Thursday, February 27, 2014

Exercising Religion – and Picking Battles

I confess – again – that I’m having a hard time understanding something.

I was relieved when the Idaho legislature shelved two bills meant to come to the defense of business owners facing discrimination lawsuits because they refused to assist gay people. Though the idea sounds noble, I have had a hard time reconciling the difference between such a law and laws that allowed businesses to segregate or discriminate on basis of skin color, or on early Idaho Territory and State laws that forbade Mormons from serving in elective office, on juries, or even voting.

I’ve always believed that businesses could pick and choose whom to serve without ever giving the customers a reason for getting the heave-ho. Those “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” signs had to mean something – as did the “No Irish Here” signs as well. There are ways to pick and choose customers without offering the appearance of being an ass while doing so.

I’ve heard the talks – both by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and I believe he makes salient points.  His 2009 speech, “Religion in the Public Sphere” remains particularly powerful in my mind. In it, he says:

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The prohibition against “an establishment of religion” was intended to separate churches and government, to prevent a national church of the kind still found in Europe. In the interest of time I will say no more about the establishment of religion, but only concentrate on the direction that the United States shall have no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

The guarantee of the free exercise of religion, which I will call religious freedom, is the first expression in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. As noted by many, this “pre-eminent place” identifies freedom of religion as “a cornerstone of American democracy.”[iv] The American colonies were originally settled by people who, for the most part, had come to this continent to be able to practice their religious faith without persecution, and their successors deliberately placed religious freedom first in the nation’s Bill of Rights. So it is that our national law formally declares: “The right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”

The free “exercise” of religion obviously involves both the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and the right to “exercise” or practice those beliefs. But in a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs, the right of some to act upon their religious principles must be qualified by the government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of all. Otherwise, for example, the government could not protect its citizens’ person or property from neighbors whose intentions include taking human life or stealing in circumstances rationalized on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The inherent conflict between the precious religious freedom of the people and the legitimate regulatory responsibilities of the government is the central issue of religious freedom. Here are just a few examples of current controversial public issues that involve this conflict: laws governing marriage and adoption; laws regulating the activities of church-related organizations like BYU-Idaho in furtherance of their religious missions — activities such as who they will serve or employ; and laws prohibiting discrimination in employment or work conditions against persons with unpopular religious beliefs or practices.

I’m grateful for his scholarly interpretation of the First Amendment.

What I hear missing in this current debate, particularly over laws banning gay marriage or offering defenses to businesses who do not want to serve the gay community, however, is a discussion of something equally salient: The Fourteenth Amendment. That amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So, what are privileges and immunities? And do laws like those considered in Idaho and those vetoed in Arizona fly in the face of the “equal protection” of the law? Should a state be able to force business owners to serve customers they would rather not serve? The state has done so in the past, eliminating Jim Crow laws – to an end that had a clear moral benefit.

We have to be careful here, because Mormonism has a history of using the color of one’s skin for discriminatory practices that, ultimately, held no reality in either temporal or spiritual law, other than to say the practice stemmed from practices at the time that were later shown to be discriminatory and morally incorrect.

I’m having trouble reconciling these viewpoints.

Here is what I do understand:

The LDS Church regards gay marriage as a moral issue.

Interpretations of the Constitution appear to offer conflicting advice in balancing freedom of the exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

You would think a business could turn to state constitutions that guarantee equal protection under the law as defense against lawsuits for refusing service to anyone they choose not to serve, if those who are not served get it up their nose to pursue legal action, rather than find another business willing to help them – a core tenet of the free enterprise system.

A look at the Idaho Constitution already reveals this:

The exercise and enjoyment of religious faith and worship shall forever be guaranteed; and no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege, or capacity on account of his religious opinions.

Seems there are civil protections already there.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ain't Dead Yet

Don’t count Areva’s proposed Eagle Rock uranium enrichment plant dead in the desert yet.

Though the French company has stopped building schedules for the plant, first proposed in the late Naughts with construction originally scheduled to begin in 2011, the plug has not been pulled. Note this statement from Idaho Department of Commerce director Jeff Sayer to local media on Feb. 21.

Now Japan is making rumblings that its shutdown of nuclear reactors since the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant accident in 2011 won’t go on much longer.

