond. The roomy sleigh was packed full with huge sacks of toys, and as the reindeer dashed onward our jolly old Santa laughed and whistled and sang for very joy. For in all his merry life this was the one day in the year when he was happiest--the day he lovingly bestowed the treasures of his workshop upon the little children. It would be a busy night for him, he well knew. As he whistled and shouted and cracked his whip again, he reviewed in mind all the towns and cities and farmhouses where he was expected, and figured that he had just enough presents to go around and make every child happy. The reindeer knew exactly what was expected of them, and dashed along so swiftly that their feet scarcely seemed to touch the snow-covered ground. Suddenly a strange thing happened: a rope shot through the moonlight and a big noose that was in the end of it settled over the arms and body of Santa Claus and drew tight. Before he could resist or even cry out he was jerked from the seat of the sleigh and tumbled head foremost into a snowbank, while the reindeer rushed onward with the load of toys and carried it quickly out of sight and sound. Such a surprising experience confused old Santa for a moment, and when he had collected his senses he found that the wicked Daemons had pulled him from the snowdrift and bound him tightly with many coils of the stout rope. And then they carried the kidnapped Santa Claus away to their mountain, where they thrust the prisoner into a secret cave and chained him to the rocky wall so that he could not escape. "Ha, ha!" laughed the Daemons, rubbing their hands together with cruel glee. "What will the children do now? How they will cry and scold and storm when they find there are no toys in their stockings and no gifts on their Christmas trees! And what a lot of punishment they will receive from their parents, and how they will flock to our Caves of Selfishness, and Envy, and Hatred, and Malice! We have done a mighty clever thing, we Daemons of the Caves!" Now it so chanced that on this Christmas Eve the good Santa Claus had taken with him in his sleigh Nuter the Ryl, Peter the Knook, Kilter the Pixie, and a small fairy named Wisk--his four favorite assistants. These little people he had often found very useful in helping him to distribute his gifts to the children, and when their master was so suddenly dragged from the sleigh they were all snugly tucked underneath the seat, where the sharp wind could not reach them. The tiny immortals knew nothing of the capture of Santa Claus until some time after he had disappeared. But finally they missed his cheery voice, and as their master always sang or whistled on his journeys, the silence warned them that something was wrong. Little Wisk stuck out his head from underneath the seat and found Santa Claus gone and no one to direct the flight of the reindeer. "Whoa!" he called out, and the deer obediently slackened speed and came to a halt. Peter and Nuter and Kilter all jumped upon the seat and looked back over the track made by the sleigh. But Santa Claus had been left miles and miles behind. "What shall we do?" asked Wisk anxiously, all the mirth and mischief banished from his wee face by this great calamity. "We must go back at once and find our master," said Nuter the Ryl, who thought and spoke with much deliberation. "No, no!" exclaimed Peter the Knook, who, cross and crabbed though he was, might always be depended upon in an emergency. "If we delay, or go back, there will not be time to get the toys to the children before morning; and that would grieve Santa Claus more than anything else." "It is certain that some wicked creatures have captured him," added Kilter thoughtfully, "and their object must be to make the children unhappy. So our first duty is to get the toys distributed as carefully as if Santa Claus were himself present. Afterward we can search for our master and easily secure his freedom." This seemed such good and sensible advice that the others at once resolved to adopt it. So Peter the Knook called to the reindeer, and the faithful animals again sprang forward and dashed over hill and valley, through forest and plain, until they came to the houses wherein children lay sleeping and dreaming of the pretty gifts they would find on Christmas morning. The little immortals had set themselves a difficult task; for although they had assisted Santa Claus on many of his journeys, their master had always directed and guided them and told them exactly what he wished them to do. But now they had to distribute the toys according to their own judgment, and they did not understand children as well as did old Santa. So it is no wonder they made some laughable errors. Mamie Brown, who wanted a doll, got a drum instead; and a drum is of no use to a girl who loves dolls. And Charlie Smith, who delights to romp and play out of doors, and who wanted some new rubber boots to keep his feet dry, received a sewing box filled with colored worsteds and threads and needles, which made him so provoked that he thoughtlessly called our dear Santa Claus a fraud. Had there been many such mistakes the Daemons would have accomplished their evil purpose and made the children unhappy. But the little friends of the absent Santa Claus labored faithfully and intelligently to carry out their master's ideas, and they made fewer errors than might be expected under such unusual circumstances. And, although they worked as swiftly as possible, day had begun to break before the toys and other presents were all distributed; so for the first time in many years the reindeer trotted into the Laughing Valley, on their return, in broad daylight, with the brilliant sun peeping over the edge of the forest to prove they were far behind their accustomed hours. Having put the deer in the stable, the little folk began to wonder how they might rescue their master; and they realized they must discover, first of all, what had happened to him and where he was. So Wisk the Fairy transported himself to the bower of the Fairy Queen, which was located deep in the heart of the Forest of Burzee; and once there, it did not take him long to find out all about the naughty Daemons and how they had kidnapped the good Santa Claus to prevent his making children happy. The Fairy Queen also promised her assistance, and then, fortified by this powerful support, Wisk flew back to where Nuter and Peter and Kilter awaited him, and the four counseled together and laid plans to rescue their master from his enemies. It is possible that Santa Claus was not as merry as