Sunday, June 24, 2018

Get Out the Vote


California’s primary election was earlier this month, and in my county they threw a few interesting twists into the process. We were one of only a handful of counties statewide to test several new procedures, like early voting and drop-box locations.
I know other states have some or all of these features already. We just like to take our time here in the Golden State. Make sure something works on a small scale before we go big and it all goes to hell.
Anyway, one change this election cycle was that every registered voter automatically got a mail-in ballot. Before, you had to request one, so lots of people didn’t bother and then forgot to vote in person on Election Day. To try to increase turnout this time, the mail-in ballot came in the mail with all your other election paperwork whether you wanted it or not. And boy, did you have options as far as returning it. You could mail it in anytime up to and including Election Day. You could fill it out at home and take it to a drop-box location (list helpfully enclosed in the envelope). You could take it in person to a polling place. Lots of great, easy options.
So what went wrong? (Because you know things did.) First – and this was not clear on the helpful list – the drop-boxes were only accessible during that location’s operating hours. So voters who showed up at 7:30 a.m. on Election Day with their completed mail-in ballots, expecting to drop and go because that’s when polling places are open, ended up shoving envelopes under the doors of closed libraries and churches. It was as if grown adults were forced to revert to their childhoods, when they’d slide notes under their sisters’ bedroom doors apologizing for hitting them.
Second, people are procrastinators. Most of them waited until Election Day to mail or turn in that mail-in ballot. Which meant that counting the votes is taking forever. A week after the June 5 Election Day, the county election office announced that it still had 200,000left to process. That is not a typo. It is a good news/bad news number. The good news is that if most of those are valid, it would increase voter turnout by more than 16 percent, to more than 46 percent of registered voters. That is an enormous amount for a non-presidential year. The bad news is that there are races that still don’t have official results yet. Processing that many mail-in ballots takes a lot of time, my friends (especially if you’re retrieving them from under the doors of libraries and churches – because yes, those ones did count).
But for me, the most flawed aspect of this Election Day was less any kind of error and more the lack of a choice. I am one of those people that goes to the polling place. Every time. I chat with the workers, I fill in my little bubbles, I feed the paper into the machine, I chat some more, I slap on my “I Voted” sticker, and I saunter out into the sunlight of democracy. It makes for a good day’s work.
This time, the polling places were consolidated, so instead of your neighborhood location, there were a few centralized “hubs.” Boo. That was no fun. I didn’t recognize the poll workers, nobody bothered to bring cookies, and the signage sucked. It did not make me want to increase my voter turnout. Has this new procedure beaten me into submission? Will I now succumb and just put the damn thing in the mail every time? Probably not, if only because I’m spectacularly stubborn. I’ll keep voting in person. But I do want my neighborhood polling place back. Heck, neighborhoods get harder and harder to maintain in today’s world as it is. Don’t take away one of their bedrock foundations.
I’ve voted in churches, in libraries, in the county registrar’s office. The best polling place was when I lived in Bellevue, Wash., just across from Seattle. There was an assisted living facility just down the street, and that was the neighborhood polling place. There has never been a better pairing of people and activity. Those residents hung bunting and flags, made cookies, and stood at the door to welcome you. And you could tell that it made their day. It made mine, too. No drop box is ever going to equal that.  

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Congo by Michael Crichton

By
Scott D. Parker

I'm a book dork. Are you?

I’ve read many, but not all, of Michael Crichton’s novels, but CONGO was one I had missed. I have the paperback, but it had remained on my shelf for years. Earlier this spring, a comment on the Doc Savage Facebook group said CONGO was a pretty good lost city novel. It landed back on my radar. I flipped it open and noticed one of the locations was Houston. How cool was that? Additionally, the action began on 13 June 1979. And I got to thinking: since I was already reading a book at the time, why not wait until 13 June to start the book?

So I did. Book dork? Guilty as charged. But at least I didn’t wait until 13 June 2019 to start it.

The story opens with a transmission from a team in the Congo back to their home base in Houston. The team is part of the Earth Resources Technology Services (ERTS), one of two companies searching for diamonds in the Congo rainforest. Just before the video feed is abruptly cut off, there appears to be what looks like a gorilla. Not just any ordinary ape, but something different.

Soon, a second team, led by Dr. Karen Ross, sets out to keep looking for the lost city and discover what happened to the original team. Coming along is zoologist Dr. Peter Elliot and Amy, a gorilla from the San Francisco Zoo that has learned American sign language. Along the way, Ross recruits the famed white hunter Captain Charles Munro to guide them.

