06 March 2013

Portrait of a man who never lived


by Robert Lopresti

A few months ago I wrote a piece here about Rex Stout's most famous characters and I included wonderful illustrations of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  I have since discovered that they are both the work of professional portraitist Kevin Gordon.

I have been in touch with Kevin and thought you might enjoy some of what he had to say.  Before he gets to talk I wanted to mention that he is a second generation portraitist (ain't that cool?) and the author/illustrator of many books. 

All right.  With no further ado:



Since painting people is my profession, as you've apparently seen from my website, I always thought it would be fun to paint Mr. Wolfe. But, all I had was my own mind's-eye version and I'm used to flesh-and-blood models.

So I corralled a fellow who had the requisite bulk, posed him with the required props and painted away. The face is strictly my own invention, since he didn't actually LOOK like Wolfe to me. But he was game, and I probably saved his life, since being told you resemble Nero Wolfe comes with a certain stigma and he lost about 90 pounds since he posed for me.

The original hangs on my dining room wall, glowering at my wife and I as we enjoy her Fritz-quality meals, until it finds a more appropriate and profitable (at least for me) home.

Both Tim Hutton and Bill Smitrovich (who played Archie and Cramer respectively on the A&E series) have the prints on their walls, as does Rex Stout's daughter Rebecca...

With Kevin's permission  I am including another of his works whose subject you may find familiar.

It's a very small oil painted as a trade for two Arthur Conan Doyle letters, one of my prized possessions. I did a little pencil drawing of Conan Doyle which is framed with the letters. Never being able to meet him, having that drawing of Conan Doyle framed with the pages that he held in his own hands is the next best thing.

I read my first Sherlock Holmes story when I was ten. I remember it clearly. It was an assignment for English class; “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. I was hooked and then delighted to find out there were fifty-six more stories and four whole novels.  I read every one in order and then I read them again. Imagine my excitement when I found out they actually made movies about Holmes. Wow! Of course they were the Basil Rathbone features, so except for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the others were a little disappointing having been set in “modern” times, especially with Rathbone’s inexplicable upswept hairdo.  A thorough examination of Conan Doyle’s life followed and I’ve been a devoted Sherlockian ever since, having made the pilgrimage to Baker Street several times.

As for Rex Stout, the first story I read was in 1990. It was “Christmas Party”, in an anthology called Murder for Christmas and I got the same feeling I had as a ten year old with Holmes. I decided I’d better find out how it all started and began reading the Nero Wolfe stories in order. With Fer de Lance, I was off and running and read all the stories in order, which wasn’t as easy as with Holmes because there was no single volume which contained all the tales. Surely, I thought characters and stories as wonderful as these must have sparked some sort of fan club, like the Baker Street Irregulars, and that’s when I found the Wolfe Pack, and through the Pack, the Stout family. I spent a delightful afternoon at High Meadow with Barbara Stout and Liz Maroc and later with Rebecca Stout Bradbury. (Stout's daughters and (Liz) a granddaughter.)  Eating lunch at the same dining room table at which Rex Stout regaled his family with the witticisms that Archie had uttered that day, and then sitting at the desk upstairs where Stout actually created them was certainly a thrill for a ten-year-old middle-aged man.

I asked Kevin how he paints a person who doesn't actually exist.

Of course, painting a person I see only in my head poses a different problem than painting the chairman or president that’s sitting in front of me.  With Wolfe, it was more of a feeling that I tried to convey rather than his precise features. I suppose I could have used a photo of Orson Welles or someone like that, but I wanted Wolfe to be unrecognizable as anyone but Wolfe. That’s where an artist’s imagination and knowledge of the human face come in handy. The representation is how I feel about Wolfe. In all honesty, it’s still not exactly how I picture him, but it’s close enough.

As for the little head I did of Holmes that’s on my website, I used the photo of Sidney Paget’s brother Walter as my reference, because I felt that if Walter was a good enough model for Paget, he was good enough for me. I also find it interesting that Conan Doyle thought that Paget’s illustrations made Holmes too handsome and that in his own mind’s eye, Conan Doyle saw Holmes as rather ugly and that he resembled what he quaintly called a “red Indian”.

The question has also come up how I know when I’m done painting a picture, I agree with Leonardo Da Vinci who said “A painting is never finished, only abandoned.” An artist friend of mine put it this way: “It takes two people to paint a picture; one to do the painting and a second one to hit the first one over the head and make him stop.”


I guess Kevin paints real people for a living and fictional ones for fun.  He certainly does them both well.

05 March 2013

No Goodbyes


Before I go on with my last regularly scheduled posting, I have the honor of introducing the gentleman that will be stepping into the Tuesday time slot in my stead--Terence Faherty.  Actually, unlike the entirely necessary intro to my first posting, Terry probably has no need of one.  He is a winner of two Shamus Awards and a Macavity, as well as a nominee several times over for the Edgar and Anthony Awards.  All this by way of being the author  of two long standing and popular series featuring seminarian-turned-sleuth, Owen Keane, and Hollywood detective, Scott Elliot.  His short stories appear regularly in all the best mystery and suspense magazines.  Terry is prolific, talented, distinguished-looking, and shares many other traits with me, as well.  I'm looking forward to reading his postings and want to offer him a warm welcome to our little family.  I think he's gonna fit right in.  Oh, did I mention that he's a leading authority on the late, great actor Basil Rathbone?  Well, he is...but I'll let him explain about all that.  Look for Terry's first post two weeks from now.
I may have mentioned in my last posting that I'm determined to attempt another piece of long fiction--I call such things, "novels".  In fact, it was the august opinions of SleuthSayers' readers and contributors that helped me to decide which storyline to pursue.  As I am a simple man, not much given to multi-tasking, I feel the need to clear the deck in order to do so.  In other words, this will be my last posting for the foreseeable future.

My time with SleuthSayers has been truly wonderful.  I have enjoyed contributing my thoughts every two weeks, and greatly appreciate the kind consideration that each of you have given them.  Beyond the obvious breadth of knowledge exhibited daily by my fellow writers, I think a wonderful tolerance and greatness of mind has been a cornerstone of our site.  It has been a privilege to be amongst your numbers.

It would be wrong of me to slip away without acknowledging a few of you specifically, beginning with our mentor and leader, Leigh Lundin.  Have you ever dealt with a kinder, more passionately concerned man?  His guidance has been invaluable, his heart as big as the Stetson he wears so jauntily in his photo.  Leigh, you're the best.

There is also the erudite and always interesting, Rob Lopresti.  It was Rob that reached out to me years ago to do a guest blog on the, now legendary, Criminal Brief site.  There are few people better versed in the field of short mystery fiction than Rob, and he's a damn fine practitioner of the art, too.  It seems he intends to expand his literary horizon by entering the novel writing biz, as well.  Did I mention that he is also versatile?--librarian, critic, writer, blogger, musician, and probably other talents that I have yet to learn of.  He has also been a gentle guiding hand for me from time to time. 

My thanks also to the warm and wise, Fran Rizer.  She has been both an advisor and unstinting supporter to me, and her long-distance friendship has been a welcome surprise and an invaluable benefit to my membership here.  I've also become a great fan of her funny, sassy, vulnerable, and altogether intriguing literary character, Callie Parrish.  Fran has much to be proud of in her series.