Here’s the rub:

Shutting down the nation’s nuclear plants resulted in increased imports of oil and natural gas to Japan, helping to lead to a $204 billion trade deficit between March 2011 and the end of 2013, per TIME magazine. The cost to generate electricity in the nation shot up a staggering 50 percent, and the increased reliance on fossil fuels pumped 100 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

If Japan seriously does re-start its plants, Areva’s Eagle Rock could indeed see a groundbreaking.
To those who still fear the nuclear bogeyman, consider this, from TIME:

But the long-term health impacts of the meltdown and subsequent radiation release seem limited. In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of Japanese researchers found that the mean annual radiation dose from the Fukushima event after 2011 was comparable to the background radiation that the average Japanese citizen might experience over the course of a year, and any increases in cancer rates from the meltdown may be so small at to be undetectable. That conclusion fits with earlier studies that suggest steps taken by the Japanese government to limit radiation exposure—including evacuations and food restrictions—from Fukushima seem to have been successful.

That Areva has not leaped into building this plant, to me, is a testament that the company follows good business practices and when it invests, it’ll invest for the long-term. We saw Pocatello’s flirtation with solar power in Hoku Materials’ polysilicon plant fade rather quickly, as the company and its investors jumped into building the plant without looking far enough into the future to see the collapse in the solar panel-making market. The plant was built and shuttered before it opened. It now sits idle and in possession of its prime building contractor, who bought it at a bankruptcy auction. Of course, uranium enrichment is far different than polysilicon; it’s hard to see an enrichment plant repurposed. But still, Areva’s wait and see attitude is good for the long term, and I applaud it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing and Watergate

It’s no secret on this blog that I’m fascinated with Richard Nixon and Watergate. Like Charlie Brown, I’m fascinated by failure.

My latest Nixon/Watergate read is Sen. Sam J. Ervin Junior’s The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy. It was published in 1980, shortly after Nixon’s own memoirs came out. Ervin sees his book as a counter to what he called Nixon’s revisionism.

I don’t know what it is, except it’s at the same time boring, confusing, and fascinating.

Boring because for most of it, it reads like a courtroom brief with stilted language, clearly identified digressions and other bits of courtroom ephemera. Confusing because it assumes a lot of familiarity on the part of the reader of the times and characters included in the story – and this is coming from a person who has read a lot of books on Nixon and Watergate and who has seen many a documentary about the times and characters. Fascinating because it’s told without novelization, without the hokey drama the likes of Woodward and Bernstein introduced into All the Presidents Men and The Final Days. It’s a contemporary, eye-witness view of the scandal, told by a person who combines a knowledge and reverence of the Constitution (“The Constitution is not a schizophrenic instrument that speaks with a forked tongue,” he writes) with a backcountry hyuck factor that would confuse even the likes of Dan Rather (“[T]he White House emulated the preacher who was fired by a backwoods church and who inquired of the chairman of its board of deacons why the church had taken such action. The preachers asked, ‘Don’t I argufy?’ The chairman answered, ‘You sure do argufy.’ The preacher asked, ‘Don’t I sputefy?’ The chairman replied, ‘You sure do sputefy.’ The preacher inquired, ‘Then why did the church fire me?’ The chairman responded, ‘Because you don’t show wherein.’”) I still don’t know what it means, and the Internet ain’t helping. I think it means that if you say or preach or claim something, it’s got to have grounds in some concrete reality that others can see, which makes sense in this context as Ervin is trying to show that Nixon’s claim of presidential separation of powers as he interpreted it isn’t as clear cut in the Constitution as Nixon claimed.

At first, the courtroom briefness of the book bothered me, but I’ve grown used to it, and appreciate Ervin’s use of the rhetorical approach he takes. He saw a lot of twisting of truth, both in the committee investigating Watergate and obviously in Nixon’s memoirs. He wanted to demonstrate someone could write about the scandal with the truth, not with rose-colored glasses or an eye towards drama. To reveal the truth in such matters calls for clear, non-prosaic writing, so I applaud the senator’s approach.

So here’s something to learn about writing on a subject on which many words have already been written: Take a different approach. One that’s perhaps unexpected. Assume a lot of familiarity on the part of the audience with the familiar characters and tropes, and don’t belabor your readers plowing ground the second time. How this might work in fiction writing rather than history, I’m not sure. But there’s got to be a way to figure that out. That may be where we get the literary novel, or attempts to write in verse. The latter might be too anachronistic a style to work these days. Unless the writer is really, really good.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Krep for Kids

No, I have not read the book.

I have seen a few of the movies featured in it, however. And I would not let my tender-hearted children see any of them. And I would not watch them again, because I know what’s in them.

Hearing that cute, cherubic little boy uttering “Yippie kay-yay mother” with the expletive either left out of the book or left out of the book trailer (and I have to hope it’s left out of the book, but given the premise here, I’m not too certain) is evidence enough for me this book won’t be coming into our house.

