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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Friday, June 28, 2013

The Newspaper Habit

            Writing to our soldier son the other day, I found myself quoting from an op-ed column in The Washington Post, and that got me to thinking about the newspaper habit and how it changes over the years.
            For example, I used to be a big San Francisco Chronicle reader. At the local paper where I worked, the newsroom had a subscription, and I could always look at it during the lunch hour, though it was not unusual to have to wait for someone else to finish with it. The Chronicle in those days was the object of a lot of scorn, but it was a much better paper than most people gave it credit for being. The writing and headlines were consistently sharp, and the columnists — Herb Caen, Charles McCabe, Art Hoppe — were unbeatable.
            In 1992 I started a public relations business after leaving the paper, and part of my job was to get clients into the San Jose Mercury, if possible, so I gradually phased out the Chronicle and became a daily Mercury reader. A couple of years ago, I stopped. Their coverage of our area now consists of reprinted stories from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which I already get, so the Mercury became redundant.

An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

            Not long after starting the PR business, I got an intriguing offer in the mail to subscribe to The Washington Post National Weekly Edition for some ridiculously low amount of money. It was deductible, so how could I say no, and I became a devoted reader.
            The Weekly, as it was called, was a tabloid, about 36-44 pages a week, with next to no advertising. It carried a mix of stories, ranging from in-depth features, news analyses, book reviews, op-ed columns and the like. I’d take it with me when I went out to lunch or for a cup of coffee, and sometimes I’d read it in the office when I was sitting on my hands until a client called back. That was when people still did business by telephone.
            Sometimes I’d go out to lunch and realize I’d left the paper in the office. A search of my car would usually turn up an older edition that I hadn’t finished, and I could read that — in fact, found I often got as much out of the older issue as I would have from the current one.

The Value of Waiting for News

            That taught me a valuable lesson. I came to realize that for most news, specifically the news that didn’t immediately and directly impact me, I was better off waiting to read about it. By the time The Weekly arrived, an event it reported might be almost two weeks old, but the analysis piece it carried put the matter in focus, and the by then I had a better sense of perspective about how important it truly was. The reality is that for most news, it’s not that critical to know about it right away, and it’s better to wait until you can get a more complete picture and be truly informed.
            At the end of 2009 The Weekly published its last edition, a victim of the Internet and the toll it’s taken on newspapers. Six months later, I bought an iPad, and a short time afterward received a subscription to try The New York Times for iPad for a month for a dollar. I did, and I was hooked. That’s now taken the place of The Weekly as my national/international newspaper. Let’s see how long a run this one has.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tell Me About the Weather

            Every reader has certain pet peeves — things authors do that can drive you nuts when you’re reading their books. One of mine, I’d have to say, is mystery novelists who don’t tell you what time of year the story is taking place and what the weather is like.
            I mention mystery novels in particular because most writers of literary fiction are aware of the need to create atmosphere and be descriptive. But for some reason a certain number of the folks who write mysteries and thrillers seem to feel it’s not important.
            Perhaps that comes from thinking of a book as a page-turner, where the author’s job is to move the story forward and get to the next scene of violence or mayhem as quickly as possible. From that perspective, not mentioning the season or the weather makes a certain superficial type of sense. After all, a paragraph spent describing Paris in the spring might cause the reader to set the book aside before getting to the shootout at the Louvre.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

            Count me among the unconvinced. Granted, a book written in the aforementioned style keeps the reader moving forward, but at the end there’s a feeling of disappointment, sort of like eating a big dinner then being hungry an hour later. Reading a mystery or thriller without sufficient atmosphere or character is a letdown, and while the author may have kept me turning the pages, I’m not likely to return.
            In days gone by, establishing a sense of atmosphere by describing the setting and the weather was so obligatory as to be universal. No nineteenth century author would have had a group of weary travelers seeking refuge at a Transylvanian castle without mentioning that it was a dark and stormy night and going into considerable detail about both the darkness and storminess. For the reader, that alone established that something was up at the castle.
            Or consider, on the less ominous side, the way Wilkie Collins got the ball rolling in his classic The Woman in White:
            “It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields and the autumn breezes on the sea shores.”

