Friday, December 29, 2006

An ACME New Year

from Jacqueline

Since I was twenty, I’ve had a bit of a problem with the new year, specifically, “old year’s night” as my dad calls it. I quite like that term, “old year’s night” – it gives the occasion a sense of mystery, a sense of farewell, yet at the same time, and anticipation of things to come. That excitement was turned to some sort of dread many years ago, when my brother, - who’d been complaining of a loss of feeling in his hands, and “tingling” in his arms – had an appointment with a neurosurgeon on December 31st. He was due to join the Royal Navy just a couple of weeks later, and was just beside himself with excitement. We all assumed that his symptoms were a bit of tennis elbow to be sorted out before he began his training. The trio – my parents and my brother – came home from the hospital late in the day, crestfallen. My brother went to his room and did not come out until close to midnight, to share the shank of old year’s night with the family. It was as the clock struck twelve, when my mother kissed my brother and held him oh so tight, and my Dad looked away so that I would not see his tears, that I knew we were on the edge of a precipice, and who knows where we would all be in a year. Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? We don’t necessarily think of the year past, but with a gulp we look at the year to come and wonder what it will bring, and how we will accept abundance with grace, loss without losing ourselves, and how we might keep those things we love about us, and jettison those things that will weigh down our journey. And with all that, who will we be next year?

New Year makes me feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote at the point when, having just chased the road-runner to the edge of a precipice, he looks across as his quarry hops effortlessly across the divide onto the other side, then takes a run at the gap himself, but instead falls into the abyss until, splat! A really bad landing. That’s when he goes to the ACME Company’s trusty catalog for a parachute or some flying contraption to get him across. Which is probably where the lesson is – we can try all sort of things to get over that canyon, between this year and the next, but a knowing look back and a quick confident hop is all it takes.

In my case, all’s well that end’s well, because despite the fact that that year was one of the very worst for my family (and the next few years weren’t much better), my brother is careening toward forty-eight this year and although he didn’t join the navy, he eventually became a gifted, creative landscape gardener and designer, and it is probably evident that the military might not have suited him at all. Mind you, the process of witnessing my brother’s journey though a life-threatening illness taught me more than a few lessons. It showed me how to look back with compassion, to forgive the ups and downs that cause us to say things we don’t mean, and do things we might never otherwise do. And even though I have an almost paralyzing fear that passes through me as the clock strikes the hour marking the passing of the old year, the ACME glass of champagne in my hand and, if I am at a party, the cheers and off-key ACME rendition of “Auld Lang's Ayne” rattling the rafters, remind me to look forward, not back, to welcome the year still in its swaddling clothes, and remember, hackneyed as it seems, that life is what you make it. My brother is really, really good at that.

So, from the Wile E. Coyote of old year’s night, I wish you a wonderful weekend, and a year to come that is filled with love, peace, joy, accomplishment and community. And here’s a verse to leave you with. It is the one I look to every new year’s morning – you know it well :


by Max Ehrman

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
 And remember what peace there may be in silence. 
As far as possible without surrender 
be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly & clearly;
 and listen to others, 
even the dull & ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud & aggressive persons, 
they are vexations to the spirit. 
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain & bitter; 
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
 Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
 it is a real possession in the changing future of time.
 Exercise caution in your business affairs;
 for the world is full of trickery.
 But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
 many persons strive for high ideals; 
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
 Especially, do not feign affection.
 Neither be cynical about love; 
for in the face of all aridity & disenchantment it is perennial as the grass. 
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
 gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
 Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
 But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
 Many fears are born of fatigue & loneliness.
 Beyond wholesome discipline,
 be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
 no less than the trees & the stars;
 you have a right to be here.
 And whether or not it is clear to you,
 no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
 whatever you conceive Him to be,
 and whatever your labors & aspirations,
 in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
 With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams,
 it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Disappeared: Part Two

From James

A couple of weeks ago I posted comments about the death of Chile's Pinochet, and I talked a little bit about "the Disappeared." I promised more on that topic from the Argentine perpsective, because it relates to my upcoming release, "When Darkness Falls," which will be published next week. I'm a man of my word, so here you go . . .

