Monday, March 31, 2008

Titles to launch a thousand chuckles

When my first book, What's That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness, was published in 1990, I thought it had a shot at the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, a British literary venue that had been founded in 1978.

It was beaten out by Pat Califia's Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual.

Damn. Maybe I should have waited to publish in 1991, when no award was given -- perhaps nobody else's title could have measured up to mine.

But from the next year on Pig wouldn't have stood a chance. Here are the winners since:

1992: How to Avoid Huge Ships, by John W. Trimmer
1993: American Bottom Archaeology, by Charles J. Bareis and James W. Porter
1994: Highlights in the History of Concrete, by Cement and Concrete Association
1995: Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes, by Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw
1996: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, edited by Derek Willan
1997: The Joy of Sex, the Pocket Edition, by Mitchell Beazley
1998: Developments in Dairy Cow Breeding: New Opportunities to Widen the Use of Straw, by Gareth Williams
1999: Weeds in a Changing World, by the British Crop Protection Council
2000: High Performance Stiffened Structures, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
2001: Butterworths Corporate Manslaughter Service, by Gerard Forlin
2002: Living with Crazy Buttocks, by Kaz Cooke
2003: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, by Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan
2004: Bombproof Your Horse, by Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden
2005: People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It, by Gary Leon Hill
2006: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Julian Montague

And the 2007 winner, just announced: If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs, by Big Boom.

According to The Guardian, "Boom's trusty treatise took something of a landslide victory, receiving a full third of the nearly 9,000 online votes cast since the short list for the Bookseller magazine-sponsored award was announced last month. In particular, it received attention for the cunning way in which its title conveys the nature of the advice to be offered so effectively that, according to the Bookseller's deputy editor Joel Rickett, 'you don't even need to read the book itself' -- a somewhat unique term of praise for a literary prize sponsor."

The Daily Telegraph wrote that Mr. Boom (presumably a pseudonym) is a former pimp. The Canadian Press added that the author calls it a "self-help book, written by a man for the benefit of women."

It's a book, Boom writes, that is "raw, honest and about you," distilling "the sweat off my back, the wrinkles in my forehead from anger and thinking all the time."

The prize: A magnum of champagne and a brief bask in the sun of notoriety.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mapping the caches

Tina Davidson has worked her magic again.

Being a terminally clumsy HTML artist, I have depended on her to get me out of jams with my web site. She has done that, and she has also contributed a great deal of the artistry on the site. (If it looks good, it's her work.)

The latest: A series of blow-up, fine-detail maps attached to the large map of Porcupine County, the imaginary locale in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my mystery novels are set. In that big map, the locations of the seven corpses cached by the bad guys are given in red. Give it a try.

The cool thing, now, is that when you click on any of those red locations, you'll get a big, fine-detail map showing that spot and its close neighbors, with their geographic coordinates as well. There are three fine-detail maps in all, and there are also large, printable versions.

Geocachers with strong legs might want to use them to see what's actually at each spot. (Disclaimer: The locations are real, but the surroundings fictional.)

Many, many, many thanks to Tina.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

If Sisyphus had been a blogger

For the last week or so I've spent a couple of hours a day working on restoring the archive of blogposts from the upscrewed old Reluctant Blogger site, which lived from November, 2006, through February, 2008. Working backwards through the archives, I'm now done through August, 2007. Nine months to go and we'll have a baby.

The work isn't hard, but it's time-consuming. Is it worth the sweat?

Let's face it: Yesterday's blogposts are even more useless than yesterday's newspapers. You can't wrap fish or line birdcages with them.

The world has changed. No longer do popular newspaper columnists reissue their old stuff in new books every few years. They never sold well anyway, except for Mike Royko's collections. (Today it's the rare journalism student who has heard of him.)

And have you ever known of a blogger's posts being reprinted in book form? Why should they be, when they're available for free as Internet archives?

Anyway, I suspect that after a week or so nobody rereads the work of bloggers. This stuff is utterly evanescent; people want the new, not the old.

So why do I do it?

Ego -- sheer, simple, naked, pathetic ego. Like every other aging midlist writer who despairs of ever making the breakthrough into literary or popular fame, I dream of posthumous discovery. Maybe I'll achieve immortality like Herman Melville, who went largely unappreciated until long after his death.

