THE JULY 4TH OUTHOUSE PARADE AND BERNIE SANDERS

My part of the world has had an unusual amount of press lately with the mind-boggling, stranger-than-fiction escape and re-capture of two murderers from an upper New York state prison, and with our independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president and attracting huge crowds. The Fourth of July celebrations have only added fuel to the flames with their patriotic parades that have grown ever more crazy and creative.

For the past two decades our family has converged on the Fourth in the small town of Bristol, Vermont, on Pleasant Street where my daughter and husband lived and where the parade traditionally marched through with its bands, floats, clowns, fire engines, and politicians. My daughter would throw together an abundance of brown rice and lentils, greens, and strawberry shortcake, and we’d line up our lawn chairs on the edge of the street for a close-hand view. The kids, too excited to sit, would leap up and down, water pistols in hand to squirt back at the clowns or at the redneck kids on their dairy farm floats for whom the Fourth meant battle. My daughter always had dry shirts ready to throw on her overexcited adolescents.

This year my daughter and family have moved to a small farm in Leicester, Vt and rented out the Pleasant Street house—but the family tradition goes on, and most of us make the trip back to Bristol for one of the oldest and most colorful July Fourth parades in the country.

The 2015 excitement began, as always, with an outhouse race where teams of ingenious pairs, in four suspenseful heats, maneuvered a fabricated, boxy outhouse on castors: one guy pulling in front, one pushing from behind, and one waving at the crowds from his or her triumphant seat on a shiny white toilet. The two inch castors rotated 360 degrees, so that keeping the unit rolling forward was a challenge. One outhouse veered to the right early on, barely missing a photographer–then its cardboard roof and sides blew off. Nonetheless, like the presidential race, the betting was high, the competition keen, and the cheering loud and wild.

Next came the parade of horse-drawn carriages, fire engines, colonial militiamen in tricorn hats, exploding their ancient muskets; the Bristol Band tooting away on a red and white be-ribboned flatbed; a fat, straggly-haired clown equipped with drum, horns, bells, whistle and sticks to smack the dinger on his head; the Monster buggies from the Freemason Shriners zooming in and out of the road, their drivers tossing candy to our kids; and Bristol’s own horse-drawn trash disposal cart, with its driver stopping every few feet to scoop up the poop into a plastic bag.

Then a shout: “Here comes Bernie!” But no–it’s not Senator Sanders but old Harold Allen from up in Lincoln, with a white wig, red striped tie, one arm gesticulating wildly as the real Bernie would do to make a point. And behind the impersonator a band of buzzing membranophone kazoos blasted through, with a happy-go-lucky dancing gaggle of folks shouting “Bernie! Bernie!”

Then to my amazement: my two young granddaughters appeared among the Kazooers, bearing a huge placard touting BERNIE FOR PRESIDENT! The girls were obviously thrilled to be part of the spectacle, forgetting no doubt, that Bernie himself was not with them. For Bernie, someone called out, was marching in Iowa that day, with even louder crowds trumpeting in his ears. “Bernie tells the truth,” these fans allege: this middle class fellow whose immigrant dad came to Brooklyn from Poland, penniless at age 17. Plain-speaking, “democrat-socialist” Bernie Sanders who wants only to reverse “the obscene levels” of income and wealth inequality, and who thrives not on the Super Pac like most presidential candidates, but on small, grassroots donations.

Finally the parade wound down, the last fireman drove his big truck back to the starting point, and my dancing granddaughters settled down with family to devour the strawberry shortcake my daughter had brought. The ice cream had pretty much melted, but spirits were soaring and even the youngest of kin were released by their parents to run into town and enjoy a day of freedom—the two syllable word that pretty much summed up the whole day.

Of Signs and Symbols

My family reunion was held a bit early this year, so I arrived in South Carolina on July 10, the day the infamous Confederate flag was removed from the state house grounds in the aftermath of the horrible shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Because of the significance of the flag and of its removal, I’ve found myself thinking a lot the last couple of weeks about signs and symbols.

That flag was first flown atop the state house itself in 1961, ostensibly to mark the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War. The subtext, of course, was that the flag was a poke in the eye for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Emotions surrounding that issue were running high across the South. At that moment, the spring of 1961, I lived in Chattanooga and was attending a brand new high school, Brainerd High, whose teams were called the Rebels. Our anthem was sung to the tune of “Tara’s Theme,” from Gone with the Wind. (In the 1970s, amid growing racial unrest, the school teams were renamed the Panthers. On Facebook, though, alumni from the ’60s still call themselves Rebels.)

