Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Q&A about my new book 'FALL'

Recently, journalist Ashley Franscell -- my daughter -- interviewed me about my new true crime/memoir, “FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town” (New Horizon Press). Ashley, a third-generation newspaperwoman, is a 2005 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s acclaimed School of Journalism.

As a photojournalist, she and I have already worked together on a few projects, including my 2001 exploration of the Little Bighorn River’s deep and ancient cultural significance to the Crow tribe in Montana. The time we had together there -- working and relating, both -- was a gift to me as a father.

"FALL" will be released Dec. 2 in Wyoming; in January nationally. It's available for pre-ordering now at Click here.


QUESTION: In some past essays, you’ve described true crime as a genre that too-seldom has a soul. What did you mean by that?

ANSWER: Only that most true-crime writing has become a formulaic exercise since Truman Capote gave birth to the genre in “In Cold Blood” back in 1966. Today, the typical true-crime writer parachutes into town, maybe attends the trial, takes some notes (extra points for a jailhouse interviews!), snatches some grisly crime-scene photos and catches the next plane home, where somebody slaps a blood-spattered cover on the book and sells it in supermarkets to readers who furtively glance first at the photos inside. Where Capote wanted to tell a deeper story about society on two sides of a dark mirror, today’s true-crime writer (and editor) plays more to the readers’ lurid fascination with blood and betrayal. So the genre has moved from the mind to the abattoir.

In the past 40 years, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions: Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” Joseph Wambaugh’s “Onion Field,” Joe McGinniss’ “Fatal Vision,” and James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places.” Those books had soul. They weren’t just commercial exercises.

Q: OK, so tell me about the title of your book, “FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.”

A: This monstrous, small-town abduction of two young sisters in 1973 -- my next-door neighbors and friends at the time -- ended in rape and murder at a towering steel bridge over a deep, dark canyon. Both girls were thrown from the bridge. One plummeted into oblivion, the other into an even darker life that became a kind of corrosive purgatory for her. So the crime itself involved a fall that still twists my gut.

But the two killers fell, too. They were caught quickly, tried and condemned to die. Although their death sentences were overturned in our national spasm of conscience about the death penalty in the 1970s, their free lives -- however unnatural they had been -- were over, too.

And finally, for me and a lot of other kids who were splashed by this crime, it was a plunge into reality. We lost our childhood sense of security and our innocence. In my interviews I discovered profound emotions lingering among the now-grown children who were there, and whose safe world was suddenly not so safe.

Q: This story is now more than 30 years old, and although it was a grotesque case, it wasn’t widely publicized in 1973. How do you bring a fresh perspective to an old story?

A: That’s a question a lot of editors asked just before they rejected the proposal! The zeitgeist in crime stories today is ripping stories from yesterday’s headlines, so it was certainly a tough sell.

Certainly the fact it isn’t a widely known story helps. But while it’s not a current story, it’s got some current elements. How do we confront our fears in a post-9/11 world? How do we awake from our false sense of security and go forward, despite the lurking dangers? How and why does tragedy ripple through human hearts across generations?

And in some ways, this story continues. I can assure you that in the small city of Casper, Wyoming, where I grew up and this all happened, it remains a fresh wound.

Q: You spent a lot of time interviewing the killer Ron Kennedy. His presence haunts this entire book, and the past 30-plus years of your life. What was it like to talk to this guy whom you say robbed you of innocence too young?

A: Our seven phone conversations lasted a total of about 14 hours (undoubtedly monitored by prison officials) and were remarkably friendly. Ron Kennedy exudes a country-boy charm that’s seductive, just part of his sociopathic makeup. He’d get angry at some questions (usually about his treatment by the law or society in general) and he’d choke up at others (usually his mother.) He talked about what he could see beyond the prison walls, about friends and family. He was genial and joked freely. But he never stopped playing me.

He was the most important piece of this story to me. Not because he’s the last survivor of the four people whose lives converged on Fremont Canyon Bridge on a black night in 1973. Not because he was likely to reveal anything new about the crime itself, much less finally accept blame. And not because a jailhouse interview has become a standard component of true crime.