John Floyd, through the magic of the internet, has come to feel like a personal friend rather than a virtual one.  His warmth and kindliness have touched me on several occasions via unexpected email messages.  He is a true gentleman, as well as a dauntingly talented and prolific writer.   

But as I said in the beginning, I have been in good company with all of you, and benefited from the relationship no end.  As the title of this blog states, there will be no goodbyes--I intend to read SleuthSayers daily and offer my usual array of pithy, sage comments.  If not altogether barred from doing so, I might even write a guest blog from time to time.  I can already envision the topic for my first: Why is it so difficult for me to write another novel? Or possibly, Why in God's name did I ever begin another novel? Or finally: Why won't anybody buy this damn novel that I've written?

Thanks everyone and God bless.

04 March 2013

Green Grits, Anyone?


by Fran Rizer


Two days ago, March 2, 2013, was the anniversary of the birth of someone who inspired me tremendously in my writing efforts--someone who has played a varying role throughout my life.

Dr. Seuss sold millions of books and won many
notable awards for his art as well as his writing.
Theodor Seuss Greiss was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904, to a successful brewmaster, Theodor Robert Greiss, and his wife Henrietta Seuss Greiss.  The young boy became famous as Dr. Seuss.

I've always loved disguises and costumes.  When I taught secondary English, I used to dress up as Lady Macbeth and deliver the "Out, out cursed spot," passage to interest my students in beginning the study of Macbeth. Seuss's work provides many opportunities for costumes.

Some might think that Dr. Seuss's material is too young for fifth graders, but they loved it, and we explored all kinds of books and poetry including Shel Silverstein and Edgar Alan Poe. Seuss's work also served as inspiration for writing and illustrating the students' own books.  The class wrote and illustrated  a group project called The White Haired Man with the same meter and rhyme scheme as Green Eggs and Ham.

When I demoted myself from secondary English to teaching fifth grade, we made a big deal out of March second each year.  I'd wear my Cat in the Hat costume and my students would make and wear costumes for other characters.  A baker friend and I made a gigantic four tier birthday cake styled like a wedding cake decorated with Seuss characters.  My students hosted every other class in the building to our room by scheduled invitation.  While there, the younger students celebrated Dr. Seuss's birthday by eating cake, drinking juice, and listening to my fifth-graders read Dr. Seuss books to them at reading centers around the room.

We also did a following directions lesson on St. Patrick's Day that involved preparing and eating green foods.  We drank green Kool Aid and ate green deviled eggs and ham, green peas, green beans, asparagus, green spinach (a little Popeye strength), and other green foods the parents provided, along with cooking instructions, for the children to prepare.  Since I lived and taught in the South, we also had green grits, but the students' favorite green food each year was green Rice Krispy Treats.  We read Green Eggs and Ham at that lunch.  Our math lesson that afternoon concentrated on converting measurements we'd used that morning into metric.

The biography of Dr. Seuss is repeated many times in different places on the Internet, so I won't inflict that on you.  Google it if you want to know how he was kicked off the magazine staff at Dartmouth College for drinking in his dorm room (it wasn't green Kool Aid either), quit future studies at Oxford University and returned stateside with his recently married wife Helen; and became a cartoonist, then an advertising director for Standard Oil for fifteen years. 

You'll also read that he and Helen bought and moved into an old observation tower in La Jolla, California, where he wrote for a minimum of eight hours a day.  A major turning point in his writing career came when he was asked by Houghton Mifflin and Random House to write a children's book with a limited vocabulary of 220 words.  Seuss's The Cat in the Hat was published in 1957, and the rest is history.

At my retirement luncheon, the school presented me with a fancy desk clock and a book.  The book is Dr. Seuss's You're Only Old Once which is one of his few books not written for children.

I've enjoyed reading Seuss to my sons, grandson, and students through the years, but the event that makes me so fond of him happened on my last day of teaching.  Kim, a delightful ten-year-old approached me just before the school buses rolled.

"Ms.Rizer," she said, "didn't you say you're going to write a book now that you're retiring?"

"Yes, Kim."

"Well, don't get discouraged if it takes a while to get it published.  Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-seven times before it was published in 1937."

"Have you been watching ETV?" I asked.

"No, I saw that on MTV." 

Her bus number was called over the intercom, and away she went,  I looked it up.  Kim was correct.  Dr. Seuss's first book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected twenty-seven times before being accepted by Vanguard Press.  I use this fact in my book talks when I remind potential writers that music executives told Elvis Presley to go back to driving a truck in Memphis when he went to Nashville and that several American recording labels turned down the Beatles before they made it to "the reeely big shew."  These facts fit with my theory that talent and craft skills are important, but possibly the most important characteristic for success is perseverance.
My disappointment in
Dr. Seuss almost
brought tears.

When I looked up Dr. Seuss to obtain illustrations for this blog, I read something about him that disappointed me tremendously. Be the first to guess what it is in Comments and I'll send you a free copy of my next Callie book, Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD when it's released in April.

Aside from the above-cited fact, I tip my red and white striped hat to Theodor Seuss Greiss!

Until we meet again, take care of … you! 

03 March 2013

Professional Tips: To Be or Not


G. Perec: A Void
Dale Andrews' recent article on Constrained Writing sent me on tangential research of the topic. My peripatetic perambulations landed me on a page about É, E′, or English′, also called E-Prime. Curious, I perused Elaine Johnson's article and expanded my research to others.

Proponents of constrained writing argue it improves one's writing. In the long term I agree, but readers must note a huge caveat: An audience should view lipograms and other forms of constrained writing as exercises. Such exercises ought to improve writing that follows, because history will remember few examples of non-poetic constrained writing as masterpieces, Gravity's Rainbow notwithstanding. But, gather 'round, lads and lassies, and hear me out.

Thé Primé of Miss Jéan Brodié

É, a kind of constrained writing, proposes immediate improvement, which other subsets of constrained writing cannot offer. E-Prime adherents wish to restrict, even remove forms of 'to be' from general usage. That is to say, the impetus of É is to shun sentences exactly like this one. In other words, E-Primers avoid the use of is, was, be, been, am, are, etc. Most further advocate avoiding contractions of these forms: I'm, you're, he's… some that are ambiguous in tense. (Does you're imply 'you are' or 'you were'? Does he's imply 'he is' or 'he was'?)

That struck me as a similar goal of professional writers, to use active voice and action verbs wherever possible. Could we improve our writing by listening to academics, forming a discipline of Not to Be??

Ésay Comé, Ésay Go


At first blush, the professors' results didn't appear promising. I persisted, reading Korzybski and Kellogg and Kenyon, yet 8 out of 10 papers came off as linguistically technical or the writing gagged the reader with run-on verbosity and excessively dense pluperfection. Still, I thought the idea merited further attention.

I like to think I'd already progressed well in weaning myself off the teat of 'isism' but in fact, is, was, and their weakish siblings prove addictive. You may notice that other than the deliberate sentence in the second paragraph, I'm trying to avoid 'be' words, but does the pluperfect "I'm" in this sentence violate the letter of the É law? I still don't know.
Spiderman 3
© Marvel, Stan Lee

Écad, Égad

David Bourland argues that changing our language can change our thinking. This sounds like a corollary of one of the sayings from my father: "If you can control the language of people, you can control people." I don't recall whether he was referring to Fox News at the time, but he often made non-intuitive statements that would later prove accurate. Bourland goes on to make the case for É.

