Sunday, October 30, 2005

Surviving Rita: The Party

Thirty-seven days ago, we had a visitor here on Saratoga Circle. Rita blustered into town on short notice like an irksome cousin who doesn't live far enough away. She jumped the curb, trampled the garden, unhinged the front door, rousted us from our beds, raised the roof with an all-night party that started after midnight, tossed everything in a heap on the floor, nicked the furniture, wasted our food and drink, pissed in the pool, had her way with the dog and sneaked out without closing the gate.

We’re glad she’s gone.

So glad, in fact, that everybody in the neighborhood celebrated at a “Surviving Rita” party last night.

Our hostess’ house still doesn’t have its new roof, but at least it’s sealed against the rain with a government-issued blue tarp. The path to her front door was festooned with more than a dozen happy signs of Rita’s departure: “Bob’s Stump Grinding,” “Tafoya’s Roofing,” “Al’s Pool Service,” “AAA Tree Service …” Guests bearing what little beer was left by Rita were greeted by a big piece of plywood, on which somebody had hand-painted: “Looters will be sent to Hell”

Our cocktail conversation was about FEMA and insurance riders; how one properly removes 27 wheelbarrows of debris from an in-ground pool; a comparative analysis of Lowe’s vs. Home Depot; whether it’s possible to damage an underground sewer line by dropping a sawed trunk on it from 100 feet up; the number of sutures distributed at the ER in the first three days after the storm; the best evacuation routes for next time; a semantic discussion of whether a fence is a “structure”; and mold identification.

Tablecloths were blue tarps. Centerpieces were torn shingles and roofing nails. We ate by battery-powered lanterns, not delicate candlelight. Every table had a six-pack of generic canned water, made popular not by commercials during NFL games but by lack of air conditioning.

And, by God, it was the most pleasant few hours of the past month and a half. Some of us were meeting for the first time, brought together by that old bitch Rita.

For weeks, we’ve been straining our backs against Rita. Some of us suffered more than others, but we simply -- and quietly -- set ourselves to the task of rebuilding, trying to re-assemble old lives. We’ve watched one of our neighbors’ 100-year-old backyard pine, undamaged by the storm, be surgically dismantled purely because it now scared them. We’ve hauled each other’s limbs and debris. We’ve listened to horror stories from both those who stayed and those who fled. We’ve knocked on each other’s door, just to be sure everybody’s OK. We’ve acknowledged, as we took our breaks from digging stumps or hauling branches or picking up pieces of broken shingles, that it won’t ever truly be the same, and that’s just how life is. Tomorrow won’t be the same as today, just as today is different from yesterday.

So we celebrated survival. At one point during the party, we all herded out to the curb, where one of the high school girls in the neighborhood was showing off her homecoming dress. There, amid Rita’s remnant destruction and the end of another day, this young girl in a formal gown was delightfully and reassuringly out of place. We took pictures.

Tomorrow won’t be the same, but that’s a funny thing about survival: It’s not predictable … just be here to see what happens next.

Maybe there’ll be a party.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Ghosts of Cheesman Park

What would Halloween be without a good ghost story? Well, one of the best ghost tales this side of Amityville is the true story of how greed and "progress" danced on the graves of Denver's old Mount Prospect/City Cemetery -- much of which lies now beneath one of the city's proudest (and high-priced) neighborhoods, Cheesman Park.

Sound like the plot of "Poltergeist"? Yeah, except "Poltergeist" was pure imagination, and Cheesman Park's haunted history is true. Here's the Horror Channel's take on it:

Ownership of the cemetery passed ... to a cabinet-maker named John Walley, who was also an aspiring undertaker. He did not, however, seem to have a good head for business, and Denver City Cemetery fell into a state of disrepair. Most of those buried there were criminals, victims of smallpox, and transients; and general interest in upkeep on the place dwindled. Headstones were toppled, graves were often vandalized, and occasionally cows were allowed to graze among the graves. The City decided enough was enough.

Through some unknown means, someone in the U.S. Government dug up a document that reported the land was part of an Indian treaty and therefore was federal land. The Government then sold the cemetery to the City of Denver, all 320 acres of it, for two hundred dollars. The following summer the City Council announced that all concerned parties had ninety days to move their loved ones for burial elsewhere.

Because most of those buried in the cemetery were homeless or criminals, the majority of the bodies went unclaimed. In 1893 the City of Denver awarded a contract to an unscrupulous undertaker named E. F. McGovern to move the unclaimed bodies. McGovern was to place each exhumed body into a fresh box for delivery to a new burial ground, at which time he was to be paid $1.90 per box. The problem was, the new boxes were only three feet long and one foot wide, making many of the corpses far too large to fit. McGovern had a solution, however. Those that would not fit were hacked to pieces and shoveled into the boxes.

The looting and grave desecration caused the City of Denver to shut down the project, leaving hundreds of open and empty graves. Other graves hadn't been touched. Eventually the bodies were forgotten, leaving more than 2,000 graves under what would soon become Cheesman Park. The city simply built over the existing graves.

Today, residents of the neighborhoods around Cheesman report hauntings of various kinds, and if you're made of sterner stuff, you can even spend a night in one of several "haunted" B&Bs in the area ... boo.

Torah, Torah, Torah

Daniel Tabin, 6, peaks beneath an unfurled Torah at the
Temple Har Shalom in Salt Lake City, Utah, Thursday. Tabin and other
children celebrated the Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday
celebrating the sacred Torah scroll. (Photo by Ashley Franscell)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Black is White: Sox toss pox

It's been 88 years since the Chicago White Sox last won a World Series, and now they've finally done it again, sweeping the Houston Astros in four games. 88 years. Every story you see today will remind you that it was 1917 when the Sox last won the Series, which is 88 years ago. Sportswriters will compare the Sox drought to the Boston Red Sox "Curse of the Bambino" or the Chicago Cubs' billy goat, as if metaphysics have somehow become part of baseball's statistical abstract.

