This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Magical Summer of '62

            In 1962 my father sold his precision-plastics business. He had worked extremely hard to make a success of it and nearly ruined his health doing so; the doctor ordered him to take some time off and relax. So that summer our family took the vacation of a lifetime.
            We left Southern California shortly after school was finished in mid-June and headed north, destination: World’s Fair in Seattle. My first memory of the trip is crossing the Golden Gate Bridge; I was in the very back of the station wagon, looking backward at San Francisco as we crossed.
            It took several days to get to Seattle, where we did all the World’s Fair stuff — went to the top of the Space Needle, rode the monorail, etc. I remember thinking the monorail at Disneyland was cooler.

Summer Nights That  Lasted Forever

            An old friend of my mother’s lived in Seattle, and her family owned a cabin in the San Juan Islands. It had no electricity, an outdoor privy, and a propane stove. It was wonderful. So was the weather. That far north, at that time of year, the warm summer nights seemed to go on forever. It was light past ten o’clock, and sunrise was early, which was a good thing. Who could sleep?
            Then we headed north for a leisurely drive through British Columbia before dipping down through Montana and Idaho to Jackson Hole, WY. We spent a couple of days at a cabin on a cattle ranch there, then another couple of days on a ranch owned by the daughter of another of mom’s friends. (How did she meet all these people?)
            At the second ranch the son-in-law took a day off work and took his son and me fishing. We got into a Jeep and went miles up a dirt road, swerving off it whenever a logging truck came the other direction, finally ending up at a stream where we were the only people for miles around. All my previous fishing had been at more crowded places, and this was a revelation. I don’t believe we caught any fish, but the sense of being alone in the wilderness (except for the stray passing logging truck) was unforgettable.
            After that, it was an anticlimactic journey back to Southern California, with a desultory one-night stop in Las Vegas the last night before we got home. I remember standing outside a casino on the sidewalk, in sweltering heat, while mom played out her slot-machine budget. It didn’t take long.

Before the Chain Restaurants Took Over

            The trip lasted a month overall, and beyond the specific places we visited, I still have some powerful general impressions. The food, for example. This was just before chain restaurants really took hold, so when you got to a town at mealtime, you had to figure it out for yourself. Dad had several strategies, applied with varying degrees of success.
            At lunchtime in Kelso, WA, we stopped at a cafĂ© Nelson Algren would have advised against. I can still see, smell and taste the sour yellow grease that dripped off the inedible hamburger on to the bun. At that age, nothing was inedible, so it must have been really bad. Fortunately most restaurants we tried were better.
            Other things I remember: Long, warm nights everywhere; Dad fiddling with the car radio dial, trying to find a local station in time for the hourly news; the most powerful thunderstorm I’d ever seen, while we were in Canada; being constantly forced to pose for photos when I didn’t want to. I don’t know where that photo album is now, but it doesn’t really matter. I carry my own set of pictures inside my head.

Friday, July 27, 2012

My Initiation into Mysteries

            The first adult mystery novel I read was Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia. I was 12 years old at the time, and, my moral scruples not being as fully developed as they are now, I cheated and looked at the last page to see who the killer was. I still got it wrong.
            As I recall, the book was one of several on a shelf in a cabin our family was occupying in Jackson Hole, WY. The cabin was located at a beautiful cattle ranch that was one of the inspirations for the ranch in my current mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. There was no TV, the summer nights were long, and I was one of those kids who never had to be prodded to read a book.
            Murder in Mesopotamia was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, and I went on to read most of them by the time I finished junior high school. It was the beginning of a lifelong mystery habit.