If that happens, then scholars with nothing better to do will pick over my notes, letters, clippings, jottings, manuscripts and blogposts for insights into my genius, if there was any.

And so I labor for an unknown afterlife. Whether there actually is one I will leave to the dog-collared shamans to quarrel over. I'll find out soon enough. And when that happens I'll be beyond caring.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Learning from a master

Yesterday I started reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, the Chicago Public Library's current "One Book, One Chicago" selection. Before I turned the first page, I had learned a valuable lesson.

In the opening scene Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe, watches as a young woman gives her drunken escort "a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

Now that is a famous Raymond Chandler line. But, God help me, I at first thought it could be improved. Old copy editors are like that. That "which" ought to have been a "that," and the sentence would have been sharper if "at least" had been omitted.

But a second thought quickly overtook me. This is first-person narration, not omniscient exposition. A character is talking to us, and characters don't talk in perfect sentences. Nobody does.

Chandler is shaping his character with his interior speech. That "which" is a whiff of the old-fashioned, a time when a man's honor meant something. That deceptively banal "at least" suggests how people speak, not how they write. In this way it actually intensifies, rather than softens, the metaphor.

All this hints at something important: Marlowe is an intelligent and literate sleuth, although he can (so we will learn as the novel unfolds) think and speak in the argot of the street. Much of Chandler's genius lay in his ability to create a vivid and believable voice this way.

This is what I need to concentrate on in my own mysteries. One of my sons once observed that my characters tended to speak with identical voices and that I needed to make a few of them more distinctive. He's right.

More lessons as I read on . . .

R.I.P. Herb Peterson

I do not ordinarily patronize fast-food restaurants, most especially McDonald's. At my age keeping one's arteries clear and free-flowing is much more important than a quick and tasty bite on the road. In fact, I've begun to think of the patrons of such fat factories with the same busybody dismay with which most of us regard teenagers who take up smoking.

On the other hand (there is always an other hand), the Egg McMuffin rates an occasional stop at a Mickey D's on the 400-mile way north from Chicago to Lake Superior. Unlike a Big Mac or a Whopper, the McMuffin checks in at a not-too-outrageous number of calories (300) that will keep me happy in the minivan all morning. Unlike a Big Mac (560 calories) or a Whopper (660), there is no lingering goat-slobber "sauce" aftertaste. Muffin, egg, cheese, ham, butter -- the perfect breakfast for behind the wheel.

(And McDonald's coffee actually tastes very good. It beats the flavorless crap beloved of convenience-store gas stations. Gotta let it cool some, though.)

My hat is off to the man who invented the Egg McMuffin. Herb Peterson, once a Chicago advertising man, died in Santa Barbara at 89 yesterday, and doubtless he is enjoying eggs Benedict -- the dish that inspired him -- inside the Pearly Gates this morning.

Slotman on stage

"Those Infernal Apostrophes

"Q. Why does The Times insist upon using apostrophes when pluralizing abbreviated numerals, for instance, 1900’s rather than 1900s. Most publications use the latter since the former is ambiguous. If written out, would you write nineteen-hundred’s?

"— David Friddle

"A. Gee, Mr. Friddle, we stopped insisting on that more than a year ago, when we changed the stylebook to drop the apostrophe in most of those cases. So now it’s supposed to be the 1900s, not the 1900’s. It’s also now supposed to be the ’60s (not the 60’s), and DVDs, not DVD’s. If you are seeing those constructions, it’s because sometimes old habits die hard, and we had been doing it that way since the least the mid-1950’s. Er, mid-1950s."

Almost half a century ago, when I began my newspaper career as a copy editor for the Evening Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, I tried to explain to my friends just what a copy editor does. "Yeah, corrects grammar, writes headlines," they would airily say after my highly detailed ten-minute explanation. Grrr.

Right now Merrill Perlman, director of The New York Times' copy desks, is again fielding questions from readers on the "Talk to the Newsroom" blog at the paper. Her remarkably lucid answers are poster children for the term "explanatory journalism."

I have never seen outlined so well what I used to do.

And her responses to questions of style and grammar make excellent sense. They are honest, too; mistakes are sometimes made, even by (especially by!) the old hands, as evidenced in the foregoing example about apostrophes.