But when the Chicago White Sox had their chance to win the World Series 86 years ago -- and the likelihood of their winning was a safe bet -- eight players purposely blew it, scandalizing their team and the game of baseball (which worked hard to cover it up, incidentally. The Wall Street Journal's story today is a potent examination of that lesser-known element.) Worse, the Black Sox shattered the public's confidence in its institutions in a way we didn't see again until Watergate, 55 years later.

Because the "Black Sox" fixers included Shoeless Joe Jackson, probably the greatest hitter in the game at the time, they remain the stuff of intense debate. Jackson played a nearly flawless Series, with no evidence of chicanery, but he admitted taking money in the fix. He and his seven sullied teammates -- including ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte and ace provocateur Chick Gandil -- were acquitted in a criminal trial because in 1919 it wasn't illegal to take bribes from gamblers or to fix World Series games in Illinois. But they were later banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Money was at the heart of the scandal, of course. The White Sox were owned by the notoriously cheap Charlie Comiskey and his underpaid players were easy marks for gamblers who'd pay handsomely for a chance to influence the outcome of the biggest sporting event on the American scene. Imagine the money you could make today if you knew secretly how the Super Bowl would end. That's the idea.

Gandil was the pipeline between professional gamblers and the players. More than anyone, he was midwife to the Black Sox scandal, and in many ways, as damaging to American trust as anyone until Richard Nixon ... who never hit a big-league fastball in his life. If they could fix a World Series, why not the ownership of my farm or shop ... or an election?

And after trust, Shoeless Joe Jackson was Gandil's next big victim. He was the only likely Hall of Famer among the Black Sox and to this day, he remains un-honored.

Gandil changed his name and played backwater, bush-league baseball for a while. Then he left the game and became a plumber, preferring to be known as a fixer of faucets instead of a fixer of games. He settled down in quiet Calistoga, Calif., where he died at age 83 in 1971. There was no service, no obituary, no newspaper story for two months. Why? Gandil had watched six Black Sox die before him and every time, the whole scandal was replayed in the press. He didn't want that.

The 2005 White Sox won the World Series by being baseball's most intensely consistent team this year. They churned forward relentlessly through 162 regular season games, the League Series and the World Series. The wonder of that is not that the Sox last won 88 years ago, but that they have been one of baseball's most remarkably mediocre teams for 88 years.

As tragic as I find the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox, and as marvelous as I find the the 2005 White Sox, the fact remains: It might be 88 years since they last won a World Series, but they purposely blew a chance 86 years ago that changed everything. Not just baseball, but also our chance to believe in one good thing.

Pictured above: The author's pre-1919 tobacco card for Arnold "Chick" Gandil, and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Katrina vs Rita: Facts and fancies

Two Katrina-vs-Rita comparisons are floating around the Internet right now. One is a data comparison chart that shows the two storms were far more alike that we think. In fact, the chart shows Rita was bigger just before landfall and potentially more lethal as it moved slower across the landscape.

The other is a whimsical -- and purely political -- 22-point comparison between the storm reactions in Texas and Louisiana. It's printed below in the form it appears in the blogosphere, so don't write in calling me a racist Republican for making this stuff up ... it ain't mine. It's probably best to read it as more of a reflection of our famous Texas pride than a true representation of human nature.

Is it factual? Let's just say it's "inspired by a true story." For example, Texas is obviously a strong Red State ... but so is Louisiana, and Jefferson County, Texas -- my home and the more populous heart of Rita's wrack and ruin -- hasn't voted for a Republican president since Eisenhower. Texans learned from Louisianans' horrors, so many things were done better, but not necessarily because Republicans are wiser than Democrats. I have added "footnotes" where further facts are known, but honestly, the writers obviously didn't intend for this be "factual" or fair ...

So get a laugh or get peeved. Here it is:

Katrina vs Rita
(and Texas vs Louisiana)

1. Texas: Productive, industrious state run by Republicans.
Louisiana: Government dependent, welfare state run by Democrats.

2. Texas: Residents take responsibility to protect and evacuate themselves.
Louisiana: Residents wait for government to protect and evacuate them.

3. Texas: Local and state officials take responsibility for protecting their citizens and property.
Louisiana: Local and state officials blame federal government for not protecting their citizens and property.

4. Texas: Command and control remains in place to preserve order.
Louisiana: Command and control collapses allowing lawlessness.

5. Texas: Law enforcement officers remain on duty to protect city.
Louisiana: Law enforcement officers desert their posts to protect themselves.

6. Texas: Local police watch for looting.
Louisiana: Local police participate in looting.

7. Texas: Law and order remains in control, 8 looters tried it, 8 looters arrested.
Louisiana: Anarchy and lawlessness breaks out, looters take over city, no arrests, criminals with guns have to be shot by federal troops.

8. Texas: Considerable damage caused by hurricane.
Louisiana: Considerable damage caused by looters (but certainly not as much as the hurricane.)

9. Texas: Flood barriers hold preventing cities from flooding. (Port Arthur suffered significant flood damage from storm surge.)
Louisiana: Flood barriers fail due to lack of maintenance allowing city to flood.

10. Texas: Orderly evacuation away from threatened areas, few remain. (Early evacuation, yes, but "Texodus" wasn't always a model of orderliness. Horror stories abound.)
Louisiana: 25,000 fail to evacuate, are relocated to another flooded area.

11. Texas: Citizens evacuate with personal 3-day supply of food and water. (But some forgot to fill up with gas or couldn't find it before they fled.)
Louisiana: Citizens fail to evacuate with 3-day supply of food and water, do without it for the next 4 days.

12. Texas: FEMA brings in tons of food and water for evacuees. State officials provide accessible distribution points.
Louisiana: FEMA brings in tons of food and water for evacuees. State officials prevent citizens from reaching distribution points and vice versa.

13. Louisiana: Media focuses on poor blacks in need of assistance, blames Bush.
Texas: Media can't find poor blacks in need of assistance, looking for something else to blame on Bush. (To be honest, the national media left Rita early on because the storm simply didn't wreak a lot of human damage. Not enough "bleed" to "lead." As one NBC Nightly News reporter told me two days after the storm: "Now it's just a power outage story.")