You Notice It on Vacation

            In my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance,my leading character is on a fishing vacation in the High Sierra at the tail end of summer, and I tried to capture the shifting nature of the mountain weather at that time of year and weave it into the story.
            That made sense, I felt, because when you’re on vacation, you tend to be outside more and be paying more attention to the weather. Certain trips are inextricably linked in memory to the weather. I remember camping in the perishing heat of a July in Idaho in 1985 as clearly as I remember running through a drenching rainstorm in Venice to get to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice in 2009.
            Looking back at the mysteries I’ve read in the past couple of years, it seems that some of the best literary use of weather came from Swedish writers such as Henning Mankell and the Sjowall-Wahloo team. When you think about it, why should that be surprising? They come from a country where, to drag out the old joke, there’s nine months of winter and three months of bad skiing. Of course they’re going to pay attention to the weather.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Delayed Gratification

            This past week I was reminded again of the virtue of patience, and of the fact that it takes people a while to get around to something they’re meaning to do.
            At my Rotary Club meeting on Wednesdays, people frequently get up and pay a “happy fine” to support the club’s community activities. Last week, for instance, I paid such a fine because I was happy that our son, Nick, had called for the first time since he began basic training at Fort Jackson, SC, and that we had actually been able to talk to him. One of the other happy fines that day caught me by surprise.
            One of our longtime members rose to pay a fine for having read and enjoyed my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and for having enjoyed my use of names drawn from the local community. I even offered to pay his fine, but he insisted.

Good Intentions Take Time

            Until that moment I had forgotten that my fellow Rotarian had mentioned last year that he’d bought the book , then never said any more about it. More than six months passed between his buying it and reading it, but please don’t think I’m complaining. I’m thrilled to death if anybody reads it anytime.
            What I have to remember is that while my book is one of the most important things in my life right now, for everybody else, it’s at best a to-do item. And it can take a long time for a to-do item to rise to the top of the list. If it ever does. When I’m thinking about it rationally, I figure that the best case is that half the people who mean to read the book actually crack it open to the first page and read it all the way through.
            There are authors whose first book meteorically soars to the top of the best-seller lists, but most of us, if we ever succeed, do it in the style of the old-school businessmen who started in the stockroom after getting out of high school and worked their way to the top over decades. In today’s business world, those folks would be passed over for an MBA who would probably make a hash of the job, but that’s another blog.

Authors Who Start in the Stockroom

            The equivalent for an author is slowly building an audience until you hit a tipping point where your books start getting noticed. Most authors begin with a first book that sells a few thousand copies. With luck their second book sells a few thousand more and the third a few thousand more than that. Maybe on the fourth or fifth book, they crack the best-seller list, triggering some more sales for the earlier books and leading to a bigger audience for the next one.
            In other words, what’s your hurry?
            When my book was first published, I moved a lot of copies as free promotional e-books. Then I started wondering why the people who were buying it weren’t reviewing it. In the past couple of months the reviews, generally positive, have been coming in, and people scanning the mystery section at Amazon can see that a dozen people have read and reviewed the book.
            That gives it some credibility with readers who haven’t heard of me (which is nearly all of them), but it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly going to buy the book. A lot of them will check it out several times over a period of months before deciding to plunk down their $2.99. Like everything else, it takes time.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Staring Down the Barrel of a Gun

            Thirty five years ago today I got up in the morning and went to work. It was a day just like any other, except for one thing: I almost didn’t get out of the office alive.
            I worked for an afternoon newspaper then, so I put in a hard morning, as usual. Typically the newsroom cleared out around 1 p.m., when we had put the paper to bed for the day. A lot of people had been out late covering meetings the night before or would be covering one that night, so they often took a long lunch hour and ran some errands. I was one of two people in the newsroom at 2 p.m., and the other one was on the phone when Scott Nice from classified advertising came up to me and said there was a gentleman in the office who had a story for us.
            The fact that said gentleman went to the classified ad department with his story should have been a tipoff, but I agreed to hear him out. We always did. Nineteen times out of twenty it was a crackpot or someone with a non-newsworthy resentment, but you never knew until you listened.