Éfficient, Élegant, Égalitarian

In particular, most advocates of É point out it virtually eliminates passive voice. They maintain É forces a writer to take responsibility for not only one's own actions, but the actions of others– characters in the case of novelists. Saying "John was hit by a baseball" doesn't suffice. An É author must state who hit John with a baseball.

Robert Anton Wilson
suggests the word 'is' makes it easy for politicians and advertisers to toy with the public through misleading prose:
  • "Guinness is good for you." In what way?
  • "A diamond is forever." Forever what?
  • "Coke is it." Huh?
Ken Starr's grilling of Bill Clinton contained many embarrassing moments on both sides, but I remember one particular huh moment from the President: "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is." Had the parties studied É, they could have avoided that episode– or not.

Ralph E. Kenyon Jr. goes on to discuss 'cheating' (my term, not his). By example, he says the sentence "I found the movie more rewarding than the novel" is an abuse of É using simple substitution: "I found the movie (to be) more rewarding than (I found) the novel (to be)." He suggests "I liked the movie better than I liked the novel." Mmm… I half agree.

Émerging, Énlivening


Many of the É proponents throw themselves wholehearted into using É in their daily work. Fine, but some seem to forget active voice and action verbs form only a part of good writing. And, like religion and politics, absolutes can prove undesirable. Sometimes we want to use passive voice. In rare instances, 'is' or 'was' might be the perfect word.

But overall, if we treat E-prime as an exercise, we can learn something from these linguistic professionals. Don't get bogged down by their graphs, trees, or the dense and dormant prose: simply word sentences to avoid forms of 'to be'. One writer says he 'E-prunes' in moderation, rather than E-primes.

Looking back, I'm amazed how many examples of is, was, were, etc crept into writing this article. Knowing I should attempt to set an example, I've edited most of the offending sentences. You don't have the privilege (or burden) of seeing the original, but yes, reworking those sentences helped.

Try it with your work and let us know your results.

Thé Énd

02 March 2013

A Matter of Conscience


by Herschel Cozine
NOTE: I am once again pleased to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. He's been writing and publishing fiction for many years, and--as some of you might already know--his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy has been nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. He's pretty darn good at nonfiction as well: when he showed the following column to me, I found it fascinating--I think you will also. (Herschel, thanks once more for making a guest appearance. Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) — John Floyd

Recently Eve Fisher posted a column concerning the actions of a fire department in South Dakota. It seems they responded to a fire on the property of an individual who had threatened to shoot anyone who came on his land. Needless to say, he was not well-liked. There was some speculation that the failure of the fire department to save his house was due to animosity rather than fear for their own safety. If it was the former (payback), the fire department behaved irresponsibly and should be reprimanded.

Personal animosity should never be an excuse for failure to do one's duty. I am supposing that the individual, other than being a rednecked, antisocial, and generally unlikable person, was law-abiding and was entitled to the same protection under the law as anyone. Society cannot pick and choose who to serve when it comes to safety or the law.

But there was a time in my life when I and everyone in town felt that this was not the case.

The fire department of my youth behaved similarly, but we all supported their action (or inaction, as the case may be). Were we wrong? Read on, and decide for yourselves.

I was born in a small town on Long Island, and spent the first twelve years of my life there. It was an idyllic life for a child. The town, known as Yaphank, had a population of about 300, and had no amenities other than a grade school, a grocery store, two gas stations, and a post office. No high school, no beauty parlor or barber shop, no movie theater. No pool hall or bowling alley. In spite of the lack of these services and conveniences, we were never bored. There were two lakes in town which we used for swimming, boating, and fishing in the summer and skating in the winter. The townspeople held several "clam bakes" using the grade school grounds. We had weekly card parties where the adults played pinochle while the kids played bunco. All this took place during the Depression. We had no money for entertainment even if it had been available to us. In spite of this, all in all, in my preteen years, life was good.

Then the Nazis came to town. After purchasing a house and grounds less than a quarter of a mile from the house I lived in, they took over the town. Masquerading as a summer retreat for German youth, they were committed to the Nazi philosophy and (we learned later) dedicated to taking over the United States. They frequently marched down Main Street, which was in fact the only street, holding aloft the hated Swastika and forcing traffic to stop for them. They also took over the lake, bullying those of us who were too young and too timid to resist. They were superior, arrogant, and hated.

Sundays saw the arrival of Nazi adults from New York City and surrounding areas. They held noisy and unwelcome rallies where anti-Semitic speeches were given and Hitler was extolled to loud applause.

I had no concept of the significance of these people, or why they were in town. I only knew that my parents, particularly my father who was a WWI veteran, hated them and did whatever they could to make life miserable for them. (I could write a book on that subject.) A few of the year-round residents of the Bund Camp (known as German Gardens) had children who attended school with us. I became friends with one of them who, like me, had no political or philosophical agenda. We were two boys who enjoyed playing marbles, baseball, and the like. Incidentally, unlike most of the Bund Camp residents, his family was loyal to America and remained in this country when the war broke out.

The hostility between the townspeople and Camp Siegfried, as the compound was called, often resulted in confrontations that required police intervention. Yaphank's police department consisted of a sheriff and a part-time deputy. The sheriff was as antagonistic to the Nazis as the rest of us were, so disputes were almost always settled in our favor. In the rare instances when fines and punishment were imposed on the townspeople, they were minimal and seldom enforced.

Whenever a fire broke out in Camp Siegfried or German Gardens, the fire department had difficulty getting there in a timely manner, and to the best of my knowledge never extinguished a fire in time to save whatever structure was ablaze (usually a house). It was of course a volunteer unit, and all of the firefighters were residents of Yaphank, and extremely opposed to the Nazi presence. There is no question that the animosity toward the camp's inhabitants influenced their actions.

I believe, in light of the circumstances, that it is entirely understandable why the fire department behaved as it did in those days. Failure to respond quickly to fires in the camp was simply an extension of the behavior of the townspeople toward Camp Siegfried and the German Gardens. Any means that could be used to get those people out of our town was considered fair. They weren't welcome, they weren't friendly to our way of life, and in fact they were often spying for Hitler. We were not yet at war, so we could not legally evict them--but we saw them as the enemy and acted accordingly. Of course, at the time we were not aware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. But the repugnance of their beliefs and actions, particularly after 1939 when the war in Europe started, was reason enough for us to behave the way we did. Harrassment, vandalism, and dereliction of duty by the police and fire deparment. These were our weapons.

But in fact, these people were not breaking any laws. They were in this country legally, and were entitled to equal protection under the law. Still, I cannot criticize the actions of the fire department, the police, or the citizens of Yaphank. Feelings about this are too ingrained in me to believe any other way. Am I wrong to feel the way I do?

This article will give you a lot of information concerning camp Siegfried and its leaders: german/american/bund

As a footnote, on December 8, 1941, the Camp ceased to exist. German Gardens was decimated when the feds descended on the settlement and deported a large number of its inhabitants. A few, like my friend's family, remained.

01 March 2013

Lost


by R.T. Lawton

One month ago today, I lost my greatest fan, Bernadean G. Carlson. She was my mother-in-law, an excellent teacher of children and a great lady. Turned out she also liked my short stories and seemed pleased to have a writer in the family, especially since she was such an avid reader. I married her oldest daughter thirty-two years ago, but I'm pretty sure that's not why Bernie enjoyed my writing. She and I discussed books and writing almost every time we got together.