14. Texas: Coastal cities suffer some infrastructure damage, Mayors tell residents to stay away until ready for repopulation, no interference from federal officials.
Louisiana: New Orleans is destroyed, Mayor asks residents to return home as another hurricane approaches, has to be overruled by federal officials.

15. Louisiana: Over 400 killed by storm, flooding and crime. (Louisiana's Katrina-related death toll stood at 1,053 on Oct. 26.)
Texas: 24 killed in bus accident on highway during evacuation, no storm related deaths. (Not quite true, although Katrina's death toll is vastly higher. Five people died of carbon monoxide poisoning when they fired up their gas-powered generator in an apartment, and a handful of others died from traumas suffered during the evacuation and in the post-Rita cleanup.)

16. Texas: Jailed prisoners are relocated to other detention facilities outside the storm area. (Not true. Most prisons didn't evacuate, but merely moved prisoners to safer quarters, or in one case, not at all from their ground-floor cells.)
Louisiana: Jailed prisoners are set free to prey on city shops, residents, and homes.

17. Texas: Local and state officials work with FEMA and Red Cross in recovery operations. (Well, our local County Judge certainly had some terse words for FEMA in the week after the storm, threatening to send police to seize needed FEMA equipment that wasn't being deployed.)
Louisiana: Local and state officials obstruct FEMA and Red Cross from aiding in recovery operations.

18. Texas: Local and state officials demonstrate leadership in managing disaster areas. (One Texas city manager was fired when he failed to return quickly from his own evacuation.)
Louisiana: Local and state officials fail to demonstrate leadership, require federal government to manage disaster areas.

19. Texas: Fuel deliveries can't keep up with demand, some run out of gas on highway; need help from fuel tankers before storm arrives.
Louisiana: Motorists wait till storm hits and electrical power fails. Cars run out of gas at gas stations that can't pump gas. Gas in underground tanks mixes with flood waters.

20. Texas: Mayors move citizens out of danger.
Louisiana: Mayor moves himself and family to Dallas. (Didn't Mayor Nagin ride out the storm at New Orleans City Hall?)

21. Texas: Mayors continue public service announcements and updates on television with Governor's backing and support.
Louisiana: Mayor cusses, governor cries, senator threatens president with violence on television, none of them have a clue what went wrong or who's responsible.

22. Louisiana: Democratic Senator says FEMA was slow in responding to 911 calls from Louisiana citizens.
Texas: Republican Senator says "when you call 911, the phone doesn't ring in Washington, it rings here at the local responders." What if state and local elected officials were forced to depend on themselves and their own resources instead of calling for help from the federal government? Texas cities would be back up and running in a few days. Louisiana cities would still be under water next month.

Republicans call for action, Democrats call for help. What party will you be voting for in the next election?

(Editor's Note: Wouldn't it be fun to see a Democrat/Louisiana version of this list?)

Monday, October 24, 2005

A memory becomes a book

Today, I signed a contract with New Horizon Press to publish my true crime/memoir, "Fall: An Intimate Crime Story." The book -- about a monstrous 1973 rape and murder that touched me, my family, friends and neighbors and still reverberates eerily today in the Wyoming town where I grew up -- will be published in late 2006 or early 2007. Naturally, I've spent much of today pondering life and death, the illusion of sanctuary in a small town, and two girls who suffered more than anyone should. Here some of what's in my mind today:

k k k
“There is no explanation for evil.
It must be looked upon as a necessary part
of the order of the universe.
To ignore it is childish, to bewail it senseless.”
W. Somerset Maugham

The place where I grew up was wrought by violent times, forces of nature, and Death. Dying echoes there in strange ways. And for the longest time, we never heard those echoes.

I grew up in a close-knit neighborhood on the far edge of Casper, Wyoming, a modest little cow-and-oil town on the brink of the Great Plains, unaware of what lurked in plain sight. I didn’t know Death. I didn’t know evil. The war in Vietnam seethed for most of my childhood, but our wars were fought in dirt forts with plastic soldiers, and the enemy was German or Japanese, although they had not been our enemies for more than twenty years. War was a card game and a rock ‘n‘ roll band. Boys ten years older than us, boys who had once attended our grade school, were fighting and dying in Vietnam, but sucking chest wounds and disembowelment by booby-trap were only discussed when children weren’t around. Like sex.

Kennedy and King were assassinated, but we didn’t really understand the abstractness of murder. Hot and cold wars raged in the world outside our town, but to us, hot and cold were seasons, not states of conflict. Our PE teachers showed us movies about how to survive an atomic blast, advising us to wipe the radioactive dust off the lids of food cans and to drink water from old Clorox bottles. We were non-plussed. It was far more frightening to be forced to watch “Death on the Highway,” a guts-on-the-pavement film designed to make us more careful drivers but which never failed to cause someone to pass out on the classroom floor. Later at lunch, we’d always talk about who fainted, seldom about decapitation by inattentive motoring. We weren’t even old enough to drive.

But we were invincible. Nobody we knew had died. We understood the theory, but dismissed the reality. In that way, we were probably not much different from most small-town kids in the guiltless years before videogames, twenty-four hour cable news, Columbine, the Internet, graphic prime-time violence, embedded war correspondents, gangsta rap and mass cyicism.

In the idealized hometown of my memory, a tall sissy bar and a long front fork on your Stingray bike was an emblem of rebellion. It made you look like a cool bad-ass biker when all you were was a small-town kid in a pair of muddy Chuck Taylors and white socks. We genuinely believed chugging Coke and Pop Rocks would cause your bowels to explode. Some of us sneaked tie-dyed T-shirts to school because our parents had forbidden them. And that was courting trouble.

Even in the world of fantasy, evil and murder were abstract, distant concepts. Movies like “Deliverance” and “The Exorcist” were just movies, not real, not reflections of fact. We had no concept of a world where crime and horror might be the same thing. That a man would rape another man seemed as unlikely as a child’s head spinning on her neck like a haunted carousel.

The most trouble I ever heard about was when a kid sneaked out his bedroom window one summer night and was caught skinny-dipping in a public pool. He feared he’d get held back a grade, because to us, that was as cruel and unusual as the death penalty. To us, it was the death penalty because it was socially fatal to repeat a grade while your friends moved on.