usual during the night that succeeded his capture. For although he had faith in the judgment of his little friends he could not avoid a certain amount of worry, and an anxious look would creep at times into his kind old eyes as he thought of the disappointment that might await his dear little children. And the Daemons, who guarded him by turns, one after another, did not neglect to taunt him with contemptuous words in his helpless condition. When Christmas Day dawned the Daemon of Malice was guarding the prisoner, and his tongue was sharper than that of any of the others. "The children are waking up, Santa!" he cried. "They are waking up to find their stockings empty! Ho, ho! How they will quarrel, and wail, and stamp their feet in anger! Our caves will be full today, old Santa! Our caves are sure to be full!" But to this, as to other like taunts, Santa Claus answered nothing. He was much grieved by his capture, it is true; but his courage did not forsake him. And, finding that the prisoner would not reply to his jeers, the Daemon of Malice presently went away, and sent the Daemon of Repentance to take his place. This last personage was not so disagreeable as the others. He had gentle and refined features, and his voice was soft and pleasant in tone. "My brother Daemons do not trust me overmuch," said he, as he entered the cavern; "but it is morning, now, and the mischief is done. You cannot visit the children again for another year." "That is true," answered Santa Claus, almost cheerfully; "Christmas Eve is past, and for the first time in centuries I have not visited my children." "The little ones will be greatly disappointed," murmured the Daemon of Repentance, almost regretfully; "but that cannot be helped now. Their grief is likely to make the children selfish and envious and hateful, and if they come to the Caves of the Daemons today I shall get a chance to lead some of them to my Cave of Repentance." "Do you never repent, yourself?" asked Santa Claus, curiously. "Oh, yes, indeed," answered the Daemon. "I am even now repenting that I assisted in your capture. Of course it is too late to remedy the evil that has been done; but repentance, you know, can come only after an evil thought or deed, for in the beginning there is nothing to repent of." "So I understand," said Santa Claus. "Those who avoid evil need never visit your cave." "As a rule, that is true," replied the Daemon; "yet you, who have done no evil, are about to visit my cave at once; for to prove that I sincerely regret my share in your capture I am going to permit you to escape." This speech greatly surprised the prisoner, until he reflected that it was just what might be expected of the Daemon of Repentance. The fellow at once busied himself untying the knots that bound Santa Claus and unlocking the chains that fastened him to the wall. Then he led the way through a long tunnel until they both emerged in the Cave of Repentance. "I hope you will forgive me," said the Daemon pleadingly. "I am not really a bad person, you know; and I believe I accomplish a great deal of good in the world." With this he opened a back door that let in a flood of sunshine, and Santa Claus sniffed the fresh air gratefully. "I bear no malice," said he to the Daemon, in a gentle voice; "and I am sure the world would be a dreary place without you. So, good morning, and a Merry Christmas to you!" With these words he stepped out to greet the bright morning, and a moment later he was trudging along, whistling softly to himself, on his way to his home in the Laughing Valley. Marching over the snow toward the mountain was a vast army, made up of the most curious creatures imaginable. There were numberless knooks from the forest, as rough and crooked in appearance as the gnarled branches of the trees they ministered to. And there were dainty ryls from the fields, each one bearing the emblem of the flower or plant it guarded. Behind these were many ranks of pixies, gnomes and nymphs, and in the rear a thousand beautiful fairies floated along in gorgeous array. This wonderful army was led by Wisk, Peter, Nuter, and Kilter, who had assembled it to rescue Santa Claus from captivity and to punish the Daemons who had dared to take him away from his beloved children. And, although they looked so bright and peaceful, the little immortals were armed with powers that would be very terrible to those who had incurred their anger. Woe to the Daemons of the Caves if this mighty army of vengeance ever met them! But lo! coming to meet his loyal friends appeared the imposing form of Santa Claus, his white beard floating in the breeze and his bright eyes sparkling with pleasure at this proof of the love and veneration he had inspired in the hearts of the most powerful creatures in existence. And while they clustered around him and danced with glee at his safe return, he gave them earnest thanks for their support. But Wisk, and Nuter, and Peter, and Kilter, he embraced affectionately. "It is useless to pursue the Daemons," said Santa Claus to the army. "They have their place in the world, and can never be destroyed. But that is a great pity, nevertheless," he continued musingly. So the fairies, and knooks, and pixies, and ryls all escorted the good man to his castle, and there left him to talk over the events of the night with his little assistants. Wisk had already rendered himself invisible and flown through the big world to see how the children were getting along on this bright Christmas morning; and by the time he returned, Peter had finished telling Santa Claus of how they had distributed the toys. "We really did very well," cried the fairy, in a pleased voice; "for I found little unhappiness among the children this morning. Still, you must not get captured again, my dear master; for we might not be so fortunate another time in carrying out your ideas." He then related the mistakes that had been made, and which he had not discovered until his tour of inspection. And Santa Claus at once sent him with rubber boots for Charlie Smith, and a doll for Mamie Brown; so that even those two disappointed ones became happy. As for the wicked Daemons of the Caves, they were filled with anger and chagrin when they found that their clever capture of Santa Claus had come to naught. Indeed, no one on that Christmas Day appeared to be at all selfish, or envious, or hateful. And, realizing that while the children's saint had so many powerful friends it was folly to oppose him, the Daemons never again attempted to interfere with his journeys on Christmas Eve.