I admit I’m no bluenose. I listen to Louis CK. I listen to Jon Stewart and his bleeped-out profanities. And most of the time I fill them in, in my head. I probably shouldn’t be listening to either. So I am a hypocrite. And a prig who has not seen the book in question and is condemning it without seeing it.

I’ve seen enough.

But it’s also hypocritical to work on childrens’ movies – some of the best being made, mind you – and then make an R-rated childrens’ book on the side.

Should we really celebrate introducing our children to such dreck?

You might argue that kids are gonna see this stuff anyway. The average kid, you’ll say, has seen thousands of murders on television. Has heard the F-bomb dropped on television, and at school.

Allow my kids to be not average.

Our kids don’t watch TV like the average kid does, unsupervised or with daddy gleefully enjoying the gore and bullets and bleepity-bleeps along with the kiddies. They don’t play violent video games. And while they may hear Daddy utter an occasional dammit or shit, they certainly have never heard the F-bomb, or heard God’s name taken in vain out of Mommy or Daddy’s lips. And what they hear at school, we discuss as a family, as inappropriate.

How can we rail against violence in schools, from Columbine to Newtown, but not rail against violence in the media we allow our children to consume? How is a cutesy Inappropriate Golden Book appropriate? I dislike the NRA and their logic that guns don’t cause violence. I dislike parents who think it’s cute and appropriate to introduce their kids to even slightly sanitized versions of violent and graphic movies under the logic that it’s nothing worse than what they’re going to see in a few years anyway and it’s a way for Daddy to innocently share his love of watching violent films with kids who should have their heads filled with other stuff, rather than the image of someone feeding a leg through a wood chopper, a naked lady being stabbed in the shower or some fool about to pound a nail into another person’s head.

Call me a hypocritical bluenose. It’s an epithet I will wear with pride.

Want to defend this guy? He’s also getting ready to market an international set of misogynistic playing cards.

Ha ha! Hark at the cuteness. I can’t wait to play Go Fish! with my kids with this deck.

And yes, there is violence in “kids’” books and stories. At Christmastime I read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” to my kids. And they were very concerned when Aslan died. They also got to see their Daddy in tears as he read that part of the story, and they also got the next chapter the same night. We discuss the violence. They see appropriate reactions from their parents. They do not see a parent cheering because someone on screen just died in an artsy or cinematographic way, thus getting the message that hey, this is cool. We can talk about why Bambi’s mother had to die or why Dumbo’s mom was locked away as a psychotic and have a better thing to say than, well, he was in the way of the bad guy, so he had to go.

The Academy of Pediatrics has this to say: “More than one thousand scientific studies and reviews conclude that significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive behavior in certain children, desensitizes them to violence and makes them believe that the world is a ‘meaner and scarier’ place than it is.”

And researchers writing for the Journal of the American Medical Association have this to say:

[T]here were significant, if modest, overall positive effect sizes showing that exposure to media violence was positively related to subsequent aggressive behavior, aggressive ideas, arousal, and anger. Additionally, there was a significant negative effect of exposure to violence on subsequent helping behavior.

In other words, the more violence a child sees, the more he or she is apt to react violently. It’s like muscle memory. As primates, we tend to categorize the things we see as ways to react when we find ourselves in similar situations. The more situations we see resolved with violence, the more apt we are to react violently when we encounter those situations. Conversely, the more violence a child sees, the less likely he or she is to react in a positive, helpful manner when stressful situations occur.

And before you dismiss the science, remember that these same correlations have been repeated in study after study since the 1970s. Deny them, and you’re in the same camp as global warming deniers dismissing decades of study proving the world is warming and humans are the cause of it.

Don’t want to focus on the science? Fine. Focus on what the Academy of Pediatrics says in this little snippet: significant exposure to violence makes children think the world is a “meaner, scarier place” than it actually is. Maybe violent movies won’t incite them to violence. Maybe they won’t go gun up their school. I hope they don’t, and the vast majority probably will not. But do we really need more people going into the world thinking it’s meaner and scarier than it actually is? That’s paranoia. I’d rather have this:

Or this:

Their fantasies are often very different than the truth, he says. Sounds familiar.

Have my kids seen murders? Yes. They’ve seen Obi-Wan Kenobi die. They’ve seen Qui-gon Jinn and Darth Maul die. They’ve heard the Emperor scream as he falls down that shaft, shooting lightning bolts all the way. They’ve seen cute little Ewoks die. But those who believe these stories are the same as the ones depicted in Movies R Fun, stand on your head.

Maybe, like us, you’ll explain these movies to your kids in open court, rather than letting them watch them in camera. I hope so.

I hope as well we could see more stories conclude like this.