But because he was my mirror. I wanted to know something about me. I believe deeply in the value of honest journalism, that messengers have played a vital role in the human community since the dawn of man. I wanted to know if my deep-set feelings about this man -- or rather what he represented and did -- were stronger than my passion to be a conscientious messenger. If I couldn’t take a step back from my feeling to allow him to tell his own story in his own voice, I wouldn’t be the newspaperman I thought I was … and he would have raped me of that, too.

Q: You spent the night of the 30th anniversary of the crime under the bridge, in the same spot where Becky Thomson sheltered herself in the dark after she was thrown from the bridge, just a few feet from where Amy Burridge’s body was found. How did you prepare yourself for that?

A: When I started researching this book, I had always planned to visit the bridge on the 30th anniversary -- Sept. 24, 2003 -- just to offer a prayer and leave two flowers. But while researching the moon phase for the unusually dark night of the crime, I learned the moon would be almost exactly the same on the night of the 30th anniversary. I wanted to live through a similarly dark night under that haunted bridge, especially if the sky and weather conditions were going to be similar. And they were.

It was late September in Wyoming, and I knew the overnight temperatures would fall to near-freezing, but I dressed lightly -- jeans and a sweatshirt -- and went down there for the night. Because of the steep canyon walls, dark fell early. Before midnight, I began shivering and didn’t stop until well past dawn the next day. The intense blackness of the night, the wild sounds, and the loss of any sense of time or space … it all forces you inward in a frightening way. The night seemed to last that whole sad year, and when dawn came, I scrambled out of the treacherous canyon and never went back.

God, Becky had been down there in a light pullover top, naked below the waist, raped, her pelvis broken in five places and her skin carved open by glancing off the canyon wall -- ironically, a crash that saved her life. Her would-be killers were still up above her someplace, and her little sister’s corpse floating in the water a few feet away. She warmed herself by curling up and partially covering her legs with her long dark hair. At the trial, she talked about a water rat crawling across her hand, but she was so afraid of being found by the two killers that she didn’t make a sound. Before daybreak, she literally dragged her wounded legs up an impossibly steep wash to the dirt road where she was found by fishermen. [See excerpt in this blog]

Spending that night below the bridge told me more about Becky’s will to survive than I could have learned in a million interviews.

Q: You took more than a year off from newspapering to research and write this book. Did it mean so much to you that you’d walk away from a regular paycheck to live with this story 24/7?

A: Yes. And I’d do it again.

Q: While you were writing this book, you also visited Holcomb, Kansas, where the grisly “In Cold Blood” murders happened. Why?

A: To seek ghosts. I wanted to see how a community survives trauma. I wanted to see what it looks like 40 or 50 years down the line after a man-made tragedy shakes a place to the core of its beliefs and its complacence. I also wanted to make a pilgrimage to the spot where the first and greatest true story about crime in a small town happened. Maybe I just wanted to catch some of Capote’s mojo. I didn’t write about Holcomb in “FALL” but it’s there.

[Ron’s essay about the visit to Holcomb appears in this blog]

Q: You’ve written novels and now a nonfiction book. Do they have anything in common?

A: The main thing they share is a small-town setting. Whether it’s because I grew up in an isolated community, or because I have always found small towns to be far more fertile ground for storytelling, I don’t know. The world has plenty of big-city authors writing about the concrete jungle and the urban battlefield, and many of them are very good at it. I wouldn’t be very good at it. I know small towns intimately.

But my stories, both true and imagined, also feature characters who seem familiar to us -- at least, to me -- even if their problems are uncommon. Whether it’s Cassidy McLeod in “Angel Fire,” who fears intimacy because of what it might do to anyone he loves, or Becky Thomson in “Fall,” who keeps her fears and her fatal sadness a secret until it’s too late, these are people we know.

Q: What’s harder: Fiction or fact?

A: Good question. I’m glad to see the investment in your college education paid off!

Neither is easy. Each presents unique problems and requires unique skills. One thing they share is an obligation to consider the reader’s trust.

In nonfiction, the reader trusts an author or journalist implicitly to tell the truth. Telling the truth isn’t hard (except for James Frey) but making the truth clear, useful and important is more problematic. In fiction, you admit you’re lying and the reader knows it, but the trick is to make it seem so real that a reader can believe every word. So in both cases, readers trust an author to fulfill his promise.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This would never happen if Keith Richards were alive today ...