In the fall of 1961 I enrolled at a new high school in Greenville, SC—Wade Hampton High, named after a Confederate general (and slave owner) and governor of the state in the 1870s. We were the Generals. In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), my senior yearbook (1963) is devoid of black faces. Several pictures show Confederate flags waving at pep rallies and ball games.

In 2015 the flag is being touted as a symbol of state pride, a reminder of the “Southern heritage.” I am a native South Carolinian, but I’ve never understood that argument. I see no reason to take pride in a place just because my mother was there when she went into labor. I was conceived in California, where my father was in the Marine Corps, but I take no pride in that fact either. What I take pride in are some of my accomplishments—the successful marriage my wife and I have enjoyed for nearly fifty years, our four children who are caring, responsible adults, our wonderful grandson, the degrees I’ve earned, the books I’ve had published.

nazibannerBut symbols have power. My father-in-law was in the Army in Europe at the end of WWII. He brought back, among other things, a Nazi banner. Not a flag, mind you, but one of those huge banners that you see in film footage hanging from buildings and balconies. It’s blood red, with a white circle and a black swastika in the center.
Just once, I showed it to a class. The students who held it, stretched across the entire room, seemed reluctant to touch it. The others tended to draw back in their seats, repulsed by the thing. Considering that the swastika was for centuries a good-luck emblem, it’s amazing how completely its symbolism has been reversed.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Confederate flag stood for a way of life, but a way of life based on slavery. An African American colleague of mine keeps a Confederate flag draped over the chair at his desk. He says he likes to plant his butt on it every time he sits down. I can understand that sentiment. I do think, though, it is excessive to portray the Confederate flag alongside a Nazi swastika or an ISIS flag. Southerners did not (and do not) behead infidels or gas millions of Jews. Yes, some of them held Africans (who were usually captured and sold into slavery by their own people) in a reprehensible bondage. But at that time slavery was, in the opinion of many people, not the abhorrent thing we now deem it to be but a necessary fact of life. And yet the Confederate flag is still such a powerful symbol for some people that stores which still sell it—such as the “Dixie Republic” north of Greenville—can’t keep up with the demand.

Dixie Republic, SCIncidentally, today there are more slaves in the world than there ever were in the American South. The United Nations estimates that 27,000,000-30,000,000 people are enslaved today. India, China, and Pakistan account for about half of them. The British Home Office estimates that there are 10,000-13,000 people enslaved in various ways in Great Britain. Mauritania, in 2007, was the last country on earth to abolish slavery, but over 4% of its population are still enslaved.

I’m all in favor of removing the Confederate flag from public buildings or property. It should not be there, any more than a Nazi banner should be. But it has a place, just as a Nazi banner does, in a museum. We have to remember the history. An American history textbook now in use in Texas does not mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War. This is the worst sort of revisionism, on a par with the Soviets rewriting their encyclopedias whenever a leader like Stalin or Khrushchev fell out of power and favor.

We do continually reinterpret history, but, if we hope to learn anything from the past, we have to look at it realistically, to see humanity’s mistakes as well as our accomplishments. We cannot reinvent history. The symbols of various eras of the past serve to remind us of that fact. We cannot pack them away and pretend they never existed.

The Joys of Small Town Living

Wendy Hornsby

I grew up in a small town. Any trip to the grocery, the post office, or the bank was a social occasion because one knew most of the people working there and the other customers. It seemed to me that my parents knew everybody, and everybody seemed to know which family I belonged to, even if they didn’t know which of Bob and Fern’s kids I happened to be. Because of that, I also knew that my friends and I would never get away with a damn thing.

Over time, the orange and avocado groves that had been the economic core of the community were yanked out and replaced by new tract house developments filled with new families. A supermarket came in, then second and third branch of the bank.  New church congregations split off from the old. Two new freeways pushed through, and two more high schools were built. By the time I was in middle school, that little agricultural town had merged with the general earth-tone-stucco suburban sprawl that characterizes Greater Los Angeles. We still ran into people we knew, and my parents still heard about any my mischief I got into before I got home, but the easy, familiar conviviality of the place seemed to have been lost.

