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, February 26, 2013

The Great Drought of the 70s

            Stepping outside to start up the barbecue Sunday afternoon, enjoying the bright afternoon sun and temperature around 60, I had a flashback. If you’re from the Midwest or Northeast, you might want to stop reading right now.
            This has been an uncommonly dry winter. It rained a lot in December, and by the end of that month, we were about 30 percent ahead of normal rainfall, but ever since, the spigot has been shut off. Our total rainfall for January was .68 of an inch, and as of this morning the February rainfall has been only .45 of an inch. The average would be 5-6 inches each month, and it’s not unusual for us to get 20 inches for the two months combined in a wet winter.
            Which got me thinking about the drought of 1975-77, the worst that Central California has experienced since they started keeping records not long after the Gold Rush.

Nothing Like It Before

            The winter of 1974-75 was drier than normal, but not by an alarming amount, and it had been preceded by two wet winters. But the 1975-76 winter was unreal: Day after day of sunshine and no rain. Total rainfall for the July-June rainfall year was just under 9 inches. An average year was 21 inches, and this was the first time in 100 years of record-keeping that the area had failed to register at least 10 inches. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
            Then it happened again next year. The 1976-77 winter generated a little over 9 inches of rainfall. Scientists checking the rings of the giant sequoias said something like this had happened a few hundred years ago, but not within living memory.
            I was covering the weather for the newspaper at the time, and it was an almost daily story. Watsonville was able to get by fairly normally by overdrawing its underground aquifer (at a price to be paid later), but Santa Cruz, which relies on surface runoff for its supply was on strict rationing.
            Entrepreneurs stepped forth. My friend John Bakalian introduced the Bakalian Brick. Put it in your toilet tank, and it reduces the volume per flush, at a fraction of the cost of retrofitting. Great idea, but it created more publicity than wealth.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Weathermen

            One positive story from all this was that Linda and I were able to have an outdoor wedding on March 19, 1977, normally an iffy proposition at that time of year. But by that time, after two years of unprecedented drought, all was gloom and doom. State water stories by the wire services and metropolitan newspapers were quoting expert meteorologists as saying it would take three years of above-average rainfall to fill the state’s reservoirs once again. We rarely have three wet winters in a row.
            The weather stayed mostly clear and dry into the middle of December, and the sky-is-falling crowd was going crazy with warnings about the shortages we would be facing next summer.
            And then, a few days before Christmas, a big storm moved in, dumping two inches of rain on our area. It was soon followed by another. And another. And another. And another. At one point the San Francisco Examiner reported that a “daisy chain” of storms was moving across the Pacific Ocean toward California.
            After six weeks of rain the state’s reservoirs were full, and the same meteorologists who had been saying it would take years to recover, were announcing that the drought was over, and doing it without a hint of irony or explanation as to how they had been so wrong before. I haven’t believed a weatherman since.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Giving Away What You Can Sell

            In the bad old days of self-publishing — less than ten years ago, actually — an author looked at a pile of his or her books and saw dollar signs. Not so much the dollars the books would bring in the unlikely event they ever sold, but rather the dollars in outlay they already represented.
            Having gone to a so-called vanity press and shelled out a significant sum of money for a couple thousand books, the author was beginning deep in the hole, financially speaking. The mere act of giving away a book to crazy Aunt Kate was painful because it represented a loss of money already spent and diminished the limited supply of inventory that could potentially be sold to recover some of the investment.
            Giving away a bunch of books as free promotions to attract readers? Unthinkable. Might as well start a fire in the fireplace and start throwing U.S. currency into it. Only a wealthy author with an outsized ego (do authors have any other kind of ego?) could even consider it.

Giving Away Pixels

            The e-book revolution and Amazon have changed all that and made free book giveaways a part of the new author’s marketing strategy. With no ink, paper and shipping costs to cover, it’s no problem to give your book away, and probably a good idea from a marketing standpoint. It took me a while to realize that, but now I’ve embraced it with a vengeance.
            When I published the e-book version of my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance on Amazon last summer, the outsized-ego part of me was expecting it to be greeted with a parade and a White House reception, even as the rational part of me knew that was ridiculous. To the great American public, I’m just one of thousands, if not millions, of unknown authors.
            I had, however, signed up for Amazon’s Kindle Select program, which allows authors to offer the book free five days out of every three months. A couple of self-published authors I contacted through Twitter recommended doing that. Figuring it would be worth a try, I put my book up as a free promotion the second day it was on Amazon, and before I began notifying my friends, who I figure would be willing to pay the $2.99 it cost otherwise.
            On that first free promotion day, 250 people bought the book, which was a very respectable showing, and I’ve run several free promotions since.

