Monday, February 28, 2011
Earl’s and Ben’s recent posts about retirement have left me contemplating my own retirement plans. In order for my prospects to improve, we’re going to have to kill the lawyers. Well, maybe not all of them, but at least some. I suggest we kill the old ones and the new ones; the ones who know too much and the ones who know too little.
Old lawyers have worn out their welcome. They take all the good cases and clients, yet bemoan what the profession’s become, longing for "the good old days" when a lawyer’s word allegedly meant something and didn’t have to be reduced to a letter "kindly memorializing our conversation of February 28, 2011 wherein you promised…" I honestly don’t think they’ll fight back. I think they’ll go gracefully, recognizing that they got really lucky, having made most of their money long before tort reform, market saturation, and the obscene proliferation of law schools and their graduates.
As for the young lawyers, they only waste our time. They want us to hire them and pay them big bucks despite the fact that they don’t know how to do anything, other than to draft cover letters full of buzz words, and analyze Supreme Court opinions involving issues that have nothing to do with the daily practices of all but a handful of lawyers. Don’t they know there are already 1.2 million lawyers in the United States? Why are the law schools graduating 40,000 new lawyers each year? What could they possibly think they have to offer? What could they possibly do that some other lawyer isn’t already doing?
If we kill the old and the new, those in the middle, those who know some stuff but are too entrenched with debt, families, and all the trappings of middle class life to change careers, like yours truly, might just have a chance, and maybe even retire one day.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Vinicius de Morães. another regular, was a diplomat, playwright and poet - even fonder of whiskey. (He once called the stuff "man's best friend - a dog in a bottle".)
Tom and Vinicius used to hole up in the Veloso to drink the afternoons away. Hêlo, the heartthrob of the neighborhood, often passed-by on her way down to the ocean. The composer and the poet, struck by her beauty, wrote a song about her, A Garota de Ipanema. It became an instant hit, first in Brazil and then around the world.
Hêlo, at 61, now Hêlo Pinheiro, is very much alive.
She's dyed her hair blonde and has a lovely daughter.
Friday, February 25, 2011
When School Bus 117 rolls out of the lot in Southlake, Texas, the driver is concentrating on getting to his stops on time, picking up his students, and getting them to school safely. He may also be thinking about the next story he will write. I know because I’m that driver.
“Hey, Earl, I thought you were supposed to be a hot shot mystery writer. Turns out you’re only a school bus driver.”
“ONLY a school bus driver? Hold that thought, bubba. I’ll get back to you in a minute.”
Before I deal with him, I want to explain how I became a school bus driver. A few years ago, I retired from full time employment and jumped into becoming a writer. I’d always dreamed of writing, but never had time. It was the perfect time. I wrote some short stories and even started a novel. After a while, I discovered I didn’t like retirement. It occurred to me that if you don’t have to get up in the morning, go somewhere and do something, you can get old. I was not ready to get old. There was too much I still wanted to do. The solution? A part time job.
Finding a part time job, however, wasn’t easy. I wasn’t ready to put on a Walmart vest, stand by the entrance and say, “Welcome to Walmart. Want a cart?”
After a few weeks of looking, I found a sheet of paper in my front yard. It turned out to be a flyer from the local school district saying they had job openings for school bus drivers. “Hmmmmm,” I said. “Check it out.”
So I called the number, and went for an immediate interview. The hours, I learned, were perfect for a writer. Drivers worked two hours in the morning getting the kids to school and another two hours in the afternoon taking them home. In between would be about six hours of time free for my writing. An hour after I got back home from the interview, I received a call saying I’d been hired. Okay. Now what?
The now what turned into four weeks of studying for the test required to get the kind of license needed for the job, plus actual training on a real bus. Was I nervous the first few times I got behind the wheel on one of those big things? Oh, yeah. Those babies are huge. Plus, there’s that tail swing thing.
Tail swing, you see, comes into play because the rear wheels of a bus are some ten feet in front of the rear bumper. When you turn, the tail end of the bus lags behind and makes a wide swing, easily taking out anything in its path. You have to be very careful and make sure you have enough room to make the turn. (I was careful, but in my first year of driving, I clipped the side view mirror off a parked car. Not just any car, mind you. A brand new Cadillac.)
After I was fully licensed and trained, I was assigned to a Special Needs route. We say Special Needs, not Handicapped. The kids I carried were special and they had needs different from regular kids. Some of our students were in wheelchairs, some were autistic and non-communicative, most had learning disabilities. But they were beautiful and I came to know and love them. Two people are required on these buses. In addition to the driver, there’s a monitor, who sits in the back and takes care of any immediate needs the students might have.
Not that there weren’t problems. We always had to be on the lookout for seizures, which are not uncommon. We also had to be ready for outbursts of any kind. Some of the kids would suddenly scream for no apparent reason or decide to take off their clothes. Occasionally, an outburst involved physical violence.