As for the headline of this post, "slotman" refers to the occupant of the interior seat of a horseshoe-shaped desk on whose outer rim a battery of copy editors ("rim men") once sat. Long into the 21st century, decades after copy desks had been replaced by computer terminals in cubbyholes, we aging newsies often called copy chiefs by the old name.

Merrill Perlman is a helluva slotman. Or slotperson, if an anachronistic term can be P.C.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Times at last notices the dying bats

Some irritating people refuse to credit the existence of an event unless news of it has been published in The New York Times. They paid little attention when, back in February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review took notice of, a strange die-off of bats in Pennsylvania and New York State. The reporting was duly credited on this blog Feb, 20.

Now, five weeks later, The Times has finally gotten around to telling its readers about the die-off. The story has grown bigger than it was a month ago, and The Times, though it is a bit late to the party, has produced an excellent article that should persuade even the willfully ignorant that something mysterious and possibly perilous is affecting an important part of our biosphere.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

24 hours of information overload

We all know people who read twelve newspapers in the morning, following that up in the afternoon with an academic history, non-popular biography or experimental novel and winding up in the evening with the latest Sundance Festival movie, if they are not off to the Symphony or Opera. In the background they listen to public radio and TV, occasionally clicking to CNN for the headlines, Fox for a bit of newsporn, MSNBC or CNBC for a break, or C-SPAN for guilty pleasures. In their off hours they are experts at navigating the blogosphere.

I know more of these intellectual wallflowers than most, having made my living cheek by jowl with dozens of information junkies for 42 years.

Most of them are at heart nice people. I'm not complaining about them, even though they never miss a chance to correct my ignorance or score a point off my hide. When I need an obscure question answered, I know where to go.

But these people do not know as much as they think. It is impossible to know more than .083 per cent of what is happening at any given time. (I made up that statistic, but it carries a certain truth.)

To prove this point, if only about politics, Gene Weingarten, the resident "investigative humorist" for the Washington Post, spent a solid 24 hours listening to nonstop punditry on TV and radio. To call the process an ordeal would be to patronize it.

The man is funny. But he's also right. Punditry is Looney Tunes in a tuxedo. (Weingarten ennobled his enterprise by wearing one.)

The piece is full of great lines. Weingarten, though a self-styled "New Deal Democrat," thinks Rush Limbaugh can be lighthearted -- but he considers Bill O'Reilly "as serious as an aneurysm."

Weingarten also coins memorable and lasting neologisms. Foofahahas, for instance. "Foofahahas are half foofaraw and half brouhaha. They occur on Capitol Hill with some regularity, identifiable by their momentary intensity but fleeting duration; typically, they cause a flurry of speechifying and accusation launching, dominating the day's spin cycle. Then they instantly disappear like water in the sand."

MONDAY, MARCH 24: Weingarten conducted a merry chat session with his readers today about his self-imposed ordeal.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Read the Wall St Journal online FREE

I have been reading the Wall Street Journal only occasionally, because as an impoverished pensioner I don't want to pay for newspapers when I can get them online for free -- but is a pay site.

Today Farhad Manjoo, the tech maven of, tells how Firefox users can download an extension that allows one to read the Journal online for free -- and legally, too.

Amazing. And most convenient.

Slipping the $urly bonds

She's tiny. She's pretty. She's graceful. But oh, is she ever high-maintenance!

As time goes on, it is getting harder and harder to justify owning an airplane, even an ancient (built in 1959) two-seater, with any rationality.

It's a bottomless money pit any way you look at it.

Parts for old airplanes are not easy to find, and when you do find them, they are impossibly costly.

Aviation gasoline is staggeringly expensive: it's $4.71 a gallon at my airport. My Cessna 150's engine burns 5.5 gallons an hour. That's $26 an hour just for avgas. There's oil to buy, too.

There's a hangar to pay for as well. Fortunately I'm sharing mine with a fellow who has an equally small airplane.

There's an "engine reserve" to think about. The little Continental four-banger in my airplane can run about 1,800 hours before having to be overhauled -- and that costs $12,000 and up. So I've got to feed the engine reserve account regularly.

Then there's insurance -- both for the airplane and for me.

The biggest item: The annual inspection, in which the mechanic takes apart the airplane, examines the innards, then rebuilds it. Even with me helping by unscrewing a million little screws and screwing them back in, the annual costs between $1,000 and $2,000 each year, depending on what needs to be replaced. Occasionally a really big-ticket repair shoves the cost over $3,000.

