Marching into Madness

For many years late March was my favorite time of the year. It meant March Madness—the NCAA basketball tournament—and it also meant spring training for major league baseball teams. Even when Daylight Stupid Time was shoved back into March, I compensated by focusing on the culmination of the college basketball season and the beginning of the baseball season. Hope seemed to be surging up like the crocus and daffodils in my front yard. Admittedly no 16th-seeded team ever beat a top-seed (as of this writing, a few days before the start of the tournament), but a few 15th-seeded teams had knocked off their 2nd-seeded opponents, so (almost) anything seemed possible. And before opening day, who could say that my beloved Atlanta Braves wouldn’t win another division title and grab that elusive World Series ring?

This year, though, everything feels different. I view both the NCAA tournament and the opening of the baseball season with utter indifference. This is coming from someone who watched hundreds of Braves’ games in the years when they were the mainstay of Ted Turner’s TBS superstation and who has lived and almost died with the Duke-UNC rivalry. Do you remember when UNC was 7 points behind with 17 seconds to play and tied the game (before the advent of the three-point shot) on a half-court shot by Walter Davis, then went on to win in OT? Do you remember the “bloody Montross” game? Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough (“Psycho-T”)?

I remember those moments and many more. My older son and I were both Braves and Carolina fans. My son tried to copy Dale Murphy’s batting stance and hated Duke so much he never wanted them to win anything. I appreciate Dale Murphy because he responded to my request to send my son a birthday card. I could tolerate Duke winning, as long as they weren’t playing Carolina, because I have degrees from both places. But Carolina blue trumped everything.

This year, though, neither of us watched the two Duke-Carolina games. I even forgot to check the score the next day. I assume both teams will make it to the national tournament, but I no longer care if they do or how far they advance. Why not? you may ask. Maybe you won’t ask, but that’s what this blog is about, so work with me for a minute.

I’ve known for years that college athletes weren’t really student athletes, but until recently there was a least a pretence that they were going to go to school for several years and would be taking classes. Schools like Duke and UNC even touted their graduation rates for athletes. Today it’s clear that many of the young men wearing those college/university colors are playing for a year only because they have to before they can get into the NBA.

The University of Kentucky seems to be the worst offender in this regard, but, sadly, Duke and Carolina have joined the club. Last year Duke had Jabari Parker for one year. This year everybody knows Jahlil Okafor will be gone at the end of his one season in Durham. In the few brief moments that I have watched Duke or UNC on television this year, I’ve had no idea who any of the players are. Kentucky has a whole cadre of such players. Some commentators refer to them as an NBA practice squad.

Such players have to attend classes during the fall semester to keep up their academic eligibility, but once the spring semester starts, classes become irrelevant. Even if they fail a class, the basketball season will be over before that grade is turned in. Unfortunately, some of the “classes” they attend aren’t even real classes. My beloved UNC recently had to admit to major offenses in that regard. So, I’m done with college basketball.

In baseball the issue is money. I grew up in an era when Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford had to find jobs in the off-season to support themselves because they made so little money playing ball. After winning the Triple Crown (batting average, RBIs, home runs) in 1956, Mantle made $75,000 in 1957. Miguel Cabrera was the next player to win the Triple Crown (in 2014). His contract calls for him to make $292,000,000 over ten years.

Pitcher Max Scherzer recently signed a contract which will pay him $210,000,000 over seven years. That’s $30,000,000 a year! Thus far in his career Scherzer has averaged about 210 innings pitched in a season, so he makes roughly $140,000 for every inning he works. If he were to get three outs on three pitches, he makes $140,000. That is simply an obscene amount of money. The people who expect it and the people who are willing to pay it have lost all connection with reality. It’s more than I make in a year of teaching. In 1958 Whitey Ford pitched 220 innings and made $35,000 for the entire season, a sum that was ridiculous to the other extreme, but not as obscene as today’s salaries. The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that athletes and musicians made more in a day than a teacher did in a year. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. So, I’m done with major league baseball.

I’ll probably miss following my favorite sports, but at least I’ll have more time for writing and gardening and maybe my blood pressure will go down. And this may all just be the bitterness of a 70-year-old guy who has watched the stock market batter his retirement funds for the last few days.

Power Strips, Spiders, and Cords, Oh My

My office is a small room. One of three bedrooms, two of which were meant to be for children.  The dogs prefer to join us in the master, rather than have their own bedrooms, so one kid room is my office and the second is a library/guest room.