On one such occasion, sixteen-year-old Markeiff, who was autistic and usually quiet, undid his seat belt and attacked my monitor. By the time I pulled over, secured the bus and went to her rescue, he had her pinned against the rear door. She had a good grip on his wrists, but he was kicking at her. I managed to wrestle Markeiff to the floor and lay on top of him. He tried to get free at first, but after two or three minutes, he relaxed. After another minute went by, I let him up. He went quietly to his seat, buckled his seat belt, and looked at me as if to say, “Okay, let’s go to school” as if nothing had happened. No one knew what triggered his episodes, but they happened occasionally, and after they were over, he was fine.
We had other episodes on the bus, some physical but not violent. Tyler was a wheelchair boy of eleven and every once in a while, he would announce he “had to go to the bathroom.” Well, there are no bathrooms on a school bus. That mean my monitor and I had to swing into action. While I pulled the bus over, she undid his straps and belts. I then carried him off the bus and held him upright beside it while he “went to the bathroom.” I’m happy to say he was capable of unzipping and lowering his own pants so I didn’t have to do that.
I’ve since switched to another school district and no longer drive Special Needs. Now I have regular kids from kindergarten to eighth grade, which is a whole new adventure. But I still love the job and still think it’s the best part time job in the world for a writer.
Now where’s that guy with the “only a school bus driver” remark?
Listen up, bubba. As a writer, I may never turn out the Great American Novel, and as a citizen, I may not find a cure for cancer or a solution to world peace. But you know what? As a school bus driver, I can make sure sixty-five kids get to school and back home safely every day and, someday, maybe one of them will cure cancer or achieve world peace. To me, that means something. ONLY a school bus driver? Ha! Make that PROUDLY a school bus driver.
And by the way, about that Great American Novel thing? I still have a shot at that.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Depending upon your frame of reference, the word “revolution” may spark images of riots, banners, blood, and death, or perhaps spin the Beatle’s tune in your head. But for writers, the e-publishing revolution is as significant as Gutenberg inventing the printing press.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be passing on what I learned at the 2011 San Francisco Writer’s Conference. Of course, there is no way I can sum up everything, but I will attempt to share its key points. First and foremost, I must say this is a very professionally run conference, and I encourage anyone able to dedicate the time and money to consider attending this event in the future.
E-readers have increased exponentially in the past three years. While the iPad, Kindle, and Nook lead the pack, more readers are on the way. E-book sales increased 190% last year while bound book sales decreased 5%. The repeated message from Writer’s Conference speakers is e-publishing has empowered authors like never before. The up side of e-publishing is authors receive a much higher royalty. The down side is there is no quality control filter that literary agents normally provide. While e-publishers such as Smashwords.com will gladly publish your work, they publish whatever is sent to them, good or bad. And while this makes it enticing to e-publish, authors must realize they will be judged personally as much as they will on their work. So, before sending your manuscript to a literary agent, self-publishing, or e-publishing, make sure you hire a reputable editor to ensure it's as good as it can be.
It’s both interesting and encouraging that 80% of the e-books sold are fiction. That’s great news for fiction writers because it shows that people are still reading for entertainment and escape. My two out of print books will be e-published this year. I’m proud to say that Danger Within and The Innocent Never Knew are as pertinent now as when they were written.
It is up to every author to produce quality work. Without quality, there is no credibility or repeat sale. The e-revolution may be here, but if you’re going to wave your author’s banner, you’d better have something worth reading.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
by Bill Kirton
There must be something funny in the air. I wrote this and slated it for publishing before Susan asked What makes you laugh? But I'll leave it here because it's different enough. I always try to bring humour into my books and stories. I’ve written songs and sketches (skits) for revues which I performed with my wife at the Edinburgh Festival and, on the whole, we got good reviews. Of course, the thing you remember most isn’t the rows of people laughing and applauding but the odd individual sitting stony-faced and obviously wondering what the hell the others are laughing at. But it’s when you get asked ‘how do you write funny stuff?’ that it becomes really difficult.
There are plenty of theories, of course, lots of them stressing the cruel nature of laughter. They suggest it’s an expression of superiority, the purest sound of schadenfreude. But that’s too crude. Laughter’s a shared reaction – and it doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense.