Now, the Excerpt

NOTE: Now that I'm closing in on the pitch, I've got to consider the excerpt. Here's what I'm thinking:

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Doleful Creatures

The beavers scattered to their ponds when the hawk flew low. “You put up a good fight, brother magpie,” she said as she dropped him unharmed on a tussock of grass. “Hold no malice, for I bear none towards you.” She flew off as the crows cawed thanks.

Jarrod rolled into a black and white feathered ball on the windblown grass as Magda and Chylus landed with thumps nearby. The rest of the murder lodged in the nearby trees and fell silent.

From the ponds and lodges, from atop the dams and from the rushes, faces appeared. Some, old and young, scanned the sky, watching for the hawk which had flown out of sight. Others, young and old, peered at the three birds nearby, out of curiosity, not fear.

With a slop of water an old beaver dropped from the dam into the pond, swam towards the shore near where the crows stood watch over their immobile friend.

Other beavers followed silently, swimming through the water, lumbering over the grass, parting the reeds and scrambling up the muddy banks to glide like weasels towards the waiting birds.

They stopped in a semicircle, some on their bellies, others on their hind legs as the ground underneath them bubbled and squelched as the last of the water dribbled from their fur.

Magda and Chylus stood at attention, their wings folded, their beaks open.

Jarrod slowly coiled into a tighter ball, moaning so quietly he could scarce be heard over the squelch of the earth beneath the beavers’ feet.

“We welcome you here, brothers from the air –“

“Oh, they’re pretty,” said a young one to another, interrupting the old beaver’s speech of welcome. “Look at their feathers. All black, but you can see green, and purple, and blue as they move. How do you do that?”

The old beaver coughed, rubbed his nose. So hard to find dignity when there were young ones about.

Chylus and Magda ruffled their breast feathers and bowed their open beaks to the earth in a crows’ equivalent of a blush.

“And what’s wrong with that one? Oh! He’s got white spots on him! Is he sick?”

Two young beavers leaped to Jarrod’s side, nuzzled him.

“Oh, he’s breathing. And listen to that heart beating!” the young ones said. “He’s alive. And oh! His black feathers do the same colorful tricks!” With gentle paws they stroked the feathers, chasing their iridescent colors along spine and shaft.

Jarrod’s breathing eased. His heartbeat slowed.

“Did you rescue him from the hawk?” the young ones asked the crows. “We saw him in her claws! That was very brave!”

“Oh,” Jarrod shouted, startling the two beavers who bolted behind their elders. “If only that hawk had killed me!” he shouted into the ground.

Jarrod unfurled himself, wobbled, righted himself and stood to face the beavers. Chylus and Magda hopped closer to his sides. The beavers watched, jaws agape, eyes bulging, waiting for the magpie to continue his moaning.

“You have before you,” he said to the crowd of animals in a voice pitched high and crackling, “one who murdered your ancestors.”

The sun began to lift its eyelids above the lip of the canyon. In the middle distance meadowlarks sang.

The two young beavers snaked slowly from behind the others, stepping warily towards the three birds.

“You, a murderer?” one asked.

“Yes,” Jarrod said.

He told them the tale.

The beavers wept.

The excerpt in full can be found here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sample Pitch

Here's a sample pitch for my novel "Doleful Creatures." I'm seriously thinking about entering Amazon's Breakthrough Novel contest. I don't have a ghost of a chance. But I'm going to do it anyway. What do you think of this pitch? What is it missing?

Jarrod is a murderer. Cold-blooded, the badger says. Sang as only a magpie can, glorious over the corpses of the beavers slaughtered in the box canyon above Purdy Farm. Watch him, young ones, and beware. For there is another who will use that evil amongst us to bring the creeping fungus black of death to this peaceful place, if we are not watchful. The marmots? They're simple, innocent folk, looking to take Purdy Farm into modern times. And for everyone's benefit.

Ware the murder of crows. They proclaim the magpie' s innocence. They distrust the industrious, prosperous marmots and their grand plans. They are allied with the evil that comes on the starlings' wings. Death they mean for us, if we welcome them and their news. We'll see the satyrs' dance and hear the owls hoot, if Jarrod is freed from his isolation.

Then freedom comes. But on the wings of sparrows and at the behest of the one who notes the sparrow's fall. The inhabitants of the barn and wood at Purdy Farm learn who the true DOLEFUL CREATURES are.


Jarrod is a murderer. Cold-blooded, the badger says. Sang as only a magpie can, glorious over the corpses of the beavers slaughtered in the box canyon above Purdy Farm. Watch him, young ones, and beware. For there is another who will use that evil amongst us to bring the creeping fungus black of death to this peaceful place, if we are not watchful. The marmots? They're simple, innocent folk, looking to take Purdy Farm into modern times. And for everyone's benefit.