Establishing What It’s Worth

            At this point, of course, a cynic could argue that all I’ve done is establish what my book is worth, namely nothing. But I don’t see it that way. As an unknown author, my first challenge is to find readers and start generating some word of mouth among those who like the book. If a free promotion gets me a few readers I otherwise wouldn’t have had, I consider myself ahead. Financially, I’m certainly not behind.
            My thinking has turned from the original idea of making a little money on the first book to the notion that the first book is the loss-leader that will set up sales for the second one. Hence, the more freebies that get snapped up, the better. Last weekend I did a free promotion day and moved 156 copies.
            Who knows how many of the people getting my book that way are actually reading it? I suspect that fewer than half will ever so much as start it. But a few who do, and who like it and tell their friends, can do me a lot of good. My fingers are crossed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Born to Fly

            When our son Nick was a small child, playing in sandboxes, he would stop what he was doing whenever an airplane flew overhead and watch it go by. Since the beginning of time, man has been fascinated by the prospect of flight, but some have the flying bug more than others, and we apparently got one who did.
            Two more stories. Summer of 2001. We’re flying into Fort Lauderdale airport in a 737 during a thunderstorm, and every few seconds, or so it seemed, the plane would hit an air current and bump down sharply. I was sitting in the aisle seat, recalling my friend John’s advice that as long as the plane is still moving forward at the end of a jolt, you’re OK. Linda, sitting in the middle seat, had one hand over her eyes and the fingers of the other dug into my right arm so deep they were almost hitting bone. Nick, not yet 11 at the time, was at the window seat, and whenever we hit one of those bumps he’d chirp out, in sheer delight, “That was a good one!”

A Young Man Who Knows His Planes

            Then there was South Carolina, June 2006. We were driving from Hilton Head to Charleston, and along the way passed the U.S.M.C. Air Station at Beaufort. By the front gate were a half-dozen vintage warplanes, representing a historical exhibit of sorts. Nick looked out the car window and without pausing for breath, rattled off the correct names of all the planes.
            So it was not surprising that in the fall of 2011, just before his 21st birthday, having taken aviation classes at the community college and San Jose State, Nick started taking flight lessons at Watsonville Airport. It took time to rack up the necessary hours in the air, and there were some frustrations. Last summer he was ready to do his night flying, but every time he was scheduled to go up, a dense coastal fog would roll in, scrubbing the operation.
            The determined and persistent typically prevail, and so last week Nick went up with a flight examiner and passed the exam for his pilot’s license. He now needs to get his instrument certification, then the next level of license, and after that he can fly passengers for money, at least as a charter pilot.

Mom and Dad Go Flying

            In the meantime, he can fly family and friends around as long as they pay for no more than their share of the flight cost. Two days ago he took his parents up in a four-seater Cessna Skyhawk SP. The day began with dense coastal overcast, but by the 2 p.m. flight time it had burned off and it was clear and a bit hazy.
            We took off from Watsonville and headed north up the coast toward Santa Cruz, flying at around two thousand feet. Below us were farmland, ocean, subdivisions, and forested mountains. We went all the way to Ano Nuevo Island at the southern end of San Mateo County, then came back, swinging south all the way to Moss Landing before returning to Watsonville.
            Nick guided the plane, seemingly without effort, and pointed out the things below as we flew. It’s a perspective you don’t get from a commercial jet, and it gave us an entirely different look at the place we’ve lived for four decades. Up there, above it all on a beautiful day, doing what he’d always wanted to do, Nick was in heaven for an hour. So were his parents.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lessons From The Quakers

