Friday, June 26, 2009

Thoughts on tobacco

All Americans should feel compassion for Barack Obama as he tries to stop smoking. The American presidency is the toughest job in the world, full of stress, with a new crisis to deal with every day. It is nigh impossible to beat a powerful addiction under conditions like that.

I know a fellow who started at 16, partly because he wanted people to think he was older, partly because he wanted to look tough, and partly because Camels gave such a nice buzz, at least in the early days. By his mid-thirties he'd tried to quit several times. Once he managed to stop for a few weeks, but he had a boss who was also a smoker, and at a drunken newspaper party the boss kept encouraging him to have one, just one. Being a weak-willed wretch, he gave in and was hooked again.

Not until he had surgery for suspected cancer (it wasn't) at age 35 did he stop for good. The guy in the other bed in the semi-private hospital room was the same age, and had quit smoking fifteen years before. Nonetheless he had come down with lung cancer. One look at the wastebasket overflowing with red-flecked tissues he coughed into, hacking through the night, and the fellow I know never again had another cigarette. There is nothing like the jolt of suddenly facing a vivid prospect of early death to wrench one off a runaway train.

Not that Obama ought to check himself into Walter Reed and find a roomie in the last stages of lung cancer. I wouldn't wish that on the most desperate tobacco addict.

I'm hoping Obama finds a way to quit, and that it doesn't ultimately prove to be too late. Even after almost 34 years without a cigarette, there is still a risk of lung cancer, a risk far greater than if one had never smoked at all. It's hard to keep from looking nervously over the shoulder for the apparition with the scythe.

It's nice that Congress has passed a law (which Obama has signed) giving the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, but you can be sure that the still powerful tobacco lobby will keep the agency all but toothless.

Ban tobacco? That won't work. Look at the War on Drugs, a study in national futility. The only way out is to tax tobacco so punitively, to make smoking so expensive, that only the very rich can afford the habit.

But the wealthy are not likely to waste their money on tobacco. (Cocaine is another matter.) People of higher economic and social classes generally disdain smoking today; it tends to be the blue-collars, the poor and the uneducated, who get hooked.

And, of course, mindless youth. I was one.

The fruits of discipline

From the daily diary of a mystery author:

There is nothing like a little self-deprivation to get a work-in-progress unstalled. Temporarily shuttering my accounts on Facebook and Twitter three days ago has enabled me to get nearly 15 new pages done (I write slowly and for only about a couple of hours a day, but over time that will add up to a new novel).

I've adopted the old trick Michael Connelly uses in his new The Scarecrow: inserting into his first-person narrative an occasional chapter written from the point of view of his serial killer. This turns the novel into a cat-and-mouse game and heightens the tension. I only hope I can pull it off as well as Connelly has.

I've also created a new character to add to the pile of possible suspects my detective hero has to sift through. This is one of the best parts of writing fiction, fleshing skeleton figures with history and personality, making them come alive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Goodbye for now, Facebook and Twitter

Yesterday I decided to suspend my accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

It wasn't because I felt unloved or because I became irritated by too many "I'm going out to eat now at X restaurant" posts or nonplused by too many arcane references to popular music (those fall flat on my deaf ears) or bored by big hellos to people I don't know or wearied by announcements of publishings or autographings by authors even more obscure than me.

It was because both services are an enormous time sink and because as a writer I am utterly undisciplined. That is a fatal combination.

You know how it is. You sit down at the computer at 5 a.m. intending to work on your latest manuscript, but first you'll see if somebody posted something interesting on Facebook or Twitter. Before you know it it's 7 a.m. and time for breakfast, after which you'll go work out at the fitness center and when you get home at 10 there's work to be done on the cabin and and and . . .

