Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Political Traumatic Stress Syndrome?

Up here in impoverished rural Ontonagon County, Michigan (Porcupine County in my novels), there seem to be almost no roadside political signs in front of homes along the streets and highways. Yesterday, in the eleven miles between Ontonagon village and Silver City to the west, I counted just three properties with Trump signs and one with a Bernie banner. The biggest sign was for the incumbent sheriff, running for re-election.

In the past, Ontonagon Countians have been as involved and as passionate in their politics, whether Republican or Democratic, as citizens of anyplace else in the rest of the United States. You used to know the allegiance of just about every one of your neighbors just by what they put out on the lawn, never mind fervent barroom and cafe wrangles. The local weekly used to be full of letters ripping a strip off the Other Side. People used to be engaged.

True, the conventions have yet to happen, but it seems that folks up here in the boonies—and, I bet, most of the rest of the country—are heartily sick of the politics of 2016. Both Trump and Hillary seem highly unpopular. (Bernie not so much, but I wouldn’t call him a shoo-in either.)

My conversations with the locals have led me to the admittedly unscientific conclusion that the election cycle has become so long, so intense, so hateful, so full of at best dubious and at worst outrageous statements that people throughout the political spectrum are suffering from extreme campaign fatigue.

Makes me wonder if voters here and maybe everywhere will either sit out the presidential election or trickle to the polls holding their noses, voting against the candidate they either like least or dislike most. There seem to be no positives to vote for.

Things could change between now and November. But I don’t think so. I think we will just see more and more of the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Some time ago I happened across the amusing cartoon above. It bears more than a grain of truth. Authors are a dime a dozen but everybody loves dogs.

That notion has been percolating in my mind for a while.

When my little service dog Trooper came into my life, that notion resurfaced—and gave me an idea for book promotion. The resulting poster is below.

We'll see if it works. I'm betting that it'll double the modest sizes of my audiences.


Grace note

I was reading Buckular Dystrophy, the newest novel by Joe Heywood, my fellow Yooper mystery novelist, when I came across a passage in which his hero, conservation officer Grady Service, enters the real-life Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan, and . . .

“Service noticed they were in front of a line of books by Henry Kisor. The author’s main character was a U.P. lawman named Martinez, an Indian raised by whites and forever seeing the world from different and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Service admired the character, envied his ability to see sides so clearly.”

Well, thank you, Joe!

By the way, Joe is a character in my new novel Tracking the Beast, but I disguised him as a veteran true-crime author named Jack Haygood. His fans will recognize that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Talikka/Weser story continues

The epic of the Talikkas and Wesers seems to have remarkable legs.

While researching my first mystery novel, Season's Revenge, published in 2003, I found a snippet in the Ontonagon (Mich.) Herald about a group of Finnish immigrants, including Mr. and Mrs. Simon Talikka and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Weser, who had been enticed by the Comintern to return to the Soviet-held province of Karelia in Finland during the Depression.

I put the entire clipping into the novel without changing the names. It provided a possible motive for murder.

In 2009 a relative of the Talikkas and Wesers (actually Wesa) living in California wrote to me after reading the novel. The Wesas, the relative said, had disappeared into the Gulag during Stalin's purges, and asked if I had any further information. Sadly, I had none. But I put the letter into a 2009 blogpost as a comment, hoping that someone also looking for the family would come across it using Google Search.

In 2012 still another relative of the Talikkas found the blogpost and the comments, and wrote that he had discovered evidence that Simon Talikka indeed had been sentenced to a NKVD labor camp in Orenburg, and may not have survived.

Over those years Doug Karttunen, a local historian and friend of mine, commented at length on the blogpost, filling in the gaps with considerable historical knowledge about the events and the times.

And just yesterday Doug posted still another comment: the old blogpost had led relatives of the Talikkas in Finland seeking their lost U.S. kin to contact him—and he helped reunite the American and Finnish branches of the family.

Doug's new revelation is at the bottom of the old blogpost. Read the whole story here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Under the table

So far Trooper seems to be completely accepted everywhere in the little Upper Michigan village of Ontonagon except possibly one place—and only in a minor sense. But not a trivial one, not to me at least.

With me he's gone to Pat's Supermarket, where all the checkers and stockers whirl, smile and coo as we pass by, and to Syl's Cafe, where the waitress did the same and allowed us to pick a table where Trooper could lie by my side out of the way.

Last night at Konteka in White Pine, the manager smiled at him as we arrived. Evidently she didn't spot his bright orange service-animal vest, because she said, "He can't come in here."

When Debby said he was a service dog, she quickly replied, "Oh, okay," and let us choose a suitable table. He lay quietly beside me. No muss, no fuss. Everybody was happy.