In our innocence and our abject naivete, the punishment tended to far exceed any crime we might commit. But when it was all said and done, the sentence carried out, that boy knew the feel of wind on a naked body. And he never forgot it.

But, of course, this was a place and time that doesn’t really exist anymore. Now that I think about it, maybe it never did except in my memory.

Oh, the houses I often rode past on my bicycle on summer nights are still there, but they no longer open their windows wide enough that passing boys can hear the life inside and smell suppers cooking.

Back then, I didn’t associate empty skies and epic spaces with Death. I associated them with nothingness, or maybe a sense of man’s smallness in the universe. Maybe free will. Maybe even a kind of agoraphobia, where people fear they might fall down and tumble off the very edge of the Earth. But not Death -- as if Death were not nothingness, smallness, ultimate freedom and a great fall into an infinite black vacuum.

The waves of settlers who passed through here believed, deep in the heart of their hearts, there was something beyond what they called “the Big Empty.” On the other side waited remedy, Oregon, prosperity, a great ocean, escape, restoration, a place to set down roots, a new start, perhaps Heaven. Certainly, Death awaited some, but these were sanguine people. Death and hope were in conflict.

Still today, one finds the oldest Western cemeteries on hills because they would be a little closer to Heaven. By the same token, it was common for outlaws, scoundrels, desperadoes, rustlers, ruffians, rogues, thugs and other scofflaws to be buried eight feet or deeper, a little closer to Hell than most.

Death defines this place where I grew up. Like my family and my neighbors, I just didn’t think of it that way. To me, the landscape’s vastness and the rawness was evidence of its simplicity, its incorruptibility. It was immortal. It shaped us more than we shaped it.

Antelope died, rabbits and rattlesnakes died. Prairie dogs, horny toads, carp, millers, deer, sparrows, mosquitoes, trout, elk, quail, midges, salamanders, ants … they all died at our hands. We killed like champions. But those were deaths with a little “d.” Those animals were all alive, but in our unsullied young minds, they had no lives. Not like people. And none of our friends died, so we never knew the inexorable sadness of loss.

Until Becky and Amy.
Pictured above: Becky Thomson (right) and Amy Burridge (front) with their mother in 1973, just days before they were abducted and thrown from a bridge into a remote, isolated Wyoming canyon

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Little League ...

[You can listen to this commentary by Ron Franscell
which originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered Oct. 22]

Some years ago, essayist Robert Fulghum surmised that everything he ever needed to know he learned in kindergarten.

Maybe I was a slow learner. Or maybe Little League was just the beginning of my higher education, but everything else I ever needed to know I learned in endless games in the sandlot and night games on my neighborhood baseball diamond, when the ball became a moving bit of the twilight sky.

Just like in regular school, you’re never truly conscious of your own education. It comes back to you much later, say, as you watch your son play in his first T-ball game and you stifle the urge to shout, "Keep your eye on the ball!" And, come to think of it, that was one of the good lessons to be learned way back when your father shouted it to you. And maybe when his father shouted it to him.

Tonight, the first pitch of the 2005 World Series will be thrown and I’m in my 48th October, a good time to revisit some of the lessons I learned as a boy of summer, like:

Being safe at home is the overall objective ... Two hands work better than one ... It sometimes takes every kid in the neighborhood to make something possible ... Persistence can turn even a bunt into a home run … Errors are inevitable ... every season the fences get a little closer.

I played baseball in college, and one glorious season of small-time semi-pro ball, when the fences were as close to me as they’d ever get. Today, I couldn’t tell you if I batted my weight, but I recall the smell of freshly mown outfield grass, leather and road dust, and the way small-town girls flirted with traveling ballplayers. I was no longer a Little Leaguer then, and my playing days were all but done, but the lessons continue…

The sun shines in everybody’s eyes … We sometimes see things differently than the guy who has to make the call … Long-ball hitters strike out sometimes, too … Don’t dig yourself into a hole at home … Sometimes you get hurt, but it eventually feels better … Cry later.

I asked my daughter about baseball’s lessons. Her life was either enhanced or forever marred by my volunteering to coach her team when she was still very young. Today, she is a professional photojournalist for a big-city newspaper. I wondered: What did my little girl of summer take away from the ballparks of HER youth, if anything?

"If you're lucky," she said, "you'll remember everything you need to know. And your coach will forget when you don't."

Pictured above: The author's first home run ball, gently gnawed by a beloved family pet. May she rest in peace.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Google and the Death of Art

Back when Napster was arguing -- in vain -- that musicians were somehow improved by the free sharing of their hard work, I was mildly perplexed. What didn't cyberspace and its clone-army of teenage freeloaders understand about artists (or anyone really) expecting to be compensated for their skills? Fortunately, a judge agreed and free file-sharing is no longer openly promoted at Napster.

Comes now Google with its plan to scan every book in three major libraries -- and, one must assume, eventually every book ever printed. The idea, the mega-monstrous Google argues, is to make public-domain books available online and to create a super-referenced "cyber-card catalog" of everything else. That's not a problem for books like "Oliver Twist" or "Pride and Prejudice" or "Mutiny on the Bounty" or any other works older than 100 years, all of which can be freely reprinted in any form.

But for books like, say, "Angel Fire" by Ron Franscell -- published in 1998 and still earning royalties enough to buy a Whopper every year or so -- Google is coming perilously close to usurping my riches for its own profit. Google says it won't offer online versions of any copyrighted books without the authors' and publishers' permission, but forgive me for being a little Napster- and Amazon-jaded. With a few extra clicks under some future policy, my books could be read by anyone online and I will forever be robbed of my annual Whopper. And so will my heirs, dammit.

Right now, Amazon offers the sale of used books -- sometimes on the same day the book hits shelves for the first time -- and takes its cut from the sale. But the author makes zip. Amazon also asks for more of a share of the book profits than any other bookseller, and far more than the author ever gets. The typical $25 book sold at Amazon earns more than $14 for Amazon and less than $2 for the author. And when it's sold again in the "used" market, Amazon has found a way to keep profiting, but the author and publisher are cut out entirely.