25 December 2012

Joy To The World



MY BEST WISHES FOR A JOYOUS DAY AND A HAPPY, HEALTHY, AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR TO MY FELLOW SLEUTHSAYERS AND ALL OUR READERS!

AND A SPECIAL PRAYER FOR THE FAMILIES OF THE SLAIN CHILDREN AND TEACHERS IN NEWTOWN THAT, SOMEDAY, JOY MIGHT ENTER THEIR LIVES AGAIN.

24 December 2012

Copping Out


It's Christmas Eve, and I'm far too busy to write a blog today, but when bloggers simply use their column to pass along something they received in email, I think they are copping out. I self-righteously say, "I would NEVER do that!" I also feel disappointed (read that as "cheated") when the blog is very, very short. From all those years of teaching, I have a tendency to want to work lessons into my writing.  I fight that, but there may be a lesson here.  It's this:

NEVER say NEVER because here's my short, short blog taken from an email one of Callie's fans sent me.

During an interview with Walter Edgar on SCETV public radio, he mentioned sex in the Callie Parrish mysteries. I immediately told him, "Walter, I believe you're confusing sex with underwear." As some of you know, my protagonist Callie Parrish abstains during the first several books, but she does talk about her inflatable bras and trips to Victoria's Secret with her sidekick Jane. Who can blame her? Callie's bra actually saves her life in one of the books. For that reason, Callie's fans send me all kinds of emails and advertisements about bras. This one made me laugh so hard that if I'd been Dixon, my cigar would have shot out of my mouth, so I'm sharing it with SS readers.


What Religion is That Bra?

A man walks into Victoria's Secret and shyly walks up to the woman behind the counter
.

"I'd like to buy a bra for my wife," he says.

"What type of bra?" asks the clerk.

"Type?" inquires the man, "There's more than one type?"