If we stick with the theories for a moment, the one I like best is the one which says that laughter’s actually an intellectual thing. It’s the mind seeing a set of circumstances, assuming they’ll develop in a particular way then having those assumptions undermined when something unexpected happens. At its crudest, it’s the banana skin scenario. A person (preferably one of rank and substance) is walking along and suddenly becomes a disarticulated mechanism. If the result is a serious injury, the laughter dies at once, which rather discredits the ‘laughter is cruel’ theory. It’s the juxtaposition of apparently mutually exclusive sets of rules. A medal-laden head of state processing along a red carpet is a ‘moral’ entity, for want of a better word, embodying the pomp, ceremony and grandeur of an eminent human being and a representative of the rest of us. When he ends up in a blushing, tangled heap, he’s just a thing that’s subject to the laws of gravity. The mind appreciates the gap between the two and we laugh. The laugh demonstrates our capacity for appreciating distinctions, for being capable of judging and assessing situations.
If you’ve read this far, thanks for your tolerance and indulgence. Because such theorising doesn’t really achieve much and definitely isn’t funny. So how do we ‘write funny stuff’?
Well, when I wrote those songs and sketches, the characters used to do the work for me. For example, when Mary (the virgin) discovers she’s pregnant, she breaks the news to her fiancée, Joseph who, according to the Bible is then ‘minded to put her away privily’. I love that. It skates over the whole crucial scene there must have been between the two of them. Imagine your own fiancé(e), whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected, coming in and saying ‘By the way, I’m pregnant’. How do you get from there to the seeming acceptance of ‘OK, babe, I’ll just put you away privily’.
Or what sort of conversation would Jude the Obscure share with Tess at the Casterbridge disco? And how did Adam and Eve relax when he came home from a long hard day in the garden? (This was before they were aware of their nakedness and original sin, remember.) Then there’s Lady Macbeth’s musings on the impending royal visit as she takes her dog Spot for a walk.
In all these cases, and in others, such as Hannibal Lecter’s quip that he was ‘having a friend for dinner’, it’s the co-existence of two separate levels of interpretation that generates the humour. Groucho was the master with cracks like: ‘You scoundrel! I’d horse-whip you if I had a horse.’
All of which sets me up perfectly for comments such as ‘What do you know about laughter? None of your stuff’s funny’.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Sunday, February 20, 2011
They're two of my favorite things. And when they're together, in one package, I love it. It's so much fun to write my Baby Boomer mysteries and add "dialogue" from my two English Cocker co-stars, Lucy and Ethel. Of course, Lucy is a real dog and Ethel isn't. But Ethel's real enough in my mind and Lucy doesn't want any other canines at our joint book signings to cramp her style.
The highlight of this past week in our house was the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. This is the biggest, most prestigious event in "dogdom," and our breeder, Lynn Pray of Pineridge English Cockers was showing one of her champion dogs, Chance. Our whole family really got into it, especially our one-year-old pup Boomer, as you can see from this picture. By the way, that's a Springer on the t.v. screen, not an English Cocker.
So, do you like mysteries with dogs in them? Who are some of your favorites?
Friday, February 18, 2011
Will Borders close all of its stores?
Let's hope not. And let's hope that more bookstores don't follow suit.
Borders seems to have various troubles, but certainly the rise of electronic books is a major cause of some of their stores closing. Almost weekly we hear of independent bookstores that once thrived closing their doors.
Thousands upon thousands of readers are not deciding they won't read books anymore. They are deciding to read those same books in various ways.
We are getting to experience an evolution in reading. When paperbacks first came out, skeptics said no one would read them. Paperbacks wouldn't catch on. They were flimsy and nowhere as nice as traditional books with hard covers.
The first book I sold was to an e-pub when e-publishing was fairly new. E-books were expected to become the next big thing. But few e-books sold then because devices were rare and expensive. Not many readers bought them.
It's taken awhile, but now e-books are changing readership, and any way we can reach readers is a good thing. Now our challenge is to make certain to keep books in paper alive. We want it all -- to read our books electronically and traditionally.
As publishers struggle to keep up with the evolution in reading, let's make certain we frequent brick and mortar stores. We need to keep them alive.
I considered writing an autobiographical children’s book for years before I finally sat down and wrote it. Solstice Publishing released it this week as Mystery of Spider Mountain and I’m well into the second book of the Hamilton Kids' mystery series.
Fiction is rooted in fact and my three protagonists spent their formative years at the foot of a large hill in southern California, as I did with four younger brothers. Because the hill was inhabited by trap door spiders and an occasional tarantula that had arrived on a banana boat from Central America, I called it Spider Mountain.
My brothers and I were close in age and and explored our "mountain" together. The apron was filled with tall, blue lupines which bloomed nearly year round, and halfway up the hill was Dead Man’s Tree. We called it that because a thick knotted rope hung from a limb that we swung on. At the end was a large loop. That prompted stories about horsethieves which we imagined had been hanged there.
A dirt road encircled the hill at three levels but was so chocked with rocks and clumps of weeds that even a bicycle would have had difficult passage. So we wondered how the people who lived at the summit were able to reach their home, and imagined everything from rock climbers to space ships and helicopters, although we’d never heard one in the area.