I have a window that looks out onto the driveway and our end of the cul de sac. My computer desk faces it, because I like looking out onto the real world when I’m composing my make-believe one. But it doesn’t actually look out onto anything because for most of the day, the sun blazes in and I’m forced to  keep the blinds closed. So I sit here, facing a solid wall of wooden slats.

For three years. And when I need light, it has to be electric.

Why haven’t I done anything about this dumb state of affairs?

I’m sure I could manage to peel the books and papers and assorted crap off the tops of the desks and bookcases, and move the furniture around to accommodate actual use of the window. But then what would I do? I have two, possibly three power strips and one octopus-like object (spider?) that holds one plug to the back of the computer on one side and four plugs of various kinds on the other side. I have no idea where those wires go. Behind the tall bookcase/desk/ printer shelf thing, where they disappear. There’s another power strip  between that desk and  the one on my right, the roll top whose roll is hidden somewhere in the room. Don’t know where those cords go, either.

And then there’s the power strip under the computer desk. Also stuffed with cords of various colors and thicknesses that wander off behind that desk in the general direction of the tall bookcase etc. Which would have to be emptied entirely to move.

I finally decided that the way to do this is to get my computer guy to come over, unplug everything and then plug it all together again once the furniture is moved. Because I’m sure I would go insane if I tried. So I called him, got an appointment, and started moving stuff off the surfaces. Into the guest room. And then he called me and said he couldn’t make it. He’d thrown his back out and couldn’t drive. Not to mention crawl around on the floor tracking cords and plugs.

So here it all is, a week later, half a mess, half denuded, and still no window.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KILLING WEASELS

Lea Wait, posting from still-snowy (but never snow-bound) Maine. And, no, this post is not about animal cruelty. It’s about editing.

Because “weasel words” are words that are wishy-washy. Not exact. The sort of words that pop up all too often in first — and even second or third — drafts. They sneak in, sometimes in large numbers.

And they must be killed.

Every author has their “favorite” weasel words. (One of mine is “just.” It pops up an incredible number of times in my manuscripts, even after I’ve edited multi-times.)

The good news is that most computer programs now have a “search” function that enables writers to hunt down inexact, boring, nondescript, vague words and replace most, if not all, of them with specific, precise, words that clean up a story and push it along instead of bogging it down.

I’ve been collecting those words for a while now. Some (like “just”) I use too often. Others, like “wondered,” don’t usually pop up in my work. But every time I have a close-to-completion manuscript I spend several days searching for these words, and eliminating as many as possible.  (Okay – you caught me. “Many” and “possible” are both on my list. See how easy it is for weasel words to sneak in?)

So – because all of you who are writers probably have your own lists — I hereby share mine. If I’ve skipped any of your favorites, please share them! The goal is total extinction.

Just    Some    Maybe    Probably    Possibly   Could be    Generally    Usually    Really   So    Often    Nice   It is/it’s  Too

Most    Very    Thing    Guess   Estimate    Fairly    I think    I guess    Might    Pretty much    Sort of   Kind of    There is

There are    There was    It was    I knew/know    Clearly    Well    But   Wondered   Nodded    Smiled   Sighed   Quite   Felt

If you’re feeling particularly murderous it’s not a bad idea to search for “ing” verbs. They’re probably passive. Replace them with active verbs.  Kill adverbs; especially those “ly” ones. Use stronger verbs.

This exercise, I  might add, is best done with a thesaurus at hand. My favorite is  Roget’s Super Thesaurus. I also have the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus on my desk. Some days my brain needs a transfusion.

Onward, on the quest to produce a cleaner manuscript! And a better reading experience.

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

When the late Tony Hays joined our authors’ blog a year ago, he sent me his first piece to assess (which is not our usual practice). I was given pause by his choice of topic: his father’s World War II experience in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and Tony’s visit there almost 70 years later. I told him that while we never censor or proscribe, I didn’t think it was the best introduction to him as a writer and blog contributor, the subject being so serious and powerful in itself. He had no problem with that, and sent another piece about Shakespeare and visiting the remains of Renaissance London, which was related to his forthcoming book. He never submitted the Dachau piece again, but it’s been waiting in my computer’s memory. I feel that posting it now will be an appropriate memorial, to him as a historian and to those he wrote about.
—Meredith Phillips

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

Why Do Writers Keep Making Smart Women Dumb?