"Look around," the saleslady says as she waves her arm toward a sea of bras in every shape, size, color and material imaginable!

"Actually," she says, "even with all of this variety, there are really only four types of bras to choose from."

Relieved, the man asks about the types. The clerk replies, "There are the Catholic, the Salvation Army, the Presbyterian, and the Baptist. Which one would you prefer?"

Now totally befuddled, the man asks, "What's the difference?"

The saleslady responds, "It's really quite simple...

"The Catholic type supports the masses; the Salvation Army type lifts the fallen; the Presbyterian type keeps them staunch and upright; and the Baptist makes mountains out of mole hills."

When I was a little girl, my daddy told me ladies never talk about sex, politics, or religion because they might offend people. This is not about sex, but if the religions mentioned offend you, please don't take it personally. I've been Baptist and Catholic, and I sometimes ring the bell in front of Wal*mart.

The Alphabet

Have you ever wondered why A, B, C, D, DD, E, F, G, and H are the letters used to define bra sizes? If you have pondered this, but couldn't figure out what the letters stood for, it's about time you learn.
Just like people, bras come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
(Leigh, please note the lovely white mats I've
used on my clips.)
  • {A} Almost Boobs...
  • {B} Barely there...
  • {C} Can't Complain!....
  • {D} Dang!...
  • {DD} Double dang!......
  • {E} Enormous!...
  • {F} Fake...
  • {G} Get a Reduction...
  • {H} Help me, I've fallen And I can't get up!


If I've offended anyone now, I apologize, but if so, it's not the first time and certainly won't be the last. Right now, I've got to consider whether or not to change the name of this blog from Copping Out to Cupping  Out.

On a more serious note, may the holidays be peaceful and joyful for each of you regardless of your religion.
 
If you have to do any last minute shopping, let this
 tree of ladies' lingerie and accessories
remind you that females enjoy receiving
these items as gifts during the holiday season.



23 December 2012

Literary Mystery


Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, 1927
Here's sort of a Christmas gift, a famous author's award-winning story, four times turned into film and the subject of stage plays. Despite reams of reviews and scholarly study guides, I find it deeply dissatisfying. But, thanks to other clues left by a 16-year-old boy, that may be alleviated.

SleuthSayers from time to time discusses literary fiction versus genre. The topic brings me back to an Ernest Hemingway story, The Killers, a Nick Adams ugly-truth coming-of-age. It's sort of Waiting for Godot with Guns, a nothing-much-happens character study.

It contains details critics love and genre readers don't care about: George, not Henry, runs Henry's diner. Mrs. Hirsch, not Mrs. Bell, runs Mrs. Bell's boarding house. It's a parable, see.

The dialogue is casually racist, which raises a question: Is it a product of its times or is Hemingway revealing something else about Sam, the only character with on-point instincts?

The problem for crime writers and mystery readers is that the plot doesn't go anywhere. Nick, George, and Sam don't do anything clever to thwart the hit men. Indeed, they have less sense of self-preservation than a mussel drying on the beach. The Swede has even less.

We don't know why the Swede's life's threatened, why he doesn't care, why the killers do, why they don't report it to the police, or why the landlady employs a surrogate, because we're at a disadvantage. Readers at the time might have recognized a tantalizing clue in the Swede's name: Andreson. Months earlier, the Chicago mob killed a popular boxer of the time, Andre Anderson who'd once knocked Jack Dempsey off his feet. Clever word play.

For a man of action, Hemingway put a lot of menace but remarkably little action into the plot. He once said he'd omitted most of the tale: "That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote."

Joe Gans
the real Joe Gans
The Hidden Back-story

In other words, classic literary fiction. But Hemingway kept a secret from the world at large. When he was 16, he wrote short fiction for his Illinois Oak Park High School literary magazine, The Tabula. 'A Matter of Colour' featured one of the earliest of his boxing themes: in this corner, the challenger and great white hope, Montana Dan Morgan, versus the first black World Lightweight Champion, Joe Gans (an actual historical boxer). When Morgan injures his right fist– he has no left to speak of– his manager, Jim O’Rourke, takes matters into his own hands and hires 'The Swede' to shut down Joe Gans.