All told, it costs me somewhere between $100 and $125 an hour to fly a very small and simple airplane around my little patch of southern Wisconsin, or between $5,000 and $6,000 a year. That's a lot of leisure dough for a retired newspaper guy to throw around.

Especially when I could not fly the airplane between last November 4 and yesterday, March 20. Most of the time this winter the weather was just too rotten. And when the sun did come out, the hangar aprons could not be plowed, and my aching back is too achy for me to shovel things out by hand. Almost four and a half months grounded!

And so yesterday I drove up to the airport, the first day nice enough to haul the plane out of the hangar, intending to see if my first flight of 2008 justified keeping the airplane another year.

Rolling old N5859E out wasn't too difficult. Gassing it took some grunts and groans; that fuel hose gets clumsier and heavier with each passing year.

So does the preflight inspection, this time exceptionally painstaking after so long a layoff. Getting down on my knees to peer at things wasn't so bad, but getting up again resulted in loud creaks from abused joints. I won't mention the ordeal of folding myself into the tiny cockpit.

But as soon as the wheels lifted from the runway I knew I was going to keep this baby another year.

In no other human endeavor does the sweep and joy of flying lift the spirit so. "Up, up the long delirious burning blue," sang John Gillespie Magee Jr., and while a Cessna 150 is to a Spitfire as a sparrow is to an eagle, the exaltation is the same.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Presidential politics reduced to a microchip

Obama is a Mac.

Hillary is a PC.

McCain is a typewriter.

-- Huffington Post

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Noted with pleasure

On the conservative U.S. Supreme Court's hearings yesterday into the contested right to bear arms, Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist with a fine eye for Beltway irony, wrote:

"The justices, protected by well-armed officers of the U.S. Marshals Service, were a bit insulated from the case they were hearing. Those attending yesterday's argument had to pass through two metal detectors and submit their belongings to X-ray and hand inspections. Even the D.C. police chief, Cathy Lanier, had to surrender her firearm to enter the chamber."

Today's full column is here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Workin' on the railroad

If you look down the left hand column under "Old Blog Archives," you'll see "February 2008." Click that on for a reprise of last month's blogposts on the old site.

Soon the January 2008 archive will be up, and then those for 2007 and 2006. It will take a while, because I speak only broken HTML coding . . .

Speaking of broken coding, when I was assembling the archive, I noticed that many if not most links to newspaper stories were broken. Newspapers usually leave stories for free reading online for only about a week, then put them in their archives and charge a fee for access. So it goes.

This suggests that next time I quote newspaper stories, I ought to quote at considerable length instead of just providing the links and a few descriptive words -- so that when the stories are archived and the original links broken, blog readers won't be left in the dark.

Monday, March 17, 2008


A fan email containing a small bomb:

"Dear Mr. Kisor,

"I just finished reading Season’s Revenge, A Venture Into Murder and Cache of Corpses. I enjoyed all of them. I read a review of Cache of Corpses in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago, and having vacationed and skied in the UP, I was intrigued enough to read the first one, then the second and finally the third.

"I did want to mention one point about Cache of Corpses that may be an error. In Chapter 36, when Steve and Eli take the Boston Whaler out, you refer three times to the outboard being an Evinrude and once as it being a Mercury. The company I work for supplies products to Mercury Marine and to BRP, Bombardier Recreational Products. BRP purchased Outboard Marine Corp., OMC, several years ago, and I believe they still own the Evinrude brand of outboards..

""That very minor inconsistency in no way detracts from the story.

"I look forward to book 4, where I hope Steve and Ginny get married and adopt Tommy. Maybe they can go on a road trip to the Peavey Dam on the Michigammee River just outside Crystal Falls for the opening day of walleye season.


"Ray Jablonski

"Darien, IL"

Sheesh. It seems that every week a sharp-eyed reader catches me in a dumb mistake. How an Evinrude turned into a Mercury I'll never know. But I'm grateful the error didn't disappoint Mr. Jablonski.

As for Steve and Ginny getting married, well, take a gander at yesterday's blogpost.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Big hello for 'The Long Goodbye'

Good news for mystery lovers: The Chicago Public Library has selected Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled 1954 whodunit The Long Goodbye as its new "One Book, One Chicago" choice.