I’ll admit it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Crichton novel solely written by him. (I read the posthumously published DRAGON TEETH last year.) I had forgotten just how much science the author crams into his books. What particularly interested me was some of the computer stuff the team had to do. In this age of cell phones and satellite phones and instant access, it was charming for Ross to have to wait six minutes for the satellites and her communication equipment to sync up. Then there is always the “As you Bob” moments that are liberally scattered throughout the book. With the zoologist being the outside member of the team, he gets to ask for clarification on things Ross and Munro know by heart. The science, however, was fascinating, especially regarding the attempts by scientist to teach apes communication skills. I found it ironic timing that I completed the novel a day before Koko the gorilla who learned American sign language died.

Unlike the JURASSIC PARK novel where, once the dinosaurs escape, you are in a series of chases and near misses, the action here is not as relentless. There are some political struggles that erupt in gunfire, and a few brushes with death, but CONGO is more a novel of discovery. In this, it’s a perfect book for Crichton’s talents. What makes the book even better is its seeming realness, almost as if Crichton is merely the author of a non-fiction book depicting events that really happened.

CONGO is a perfectly fine book, not in Crichton’s top tier novels, but well worth the time to read, especially if you enjoy lost city stories like I do. Now, I’m going to conduct a little search of my own and track down a copy of the 1994 movie.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Empathy, Crime, Punishment

I was drawn to writing crime fiction because, like a lot of my colleagues, I had experiences in my life that showed me crime isn’t as black and white as many would have you think. People don’t risk their lives, their freedom, their future, for nothing. Greed on it’s own is rarely enough to make a person risk it all. I write crime fiction because I hope my stories can engage the reader enough to make them look at things we are usually tempted to look away from. See the people beyond the crime, the motivations and parts of society we ignore.

I tell myself that if people read stories that elicit empathy, they’ll view the people we toss aside as criminals, addicts, and undesirables as people who deserve compassion and help.

But recently, every day I log onto my computer and I see pictures of crying children. I read stories about adults being told not to hold or comfort children who are terrified and alone. I read and see these things and I watch people actually build arguments as to why it’s justified. Why it’s okay to do this to these specific children, even though it wouldn’t be okay to do it to theirs. I see people conviently forget that we’ve done this before - we interned Japanese-Americans in dirty camps, we stole children from their parents during slavery, we did almost anything you can think of to the Native Americans when we arrived in this country and decided everything to the West of us was ours for the taking.

We didn’t own those mistakes, we didn’t learn from them. We heard the stories, saw the photos, and perhaps felt a tinge of empathy, a pull of the heartstring, and moved on. 

I don’t have a grand point to make. I’m feeling discouraged. I’m discouraged as a writer, as an American, and as a human. Of course, I can’t stop being a writer, an American, or a human, so the only choice is to figure out how best to be those things while fighting against this lack of empathy and compassion. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Return of the DSD Podcast

By Steve Weddle

You've waited years for the return of the DSD podcast. The wait is over.

In January of 2010, we dropped our first podcast. We were all pretty excited. Mostly we talked about books we were enjoying, previewed books we expected to enjoy, and chatted with and about authors we dug.

We did quite a few interviews.

Check the list out here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/dsdpodcast/id348774343?mt=2

We chatted about Doctor Who episodes. We even linked in our DSD book club picks from our Goodreads book group.

Lord, but we've been busy over the decade.

And, we're back in the podcast realm. What would you expect from a crime fiction blog heading back into the podcast world? Well, we love listening to crime fiction podcasts already. How about something else?

I decided I wanted to talk to crime fiction people about anything except crime fiction.

So, I'm chatting every other week with Chris F. Holm, Holly West, and Jedidiah Ayres.

For seven minutes a pop, each.

SevenMinutesWith.com. Seems simple enough.

You can find us over on SoundCloud right now, soon to be everywhere.

Head on over and check it out. Subscribe, too. Tell your friends. And, as JEB said, "Please clap."

Thanks

--

The Pod on SoundCloud and Stitcher and iTunes.