Two years ago, when I retired, my husband and I moved out of the LA Megalopolis to a small town. It took us a little while to adjust, or re-adjust, to the pace of ordinary daily transactions. Bank tellers and market clerks think nothing of finishing a conversation with a customer after a transaction is finished, even when there are people waiting in line. As often as not, the people in line will join the discussion. Rarely does anyone get huffy about how long all this chit-chat takes because it is an important element in the quality of life here.

Case in Point: Recently, we went to the post office to mail a copy of the manuscript for my next mystery, Disturbing the Dark, to a blurber. There were maybe four people in line and several others filling out address labels or selecting shipping boxes. The general conversation among the group was about the freak rain we’d had the day before, and speculation about El Niño mounting to anything. A man walked in, leaned against the end of the counter and, addressing the room, asked, “What’s the best way to get rats out of the garage?” He didn’t stand in line or have any postal business to transact, he just seemed to come in for a consultation among the locals. So, D-Con, though effective, was ruled out as too stinky and too dangerous for buzzards and cats who might find the corpse. Instead, “Put peanut butter in a trap and put the trap next to the wall where you saw the rat.” “Go over to Scott’s hardware and get on of those sticky traps, and put that next to the wall. They always go to the wall.” That one brought a comment, “Then close the garage door, because after they get stuck it still takes a while for them to die.” The man with a problem nodded a sort of thanks to the assembled, and left.

A woman walked in and took her place in line. Seeing her, the counter agent called over her shoulder, “Sue, Marva’s here.” A second postal clerk walked up from the back room and set a box with ventilation holes on the counter. She said, “Marva, your peepers came in this morning. They’re making so much noise they probably need water.” The woman at the end of the line, obviously Marva, stepped forward to claim her shipment of baby chickens, and no one in line complained that she was cutting in. Some transactions take priority.

In the meantime, the customer at the counter wanted to know how she could rent a postal box without using her legal name or home address. The USPS requires both, she was told. My husband suggested that she rent a box from the private mailbox place across the road. She said that was too expensive. Hell, she was a self-published author and earned little enough as it was.  She’d held an online give-away contest and now she needed to send copies of the book to the winners, but the last thing she wanted was for any of her readers to find out her legal name and where she could be found. Clutching my manuscript to my chest, I asked her what she wrote. Erotica was the answer.

Though there was a general silence as people gave this fresh-faced young woman a new looking over, Paul laughed. And then he explained why. One of my books had a scene involving handcuffs. I thought the bit was funnier than it was sexy, but it seemed to touch a particular chord with some readers. I started getting handcuffs in the mail: fuzzy leopard-print covered toys, miniatures dangling from earrings, and so on. Fortunately, all of it was sent originally to my publisher, who forwarded it to me, so no one knocked on my door.  But we understood why the woman wanted a buffer between herself and her readers. The postal clerk suggested that she could just leave off the return address altogether. Risking that a book might go astray was better than having some drooling horndog come climbing over the back fence in the middle of the night.  The assembled agreed.

All problems thus addressed, we went on to the diner down the road for lunch.

Sharing My Life

Lea Wait, here.

One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that readers assume you are your character(s.) In my case, it’s easy to see why they think Maggie Summer, the protagonist of my Shadows Antique Print mystery series, is me. After all, Maggie lives in New Jersey (I used to,)  she  has a doctorate (check), she’s an antique print dealer (yup,) she loves Maine (well, yes) and she’s trying to adopt as a single parent. (Been there; done that.) Of course — Maggie is also younger and braver than I am. She’s a college professor, which I have never been. She drinks diet soda; I drink tea.  But, yes; there are similarities between us. (I’ve had readers write to Maggie to ask about the value of their prints …)

The first Shadows book (Shadows at the Fair) was the first book I wrote (not the first published) and I followed the “write what you know” rule. You’d have to look pretty far to find traces of me in my historical novels or my new Mainely Needlepoint series, although they do all share my love of Maine, and my strong sense of place. But Maggie and I? We share a lot.

But admitting that isn’t enough for some readers. Perhaps starting with the “confessional” poets in the 1950s (e.g. Anne Sexton; Sylvia Plath), and continuing today, readers expected — sometimes demanded — to know more about their favorite authors. Those authors who chose to keep their private lives private (J.D. Salinger; Harper Lee) became the subject of all sorts of speculation. What were they hiding?Lea_Wait.jpg

Today authors are expected to be on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads  … the list goes on. And, as I’m doing today, they blog, often not about their writing, but about their lives, their backgrounds, and their personal beliefs. Perhaps not every reader wants to see a picture of their favorite author’s cat on Facebook, or know what he or she had for dinner — but, yes, some do.