The idea is to get Chicagoans -- or as many of them as possible -- reading and talking about books rather than mugging each other. Libraries and cities all over the United States do this now, but Chicago was one of the first early adopters.

Trying to pick a book with enduring literary value and popular appeal is always a tough job. It helps if a good movie was made from it, allowing a multimedia celebration.

The library folks started out well in 2001 with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- a truly inspired choice, although some in the literati sniffed at it -- and in 2002 with Elie Wiesel's harrowing Holocaust chronicle Night.

Then the library stumbled in 2003 with Willa Cather's My Antonia, a novel that reeks of dusty academia. Other dubious choices followed, such as Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of the Maladies and Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies, both excellent literary novels with small appeal to the blue-jawed sex. Likewise, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice thrilled every eighth-grade girl in town, but not, I suspect, the boys.

There were two first-rate Chicago-oriented choices: Lorraine Hansberry's play Raisin in the Sun and Stuart Dybek's exquisite short stories Coast of Chicago. Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1940 Western, at first seemed an odd choice but its message about vigilantism touched many minds as well as hearts. (The 1943 film was a great one, too.)

The most recent choice but one, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a play about witchcraft trials with echoes of McCarthyism, is already studied in high schools, insuring a wide readership.

Not a bad record, and one made even better with the choice of The Long Goodbye, a literarily seminal work as well as a hell of a readable popular novel. I plan to reread it -- my first experience came sometime in the 1960s -- and will soon report here on my reaction.

Surely I will learn some new writer's wisdom. I've never forgotten Chandler's casual remark, "A really good detective never gets married." That's what comes to my mind every time anyone asks me if Steve Martinez and Ginny Fitzgerald, the lovers in my mystery novels, will ever go to the altar.

Meanwhile, April is full of celebrations for Chandler in Chicago -- screenings of the movies, readings, discussion groups and the like. The Chicago Public Library has an extensive web page detailing them.

[Full disclosure: Annie Tully, my daughter-in-law, is the coordinator of the "One Book, One Chicago" program.]

Friday, March 14, 2008

The move is official

It's now a done deal -- the Reluctant Blogger has moved permanently to this new home at

It's not just that the old Wordpress-based blog on Yahoo is so thoroughly Humpty-Dumptied that all the king's geeks and all the king's nerds will never be able to put it back together. This Google-based Blogspot software is much easier to use and, I hope, more bulletproof than the open-source Wordpress. Blogspot is not quite as elegant and feature-laden as Wordpress, but it's not bad at all. I can live with it.

In weeks to come I'll be redoing the archives, which are still housed on Yahoo and formatted for Wordpress. (The web site still resides on Yahoo -- there's nothing wrong with it. So far.)

Comments are welcome, as always.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, oil on canvas, 1928.

Quite some time ago, when I was an editor at the old Chicago Daily News, I'd often take the L home on hot summer nights. Rather than reading the paper, I'd gaze idly out the window as the train rattly-clanked its way around tight curves and past seedy apartment buildings. Often shades were up and back doors open, and I could see into lighted rooms inside.

An old man slumped alone in a rocker, dog at his feet. A young woman primped in her slip before a mirror. A couple sat unspeaking at a kitchen table. They were all strangers. And the brief glimpses I had of their lives told me nothing about them. Who were these people and what did they do? What did they think about and what did they long for?

Sometimes I'd construct a fantasy life for them. The scenarios were always fleeting -- the train rolled past too quickly for me to form more than an impression -- but they always suggested a melancholy existence: These people were lonely, isolated, cut off from those they lived with.

Probably none of this was true, just the weary and romantic longueurs of a homebound city worker hoping for a cool shower and a cold beer on a hot night. Who could presume to tell such stories, anyway?

Edward Hopper did, and these memories rushed back the other day when the Lady Friend and I saw the new Hopper exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hopper's greatest painting, his powerful "Nighthawks," has been a comfortable old friend to three generations of Chicago journalists. At one time or other we all ate silently with strangers at corner cafes under Phillies cigar signs before starting the midnight-to-8 shift at our newspapers.

But it was the other, less familiar paintings such as "Night Windows" that touched my soul. As the exhibition handout says, Hopper's voyeuristic technique in painting what he saw fleetingly through city windows gave his work "an overwhelming silence and disquieting stillness." What were these people and their ambiguous dramas all about? Hopper wouldn't say.