Are you a fan of classic rock? Looking for some cheap music downloads? Tired of Time-Life's TV commercials? Did you think it's been fun being a Baby Boomer ... until now?

Well, apparently many vocal artists of the '60s are revising their hits with new lyrics to accommodate aging Baby Boomers. They include:

1. Herman's Hermits -- Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Walker
2. The Bee Gees -- How Can You Mend a Broken Hip.
3. Bobby Darin -- Splish, Splash, I Was Havin' a Flash.
4. Ringo Starr -- I Get By With a Little Help From Depends.
5. Roberta Flack -- The First Time Ever I Forgot Your Face.
6. Johnny Nash -- I Can't See Clearly Now.
7. Paul Simon -- Fifty Ways to Lose Your Liver.
8. The Commodores -- Once, Twice, Three Times to the Bathroom.
9. Marvin Gaye -- Heard It Through the Grape Nuts.
10. Procol Harem -- A Whiter Shade of Hair.
11. Leo Sayer -- You Make Me Feel Like Napping.
12. The Temptations -- Papa's Got a Kidney Stone.
13. Abba -- Denture Queen.
14. Tony Orlando -- Knock 3 Times On The Ceiling If You Hear Me Fall.
15. Helen Reddy -- I Am Woman, Hear Me Snore.
16. Willie Nelson -- On the Commode Again.
17. Leslie Gore -- It's My Procedure and I'll Cry If I Want To
18. Jim Croce -- Time in a Pill Bottle
19. Rolling Stones -- I Still Can't Get No Satisfaction
20. Elvis Presley -- I Can't Help Falling in the Tub For You
21. The Crystals -- Doo-Doo ... Run Run
22. James Brown -- Papa's Got A Brand New Colostomy Bag
23. Beatles -- Did You Still Love Me When I Was 64?

(Thanks to Marie Richard and Don Jacobs for a few of these "hits")

Bill Clinton vs. The Smirk

Even now, two days later, Bill Clinton's outrage is being celebrated around the Far Left edges of the blogosphere. It makes me wonder how these same folks who say George W. Bush "lied" about WMDs in Iraq can dismiss -- even extol -- Clinton's obvious and deliberate omissions in Sunday's interview. While he went on to defend his record of trying to get Osama bin Ladin, it was his bluster at reporter Chris Wallace that's being celebrated by the great bulk of leftist bloggers (and being derided by the great bulk of rightist bloggers.) Perhaps it should be neither derided nor celebrated.

It seems to me that if you cheer over Clinton's disproportionate response to Wallace's question, you can't really complain about Israel's response to Hezbollah being disproportionate. And there are a lot of similarities, including the possibility that Clinton was justified in his anger if not his facts. OK, a remote posibility, but still ...

Columnist Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle -- not a bastion of conservative smirking -- wrote a marvelous column today, exploring what a difference a decade makes for Democrats:
"THE SMIRK is the new angry. Remember the '90s, which Dems spent putting down 'angry white men?' Now the Dems are angry. They've been hopping mad for six years. Sunday, their biggest star, former President Bill Clinton, embraced his angry side during a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace, as he turned his ire to the new target of Democratic sensibilities, the smirk.

"Since 1999, Dems have been dreaming about wiping the smirk off President Bush's face. Sunday, Clinton expanded the smirk zone when he chided Wallace for having 'that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever.' ...

"Bubba looked silly dismissing Wallace, his 'nice little conservative hit job on me' and the Fox News network as conservative tools. Sorry, Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch donated $500,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative last week and hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton this summer. ..."

My mind conjures an image of Clinton looking us in the eye and wagging his finger at America, saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman ..." only this time he's saying, "I did everything I in my power to get Osama." Plainly and simply, Clinton has a proven track record of fudging the truth in his own interest.

By the same token, I don't mind Fox News being called on its openly conservative leanings. Chris Wallace is a good journalist, even if his network lets its conservative slip show with regularity. It simply isn't lady-like. Wallace's question was appropriate; Clinton's response was understandably pissy ... but unstatesmanlike and unhelpful to a nation trying to sort out a complex pickle.