Any system that allows a consumer to collect copyrighted material without reimbursing the artist (assuming the artist hasn't permitted it) is theft. The Internet has created a generation of users who think everything should be free to them. Google Print might not only imperil art creation, it could imperil public libraries if courts are forced to determine the proper compensation for writers.

Face it, nobody (including greedy Google, Napster and Amazon) is going to invest millions in a system for the benefit of public erudition and artists' profit. Authors have always politely or passionately supported libraries, which are the pre-millennial version of Napster where one copy is passed around freely without ever earning the author more than the royalty on one sale. In cyberspace, they don't even buy it once!

So what? Well, what artist will invest his sweat, blood, tears and money in a craft for which he cannot possibly make a profit? The ultimate effect of Internet profit-centers stealing art (and any profits to made from it) is the death of art. Royalties and direct sales have been the only ways most artists can sustain themselves, and now we're putting control of our world's art in the hands of a bunch of light-averse computer geeks? They do their jobs well ... but when they start getting paid for MY art, I gotta draw the line.

Let Google provide the world's best search engine. Let Google provide this blog-spot (as it does.) Let Google sell all the online ads cyberspace can hold. But, for crying out loud, don't steal the books I didn't write for your bottom-line.

You could at least send a Whopper.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Lord, please watch over my latte

For decades, my newspaper has published a daily prayer, usually a one- or two-line, non-denominational benediction that falls somewhere between a sermon and "amen." Not quite communion, but more than a holy hors d'oeuvre.

Well, our daily prayer was a victim of Hurricane Rita, which literally wiped out our paper-newspaper for 10 days and still echoes nastily through our pages, which have not yet recovered their pre-Rita heft. The page where our prayer appeared (along with lotto numbers, the weather and celebrity birthdays) remains storm-tossed, a shadow of its former self. Other features -- such as our daily stock pages, our non-Rita regional news, and weekly entertainment calendar, among them -- have re-appeared only in the last few days, almost a month since Rita raged.

But what do you think has generated the most reader complaints? Yep, the missing prayer. Some readers have even deduced our true decadence, pointing out we have lottery numbers but no prayer. Some have threatened to cancel their subscription until the prayer returns. (Actually, it has already returned, in a new incarnation, on our Editorial page.)

OK, this is the Bible Belt. It's to be expected. Now, Starbucks is hoping for such faithful consumers: It plans to print a new series of quotable go-cups with thinly veiled religious quotes, according to USA Today ... today:

"Coffee drinkers could get a spiritual jolt with their java in the spring when Starbucks begins putting a God-filled quote from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the mega-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, on its cups. It will be the first mention of God in the company's provocative quote campaign, The Way I See It. Some mention "faith in the human spirit," but none is overtly religious. Warren says the idea of a grande pitch for God as creator came to him after seeing a Starbucks quote on evolution from paleontologist Louis Leakey."
Once upon a time, wearing religion on your business's sleeve was a negative, but the article points out that many businesses are less guarded about it now. For example, Hobby Lobby isn't open on Sundays for religious reasons. Is there anything wrong with retail evangelism? From a free-speech perspective, absolutely not. Commercially, however, one risks alienating sectors in a diverse religious landscape (Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and anyone else with spendable income, whether he/she wants a new hammer or a new home.)

But because a business doesn't broadcast its faith -- as if a bricks-and-mortar, non-human institution can be religious -- doesn't mean it doesn't have good community values. The problem is confusing the business's press releases with its provable, substantive contributions to the values of its market. Words are cheap -- and nobody knows that better than a newspaper editor -- but action is priceless.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A calm before the (next) storm

Let not a flood of waters overflow me,
Nor let the deep swallow me up,
Nor let the pit shut her mouth upon me.

Psalm 69:15
As Tropical Storm Wilma gathers strength in the Caribbean and takes aim at -- of course -- the U.S. Gulf Coast, it's starting to feel a little like a slasher movie. This monster just won't die.

At the moment, anything is possible once Wilma slithers into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. She could skulk toward Texas or sneak up on the Florida Panhandle ... or just slice head-on into the soft underbelly of Gulf Coast at New Orleans and Mississippi, again.

When I first came to Southeast Texas, people were surprisingly sanguine about the threat of hurricanes. Maybe it's because it had been almost 20 years since a hurricane hit here. They oozed a certain resignation to the inevitability of a catastrophe, saying such things as "That's what insurance is for" and "It's only a house." Indeed, now that Rita has slit us from crotch to collarbone, my neighbors (some of whom are not even insured) simply set themselves to the task of rebuilding and restoring their homes and their lives the best they can. TV shines its light on a few people whining that FEMA and the Red Cross and the church on the corner and the people who sell groceries and all the ships at sea have somehow betrayed them, but for the most part, I see people making their own remedies.

But I wonder, as we closely watch the prowling Wilma, if anyone is still as sanguine. As I picked up some broken shingles, glass shards and fallen branches in my backyard this morning, I wondered: Should I just leave them until Wilma passes ... or maybe longer, until after the hurricane season has gone into hibernation at the end of November? Should I just leave the fences on the ground rather than replace a brand-new fence after the next storm? Or should I simply surrender -- like my friends and neighbors -- to the inevitability of hurricanes and deductibles and turbulence of all kinds ... and live as well as possible in between?

Aw, hell, it's only a house.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Putting 'true' back in true crime

With a few notable exceptions, true-crime literature has lately resembled what you get when you send a cub reporter to a lurid freak show.

It goes like this: A detached and usually mercenary author parachutes into the scene of the crime – often after an uncomfortably long interval – and pieces together the story from court transcripts, interviews (a bigger advance for an "exclusive" with the killer!) and a few grisly photos.

And the result – again, with notable exceptions – has generally been fodder for a mass market whose book-shopping starts with a surreptitious glance at the grisly photos printed in the middle of the paperback.

