Sunday, May 31, 2009

Country blowout

One of the barbecue teams at the Third Annual Lake Trout Classic Cook-off

Last night the Lady Friend and I attended the third annual Lake Trout Classic Cook-off at the hockey rink in downtown Ontonagon, Michigan, population 1,743 or thereabouts. It was one of the community benefit events (proceeds went to the Ontonagon County Cancer Associations) that makes this county in the remote western end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a singular subject for a mystery author.

Despite the name, no lake trout was in evidence, but the event offered unlimited barbecue baby back ribs, barbecue beef, barbecue chicken, chili, jambalaya, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, baked beans, dinner rolls and desserts. Unlimited. Fifteen bucks (age 12 to 5, $5; under 5, free). Where else in the world can you pig out on some of the nation's best barbecue for less than twenty bucks, including a can of Busch Light? Did I say unlimited?

And afterward, those still able to push away from the table danced far into the night to the live music of a local rockabilly band.

Merchants, mostly local but some from as far away as Houghton, 50 miles east, donated most of the provender, together with a few generous individuals.

I have no idea who the cook-off winners were, for the Lady Friend and I waddled home and into bed early, so stupefied were we. So were somewhere between 500 and 1,000 other diners (my crowd count abilities are a bit shaky).

But there was one clear victor from the beginning: the economically beleaguered town of Ontonagon and its environs. Benefit events like this are an important way the place, which loses ten per cent of its population every census, hangs together against adversity. There you see not only bonhomie but also caring. We're in this together, these blowouts declare to the world, and we'll survive together.

Up here, good times can come cheap and often do, and you go home uplifted as well as stuffed.

A contestant in action at his grill.

Many of the grills were homemade, as this one is.

Fellow writer Dave Distel, ex-L.A. Times and author of the true-crimer The Sweater Letter, with a corn steamer.

The serving line at one corner of the hockey rink early in the evening, before the crowds arrived.

Jan Tucker, the immensely popular and legendary morning radio personality on WUPY-101.1 FM, dishes barbecued chicken.

Chowing down early in the evening. The center of the ice rink turned into a dance floor at 8 p.m.

Ya think? John the carpenter, who earlier in the day helped finish the remodeling of our cabin's kitchen, gives his summation of the event.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Who knew hugging would ever be considered a problem? I am astonished. I am dismayed. I am upset. I need a hug. C'mere.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Strange enough for fiction

What if the Soviets had had a sleeper KGB agent among the National Guardsmen who killed this Kent State student in 1970?

Just think about it: the revelation that the West Berlin cop who killed an unarmed demonstrator in 1967 and set a conservative nation on the road to progressivism actually was an East German spy. It has shaken Germany to the core and triggered a lot of soul-searching among Germans who recall the event.

Wouldn't this make a great fact-based novel?

And what if, as the article suggests by way of comparison, a KGB sleeper agent had been among the nervous National Guardsmen who committed the Kent State killings of 1970? There's the germ of a terrific alternative history tale.

The Cold War espionage novel has yet to die out, though it is not as robust as it once was. Old secrets are still coming to light, secrets to be exploited by imaginative spy writers.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pitching the books

The biggest book promotion problem a deaf author faces is how to reach a wide audience with "deaf speech." My breathy elocution is usually understandable to a stranger if he listens carefully but often goes right past the average person with part of his mind on something else.

In the past I tried all sorts of MacGyverish tricks to overcome that, one of them using an overhead projector to display a printed talk, line by line, the rest of the page hidden by two clumsily manipulated sheets of paper. That was like chewing tobacco while riding an unstable motorcycle.

But dispensing with the two shrouding sheets of paper caused audiences to squirm impatiently if they read the entire page long before I finished speaking the words.

Later on, "CART" -- Computer Assisted Real-time Translation -- worked very well with large audiences composed both of the hearing and what quaintly was called the "hearing impaired." As I droned on, an expert court reporter would (often with the help of a printed copy of my talk) keyboard the speech into a laptop attached to a digital projector. When everything went smoothly, my words would appear on the screen at the same instant I spoke them.