And Clinton's response shows that neither the Right nor the Left has a corner on the Market of Mistakes and Mendacity. I truly believe Bill Clinton would have taken a clear shot at Osama, but only if it was clear and there would be no political repercussions for him; I also believe that George Bush would take a shot at Osama that wasn't so clear and damn the repercussions. Both have American interests at heart, but will ultimately be carried away on a gurney of their own hubris and ego.

Monday, September 25, 2006

All the news that fits ...

After spending the last four days in beautiful seaside Connecticut, I'm back in Gulf Coast Texas, wondering why the coast here and the coast there are so different! People pay a lot of money to live near the water in Connecticut ... and down here they merely pay a lot for insurance to live by the water. We really do live in two Americas!

So let me get back on track here ... hmmm, lots in the news to catch up on ...

... Bill Clinton pops off at Fox News' Chris Wallace, who now has ugly stains on his blue blazer ...

... Osama bin Ladin might be dead, or might just have really bad diarrhea (maybe he ate the spinach) ...

... the war in Iraq might be inspiring more future suicide bombers and editorial cartoonists ...

... Homeland Security will now allow you to bring lip gloss and hand lotion aboard the plane (but only if you buy them at one of our friendly airport vendors) ...

... A Columbus, Ohio, car dealer is sponsoring "Fatwa Fridays," declaring "jihad" on the U.S. auto market and offering free scimitars for the kids. Muslims are angry, of course. An embassy is gonna be attacked, Lee Iacocca will be burned in effigy, yada yada yada.

... oil drops below $60 a barrel just as America's last public school begins classes after summer vacation. (Isn't it interesting that the oil-price surge coincided with the summer-driving season?)

... worse, conspiracy-minded Democrats say cheap gas is only a Republican election ploy. (Oh wait, this isn't news.)

... America might seem like the most civilized place on earth, but where else can you go to the head of the roller-coaster line by eating a live hissing cockroach? Even one-eyed beggars in Kabul have higher standards for fun. And PETA is peeved.

... A new sculpture of philosopher Confucius has sparked debate in Beijing. While Chinese people discuss whether the statue really looks like the old guy, angry Muslims plan to attack an embassy, burn Jackie Chan in effigy, yada yada yada.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Chavez shocks the world! Calls Bush a Devil!

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez really needs a new writer .... bloggers are way ahead of him.

The Devil Bush

The Devil Condi

The Devil Clinton
The Devil Cheney
The Devil Gore

Who's wearing Jared's pants now?

Hardee's Monster Thickburger
1,418 calories
107 grams of fat
two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef
four strips of bacon
three slices of cheese and mayonnaise
on a buttered sesame seed bun.
(Bypass surgery not included)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

'Found Guilty Evangelical Christian Navy Chaplain Says Hell Appeal '

OK, coherence and punctuation aren't the strong suit for one headline-writer at WDC Christian News and Media Agency, but it's a funny typo, ain't it?

Yes, I live in a glass house. I've worked at newspapers where we've rallied in defense of "pubic interest" and mentioned in a movie review that the picture was nominated for "Best Dong." And I personally and purposely wrote this headline on a Food page story: "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses." But really, making fun of our ink-stained colleagues (and ourselves) is about the only fun we have!

(Read the whole story here.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Oh, the places you'll go!

Golden Gate Bridge at Google Earth

If you could secretly look down upon the Earth from the heavens, imagine what you would see!

Well, you needn't imagine anymore. With Google Earth, you can now zoom in on your own backyard, take a snapshot and ... if you like ... post it at a Web site for cosmic voyeurs just like you!

Actually, Google Earth Hacks isn't a voyeur site (although it might have "certain" uses") but rather just a place where Google Earth buffs can post interesting "snapshots" from anywhere in the world you can zoom with your PC. You can find 15,367 cool snaps from various users, all in a searchable database, including the Bill Gates estate and the Hollywood sign from above. You'll also find a variety of 3D renderings based on Google Earth snaps. Sorta make you think twice about nude-sunbathing in your backyard, doesn't it?

So, now that you can, what are you going to look at from Heaven?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Pope and Hitler ... peas in a pod?