Coming to Appreciate Miss Marple

            During that period I checked out a couple of the Miss Marple mysteries and a couple of the non-Poirot stand-alone books. I didn’t much care for them, which is on me far more than on Dame Agatha. Something about Poirot and his “little grey cells” appealed to my keen adolescent mind.
            After ripping through the Christie oeuvre in my youth, I pretty much left her alone for several decades. There were plenty of other mysteries to read, and I read as many as I could. My preference is for British writers, though I am no absolutist on that score, and one preference I inherited from Christie is an appreciation for a story that wraps up all the loose ends. Few things in a mystery novel annoy me as much as a puzzle that’s dangled before the reader, then never explained at the end — especially when it’s clearly a case of carelessness rather than calculated ambiguity.
            In recent years I’ve started dipping into Agatha Christie’s books again. With the passage of a few decades, my perspective has changed. Poirot I now find pedantic and tiresome, while the virtues of Miss Marple have risen steadily in my estimation.

Echoes of Austen and Hardy

            What appeals now in the Marple books is the emphasis on human frailty and folly. Miss Marple repeatedly points out that having spent her life in a small English village, she has witnessed every form of human folly and depravity there is. The people who pine for a Mayberry society should take note. And when Christie develops a theme fully and richly, as in The Mirror Crack’d, the sense of damage done by personal obliviousness calls to mind Jane Austen, and the way in which a casual, unthinking act can unleash a chain of awful circumstances recalls Thomas Hardy.
            (We’ve even rented some of the Miss Marple films, starring Margaret Rutherford, from the early 1960s on Netflix. They’re not at all what Agatha Christie intended, but are very well-done and entertaining in their own right.)
            Something I haven’t done, and don’t intend to do, is re-read Murder in Mesopotamia. I want that book to remain forever fixed in my mind the way I first read it and experienced it, as a 12-year-old in a cabin on a ranch in Wyoming, with the summer sun setting at last. There are some things you just shouldn’t mess with.           


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When the Writer Has to Let Go

            Mark Twain had a problem with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and some scholars contend he set the book aside for several years because he couldn’t figure out how to end it. Hemingway even advised people to stop reading at a certain point.
            Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a book almost no one gets through high school without reading, and never wrote another. Joseph Mitchell, an award-winning reporter for The New Yorker came to work every day the last 30 years of his life, sat at his desk and never wrote anything, a victim of acute writer’s block.

When the Writer Sees Only the Bad

            Now I’m not Twain, Lee or Mitchell, and neither is anyone reading this, but almost anyone who writes can identify with worrying over what’s wrong in a piece of writing to the point where you begin to doubt the whole enterprise.
            My first mystery novel, The McHenryInheritance, came out as a Kindle e-book today. For four decades, I’ve been a respected writer of reporting and comment, but this is my first published work of fiction. That it’s mystery, a genre where many people expect less of an author, didn’t make it any easier to do, and I have conflicted feelings about the final product.
            Sometimes I think it’s really good and should rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. Sometimes I think it’s a mess, and it will be a miracle if anyone buys it and doesn’t return it, dissatisfied. Most days I’m capable of holding both opinions within a ten-minute time span. Several times a day, in fact.
            Probably the truth is somewhere between the two extremes: The book is as good as half the books on the mystery shelf at the local bookstore. The problem is, I don’t know which half.

How the Newspaper Business Helped

            What has carried me through the rough spots and the pre-dawn wide-awake hours of doubt, more than anything else, has been my newspaper experience, particularly being the editor of a daily community paper.
            Facing a deadline every day develops a discipline tempered by perspective. A reporter, hunched over a computer, trying to polish and re-polish a story, has to deal with an editor screaming at him to turn the damn thing in. You learn that in journalism, as in politics, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If the facts are as accurate as you can get them, and the story makes sense, that may be the best you can do today. And there will be another newspaper coming out tomorrow.
            For three years, as editor of the paper, I had to write an editorial every day. Every one was capably written and passably argued, but some were better than others, and some I would like to have back. But something had to go in the space every day, and I learned to live with the idea that the good ones and bad ones alike would be lining bird cages or wrapping fish within three days.
            The only writers who never doubt the quality of their work are the unconsciously incompetent. The rest of us worry, and a few let the worry take over to the point where they never put their writing out. Better, I think, to do what Mark Twain did with Huck: Let it go at some point and allow the readers to decide. That’s scary, but holding on to a book, or any other piece of writing, in search of elusive perfection is at some level allowing your fear to triumph.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Killer You Thought You Knew