It was up to the viewer to make of the art what he would. Aloof solitude or aching loneliness? You tell me, buddy, the paintings seem to say.

I could go on for hundreds of words about the impact Hopper and his art had on me the other day, but I ought to mention the companion exhibition at the Art Institute: the watercolors of Winslow Homer. While he doesn't have the emotional impact of Hopper (at least for me), Homer is very much worth viewing for the breadth and depth of his many-sided techniques, especially in transforming chalk drawings into watercolors.

In short Homer is to be admired, but Hopper is to be experienced.

This twin exhibition opened February 16 and closes May 10. If you're going to be anywhere near Chicago between now and then, go.

One complaint: There was no printed script for the deaf and hard of hearing of the sophisticated audiophone presentation. This was disappointing, especially since the Art Institute has conscientiously provided these scripts for many if not most of its shows. I hope this was just a one-time oversight.

[March 19: The Art Institute advises that there indeed are printed scripts of the exhibition; it so happened that on the day of my visit someone walked off with them instead of returning them. So it goes. But I am glad the Institute isn't falling down on its moral obligations to people with disabilities.]

Another advertisement for myself

This one's for Chicago area readers:

Next Sunday afternoon, March 16, I'll be speaking about Cache of Corpses and on how I promote my books at the monthly meeting of the Midwest chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. It's from 1 to 3 p.m. at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison, Forest Park, Ill.

You may be unimpressed with me, but Centuries & Sleuths is worth a jaunt to Forest Park for any mystery lover. Its ambience is tweedy and intellectual, heavy-duty whodunit writers often autograph their books there, and its proprietor, Augie Aleksy, is beloved in the profession. Come by and say hello to Augie and to me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A new look, but the same mission

Having run into a seemingly unsurmountable (for a technophobe like me) database problem on the old Yahoo-based blog called, I'm trying a temporary fix by putting "The Reluctant Blogger" on Google, a simple and quick tabula rasa solution to the problem.

If I can figure out how to fix things, the Yahoo-based blog will resume. For now, the new link is, and you're here.

Of course, this temporary blog is still under construction, but each day you'll see a little more.

A note on the Old Blog Archives at the left: Although all the posts I made will be visible, the reader comments on them are still unreachable.

The website -- -- is still up and running.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Just the thing for Chertoff's grandchildren

If it is true that the products of American toymakers reflect our nation’s political realities, then Playmobil’s Airport Security Check Point has reached a new low:

It is out of stock on

This is no joke; I went to Playmobil’s website and found the item. It has been around since 2005.

Fear not, however. The long string of snarky customer “reviews” of this weird product suggests that American consumers still can display a wicked sense of humor.

Will it be long before Playmobil brings out a little plastic Humvee full of little plastic soldier figures that disintegrates when it rolls over a little plastic bomb? Or a little plastic female Iraqi figure with a little plastic bomb harness under her little plastic cloak?

Thanks to for the heads-up.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Grand Theft Auto

So yesterday I’m tootling through the neighborhood and down the Central Street shopping area in the Lady Friend’s Civic. Everything’s cool, but . . .

Why are people stopping and staring as I drive by? Two small boys run out of a store and point. Shock envelops the faces of an elderly couple at a corner. As I round the next turn onto a side street an old lady flashes me a snaggle-toothed gape.

This is bad. People seem concerned and even angry. What could I have done that provoked such intense scrutiny?

Then I notice the red light winking on the dash. It’s a warning light I’ve never seen. Maybe the engine is seizing up and its dying screams are troubling the passersby. I pull over, stop the car and fish the instruction manual from the glove box. Riffling through a couple of dozen pages yields the information that the red light means the security system is resetting itself.

Oh, good, I think. Soon the reset will be completed and all will be well. I start up again and drive off.

More stares. More gapes. And the red light is still blinking.

Slowly the truth begins to dawn on me.

Two blocks later I pull over again and recheck the manual. Go to Page 127, it says. Insert the key in the outside door lock and turn it twice to turn off the alarm system.

I do so, and the small crowd that has gathered relaxes and shakes its collective head. No crime happening, folks. Let’s move along. Nothing to see.

When I get home from my errand the Lady Friend meets me at the door and smiles indulgently. “How far did you get before you realized the car alarm was on?” she says.

