Saturday, July 25, 2009


Saying "thank you" in American Sign Language

I was the victim of stereotyping the other day.

"How much is this?" I asked the hardware store clerk. "Ten ninety-five," she said, after scanning the bar code.

"Okay," I said, proffering a twenty.

She made change, handed it to me, and said "Thank you" in American Sign Language.

She had recognized my "deaf speech."

Not so long ago I would have bristled inwardly at the clerk's clumsy lumping together of all deaf people. We do not all speak sign language. Some of us prefer speech and lipreading. However imperfect our skills may be, they help us communicate with the hearing world on its own terms. We have chosen our path and those who believe in ASL have chosen theirs.

Age and experience, however, have led me to realize that in their blissful ignorance most hearing folks in this situation mean well. That clerk wasn't patronizing, trying to be kind, or showing pity. She was simply acknowledging my humanity, even though she may have been clueless about what specific part of that humanity I belong to.

"You're welcome," I said -- again in voiced English -- with a wink and a nod.

She beamed, even though she missed the irony that I had responded in her language.

For her our brief connection must have been a small blessing in a long day.

That was fine with me.

(By the way, "kiitos" is "Thanks" in Finnish. Now you know.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

F***up of the week

. . . Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times. (The Times? Say it ain't so!)

I truly hate to sound like a broken record, but this is what happens when a newspaper doesn't have copy editors who know how to check facts and have enough time to do so.

Be sure to read the comments. I suspect half or more of them come from copy editors, a large number of whom probably have been laid off.

Sunset No. 4

The ominous cloud formations of approaching storms over Lake Superior almost always make great sunset photos, and this one from July 22 seems no exception to me. The thick cumulonimbus clouds looming miles away in the background seemed to be advancing at a lower altitude than the feathery cirrocumulus just over the Writer's Lair. (Click photo for larger version.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spirit houses

Spirit houses at the Pinery Indian Cemetery, L'Anse, Michigan. Though unmarked with names and dates, they serve the same purpose as stone monuments.

Yesterday, on another of my authorial research forays, the Lady Friend, our chum Tina, and I drove from the Writer's Lair 48 miles east to L'Anse, Michigan, at the foot of Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay. There we paid a visit to the ancient Pinery Indian Cemetery, an Ojibwa site that has been a tribal burial ground for centuries.

It is still in use by the Zeba Indian Mission United Methodist Church, and since 1840 people buried there have been memorialized by conventional stone monuments as well as traditional spirit houses, unmarked knee-high wooden structures that give departed souls shelter from the elements.

Last May 20 a forest fire, fanned by gusts to 60 m.p.h., devastated the woods around the cemetery and destroyed 45 spirit houses, but spared the majority.

Already the mission is planning to replace the burned spirit houses, and on the day of our visit the graves they protected were marked by little red flags.

Naturally the sight suggests a chapter in the novel-in-progress in which Steve Martinez, born Lakota, chases a bad guy through the woods and stumbles upon an old graveyard of his tribe's ancestral enemies, the Ojibwa. This has a lot of possibilities.

An eloquent historical marker tells the story of the cemetery.

Many of the spirit houses that survived the fire are very old.

Some are returning to the earth, the names of their inhabitants presumably lost to history.

Red flags mark the sites of the spirit houses destroyed in the May 20, 2009, fire. They will soon be restored.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fourteen Mile Point

Made a honest man of myself today.

Those who have read my most recent mystery, Cache of Corpses, know that its climactic shootout takes place at the ruins of the remote Fourteen Mile Point lighthouse, which actually exists on the Lake Superior shore of Ontonagon County, Michigan, model for my fictional Porcupine County.

But until today I'd never been there. It's reachable only by boat; the old road to it was overgrown by forest long ago. So I'd done heavy research and looked up photographs, and felt confident enough that in the novel I could describe the place more or less accurately.

When people asked if I'd actually laid eyes on the lighthouse, I'd stammer and shrug and say, "Well, of course -- in a manner of speaking."

Today a tour boat came down from Houghton, 40 miles northeast, to take sightseers from Ontonagon to Fourteen Mile Point in celebration of Lake Superior Day. I went along, and although we never got closer to the ruins than a quarter of a mile offshore, I can now say "Yup, been there done that," and look you in the eye.