            There are certain stories you don’t forget, and one of those for me was a long article from the Los Angeles Times in the early 1970s. Having no names or specifics to Google, I’ll have to tell it from memory, where I’ve retained the gist of it.
            A woman was driving alone through the Southern California desert, on one of the major roads, when she was pulled over by a law-enforcement officer. He ordered her into his patrol car and drove her up a dirt road to a remote deserted area where he shot her to death with his service pistol.
            She was reported missing, and her car was by a major roadway, so a search ensued. Eventually the body was found, somewhat the worse for the wear after days in the wild, but more importantly, the fatal bullet was recovered and could be linked to a gun of the type the officer carried.

The Murder Weapon Disappeared

            At some point in the investigation, the officer became a person of interest, and once detectives began to follow that path, a picture of a rogue, killer cop began to emerge. They were able to establish that he had been on duty and in the vicinity the night the woman was last seen; that he had been out of touch with communications for a couple of hours at the right time; and that he had the right gun for the crime.
            The problem was that he didn’t have the gun any more. A day or two after the woman went missing, he reported his gun lost or stolen, and all the legwork the detectives could do wasn’t enough to find it. The prosecutor decided to try the case, murder weapon or no, and charged the officer with murder in the first degree.

‘He Couldn’t Possibly Have Done It’

            In the community where the trial took place, it was big news. Prosecutors mounted a strong circumstantial case, but were hampered by the lack of a murder weapon. The defense hammered the gaps in the evidence and called a parade of character witnesses on behalf of the defendant.
            Among the witnesses were the officer’s pastor, members of his church, longtime friends, and colleagues. All of them said basically the same thing: They had known him for years; he was a good and decent man; and he couldn’t possibly have committed such a horrifying, shocking, random crime.
            It was enough to create at least some degree of reasonable doubt with the jury, which acquitted. The officer left court surrounded by cheering family and friends.

The Witness Was Too Late

            The acquittal was big news far beyond the officer’s community, and among the people who saw a story, and an image of the freed officer, was a pawnbroker who lived at some distance from where the crime had occurred. He recognized the man who had brought in a gun some time ago, and checked the pawn ticket for the weapon, which was still in the shop. He called the police. Sure enough, it was the murder weapon.
            Double jeopardy prevented the officer for being retried for murder, but federal prosecutors came in and charged him with violating the woman’s civil rights. There was no acquittal this time, and he got the maximum sentence — not enough, but the best that could be done under the circumstances.
            What the story didn’t say, and what I’ve always wondered, was how the people who testified on the officer’s behalf at the trial felt when the truth came out. We all like to believe that we’re good judges of character and really know our friends, but do we? The terrifying answer is no.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Personal Experience and Prejudice

            At our Rotary meeting last week one of the club’s past presidents got up and volunteered to pay a “happy fine” to provide money for the club’s community service efforts. What he said (and I’m going from memory here) was:
            “My daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, started going out with a Coast Guard officer, and one thing led to another and they fell in love, and now they’re engaged. And I am so grateful that they are living in the state of New York, which recognizes gay marriage, and can get married.”

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

            The interesting thing about his announcement was the reaction to it, which was, well, nothing. He got a round of applause, paid his fine, and the meeting continued with no further notice of a declaration that I can’t imagine having been made before the club when I joined 23 years ago.
            Our club’s lone clergyman, a Presbyterian minister, wasn’t on hand to react, but I could make a pretty good guess as to what his reaction would have been. When we were chatting after a meeting a year ago, the Reverend told me how the scales had been lifted from his eyes on the question of homosexuality.
            He had been practicing his trade in another town, he said, and was invited to dinner by two male members of his congregation who were a gay couple. Spending an evening in their company, he realized they were as committed and happy as the heterosexual couples he ministered to — perhaps more so. The Reverend would probably have been one of the first to congratulate our past president after the meeting.