Today, a Turkish leader compared Pope Benedict XVI to Adolf Hitler for some relatively gentle historical remarks the pope delivered on Islam. ""He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as (Adolf) Hitler and (Benito) Mussolini," the Turkish politician said.

In fact, Muslims throughout the world are reacting venomously to the pope's remarks, which merely quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam. (When will the Muslim world get as exercised about beheading innocent civilians, crashing planes into buildings full of innocent civilians, and threats by Muslim fascist regimes to wipe Israel off the map ... but that's another post ... or two.)

What are they smoking in their sheeshas these days? There are a few Hitler-like people in this world -- Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are just two -- but let's be real. The Pope? The Pope has designs on ruling the world? Killing everyone who doesn't look like him? Willing to incinerate the whole world to achieve his goals?

I wish I owned Hitler's image the way Fred Goldman should own O.J. Simpson's image. How many times do we see arguments end with one person comparing somebody to Hitler? Well, it's so common, there's actually a physical "law" about it. It's called Godwin's Law" and here's how Wikipedia explains it:

Godwin's Law (also Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies) is a mainstay of Internet culture, an adage formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990. It is particularly concerned with logical fallacies such as reductio ad Hitlerum, wherein an idea is unduly dismissed or rejected on ground of it being associated with persons generally considered "evil."

The law states:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. "

There is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically "lost" whatever debate was in progress.

Invoking Godwin's Law ... anti-Pope radical Muslims with no sense of perspective lose this argument.

UPDATE 9/20: UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took his verbal battle with the United States to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, calling President Bush "the devil."

UPDATE 9/19: WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A senator compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and made fun of his name on Tuesday during a congressional hearing on the U.S. strategy to end Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The bomb that never dropped

Surveillance photo of Taliban insurgents at a funeral (DOD)

How many times have you wondered why Israel hasn't lobbed a missile into a crowd of Hezbollah militiamen marching down Main Street Beirut? Or the U.S. hasn't bombed a pro-al Qaeda gathering in Afghanistan where people dismember George Bush in effigy and call for death to all Americans?

Well, the Associated Press is reporting today we had our chance in July when spy photo showed more than 100 Taliban insurgents gathered in southern Afghanistan, but we didn't pull the trigger. Why?

The U.S. military stood down when it realized the terrorists were gathered in a cemetery.
"NBC News said US Army officers had wanted to attack with missiles carried by an unmanned Predator drone, but were prevented under rules of battlefield engagement that bar attacks on cemeteries. ... While not giving a reason for the decision, the military concluded that the statement saying that while Taliban forces have killed innocent civilians during a funeral, coalition forces 'hold themselves to a higher moral and ethical standard than their enemies.'"

Should we be frustrated or proud? I choose proud ... through gritted teeth. Were the tables turned, it's unlikely our enemy would show the same respect (or public-relations savvy.) They literally dodged a bullet because Americans adhere to a higher moral standard ... and they likely see it as a weakness.

Then again, it's not clear what the U.S. military did when they left the cemetery.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mourn our losses of 9/10 more than 9/11

This commentary originally appeared at

Tomorrow, America will join in a collective requiem for Sept. 11, 2001, the day our world changed.

But it’s the wrong day to mourn.

For me, it is not the dead of 9/11 who haunt me, although my spirit genuinely aches for them. It is the death of the world I knew on 9/10. Five years ago today, I lived more outside the walls that have suddenly sprung up around me. If that was naïve, I was comfortable in my naivete. I miss it.

So it is Sept. 10, 2001, for which I grieve. I want that day back as much as I would like to restore the dead people, the damaged lives and the shattered contentment of the next morning. As we re-convene this national funeral for the fifth time, I choose to remember America as it was on Sept. 10, not what it became on Sept. 11.

What changed in those 24 hours when “everything changed”? Many things.

For one, we became a suspicious society. We began to see ghosts. Caution and fear trumped everything. We came to believe that salvation and victory will be found in our own library records, phone calls and Google searches. Surreal conspiracies took root and flourished. We can’t find the real monsters who caused our indirect pain, so we look for their shadows under the bed.

We lost optimism. Things seemed to be going so well. Only 11 years after we watched the Berlin Wall come crashing down and began to dream of a warm peace where there had once been a Cold War, two more structures came crashing down and buried our dream.