As a fifth grade teacher, Bernie got copies of my 22 children's stories as they came out in Recess and Time Out, statewide publications for 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade students, over a period of years, about 4 or 5 a year. Of course it may have been a personal bias (she was closely acquainted with the author) because her classes always read and discussed those stories in the class room. Once, I even received a batch of handwritten letters in the mail from one of her classes. They were writing to say thanks and to talk about their feelings on one of those stories. I just hope they weren't writing to me merely so they could get a good grade.

Can't say that Bernie was overjoyed with my day time job, but she soon saw how some of those experiences came out in my mystery stories. She even gave me permission, one time when we came to town for a visit, so a local bookie could come out to her house where I could interview him in her dining room without all his pals seeing him out in public with a federal law enforcement officer. Otherwise, the circumstances would definitely have ruined his reputation. The information I received that afternoon about the inner workings of a nationwide gambling organization became fodder for a short story series. If it hadn't been for the fact that this interview was for the creation of stories, she'd have been mortified to have a criminal in her home. But, since I had a gun, the bookie appeared to be no more than a good boy put on the wrong path by a down-turning economy and she would be out shopping during that time, it would be okay, just this once.

Bernie had her favorite characters in my four AHMM series and would frequently ask what Theodore in the Twin Brothers Bail Bonds and the Little Nogai Boy in the Armenian series were up to next. She took great pleasure in hearing how that little boy got his own story as requested by the editor in Manhattan while her daughter and I had breakfast with that same editor. Naturally, I sent Bernie a personalized copy of each story as it got published in AHMM, and she proudly showed these publications to friends and other relatives.

Some of you may remember about this time last year when I ran a contest on the blog site for the best breakfast recipe. That was one of the times when my wife Kiti was back in eastern South Dakota taking care of her mother for a few weeks while I stayed home in Colorado and took care of two of our grandsons. Testing those recipes took a full week. Every morning, the boys got served a different recipe for breakfast before I drove them over to their local elementary school for classes. At the table, each boy had his own score card where they rated that morning's dish in several different categories on a scale from 1 to 10. These rating sessions often became loud and lively as the boys compared notes and numbers. In the end, we had to have two winners to keep peace in the family. Telling of these shenanigans helped buoy the spirits of Mom while she was undergoing recovery from the chemo and radiation treatments for her cancer. It also helped to lighten Kiti's burden too. I thanked you guys then and I thank you again now.

But, like I said in the beginning, I lost my greatest fan. The medical treatments were too harsh and had to be discontinued. She ended up in a nursing home, unable to remain in her own house. It took a year more, but Bernadean G. Carlson finally passed over at 11 PM on Friday, February 1st, in the arms of her two daughters. Bernie will be greatly missed by all on this end, and there will be a very large gap in my very small fan base.

Sad to say, but Eve Fisher lost a fan too. Bernie very much enjoyed Eve's AHMM stories set in small town South Dakota. It was like those stories were set just down the road from Mom's house.

Well, time to go.

Rest easy, Mom.

28 February 2013

A Quarrelsome Lot...


by Eve Fisher

As I said before, we're in process of moving, and I am currently off-line until the 1st.  So I thought share with you some notes from a cruise my husband and I took in 2005.  It was called "Voyage of the Vikings" and we took it specifically because it took us to Norway via Greenland and Iceland.  How else, we figured, would we get there?  And let me tell you, both were spectacular.  So much so that I was disappointed in Norway.

Nuuk, Greenland
Nobody warned us about Greenland – how beautiful, how spectacular it was.  Stark mountains, with no trees, little runnels of snow in the crevices.  We went ashore and walked through the town and up a mountain – the rock was bare, grey, rough, lichen-patched, and in between the rocks was moss, so thick it sprang underfoot.  The view was breathtaking – one of the few times I wished I had a camera (in fact I bought one when I got back on ship), especially one mountain that was twin-peaked, and rippling between the peaks was a great curtain of granite.  I could swear I’ve seen it before, and probably have, in a photo or another lifetime.  I wish I could have done more hiking – the rock was so firm and rough underfoot, easy to cling to, and then the lichen…  But we only had until noon to explore.

Nuuk, with Whale
A very nice Danish man took us, for free, on a tour of the town.  Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, about 14,000 population, mostly in cinderblock apartments, many of which have a view of the sea.  It would be a hard place to live in, but also a hard place to leave, too, if you were from there.  So much space, so much hiking and fishing and hunting, all in amazing privacy and, undoubtedly, intimacy, at the top of the world.

Prince Christian Sound, Greenland
And then there was Prince Christian Sound, a fjord along the southwestern coast of Greenland – miles and miles of sharp-tipped mountains, tipped with arrows and points and flames of rock, hundreds of feet high, thin waterfalls falling down from crumbling blue glaciers.  Ice-bergs, white, carved in curves, with neon blue cracks, floated in the water.  The whole thing took about 4-6 hours to go through.  At one point there was a fishing village, of maybe 20 houses, tucked into one of the mini-fjords rivuleting off the main fjord.  So isolated:  to live there would be like living on another planet.


Gullfoss, Iceland
Iceland was amazing, too, and I really hope to go back there some day.  We went on the “Golden Circle” tour, which was all day.  Saw the geysers – Geiser itself, which rarely spouts after an earthquake in the 90’s, and its sister, which spouts every few minutes.  Geiser is THE geyser, from which we get the name. Then to Gullfoss, the Golden Falls – a spectacular glacier-melt waterfall that sent up tremendous veils and clouds of mist, thick as smoke, that fed a huge carpet of thick wet green moss.  And there’s a permanent rainbow – sometimes two – arcing over that green moss, shimmering in the spray.  Iceland’s a fairly dry country (especially when compared to Ireland), and you could tell how dry it is by how rich the moss, grass, ferns, and flowers were along the run and spray of Gullfoss, compared to the brown dry hillocks all around – old lava flows, cooled and crumbling to earth under the deceptive cover of moss and lichen.

Thingfeller (but it really doesn't do it justice)
We also went to Thingvellir National Park; and that landscape was all sweeping mountains, much like western Montana or Wyoming, only drier, barer, darker, sterner.  Snow patches in the heights and, in the distance, a great glacier that stretched for miles between two mountain peaks.  At first you thought it was clouds, but no cloud stays so white, so flat, so still, so perfectly held between two peaks.  And Thingvellir itself – well, it’s pretty obvious why the old Icelanders met there to do their lawgiving.  Great black basalt blocks stacked into pillars, in a long curved natural amphitheater (following one of the major geologic fault lines of the earth, between the European and American plates).  And from Thingvellir you look up at these pillars, and then out, away, at a blue, blue, blue lake, and the long sweep from valley to the tall dark mountains on all sides.  It would take a lot of something – honor, pride, hubris, holiness, justice, certainty – to speak out from there, but if you could summon your voice, I think you’d be listened to.

The old Icelanders were a quarrelsome lot – most humans are – full of blood feuds and exiles and sudden death.  So, in truth, was old Ireland, but it gets less play.  For one thing, the Icelanders wrote theirs down in the sagas, like Burnt Njal, which had their fanciful aspects, but were mostly fairly accurate accounts of who, what, where, how, and why.  Njal was a farmer who, with his wife, really was burnt to death, and his farmstead (not the house, of course) still exists.  The entire tale has no superheroes, and only a little sorcery, and even less deus ex machina.   (It's very good - but get the modern translation, which captures the dry wit.  "Is he home?"  "I don't know, but his axe certainly is," he replied, falling down dead.)