When Darkness Falls: Terrorism, “The Disappeared” . . . and Blindness
© Copyright James Grippando 2006. All rights reserved.

What should we do about terrorism? You hear that question asked every day. History provides some very bad answers. One of the worst answers ever conceived inspired me to write When Darkness Falls.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of an event that most of world knows nothing about but that should be remembered forever. At 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in April 1977, fourteen mothers—in defiance of a ruthless military dictatorship—gathered in a plaza in Buenos Aires to demand an answer to this chilling question: What has the government done with our disappeared children?

Between 1975 and 1983, thousands of people “disappeared” in Argentina, with estimates as high as 30,000 victims. Among them were dissidents and even some left-wing terrorists. But they also included innocents—teachers, students, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, laborers, priests, nuns, mothers, sons, fathers and daughters—whose only crime was opposition or suspected opposition to the military junta that seized power in Argentina on March 27, 1976. They were abducted from their homes, the street, or their place of work. They were blindfolded and taken to one of over 300 secret military detention centers around the country. They were stripped of their identity, beaten, and tortured by some of the most sadistic state-sponsored “interrogators” the world has ever known. Many were tortured to death by electric shock or submersion in water. Others were shot and buried in mass graves. Some were even pushed out of airplanes alive, disappearing into the ocean. Thousands were never heard from again.

At the time, Argentina was a country torn by terrorism. However, as a special commission found after the fall of the dictatorship, “[t]he armed forces responded to the terrorists’ crimes with a terrorism far worse than the one they were combating.” The government gave relatives of the disappeared no information about their loved ones. As neighbors and co-workers vanished in the night, ordinary citizens gave in to their fears and refused to ask questions. Many continued to give their government the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that the military wouldn’t haul people away without good reason. And some just looked the other way—literally. One of the most disturbing photographs I uncovered in my research shows a young man on the sidewalk being beaten and hauled away by soldiers in broad daylight. If you look closely, you can also see a woman seated by the window inside a restaurant, just a few feet away from the military abduction. She is shielding her eyes.

So it was a few brave women marching in a plaza who became the eyes of a nation, and ultimately of the world. They continued to meet every Thursday at the same time, wearing symbolic white nappies on their heads, carrying poster-sized photographs of their missing children, and asking “Where are the Disappeared?” They came to be known as “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” named for their meeting place. They found a way to bring attention to the plight of their families, and they channeled despair into action.

I hate novels that preach, and I would never write one that does. But hopefully this background will give you some understanding of how a writer gets his inspiration—and how, at least in this book, it’s no coincidence that one of the characters is blind.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Good Libations

By Cornelia

So it's the day after Boxing Day (eighteen minutes after midnight), and I'm in Syracuse. Since I'll be on a Jetblue plane back to Cali at midnight on New Year's Eve, I thought I'd throw in my favorite New Year's DAY libation recipe up here on the blog.

This is a fine thing to have on hand on any occasion. There are lots of different recipe variations available online, and people get all fancy with the schmancy, but here's the basic drill:

Black Velvet

Mix one part Guinness stout with one part decent champagne.


It's important that the champagne be dry. You can make this with Freixenet if you want, but if you go with a better bubbly you'll run less risk of hangover. Making it with Dom Perignon or something is overkill, however, IMHO.

Still, the bottle always looks nice:

Don't get all messed up with the foofy crap about pouring the champagne over the back of a spoon to keep it separate from the Guinness in a champagne flute. Drinks in layers are for pikers. The point is to mix the two liquids, so just pour each slowly to make sure you don't get foam everywhere (i.e. if you pour the Guinness first, let the head settle before you add the champagne).

I think the best way to make this is in a large chilled silver bowl, preferably Revere:

The (possibly apocryphal) history of this cocktail traces its origins to the Brooks Club in London, where it was concocted for the first time on December 15th, 1861--the day following the death of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. When a club member requested that the bartender serve him a glass of champagne, the bartender darkened it with stout, so that the wine would itself be "in mourning."

James Bond offers to treat Bill Tanner to a luncheon of "dressed crab and a pint of black velvet" at Scotts, after a meeting with M in Diamonds are Forever. Which just goes to prove that man does not live by martinis alone.