Ware the murder of crows. They proclaim the magpie' s innocence. They distrust the industrious, prosperous marmots and their grand plans. They are allied with the evil that comes on the starlings' wings. Death they mean for us, if we welcome them and their news. We'll see the satyrs' dance and hear the owls hoot, if Jarrod is freed from his isolation.

Then freedom comes. Jarrod escapes his isolation on the wings of sparrows. At the behest of the one who notes the sparrow's fall, Jarrod awkwardly leads the animals of wood and farm to stop the evil they bear within and proves to the badgers the past they remember is not the past that was. The inhabitants of the barn and wood at Purdy Farm learn who the true DOLEFUL CREATURES are.


Jarrod is a murderer. Cold-blooded, the badger says. Sang as the magpie he is, glorious over the corpses of the beavers slaughtered in the box canyon above Purdy Farm. Watch him, young ones, and beware. For there is another who will use that evil to bring the creeping fungus black of death to this peaceful place, if we are not watchful. The marmots? They're simple, innocent folk, looking to take Purdy Farm into modern times. And for everyone's benefit.

Ware the murder of crows. They proclaim the magpie' s innocence. They distrust the industrious, prosperous marmots and their grand plans. They are allied with the evil that comes on the starlings' wings. Death they mean for us, if we welcome them and their news. We'll see the satyrs' dance and hear the owls hoot, if Jarrod is freed from his isolation.

Then freedom comes. Jarrod escapes his isolation on the wings of sparrows. At the behest of the one who notes the sparrow's fall, Jarrod awkwardly leads the animals of wood and farm to stop the evil they bear within and proves to the badgers the past they remember is not the past that was. The inhabitants of the barn and wood at Purdy Farm learn who the true DOLEFUL CREATURES are.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Naggy Electronics

I spent a half hour this morning, between 2:45 and 3:15 am, being nagged by my electronic devices.

At first I thought it was my Kindle Fire HD making the plaintive wail. It was a noise I hadn’t heard before, but as I’d recently added a few apps, I thought perhaps I’d missed shutting down an automatic notification.

But no. Everything looked good. Except the wailing continued every three or four minutes.

I couldn’t shut the Kindle off as it’s also my alarm clock. I thought, briefly, I’ll just bury the Kindle under the blankets. That’ll muffle the noise.

No. That put the noise next to the dogs, who woke up when it wailed again and decided since they were awake, it must be time to go outside.

As I stumbled out of bed to take care of the dogs, it dawned on me – The noise might be my new cell phone. Sure enough, the phone’s battery was dying and the poor thing was wailing. I tried to turn it off in the darkness. But it’s a new enough phone I couldn’t find the power button. I tried using my Kindle as a flashlight, but as I didn’t have my glasses on, I couldn’t see any of the buttons in the light anyway.

Now the dogs are really getting anxious and my wife is awake, wondering if I’m okay. I mumble something, take the dogs and the devices to the kitchen downstairs. The dogs go out, happily. I find the charger to my phone and plug it all into the wall, hoping that’ll shut up the wailing. I also dig through my bag to find the charger for the Kindle, as it’s starting to complain about a weak battery as well.

The dogs come in. Shutting off lights as I go, I follow them back upstairs, stuff them into bed and then fumble with my solar flashlight to plug in the Kindle charger. Then I go back to bed.

And lay there awake for five minutes, waiting for the Kindle screen to shut down.

I hate nagging electronics.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Night Was Sultry

NOTE: Just a little writing exercise for my BYU-Idaho students.

Don’t feel like you’re being picked on, those of you to whom I’m saying to be more specific in your writing. That’s advice I give to the vast majority of my students, and to myself, as I write.

What do I mean by specific?

Talk of marigolds and dandelions, not flowers.

Talk of dachshunds or boxers, not dogs.

If you love to play the piano, show us what it’s like playing your favorite piece – and name it, even provide a YouTube link to it – so we can understand your joy as you explain.

Tell us a story. Help us remember what you’re writing.

Like this. Venus Flytrap, a DJ from the 70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, uses specific examples to explain the structure of an atom to a wayward student.

Pretend you’re describing a scene for a radio audience. We don’t see the poor turkeys WKRP newsman Les Nessman sees, but we don’t have to. We have his vivid description to fill us in on enough detail to allow our imaginations to take over. And we don’t forget easily what he saw, either.

Listen to comedians tell stories. Listen to how they share specific details that transport you right into the stories they’re telling. Listen, to example, to Bill Cosby talk about his father, upset about the lack of gasoline in his car.