What's interesting is that the Irish have a lot of the same blood as the Icelanders, but in Ireland, the old stories have been transmogrified into myth to a point where it’s almost impossible to disentangle truth from hero-worship.  Cuchulain – who undoubtedly lived as a strong, young warrior of great renown in his own day – was turned into a demi-god of war in epic poems like the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and then transformed even further into Sir Gawain in the original Arthurian Tales, and transformed again, until today old Ireland is thought of as a gentle land of bards and poets, saints and maidens, as opposed to old Iceland, that grim and warring place.

Yet the grimness and fierceness of old Ireland can be seen in the tales of the early Christian Irish monks, with their tremendous asceticism, standing in icy water up to their armpits as they recited the whole Psalter, the war St. Columba started (over a book of the Gospels!) in which hundreds were killed, in the self-imposed exiles to forbidding rocks like Skellig Michael, in St. Bridget, “who never washed her face or her hands.”  

 The Celt is the Celt is the Celt. But it’s all in the telling. Isn't it always?

27 February 2013

BRUCE LOCKHART: Memoirs of a British Agent


Where do you start? This is the guy who smuggled Kerensky out of Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. He was intimate with Leon Trotsky. He met Stalin, once, and Lenin more than once. He was present at the creation of the modern world, the 20th century in all its wickedness. He lived, in other words, in interesting times, and he perhaps changed history. He was, of course, a spy.
Sun Tzu remarks that war is deceit. And our intelligence services, to borrow a phrase from John LeCarre, reflect our different national characters. Le Carre also noted the odd attraction of the Scots to the secret world, John Buchan an obvious example. Bruce Lockhart, as it happens, was a Scot.
Lockhart

He was sent to the British consulate in Moscow by the Foreign Office in 1912. He was twenty-four years old, and by his own admission, no sophisticate. He set out to learn the language, the customs and courtesies of the country, and Moscow itself, but above all, to cultivate social and political connections. This led, inevitably, to late nights filled with vodka and Gypsy balalaikas, sleigh rides to outlying dachas, and some dubious associations. It led also to an adulterous affair (Lockhart's wife had come with him to Russia), a scandal that got him sacked.

But he'd spent almost five years in Moscow, and the insular young sport had toughened considerably. He'd experienced the popular uprising firsthand, the abdication of the Tsar, the rise of Kerensky and the Social Democrats. As well, he'd witnessed the rough beast slouching toward war. Great Britain and Russia were now allies against Germany, and in London, the primary political concern was keeping Russia in the fight. Six weeks after Lockhart's return to England, in October of 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and established the groundwork for a Soviet state. Capitulation to Germany was widely rumored.

There were, in the corridors of power Whitehall, two, if not three, competing schools of thought. The first was to strangle the new enterprise at birth. The second was to treat with the Bolsheviks, to encourage their continued resistance to German advances on the Eastern Front. The third was to deploy both the carrot and the stick, and to this end, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, and Lord Milner, heading up the war cabinet, decided Lockhart was the man for the job. They sent him back, in January, 1918. This time, however, he served two masters, the Foreign Office, which gave him diplomatic cover, and the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS had a rather different mission in mind for him, to set up a clandestine espionage network, and penetrate the upper Soviet apparat.


This wasn't quite the impossible task it now seems, in retrospect. Everything was up for grabs. The new Russian government's grasp on power was unsteady, and the Terror hadn't yet begun. For the moment, they were just trying to keep the trains running, and most of the people Lockhart met in Moscow and St. Petersburg were fatalistic about their chances. Lockhart suggested to Trotsky that he could allow Japanese troops onto Russian soil, to help fight the Germans, or an expeditionary force, perhaps British, but Trotsky wasn't having any. He knew an imperialist plot when he saw one. Lockhart was of course halfhearted in this endeavor, since he knew any intervention would have to be in strength, and the War Office wouldn't sign off on it. At best, it would only be a token number of troops, which was worse than nothing. He was also hamstrung by vitiation in London: they were still arguing which course to follow. In the event, Trotsky went to Brest-Litovsk, and negotiated a humiliating peace. German envoys arrived as conquerors.

Lockhart was in a vise. His sponsors back in London were fighting a rear-guard action---he himself was seen as an obstacle, if not already co-opted by the Commies, and the Russians didn't trust him worth a damn, either. He was hanging on by his fingernails, trying to follow conflicting instructions from home, and keeping the confidence of his hosts. Two events blew him out of the water. A bomb attack in Kiev killed the German commanding general who was a guest of the Kremlin. This was in late July. On the last day of August, a young Social Revolutionary named Dora Kaplan put two bullets into Lenin himself, at point-blank range. One of them hit his lung. "His chances of living," Lockhart reports, "were at a discount."
Sidney Reilly
Now the rubber hits the road. Lockhart and his chief agent, Sidney Reily (yes, that Sidney Reilly---Lockhart's son Robin later wrote ACE OF SPIES), were implicated in the assassination attempt. Their operation came unraveled. Was our man in fact involved? Unlikely. He seems to have been taken completely by surprise. On the other hand, what about Reilly? I wouldn't put it past him. He was a slippery character, with a shadowy past, and an uncertain future, but that's a story for another day. He slips through the net. Lockhart is arrested and jailed by the Cheka. He's taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison, dreaded for good reason.

Dark corridors, unyielding guards, the stone cells clammy with tears. At the end of a long hallway, a man waiting in an interrogation room, lit only by a lamp on the writing table, a revolver by his hand. "You can go," he tells the guards. A long silence follows. He looks at Lockhart, his face still. "Where is Reilly?" is his first question. An eternity goes by, Lockhart playing dumb, but in point of fact, he doesn't know. There is, he tells us, no attempt to bully him. The threat is implicit. He asks, finally, if he can use the bathroom.

Two gunmen take him there. I suddenly felt in my breast pocket a notebook, he writes. It was compromising material. There was no toilet paper in the stall. As calmly as I could, I took out my notebook, tore out the offending pages and used them in the manner in which the circumstances dictated. I pulled the plug. It worked, and I was saved.

Furious cables are exchanged, the Brits trying to spring their guy. In the end, Lockhart is released, and even at the last minute, the story of his escape is full of suspense. He's traded for the Russian diplomat Litvinov, but sentenced to death in absentia, later on, by the Soviet courts. He never goes back to Russia.

Lockhart lived into the fullness of his years, and died in 1970, at the age of eighty-two. During the Second World War, he coordinated the British propaganda effort against the Axis. He was knighted, too, Well deserved. A man who put duty first, if his dick on occasion led him astray.

Lockhart published MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH AGENT in 1932. It was a worldwide sensation. Why the British government didn't suppress it is an interesting question, but it was the story of an extraordinary success. The final section of his book is titled 'History from the Inside,' and indeed it is, the record of a man who was in the thick of it. He leaves a lot out, for sure, particularly the spook stuff. His son says he scoured through his father's remaining notes and diaries, after Lockhart's death, and turned it all over to the Foreign Office. Was it too revealing? We can read between the lines. Lockhart knew where the bodies were buried.