Meanwhile, here are some other New Year's traditions we've adopted in my family:

* Wear red underwear on New Year's Eve--an Italian tradition for good luck we took to after my sister spent junior year in Florence.

* Melt a piece of lead (like half of one of those chunks they use to balance tires) in a spoon over the stove and drop it into a bowl of cold water--the resulting shape is a prediction of what your year will be like. This is done in Germany, some Eastern European countries, and Sweden, apparently. I'm not sure who taught it to us.

* Fill a large bowl with water, and hang slips of paper with fortunes written on them all around the edge (about the size of papers you'd find in a fortune cookie). Make tiny boats out of halves of walnut shells. Light a birthday candle and stand it upright in the boat by dripping a bit of wax in the bottom. Let it float around the bowl until it gets close enough to the edge to light one of the papers on fire. Dunk the paper quickly into the water and read your fortune.

And don't forget to say "rabbit rabbit" first thing when you wake up in the morning (some claim it's important to put your right foot on the floor first, New Year's morning).

All of the above are good things to do while drinking black velvets, but no matter what you're drinking, I hope that 2007 brings you the best of health and happiness, and that it is a year in which there never is heard a discouraging word.

May you also get your wish card:

(If you have any other good New Year's luck practices, please share--we could all use a little nice juju in the coming year.)

Of Ego, Hollywood, and Satire...

By Paul

What a weekend.

Who to root for? The pugnancious Rosie O'Donnell? Or the crude Donald Trump with his art deco combover (The Donald's hair bears an eerie resemblace to the Crayola color known as "sunset orange," though an argument could be made for "mango tango."

But speaking of the evil spawn of Hollywood...I finally finished reading, "The Devil's Guide to Hollywood by vulgarian and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct," "Showgirls"). Eszterhas reminds the reader at least four times that he "bedded" actress Sharon Stone. It would be difficult to point out the single most tasteless, seamy anecdote from the book, but if required, here's what I'd choose:

I [Joe Eszterhas] was introduced to Martin Scorses a few years after I publicly fired his good friend and agent Michael Ovitz. Marty looked at me superciliously, barely taking my hand.

I knew he was the King of the Auteurs, while I was the auteur-slayer. I knew how seriously he took himself, while I prided myself on being the "rogue elephant" of screenwriters.

I knew all those things about him and I knew a whole lot more that he didn't know I knoew, things I had learned from one of his wives, things she had told me after we'd made love on the kitchen floor of Marty's house while Marty was off on location, being the auteur.

Eszterhas takes himself very seriously and viciously criticizes writers most would consider his superiors (William Goldman, Robert Towne).

I much prefer Hollywood books with more wit and less ego. Joe Keenan of "Desperate Housewives," recently chose his five favorite Hollywood satires for the Wall Street Journal.

"What Makes Sammy Run?" By Budd Schulberg
"The Player" by Michael Tolkin
"The Deal" by Peter Lefcourt
"Artistic Differences" by Charlie Hauck
"Little Me" by Patrick Dennis.

Hard to argue with any of those. I might add Donald Westlake's "Sacred Monster." And I've had a sneak peak at Bill Bryan's "Keep It Real," a wild, riotous romp through the world of reality television. The book will be published in March, and I'll have more to say then.

By Paul

Monday, December 25, 2006

Joyeux Noel

Patty here...

Since it’s Christmas and I'm busy choosing a designated driver for anybody who eats Marianne's fruitcake, I’ll keep this short and sweet. To my extraordinarily talented blog mates Paul, James, Cornelia, and Our Jacqueline and to all the wonderful members of our online family, regardless of what you are celebrating today, I wish you joy and for all of us, peace on earth.

Happy Monday. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

'Tis The Season ....

from Jacqueline

Patty gets to blog on Christmas Day, so I hope she doesn’t mind me talking about the festive season here, and perhaps reflecting on times past.