The WTC attacks melted the tenuous glue that held us together in America. The radicalized relationships were deplorable on 9/10; they became intolerable too soon after 9/11. In America, it’s become nearly impossible to disagree without being disagreeable.

We haven't felt truly safe since Sept. 10, but we began to feel safer only behind our imaginary fortress walls. We suddenly began to worry more about who was welcome in our land. As if gripped by a collective agoraphobia, we stopped venturing too far afield -- physically or intellectually -- as if the horizon were the beginning of a danger zone.

We breathed in more hate, the deadliest dust from the collapsing towers. On Sept. 10, many radicalized Arabs and Muslims believed America always hated them, but frankly, they were not truly on the radar of most common Americans. At 8:45 a.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 11, 2001, their misperceptions became reality. And it’s difficult to see how we will ever be able to declare a clear victory, or even how the world can survive a defeat.

Not every defeat contains a hidden victory. Not every storm cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes, we simply embrace the good that follows evil as reassurance that humans are basically resilient and virtuous. Of course, we wouldn’t need such proof if humans truly were resilient and virtuous, but faith is a funny thing.

Perhaps this particular evil would have visited sooner or later anyway. Whether it settles in like dust or blasts through like a tempest, we cannot avoid it forever. We can only build our homes and our hearts strong enough to weather it when it comes, and hope the damage is reparable.

True survivors of extreme adversity — war, a life-threatening disease, rape, murder, disaster, childhood abuse and terrorism, to name a few — are able to repair themselves. The rest die physically, emotionally or both. We must survive.

We may mourn 9/ 10, but we live in a post-9/11 world. That’s the reality and there’s no going back. Yes, we desperately want to feel the earth beneath our feet again, to dig our toes deep in it, to stand up on our own while we touch someone. As we learned five years and a day ago, solid ground isn’t so solid, and it might be an utter illusion. No American today truly believes the earth won’t shift beneath him unexpectedly ... again … some random morning.

But if solid ground is just an illusion, might life be just one long freefall? Can we count on justice to be delivered every time, just to neatly close the circle? If, like gravity itself, evil is a force of nature, can we avoid a freefall for a whole lifetime?

Probably not. But we can acknowledge that it’s a messy world, and humans weren’t intended to live behind stone walls, so we must always seek justice even if it eludes us, and find our place in the chaos … or not truly live at all.

So it makes sense, on so many levels: Mourn today more than tomorrow.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hezbollah: 'We'd like to teach the world to sing...'

The joy-boys and jingle-writers at Hezbollah have been working overtime to imprint their message on Beirut and the world. The Christian Science Monitor reports today that street-banners quickly popped up after the Israeli conflict proclaiming devastated neighborhoods are "Made in the USA." Hezbollah's PR office -- yep, they have one -- has been churning out pins, hats, stickers, banners, and flags, as well as TV commercials airing across the Arab world. Sound familiar? Don't let anybody tell you that radical Islamic fascists don't love America!

Nobody should be surprised that the world's best organized terror group has a corporate division of flaks to rival Coca-Cola. Damned good ones, too. As much as we might like to see the presidents of Syria and Iran wearing "I'm with Stupid" T-shirts, it ain't gonna happen. Hezbollah's greatest public-relations effort has gone into actually taking care of many of the war's innocent bystanders. Like it says in the Koran: When you give a man a souvenir baseball cap, he has a souvenir baseball cap (even if he has no idea what baseball is) ... if you rebuild a man's house, mend his shrapnel wound, give him $15,000, feed his family for a year and tell him it's all Israel's fault, who needs a souvenir baseball cap?

Yes, it's gonna take more than snappy slogans. One side can't merely declare itself the winner of a war and print a million "We are the Champions!" T-shirts to hand out. Advertising is more illusion than reality. Ask yourself: Have we ever truly settled Coke-vs-Pepsi? Tastes great vs. less filling? Ginger or MaryAnn? Has it mattered?

Our problem in America is that we have many more competing messages than in the controlled media environments of the Middle East. We embrace dissent, but it can be terribly confusing and loud. Many people tune out or turn off messages with which they don't already agree. Do you think that the people of Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and other Islamic states are confused about who the good guys and bad guys are?