The boxing ring backs against a drape. O’Rourke expects Morgan to force Gans against the curtain where the Swede, standing by with a baseball bat, is paid to conk Joe Gans, knocking him out. Except the Swede is colorblind (I know, I know, bear with me) and bops Morgan instead. It's a small step to imagine retaliation for the bungling, manager O’Rourke or the local Chicago mob to take out a contract on the Swede.

At last we have a glimmer why killers were after the Swede. With that back-story, read on. It's a bit early but, pardon the pun, happy boxing day.

The Killers

by Ernest Hemingway
The door of Henry's lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
"What's yours?" George asked them.
"I don't know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."
Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.
"I'll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes," the first man said.
"It isn't ready yet."
"What the hell do you put it on the card for?"
"That's the dinner," George explained. "You can get that at six o'clock."
George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.
"It's five o'clock."
"The clock says twenty minutes past five," the second man said.
"It's twenty minutes fast."
"Oh, to hell with the clock," the first man said. "What have you got to eat?"
"I can give you any kind of sandwiches," George said. "You can have ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, or a steak."
"Give me chicken croquettes with green peas and cream sauce and mashed potatoes."
"That's the dinner."
"Everything we want's the dinner, eh? That's the way you work it."
"I can give you ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver----"
"I'll take ham and eggs," the man called Al said. He wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves.
"Give me bacon and eggs," said the other man. He was about the same size as Al. Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward, their elbows on the counter.
"Got anything to drink?" Al asked.
"Silver beer, bevo, ginger-ale," George said.
"I mean you got anything to drink?"
"Just those I said."
"This is a hot town," said the other. "What do they call it?"
"Summit."
"Ever hear of it?" Al asked his friend.
"No," said the friend.
"What do you do here nights?" Al asked.
"They eat the dinner," his friend said. "They all come here and eat the big dinner."
"That's right," George said.
"So you think that's right?" Al asked George.
"Sure."
"You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?"
"Sure," said George.
"Well, you're not," said the other little man. "Is he, Al?"
"He's dumb," said Al. He turned to Nick. "What's your name?"
"Adams."
"Another bright boy," Al said. "Ain't he a bright boy, Max?"
"The town's full of bright boys," Max said.
George put the two platters, one of ham and eggs, the other of bacon and eggs, on the counter. He set down two side-dishes of fried potatoes and closed the wicket into the kitchen.
"Which is yours?" he asked Al.
"Don't you remember?"
"Ham and eggs."
"Just a bright boy," Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat.
"What are you looking at?" Max looked at George.
"Nothing."
"The hell you were. You were looking at me."
"Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max," Al said.
George laughed.
"You don't have to laugh," Max said to him. "You don't have to laugh at all, see?"
"All right," said George.
"So he thinks it's all right." Max turned to Al. "He thinks it's all right. That's a good one."
"Oh, he's a thinker," Al said. They went on eating.
"What's the bright boy's name down the counter?" Al asked Max.
"Hey, bright boy," Max said to Nick. "You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend."
"What's the idea?" Nick asked.
"There isn't any idea."
"You better go around, bright boy," Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.
"What's the idea?" George asked.
"None of your damn business," Al said. "Who's out in the kitchen?"
"The nigger."
"What do you mean the nigger?"
"The nigger that cooks."
"Tell him to come in."
"What's the idea?"
"Tell him to come in."
"Where do you think you are?"
"We know damn well where we are," the man called Max said. "Do we look silly?"
"You talk silly," Al said to him. "What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen," he said to George, "tell the nigger to come out here."
"What are you going to do to him?"
"Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?"
George opened the slit that opened back into the kitchen. "Sam," he called. "Come in here a minute."
The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in. "What was it?" he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.
"All right, nigger. You stand right there," Al said.
Sam, the nigger, standing in his apron, looked at the two men sitting at the counter. "Yes, sir," he said. Al got down from his stool.
"I'm going back to the kitchen with the nigger and bright boy," he said. "Go on back to the kitchen, nigger. You go with him, bright boy." The little man walked after Nick and Sam, the cook, back into the kitchen. The door shut after them. The man called Max sat at the counter opposite George. He didn't look at George but looked in the mirror that ran along back of the counter. Henry's had been made over from a saloon into a lunch counter.