But I will be back, as soon as Hang Fire is finished.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer solstice

Sunset at 9:55 p.m. EDT, June 20, 2009

These photographs are offered in homage to the summer solstice, the point at which the sun sets and rises at its farthest north, and of Father's Day. Somehow they make me wish to paint my face blue and run screaming naked into Lake Superior in salute to the pagan gods of nature, but the water is too cold and the biting flies too nasty for that kind of observance.

The last sliver of sun crept below the horizon at 9:57 p.m., seemingly astonishingly late, but Green, Michigan, is on Eastern time although it actually lies farther west than Chicago.

I wish I had arisen three minutes earlier to get the shot below so that the sun would have been at the same depth over the horizon as the one above, but the dog did not nudge me awake in time.

For hairsplitters, the precise time of the solstice arrived at 0545 Zulu June 21, or 1:45 a.m. EDT. Thus the two photographs neatly bracket the witching hour, no?

Click on either photo for a larger, more detailed version.

Sunrise at 5:45 a.m. EDT, June 21, 2009

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The graying of civic groups

Last Thursday the Lady Friend and I performed our literary dog-and-pony show before the Ontonagon County Historical Society. It was a Keynote (the Mac version of PowerPoint) show presented by means of a digital projector, and the 60-odd members of this Upper Michigan organization who attended seemed to enjoy it.

But I was struck by their average age, which had to be 75 or more. Not a single person under 60 seemed to be among the attendees.

Back in Chicago I've noticed the same thing: the members of long established civic organizations are growing older and older. I've watched as the Friends of Literature and the Friends of American Writers -- two historic Chicago groups that provided aid and succor to struggling poets and novelists -- aged, shrank and disappeared. Even the Society of Midland Authors, made up of active writers, seems to be growing grayer and grayer.

Where are the young people?

It's the Lady Friend's opinion that they are satisfying their social urges on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other Internet venues., the Web site that lists all sorts of informal organizations that provide actual meeting places to visit in person, is probably another.

A good friend says she thinks today's young adults have become more self-oriented rather than other-directed and are less apt to join and give money to civic outfits. Maybe this is true -- I don't know.

Could it be that the ever more intense pace of modern life cuts into the time two-breadwinner families are able to allot to art, history and good works? What about the declining importance of art and history subjects in today's elementary and high schools? The economic downturn may have something to do with it, too.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Silence is unsafe?

You weird hearing people just slay me.

All these decades you've bitched about noise pollution, about the yammer of traffic.

Now that quiet electric cars -- you can barely hear the hum of the motors -- are the wave of the future, you're worried that their very silence might compromise your safety, according to a May 7 article in The Economist.

What if we can't hear an electric car coming? you ask. It'll run us over before we know it! We've got to find ways to make it audible, even to mimic the deep-throated song of a 12-cylinder Jaguar engine or the squeal of brakes in a panic stop.

Oh, please.

How do you think deaf people have survived so long in an automotive society? We can't hear sirens, horns, oncoming dumptrucks or speeding Porsches. Yet we manage. When was the last time you read about a car hitting a deaf person? Come on, have you ever?

Deaf folks are simply alert to their surroundings. We have learned to trust in the old Mark One Eyeball, among other senses.

And, admit it, all too many of you are deaf to outside sound when you turn up the speakers, when you (stupidly) converse on your cell at the wheel, when you plug in the earbuds of your iPods.

Wake up, nitwits, and count your blessings.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time and strife

Today's New York Times magazine contains a very good article on the breathtaking difficulty of building a high-speed rail line in California. It's not just the staggering logistics and cost (especially in a rotten economy) to consider, but also the politics. I don't expect a significant (220 mph or more) bullet train route ever to be built in this country in my lifetime.

But that's not the real subject of this blogpost. It's what the author, Jon Gertner, says about the real reason high-speed rail appeals to our imagination. We do not care so much about speed per se; we care mostly about the time it takes to travel between two points.

When we are young and "productive," we care more about saving time rather than enjoying it.