We’ve all seen it or read it way too often: a smart woman character, amateur detective or not, suddenly does something totally stupid and you shout at the TV screen or want to throw the book across the room. There should be a name for it because it’s not just what aficionados call “femjep,” it’s worse: it’s a combination of sexism and cheating the audience or readers. The writers take a character we know to be highly intelligent and subvert her intelligence for the sake of the plot.

The latest, best example I’ve seen was on Scandal, which features the brilliant, dynamic Washington, D.C. political fixer Olivia Pope. She’s fierce and fiercely intelligent, a brilliant generalissimo who can multi-task her way out of situations that would leave us ordinary folk paralyzed and possibly even comatose.

Lots of people had been abducted on the show–recently it was her turn. She was terrified and threatened, but for the most part unharmed, not starved, tortured, sexually abused, subjected to solitary confinement, or raped. All in all, not the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

olivia

For years Scandal fans have admired how her quicksilver mind can out-think anyone, but guess what happened when she was put into a dismal prison cell with a stranger? Instead of being instantly suspicious (why is she sharing a cell?), she was warm, sympathetic, and curious. I’ve watched countless movies and TV shows where the other prisoner is always a plant or spy who’s there to elicit information, yet Olivia went all soft and huggy, and she far too easily confided her biggest secret to him: that she was close to the President of the United States and he would do anything to find her and free her.

It was grossly unbelievable. This woman is always thinking of motives and secrets and chess moves. Nothing that’d happened to her has been enough to shake her habitual acumen. (And when that cellmate was dragged off and shot, because it happened off-camera, you just knew he wasn’t dead.)

Fans of the show have long admired her lightning-fast impulses and brilliant planning that make her almost a superhero. So at the point in the episode when she finally makes her escape, she grabs a guard’s gun and shoots him, but then drops it! She only takes his keys and runs for the locked prison doors.

That was even more ridiculous than her becoming confessional with her cell mate. But it was obviously forced on her character for script purposes so that she wouldn’t shoot the guy waiting for her when she burst out of her prison. Guess what? That man was her former cell mate. Could the clichés pile any higher?

Twice in one show, the writers turned a fast-thinking, amazingly intelligent woman into the basic dumb female in a thriller. All they left out was mindless shrieking. And the move was deeply, unconsciously sexist. I doubt they would have let a man drop the gun while making an escape.

Lev Raphael was The Detroit Free Press crime fiction reviewer for a decade before moving to radio and online reviewing. His 25th book is Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization. You can check out his books on Amazon here.
Follow Lev Raphael on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

The Autoblogger, a Labor-Saving Device

Every once in a while I come up with a science fictional idea, a wrinkle on reality that reflects a possible future.  As I was brooding about topics for this week’s blog, it occurred to me that someone ought to come up with an app to take over the process of blogging–all the way from generating topics to editing and polishing, including writing the blog itself.  A roblogger.  A drone blogger.  An autoblogger.  The part that composed the actual blog would be a bit like the thousands of monkeys chained to typewriters until they composed Hamlet, or Arthur C. Clarke’s antique computers that recited the nine billion names of god so the universe could come to an end.  That part would require a lot of memory.  The rest, though, would be duck soup–a genisap, an editap, and a copap.  And, of course, a pubap.  Truly, a labor-saving device.

The golden age of science fiction was much taken up with labor-saving devices because that was what engineers and other technicians brooded about in the mundane world outside science fiction.  I don’t remember ever reading an article in the news magazines of that era that presented a negative view of labor-saving, but I do remember wondering what all that displaced labor would do for a living when the devices that eliminated labor were in place.  When I got around to studying British history, I came across a name for people who voiced that concern–Luddites.  Maybe I was an incipient Luddite.  Horrors.

In my lifetime, as a consequence of labor-saving devices, our society shifted from being an agricultural labor-market to resting on the uncertain foundations of manufacturing.  Now it teeters between manufacturing and “service.”  When I taught introductory history at a community college, we used to list what was necessary for cookery, basic household work.  A sharp stick and a fire.  A pot, the students would say.  I pointed out that you could dig a pit, fill it with water, and toss red-hot stones into it.  You didn’t need a pot.