Welcome to the return of the DoSomeDamage podcast, brought to you by your friends at DoSomeDamage.com, the crime fiction blog.
In each episode, Steve Weddle hosts seven-minute chats with three amazing authors -- Holly West on TV, Chris F. Holm on music, and Jedidiah Ayres on movies.
Chris Holm suggests some music:
Neko Case - "Sleep All Summer" www.youtube.com/watch?v=wibo237d1OY
Crooked Fingers - Your Apocalypse
www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ_eesRpy8M
ZEAL & ARDOR - Gravedigger's Chant (Official Video)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARM8cD8Xyno
Aesop Rock - Blood Sandwich (Official Video)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q5zNHNIe…&feature=youtu.be
BONUS HOLM TRACKS:
Niklas Paschburg - Spark
www.youtube.com/watch?v=6p_YD68O5ho
DJ Shadow - Midnight In A Perfect World
www.youtube.com/watch?v=InFbBlpDTfQ




******************
Holly West chats about Riverdale on the CW www.cwtv.com/shows/riverdale/ and Westworld on HBO www.hbo.com/westworld/.
*******************
And Jedidiah Ayres talks about David Schwimmer, You Were Never Really Here, Mikey and Nicky, and Morvern Callar.
********************
All music in the episode: Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
Sponsors for this episode: PayTheWriter.com and OnShortRest.com

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

An Overdue Tribute. A Timely Acceptance.

John Laymon Gardner, Jr.
1945-1981
Husband. Brother. Father. Son.

My father was quiet unless he didn't want to be. Sullen, unless moved. He was a dusk man who carried disappointment deep within his body. He revealed so little, I felt it my duty to get to know him. I would watch his eyes as he stared out the window into the street in front of our house. Hands behind his back, legs apart, standing so still I'd wonder if he were asleep on his feet. He'd take a breath that sounded as if he was filling gigantic bellows, shake his head, and exhale so slowly it couldn't have been very healthy. He'd stand at that window for an hour. As witnessing this was one of my favorite stealth guerrilla tactics to employ in the fight to know him, I'd attempt to sneak up behind him, take a place next to him, and stare as well. That's when I would be reminded of how fast, and attentive to her husband, my mother could be.

"Come on out of here," she'd say. "Leave your father alone. Go find something to do."

I like puzzles. I like mysteries, obvs. No one was more mysterious and puzzling than my own sire.

By the third time I walked over to him, took a pose matching his, and tried to force my kid's balloon-sized lungs to make the same oceanic motions, he decided to make room for me. I did everything he did, in mimicry, from scratching to dad noises. I even did the breathing. What I didn't do was stare at nothing, turn crestfallen, and seem to search the ripples in the puddles on Chitown concrete for answers.

Or a way out of there.
***
He planned it.

No one ever discusses it, but my father spent at least a month planning it in detail. Paying off the house. Taking out life insurance (back before suicide clauses.) Boxing us into his wishes by handling things his way before he split. It's the detail everyone overlooked when they explained away the events that shattered my family and set us all on individual paths of survival as someone's crazy. My father was rational, methodical, deeply motivated and deeply driven. He made love to his woman one last time, waited until her back was turned, put a handgun under his chin, and wrapped it up. When the insurance man turned up later, with condolences, and a check, and an insistent recommendation of a financial planner who could help my moms with all that money, it was hard to file it under lunacy when the dates on paperwork showed my Pops had closed out his earthly existence like a fella who gave two weeks notice. It was obvious to me at nine years old. Folks in shock and trauma lose their grip on children first. Left unattended, I examined everything, every folder, every cabinet, every drawer and box and cubby in the garage. I Encyclopedia Brown'd the whole thing. I bet, had adults not stormed in to fix everything (with hysterics and abuse) for my brothers and I a receipt for the bullets sourced to get the job done would have turned up. He had books on the eternal, undying spirit no one remembers him purchasing. Tiny scribblings of his own philosophical musings on death, of which his comfort seemed to increase after every successful shift, could be found in his most private possessions.

His final trip was planned so solidly, you wonder if he consulted a travel agent.
***
Remember Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, where Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, explains to Bruce Wayne the trouble with his persona:


That was my old man. His story is exciting, but his plot convolution needed work.

He wasn't that hard to figure out. Perhaps that's why he never said anything. He was a sieve. A squealer. Seems like every choice he made betrayed his deep hurt. He had a look about him of a man already gone. Even while loving me, suffering my persistent glomming, doing the things good fathers do, he was only ever half there. I loved him, but I was like a loose penny, and he just didn't have any pockets to put me in. He seemed to keep me at a distance that kept the levels set. You couldn't hang anything on him. You had to watch him. Pester him. Stalk him. Camouflage yourself and stow away to be with him. He never felt like he was staying. Close to the end, it felt like he had already left. That what I had attached myself to wasn't him but some past possession of his he had left behind during a visit. Sometimes he felt like my father. Sometimes he felt like a remnant. The purple velour bag that contained the Crown Royal. What you're left with once the spirits—spirit—is long gone. The kind you take after the family party so you have something to put your crayons or loose change or baseball cards. The husk of identity you stuff with what identifies you. Worth only as much as it can hold. Worthless, until you need it to hold something.