The photo is proof.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite's death yesterday reminds me that for decades my maternal grandmother would watch his news report every night without fail. No matter where she was, she would stop whatever she was doing, shush everyone and turn the TV to him.

Each day as he said "And that's the way it is," giving the date, and signed off with "Good night," Nana Rena would arise from her chair, say "Good night, Walter," as if she were seeing him to the door, and click off the television.

We, her clueless grandchildren, might have snickered, but Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.

Consulting the experts

There is nothing like consulting authority to demonstrate the paucity of imagination. My imagination, at any rate.

In Hang Fire, my mystery-in-progress, a VIP goes missing in the vast Wolverine Mountains State Park during the first week of December, the opening of muzzle-loading hunting season. I had built an entire chapter around the search for the VIP, using only my fevered imagination, a little history, and my sketchy knowledge of the real Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in upper Michigan.

No mystery writer worth his salt relies solely on what he can make up out of his head, so yesterday the Lady Friend and I went to see Bill Doan, operations chief of the Porkies park and boss of its search-and-rescue crew. What Doan told me is much, much more interesting than what I had made up in that draft chapter.

I'm not going to telegraph the important details, but I can tell you this:

1. My VIP victim couldn't have driven to the spot on the boundary road where he left his truck to go hunting. In reality that boundary road closes to wheeled traffic December 1 and becomes a snowmobile route. He'd have had to take a snowmobile.

2. Search and rescue would not use ATVs -- wheeled off-road all-terrain vehicles -- as I had envisioned. The trails are too rocky, and so is the shore of Lake Superior. The searchers would go on foot and snowshoe.

3. The sheriff's department of Ontonagon County, the locality on which the Porcupine County of my novels is based, no longer fields a search-and-rescue team because of budgetary woes. Instead, a trained group of civilian volunteers supplements the park rangers after their initial search for a missing person. However, S&R protocol is that the sheriff is nominally in charge, since the park is within his bailiwick. In practice he will defer to the Porkies operations chief as incident commander, although he and his deputies are available to assist.

All this and much more will add the verisimilitude of detail. Yesterday morning was well spent in Bill Doan's presence, and today I'm going to get started on revising that chapter.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


This is the lead paragraph of an article in the current Economist, on a story about the receding of the world food shortage in recent months:

"Mulualem Tegegn bought a donkey last year. As a hard-working Ethiopian farmer, aged 58, he saw the purchase of the beast as a return to better times after several seasons in which drought and high prices had forced him to sell his livestock and take his grandchildren out of school to work on the farm. This year, he will have enough grain to buy a goat or two, and the donkey would make the long trek again to school. This is how things are supposed to be."

This is how things are supposed to be? Huh? I doubt that that unbylined writer meant it the way it sounds -- that Third World farmers are supposed to get by with donkeys and goats and tough shit for their dreams about John Deeres and refrigerators. The writer probably meant only that things had returned to a dusty, miserable normality that was better than starvation. His phrasing simply lacked empathy.

But this does point up an unfortunate truth: We who enjoy the good things of life also tend to show little empathy for have-nots. They are not individuals but abstractions. This is why do-gooders make television ads (think Sally Struthers) focusing on a single emaciated and doe-eyed waif in, say, Sierra Leone, and tell us that Khalifa will have a chance to live if we'll only contribute a few dollars to "adopt" her. Charity fund-raisers are painfully aware that appeals to improve the quality of life for thousands of children won't match donations for a single "real" youngster.

This same psychology of empathy obtains with health insurance for the less fortunate. We'll happily donate ten thousand bucks to help one winsome Little Willie walk again, but allow the government to tax our $350,000 household incomes by not even half of that to help tens of thousands of the poor to obtain access to health care? No way.

Little Willie is "real," for we have looked upon his face. All those other poor folks are faceless and therefore to be forgotten.

This is not how things are supposed to be.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


This morning I read the passage in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals in which Abraham Lincoln felt it beneath dignity to vote for himself for president on Election Day 1860, but went to the polls to cast his ballot for Illinois state and local offices.

A few minutes later came David Brooks's New York Times column on the code of manners that George Washington followed. I am not generally an acolyte of Brooks's conservative politics, but read him for his stylish and principled reasoning, free from partisan name-calling. He writes:

"The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm."