When I was twelve and old enough to babysit brothers who were nearly my own size, we climbed our mountain to spy on the mysterious house. What we found was a chain link fence restraining four large vicious-appearing dogs with mouths large enough to swallow a child. Or so we thought. It didn’t take us long to scramble back down the hill to our own house. And, of course, we never told our parents.
When I began to write, I wondered again who those people were and how they arrived at their hilltop home. The house itself was a mystery but I had to decide what kind of crime(s) the residents of the house had committed. And how the Hamilton kids would be able to bring them to justice. I then thought of the Ouija board we used to play with. That’s when the spirit Bagnomi materialized and talked to the kids via the board.
My four brothers had to be reduced to two to make the story manageable. Even so, they were as unmanageable as my own brothers had been, so their widowed grandmother came to live with them—as ours had done. However, our grandmother didn’t have bright red curly hair like Ronald McDonald, and wasn’t interested in finding a husband. Even children’s books need humor and the Hamilton Kids’ grandmother provides that and more, along with an adopted Australian Sheppard with a penchant for chewing furniture.
Writing for children has opened a new vista which I hope my young readers will enjoy as much as I enjoyed the writing. I'm well into the second novel in the series, The Ghost of Crimson Dawn, which takes place here in Wyoming, where the Hamilton Kids visit their Uncle Harry at his mountaintop ranch. There's a bit of autobiographical plotting in that book as well.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras is the first book in Michael Orenduff's series featuring Hubert Schuze, a shop keeper who deals in Native American pottery. Once upon a time, Hubert would have been called a treasure hunter, but now, since Congress passed the Archeological Resources Protection Act, he's what's known as a "pot thief," someone who digs up artifacts and sells them.
Hubert may be technically a criminal, but he is also a true gentleman--charming, witty, good-hearted, and well-educated, with a remarkable knack for rationalization. When he's offered $25,000 to steal an ancient pot from the Valle del Rio Museum, he knows he should walk away...but what harm could it do just to visit the museum and look things over? Plenty, as it turns out. When the pot is stolen and a man murdered, Hubert is the prime suspect. With the help of his friend Susannah, Hubert attempts to solve the crime and clear his name. Their adventures make for a delightful and entertaining read that seamlessly blends humor and suspense. If Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr had been conceived by Tony Hillerman, the result might have resembled pot thief Hubert Schuze.
Orenduff's prose is crisp and his dialogue clever. Hubert's voice is pitch-perfect. I knew from the first paragraph that he would be a dear friend, and the rest of the book did not disappoint. I look forward to meeting Hubert again in The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy and The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Two of my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries that have been practically impossible to find for a long time will be reprinted in the UK this month, release date February 24th.
In The Case of the Murdered Muckraker, Daisy is in New York (following her transatlantic voyage in To Davy Jones Below). After witnessing a murder, she finds herself mixed up in Tammany Hall politics, just before an election. Alec comes to the rescue from DC, where he's been advising J. Edgar Hoover. They end up chasing a suspect across the country in a biplane!
This is my only book set in the US, so I was very happy with this review in Publishers Weekly: "Dunn captures the melting pot of Prohibition era New York with humorous characterizations and a vivid sense of place...Throughout her travels in the States, Daisy is keenly attuned to people and place: race relations, regional accents, even foods all add to the texture of the story."
Mistletoe and Murder: Daisy and Alec are back in England and off to an ancient fortified manor house in Cornwall for Christmas. Daisy plans to write about it. The family of poor relations living there is decidedly out of the ordinary, and as pecularities multiply, animosity culminates in murder.
The setting is a real house, Cotehele, and though I've changed its name to Brockdene for the story, since descendants of the then owners are still around, I've described it as is, including a bit of its history since the 15th century. The main departure from reality is a secret tunnel, which I invented for a Regency I set there (Smugglers' Summer) and thought I might as well make use of again!
Both titles will be available from theBookDepository , shipping free to US.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
How authors get started in writing is a fascinating subject. I've read countless stories of people who wanted to be an author from the time they learned to hold a pencil. Others knew it would be their fate on reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew as youngsters. I'm not one of them.
I've told a bit of the story on the F.A.Q.s page of my website. Although I was a dedicated reader of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and other weekly magazines as a teen, I never considered writing them myself. My closest connection to the printed page was as co-business manager (make that advertising salesman) for my 1943 high school annual, The Grey Eagle.
After graduation, I volunteered for Aviation Cadet training in the Army. My World War II military career did not consist of air raids on Tokyo or Berlin, however. I was shifted about from base to base waiting for openings in the next phase of training. I wound up in the summer of 1945 at Randolph Field in San Antonio, a legendary base with permanent buildings. I was assigned as a clerk in the VOQ, Visiting Officers Quarters, located upstairs above the Officers Mess.