4_1I’ve been blogging regularly – on this site, on Mainecrimewriters.com, and as a guest on other blogs – for about five years. That’s a lot of blogs.

Recently, a number of my readers have suggested that I publish a book based on those blogs. My basic story, they tell me, is one they want to hear. I raised four daughters (adopted as older children from Asia) as a single parent; after 30 years laboring in corporate management  I moved to an historic Maine house in the fall of 1998, where I started writing full time, and cared for my mother. After her death I married a man I’d loved since 1968. Our goals hadn’t been aligned then. They are now. So I’m living my dream: married to the man I love, living in the state I love, and writing fiction, which I’d always dreamed of doing. My 15th book will be published late this summer.

I thought about it, and decided maybe those readers were right. So I read through all those blogs, and selected those that reflected the topics most people were interested in: my decades long love story, what it is like to live (all year round) in Maine, and what the life of an author is really like. Earlier this month those collected (and edited) blogs, or essays, were published. If I haven’t revealed any X-rated secrets, I have shared a lot of my backstory and journey.

I’m pleased with the result. I hope my readers will be, too. Living and Writing on the Coast of Maine is available as either a paperback or e-book.

Fasten your seatbelts

I think of the 20th century as my birth century.

It moved along logically, even in its most bizarre times. The outcome of centuries of entitlement for some and slavery or virtual slavery for others. The growth of science. Great literature—how is it possible that the novel came so late in human history? It’s only existed for a few hundred years.

What would I have done if nobody had come up with the idea until, say 1999?

But I digress. The 20th century. Tsar Nicholas II. Hitler. Stalin. The KKK. Skinheads. Right wing religious bigotry. And at the same time, a new recognition that things didn’t have to be that way. Most of our parents shrugged—you can’t change the world. Just keep your head down.

But midway through that astonishing century, heads starting popping up like a giant game of whack-a-mole. The civil rights movement. The student movement. The women’s movement. The gay movement. My head was spinning.

Bad stuff just kept on happening, though. Women sometimes got decent jobs but it was hard to take the crap that came with them. Lower pay, less respect, fewer promotions. Gays were still sneaking around, creating organizations but sending everything in a plain brown wrapper. African-Americans faced a wall of smarmy hate.

Good things happened, too. Slowly. Half-assedly.

And it built. And then came the 21st century. If my head was spinning in the 20th, it almost unscrewed itself in the 21st.

We have terrible and impossible-seeming battles to fight now. Enemies who creep around our cities planning mass murder. As always, the worst of us have many excuses. Reasons.

But the best of us no longer do. We can just stick our heads up through those mole-holes proclaiming our causes, no excuse not to. The idiots are still around, sneering in unison, but we have so much now that we didn’t have before. If the world makes it through the 21st century with clean water, breathable air, and something better than feudal-style income inequality, it’s going to be a great ride.

 

Mysteries In Name Only?

Back when I launched my Nick Hoffman series, Woody Allen did Manhattan Murder Mystery.  That film was missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Despite some funny lines, the movie was hollow.  It’s natural for cops and PIs  to investigate a murder, but amateurs need a believable motive and leaving it out showed a lack of respect for the genre.  The film seemed tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

mmmur05h

I recently tried watching Columbus Circle about a wealthy agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building.  New neighbors suddenly started brawling in the hallway and I thought 1) they’re faking 2) they want to lure her outside 3) they’re after her money.  It all proved true within minutes.  Unbelievably, the woman neighbor badgered the agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was no reason why the shut-in should have succumbed. So the psychology was bogus and the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make anything remotely believable. I see this in films and on TV way too often.

Then there’s Sherlock.  The show started out as an innovate reboot of Watson and Holmes.  It even played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance:  Sherlock discussed it with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

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The special effects that were originally fun have overtaken the show and became distracting.  More than one fan told me he enjoyed them because they demonstrated the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  And his mind is anything but chaotic, it’s extremely organized.  Explosively fast editing works in a Jason Bourne movie, but Sherlock’s thinking should be awe-inspiring, not stupefying.

There was progressively less story in the show and I wondered why. Then I saw the writers on PBS practically boasting that Sherlock wasn’t going to be “about solving a crime ever week.”  Really?  Why breathe new life into a fabled character and then totally subvert what he does?  Their attitude and preference for FX showed contempt for the genre they were in.