             During his Philadelphia years Benjamin Franklin was actively involved in a number of town and colony governing offices. At the time, Quakers made up a majority of most governing boards, which made for some interesting politics when questions of public defense arose.
            Several pages of the Autobiography are devoted to discussing this. Franklin recalls when the Fire Company conducted a lottery to raise funds that might be used to create a defensive battery at the harbor. Twenty two of the governing board of 30 were Quakers, but Franklin soon learned that most, particularly the younger ones, were willing to tacitly support defensive measures if it could be done without openly going against their church leadership.
            When the time came to vote on the distribution of the lottery funds, the eight non-Quakers showed up, as did one Quaker leader, who adamantly insisted his people would not support the battery. At the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, those nine were the only ones in attendance; then Franklin was called to a nearby tavern by a waiter who worked there. Eight of the Quaker board members were waiting and said they would come to the meeting and vote for the battery, but only if their votes were absolutely needed.

Approved In Absentia

            Knowing he had a majority, Franklin returned to the meeting and told the lone Quaker representative that the others would wait an hour to allow the 21 missing Quakers to show up. To the surprise of the lone Quaker present, none of them did, and the motion to approve the battery was carried 8-1.
            In the Pennsylvania Assembly, where Franklin also served, similar difficulties arose when defense appropriations were necessary. “They were unwilling to offend government on the one hand by a direct refusal, and their Friends, the Body of Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles,” Franklin writes. “Hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable.”
            A common technique for appropriating defense expenditures was to pass a resolution allowing money “for the King’s use.” That was fine as long as the funds requested were for the Crown, but it didn’t always work. At one point, for instance, the Assembly was asked to approve an appropriation requested by another colony’s governor for gunpowder to defend a garrison.

The Meaning of ‘Other Grain

            After much wrangling, Pennsylvania voted an appropriation of three thousand pounds to be used for “the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat or other grain.” Urged to reject the appropriation on the grounds that it wasn’t what he had asked for, the Governor replied, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder.”
            Ever the practical politician, Franklin realized that this approach could have been used in the fire company situation. As he later told a friend, he could have had a resolution approved that the money be used to buy a fire engine and had himself and his friend appointed as the committee to make the purchase. They then could have bought a cannon for the battery because what, after all, is a cannon if not a fire-engine of sorts?
            The moral here is that controversies between government and religion can be worked out by reasonable people of good will as long each side is sensitive to the other’s concern and not too starchy about asserting its own. If they could figure that out 250 years ago, you’d think they could do it now; but progress is not always a straight line.
(This blog was originally posted Feb. 21, 2012)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Check Is in the Mail

            One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard since going into business for myself came from my friend John, who has many years of experience as a consultant. John always said that it’s critically important for an individual or a business to send a bill promptly once some work has been done for the customer or client.
            “If you don’t bill your clients promptly,” John said, “they may begin to wonder if you’re taking care of your own business. And if you’re not taking care of your own business, they may begin to wonder if you can take care of theirs.”
            John taught me something else as well: The importance of determining a client’s payment cycle. If he was hired by a company for a job that would last for some time, he made certain that he would be paid monthly, but he went beyond that. He’d always ask the client two questions before starting a job: When do you do your first check-writing each month, and when do I have to get an invoice to you to get paid on that check-writing date?

Fast Pay Makes Fast Friends

            Having that discussion with a client up front does two things. It establishes an expectation of prompt payment, and it tells you, as the business person, when it’s time to inquire about a check that hasn’t come.
            Over the years I’ve worked as a freelance consultant for a number of large concerns, including Wells Fargo Bank, The Home Depot, and Santa Clara University. All three, and in fact, the majority of my clients, have paid promptly, which is greatly appreciated. One local client, lesser known than the three I just mentioned once told me that their philosophy was “Fast Pay Makes Fast Friends.” It goes almost without saying that if I got back to the office and found three messages waiting, that client’s was the first I responded to.
            Sometimes a client is late paying for a reason. A nonprofit group once hired me to do some work under a state grant it had been approved to receive in July. I began work in June, but that year the California Legislature didn’t pass a budget until September, more than two months late, which meant my client and I didn’t get paid until October. But it was a big check when it came, the client kept me in the loop about what was going on, and I could understand the predicament.