But this technology is expensive and is suited mostly to large audiences. I needed something cheap and effective for small groups, such as those at bookstore autographings (and, believe me, they can be very small -- two or three patrons).

And so now I use a Macbook laptop, a portable screen and a small digital projector to deliver my pitch by means of an Apple Keynote (PowerPoint to PC users) slide show. My words are superimposed on photographs that make up the individual slides, as in the picture above. I speak the words as I show each slide, letting each slide linger just (I hope) long enough for audiences to appreciate it.

From time to time during each presentation the Lady Friend, a retired librarian and elementary school teacher with a dulcet speaking voice, reads selections from my novels while I stand by.

That aids greatly with the biggest problem of Keynote and PowerPoint presentations: They can be excruciatingly boring. Listening to spoken words that also appear on a screen is a kind of visual waterboarding many people just can't endure.

Using simple and short sentences for text helps a great deal.

So does the use of striking photographs for backgrounds, to engage another part of the mind. (Army boot camp instructors used to salt their filmstrip lessons with pictures of nude women, keeping the recruits on their toes.) Fortunately, being an eager if not always skillful amateur photographer, I have a large portfolio of suitable pictures of my bucolic subjects. And there is always the Internet commons to harvest.

I've been working on a talk that will be delivered June 18 to the Ontonagon County Historical Society way up here in farthest Upper Michigan. The subject is how a regional mystery novelist uses location, history and culture to create a sense of place. Part of the task has been to go out and find good pictorial subjects for slides, and that's been great fun.

There's always more than one way to skin a cat.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dulce et decorum est

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor all those in the nation's military who died on foreign fields. We need to believe that they did not die in vain; their sacrifice is part of the American soul. But we should also understand that national myths hide unpleasant realities.

A British soldier in the Great War, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just hours before the Armistice, said it best in his great poem Dulce et decorum est. I've quoted it before on this blog, and I'll quote it again:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

There is nothing glorious about death in battle, and knowing this makes the loss of all these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen we honor today even more tragic and profound.

The Latin is from Horace and means "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bird show

Great Horned owl

The crown jewel of Ontonagon County in upper Michigan -- basis of the fictional Porcupine County of my mystery novels -- is the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park at the western end of the county. It figures in all my novels, and yesterday the Lady Friend and I attended an event there that one way or another will make its way into a whodunit.

This was a splendid "Birds of Prey" presentation put on by the Wildlife Recovery Association, a refuge in Shepherd, Michigan, that takes in sick and wounded birds found in the wild and nurses them back to health for release into their natural environment -- or gives them a permanent safe haven if they are too injured to return.

Joe Rogers and Joanne Williams, principals of the refuge, brought a large clutch of birds, mostly of prey, to show a small audience in the park's little auditorium. Rogers is a born showman as well as an ornithologist, and he charmed the youngsters while keeping the adults rapt and laughing with his slick patter.

He astounded everyone with his vocal imitations of owl hoots and hawk cries. The Lady Friend said they were dead on; she couldn't tell them from the real things she had heard in the woods.

He opened the show with a pygmy python, hardly a winged raptor, but a gentle creature that caused adults to squeal and small children to beam while they petted it as Rogers passed around the audience:

Then it was time to bring out the actual birds of prey:

Screech owl

Great horned owl

Barred owl

Joanne Williams brought the barred owl to every kid in the audience, and their cell phone cameras got a thorough workout.

Broad-winged hawk

American Kestrel

Aggressive birds pecked an eye out of this saw-whet owl, brought to the refuge by the volunteer who found it. It remains as a permanent resident.

In his windup to the show, Rogers grossed out the grownups but delighted the kids in telling them how the turkey vulture delicately picks carrion out of its huge nostrils with a talon after dining.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

First Lake Superior sunset of 2009

One has to be patient at this time of year to experience a good Lake Superior sunset. Spring sunset skies tend to be either severe clear or overcast, neither making for a good photograph. Last evening, however, atmospheric conditions were better, with a little herringbone cirrus to enliven the sky. Things should improve from here on to the middle of October.