I had a partner on the job, another cadet named Wolfson, who had spent a year at Yale before going into the service. While chatting one day, he told me that if he had it to do again, he would study journalism. For some reason, that idea took root in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more intriguing it sounded.
We had a typewriter in the VOQ office. I had used it to hunt and peck letters and such. After news of the atomic bomb exploded across the front pages, I sat down at the typewriter and began punching out a story involving a nuclear weapon. I don't think I got too far with it as the war quickly came to an end, and we began to consider what would happen next.
A lot of the guys who had volunteered for Cadet training came from families in high places. I heard that some of them had lobbied the War Department (now Defense) to release us, rather than put us in other Army units for postwar occupation assignments. Whatever happened, orders came down in the fall giving us the option of taking a discharge. I was ready to head home and resume my education, so I split.
I wanted to study journalism. I learned that the big J schools were upper class programs, meaning I couldn't get in until I was a junior. So I enrolled at the University of Tennessee in January of 1946. I considered transferring to Wisconsin, one of the top-rated J schools, but I learned that UT would have a reporting course in my sophomore year. I signed up for that one and enjoyed it immensely. The following year, a full journalism program was established.
I had worked on the student newspaper, the Orange and White, and was tapped to be managing editor of one of the semi-weekly editions. However, my reporting course teacher returned to his post as executive editor of The Knoxville Journal and offered me a job as a reporter. I skipped the student assignment and became a cub reporter at the morning daily.
I quickly found my forte was writing feature stories, finding interesting twists to make articles come alive more than with a straight news treatment. After reading two mystery books by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and No Pockets in a Shroud), I decided to write one of my own. Going to school in the day and working nights didn't leave a lot of spare time, but I sat down in my basement room at the fraternity house and banged out a mystery novel on my little Smith-Corona portable.
The manuscript was rejected by a publisher, and I was too much a neophyte to know I should try others. I was hooked on mysteries, though, and on writing in general. I've been at it now for more than sixty years. Who knows what I would have done if it hadn't been for Cadet Wolfson?
Monday, February 14, 2011
If that’s the case, I’m a cowpig. During my forty years inhabiting this body, I estimate that I’ve consumed in the neighborhood of 5,000 hamburgers and 15,000 strips of bacon. If you were to line that many strips of bacon end to end, they’d wrap around the Earth seventeen times. That’s what’s clogging my arteries. And to be honest, I never really gave it much thought, until very recently when a series of seemingly unrelated events convinced me to change my eating habits.
The first thing that caught my attention was a special I watched on slaughterhouses. For those unfamiliar with how slaughterhouses operate, it’s a pretty grisly affair. The process begins by feeding the cows digestively disruptive grain until they’re fat enough to slaughter. Once properly engorged, they’re led single file down a long, narrow corridor to an execution chamber where a machine stands ready to administer the death blow: a metal rod through the cows’ temples. Their skin is then pulled from their carcasses so they can be sliced into cuts of meat for packaging and distributing. It’s not a parade for the squeamish. I myself felt very queasy, although admittedly I was watching the sad lives of these death row cows in stunning 3D.
That evening I had terrifying nightmares about the potential afterlife consequences of my diet. I could see myself falling through one of the seven portals to this endless lava pasture where herds of demonic, free-range, mutant cowpigs grazed on what appeared to be the body parts of carnivorous diners like myself. When I awoke, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s the cows who will inherit the Earth.
Not long after watching this moving special (thank you Oprah), I read that Taco Bell was being sued in federal court for calling their meat, “meat.” Apparently their ingredients didn’t satisfy the FDA’s 35% minimum meat threshold to be classified as “meat.” Now I’m no Ag guy, but 35% doesn’t sound all that stringent to me. It makes you wonder what’s going into their 4th meals? And who’s their man in charge of butchering and ingredients? Leatherface? No wonder their hook is catering to drunks!
As I was reading about Taco Bell’s troubles, as God as my witness, I got a shooting pain in my neck. So I plugged “shooting pain” into Google’s search engine and just happened to notice my search history. In the span of no more than a week, I’d conducted the following searches:
Violent shooting pain in neck
Shooting pain in left arm
What side is your heart on
Is Operation Repo real
Horrible shooting pain in chest
Horrible shooting pain in neck
Aspirin and hair loss
Sharp pain in head
How to fake your own death
Shooting pain right behind right eye
Will Propecia grow boobs
Shooting pain that lasts more than a minute
When to see a doctor if you’re having horrible shooting pains
How old you have to be to get gout
Enough was enough. I knew that it was time to make a change. And believe me, this was no easy task. For years I’d fashioned myself a sort of connoisseur of low-rent grilling meats; brats, burgers, hotdogs, pork ribs, and even pork steaks were my specialties. And while I’d certainly order seafood or a nice steak when dining out, it’s the lunch menu that usually caught my eye: French dips, greasy cheeseburgers, potato skins with lots of bacon, anything that can legitimately be called “Bar Food” has always been my preference.