At my side at a table against the wall, well
out of the way of servers and other patrons.
At lunch in Lynn's North Country Cafe in downtown Ontonagon today, the waitress immediately recognized Trooper as a service dog and admitted him, but when I spread his little mat close by my side at a table along one wall, quite out of the way, she said he had to lie under the table.

"The owner says so," she said.

Such a request is not illegal.

On the other hand, putting Trooper under a small cafe table with a heavy center column means I can't see him and make sure he's lying where he should, keeping him under control at all times. That's why his little mat is always spread at my side so that he's visible out of the corner of my eye. Otherwise I worry.

The issue of where to place a service dog in a restaurant is a gray area so far as federal law is concerned. Dogs are to be either under the table or beside the handler. Who decides which? There's the rub.

Federal guidelines say Trooper is essentially a four-legged item of medical equipment. I doubt that any restaurateur would require someone with a rolling oxygen tank to hide it under the table. The idea is to keep the device out of the way where no one will bump into or step on it. That was my intent in having Trooper lie close by my side.

I didn't put up a fuss after telling the waitress that her command made me fret. Why get her into trouble with her boss? When she later brought the check, she apologized for the incident. She was not only pleasant but also empathetic.

Now I must decide whether to stay out of Lynn's and take Trooper elsewhere, or try to speak with Lynn herself and see if I can't persuade her to relax her policy. Sticking service dogs out of sight under small tables even if their handlers are inconvenienced might be quite legal, but isn't always the right thing to do.

Why not just say goodbye to Lynn's? Her food is excellent, that's why not.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

City Dog in the woods

Debby and Trooper on the Union Mine Trail
in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
“Never let Trooper off leash in the open,” his trainer warned when she brought him to us last December. “He’s too valuable a dog to risk losing.”

This is not a problem for a highly trained service dog who lives in a suburban Chicago condo. Municipal law says he must be leashed when out and about. Good thing, because when Trooper sees another dog, he wants to rush over and play. When he sees a squirrel, he wants it.

In the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, things are a bit different. We live in a little log cabin on the beach of Lake Superior. There are no other pooches (that we know of) in our woodsy immediate neighborhood, but the owls, eagles, coyotes and maybe wolves that live in the vicinity will all take a small dog.

And so this spring we had a dog pen erected in our cabin’s back yard. It’s made of green plastic-clad steel deer mesh about 700 square feet in area, with tall grass and trees at one end for privacy during his morning toilette. We leash Trooper for the short (five yard) walk from cabin door to pen gate. He does come when called, but we just can’t risk his bolting after a squirrel or chipmunk—or, worse, the resident skunk—and disappearing into the woods. He’s a terrier, and terriers have vexedly high prey drives.

In the pen he’s constantly on alert, his head high as he inhales mysterious new smells and listening to alien sounds, especially in the evening when the peepers in the swamp launch their symphony. If he spots a chipmunk in the area, he takes off for it at flank speed. (He hasn’t caught one yet, but it’s a matter of time.)

Yesterday we took a walk in the woods—the Union Mine trail in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park—and he seemed to love the experience, although he wanted to pull hither and yon off the trail, following strange scents. No heeling for him. We’ll need to work on this, but he should get used to it soon.

He has been in the lake once—he jumped into shallow water, then jumped right back out. That water’s cold, about 40 degrees.

By the end of the summer City Dog will have become Country Dog.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A jacket for 'Billy Gibbs'

Now that I am faced with self-publishing the next Steve Martinez mystery, The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, I have been thinking about a cover for the print-on-demand paperback as well as the e-book.

To illustrate the theme of race and murder on the shore of Lake Superior, I needed a good hanging tree. Hanging trees with simple, even plain, backgrounds are hard to come by. Most are to be found in the deep woods.

But there's one just a few miles west of our cabin on Lake Superior, a maple right on the beach that possesses a sturdy hanging limb. At this time of year in the Upper Peninsula, the trees haven't yet leafed out, so there could be a nice branchy silhouette in that maple.

So I drove out last night with the Pentax and captured several angles of that tree. Under it a young couple sat spooning, and there was also a barbecue kettle in the middle of the shot.

It wasn't difficult to get rid of the people and the grill with a little work with the Photoshop Elements clone tool. Then I applied the text, using the Stencil font to suggest the military subtheme in the novel.

Finally I attached an illustration of a hangman's noose found on the Internet and altered heavily beyond copyright worries. Reducing the noose to a proper size took a little research into the depths of Elements.

I'd thought whatever I came up with would be quick-and-dirty, something to tweak over the next few months before Billy Gibbs is published as an Amazon CreateSpace softcover in January.

But maybe it's good enough to stand as is.