He Got My Attention

            The vistor was a young man with long hair and twitchy mannerisms. He wanted to go to a conference room or some place private, but I figured I’d never get rid of him if we did that, so I insisted he come to my desk in the middle of the newsroom. He sat down across the typewriter about three feet away from me, pulled aside the sweatshirt that had been draped over his right arm and hand, raised the gun in his hand, and pointed it directly at my chest.
            “I want you to tell my story,” he said.
            “Okay,” I replied. “Let me get some paper in the typewriter so I can take notes.”
            As the court-appointed psychiatrist later confirmed, he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and his story was rambling and incoherent, with one running thread: Everybody was out to get him or wasn’t taking him seriously. The one exception at the moment was me. As long as he kept pointing that gun at me, I was taking him very seriously.

A Phone Call for Help

            At one point he mentioned that his psychiatrist was blowing him off, and I suggested that perhaps the doctor would take him seriously now if we gave him a call. He agreed to that, gave me the shrink’s name, and I slowly and deliberately lifted the receiver and made the call. There were no answering machines in those days, so the call was picked up by a receptionist on the second ring. I asked to speak with the doctor.
            “He’s with a patient,” she snapped. “Is this an emergency?”
            I turned my head, looked at the gun pointed directly at me, and replied, “I would say it’s an extreme emergency.”
            She got him on the phone, and I explained the situation to him, choosing my words very carefully so as not to agitate my friend with the gun. The doc asked if the police had been called, and I said no. There was still almost no one else in the newsroom, and the sight lines in the building were such that probably no one else could see that my visitor had a gun in his hand. He said he’d call the police and be there in half an hour.
Just Buying Time

            It was probably the longest half-hour of my life. At that point I figured my visitor was engaging in what the mental-health folks refer to as a cry for help, and having gotten a positive reaction, he wasn’t going to shoot me as long as I didn’t do anything really stupid.
            However, he was rambling on and getting quite angry at times, waving the gun around wildly as he talked, with his finger on the trigger. I was afraid it might go off accidentally, and all I could think of was that Linda and I had just bought a house and that she wouldn’t be able to make the mortgage payment without my paycheck.
            So I sat as still as I could, listened, and made soothing and reassuring noises. Meanwhile, half the law enforcement personnel in Santa Cruz County had gathered in the parking lot outside and were quietly evacuating almost everyone else from the building. Just before three o’clock, the psychiatrist came in and walked up to the desk where we were sitting.

Instinct — Sheer Instinct

            He introduced himself, shook hands with me, shook hands with the gunman, and looked around. “Do you have a chair I can sit in?” he asked.
            “You can have mine,” I said, standing up and walking out of the building. I still shake my head when I think about that. If I’d thought about it for even a nanosecond at the time, fear would have taken over, and I wouldn’t have done it. Sheer instinct alone gave me the confidence to pull it off, and with the doctor there, the gunman wasn’t even thinking about me any more.
            Fifteen minutes later, the shrink had talked the gunman into handing over his gun and going to the county mental health unit. They walked out the front door of the building, got into the doctor’s car, and drove to the clinic in Santa Cruz, 15 miles away. The police were so busy planning how to get a sniper in to take out the gunman that they never saw him leave.
            My visitor was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, committed to a mental facility, and released in a few years. As far as I know, he’s never committed another serious crime. When the police checked the gun, they found it was loaded. One twitch of his finger, and I might not be writing this today. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all been bonus time since then.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How They Taught Poetry in 1905