So, with all of that as a backdrop, I’ve endeavored to change my ways. I’ll still eat meat, just less often, and I certainly won’t become a Vegan, I wouldn’t know how, but now I order “Get Fit” salads from my favorite bar instead of bacon cheeseburgers. What’s encouraging is that I already feel a little better. My face isn’t as shiny and I have a bit more lift in my step, although now I’m always hungry, hungry enough to eat a horse….
Saturday, February 12, 2011
There was only one country in the New Word that ever had a colony in the Old.
And that country was Brazil.
Most people don't know that, so maybe, someday, you can win a bet with this one:
On September 7, 1822, he declared the independence of Brazil and had himself crowned emperor, thereby severing the bonds that had connected
Friday, February 11, 2011
The dust has barely settled on a major battle here in the Lone Star state and another one is just beginning. The Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers fought it out for the Super Bowl Trophy. Now two other giants are squaring off.
This time, it’s Amazon.com versus the State of Texas. The prize is not a trophy, but a ton of money. This contest is not about athletic ability on the playing field but about power and muscle at the negotiating table.
Here’s the opening from an article in today’s local paper:
“As a result of an ongoing tax dispute with Texas, Amazon.com has decided to take its ball and go home. The online retailer said Thursday that it would shutter its Irving distribution facility April 12 and cancel plans to hire as many as 1,000 additional workers rather than pay Texas what the state says is owed in uncollected sales tax. Texas wants $269 million from Seattle-based Amazon in past-due sales tax. It sent the bill to the company last October.”
Amazon is appealing the case through “an administrative process” and claims they have a special sales tax loophole. The State is standing firm on the basis that Amazon must play by the same rules as other retailers. One trade group in Washington representing traditional retailers called Amazon’s actions “callous.”
So what does Texas do in this situation? It could forgive the $269 million in sales tax and hope Amazon leaves its operation where it is, keep their present employees and add 1000 more. The State’s economy could certainly use that. Or it could hold fast and watch Amazon pull out and take the $269 million with then.
Then what? One possible result might be that other large companies could follow Amazon’s lead. From this crime writer’s perspective, it sounds like corporate blackmail. Suppose other 500 pound gorillas in business suits decided Texas (or any other state if you think about it) would write off major amounts of past-due taxes if the company threatens to move commerce and jobs elsewhere.
I don’t know how this will play out. Like a good mystery novel, we have a beginning and a middle and will have to keep reading to see how the ending comes out.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Monday, February 7, 2011
Tucson's Gem and Mineral Show, the largest in the world opened last week for a two week run. Every hotel in Tucson is packed, and visitors stream in from all over the world.
A festive occasion for sure. And one my wife feeds on. Every year, she invites friends, forms shopping groups, and for about two weeks, I hardly see her.
I don't do shopping, especially herd shopping, where brave shoppers need pads, feints and quick feet just to stand in place.
A perfect time for a friend of mine to visit, huh? And true to form, I got a call from one of my oldest pals. He was driving with his son to Los Angeles, and would be dropped off at my house the next day, Opening Day at the various Gem Show locations.
So we had a full house starting last Wednesday: Two men and three gem-crazed women. What could go wrong?
Gas. Natural gas, the stuff we use for cooking, heat and hot water. And temperatures plummeting to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Brrr.
So, of course, the gas went out. No warning whatsoever, just no gas on Thursday morning. No heat, hot water, stove or laundry.
Television and newspaper news teams couldn't discover the source of the problem. SWGas wasn't talking, except to say over fourteen thousand Tucson residents had no gas. And SWGas had no idea when gas would be restored.
So, to set the plate, we had five people at our house, three gem-crazy women, two men with no interest in gems whatsoever. No ability to cook, no heat, no hot water, and all hotels full. Small luggage bags, few clothes packed, no ability to dry them if washed in cold water.
I called Wal-Mart, Ace, Loew's and Home Depot. Thought maybe some space heaters would prevent us having to huddle nude in a pile under a tower of covers.
No space heaters for two hundred miles.
We made numerous calls to SWGas, as did most people, I'm told. But SWGas wasn't talking and their website crashed. They released a statement: They're just a distributor; they don't control the supply of natural gas, just its distribution.
So who controls the supply? Good question. SWGas' supplier, El Paso Natural Gas, is claiming force majure, a legal term usually associated with Acts of God, ; i.e. unavoidable and unpredictable.
Then a later SWGas statement: Excess demand for electricity in Texas caused blackouts there, and outdated regulations forced other Texas capacity to shut down, including some plants which supply natural gas to Arizona.