Here’s a writing exercise I love that encourages specificity. Find a clip of a favorite movie scene on YouTube. Write out all the dialogue. Then, using specific details from the clip, fill in between the dialogue as if you were writing the scene as part of a novel. Here’s an example, A SCENE FROM “Throw Momma from the Train,” one of my favorite films.:

The night was.

Larry Donner typed the words slowly. Slowly enough, he hoped, that when the S was struck, the next word would come to him. A slight breeze from the open window riffled the paper in the typewriter. But no word came. He turned his ear to the breeze, hoping the air would blow a word out of his skull.

The night was.

The night was.


He tore the paper from the typewriter, crumpled it, threw it towards the wastebasket. He went to the window, to the unhelpful breeze.


Was the night cloudy?

No. Then he’d have to describe the moon. He couldn’t describe the night right now. How could he describe the moon?

Back to the typewriter. He folded his arms, rested them on the machine, cradled his head. He drummed his fingers, sniffing at the mixed scent of greasy metal and black ink seeping up from the typewriter’s innards.

The night was.

He lurched, groped for a piece of paper.

The night was.

The night was.

The night was nothing.

Now paper in.

The night was.


Paper out.

Paper in.

The night was.

Paper ripped out, the typewriter sounding angry at giving it up yet again.

The night was.

The night was tea.

Tea might help.

With a mug of English Breakfast, back at the typewriter.

“The night . . . was . . .” he said, dipping the teabag.

The night was.

The night was . . . not tea.

A few drams of spirits in with the tea.

The breeze brought thunder. The night was . . . thunder? Larry scowled, looking out the window.

No. He couldn’t describe the night or the moon. He was not going to describe thunder.

“The night . . . was . . .”

Spilled. A few drops of vodka-infused tea. On the desk. If he left it there, it would evaporate, leaving a stain only visible in the right light. And his room was filled with the right light. He would see it. No. It could not be. The night was nothing if not clean.

He came back with a sponge, erasing the drops. Cleanliness is next to godliness, he thought to himself, as he sponged the bottom of the mug, the typewriter where he might have dribbled a bit of tea. Or spittle from a sigh.

“The night . . . “

Tape. Clear tape. Sometimes he taped bits of paper together, bits of paper with words written on them, paragraphs, ideas, taping them together into a novel.

The night was.

He pulled a bit of tape off the spool, snapped it in his hands.

The night was.

The night was.

There were no words to tape together.

He stuck an end of the tape to his nose, the other end to his forehead.

“Oooh,” he said.

More tape. The night was tape. The night was TAPE!

“The phantom of the novel . . . is coming to haunt the pages of Larry Donner!”

Lon Chaney at the desk. He’d know what the night was. He, or the Phantom, would know. The Phantom played his sinister music. The Phantom stared at the paper in the typewriter, frantically.

The night was.

The night was . . .

“Geez, what the hell am I doing?” He pulled the tape from his face.

Now, watch the clip again, then read this bit after you’ve watched.

Challenge yourself: What details did I miss? What in the clip and in the writing shows Larry Donner’s frustration with his writers’ block, without using the terms “frustration” or “writer’s block”?

I’m not allowed to offer bonus points in this class. But I challenge you to find a clip of your own and try this exercise. See how it helps your writing become more vivid. The folks in Hollywood do it. You can to, if you just try.

Always look at the details.

Uncle Walter

NOTE: I do still enjoy printed books versus electronic books. But the sheer weight of this thing, coming in at more than 800 pages, is a strong argument in favor of electronic books. But I digress from Miss Deets.

He really is Uncle Walter. You know, Uncle Walter, the lecherous, loud-mouthed creepy guy who’s always at family parties drinking too much, being way too loud, spouting politics and other nonsense not because he’s the cute octogenarian and has earned the right to speak his mind, but because no matter what you’ve done over the years, he won’t shut the hell up.

I suppose maybe that’s a bit harsh to say of Walter Cronkite, but in Douglas Brinkley’s biography of the man, that’s kinda how he appears.

And like many relatives, he stays far too long after the other guests have given up and gone home. This biography is ponderous, oddly-written at times and stretched his twenty-year retirement out even longer than his seventy-year career.

And, most oddly, there’s very little of Cronkite in “Cronkite,” which seems oddest of all, considering the extensive amount of paper this man must have left behind after seventy years in journalism. Brinkley seemed too intent in talking with friends and contemporaries to actually dig into the paper trail to tell us who Walter Cronkite is.