But then there are those exceptions. Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood" was the seminal, postmodern true-crime tale. Vincent Bugliosi’s "Helter Skelter" was the first great true crime-insider blockbuster. Joe McGinniss’ "Fatal Vision" and Joseph Wambaugh’s "The Onion Field" made relatively common crimes intensely personal. Each shares one thing: A "true" ending that isn’t any ending at all, but a gateway to unanswered questions about humanity we might never answer satisfactorily.

Comes now Robert Rivard’s "Trail of Feathers." Aptly labeled a "true crime/memoir," it’s not just one story of crime and punishment, but also an exploration of deeply hidden personal secrets, bonds between men, the nature of contemporary journalism, cultural differences, the nature of justice and, ultimately, what one editor believed he owed a friend and reporter.

In December 1998, San-Antonio (Texas) Express-News reporter Philip True, 50, disappeared on a solitary hike into a dangerous Mexican wilderness. It was to be the Mexico City correspondent’s last great adventure before the birth of his first child, but he also hoped it would provide material for a story he desperately wanted to write about Mexico’s isolated Huichol Indians:

"True described a world unknown to his editors or readers. He seemed gripped by the possibility of walking out of the late twentieth-century commotion of Mexico City and, all alone, entering a place lost in time. The proposed trek combined two of the three great passions in his life: testing himself in the wilderness and unearthing great newspaper stories."
Author Rivard – then and now editor of the Express-News – joins a small search party that plunges deep into the alien region. Miraculously, he follows a trail of downy feathers from True’s sleeping bag to a shallow grave where they find his decaying body. He’d been murdered.

Rivard’s search doesn’t stop in that rugged gorge, even as Mexican authorities arrest two Huichol Indian suspects in the killing, setting in motion a labyrinthine trial process. Delving deeply into True’s past, Rivard finds both unnerving secrets and peculiar similarities between himself and True to bind them even closer in this tale of unsettled lives and unexpected death.

The perverse rhythms of Mexican justice add a final, disturbing twist to Rivard’s story. Even now, almost seven years later, True’s confessed killers remain free, safe within the invisible walls that surround the Sierra Madre Occidental and their reclusive culture.

Rivard, a former foreign correspondent himself, writes with clarity and sensitivity. His research is impeccable and voluminous, yet his storytelling isn’t larded with footnotes and cumbersome arcana. He imbues common stories of human frailty and triumph with an engaging universality, and he brings often unfathomable issues of international relations and cultures in conflict to the human level.

But more importantly, he has submitted a far more intimate true-crime book than the market has seen in many years. He understood he was a part of this story and he accompanies the reader every step of the way, holding a hand when necessary.

Another failing of contemporary true-crime writing has been its tabloid-y texture, valuing blood splatters over social studies. "Trail of Feathers" deftly explores the effects of a single choice as they ripple outward. Philip True’s ill-fated journey set in motion several other journeys, some of which have not yet ended.

That might be an uncomfortable conclusion for mass-market true-crime fans, but it’s real. It’s true.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Stealing home without a home

Time, it's been said, starts on Opening Day. But what happens to Time in October, when the days dwindle to a few ninth innings, a handful of last chances and, finally, a long winter without baseball? Time doesn't just stop, it simply restarts with a new Magic Number: 162.

In his startlingly poetic and evocative "The Unnatural Natural," L.A. Times writer J.R. Moehringer, author of "The Tender Bar: A Memoir," tells the story of "Homeless" John Meeden, an enigmatic 64-year-old softball phenom in a Midwestern senior league:

The hobo Roy Hobbs. The unnatural natural. A homeless guy who clouts homers in a softball league somewhere in the heartland. It sounded too good to be true, at first, but baseball is full of things that are too good to be true—baseball itself is too good to be true—and that's one of the things we love about it. Like no other sport, baseball caters to our need for mythology. For pretend.

Here's this guy, lost to the world, who rubs shaving cream into his mitt before every game. Who lives in a $190-a-month apartment in a place you've probably never heard of. Who grew up a hellfire-and-damnation preacher's kid, into a life of odd jobs, divorce and electroshock therapy. Who listens to Tony Bennett records he finds in the trash. Who didn't like softball as much as he needed it. Who bats .600 in the senior World Series, which his team wins.

Just another fluff piece in which autumnal metaphors are driven hard to deep center? Part Kinsella, part Malamud, part Ring Lardner? Oh hell, maybe. Baseball offers a metaphor for many things, but sometimes it's just about baseball. And a well-told story always taps into something about each of us. A poisonous fear, a half-remembered dream, a secret flaw, a shared memory ... something. If you care a whit about mythology, baseball, rhapsodic writing, and the triumph of human spirit, click through to Moehringer's piece.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Where have you gone, Edward R. Murrow?

In a curiously brief column in the LA Times, NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams wonders aloud if great moments -- and momentous thoughts -- are being lost in the cacophony of a 500-channel TV (and blogging and XM and iPod and online) landscape.

"When Jefferson penned the words 'informed electorate,' he didn't anticipate the iPod. Two dainty white earphones are all it takes to filter out the worrisome world and enter one of your own. 'My news' computer applications mean there's no reason to ever read about the places, people or events we find the least bit depressing. Talk radio removes guesswork from the listening experience. Why not listen to someone who already agrees with you?"

Not coincidentally, the LA Times Oct. 10 edition also contains a lengthy article that explores twin phenomena in the newspaper industry: Reductions in news reporters and editors, and a startling aliteracy (not illiteracy, but a choice not to read) among young people.

"A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that by 2010, only 9% of those in their 20s will read a newspaper every day."

So we now have more media choices than ever before and, at least as far as mainstream media are concerned, increasingly fewer consumers. Brian Williams asks if a tree of enormous importance falls in an empty forest, will it make a sound? The answer is yes, but the falling tree will likely be attributed to a vast right-wing conspiracy (by leftist bloggers) or a publicity stunt Michael Moore and (by talk radio hosts) ... and yet another failure by mainstream media to disclose its secret biases (by self-congratulatory anti-MSM bloggers everywhere who will point out a billion pre-fall postings that nobody read.)