So long as it takes only 90 minutes from takeoff from O'Hare to landing at Washington Reagan, we'll endure the tender ministrations of Homeland Security at the airport, the snarl and snap of frustrated flight attendants, the elbows of cranky fellow passengers, long minutes waiting in line for takeoff and anxiety over checked baggage. We do not arrive calm and relaxed.

Going by train from Chicago Union Station to Washington Union Station takes 18 hours -- if Amtrak is on time. And a sleeper room can cost twice and even three times an airline ticket.

But many people are willing to pay that premium even if they are not afraid to fly, even if they are not hopeless rail buffs. Why?

To many rail travelers (as well as ship passengers and long-distance automobile drivers) time is something to be accepted and enjoyed, not to be frantically "saved" to enable us to strive, get and spend all the more. Time allows us long hours of calm reflection, perhaps reading, perhaps writing, maybe conversation, even prayer if that is our wont. Time allows us to arrive rested and relaxed.

Time is money, you might say. Well, sure, if money is at the center of your life. I'm not arguing with that. But have you asked yourself why you are so uptight? Have you realized that the illusion of saving time -- and it is an illusion, because it adds nothing to your allotted time on earth -- comes at considerable cost?

Let time stretch. Wallow in it. You will be happier if you don't always have one eye on your watch all the time.

That's what retirement has taught me, and I'm the mellower for it.

Take the time to take your time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Great days in advertising

Everybody has days like this -- and my sympathy goes out to the brass at Kalmbach Publishing, purveyors of excellent railroading magazines such as Trains and Model Railroader. Yesterday their promotion people sent out e-mail subscription ads featuring a large photo of a man and small boy walking down the middle of a set of well-polished rails.

What, of course, was missing was the locomotive roaring around an unseen curve at speed and . . .

To its credit, scarcely two hours after broadcasting the ad, the company issued a follow-up e-mail frankly apologizing for the ad and firmly stating its commitment to safety on the railroad.

Still, one wonders what the promotion department was thinking. Perhaps the culprit who came up with the ad was a veteran of one of Kalmbach's non-railroad magazines, such as Birder's World or Art Jewelry.

Meanwhile, the following commercial seems to have tickled the fan- . . . fan- . . . uh, fancy of a great many YouTube watchers in the last few days:

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sunrise No. 2

Sunrise on Lake Superior can be as spectacular as sunset, and last Wednesday, June 10, I managed to get up early enough to be ready with the Pentax when dawn arose in full blush. This shot is my current desktop; if you'd like it as well, click it for a screen-sized version and save it to your computer. PLEASE, HOWEVER, DO NOT REPOST IT ELSEWHERE OR CLAIM IT AS YOUR OWN. THANK YOU.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sunset No. 3

It may still be frightfully cold and windy up here on the southern shore of Lake Superior, but the quality of the sunsets is definitely improving, if last night's shot is any indication. Take a very, very close look at the speck above and slightly to the left of the sun: That's a bald eagle. (You can see it a bit better if you click on the photo for the larger version. Or just imagine it's there. Works for me.) And only a wide-angle zoom lens was on the camera.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

To marry or not to marry? That is the question.

Handling the progress of a romantic relationship is even more difficult than finding a new way to murder someone.

In mystery fiction, I mean.

In my fourth novel, the one in progress, Sheriff Steve Martinez and Ginny Fitzgerald, my main characters, are rapidly approaching The Watershed in their romance. Ginny wants to legally adopt Tommy, the Ojibwa lad she has been fostering for three years (since A Venture into Murder), and she wants Steve, her squeeze for four years, to become her certified husband so that everything will be wrapped up nice and legal for the informal family unit the trio has become. She thinks, with reason, that Tommy's emotional grounding will be stronger.

But Ginny is a filthy rich widow, with an enormous estate and charitable foundation and a passel of lawyers to administer them. Naturally they are advising a prenuptial agreement to protect the wealth, and Ginny understands their point.