And I’ve certainly read more engaging biographies. Not that I need to be entertained by every aspect of the book, but there are historians (Richard Rhodes and Barbara Tuchman come to mind) who have a style of writing that’s more novelistic while still remaining eminently factual. Brinkley never succeeds in breaking through the glass, as Dan Rather said of Cronkite, to connect with the reader.

Still, I enjoyed the read, if only to discover that Cronkie is a fan of C.W. McCall’s song “Convoy,” something which amused my older brother to no end, as he’s a McCall fan as well.

Here’s what I learned:

Newspapers have always had their bums stuffed with tweed. From page 47: “Joining the Ringling Brother or entering into vaudeville was considered nobler work than radio. Newspaper journalism crashed through daunting obstacles to find the truth and confirm facts. To be a newspaper reporter – whether trained at college or in the school of hard knocks at an obituary desk – was to uphold high standards of clarity, accuracy, and objectivity that had made newspapers “the fourth estate” across America, and an adjunct to decent democratic government.”

Radio, too, has its fair share of tweed-bum cases. From page 161: “Murrow found the noun anchorman repugnant, but he also thought televised conventions were a horror show where no hard news was made. To Murrow, television was all part of a public relations game, and CBS’ coverage of the 1952 conventions was essentially free advertising for the Democratic and Republican parties, not true journalism.”

Uncle Walter wasn’t above skullduggery. From page 164: Just how hungry Cronkite was to excel in CBS’s coverage of the conventions became readily apparent when he orchestrated the secret tape recording of the Repulbicans’ credentials committee meeting. Long before the Nixon administration bugged the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate in 1972, Cronkite, after much deliberation, had a CBS technician wire the committee room under the shady rationale that the covert act was good for democracy. “He ran a wire,” Cronkite recalled, “up the outside of the hotel and into a broom closet several floors above. There one of our newspeople listened through earphones and rushed notes . . . to me downstairs. The sources of these reports baffled both the Republicans and my broadcast opposition.”

Yeah, stay classy, Uncle Walter.

Cronkite had blinders, just like any journalist. Form page 346: ”Walter was too skeptical, too savvy and had too sensitive a shit-detector to be taken in, but Walter could be diverted by machinery, by things with wheels and wings, and especially by things that float, and the military saw to it that he had a chance to see and use everything, go on air strikes, be made to feel an insider,” [Morley] Safer perceptively explained.
It wasn’t until Cronkite noticed the blinders himself and spent time away from officialdom and saw the Vietnam War firsthand that he realized what a stalemate the war was.

Bill Moyers (no surprise here) is an ass. From page 352: Bill Moyers claimed in hindsight that if Cronkite had been more courageous, like Murrow, and criticized the U.S. buildup in Vietnam in 1965 [President Lyndon] Johnson might have deescalated the conflict. This was ass-covering bullshit: every time the CBS Evening News ran a segment even slightly critical of Johnson policy, Moyers pounced with a White House threat. Cronkite thought that Moyers, a former reporter for Johnson’s radio-TV stations in Austin, was a phony, acting like he was one of the press boys when in reality he was an LBJ talking horse.

So a fascinating book, but what makes it fascinating is the subject matter, not the writing or the research.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Encouraging Cheating?

While Rebecca Schuman advocates eliminating the essay as part of college life (what better way to encourage students to learn to write better than dumping a writing requirement) is somewhat understandable, you've got to wonder if pointing to cheating on writing assignments as a good reason to dump essay writing in the first place.

Today in Slate she says this, re: the outrage over her stupid suggestion:

A halt to the college essay might also mean the abrupt stoppage of the gravy train for many of these righteously offended compositionists. is a paper mill based out of Montreal—but it’s not just any paper mill. If you’re going to pay $200 for someone else to write your essay for that professor who insists essay-writing is the most important part of college, then at least have that essay be written by another professor who believes that essay-writing is the most important part of college.

Dumb argument. Just dumb.

Students are gonna cheat, yes. And since they're gonna cheat, it seems, unemployed professors unscrupulously writing papers for these slacker students ought to have the opportunity.


She points to, where students can go to post their writing needs and unemployed academics can fill that need, as a reason to call it quits on essay writing.

How low will we sink? Cheating and plagiarism is already a serious problem in most schools. Schuman's drive to reduce writing rigor and her specious reasons for featuring this ethically bankrupt website as a reason to support her ideas is beyond stupid.

(From I certainly hope they see the irony here. This student is an ass.)

Look, students (and professors) we know you don't want to write (or read) these essays. Doesn't matter you can better discipline your brain by writing -- doing things that are hard -- and helping your students become better writers and thinkers -- also something hard -- by reading what they write. But that's all too much work. So just cut the assignment, accept that they cheat, and hey, make a buck to help them cheat.