Fact is, the likelihood of a momentous event (or comment) being reported today is even higher than it was during the McCarthy era, but the receptiveness of the audience has changed. Today, the spin would start moments after the momentous thing happened and the sides would be chosen before the evening news and before the Sunday pundits had even warmed up their vocal cords. True, we no longer have an Edward R. Murrow or a Walter Cronkite or an Ernie Pyle, but even if we did, they'd likely be ground into that same journo-sausage as every other decent mainstream reporter and editor today.

Having just emerged from a real storm that challenged the role of journalism in a community, I still have hope. We'll always need somebody we can trust to go out and look at the landscape and report back reasonably accurately what they've seen. The form isn't important. From the beginning, we have valued -- more or less, depending on the moment in history -- messengers who could be trusted.

If a tree falls, and it matters, I am confident it will be heard. For a while, though, the din might be deafening.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A bad season for trees

I grew up in windswept Wyoming, where we always said only half-sarcastically there were just two seasons: Winter and the Fourth of July. In fact, the beginning and end of the summer growing season was precise: Plant a week before Memorial Day (when the last spring frost was possible but less likely) and harvest before first frost in mid-September. Those three months from one frost to another were the only chance flowers, vegetables and trees had to thrive in the rigorous climate. The other nine months of the year were frozen, dormant or molting.

After a few years away, I returned to Wyoming as an adult, to run a daily newspaper in a small town. My then-wife and I raised our children there, tended a beautiful flower and vegetable garden, and tended trees in high-plains soil where trees generally didn't grow naturally. A tree doesn't add much to itself with only three months to grow. So every Labor Day, it was my habit to take a measure of those trees, either their height or girth, just to reassure myself they were surviving. My Labor Day logs were painfully incremental, showing the young blue spruce gaining maybe 3 or 4 inches in a year, or a Canada red cherry adding only an inch of girth.

I kept my faith in them for many years, and continued to measure them the way we penciled my son's height against the doorjamb. To have lost them would have caused some grief. Trees were too valuable in that landscape. And they became a way to mark the passage of time and, I suppose, my own growth as I became more rooted. Ultimately, I was not as rooted as I thought, and other events swept me away, gone with the wind.

When I came to Southeast Texas 18 months ago, the landscape was festooned with trees. They grew like weeds in a tropical climate, and some people removed them helter-skelter, the way some people change the furniture in their living rooms. My front yard had three majestic trees, and the back had even more. I took comfort in these eight trees' maturity and shade. They were home to birds and squirrels that made the whole place seem more like a home than a house. These were my trees and I wouldn't have dreamed of cutting them down.

But Hurricane Rita took them all. A sturdy cedar was literally ripped out by its roots. The storm sheared off the tops of three tall pines, and stripped huge branches from all the rest. The hurricane-force gusts shaved off most of the leaves, split the crotches of the trunk, shoved them perilously toward the tipping point and slashed fences across their bark. It's the same story all over this region, where grand old trees bore the greatest brunt of non-human damage. In Beaumont, the storm even claimed the oldest tree in the city, a historic oak that was older than America itself; it was so large that when it came down, it damaged three different homes.

All but two will be gone when I go home tonight. The tree-cutters were expected today to chop them down and haul them away. I'll plant more, and maybe for a while, I'll measure their growth, just to be sure. An old habit from a short season.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Same ol' TV, same ol' sob story

What happens when you find a needy person or family, tell their story in a way that wrings the emotion out of it, make sure the protagonists cry on camera, promote yourself by helping them, and provide lots of plugs for the sponsors providing the goods and services?

You've got yourself a Sob Story! And in the age of "reality" TV, that could mean big ratings.

In an excellent online column today, "Return of the Sob Story," Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute explores the roots of TV's misery-for-profit, comparing NBC's exploitation of hurricane victims to the archetypal (perhaps we could coin a new phrase: "ache-typal") sob show, "Queen for a Day."

This marvelous personal history of the show points out that the winners were never chosen if they needed money for medical help or a trip to be united with a love one. They only made the cut if their needs could be satisfied by an appliance, in particular, one manufactured by the show’s sponsor. ...
Sentimentality is to women, what pornography is to men. Just as porn is designed to arouse a physical response in men, so the sob story is designed to create an emotional catharsis for women. TV Guide once exposed the manipulation by designating Queen for a Day the "No. 1 mesmerizer of middle-aged females and most relentless dispenser of free washing machines."

Yep, Oprah does it. While You Were Out does it. Three Wishes does it. Today, we see the Today Show in full Queen redux: Surprising down-and-out families with new homes, introducing them to celebrities and reuniting them with loved ones.

I compare this historic peculiarity of television with the overwrought begging and whining of at least one radio talk show host here in Southeast Texas for the attention of any politician who'll cast his eye our way, and for the "national media" to make us a story again. Heck, we've been visited by President Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, our two Texas senators, a raft of Cabinet secretaries, and our entire legislative delegation. How does a region that spends its untrammeled time complaining about the uselessness of government now see government as its only hope? How does the attention of national media -- generally reviled 'round here in sunnier times -- make it better?

Every day, I see people helping people here. Somebody loans a spare refrigerator, a phone line or a chainsaw. Somebody else makes a call and finds a lost relative. A motorist gives a lift to a single mother without a car. A friend checks on a house for nervous evacuees, unable to get home to see for themselves. A teenage boy secures a tarp over holes in an old woman's damaged roof. A neighbor clears fallen debris from his neighborhood's yards and streets with his own front-end loader ... without being asked.

Yes, FEMA and Red Cross aid is needed at some levels. Government provides a necessary service in a ravaged landscape. Many things must be done we cannot do for ourselves ... but there's much in our power to fix ourselves.

The more self-sufficient you are, the less of a victim you will be. We've seen incredible resilience -- and less whining -- in rural areas of Southeast Texas, where people tend to be able to take care of their basic needs without excessive infrastructure; they have generators, guns, water wells, gardens, well-stocked pantries, heavy equipment, even gas-storage tanks. They also have a sturdier sense of community. "Need" is greater in urban areas, where there's more dependence on the amorphous "Them" -- utilities, grocery stores, gas stations, cops ... government. At times like this, urbanites are more likely to need life-sustaining handouts than self-sufficient ruralites.