Evidently, our lack of a national energy policy, combined with high demand in Texas, caused SWGas to have to shut off supply to some customers.
How did SWGas decide whom to cut off? They won't say, specifically. It took them four days to give any advice to gas-less customers on when or where gas might be restored. Seems SWGas had only one hundred eighty service technicians, and restoration requires a home visit to turn gas lines back on and ensure pilot lights ignite safely. Ten to fifteen minutes per visit, spread across one hundred eighty service techs, with over fourteen thousand customers experiencing outages.
Do the math. Might take a week or more for gas to flow everywhere.
My friend Al and I didn't need alarm clocks. The screams from the women taking cold showers never failed to awaken us. And needless to say, cold showers charged up the women for a day of gem shopping.
I'm surprised the women didn't haul their take in wheelbarrows.
Then it was our turn to shower. A good thing the women were gone. I don't know about my friend, Al, but I wasn't singing in the shower...
Previously, I'd thought dentist office anticipation traumatic enough to cause my hair to fall out. Well, anticipation of that cold shower each morning... I'm bald now.
Gas finally returned to us yesterday, and still there are thousands of people shivering, even though temps have eased upward a bit.
So who chooses who gets gas and who does not? I'd like to meet that man or woman. So would Al, my wife and the two other women. But he or she might want to wear Kevlar for the meeting.
Doubtless, Tucson's problems weren't as severe as weather emergencies experienced elsewhere in the country, but still, two Tucson residents froze to death, and more may follow, since gas still hasn't filled all lines.
Why no backup plan, no backup supply? Why didn't the regulations provide for emergencies? Due to environmental group pressures, I'm told, the regs provided for some coal and oil operated plants to be shut down during peak demand periods. Texas was cold; it hit peak demand. Then rolling blackouts in Texas, including some of Texas' natural gas plants which supply Tucson.
No doubt there will be investigations and lawsuits. Already local lawyers are sniffing the air for the smell of fresh meat. And no doubt, at some future date, we'll get some minor billing concessions, while plaintiffs' lawyers rake in high fees. SWGas Investigations TV Report CBS Report
But will any of this prevent the next sudden gas shutoff?
The one thing I've learned from this is to be prepared for emergencies. As soon as I finish typing, I'm going out to buy water -- gallons of the stuff -- and I'll order a few hundred Meals Ready to Eat ("MREs" in military parlance). And as soon as stocks are replenished, some space heaters...in Arizona, of all places.
No, the water and MREs won't help us with our next gas outage, but this experience has taught us that our supply systems are brittle, and the mechanisms to ensure continuous supply of those things we most need for survival aren't in place.
Meanwhile, we'll be busy replacing a burst toilet and some related pipes.
Just goes to show you. Having an abundant supply of natural gas means little if its distribution system and the regulatory environment governing it are defective.
I'm off now to take another scalding-hot shower. Pity those who aren't yet able to do that.
Yet, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show rolls on, and the women are still shopping.
Maybe I'll grab some Scotch on the way to the shower.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Yrsa - Sunday
Several other blogs have posted this week about writing humor in mysteries. It piqued my curiosity, since we MMers are such an eclectic bunch. So, what makes you laugh? Are you a fan of slapstick (Three Stooges, I Love Lucy), biting sarcasm/comments on life (Archie Bunker -- All In The Family), "senior humor" (Golden Girls)? Do you find humor in everyday situations? I've read that laughter is good for the body as well as the soul, and can actually have a positive effect on blood pressure and the heart. Hey, Valentine's Day is right around the corner. Spreading laughter is a heck of a lot cheaper than a dozen roses, and non-fattening, too.
In my Baby Boomer mysteries, I try to sprinkle some humor into my characters' everyday situations. I make myself laugh. I hope I make readers laugh too.
So..what makes you laugh?
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Jean's post and scenes from yesterday make me think so much of home. My home is south Louisiana, sixty miles southwest of New Orleans. No, that's not in the Gulf of Mexico, but it's pretty close. I live in Cajun country, where food, family, and faith reign most important. I may get to some of that--especially the food--in a later entry.
The pictures from yesterday reveal scenes similar to those we see a few miles down the bayou (ours being Bayou Lafourche.) Tug boats and shrimp and oyster boats move into and out of various waterways, and ships carry oil near our shores. Many of us have camps or houses down near the beach at the Gulf of Mexico on Grand Isle, where you saw much of the oil spilled. We don't want drilling banned near our shore; too many people down here work in the oil industry. Besides their lost income, we'd lose schools and other public services. Most of the oil rigs have withstood numerous hurricanes without major problems, although lots of homes and camps and even parts of a highway were washed away.