The photo was taken from the front doorstep of the Writer's Lair. Click on it for a larger, more detailed shot.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

We never sleep

Sorry for being slow to put up new blogposts, but I've been spending more time working on Hang Fire than expected -- getting back into the groove of disciplined writing every day was easier than it seemed at first. It's like going back a couple of years ago when this blog began as something to do when the words just wouldn't come for the mystery novels.

The afternoons, however, are perfect for wildlife photography, as you can see from the other blog. And the motion-detecting Bushnell game camera, pointed at the bird feeder pole outdoors, works into the wee hours keeping us informed about backyard marauders. Last night two raccoons raided the place and we took their pictures to hand over to the sheriff. Of course it'd be hard to pick out a particular raccoon in a police lineup, but the effort must be made if law and order is to survive in this wilderness country.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The hard life of a novelist

'Twas a beamish day for a writer who is once again trying to write while simultaneously enjoying retirement.

Up betimes at five, peed Hogan on the leash (it was just coming dawn, and bears and wolves lurk in the dark woods of wild Porcupine County), had a cuppa, and set to working on Hang Fire for an hour -- and got five satisfactory pages into the hopper.

Then breakfast, and afterward to the fitness center in town for 90 minutes of pushmi-pullyu with the Nautilus and stationary bike.

After lunch, an hour's nap and a couple of errands back in town.

Then to the beach for a spell with the camera and long lens, the fruits of which you see above. Photographing wild geese is not that easy, especially when they have youngsters. They are skittish in the extreme. But one learns quickly about their habits and proclivities, some of which seem weird.

Besides Mama and Papa Goose and their offspring, two other adult honkers lolled on the beach. As I approached, Papa became agitated, flapping his wings and screeching and hissing -- but instead of attacking me, he lowered his head and chased another goose in a fury of feathers. I waited, then tiptoed a few feet closer. Papa erupted again, assaulting the second adult goose.

It was as if he were a schoolyard bully beating up on a couple of innocents just to show an enemy what lay in store for him if he didn't go away. I used to know guys like that.

Later, an hour with the new Donna Leon mystery, About Face. The literate and humane Commissario Guido Brunetti is one of my favorite sleuths.

Then a fine pork tenderloin dinner prepared by the Lady Friend, followed by a ramble with the dog, and so to bed with Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. Lights out at nine.

Sam Pepys never had it so good.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The mill reopens

Life is good in Ontonagon County once again: The Smurfit-Stone paper mill, the county's largest employer, reopens May 26, almost six months after it shut down last November. Hundreds of people are going back to work, not only at the mill but also its suppliers, such as pulpwood loggers, truckers and railroaders that carry the huge rolls of brown paper south to be spun into corrugated cardboard boxes.

When the news broke Friday night, all of this western Upper Michigan region breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a damned close run thing, this encounter with the deepest recession in decades. Workers were looking at the end of their unemployment insurance. People had no money to spend, and the local merchants were being pinched to the limit. Everyone stayed home and the town looked dead.

In town yesterday, the happy buzz was palpable. Folks at Chapman's Ace hardware store and Pat's Supermarket were smiling again. One customer at Chapman's said, "Now I can pay with my credit card again!" as he slapped down the plastic. The oldsters around the coffee table at Pat's beamed at the good fortune of the younger shoppers.

Is the recession finally beginning to lift? Not for everybody. The same day the reopening of the mill was announced, the little Chevy/Buick dealership received the dreaded Fedex letter from General Motors: It was being cut loose as GM reorganized. The dealership probably will survive as a used car emporium, but several of its workers will lose their jobs.

All the same, things are looking up at last for Ontonagon County, the real-life counterpart of the Porcupine County of my mystery novels.

As for the Lady Friend and me, life is good at the Writer's Lair west of town. Yesterday these items went into our birdspotting book: Two sparrows of indeterminate species, one purple finch, one chickadee, two bald eagles, 17 male mallards in an enormous boy's-night-out flock while the females nestled on the eggs, a number of crows, one unidentifiable hawk, one sandpiper and two breeding pairs of Canada geese, one with three goslings and the other with four.