I bugged him. I know I did. I confronted him, most often silently with my insistence of being in front of him as much as possible, but occasionally with my own choices to ignore any structure that kept me under control and limited my reach for understanding, even if a boy had no business whatsoever testing such things out of concern for his own safety. I scarred myself all the time reaching, searching, grinding. So did he. That's probably why I thought my name was "Boy, go find something to do." I'm sure he heard that as a kid. I did. Never from him, tho'. He just took a baby step over. He didn't invite me to stand or sit or come along. He just scooched over. I was raised by a young adult with grunts, scooching, annoyed breathing patterns, and the inevitability of death in the corners of his eyes. My father wasn't transparent, but he wasn't opaque. He was translucent. He was a translucent bag of air. Maybe ideas. A few mild intentions. And pressure. Lots and lots of pressure.

A scooch to the right. A grunt. An exhale. You'd think he gave me the universe.
***
Much has been made of how he died, but none lived with more potency of purpose than John Gardner. He made his living standing firm between fire and the property and citizenry of the City of Chicago it would have as its carrion. With an ax and his courage, he ensured a happy Father's Day for countless others. My young father stood toe to toe with Haephaestus each shift and went home before anyone could thank him. At his end, he wanted to be left alone, and he deserved that, regardless of how it made the rest of us feel. I am his youngest son, father and uncle to his grandchildren, grandfather to his great-grandchildren, and willing heir of his legacy. My final word on the matter is he saved enough lives to call the ball on his own. No one and nothing lives forever. No one lived bolder. He may have left me a lot of hard work to do, but we Gardners have been the sons and daughters of the City That Works since the migration. The manner and nature of his death is now an innocuous, hollow detail. How he devoted his life, and not how he chose his death, is the only way to know his soul's path. Nothing else could or should be taken from his example. It's simple. He lived, he served, and in nine short years, he taught me what it meant to give of himself.

It's now obvious I find myself with a platform right around the same time we're all careening toward perdition. I wonder if his slight scooch, the barest sliver of space next to him, was prophetic. The world is on fire. Good people are trapped inside. Children ripped from their parents. Children killing children. Bubbles of perception and privilege protected more than values, and principles, and babies. It's burning hot. Surely, death awaits.

Good thing I have my father's ax. He left it for me. All I had to do was pick it up. It was right where he was standing. This Father's Day, I finally saw past his absence. The next day, I heard the alarm.  Here I come, Haphaestus. Here comes that Chicago shit. You ain't ready. I am a Firefighter's son. I'll take the heat. This world can burn, but it'll never be hot enough for a Gardner. Hell is ten degrees too cold.

I was raised just fine. This is my final say on the matter.

- dg

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lessons of Darkness or: One Way to Explore Disaster

As I read and watched the news yesterday, following the coverage of everything that is going on along the US-Mexico border, I was reminded of a film I saw twenty-six years ago - Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness.  About 50 minutes long, it's one of his essayistic documentary-like films, and though it has nothing to do with immigration or Mexico or anything remotely related to what is happening now, I thought about it because of the approach it takes, that Herzog takes, to disastrous events.  

For those who haven't seen it, I'll give a brief description:

Lessons of Darkness, released in 1992, is a film that shows the burning oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War ended.  This is after the Iraqi forces, retreating from Kuwait after months of bombardment from the US and Coalition forces, had set fire to several hundred Kuwaiti oil wells.  In the middle of the desert, these fires raged from January 1991 until the final burning well was capped in November 1991.  Over that time, the environmental damage caused by the fires, the smoke, and the spewing oil was horrendous.



That's what happened.  Those are the bare facts.  And for the entire film, Herzog uses actual footage of the fires and the men on the ground fighting the fires, trying to contain them and put them out.  But instead of making a film that approached the fires in a frontal way, laying out the events and the politics of the time, and the participants whose actions led to the ravaging conflagrations, Herzog goes abstract.  He does not have a standard documentary narrator telling you what is going on.  There are no interviews.  What he does is create a film, mainly through images set to music, that gives the viewer no historical context for the fires.  No country or location is ever mentioned, no year, nothing about why these fires we see have started.  Through the sparse narration, which is delivered by Herzog (who else?), we learn that we are seeing "a planet in our solar system, wide mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist." When we see shots of the men, in their protective gear, who are fighting the fires, the narrator says, "The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us." And we see a man, who is engaged in dealing with a burning oil well, making what are perfectly reasonable gestures to other firefighters as they go about their work.  We soon understand that we are viewing these images from the perspective of an alien who has no knowledge of the background behind the footage depicted.  Images which, though upsetting, probably became familiar to us through constant news coverage, suddenly become remarkably strange.  Unmoored from your typical bearings as you watch, you contemplate the images with a fresh eye and are prompted to reflect on the entire spectacle, and what led up to it, in ways you might not have before.  