Brave New World, here we come. Why work hard to become educated when we can just cheat our way through life and work with professors who just want to get paid rather than teaching about writing or reading those essays?

Seriously, Ms. Schuman, get out of teaching.

'Be Willing to Rewrite'

I was kind of bummed this week when I missed out on the opportunity to have Doleful Creatures edited professionally (OK, by an intern at a small publisher looking to beef up her editing references). Missing out, it seemed, meant another opportunity lost to see my book published.

But the more I think of Doleful Creatures, I know it’s not ready yet.

And here’s another reason why:

Per GalleyCat, here’s what author Louis Sachar says about editing (particularly, self-editing):

When asked for writing advice, Sachar recommended that one “always be willing to rewrite.” He shared that he always comes up with the best ideas as he is re-writing. He feels that initial ideas can sometimes seem superficial and it is only in subsequent drafts that those ideas become more substantial. For Sachar, each book typically requires him to write six drafts. He usually devotes the first three or four drafts to ironing out the plot and character development. For his final drafts, he tries to write the story in the most artistic way he can.

So, there sits Doleful Creatures, having gone through two drafts. As I’ve said in the past, it’s still a developing book. And needs to develop more. Sachar is giving me the courage to continue with my own edits. Though outside eyes would have been nice . . .

Monday, February 10, 2014


I'm not amazed that this crow figured out this complicated puzzle. I am amazed that people continue to be amazed at the intelligence of animals.

This is why I write about animals, the corvids (crows, magpies) in particular. I've seen enough of their behavior to my untrained eye to doubt that they're intelligent birds.

They learn. They communicate. And they experience joy and have fun.

I soak these videos up. I love watching how these birds behave. And I ought to, if I'm writing about them.

SOOPER DEACON, Borrowed from the Fridge

Just a little comic book excitement from the weekend, drawn by Dad and by the oldest son.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Every day, it seems, there is something new we’re supposed to be upset about.

Over Super Bowl weekend, it was this Coke video, causing a few to spout umbrage and the many to spout umbrage over the original umbrage.

(In this case, the umbrage appears to be sponsored by, though it’s likely they’re just spot-sponsoring just about every video CNN produces so we shouldn’t assume that Flo either approves of or takes umbrage at the umbragic brouhaha.)

Today it’s a tweet by Stephen King, who is begging for mercy, being new at the whole Twitter thing.

It’s perfectly fair to have opinions about things. But as we share those opinions, and as we read them, we ought to be ready to read what’s said and either dismiss it as nothing worth our time or at least have a reasonable discourse about it. Of course, the way our national media and social media are set up, it’s a lot more fun to let things just get up our noses and stay there.

Part of the problem is that the umbrage over the umbrage gets applied wider and wider and wider until we go from understanding the upset belonged to a few people to believing the upset belongs to a larger group. I’ve seen this Coke ad thing explode from “a few” to “some” to suddenly “conservatives” all hating on the ad, which is false. But the umbrage over the umbrage of a tiny few too often spills over into latent umbrage against a larger group which, of course, makes everything easier and encourages everyone to want to talk things out over a beer, doesn’t it?

Getting upset feels like we’re doing something. But it’s doing nothing. It’s the equivalent of yawning after someone else yawns. It’s contagious, but doesn’t really do anything for us but get more oxygen in us for the next time we have to get mad about something. It’s clear proof that we’re not listening to what the other has to say, just getting ready with our own retort while they’re still talking.

I’m as guilty as the next ass, I know. I’m cutting back on the umbrage I spew and concentrating more on listening and agreement, even if that agreement is an agreement to disagree.

Seeds of Destiny

It’s an old writers’ fallback that setting a manuscript aside for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes is a good thing.

It’s an even better thing if, as is discovered by Farmer Hoggett, as you put that manuscript away you have little ideas that tickle and nudge and refuse to go away.

I’m feeling that way about “Doleful Creatures.” Ideas keep coming. Things the characters need to do or say or be. And they all keep clicking into place in my head and (much more importantly) in the notes I’ve been taking, independent of looking at the manuscript again, like one of those little games in which you have to roll the BBs into the holes.

I take this all as a good sign that I’ve got a book that’s a keeper. Or at least the seeds of a book that’s a keeper.

And it’s not just additions that keep coming to mind. It’s subtractions. I’ll be hit out of the blue by thought like, “Eh, that chapter, it could go and nobody would miss it. Not even me.” I know when I revised the book last year I subtracted enough and added enough that I used it as my NaNoWriMo entry without feeling guilty; it was a new book by the time November was over. The process of pruning and splicing continues.