The most interesting thing to me, about the festive season, is the proliferation of pagan icons that have stood the test of time, in fact, that reflect the power of the feast of Saturnalia. Given that biblical historians believe that Jesus was in fact born around September (that star is a dead giveaway), one might ask why we are all spending a fortune honoring the giving of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus - in December. The answer, as many of you know, is Saturnalia. Saturnalia is the Roman word given to the winter solstice celebrations.

Those early Christians were a clever lot – we could certainly learn a bit from their PR skills. Noting that pagan peoples had a strong regard for nature, and worshipped, among other things, the evergreen tree (a tree that never seems to die, that signals everlasting life), they saw that their rituals often took place under or close to an evergreen. So they set up shop in the same place, in order to attract custom. Ditto with that most important Christian ritual, a remembrance of the birth of Christ – they moved it to the winter solstice, that time when the pagan peoples lit fires to give strength to the sun, when they ate of summer’s harvest to honor the sweetness of the year to come, and when they honored the evergreen more than at any time of year because those trees were looking the same in Winter as they did in Spring. And of course there was lots of jolly dancing and making merry at yuletide.

So, when you go to Britain, for example, that ancient PR campaign is why you’ll see a yew tree right next to an old church. And it’s also why people decorate Christmas trees (though historians point to the tree being called a “Christmas tree” as something that happened in seventh century Germany), and why, in most northern European countries, there’s a tradition of eating foods that contain the sweet dried fruits of summer – in Britain we have rich Christmas pudding, which is traditionally made in July and left to stew in its juices, which include rum and brandy. I love the bringing together of traditions, the links to an ancient past.

One of those less common traditions is that of stealing your Christmas tree. When I was a young child, my parents lived on a farm in the middle of what is known as “Crown” land – which means that the land upon which the farm was built (we lived in a 13th century house) was owned by the monarch. The farm was surrounded by acres upon acres spruce plantation, so we never had to go far for our Christmas tree. However, when we left that house to live in a nearby hamlet, my father really didn’t like the idea of having to buy a tree when he knew exactly where to get a good one. About a week before Christmas, usually as it was getting to be dark on a Sunday evening, he would leave the house wrapped up warm against the winter’s chill. The dogs at heel, he would make his way across the fields under cover of darkness to bag us a good one.

My brother and I were allowed to stay up until he came home with the tree – we’d rush to greet him as he came through the kitchen door, straight to the old coal range to warm his hands. Then, once he’d had a cup of tea and some toast, he brought in the tree and as a family we would decorate our contraband, waiting for that moment when mum turned off the main light and dad plugged in the tree lights. “Ahhhh,” we said in unison, as if real stardust had settled upon our tree. At that point one of the old tree lights usually blew a fuse.

One year Dad let John and I go with him, which was great fun but almost turned into disaster when my brother yelled into the silent, misty woodland, “Over here, Dad, what about this one.” I took him down in something akin to a rugby tackle to shut him up. Of course, we laugh about it now, but we could have been nabbed.

But one thing I’m eternally grateful for, in that small community where I grew up, is that, though we only celebrated Christmas there, because in those days there were no neighbors who celebrated Hanukkah, or Kwanza, for example (though, to be honest, I think there might have been a Wiccan or two disguised as ordinary people), in our small school the teachers made sure we knew about the rest of the world, that we understood that, though we lived in a less than diverse place, there were others who did not celebrate as we did. (I remember one time, when one of the teachers came in dressed in the chador, one of the boys said, “You look like an amoeba, miss.” You couldn’t actually blame him, because we had been learning about amoeba’s in biology just that week!)

So, having shared a few thoughts and a little history, here’s wishing you Happy Holidays, wherever you are in the world, and however you choose to share this very special time of year. More than anything, I wish you peace.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Lost City

By Cornelia

We're going to spend Christmas in Syracuse with my husband's family this year. My novel A Field of Darkness is set there, in 1988. Madeline Dare, the protagonist, is hugely snarky about living in "The Salt City"--even more so than I was back in 1988, although I often derided the place, as my very patient in-laws would be all too quick to tell you.

The photograph above was taken in Syracuse around 1900, and is my favorite image of the city. One of the reasons I love it is that it bears testament to an aspect of that place which no longer exists--that being the Erie Canal running through downtown.