26 February 2013

Constrained Writing


[C]onstrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints. On the one hand, such constraints function as boundaries that explicitly limit the possible realizations of a text in some respects. On the other hand, those constraints are not primarily intended as strict limitations but rather as creative stimuli for the artistic process; they reduce the endless possibilities—the common, rather naive association of literature with boundless freedom and complete originality—and thus contribute to a stronger focus on the mechanisms on which genuine literature should be based: formal control and a maximal artistic concentration within an appropriate frame of constraints.
Constrained Writing, Creative Writing,
© De Geest and Goric,
PoetryToday 31:1 (Spring 2010)

    Although we may not consciously be aware of it, everyone who writes as a vocation or an avocation does so subject to constraints.  Most fundamental are the constraints imposed by language, accepted style, and grammar.  We all learn certain rules and are taught to adhere to them.  We are expected to know when to use “which” and when to use “that.”   If we vary the rules in a given instance, it is supposed to be only with foreknowledge of the rule and with a good reason for varying it, such as to avoid contextual awkwardness.  (Remember Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “ending a sentence in a preposition is something up with which I shall not put?”)

    The types of constrained writing referenced in the above quote, however, go further.  Beyond the universal constraints, which apply to us all, authors also may find themselves subject to genre, or thematic constraints.  As the article referenced above notes, such is the case with romance novels, which tend to follow a fairly established formula.  So, too, the “fair play” mystery, which is expected to rigorously adhere to the rule that all clues must be fairly presented to the reader in advance of the solution. And, as discussed in previous columns, anyone writing pastiches – stories in which another author’s character is used – practices even a higher degree of constrained writing, attempting to capture the characters, the style, and the approach of the original author.

    So, like all limiting principles, constrained writing is a spectrum.  At its outer limits are writing forms that go beyond the generally applicable constraints involved in fashioning a work that is consistent with the norms of the reading public and instead impose more artificial constraints devised by the author.  An excellent example of this is the book Green Eggs and Ham, written by Dr. Seuss.  The book was written on a dare from publisher Bennett Cerf that Seuss could not write a bestseller using only 50 words.  Obviously the good doctor prevailed and, one would hope, collected. 

     Other literary constraints are used often by mystery writers (myself included), as devices to hide clues.  These include anagrams, in which the letters of a word are phrase can be re-arranged into a different word or phrase, and the acrostic, a favorite of Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of successive lines of text, usually a poem, can be read vertically to reveal a hidden message.  Another device is to restrict a portion of the text to only certain letters – an Ellery Queen mystery (nameless here; no spoilers!) does this in a message that is drafted in its entirety without utilizing one rather popular letter. As a general rule, particularly when the device is used to hide a clue, the goal is to apply the constraint in a manner in which it is undetected, at least initially, by the reader.  The constrained prose or poem should read as though it was freely drafted, in other words, as though it was written without the constraint. 

    The self-imposed constraints discussed above are fun for the mystery writer.  They allow the writer to stretch his or her wings, and can provide means to hide the obvious; they challenge the writer’s skill to pull off the ruse.  But as I said, constrained writing is a spectrum.  Let’s take a deep breath and then explore what lies several turns down the trail.

    Several months ago a friend gave me a book, Never Again by author and poet Doug Nufer, that takes constrained writing to an extreme.  Mr Nufer’s task?  He has written a novel that, in just over 200 pages, never uses the same word twice.  To fully comprehend what a Sisyphusian writing task this must have been, contemplate the first sentence in the book:
                When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.  
There goes “when,” “the,” “I,” “had,” “to,” “get,” and “a” all before breaking free of  the second line of the novel.

    The story that unfolds recounts the exploits of a gambler who, like the constrained author, has vowed to never do, or say, anything that he has said or done before.  The book is clearly a tour de force. But, unlike the more manageable constraints discussed above, this is hardly one that the author can pull off without the ruse becoming self-evident.  And suffice it to say that this also is a book that requires focused attention by the reader and should not be undertaken by a mind already mellowed by a few drinks! 

    The Nufer book reminded me of another example of extreme constrained writing that I encountered years ago, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright.  This 1939 novel of over 50,000 words tells the story of a down-on-its luck town that is reinvigorated thanks to the help of the novel’s hero, John Gadsby.  The story, now in the public domain,  is a lipogram:  it is told without using any word containing a banned letter, here, the most prevalent letter in the English language – “e”. Wright’s mechanical technique in writing the novel is explained in the introduction as follows:
The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!   
    The burden of the technique, while broodingly present in the construction of any single sentence, presented overarching narrative problems as well.  Again, the words of the author from his introduction:
In writing such a story, -- purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with “—ed.” Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as “said;” for neither “replied,” “answered” nor “asked” can  be used. Another difficulty comes with the elimination of the common couplet “of course,” and its very common connective, “consequently;” which will’ unavoidably cause “bumpy spots.” The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty? And this restriction on numbers, of course taboos all mention of dates.
Many abbreviations also must be avoided; the most common of all, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” being particularly troublesome; for those words, if read aloud, plainly indicate the E in their orthography.
As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that “it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction—” so ‘twas said.
    If the labors of Mr. Wright were not enough to shame those of us who at times profess writers’ block as an excuse to avoid lesser tasks, it should be borne in mind that there is also a French equivalent to Gadsby – La Disparation by Georges Perec, which also was written without using the letter “e,” and which was subsequently translated into English in 1995 as A Void.  The translator, Gilbert Adair, accomplished the translation also without using that banished letter.  Marvel at the feat of the author, but stand in awe of the constraints borne by the translator!

    As Wright noted, with severe literary constraints writing style invariably suffers.  That is not to say, however, that pathos cannot be found in all of this.  Think of the sad plight of that which has been left behind in constrained writing – the letters, or words, or phrases that are shunned, exiled from the story through no intrinsic fault of their own.  Think of the poor little “e’s.”  Mr. Wright, in his constrained zeal, did not ignore their sad plight.
People, as a rule, will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like sea-birds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid off onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm . . . .

25 February 2013

Ripped From The Headlines


Jan Grape People always ask writers: "Where do you get ideas?" Gosh, I dunno, maybe the news of the day, just ripped from the headlines. Two items that caught my attention this week:

Body in hotel tank: Cause may take weeks


An autopsy on a woman whose body was found in a hotel water tank in Los Angeles is complete, but the cause of death is deferred pending further examination, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office said Thursday.
That may take six to eight weeks, according to Ed Winter, the assistant chief of the coroner's office.
The decomposing body of Elisa Lam, 21, of Canada, was found floating inside a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel on Tuesday. The body was in the tank for as long as 19 days while guests brushed their teeth, bathed and drank with water from it, officials say.

One lady is reported to have thought the water tasted "funny" but finally chalked it up to the LA area having strange tasting water. (Taken from a CNN News Report)



Don't think about this too much, but maybe for the next few weeks or months people will carry bottled water with them. That won't help with bathing; at least what you drink will likely be pure.

My first thought when reading this was I wonder how many thriller/mystery books will come out next year with this idea as the premise? Someone on Facebook stated that one of the CSI-type shows had this as a story line a few years ago.

Maybe this next item should be in the "Stupid Crooks" column except this guy wasn't a crook. At least nothing was said about his rap sheet.

Woman 'shot' by exploding bullets in oven


A Florida woman is lucky to be alive after being 'shot' when a loaded handgun magazine exploded in an oven.
Aalaya Walker, 18, was visiting a friend when she turned on the oven to heat up some waffles, not realising he had hidden the magazine there earlier, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
When she went to investigate the resulting explosion, she was struck in the chest and leg by bullet fragments.