            Up in the Seattle area for my nephew’s wedding this past weekend, I found myself with a little time to kill before we had to show up, so I dropped into the Upper Case bookstore in Snohomish and looked through the used book section. All too often such a place will have little else but recycled paperback bestsellers, but this joint was the real deal.
            One of my sisters (not the nephew’s mother) just came out with a book of poetry and wasn’t able to come out from New York for the wedding, so I checked the poetry section to see if I might get a little something for her. That was where I came across Graded Poetry, Fourth Year, published in 1905 by the Charles E. Merrill Co.
            It was a slender volume, edited by Katherine D. Blake, Principal of the Girls Department at Public School No. 6 in New York and Georgia Alexander, a Supervising Principal in Indianapolis. One of them presumably wrote the introduction, and since the copyright has expired, I’ll quote from it liberally:

Listen. Just Listen.

            “Poetry is the chosen language of childhood and youth. The baby repeats words again and again for the mere joy of their sound: the melody of nursery rhymes gives a delight which is quite independent of the meaning of the words. Not until youth approaches maturity is there an equal pleasure in the rounded periods of elegant prose. It is in childhood therefore that the young mind should be stored with poems whose rhythm will be a present delight and whose beautiful thoughts will not lose their charm in later years.
            “The selections for the lowest grades are addressed primarily to the feeling for verbal beauty, the recognition of which in the mind of the child is fundamental to the plan of this work. The editors have felt that the inclusion of critical notes in these little books intended for elementary school children would be not only superfluous, but in the degree in which critical comment drew the child’s attention from the text, subversive of the desired result. Nor are there any notes on methods. The best way to teach children to love a poem is to read it inspiringly to them. The French say: ”The ear is the pathway to the heart.” A poem should be so read that it will sing itself in the hearts of the listening children.”

No Dumbing Down

            They don’t make too many educators like that any more, nor do they publish textbooks like this for the teaching of poetry. Perhaps you were wondering what sort of poetry fourth graders read in public school 108 years ago. Well, you might recognize some of the authors:
            William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina G. Rossetti, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant, Helen Hunt Jackson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others.
            Of course some of those writers were deemed advanced enough that they were held back for reading until the second semester of fourth grade.
            Generally speaking, it’s a trap to believe that things were somehow better back in the good old days, but sometimes you can’t help it. I wonder how many fourth graders today are exposed to the breadth and depth of poetry reflected in this book, and taught with the humane understanding shown in the quoted introduction. Far too few, I suspect.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Facebook and Today's Army

                  Not long ago I wrote about the importance, even in our digital age, of old-fashioned snail mail for soldiers, a situation that entered my awareness now that our son, Nick, is in basic training at Fort Jackson, SC.
                  But we’re also becoming aware of the ways in which the Army is using social media to inform, or not inform parents of service men and women. Fort Jackson, for instance, has its own Facebook page, which provides updates on what’s happening at the fort or company level and also posts photos of training activities taken by base personnel.
                  We think one of the pictures had Nick in it, but we couldn’t tell for sure. It didn’t give a full view of the face, and the big caps the soldiers wear also hinder positive identification. Still, it’s kind of neat to be able to keep up with at least officially sanctioned base news, and we’ve really been following, rather than interacting with the page.

How Come He (She) Hasn’t Called?

                  Not everyone has been so reticent. We were told when Nick shipped out that he would get to make one phone call of about two minutes shortly after he arrived safely at Fort Jackson. Owing to the time difference, the call came in at about 3:30 p.m. on our home phone. I work out of a home office and was there to take the call and talk with him, but Linda was at work and never got a chance.
                  Not long after that group of Soldiers in Training arrived at Jackson, the Facebook page lit up with comments from parents who wanted to know why they hadn’t heard from their kid. Like sharks drawn to blood in the water, some of the parents began feeding on each others’ anxieties and it almost seemed that for a while, that was all the Facebook page was about.
                  Finally one of the officers responded to the complaints with an answer that should have been glaringly obvious.
                  Your soldier gets one phone call when he or she arrives at Fort Jackson, the officer wrote. We don’t tell the soldier who to call, and if he or she has a boyfriend or girlfriend, the call might not be to the parents. Q.E.D.