One sure sign of victimhood is surrendering everything, just as one sure sign of community is helping ourselves. Self-sufficiency just won't pluck the same profitable heartstrings, so it's less of a TV event. Most of us are doing what we can for everybody else, not waiting for FEMA, the Red Cross, the White House or the Today Show to make us whole again.

Monday, October 03, 2005

What passes for Normal, Texas

It's been 11 days since Hurricane Rita plundered Southeast Texas. The news has come faster and more furiously than a sustained hurricane-force gust. Under rather harsh conditions, we've done our best to tell the story of a regional wreck. Our press is still silent. Much of the city is without power. Landlines are spotty. The stink of rotten meat and food is everywhere. We spend our time in a make-believe newsroom, and our 20-hour-a-day work has kept us away from our own wrecked homes. We slept on tile floors in the hot, humid guts of a damaged building. God knows what dusty debris is being belched by our reinvigorated ventilation system. I might never drink bottled water for pleasure again. Same with Vienna Sausages.

Most of these past 11 days, we produced a 100% online newspaper, navigating tricky lines of communications between far-flung editors and reporters based in Beaumont, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Then on Sunday, we finally printed our first real paper, with the help of our sister paper's press in San Antonio, then jumped in to help deliver the 74-page paper that comprised the 6- and 8-page papers of those 10 "lost days." And today, our regular Monday edition -- albeit truncated to 8 pages filled entirely with news -- was tossed in driveways as if nothing had interrupted our lives, jobs and morning delivery.

Life is returning to normal. How do we know?

One of our first callers this morning wanted to cancel her subscription ... because the newspaper was too small.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

COMEBACK TIME: Here's your paper ...

Before dawn, I awoke like a kid on Christmas morning. For 10 days, our newspaper had been a well-organized but intangible collection of pixels orbiting somewhere in cyberspace. You could summon it to your screen, an electronic shadow that served its purpose of delivering a message in real-time, but not really yours. Today, we printed a real, honest-to-God paper-paper again. And today, I wanted to load up my car with as many as I could, and hand them directly to readers wherever I could find them.

That's why I stayed. To tell the story. Handing somebody a paper they can smell and feel and share around the breakfast table and take to bed at night ... well, that's all I know how to do really well.

Just after daybreak, I pulled up to the curb where an elderly man was standing in his yard. I snatched an Enterprise from the stack and handed it to him. "COMEBACK TIME" was the main headline, big and bold for everybody to see.

"We're giving these away today," I told him. "Enjoy it, and stay safe."

He asked how big my route was. "Oh, I'm not a route driver," I said. "I'm just an editor and I only wanted to give some papers away today. It feels good to be a delivery boy again."

His name was Frank Rojas, he told me, and he worked at The Enterprise for 32 years as a Linotype operator. Those were the guys who set type in hot lead, denizens of a distant era in our now-computerized craft.

Only a handful of working newspapermen and -women today have worked in hot lead. By contrast, today's paper was a remarkable example of the power of computers: Most of our news and photos were collected in power-crippled Southeast Texas, dictated or e-mailed via wireless technology or jerry-rigged landlines to hastily set-up computers in Houston, where they were paginated and eventually e-mailed to San Antonio, where they were printed last night and delivered here this morning. In less than 24 hours, an entire newspaper had been written, photographed, laid out, beamed up, inked, and trucked more than 570 miles

Thirty years ago, that (and this blog) would have been literally impossible. There was no Internet, no satellite phone, no digital cameras. Today, such magic is as common as dirt, and only slightly harder under catastrophic conditions.

Frank Rojas, the old newspaperman, clutched his paper tightly. He wanted to talk about how we did it, and he could barely keep himself from spreading out on the grass to see what was there. He was as proud of this particular paper as I am. It is not only a fat package of useful information, it's a historical record of the past 10 days and a symbol that we've survived. All of us.

Already, some self-congratulatory morning deejays, whose job is to talk smack and slap a station bumper-sticker on anything that moves, are dissing the notion that a handful of these papers are being sold at newsracks and convenience stores, but the vast bulk of them are simply being given away to anybody we see moving around. That's as it should be.

I handed out a hundred newspapers in my neighborhood this morning, and I'll hand out another hundred tonight. Everyone seemed grateful to see this one bit of their old life coming back. But the most important paper I gave away was the one I gave Frank Rojas because, in the end, it was probably more important to him to know we had protected the newspaper -- and maybe the whole idea of a newspaper -- to which he'd given much of his life.

That one paper was worth delivering.

What comes after Hurricane Alpha?

This morning, Tropical Depression 20 became, officially, Tropical Storm Stan. This year, if we run out of hurricane names -- only Tammy, Vince and Wilma remain -- new storms' names will be taken from the Greek alphabet – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc. That's never happened in the 60-year history of regularly naming storms.

Now, if a storm is particularly loathsome and causes massive deaths or destruction, its name is retired. For example, there'll never be another Katrina.

That raises an interesting question: If Hurricane Alpha (for example) is a monster storm that kills many people or causes billions worth of damage, can its name be retired? After all, we have no other Greek "A."

Saturday, October 01, 2005

... And here comes Tropical Depression 20

OK, now this sucks.

The National Hurricane Center has just announced Tropical Depression 20 has erupted just east of the Yucatan. While not yet forecast to hit the upper Texas coast, the storm's five-day "cone of possibility" includes Brownsville and Corpus Christi. [UPDATE: At 2:30 CDT -- 4-plus hours after this storm was reported by NHC -- Paris Hilton's broken engagement remains bigger news on and other online news sources. Maybe they're feeling hurricane fatigue, too.]

[UPDATE: As of 4 p.m. CDT, TD20 is forecast to take a fairly substantial southerly turn, well into Mexico after crossing the Yucatan. The five-day "cone of possibility," for the moment, does not include any part of Texas. But the storm, unfortunately for all of us, is predicted to hit hurricane-force Tuesday afternoon off Mexico's coast.]

Stay tuned for developments. You can bet we will ...