Yesterday was so cold and windy (38 degrees, 40 knots) with such high waves that the geese-plus-four-goslings from up Halfway Creek nearby walked across our front yard to get to the free cracked corn at our neighbor's instead of steaming in line astern 200 yards offshore, as they usually do.

That's the sextet in the photo above. The fourth gosling is almost hidden against the rear of the trailing adult goose. Click on the picture for a better view.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reading aloud

An eon ago, before audio books were invented, literate families used to sit in the living room while Father (or Mother) read aloud from the latest novel or biography or children's picture book. It was a social habit of the time, just as watching TV after dinner is a habit of ours. It's a pity that reading aloud is a lost art, for spoken words carry far deeper meaning than superficial action viewed on the screen.

"Reading aloud captures the physicality of words," writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in today's New York Times. "To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes when a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading."

Maybe this is how one deaf child learned what Klinkenborg calls "the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language." When I was four, five and six years old, Mother and Dad set aside an hour after dinner just for reading aloud.

But they did not read to me; understanding them would have been too difficult for a deaf kid who relied on lipreading. Instead, I read to them. The books we started with were simple and full of pictures -- I remember Babar the Elephant -- and later on we graduated to such colorful adolescent tales as the Hardy Boys mystery series and Freddy the Pig.

One difficulty with deaf children's learning of spoken language is that so many of them get the words but not the music. They learn to put together literate sentences, but they are flat and two-dimensional, written in shades of gray rather than the colors of sound.

Reading aloud to my parents and brother, I am convinced, taught me the swing, the sway, the soul of language. I could not hear the words, but voicing them taught me subtleties of vibration I could feel in my larynx and diaphragm. Once I had learned about onomatopoiea and alliteration-- the busy buzz of bees, for instance -- I was on my way to soaking up the prosody of English. I had discovered that words have music as well as meaning.

That is one important reason I became a writer. (Another may be heredity; my father was both a superb prose stylist and a compelling storyteller.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Writer's Lair

Yesterday we arrived at our cabin on Lake Superior (above) and immediately set to work sprucing up the place after building a warming blaze in the fireplace -- the temperature had greeted us at 44 degrees on a gray, windy, blustery day. Last night the mercury fell to 31 degrees but this morning climbed back into the balmy 60s on a bright, cloudless day.

Monday I'll start my new disciplinary regimen, spending at least one hour each day working on Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress.

Life could be worse. A lot worse.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On to Porcupine County

This will be the last blogpost for a few days, because I'm moving house for the summer up to Lake Superior and am busy packing while trying to figure out how to gentle the hairtrigger new burglar alarm, which rattles the entire neighborhood (and pisses off the cops) if one so much as breathes on a windowsill. But the multiple flashing lights make the place look over-the-top holiday-decorations pretty.

Look for the first report from Porcupine County about Saturday.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hard times

This weekend a friend of mine is visiting western Upper Michigan, the locale of my Porcupine County mysteries. One of the e-mail observations he made yesterday was that downtown Ontonagon (the Porcupine City of the novels) was nearly dead on a Saturday afternoon, most stores empty of shoppers and many closed and boarded up.

This is what happens in a remote rural town during a severe recession that may yet end up being a depression. People have no money, so stay home by the fire shivering and hoping they survive until better times.

I will confess that much of the appeal of that part of the country to me long has been its isolation, its lack of madding crowds and consequent abundance of wild animals and birds. There have been just enough people to keep me linked to civilization on my own selfish terms.

But I'm retired, with sufficient income to keep me fed, clothed and sheltered without having to struggle -- yet.

Many if not most people who live in western Upper Michigan don't have that luxury. The paper mill, closed since November, hasn't reopened and might not for many months to come. Deprived of their livelihood at the largest employer in Ontonagon County, many mill workers have pulled up stakes and gone elsewhere in search of jobs. Those who remain out of love for their ancestral semi-wilderness home must scrimp and scratch to stay alive.

I must never forget that the obverse side of my pleasure is other people's misery.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Taking to the rubber-chicken circuit

A sample page of the Keynote talk I'll be giving June 18.

Time for a naked commercial pitch.