Ms Walker was able to remove the shrapnel before taking herself to hospital to be assessed. Her friend, Javarski Sandy, told police he had placed the magazine from his licenced Glock weapon in the oven with four rounds still in it.

"He stated that he does not have a temperature gauge on the oven so he estimates the temperature based on how far the knob is turned," the police report read. "I observed that the inside of the oven was damaged."

If being an idiot were an arrestable offense, Mr. Sandy would be in handcuffs by now but no charges have yet been laid. (Taken from a CNN News Report & Tampa Bay Times)



As most writers know truth is often stranger than fiction. I know writers who have written true stories in their manuscripts and an editor rejected them by saying "No one would believe that."

I've often said and think maybe have even mentioned in a column before that ideas are everywhere. I even have a strange feeling they're in the air and when you need one, you just reach for one. There have been times I've had an idea come to me and a short time later I would read or hear something about that same idea. Or would come across a book written by someone else using that same idea.

But I've also heard stories of authors already working on a book when the major premise of their book actually happened in the real world. Both times the author had to stop and give up on the idea because it was too close to the real events. The first was a writer friend who told of how he was writing a book about a famous athlete (not a football player) killing his wife and he was about three-fourths of the way to the ending of his book, when O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his wife. In my friend's book the athlete is caught burying the wife. The author gave up his book because by the time it came out everyone would think he had just "ripped" his story from the headlines.

The second, was current best-selling author Michael Connelly and he reports in his newsletter that he had a book almost complete that he had to give up because it dealt with school children being killed in an elementary school. But it's got to hurt an author to spend so much time developing the story and characters and then have to dump it. Michael had to do that, Newtown CT was too emotional.

I do know that many television shows of today are based on true stories or events of the day. One television show has used that idea to their successful advantage for many years.

So the next time someone asks you where you get your ideas, you know what to say: "Ripped From The Headlines."

24 February 2013

I Was Just Wondering


by Louis Willis

I’ve been wondering about character creation. Not so much how you fictionists, or is it fictioneers (I’m not sure of the difference but that is a subject for another post), create characters, but I was just wondering how you manage to stay sane while doing so. Specifically, how you give each character a personality that distinguishes him or her from other characters, even minor ones.
Actors take what the playwright or screen writer has written and make the character their own, becoming the character. You fictionists, on the other hand, have to create several characters in one story, sometimes in paragraph or even one sentence. I was just wondering if you become each character in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable. 

I began thinking about how fictionists create characters while reading A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly in which she, a white writer, created the black male amateur detective Benjamin January. I decided to write a post about creating characters after reading the short story “Pansy Place” by Dan Warthman (AHMM January-February 2012) that Rob mentions in his January 16 post. The protagonist, Jones, is white and Akin, the young man who goes along with him to confront the bad guys, is black. He reminds Jones of himself when he was young--a tough, no nonsense kind of guy. In addition, Warthman created a believable damsel in distress, L’Vonte, Jones’s cleaning lady, and Konnie Kondrasin who was Jones’s agent when he was taking on dangerous jobs. In all, including the three bad guys and L’Vonte’s boyfriend, there are eight characters he has to give different personalities with different emotions, though he gives the bad guys a collective personality.

In these two examples, the characters are of different races. Even when you create characters of the same race but different gender, you may have to be a woman and a man in the same story, and that has to do something to your mind. In the delightful story “Acting on A Tip” (EQMM July 2012), which Rob also mentions, the female author, Barbara Arno Modrack, creates Marty, a very believable male protagonist. He is an ex-alcoholic, ex-journalist who has moved with his long suffering wife Jenny and their youngest son to a small town where he helps catch a serial killer. Modrack has to first think like a man (assuming men and women think differently), switch bodies and be his wife, switch again, and be the teenage son, and finally switch and be the killer. She doesn’t give us the interior thinking of each character. We see the action from Marty’s perspective, but certainly, Modrack had to give each character a little personality to make them, even the minor characters, convincing.

In creating characters, you base some on relatives, some on friends, and even some on strangers, but mostly they come from your imagination. No matter, you still must give them different personalities with the accompanying emotions, and creating those various emotions, my friends, must take a toll on your minds, doesn’t it?

I was just wondering how you do it and still maintain your sanity.
To all of you a big

23 February 2013

An Anniversary



by Elizabeth Zelvin

If my parents were alive, today would be their seventy-eighth wedding anniversary. My father would be almost 114 years old. My mother would be 110. Both had long lives, but not quite that long, my dad dying at 91 and my mother at 96. And today, I want to celebrate them.

Not everybody has good parents. As a kid, I took mine for granted. As an adult, both working as a psychotherapist and in the addictions field and as a mystery writer, paying attention to crime as part of the job description, I learned that dysfunctional families are the norm and some parents the stuff of nightmares: addicts, batterers, child molesters.
Then there are the families in which the parents cannot cope—whether the cause is alcoholism, mental illness, or the emotional immaturity that can result from not having had competent adult role models when they were kids themselves. In those cases, children have to take on adult roles at far too young an age. One of my first psychotherapy clients remembered being charged with responsibility for her baby brother when she was so young she remembers that her legs were too short to dangle but stuck straight out in the chair; at eleven, she was making a living as a model on which the family finances depended.

When I started telling some of these stories to my mother, she was invariably shocked and disbelieving. “No mother would do that!” she would say. I’m not saying that my parents or my family as a whole was perfect. But my parents parented: they loved their children, treated us like kids when we were kids, nurtured, provided, and protected us, and in many ways were inspiring role models.

My parents were both first generation immigrants: my mother from Hungary at age four, my dad from Ekaterinaslav (Dnieprpetrovsk during the Soviet era) in the Ukraine at age six. Both were encouraged to assimilate, to become Americans, as quickly as possible. Both spoke English without an accent, and both got started on the American dream by entering law school in 1921. That's where they met. By the time they graduated, three years later, my father had already proposed—and been rejected. The family story went that Dad, who was honest, hardworking, and unambitious his whole life, made the mistake of telling Mom, “Judy, I’ll never be rich.” What young girl would go for that so early in life?

But they remained friends. They even learned to drive together, so far back in the mists of time that an eight-dollar bribe to the examiner got them through the road test. (Mom, who was normally a speed demon, drove too slow; Dad, usually overcautious, drove too fast.) And in 1935, they married. Their first post-honeymoon home was in Greenwich Village, and we always regretted that they considered it not the right place to bring up children. In later years—in her eighties or nineties—my mother admitted that in retrospect, she was sorry she took so long to say yes.

My dad’s whole legal career took place at a salaried, low-pressure job. My mother, more ambitious, had to deal with the gender barrier of the time. She ended up writing and editing legal books, got a doctorate in political science at sixty-nine, and taught Constitutional law as an adjunct professor in her seventies. They loved to travel. In their eighties, they were still jumping around on glaciers on a trip to Alaska. My father did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink every Sunday. My mother was an indefatigable swimmer who could never resist a chance to go in any body of water in her vicinity—in her underwear on the rare occasion when she hadn’t brought a bathing suit. She swam in the ocean till ninety and in the bay till ninety-five.

There are many stories I could tell, but for now, let me say:
Happy anniversary, Mom & Dad!