Herzog was explicit about his aims.  In his book, Herzog on Herzog, he says, "the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet earth, and yet we know it must have been shot here."  We live, as we all know, in a media-saturated age, and Herzog's goal, as he put it, even when exploring a ripped from the headlines news event, was to "penetrate deeper than CNN ever could."



As I say, I thought about this film, and how it handles horror and tragedy, while being saturated myself in the images and sounds of what's going on at the US-Mexico border.  On the surface, there's nothing at all to link Kuwait in 1991 with the border area activities now.  Two different times, two different issues.  But the idea of how to grapple, creatively, with maddening events that are covered and analyzed and discussed to death is one I spend time thinking about, and Herzog's example never leaves me.  Everyone tackles the current moment in the way he or she sees fit, but not everything has to be approached head-on, as it were.  This seems particularly worth remembering in the age of social media, when people rant on and on about the obvious and can tire you to the point of exhaustion even when you agree with them.  

That's not to say that everyone likes what you might call distortion.  Anything other than what people label "realism", and some people get upset.  When Lessons of Darkness came out, it met its share of anger and criticism. "You don't aestheticize war," Herzog was essentially told.  And all that distance and irony: "Why would you make something like that?" 

"Why not?" came Herzog's essential answer.  He wanted to document, for all time, what happened.  And if he was trivializing war, or aetheticizing war, then so did Goya and Hieronymous Bosch when they depicted human beings not exactly at their best.

Twenty four hours a day of news, of images, of opinion, of commentary bombarding you everywhere you go. The challenge of how to probe deeper than CNN, or Facebook, or any other news or social media outlet you can think of, remains difficult.  I like to think of what Herzog did in Lessons of Darkness as one example of what's possible when exploring what can only be called yet another calamity.










Monday, June 18, 2018

Your Best Self

Sometimes, I think about creating a pseudonym and writing in a different genre, under a different name.

In part because there are some things I want to do that fall more under different genres than mystery/crime. And in part because I'd like to have an anonymous life.

I grew up in a small town. I went to school with the same class of 27 kids (give or take the odd one who'd move to town for a few months or move out of town... sometimes permanently, sometimes not) for the first 9 years of my life. If you didn't know someone yourself you knew them by reputation.

Kids today talk about their mistakes being immortalized on social media. I'm not discounting that, but there was no hiding from yourself where I grew up. The poor kids from the wrong side of the tracks kept those labels and the cool kids retained their power.

Reinventing yourself was a hard thing to do. Especially when you started a new school year only to have your teacher tell you what they expected of X's sister. My sister not only works in a library, her purview involves deciding what books the library stocks. You'd think we grew up in a book-loving family, but you'd be wrong. We both found escape in novels.

I escaped later, to Europe, and lived overseas. In fact, I haven't set foot in my hometown in over 21 years.

I think that's part of the reason I've been drawn to fictional cops who have messed up lives they're trying to avoid or change. Trying to bring order to personal chaos, or being swept up by the chaos. I can relate to those things in my own way.

For someone who finds the idea of disappearing, in a manner of speaking, appealing, I've actually written something very personal. The good folks over at Crimespree ran my article, Writing Our Way to Where We Belong. In it, I talk about a few things I have coming out this year.

One is a short story in an anthology called the dame was trouble. I talk about what motivated me to write Jordan's story.

I also talk about some of the creative decisions I made for Moreau in the Spying Moon and what influenced my choices.

I think that one of the most distinct things about the writing I've been doing recently is that it's more personal than ever. Many writers start out with a protagonist that's a thinly veiled version of themselves. That was never my aim with earlier works. I was more likely to create characters who were what I wanted to be.

In many respects, Moreau is the closest character to me that I've ever written. It's an odd thing - once you put some things out there you can never take them back. But, like life growing up in a small town where everyone knows you or knows of you, you can never truly change a public past.

All you can do is focus on being or becoming your best self, and being at peace with that.