Your favorite mystery writer (that would be me) will be the speaker at the monthly meeting of the Ontonagon County Historical Society, 6:30 p.m. June 18, Konteka Restaurant, Mineral River Plaza, White Pine, Michigan.

That's away up in the wild western Upper Peninsula, the setting for my Steve Martinez novels. I'll be talking about mining the county's geography, history and culture to give my novels a sense of place.

I'll finesse the deaf-speech issue by simultaneously presenting the talk in Keynote format (that's Apple's version of PowerPoint) with a Macbook, a digital projector and a screen. The text will be overlaid on photographs, most from my archives.

The Lady Friend will read pertinent selections from Season's Revenge, A Venture into Murder, Cache of Corpses and the novel-in-progress.

Tickets are $12 each at the door, but reservations are required; call 906-885-5170 by June 13.

See you there. But if "it's too far to go to eat with people you don't know," as William Faulkner brushed off an invitation to dinner at the White House, I'll understand.

Will the new Kindle DX save the news industry?

No. It's too little, too late, and for too much.

The 9.7-inch-screen big brother to the present 6-inch Kindle has arrived while dozens of newspapers are rapidly circling the toilet despite massive layoffs and massive wage givebacks. They will fail before the Kindle DX is out (it's to be released this summer) in sufficient numbers and with sufficient subscribers to electronic newspapers and magazines to attract enough advertising that will start a turnaround in the industry.

The Kindle DX is also way too expensive -- $489 -- to sell to most potential subscribers. It still offers only black print on a white surface, while newspaper readers are used to bright color graphics.

I'll say it's likely that future Kindles and their perhaps colorful competitors (some of which will arrive late this year) will be the eventual engine for consuming news. But the shakeout in the newspaper and magazine industry will already have occurred, and our choices will be limited to just a few national papers and whatever local rags have managed to keep their heads above water.

The Kindle DX, however, may save the exchequers of university students. Printed and bound textbooks are filthy expensive, often going for more than $150 even well used, and if textbook publishers can offer their wares electronically at half the print price, the Kindle DX will be a bargain for Joe College.

As for the rest of us, it's too bad we didn't have this new technology a couple of years ago when it was needed most.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Where the Wild Things aren't

The other day the Lady Friend, who knows a thing or two about children's books, made an interesting point: E-books may be taking the adult publishing world by storm, but have made no inroads into children's books -- and are unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future. (Entirely text-based young adult novels are different, of course.)

The reason for this is obvious: E-book readers still display black text on a white background, no color, and even a $359 Kindle is way too small to display the oversized pages of a children's picture book. And can you imagine squinting at Maurice Sendak's vivid illustrations on a 3-inch-color-screen iPod Touch? Your kids would be taunted as "Four-Eyes" before they entered first grade.

I wouldn't look to tomorrow's upcoming announcement of the new, large-sized Kindle newspaper and magazine reader for a harbinger of how children will read in the near future. The super-Kindle very likely will continue to offer only black text on a white background.

And so for a while the printed, illustrated children's book will march on proudly. The current toddling generation will grow up knowing (or once having known) the joy of leafing through paper captured between covers, finding a new treasure on every page.

For that we can give thanks.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mystery bird of the week

Can any of you avian experts out there tell me what species of bird this is? It visited my back yard in Evanston, Illinois, the other day. It doesn't seem to be in any of my bird books. It is about the size and shape of an English sparrow, with striped black-and-white head, slate-gray breast and belly, dark brown barred wings and back, lighter brown hindquarters.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


This is for the bird brains who flock to this blog:

The last few days I've been watching the grackles in our back yard dip their food in the birdbath like cops at Dunkin' Donuts. That's an odd behavior, I thought, so I went onto the Internet to research it.

Seems that Carib grackles on Barbados do that, too, and the phenomenon has been extensively studied.

The reason for that, the aforementioned study says, is to soften hard, dry food. But the Midwestern grackle in the above photo was dunking a sunflower seed. It's doubtful that dunking softens sunflower seeds, at least immediately. Maybe the grackle didn't know that, or maybe it was just swallowing the seed with water, like a pill.