A Rotary Club’s AIDS Project

            More than two decades ago, the Los Altos Rotary Club, located in our district, which takes in most of Silicon Valley, launched an ambitious AIDS project. It was one of the first ever attempted in Rotary, and the story behind it was, again, a personal one.
            One of the longstanding and much-beloved members of the club, Dude Angius, had learned that his son, who lived in New York, had AIDS. Feeling powerless over such devastating news, he made an announcement at a meeting, and the club decided to get an AIDS project up and running. There was some opposition at first, but then it turned out that two members of the club — including the man who played Santa at Christmas parties — were HIV positive.
            That turned the tide, and the club developed an ambitious AIDS project that eventually became the subject of a highly praised documentary film, “The LosAltos Story,” and a model for similar projects undertaken by other clubs and organizations.

When the Political Becomes Personal

            What these stories have in common is a story line in which personal knowledge of someone in a situation changes previously held positions. I truly believe that prejudice and dogmatism can begin to dissolve when people become aware of the effect their beliefs might have on someone they know and love. Most, though not all, people are willing to let personal sentiment and loyalty override an ingrained belief, and that’s a good and very human response.
            I’m very happy for our past president and for his daughter. How wonderful that she now has the freedom to follow her heart, a freedom most of us take for granted. And how wonderful that her family and friends can share in her joy as she does so. It may run contrary to some concepts of religion, but to me, it’s a spiritual thing.


Friday, July 13, 2012

They Learned by Doing

            Ernest Borgnine died earlier this week at the age of 95 after a six-decade career that included an Oscar for his starring role in Marty, a hit TV series, McHale’s Navy, and more TV and movie credits than you could shake a stick at.
            In reading the long Associated Press obituary, the line that jumped out at me was that his sole formal training, for a profession in which he was manifestly successful, consisted of four months’ study at the Hartford Academy in Connecticut in the late 1940s. The Times obituary elaborated on his technique with the following quote from a 1973 interview:
            “No Stanislavsky. I don’t chart out the life histories of the people I play. If I did, I’d be in trouble. I work with my heart and my head, and naturally emotions follow.”

How The Duke and Cary Grant Did It

            Once upon a time in Hollywood, just about all the actors learned the business like that. John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper had little or no formal training to speak of. What they had was a stage presence, or perhaps more accurately, a camera presence — great faces, an ability to relax in front of the cameras, and a sense of delivery.
            After that first wave, the business became more and more the province of actors who had formally studied their craft in classes and with teachers. Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman come to mind as examples, and now just about all the big names have been through some sort of extensive formal training. We’ve gone from stars who were actors to actors who might become stars. It’s hard to make comparisons because the styles are so different, though the good ones of each style are all good.
            Pauline Kael remarked on the difference in her famous article on the making of the movie The Group, shot in the mid-1960s when the shift had taken place. She noted that the actresses were all trying to build their characters by extrapolating from the script. The great actresses of the 1930s — Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Miriam Hopkins — would have been more likely to try to project something of themselves into the roles instead, she said.

It Isn’t Just Hollywood

            Relying on formal education, rather than learning by doing, has become pervasive. There is no documentary evidence that Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway ever got a degree in creative writing or attended a fiction writers’ conference. Quite a few of the current crop of novelists do those things. I’m skeptical. It no doubt works for some people, but talent (like judgment) can’t be taught and will usually develop itself given the opportunity.
            In the business world it used to be unsurprising to see someone who started with a company in a stockroom, fresh out of high school, and worked his way up to be president. (It was always a he back then). If you don’t have at least an MBA these days, your only hope of running the company is to start it — the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did.
            My old business, journalism, has undergone the same transformation. When I left it 20 years ago, it was unusual to see a job applicant without a journalism degree; two decades earlier I got hired quickly without one. When I took my first journalism class in ninth grade, I asked the teacher, Mr. McDonald, how to write a news story.
            “Read the front page of the Los Angeles Times every day and do what they do,” he replied.
            That was how I learned, and others could do the same. In today’s world, though, they’re not likely to get the chance.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