“Too far,” I mutter.

She had heard the alarm trigger as I slammed the door after getting in the car, and she had rushed out — too late — to try to stop me from driving away, yodeling and honking, headlights and taillights flashing merrily.

There is only one other occasion I can remember that involved a big annoying noise. Similarly, I hadn’t a clue except for the dog, who followed me around at home all day — all day! — panting and barking, a worried furrow in its brow.

Then Lady Friend came home and said, “Why is the vacuum cleaner running upstairs?”

Being deaf — deaf as a doornail — has few good uses, but one of them is for an occasional self-conscious laugh.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Editor at work

Last Sunday Dana Jennings, a New York Times editor, wrote a very good essay in that paper about his conversion to Judaism. In it he delivered this sentence:

“We are adrift in galaxies of mere information, distracted by the relentless drone of the e-hive, and I ached for the oxygen of understanding, which is always in short supply.”


One superb metaphor — “drone of the e-hive” — stands out there. I’ve read no better image for the prattle of the Internet.

But three apparently unrelated metaphors in one sentence — galaxies, hives and oxygen — just stopped me dead while I parsed it, trying to figure out just what Jennings meant. And that last phrase landed with a clunk, as “which” phrases usually do.

But Jennings was on to something with that sentence, and maybe he just needed a little editorial boost to speed him on his mission.

First, getting rid of the useless phrase as well as the modifier dross (”mere” and “relentless”) sharpens the prose:

“We are adrift in galaxies of information, distracted by the drone of the e-hive, and I ached for the oxygen of understanding.”

But there are still three distinct and seemingly unconnected metaphors for us to link in our minds. One added word might help:

“We are adrift in galaxies of information, distracted by the drone of the e-hive, and I ached for the earthly oxygen of understanding.”

That “earthly,” in my opinion, knits the whole sentence together into one big interstellar metaphor.

Oh, it’s fun to help other people write their best sentences, just as it is to help them spend their money.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Today’s New York Times carries a sprightly article about an Internet craze that somehow had escaped me — Scrabulous. That’s a free online version of Scrabble that seems to be taking Facebookers by storm and is angering the manufacturers of the board game as an infringement on their copyrights.

I sympathize with the manufacturers, as would any creator of intellectual content who hopes to be paid for his labors. But perhaps there is a larger issue here.

It is that young Americans may not be as postliterate as we tend to think, given the huge drop in newspaper circulation and the long slow slide in the reading of books and magazines. Scrabble was (and is) a favorite of literate folks, emphasizing the growth of vocabulary. So, it seems, is Scrabulous.

Maybe the real difference between the literacy of the young and that of the old is simply in the vehicle of reading. Let us hope so anyway.

This reminds me, as things tend to do at my advancing age, of my most vivid experience with Scrabble: a heated dispute over the legitimacy of a word.

I was 10 or 11 years old when a large and authoritative figure in my family tried to sneak “GBX” on the board. I challenged.

“It doesn’t exist!” I protested. “Look in the dictionary!” In Scrabble, you know, the dictionary is God.

“It does exist!” Large and Authoritative Figure shot back.

“Prove it!”

He stomped upstairs and came down with a book, a collection of Pogo comic strips. He sat and riffled through it until he came to the panel he wanted.

“See?” he crowed triumphantly.

In a conversation balloon in one panel Grundoon, the cute little “groun’chuck chile” who still spoke infant gibberish, cried, “Gbx!”

In our house Pogo, the font of all wisdom, trumped the dictionary.

Not for a long time did I grow out of that belief, and perhaps not entirely.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Where to cache a corpse

Those who read my 2005 mystery novel A Venture into Murder will recall the artist Tina Davidson’s map of Porcupine County, bound into the book. It was a big hit with readers. However, Forge, my publisher, chose not to include a similar map in my latest, Cache of Corpses.

But now Tina, a frequent visitor to the Writer’s Lair in Porcupine County, has produced for my web site a map of the area in the western Upper Peninsula that features the locations of the grisly geocaches in Cache of Corpses. This larger version, suitable for printing, will fit on a single 8 1/2 x 11 sheet to be tucked into your copy of the novel.

Tina also plans to divide the Cache map into four separate clickable charts containing fine detail.

The maps will go up on the web site as soon as I reteach myself enough HTML coding to make it work.

Thanks, Tina!