One wonders if the War on Terror might be better fought from Madison Avenue. If there's one thing Americans do better than everybody else it's advertising. If American flaks can make you believe your dismal life will be transformed by gelled shoe inserts, feminine napkins with wings, earwax candy, pet rocks and Reality TV .... then we can win this war, dammit!

That's why we need to introduce democracy in that part of the world. So they can be just as confused as we are.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

One Year Before the Mast: A blogging anniversary

One year ago today, I posted my very first blog entry at Under the News. It was a comment on the then-simmering controversy over whether it was offensive to call Hurricane Katrina's evacuees "refugees" -- or whether it was just another example of our tendency to over-correct language to suit political ends. My opinion jibed with media critic Jeff Jarvis' observation:

"The cardinal sin today is to offend (and) the clearest badge of victimhood is to be offended."

In the past year of blogging, I have doubtlessly offended and been offended -- and learned that the blogosphere is no place for sissies. It's a free-wheeling Tower of Babel, part Mad Max, part Dante's Inferno, and part Burning Man. It is a place where much is genuine yet little is accepted as absolutely true. The perverse food chain in this digital taxonomy affords the tiniest organism a certain parity with the meat-eaters. I have often imagined the blogosphere to be a simulacrum of our Earth, in which every human motivation is represented -- from the meek inspiration to speak one true word to an obsession with eviscerating anyone who disagrees. From a millisecond of existentialism to millennial intellectual cleansing. Lambs and lions.

A few weeks after I began blogging, Hurricane Rita hit my town. I rode out the storm at my newspaper and thousands of people dropped in every day to see the eye of a storm through our eyes. Many stayed on to this day, new neighbors who haven't moved away.

In this simulated world, I've seen neighbors talking over back-fences, town meetings, shifting international alliances, cultural narcissism, charity without borders, espionage and sabotage, all-out explosive war -- albeit usually minus the actual explosives. It's inadvisable to expect the blogosphere to be somehow more utopian than the real world, and in many ways, it is more frightening.

Some of the posts closest to my heart engaged nobody. Others with less passion inspired vehement and vitriolic discussions. The fun part was never knowing which would trigger something marvelous. And another thing I noticed: Some guy named Anonymous is always a smart-ass.

I've made many new "friends" and met only one of them. I join (and am joined) in blogo-conversation by some every single day. A few come and go with the casual comfort of real-life friends, and a few have fallen away completely during this past year. They have shared something important to all our futures: Ideas. They have all challenged me, and in some way they have each left their mark in my mind. We haven't always agreed, but nor have we been disagreeable ... most of the time. Face it, the blogosphere is where curmudgeons go when they die.

A new year begins today. I hope to make new acquaintances, as well as keep up my conversations with my correspondent-friends from the past year: SingingSkies, ChanceLucky, DemocracyLover, Ranando, Mike Landfair, Genie, ThatCleaningLady, LilFeathers2000, Jill, Sparkle, GoHuskers, LoveRita, Trench, Melanie Mattson, BooksellerChick, Robert Gray, Frank Wilson, Jason, Laura James, Bookworm, Michael Gillespie ... and, of course, Anonymous.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A room of one's own ... to cook, sleep or die

A long weekend in a distant town turned unexpectedly into a fascinating architectural history lesson. My friend Mary and I wanted to explore a new part of Texas, so we journeyed to the small, historic town of Salado (Pop. 3,500), some 50 miles north of Austin. Our intent was merely to relax, explore new spaces, see new aspects of Texas, and eat good food and drink some good wine. (Well, Salado is a dry county, so the wine came from our own cabinet.)

It's amazing what you'll learn when you go poking around. Among the interesting things we didn't know on Friday but know today: In 1859, Salado was home to Texas' second major college, Salado College, which now sits in ruins at the edge of town (pictured above.) Jesse James, George Custer and Sam Houston all slept in the same hotel where we stayed -- although not at the same time. Lyndon Baines Johnson's great-grandfather, a preacher, was from Salado and his house is now a B&B. All pretty trivial stuff (except to the locals) but still interesting enough for a blog.

But I was most fascinated by three MORE things I'd never known before, coincidentally all architectural. And in each case, we had simply wandered into an old place and asked some simple questions. Isn't learning fun?