They Oughta Be in Pictures

                  Once training got under way, the Facebook page began blossoming with photos of training activities. It quickly became apparent that some companies had leaders who are social-media savvy and took and posted a lot of photos. Others didn’t.
                  In the past week there’s been another flurry of parent postings with the running theme that the parent in question hasn’t seen any pictures of the family soldier, and what’s going on here. Like the phone call situation, this one started feeding on itself as well.
                  A couple of days ago the battalion commander himself felt the need to respond personally to those posts.
                  Fort Jackson isn’t a photo studio, he said, in essence. It’s an Army basic training facility, and its purpose is to turn young recruits into soldiers who have learned the skills that are necessary to help them have the best chance of surviving a combat situation and fighting properly. And, he added, if certain people don’t let up on this photo question, we will block them from using the Facebook page.
                  Take that. It’s a sign of the times, but at the same time I can’t help shaking my head and thinking that if Dwight Eisenhower had had to deal with this, we’d all be speaking German.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Research: Old School and New

            When I’m not writing mystery novels, I write other things that people pay me to do. Right now one of those is a family history, and in connection with that, I recently had an interesting research experience.
            One of the family members in the story is a fellow who escaped from Yugoslavia when it was under Communist rule in the 1950s. The escape was something straight out of a spy movie: He and two friends got into a 13-foot boat and left the country under cover of darkness, headed across the Adriatic to Italy.
            I was fortunate to have a fairly detailed account of the escape that his grand-nephew in what is now Croatia had compiled from family lore. It gave a really good outline of how the man had escaped and made his way to America, and there was considerable valuable detail in the story. There were also a few holes in it, too, and that’s where the Internet came to the rescue.

A Quick Answer and No Answer

            One aspect of the story was that when our hero had made good his escape and was in Italy and Germany as a refugee, he feared, according to the account I had, a Yugoslavian secret police organization called UDBA, which was believed to operate throughout Europe, assassinating and abducting people who had fled the country.
            I’d never heard of UDBA and didn’t know if I could trust my source, so I Googled it and was able in a few minutes to confirm its existence and reputation. That was sufficient to verify the reported fear, which was all I needed.
            Another seemingly simple question, though, proved difficult to nail down online. When our three escapees fled, the motor on their boat broke down a few miles from shore and they had to get out the oars and start paddling for Italy. The obvious question was how far that would be.
            Wikipedia told me only that the widest point of the Adriatic was 120 miles across, but what I needed was the distance at the point they were crossing. Google searches revolving around Adriatic distances turned up no solid information, though I did find a ferry that covers approximately the same route the escapees would have tried to travel. No mileage was given, but the ferry time was 7.5 hours. At an average speed of around 15 mph, that would put the distance at 100-120 miles — close enough for government work, but not a historian.

The Old-School Ruler Rules

            Finally I got so frustrated that I decided to go offline and take an old-school approach that I knew would work. Grabbing a ruler from my desk, I threw it into my car and drove a mile and a half to the Aptos Public Library. After a brief wait at the reception desk, I was directed to the National Geographic atlas of the world, which looked as if it hadn’t been used in a while.
            Opening it to the Europe section, I flipped through the maps until I came to one that showed the Adriatic Sea and the countries on both sides of it. I set one end of the ruler down on Cavtat, the fishing port from which the men left, and pointed the other end at the closest outcropping of land on the Italian side. After measuring that distance, I set the ruler down on the map’s mileage scale. The distance I got was about 100 miles. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it — in the family history and everything else.