Nowadays the kitchen is full of labor-saving devices that eliminate, what, the cook?  Not exactly.  The cook’s close attention?  The stove (four burners and an oven) eliminates the need for an open fire of buffalo chips (or wood or coal or peat).  If the stove fails, an electric skillet, a micro-wave, and a slow-cooker provide backup.  The sharpened stick gives way to a broiler, roasting pans, a deep-fat fryer, cookie sheets, pie and cake pans, a Dutch oven, and a raft of electrically specialized tools like toasters, waffle and coffee makers, rice cookers, and sandwich grills.  Replacing the pit and hot stones, the stove burners heat pots and pans with and without lids.  And those are just some of the cooking clutter.  I have not yet mentioned the pitchers and cups for liquids and the crockery on and in which the food is served (replacing a large leaf or a bread trencher) and the tools (chop sticks or cutlery) that replace bare fingers.  Ah, I forgot–knives (I need six for cutting, paring, and slicing) and serving spoons, slotted and unslotted, strainers, graters, spatulas, egg slicers, apple corers, garlic presses, cherry stoners, and nut crackers.  Mandolines.

How generous of the manufacturers to supply me with all these objects in exchange for quite reasonable amounts of cash.  Do they save me labor?  I don’t know.  I do know that I don’t have a cook, and I don’t know anyone who does.  In the nineteenth century, most houses the size of the one I live in would have had, at the very least, a resident cook and a housemaid, so that must be the labor all those devices saved.  Indeed, this house has a bedroom for the cook right off the kitchen.  Consider this–the plots of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey don’t make sense for a series set later than World War II.  Except for nannies, people no longer consider a career in service, nor does “service” mean what it used to mean.

The automatic blogging app I theorized in the first paragraph would not be replacing labor in the sense that cookery is labor.  Nevertheless, blogging is a complex, time-absorbing activity, thoroughly exhausting, especially for someone who has other writing waiting to be done.  Clearly an autoblogger is a desirable labor-saver and ought to be created as soon as possible.  I can’t do it but somebody out there surely can.  Maybe somebody has.

While I was plugging away at this, my spouse googled “autoblogger.”  There is one.  We held our breath as it loaded.  What if …

Unfortunately, the extant autoblogger is closer to Car Talk than to the text generator I envisaged.  Clearly my kind of autoblogger will have to have another name.  Verblogisty?  Blogosity?  You name it, I’ll buy it.

Recycle and Reuse

I’m looking for a plant stand. But I don’t want to spend money on something new.

Instead, I’ve been prowling second-hand and salvage shops, looking for inspiration. And I’m looking here at home to see what I have that could be repurposed into a plant stand.

So this blog post is all about making use of what we already have.

After all, I live in California, in the Bay Area, where we’re proud of our recycling rates. And I love checking out antique stores to see what old items I can give a second life.

When it comes to writing, I also recycle. I suspect many other writers do the same.

An incident removed from Till The Old Men Die found its way into Nobody’s Child. I took a scene from my first mystery (unpublished, predating Kindred Crimes) and reworked it into a scene in the upcoming Jeri Howard book, Cold Trail.

And one of the two plots in Bit Player came from something I mentioned in Kindred Crimes – that Jeri Howard was named for her grandmother, Jerusha, who was an actress in Hollywood a long time ago. For years I thought about writing a short story about that, and eventually I started the story, but it kept getting longer and longer, because it wanted to be a novel.

The first book I ever wrote wasn’t a mystery. I still have the manuscript and I think it has possibilities. Recycle and reuse – in this case add a body and turn it into a crime novel.

Waste not, want not, that’s what I say.

My real life experiences and interests have also found their way into my fiction. Jeri Howard’s apartment in the earlier books? That’s an apartment I once looked at. The murder victim in Take a Number was an old boyfriend. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed that.

The company in Where the Bodies Are Buried bears more than a passing resemblance to a company where I once worked.

In Bit Player, I recycled my own interest in movie memorabilia, as well as a newspaper clipping about a mysterious discovery at Camp Roberts, a World War II-era training base in Central California.

Something I learned at a law firm where I used to work became my Jeri Howard short story “Slayer Statute.” A remark overheard at an Oakland deli inspired me to write another short story, “Little Red Corvette.”

I know some of my work experiences at places I refer to as “the job from hell” will find their way into my novels.

You see, someone once gave a me a tee shirt that reads, “Be nice to me or you’ll wind up in my book.”

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