Brooks misses the sense of privacy and politeness (sometimes called "gravitas") our national leaders used to have. In particular he cites Sarah Palin's recent chaotic press conference: "Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust."

Conversely, Brooks hopes the famously quiet and calm but nuanced behavior of Barack Obama will have an impact on the rest of us:

"Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery."

The same thing, I think, ought to apply to autobiography. Today's personal chronicles are tell-alls that go into embarrassing and excruciating detail about their authors' missteps with booze, drugs and sex, as if they were written with the hope that Oprah would notice and call them to her show for a hour-long wallow in personal catharsis.

On all levels of American life we need a return to dignity -- and let us not mistake that for stuffiness.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The chickins come home to roots

As an old copy editor, I couldn't help feeling a pang of schadenfreude at the Washington Post ombudsman's admission yesterday that more and more readers are complaining about an increasing number of typos, grammatical errors and errors of fact in the newspaper.

But what do you expect when, to save money, a newspaper cuts its copyediting staff in half? The work load doubles for the survivors -- and even triples. Copy editors are now expected to design pages and find art for them, and often have to wear multiple hats as section editors (one book review editor I know has to edit the real estate section as well, and sub for the weekend features editor from time to time).

Let's face it. For a newspaper, maintaining a high quality of reliability is labor-intensive. Without that, its credibility will take an enormous hit.

A loss of credibility means a loss of readers. And a loss of readers means a loss of ad income, and a loss of ad income means . . .

For the want of a few copy editors, a newspaper could well go under.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tommy's chum

"Before I could add a weary shrug a tall and skinny fourteen-year-old lad tumbled down the stairs with all the finesse of a runaway beer barrel, a big yellow Lab mix on his heels, claws drumming the oaken treads. Tommy Standing Bear, an Ojibwa from the reservation at Baraga, was Ginny’s foster son of three years and Hogan his dog."

That's a snippet from Hang Fire, the novel in progress, and Hogan is a ten-year-old of such singular character I was compelled to write him into both A Venture into Murder and Cache of Corpses.

Here he is, just because I felt you should know the distinguished gentledog.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Advancing in another direction

"Retreat, hell! We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction."

The liberal bloggers are having a good time with Sarah Palin's resounding misattribution of the quote to General Douglas MacArthur in her weird, rambling valedictory yesterday: Typical backwoods yahoo intellectual sloppiness, typical poor research skills and all that. ("The bull goose loony of the GOP," Paul Begala wrote. "Caribou Barbie," Maureen Dowd calls her.)

But what is truly interesting is that a sudden new spotlight is on the man who actually said it: Oliver Prince Smith (above), the much-decorated combat general who led his First Marine Division out of the Red Chinese trap at Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950. (As of 6 a.m. EST today, the Wikipedia entry for Smith does not carry the quotation. It should, and it will.) [Later July 4: It does now, in the lead paragraph as well.]

Smith had the wit of an intellectual. MacArthur, that five-star egotist, had none. That should have immediately tipped reporters to Palin's gaffe.

There's more. According to a December 18, 1950, story in Time magazine, Smith's cry of defiance was "an echo of a 1918 statement that has become a part of Marine Corps legend. Moving up to Belleau Wood at the head of a company of marines, Captain Lloyd Williams was overtaken by a courier, told that the order of the French area commander was to retreat. 'Retreat, hell,' snapped Captain Williams, 'we just got here,' and took his troops into battle."

Memo to Gov. Palin: If you're going to continue the battle, hire troops who can do the due diligence for your speeches.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Old Glory

This weekend we Americans celebrate the 233rd birthday of the United States with backyard beer, brats and bunting. Ours is a wonderful country, we believe, a shining City on a Hill, an example to all mankind.

But that exceptionalism so dear to our hearts is a pernicious myth that hides a host of crimes. Behind our flag we have polluted the planet and denied the overwhelming science that warns against global warming. We refuse habeas corpus to captured enemies we have tortured needlessly. We meddle militarily in the affairs of other nations behind the ill-conceived notion of "national security." Some of us want to keep out immigrants of color. Some of us want everyone to believe in their particular god.

We're not perfect and we should not strut down the street as if we were.

The Fourth ought to be a day of humility as well as pride, a day of reflection as well as celebration. We are a great nation but we could be ever so much better.