The grackles also land on the bird bath with dry leaves in their beaks, dip them, then fly away with the sodden mess -- perhaps as wetted material for their nests. They leave a lot behind, however, and by the end of the day the bird bath looks like a swimming pool left open to the elements all summer without cleaning.

This is not all that grackles do. They also congregate in fields and stare at the sky, as if watching for space aliens, and rub ants on their feathers.

Grackles are at once annoying and beautiful -- and a bit weird.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Internet scam of the week

In my mailbox this morning:

"Dear Friend

"My name is Sgt,Amy Robinson. I am an American soldier with Swiss background, serving in the military with the army 3rd infantry division.With a very desperate need for assistance, I have summed up courage to contact you. I found your contact particulars in an address journal. I am seeking your kind assistance to move the sum of ( $ 3.2 million u.s.dollars )three million, two hundred united states dollars to you, as far as I can be assured that my share will be safe in your care until I complete my service here, this is no stolen money, and there are no danger involved. I am presently in a hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a suicide bomb attack.

"Source of money:

"Some money in various currencies was discovered in barrels at a farmhouse near one of Saddam's old palaces in Tikrit-Iraq during a rescue operation, and it was agreed by staff Sgt Kenneth buff and I that some part of this money be shared among both of us before informing anybody about it since both of us saw the money first. This was quite an illegal thing to do, but I tell you what? No compensation can make up for the risk we have taken with our lives in this hell hole. Of which my brother in-law was killed by a road side bomb last week. Please view website for confirmation;

"The above figure was given to me as my share, and to conceal this kind of money became a problem for me, so with the help of a British contact working here and his office enjoy some immunity, I was able to move the money to a security company in bangkok thailand as a diplomatic baggage. They are now waiting for us to provide the name of beneficiary who they will transfer the funds to. The reason i want you to claim the funds on my behalf is that as a soldier, i cannot present a concrete evidence on how i made such a big amount of money down here.

"Besides the US Government is trying their best to keep their eyes on soldiers here inorder to effect a high level of discipline among us.The moment i am sure that you are willing to assist me, i will give you the information of the security company and the security code of the baggage.I want you to tell me how much you will take from this money for the assistance you will give to me.

"One passionate appeal I will make to you is not to discuss this matter with anybody, should you have reasons to reject this offer, please and please destroy this message as any leakage of this information will be too bad for us soldiers here in Iraq. I do not know how long we will remain here, and i have been shot, wounded and survived two suicide bomb attacks by the special grace of God, this and other reasons i will mention later has prompted me to reach out for help, i honestly want this matter to be resolved immediately, please contact me as soon as possible, my only way of communication is email.

"Yours in Service.

"SERGENT Amy Robinson Camp MXP-512 Third Infantry Division Unit(T.I.D.U),
Abul Uruj,bagdad,iraq"

The fraudsters are becoming ever so more creative. But an U.S. Army noncom who can't spell "sergeant"?

Friday, May 1, 2009

The terror of surgical masks

Yesterday I rode up six floors in an elevator with a small brown boy who was wearing wearing a surgical mask. Whether he was Latino or Indian or something else wasn't apparent, but I stood in the corner as far away as I could get. Would I have done the same if he were a white boy? I'm ashamed to say I don't know. Ingrained childhood racism is hard to shake entirely -- let alone fear of pandemics.

Last night I dreamed swine flu had overtaken the Chicago area and everyone wore surgical masks. This had me tossing and sweating, for I am a deaf person who reads lips -- who has to read lips in order to communicate. Suddenly I was unable to understand anyone. I could not deal with the waiter trying to take my order, with the salesclerk holding my credit card and shaking her head, with the police officer at the door of my car with his hand on his holster. Their masks prevented understanding. I was completely cut off from communication. I woke up in something very like a panic attack.

A friend of mine who is also deaf and a lipreader holds joint U.S. and Israeli citizenship. He was living in Tel Aviv when Iraq lofted Scuds into Israel during the 1991 Gulf war, and everyone wore gas masks during rocket alerts. He told me vividly of his discomfiture over not being able to follow spoken instructions, over being utterly in the dark about rapidly shifting events.

Now I truly understand how he felt.