Winter kitchen, summer kitchen

After dinner at the Barton House of Salado, an antebellum mansion now home to a restaurant called The Range, the night manager squired us through the old house, built by a young dentist before the Civil War. Of the many interesting historical features, one (or two) stood out: Like many 18th and 19th century homes, the Barton house had two kitchens, largely because of the great heat given off by wood-burning cookstoves. Summer kitchens were usually outside or attached to the back of the house, with several windows to allow hot air to vent quickly out of the room; winter kitchens were often down in the basement or the heart of the home, where the ambient cooking heat could serve the secondary purpose of helping to heat the home during colder months. Wealthier families might own two cookstoves, one for the winter kitchen and one for the summer kitchen, but poorer folks would be forced to move their single stove from kitchen to kitchen at the turn of the season.

The Stranger's Room

Salado sits on the Chisholm Trail and many a vagabond cowboy passed this way. In the frontier days before commercial lodging sunk its roots in this new territory, many well-off locals like Salado founder Sterling C. Robertson built their homes with a "stranger's room," or a place where travelers might bunk overnight, maybe even eat a hot meal. But the hospitality had its limits: These rooms were part of the house, but no door actually connected the "stranger's room" to the rest of the house. That's right. The owners were able to offer overnight hospitality to travelers without giving them access to the family areas. Hospitable ... and safe.

Death and life

Do you know why we call our great rooms "living rooms"? I didn't ... but I do now. We learned this at a tour of the O. Henry House and Museum in Austin. Here's a more authoritative explanation from American Rites of Passage:

"After a person died, he or she would remain in the home for a few days so that family members and friends could pay their last respects by viewing the body. This time was referred to as the viewing or wake and was often held in the most formal room of the house, which was typically the 'parlor.' ... By the early 20th century, funeral preparation and wakes began to be held outside of the home in modern day funeral homes [that's why we used to call them 'funeral parlors.'] However, the association between death and the parlor continued to linger. To change this perception, inventive furniture makers and home designers invented the name 'living room' to describe the parlor. This would associate the room with life not death."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Amphibian houses: An idea for New Orleans?

Metal pylons are seen, right, between the foundations of amphibian houses under construction in Maasbommel, Netherlands. (AP photo by Peter Dejong)

The Dutch have come up with a brilliant new idea for building homes on oft-flooded land that's below sea level: Amphibious homes.

In a new housing development at Maasbommmel, Netherlands, about a dozen homes are being built on solid ground, but are designed to float on flood water. According to the Associated Press, "each house is made of lightweight wood, and the concrete base is hollow, giving it ship-like buoyancy. With no foundations anchored in the earth, the structure rests on the ground and is fastened to 15-foot-long mooring posts with sliding rings, allowing it to float upward should the river flood. All the electrical cables, water and sewage flow through flexible pipes inside the mooring piles."

Sound like a great idea for New Orleans and other coastal/riverine communities that are occasionally threatened by storm surges, flooding and other forms of high water. Of course, such homes wouldn't tolerate hurricane-force winds any better than the next -- but most of the damage in New Orleans wasn't caused by Katrina's winds, rather by the resulting floods. Would we have witnessed the same disaster in the Big Easy if the city's homeowners and developers had taken innovative steps to protect homes against the long-expected and inevitable flooding?

Will it catch on in the United States? Oh, I'd guess you might see a few "eccentric" people trying it, but this just isn't the audacious, inventive country it once was. For example, scientists found several years ago that a certain common nail was exceptionally more resistant to hurricane wind forces when used by roofers. The "extra" cost of this new nail was inconsequential, so using it made all the sense in the world. Dade County, Fla., agreed and changed its building codes to require that this "magic nail" be used in all new roofing ... and as late as last year, building-code bosses in Texas hadn't ever heard of this nail and despite the wreckage caused by Hurricane Rita last year, they haven't required buildings/roofers in Gulf Coast counties to use it.

Like "magic nails," the idea of amphibious homes probably won't catch on. Sometimes, we'd rather keep repeating the same action over and over, expecting the result to be different (Mark Twain's definition of insanity.) Sometimes, we Americans just don't want to change our thinking in big ways, and that's too bad.