Slow Pay or No Pay

            Far less understandable was a good-sized company I worked for on a project quite a few years ago. It had received a number of awards for business excellence, but apparently their concept of business excellence didn’t include paying on time. It routinely took them 60 to 90 days to pay an invoice, and when they were asked about it, the answer was, in essence, “That’s how we do things.” I got out of that job as soon as I could.
            Still, that’s better than not being paid at all, which comes with the territory when you’re on your own. I’ve been very fortunate; in more than 20 years only one client has stiffed me, and that for less than $300. Most people in business that long have had to eat several thousand dollars at least once.
            If you’re in an invoice business, as opposed to a cash business, it is a certainty that there will be times when the mail carrier becomes the most important person in your life. We’re the ones who will really feel the end of Saturday mail service, during those not infrequent times when the check is in the mail.

Friday, February 8, 2013

America on a Bookshelf

            For reasons that might be gone into at a later time, I found myself the other night wanting to re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” No doubt it could have been done online, but it wasn’t necessary. I just sauntered over to the bookshelf where I keep The Library of America and took down the author’s Tales and Sketches, some 900 pages worth. Goodman Brown occupied pages 276 to 289.
            It’s a luxury, one of the few I can afford, to be able to do this. I began subscribing to The Library of America, an attempt to provide definitive high-quality hardcover versions of this nation’s written classics, when it first started in the 1980s. A few years ago, when the offerings seemed to be getting more and more abstract, I let my subscription lapse.
            Despite some issues with the series’ editors (why did it take them more than two decades to get out a book of H.L. Mencken?), I regard those books as treasures and go back to them often. The big name books and stories are all there, of course, but that only scratches the surface.

From Abe Lincoln to Bill Clinton

            Speeches? You want speeches? LOA has the usual suspects, such as the Gettysburg Address, but also the full text of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which arguably won him the presidency. Not to mention FDR’s first inaugural, Martin Luther King’s last sermon, and Bill Clinton’s remarks on the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High in Little Rock. That last one is all but forgotten, but also absolutely terrific.
            There are Edward R. Murrow’s World War II reports from London during the Blitz, casual letters that Lincoln tossed off during the Civil War, reports on commerce that Alexander Hamilton wrote for Congress, speeches and pamphlets produced during the debate on the Constitution, and reporting of all kinds from the Vietnam war.
            Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of France and England in the New World is in the canon, as is Henry Adams’ history of the United States from 1801 to 1817. (I’ve read Parkman, but haven’t got to Adams yet.) If that’s a little too dry and schoolmarmish for your taste, you could salaciously turn to Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech on Onanism or Benjamin Franklin’s letter to a young man about the virtues of older women as mistresses.

The Pleasures of Discovery

            Much of what I’ve written about above I would never have encountered without those books on my shelves. From time to time, when I’m at loose ends, I’ll pick up one of the books and thumb through the table of contents to pick out something to read. And I’ve found a lot of neat stuff that way.
            To me the big difference between books and the internet is this: The internet is great for looking up things you specifically want to know about; it’s not so great for serendipitous discoveries. That’s where books excel. I can walk over to the Library of America shelf on a slow day, scan the authors names, decide I’m in the mood for a bit of Hamilton or Jefferson, pull down a book, and select something to read that will about fill the time I have at my disposal.
            It’s a good way to be exposed to something you would never have set out to look for. That exposure, in turn, holds the potential for adding to your store of knowledge and exposing you to good ideas. Random learning, to be sure, but sometimes that can be the best kind.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Planning the Next Book

            When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I probably had about two pages of notes on the plot and the characters before I started. The rest of it, or so I believed at the time, was in my head.
            The final product, in my humble opinion, was not bad at all. It was certainly good enough to publish, and the response has been encouraging, but at some level I feel I could have done better. Barry Bingham, former publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, used to say that a daily dissatisfaction with the product is at the heart of every great newspaper, and something like that applies to writers of every stripe.
            Taken to an extreme, that’s an attitude that can lead to writer’s block, substance abuse or worse. Perfection is always out of reach, and at some point the writer has to let the project go to press and move on. Still, as John Wooden used to say about basketball (and life): “You should never let what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can do.”