"Well, bright boy," Max said, looking into the mirror, "why don't you say something?"
"What's it all about?"
"Hey, Al," Max called, "bright boy wants to know what it's all about."
"Why don't you tell him?" Al's voice came from the kitchen.
"What do you think it's all about?"
"I don't know."
"What do you think?"
Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.
"I wouldn't say."
"Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn't say what he thinks it's all about."
"I can hear you, all right," Al said from the kitchen. He had propped open the slit that dishes passed through into the kitchen with a catsup bottle. "Listen, bright boy," he said from the kitchen to George. "Stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Max." He was like a photographer arranging for a group picture.
"Talk to me, bright boy," Max said. "What do you think's going to happen?"
George did not say anything.
"I'll tell you," Max said. "We're going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?"
"Yes."
"He comes here to eat every night, don't he?"
"Sometimes he comes here."
"He comes here at six o'clock, don't he?"
"If he comes."
"We know all that, bright boy," Max said. "Talk about something else. Ever go to the movies?"
"Once in a while."
"You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you."
"What are you going to kill Ole Andreson for? What did he ever do to you?"
"He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us."
"And he's only going to see us once," Al said from the kitchen.
"What are you going to kill him for, then?" George asked.
"We're killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy."
"Shut up," said Al from the kitchen. "You talk too goddam much."
"Well, I got to keep bright boy amused. Don't I, bright boy?"
"You talk too damn much," Al said. "The nigger and my bright boy are amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent."
"I suppose you were in a convent."
"You never know."
"You were in a kosher convent. That's where you were."
George looked up at the clock.
"If anybody comes in you tell them the cook is off, and if they keep after it, you tell them you'll go back and cook yourself. Do you get that, bright boy?"
"All right," George said. "What you going to do with us afterward?"
"That'll depend," Max said. "That's one of those things you never know at the time."
George looked up at the clock. It was a quarter past six. The door from the street opened. A street-car motorman came in.
"Hello, George," he said. "Can I get supper?"
"Sam's gone out," George said. "He'll be back in about half an hour."
"I'd better go up the street," the motorman said. George looked at the clock. It was twenty minutes past six.
"That was nice, bright boy," Max said. "You're a regular little gentleman."
"He knew I'd blow his head off," Al said from the kitchen.
"No," said Max. "It ain't that. Bright boy is nice. He's a nice boy. I like him."
At six-fifty-five George said: "He's not coming."
Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.
"Bright boy can do everything," Max said. "He can cook and everything. You'd make some girl a nice wife, bright boy."
"Yes?" George said. "Your friend, Ole Andreson, isn't going to come."
"We'll give him ten minutes," Max said.
Max watched the mirror and the clock. The hands of the clock marked seven o'clock, and then five minutes past seven.
"Come on, Al," said Max. "We better go. He's not coming."
"Better give him five minutes," Al said from the kitchen.
In the five minutes a man came in, and George explained that the cook was sick.
"Why the hell don't you get another cook?" the man asked. "Aren't you running a lunch-counter?" He went out.
"Come on, Al," Max said.
"What about the two bright boys and the nigger?"
"They're all right."
"You think so?"
"Sure. We're through with it."
"I don't like it," said Al. "It's sloppy. You talk too much."
"Oh, what the hell," said Max. "We got to keep amused, haven't we?"
"You talk too much, all the same," Al said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun made a slight bulge under the waist of his too tight-fitting overcoat. He straightened his coat with his gloved hands.
"So long, bright boy," he said to George. "You got a lot of luck."
"That's the truth," Max said. "You ought to play the races, bright boy."
The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the window, pass under the arc-light and across the street. In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team. George went back through the swinging door into the kitchen and untied Nick and the cook.
"I don't want any more of that," said Sam, the cook. "I don't want any more of that."
Nick stood up. He had never had a towel in his mouth before.
"Say," he said. "What the hell?" He was trying to swagger it off.
"They were going to kill Ole Andreson," George said. "They were going to shoot him when he came in to eat."