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu fields an even bolder take on Holmes, making him a recovering addict and turning Watson into a woman and his “sober companion” when the show debuted.  There’s no flashy camera work or FX now, but just as much substance.  Crimes have typically been solved, not ignored.  By making Watson a woman, it opened up the Sherlock story up in a unique way.  This Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.

Part of the joy of Elementary has been watching her develop into an amateur detective, and in seeing her navigate a complex, layered relationship with Sherlock.  But it’s sadly come to feel like a primer on Alcoholics Anonymous: progressively less action-oriented and less about sleuthing.  Mysteries aren’t really actively solved so much as talked about and there’s more standing around and jawing that there is detecting.  Again, you get the feel that the writers are bored.

elementary_cbs

For the real deal, I’ve turned to watching The Bridge, a Danish/Swedish co-production I rent from Netflix.  It’s smart, deep, dark, and funny when it needs to be.  The writers clearly love the genre they’re in, and it shows.  It starts with a body found exactly midpoint on the stunningly beautiful bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, which means police forces from both countries have to cooperate, and that’s more complicated than we might expect.  There are language issues, jurisdictional issues, procedural issues–and the lead detectives are wildly different characters.  One is sloppy and cuts corners, the other is humorless and rule-bound.  Yet they gradually make an effective, compelling team.  The show is dramatic, tense, moody, exciting.  And there’s real, powerful mystery at its core–something this mystery author and lover craves.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries here.

Summer Geekout

By K.K. Beck

One of the highlights of my adolescence (and believe me, there weren’t many) was The Avengers. Next to The Brady Bunch and I Dream of Jeannie and other perky hits of the period, the show seemed to have come from another planet – a planet that was wittier and more stylish and charming than ours. I had never seen anything so cool on television or anywhere else in my whole life. I believe this is when I stopped bleaching my hair with Clairol Summer Wheat so it would be brown like Emma Peel’s.

I could have seen something almost as cool some years earlier – Peter Gunn starring Craig Stevens wandering around in the dark on wet pavement and dropping in to hear Lola Albright sing at a dimly lit club, but I had to go to bed as soon as it started. I lay there in the dark, bitter and aggrieved, and heard the Henry Mancini theme music from the TV room and knew I was missing something incredibly cool.

In any case, since receiving the sad news of the recent death of The Avengers‘ male lead, Patrick Macnee, I have been completely geeking out. I started by reading With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes: an Unauthorised Guide to the Avengers Series 1. It was free on Kindle. This is a strange work with the feeling of outsider art. It illustrates the depths fandom can reach. If the authors could have told you what one of the writers had for lunch during the filming of a specific episode they would have told us and provided the recipe. And I would have been happy to read it.

The first season of The Avengers was broadcast live from a studio and almost all of the episodes are lost. This book reconstructs them from old stills and production notes, and if the plots ever made much sense then, they don’t now. The show’s star was Ian Hendry playing a sensitive crime-fighting doctor. Macnee played John Steed, his mysterious sidekick, a cynical, sarcastic, dangerous and posh cad and thug. I’ve seen some of the early episodes and it’s kind of like discovering Mr. Jekyll.

Now I am reading The Avengers – The Inside Story by Patrick Macnee with Dave Rogers. It is proving to be very entertaining, but someone – presumably Dave Rogers – seems to have tracked down a bunch of producers and other staff members and got oral histories from them on tape, typed up the transcripts and cut and pasted them into the books as quotes that go on for many paragraphs, so it’s kind of hard to figure out who is talking.

Anyway, I learned all kinds of things, and am getting more obsessed by the minute. I was genuinely upset to hear that Macnee lashed out and yelled at Honor Blackman – who played Mrs. Peel’s similarly leather-clad predecessor, Cathy Gale – when she criticized him for not remembering to invite the security people to a staff party. And how had I never learned before that Macnee and Blackman recorded a novelty song called Kinky Boots in 1964? I must find it on You Tube or somewhere. I was also fascinated to learn that the guy who hired Diana Rigg had first met her at a party while she was lying on the floor under a piano.

I’m only halfway through – who knows what other riches are lurking in the rest of the book. And, Patrick Macnee’s autobiography (with another co-author) is on its way to me in the mail! My summer reading is shaping up nicely.

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