It's cold down here today, but nothing compared to what most of you are experiencing. I wish you luck if you're trying to dig out of snow. Many people I've spoken to tell me they're glad to be here, even if we sometimes face hurricanes, instead of lots of snow or earthquakes.
I'm sure we should all be content with what we have. The snow and sleet stopped a parish or two above ours, and our students and teachers all wished for it here so school would be canceled. But we'll take our normally comfortable weather, especially while we sympathize with those whose houses and cars are covered in frigid white.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
I just got home from work (after 10 PM) and remembered Thursday is my day to post.. Since I'm afraid all hope for a coherent post is gone, I'm going to just throw out some random thoughts and links that I've recently found of interest. I hope you will too.
First, the inimitable Nathan Bransford has just announced the finalists in his "best first paragraph" contest. I'd say they're pretty darn good, but the rules forbid campaigning for your favorite, so I'll just say, if you hop over to Nathan's site, you can vote on the one you like best.
Speaking of things we like best, Timothy Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, is still doing his 365-day blog project. He has a much cleverer name for it than that, but I can never remember the whole thing. Anyway, I made a pledge to comment on all of them, and I am reeeeeeeeeeally far behind, but I will keep my word. In the meantime, if you haven't been reading them, you're missing out on some great posts. Tim's latest book, The Queen of Patpong was just nominated for an Edgar. It's a marvelous book, which I reviewed on Murderous Musings when it came out. I'm rooting for Tim. Also, I harbor a secret, superstitious hope that hobnobbing with Edgar nominees will somehow make me one of them.
Finally, for anyone seeking a giant, yet terribly rewarding time-suck, you might like to check out Absolute Write and the Absolute Write Water Cooler (forums). I think I've posted about them before, but I finally joined tonight. I haven't had time to explore the sites, but they seem to be chock full of great information and advice for writers. (What exactly is a chock, anyway? Does anybody know?)
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
I thought about writing an autobiographical children’s book for years and finally sat down and wrote it. Solstice Publishing brought it out this week and I’m well into the second book of the Hamilton Kids mystery series. I've never had so much fun writing.
By autobiographical I mean that the characters grew up at the foot of a large hill in southern California, as I did with four younger brothers. Because the hill was inhabited by trap door spiders and an occasional tarantula that had arrived on a banana boat from Central America, I called it Spider Mountain.
My brothers and I were close in age and explored our "mountain" together. The apron was filled with purplish-blue lupines nearly all year round and about half way up the hill was Dead Man’s Tree. We called it that because a thick knotted rope hung from a lower limb that we swung on. At the end was a loop that prompted stories of horsethieves we imagined had been hanged there.
A dirt road encircled the hill at three levels but was so chocked with rocks and weeds that even a bicycle would have had difficult passage. We always wondered how the people who lived at the summit were able to reach their house, imagining everything from rock climbers to space ships and helicopters, although we’d never heard one in the area.
When I was twelve and old enough to babysit brothers who were nearly my own size, we climbed our mountain to spy on the mysterious house. What we found was a chain link fence enclosing four large vicious-looking dogs with mouths large enough to swallow a child whole. Or so we thought. It didn’t take us long to scramble back down the hill to our own house. And, of course, we never told our parents.
When I began to write I wondered again who those people were and how they arrived there. I wanted to write a mystery so I had to decide what kind of crime(s) the residents of the house had committed. And how the Hamilton kids would be able to capture them.
I thought of the Ouija board that had frightened us when we played with it at night. That’s when the spirit Bagnomi materialized to communicate with the kids via the board.
My four brothers had to be cut to two to make the story manageable. Even then they were as troubesome as my own brothers had been, so their widowed grandmother came to live with them—as mine had done. However, my grandmother didn’t have bright red curly hair like Ronald McDonald, and wasn’t interested in finding a husband. Even children’s books need humor and the Hamilton Kids’ grandmother provides that and more, along with an adopted Australian Sheppard with a penchant for chewing up furniture.
I enjoyed writing the book and hope that the second novel, The Ghost of Crimson Dawn, will be equally entertaining.
According to the omniscient Wikipedia:
An early American reference to Groundhog Day can be found in a diary entry dated February 5, 1841, of Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris:
The way it looks on the Weather Channel today, it not only most likely be cloudy but snowy and icy and any other precipitative term you can think of. They're calling it the worst snowstorm in a winter of almost continuous storms. We'd all be ecstatic at the thought of spring arriving any day now, but the prospects are for more of the same.Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candelmas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.
There's an interesting piece on the ABC News site this morning about the outlook for Groudhog Day 2011. The writer talks about the movie Groundhog Day that featured Bill Murray and compares it to what we're facing now. Being an eternal optimist, I'll take Phil's side and hope he stays out to play in the now and then brings a welcome break in our winter of discontent.
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