Planning Much More Carefully

            I’m now starting out on the second Quill Gordon mystery, which has a working title of Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from an Oliver Goldsmith poem. It’s a sequel to the first book only in the sense that it features the same main character and takes place after the action in the first book.
            Once again Gordon will be going on a fishing trip and finding himself caught up in a murder and the subsequent investigation. But the locale will be different, as will all the other characters. I’ve even given Gordon a new sidekick, with a different personality than the first one. If there are more books beyond the second one, my plan at the moment is to rotate Gordon’s buddies based on which one fits the given story better.
            After letting go of The McHenry Inheritance, I decided that in the next book I wanted to work on improving the characters, the plot and the dialogue. Primarily, I want to ratchet up the level of complexity in those three areas. Thinking it over, and stealing some writing tips I encountered since doing the first book, I decided to plan the next one more carefully before I started writing.

The Big Orange Notebook

            So I went out and made a tax-deductible investment of $3.25 in a lined notebook, 14.8 by 21 centimeters, manufactured by Rhodia of France. I’ve created a page or two for each chapter and character, plus additional sections for such things as place names and miscellaneous notes. Since November I’ve been filling those pages with longhand scribblings, done with several different Pilot Varsity fountain pens.
            Back in November, in a burst of creative energy, I wrote the first draft of the first third of the first chapter on two successive nights. More than anything else, that was to establish, for myself, a sense of style and mood. Since then the actual writing has been on hold until I have my notes in order for every section of the notebook.
            I’ve been writing down what happens when, what I want to show in each character, along with specific incidents, details and snatches of dialogue. And I think it’s helping. In the course of writing it down, connections are made and new ideas come up. It feels as if the book is becoming richer in my mind before I actually write it. The book that gets published will be the final proof of whether this approach worked, and if so, how well, but it’s good to feel I’m starting on the right foot.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Crime Wave in Sweden

            I read a Swedish mystery novel (is there any other kind these days?) this past weekend, in this case The Glass Devil by Helene Tursten. It tells the everyday story of a country pastor and his son, who are gunned down in their homes, apparently by Satanists, though if you’re a mystery fan, you have probably figured out already that there is more to it than that.
            The plucky female detective, Irene Huss, follows the trail to the bitter end, doggedly pursuing a path that puts her into contact with Mad Cow Disease, child pornography, African relief efforts, and the decline of the church in Sweden, not to mention her own issues with her husband and teenage daughters.
            Over the past year I’ve been reading a number of Swedish detective novels, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the continuing on to the works of Henning Mankell, Hakan Nesser and Sjowall and Wahloo. Swedish crime lit is definitely a hot item these days.

Stockholm Was No Mayberry

            Why Sweden? Why, for that matter, England between the wars, where the classic detective novel came of age? There seems to be something about a civilized, well-ordered society (especially one where appearances count for a lot) that generates a burst of crime fiction.
            Looking at England when Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others were writing their best work, you would have seen an exceptionally law-abiding and non-violent nation. Probably more murders were committed in fiction there in any one year than took place in the entire first half of the Twentieth Century.
            Similarly, Americans who go to Sweden often remark about how clean, orderly and safe the country seems to us. There is far less gun violence and random violence than here, yet to read most of the authors previously mentioned would be to gain an impression that it’s a nation of psychopaths, and particularly sadistic ones at that.
            Reading one of the Sjowall-Wahloo books, I got a bit of a jolt at a passage in which their detective, Kurt Wallander, reflects about how prevalent crime and drug use have become and how it wasn’t always that way. The passage was written during a time when, in New York, you couldn’t go into Central Park at night, and a female district attorney had her purse snatched at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Stockholm was surely better than that, yet a variation of the Mayberry syndrome, in which the past, and the people in it, were believed to be better than they really were, apparently infects Sweden as well.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

            My Swedish being nonexistent, I have of course been reading these books in translation, but they all sound like variations of a teleplay Jack Webb would have written for Dragnet. Very spare, very direct, not much humor, and keep the story moving forward with lots of terse dialogue.
            And while there’s not much in the way of description or digression, one thing common to all the authors is an awareness of the weather. It’s so seldom good in Sweden that people always notice it and appreciate the good spells. Jonathan Franzen, in an introduction to The Laughing Policeman, pointed out how relentlessly dreadful the weather was and with how much care and loving detail it was described. (The story takes place from mid-November to March.) The wintry souls of the killers in these books are mirrored in the bleak climate and landscapes they describe so well.
            Which got me to thinking that since February is the month when winter doesn’t let go (even in California), I’m going to make a point of reading an Italian mystery this month.