22 February 2013

Snow Day


 by Dixon Hill

A snow day where you live might be a day when kids don’t have to go to school because a heavy snowfall made the roads too treacherous for safe driving.

We don’t get those kinds of snow days here.

In The Valley of the Sun, where I live, a snow day is one of those rare days when white stuff actually falls out of the sky overhead -- something that’s happened only about seven times since 1917. Yesterday would make it eight times.

Some local TV weathercasters, however, tell us that most of what fell on The Valley, yesterday. wasn’t really snow; it was “Graupel” (sounds like: graw - pull)

These TV weather actors (They’re certainly NOT meteorologists!) are from what folks around here call ‘Back East’. So, they don’t understand a basic tenet of desert life: Here in The Valley, graupel counts as snow!

The word “Graupel” does not appear in my rather antiquated unabridged dictionary, I’m afraid, which makes me want to claim that it isn’t a real word. But, unfortunately, it is. And, no, graupel is not the past perfect tense of the word grapple -- which is a shame. Instead, graupel is a word of German origin, meaning “soft hail” or “snow pellets,” according to my online research.

Erbe, Poole: USDA, ARS, EMU
Further research indicates that graupel is created when falling snowflakes come into contact with super-cooled water droplets on the way down. These droplets freeze around the snowflake, forming a sort of icy crust, or sometimes a ball of rime. On the left, you can see a magnified photo of graupel -- courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture, via Wikipedia Commons -- in which said water droplets froze on the ends of a column-shaped snowflake crystal.



Which illustrates why I claim the TV weather actors are wrong.

See, if it can be called “snow pellets,” then we call that “snow” here in a place where it almost never snows. I mean, this is a desert valley where a paper-thin coating of white, which melts within hours, makes front page headlines with multiple color photos.

Add to this: the fact that, by it’s very definition of formation, graupel contains a snowflake at the approximate center of each “snow pellet.” Then, cross index the snow in the center of that pellet, with the fact that we seldom get snow in the center of anything around here, and I think you’ll see why I think Phoenicians have earned the right to call graupel “snow.”

Maybe graupel isn’t snow in New York, Maine or Vermont (not to mention places such as Alaska), where the real white stuff can pile up in deep drifts and banks. But, these are places where they get enough precipitation that folks find it handy to categorize the types.

In Scottsdale, however, we don’t get enough precipitation to categorize. In fact, when we get any at all, my kids run out to experience the rare phenomenon of water (frozen or thawed, it doesn’t matter) falling from the sky. This is an arid land, where what usually comes down from the sky are rays of burning sunlight that spear down to cook your skin lobstershell red (not that we have any lobsters around here, outside of a seafood restaurant).

So, Graupel be damned! If there’s a snowflake in there somewhere, we call it SNOW around here.

And, while we don’t get Snow Days, when I was a kid we used to get something else.

Rain Days

To explain what this means, I’ll have to give you a quick rundown on some of the local geography, so you can understand why Rain Days occurred.

The city of Scottsdale sits just north of Tempe, the town that houses Arizona State University. A long, wide (up to a half-mile in width!) dry wash bed runs from the north to the south, right through the middle of Scottsdale, and empties into the Salt River, which used to separate Scottsdale from Tempe.

The Salt River was dammed up, east of The Valley, early in the 20th Century, to create the reservoir system of the Salt River Project (SRP), a water/power project similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which resulted in the Salt River running dry before it ever hit town.

Up until the 1980’s, the Salt River was normally crossed between Scottsdale and Tempe by driving along one of the many roads that ran across the dry river bottom. Only one bridge existed, back then, across the Salt River bed. This bridge, located on Tempe’s Mill Avenue, was known as the (you guessed it) Mill Avenue Bridge.

But, remember: This is the desert, a place of flash floods, where dry washes suddenly run with water five, ten, twenty feet deep -- or even deeper. And, if those reservoirs east of town got too full, SRP had to open the flood gates and let water run down through the old Salt River, in order to reduce the stress on the dams. 

Being a desert, of course, this didn’t normally cause problems, because it doesn’t usually rain very often most years. Some years, however, we get torrential downpours. And, these wet years tend to come along every three to seven years.

I grew up, and attended school, in Scottsdale. But, most of our teachers lived in the lower-rent college town of Tempe. So, when it rained for a couple of days straight, or when the snows melted up north, that big wash ran deep with water through the middle of Scottsdale, and SRP tended to open the flood gates on the Salt River, reducing traffic between the two cities to the single umbilical of the Mill Avenue Bridge, resulting in miles long traffic snarls. Consequently, most of the teachers called in to report that they couldn’t get to school on time. At which point, the Scottsdale Unified School District would call a “Rain Day,” canceling all classes.

And, my friends and I would rejoice!

Teen Fun

In high school, a friend and I used to take his truck out to one of the local washes and tow in stranded motorists. Our pay scale for the work was simple:

 (A) If the person graciously thanked us verbally, there was no bill. My buddy, who was also a mechanic, would even help motorists get their cars running if an engine had stalled.

 (B) Those who thanked us, but complained that there needed to be better signage warning people about the hazard, had to pay the bill of listening to a quick, gentle and kindly education of the many natural signs present in the area, which the driver had overlooked, in hopes s/he would see them next time and avoid a repeat occurrence.

In the belief that someone ignorant of the dangers inherent in desert washes was also ignorant of the dangers of dehydration following a breakdown in the desert, we’d usually also make sure the driver knew to carry a couple of gallons of water in the trunk, along with a jack and some 2x4’s in case they ever got stuck in the middle of nowhere -- the thought here being that we’d save a snowbird, in two cases, with one explanation.

 (C) People who seemed to take our assistance for granted, and railed against a backward place where they let wealthy motorists drive expensive cars into such deep water, were told that our towing fee was twenty bucks.

On two occasions, the driver refused to pay, at which point we explained we would then be happy to push his car back to where we’d found it, and he could hike to the nearest gas station to call a tow truck, after which he could pay a towing bill that would probably cost significantly more than twenty bucks. (In both cases, we got the twenty bucks, so I never really discovered if my buddy and I could have brought ourselves to push somebody’s car back into the water.)

Today

Sadly, for my kids, Rain Days came to an inglorious end in the late 80’s, after a rash of bridge-building broke out, and several substantial bridges spanned the Salt River bed. This, combined with the Scottsdale Greenbelt project, which turned that long, wide wash into an interlinked series of parks and golf courses with bridges across it on all major roads, made it possible for teachers to get to school -- even on the rainiest day.

My ten-year-old son finds this all very unfair. And, to add insult to injury, yesterday, when it snowed just a few blocks away, he was spending his third day home from school, sick. So, this kid who’s never seen snow, didn’t get the chance to go play in the white stuff.

The boy who has never seen snow.
To tell you the truth, I would have let him go anyway. After all, this is the desert! But, he was just about well, and I needed to be sure he’d be well enough to go to school today, because I knew I had to take my dad (who is undergoing radiation treatment, and can’t really be around sick kids right now) to two different doctor appointments.

I made the decision, to keep my son from getting his first look at snow (even if it was just graupel), so my dad could keep his appointment with the doctor who was scheduled to remove two areas of skin cancer from his back.

So, maybe you can understand why I miss the simple joys of the old Rain Day.

On a more positive note: I told my son I thought there are still enough unmarked washes around that he and his friends can go tow people out during floods, when they’re in high school.

See you in two weeks,
--Dix