140 Characters? A Piece of Cake

            Two weeks ago I signed up for a Twitter account, and if you follow the news you’ve probably noticed that the world has become a worse place since then. Sorry about that, but it was a business necessity. With a new book, The McHenry Inheritance, coming out soon, the experts said I had to join the 21st Century and use social media to promote it.
            Part of me (actually, just about all of me) rebels against that. I’ve been on Facebook and LinkedIn for over a year but was a Twitter holdout. I don’t like the superficiality of the format, and signing on to follow hundreds or thousands of people is like begging to have junk mail sent to you. On the other hand, the first time I tweeted about one of these blog posts, the number of hits went up twenty five-fold. No sense in arguing with success.

Twitter Is Easy; Headlines Are Hard

            One of the things that surprises me when I talk about this is the number of people who comment on how hard it is to keep a message to Twitter’s limit of 140 characters. It’s true that with the exception of Benjamin Franklin (who, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, penned the first tweets), none of the Founding Fathers could have done it or wanted to.
            But I worked at a newspaper for two decades and wrote thousands of headlines. Headline-writing is, in my mind, the most technically difficult job in the newspaper business. Not many people did it well when I was in the game, and as budgets get slashed and fewer people are around to mentor the newbies, things have only gotten worse. The New York Times still does headline-writing with grace and skill, but few other papers do. Of course as more and more of the news is on the web, where space isn’t an issue, perhaps it doesn’t matter.
            It takes a certain twist of mind and verbal skill to summarize a complex news story in 36 characters. That’s even more true when you have to do it in three lines, each of which has to be no less than 10 and mo more than 12 characters long. That’s tough, and when you’ve done it enough times, sticking to 140 characters, with no line breaks, is a walk in the park.

The Headline Writer’s Challenge

            Sometimes it’s even tougher than what I just described. In October of 1975,  New York City was in a financial crisis and facing bankruptcy. The city was hoping for federal assistance to get through, but President Gerald M. Ford announced that he would veto any federal bailout that Congress might pass.
            It was a major story, and the Daily News decided to make the headline so huge it would take up half the front page. Here was the technical challenge: Summarize the story in a two-line headline, with a count of no more than ten for each line and no less than eight. For the purpose of counting, all letters stood as one character, except for I and T, which counted as half, and M and W which were one and a half. Punctuation marks counted as half, and the space between words could count as one character, half a character or a character and a half as needed.
            It was an impossible assignment, but after rejecting several more pedestrian alternatives, Managing Editor William J. Brink resolved the issue by going vernacular and outside the box. His headline will be a legend as long as newspapers are remembered:


Friday, July 6, 2012

Universal Health Care in the 14th Century

                  Reading Blossoms Into Gold, a history of the Croatians who emigrated to the Watsonville area 75 miles south of San Francisco, I came across the following: “The Republic (of Dubrovnik) showed its concern for the public good in a number of ways. From the earliest of times it provided free health care to all of its citizens — rich and poor alike.”
                  The book goes on to say that there was a salaried city doctor who was required to treat all who came to him without charge, and that this system of universal care was particularly important during the plague of the 14th Century, which killed a third of the Republic’s inhabitants.
                  Of course it could probably be argued that given the state of medical knowledge in the 14th Century (leeches, anyone?) the citizenry might have been better off without universal health care, but that’s a minor quibble. The key point is that more than seven centuries ago, it was regarded, at least in Dubrovnik, as a civil right. How strange that the idea has never gained such traction in America, and that we’re still fighting over it today.
Meanwhile, We Take You to Rwanda
                  This week the New York Times carried an online opinion piece by Tina Rosenberg about universal health care in Rwanda. It seems that once the country stabilized after the genocide of 1994, that was one of the first orders of business for the new regime.
Rwanda has now established a system of near-universal care that is widely used and has done wonders for its people. It is paid for by a modest tax on the population, and when the government determined, a few years ago, that even the modest tax was too much for many citizens, it raised the health money by quadrupling taxes on higher earners. Apparently the country has no equivalent of Fox News to raise the alarm of class warfare.
                  Citizens are required to make a co-payment of about 33 cents in American money when they go in for treatment. In a country where the average annual income is about $550, that’s about the equivalent of a $40 co-pay for an average American family. As the Republicans would say, it gives people some skin in the game and discourages frivolous use of health services.