And naturally Steve is balking at that.

"I'm a Lakota," he says. "I need to be free."

"You're about as Lakota as my little finger," says Alex, his state trooper chum. "You're just afraid of commitment."

"I'll never sign a goddamned prenup," says Steve. He has his pride.

The sheriff knows that rich people are different from you and me. It's not just that they have more money, as Hemingway said. They're a culture unto themselves, even if some of them try to be just folks, as Ginny does.

Steve has in his professional life seen all too often what happens when poor marries rich: a terribly dysfunctional family (think "Dallas"). He wants no part of that. What's wrong with the informal, natural togetherness he and Ginny have settled into?

So this is what I have to figure out as the novel progresses.

Should Steve and Ginny split? Sgt. Jim Chee and Janet Pete, so long an item in Tony Hillerman's novels, did. Pete became a high-powered Washington lawyer and Jim remained content to be a tribal policeman and part-time Navajo shaman. That just wouldn't mix.

Jim eventually married Bernadette Manuelito, his fellow tribal cop, at the end of Skeleton Man (2004). But Hillerman wrote only one more novel, Shape Shifter (2006) before his death in 2008.

I think it was Raymond Chandler who said that marriage was the kiss of death for a crime novel. When a romantic couple weds, the sexual tension -- so important to the advancement of the plot -- fades.

Will they or won't they? What will happen to Steve and Ginny? I just don't know.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Big Fuck-You

If you have been wondering why newspapers owned by bankrupt companies have been summarily bumrushing laid-off staff out the door within seconds of the axe's fall, just take a look at the first chapter of Michael Connelly's new novel, The Scarecrow.

In it Connelly's hero and alter ego, Los Angeles Times police reporter Jack McAvoy, gets the pink slip. He's asked to hang around for a couple of weeks to train his dewy replacement, and he muses on his luck getting a few more dollars of salary before it's cut off.

"Most RIF [reduction in force] victims had to clear out immediately. This edict was instated after one of the first recipients of a layoff notice was allowed to stay through the pay period. Each of his last days, people saw him in the office carrying a tennis ball. Bouncing it, tossing it, squeezing it. They didn't realize that each day it was a different ball. And each day he flushed a ball down the toilet in the men's room. About a week after he was gone the pipes backed up, with devastating consequences."

A few pages later, commiserating with McAvoy in a newsie's bar, a colleague tells him:

"'You know what I heard . . .'

"'No, what?'

"'That during one of the buyouts in Baltimore this one guy took the check and on his last day he filed a story that turned out to be completely bogus. He just made the whole thing up.'

"'And they printed it?'

"'Yeah, they didn't know until they started getting calls the next day.'

"What was the story about?'

"'I don't know, but it was like a big 'fuck you' to management."

Now I'm not saying I approve of or would condone such behavior -- it is totally unprofessional -- but I fully understand the bitterness that drives it. When you have sweated for twenty years or more for a newspaper, surviving a succession of editors absorbed by their own sense of self-preservation, and are hustled out the door into the night of unemployment with a token "thank you," you might not actually commit such an act, but you sure think about it.

Connelly, who himself was a cop reporter for the L.A. Times before becoming a best-selling novelist, has McAvoy respond: "I'm just going to go quietly into that good night. I'm going to get a novel published and that will be my fuck-you."

It's good to see Connelly returning to his roots in this novel. He has absolutely nailed the emotional malaise of latter-day American newspapering.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sunset No. 2 of 2009

The weather at the Writer's Lair on the southern shore of Lake Superior has been unseasonably cold all this spring -- just above freezing at night, barely 55 or 60 F. during the day, with bitingly brisk winds that have even the locals wondering what's going on. This makes for uninteresting sunsets with either severe clear or overcast skies. Good sunsets -- that is, good for photography -- are shaped by high and distant cloud formations, and last night we had one of the better sundowns in weeks. Click the photo for a larger version.