"Ole Andreson?"
"Sure."
The cook felt the corners of his mouth with his thumbs.
"They all gone?" he asked.
"Yeah," said George. "They're gone now."
"I don't like it," said the cook. "I don't like any of it at all."
"Listen," George said to Nick. "You better go see Ole Andreson."
"All right."
"You better not have anything to do with it at all," Sam, the cook, said. "You better stay way out of it."
"Don't go if you don't want to," George said.
"Mixing up in this ain't going to get you anywhere," the cook said. "You stay out of it."
"I'll go see him," Nick said to George. "Where does he live?"
The cook turned away.
"Little boys always know what they want to do," he said.
"He lives up at Hirsch's rooming-house," George said to Nick.
"I'll go up there."
Outside the arc-light shone through the bare branches of a tree. Nick walked up the street beside the car-tracks and turned at the next arc-light down a side-street. Three houses up the street was Hirsch's rooming-house. Nick walked up the two steps and pushed the bell. A woman came to the door.
"Is Ole Andreson here?"
"Do you want to see him?"
"Yes, if he's in."
Nick followed the woman up a flight of stairs and back to the end of a corridor. She knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's somebody to see you, Mr. Andreson," the woman said.
"It's Nick Adams."
"Come in."
Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Andreson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prize-fighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick.
"What was it?" he asked.
"I was up at Henry's," Nick said, "and two fellows came in and tied up me and the cook, and they said they were going to kill you."
It sounded silly when he said it. Ole Andreson said nothing.
"They put us out in the kitchen," Nick went on. "They were going to shoot you when you came in to supper."
Ole Andreson looked at the wall and did not say anything.
"George thought I better come and tell you about it."
"There isn't anything I can do about it," Ole Andreson said.
"I'll tell you what they were like."
"I don't want to know what they were like," Ole Andreson said. He looked at the wall. "Thanks for coming to tell me about it."
"That's all right."
Nick looked at the big man lying on the bed.
"Don't you want me to go and see the police?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "That wouldn't do any good."
"Isn't there something I could do?"
"No. There ain't anything to do."
"Maybe it was just a bluff."
"No. It ain't just a bluff."
Ole Andreson rolled over toward the wall.
"The only thing is," he said, talking toward the wall, "I just can't make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day."
"Couldn't you get out of town?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."
He looked at the wall.
"There ain't anything to do now."
"Couldn't you fix it up some way?"
"No. I got in wrong." He talked in the same flat voice. "There ain't anything to do. After a while I'll make up my mind to go out."
"I better go back and see George," Nick said.
"So long," said Ole Andreson. He did not look toward Nick. "Thanks for coming around."
Nick went out. As he shut the door he saw Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on the bed looking at the wall.
"He's been in his room all day," the landlady said downstairs. "I guess he don't feel well. I said to him: 'Mr. Andreson, you ought to go out and take a walk on a nice fall day like this,' but he didn't feel like it."
"He doesn't want to go out."
"I'm sorry he don't feel well," the woman said. "He's an awfully nice man. He was in the ring, you know."
"I know it."
"You'd never know it except from the way his face is," the woman said. They stood talking just inside the street door. "He's just as gentle."
"Well, good-night, Mrs. Hirsch," Nick said.
"I'm not Mrs. Hirsch," the woman said. "She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I'm Mrs. Bell."
"Well, good-night, Mrs. Bell," Nick said.
"Good-night," the woman said.
Nick walked up the dark street to the corner under the arc-light, and then along the car-tracks to Henry's eating-house. George was inside, back of the counter.
"Did you see Ole?"
"Yes," said Nick. "He's in his room and he won't go out."
The cook opened the door from the kitchen when he heard Nick's voice.
"I don't even listen to it," he said and shut the door.
"Did you tell him about it?" George asked.
"Sure. I told him but he knows what it's all about."
"What's he going to do?"
"Nothing."
"They'll kill him."
"I guess they will."
"He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago."
"I guess so," said Nick.
"It's a hell of a thing."
"It's an awful thing," Nick said.
They did not say anything. George reached down for a towel and wiped the counter.
"I wonder what he did?" Nick said.
"Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for."
"I'm going to get out of this town," Nick said.
"Yes," said George. "That's a good thing to do."
"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."
"Well," said George, "you better not think about it."