It’s Hard to Argue With Results

                  Even with the co-pay, use of health care services is up dramatically in Rwanda, and so are the health benefits. Seventy percent of births now occur at a health care facility, which has dramatically cut the mortality rate for both infants and mothers. In just the past decade the average life expectancy in the country has increased by 10 years, from 48 to 58.
                  It works. But then we’ve known that all along from the examples of England, Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, Japan  — in fact, just about the entire industrialized world except for the United States. In America, health care is the best in the world for those who have good insurance; in the countries cited, it’s a hair less good, but still very good, for everybody. That’s why the United States ranks lower than many other advanced nations in overall health outcomes.
                  To be sure, advances in medical technology are putting a strain on health budgets, and the issue must be addressed. But unless we get four consecutive Republican presidents, hospitals aren’t going to be able to throw patients out if they can’t pay, and as long as everyone has to be treated, the first step toward fiscal sanity is ensuring that everyone is covered. They knew that in Dubrovnik 700 years ago; why are we so slow to get it?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The History Behind a Mystery

            In 1994, having wanted to try it for the past 20 years or so, I decided to write a mystery novel. Little did I know that it would take nearly 20 more years to be published.
The germ of an idea had come to me on a fishing trip a few years earlier, when I’d had an unsettling experience with some gun-toting campers in an isolated meadow in California’s High Sierra As often happens in creative matters, other elements were added over time. I can’t even say at this point when and where the idea of a challenged will came into the story. On the other hand, the inclusion of a citizens militia and rabid radio talk-show host were added in the early 1990s, when such things were much in the news.
A first draft of The McHenry Inheritance was written in spurts over a period of five months, from late July to Christmas Eve. My public relations consulting business was taking off then. Sometimes the book had to be put aside for a couple of weeks while I focused exclusively on my clients’ work, and sometimes I pushed forward feverishly on the manuscript between assignments, or during lulls.
The McHenry Inheritance, Cover by Deborah Karas
 After doing a rewrite, I began hawking the book in the spring of 1995. I first approached an agent I had spoken to about a business book a couple of years earlier; he said he didn’t do fiction but gave me a referral to an agent who did. She sat on it for a couple of months without responding, something I came to learn is fairly typical in the business.
            When she finally passed on the book, I began sending queries to other agents I came across in a directory. Late in 1995 or early in 1996, I got a nibble. An agent in New York asked to see the manuscript, read it, said she liked it (and that she was surprised by the ending), but she wanted me to do a rewrite.
            At that point I was embarking on one of the most ambitious consulting jobs I’ve ever done, and the rewrite had to be put on hold for about nine months. I finally got to it, and felt, when done, that her suggestions had made the book considerably better. Back to her it went, and after a reasonable time she sent a polite rejection. She still liked it, she said, but she didn’t love it and didn’t feel that at this point she could represent a book she didn’t love.
            She encouraged me to try other agents and wished me well. I was optimistic. Her initial response convinced me I hadn’t produced a complete pig’s breakfast, and I was sure someone else would represent the book and get it published. Five years and more than a hundred agents later, there was nothing to show for my efforts but a drawer full of form rejections and some business deductions for postage.
            So I put the book aside and worked on other things, but I never stopped believing in it. Every time I upgraded my computer, I converted the text of the book to the new version of Word, just in case. And now, just in case has happened; Amazon has made it possible for The McHenry Inheritance to be published.
            In re-editing the book for publication, I saw once again its strengths and flaws, but on the whole felt pretty good about it. It will never be required reading in an English class, but if it helps someone get through a rainy Sunday or a flight to Chicago more pleasantly, that will be satisfaction enough for me. In a couple of weeks it will be in the hands of the readers.