Madeline talks about it in Field:

I was late for work, stuck again at the five-way Erie Boulevard light. Most mornings I’d drum my fingers on the wheel and wonder why the hell they’d filled in the canal, still down there under the Boulevard’s wide stretch of asphalt. I’d inspect the once-proud buildings, spiky with imperial turrets and crenellations, and imagine how much better they’d have looked from the water, from a barge-deck’s slow glide behind a mule.... I crunched my eyes shut and tried to picture my favorite photograph of Syracuse. It was taken not far from the intersection at which I was stopped, a grainy old shot of ice skaters on the frozen canal. There were young boys in knickers and knit hats with pompoms, arms swinging as they raced through the crowd. A dancing woman in a picture hat. Spectators looking on from the streets above. The figures cast long Northeasterly shadows across the ice, so it must have been taken towards the end of that afternoon. It would have been cold, no doubt with the slicing wind I knew from having lived through two raw winters here, but still there’s a sense of possibility, of wonder.
You look at that crowd and you know they were aware of being spectacular--worth looking at, deserving of record.
There are other parts of the city that exist only in old photographs and postcards:

Like an illuminated amusement park called the White City

or very many people sailing for pleasure on Onondaga Lake, once a resort with steel piers for promenading on, and ferries from hotel to hotel,

but which hasn't been the focus of much recreation since these guys dumped something like 40,000 pounds of mercury into it.

You also won't see any streetcars, "down-city":

Or a steam train, for that matter:

But there are still wonderful buildings to see in Syracuse:

I'm especially fond of the Landmark Theatre--built as the Loews State in 1928,

which is a riot of "oriental" embellishment throughout.

Here is the upstairs lobby:

reached, of course, via the grand staircase:

And here's a view from the balcony seats of the stage itself:

I wish I'd seen the Elvis Costello show here... and I managed to miss New Year's Eve with Sun Ra for the entire time I lived there.

Another great building is the Niagara-Mohawk power building, known locally as Ni-Mo, which is just Deco up the wazoo and can also be lit in different colors for special occasions:

Here's a closeup of the figure above the entrance:

And this is my second-favorite image of Syracuse, just because to me it begs to be put on a pulp novel cover--Syracuse Noir, perhaps?:

Or maybe just Moon Over Syracuse...

And if you're in town, don't forget to pick up some wings at Sal's Birdland, "home of the sassy sauce..."

It is important to have your wings from Sal's with an appropriate beverage. If I remember correctly, these include:

Unfortanately, I'm not sure one can purchase Stegmaier's, these days:

But you can still get these, a tribute to the city's first industry:

I will definitely miss racking up Hank Williams songs on the jukebox
of the Crown Hotel, however--now apparently a ye olde Gaelic fern bar.

And I do wish it were still possible to travel to Syracuse like this:

Or this:

The moon is waxing toward her full and every heart beats for joy at the noble scene. How pleasant too, to see the brilliant lamps of numberless boats passing and repassing upon the smooth unruffled surface of the Canal, to hear the song of the jolly boatman or driver-boy, to see the boats sweeping by freighted with the riches of the West.
-- Jonathan Pearson, Diary, July 25, 1833

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Slimming Down and Dumbing Down

By Paul

In case you missed it, CBS News was caught slenderizing Katie Couric in a magazine piece. Take a look. The real Katie (left) and the photo-shopped Katie (right).

Now, I don't want to pick on the perky-but-trying-to-be-grave CBS anchor-lady, but here's how she opened her broadcast a few days ago when storms were battering Oregon and Washington:

"We begin tonight in the upper left-hand corner of the country..."


"Upper left-hand corner?"

Does CBS think we're too stupid to understand the word "northwest?" Now, I know most high school students couldn't find Spain on a map if they had Penelope Cruz helping them. But c'mon, CBS. The median age of your viewers is 60. Your advertisers know this and hawk the oldsters Prilosec, Viagra and Cialis. It's not necessary to dumb down the news for them, Katie. They actually learned geography in school, along with conjugating vebs, punctuation, and basic grammar.

And speaking of dumbing down...


"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."


"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."


"Will the highways on the Internet become more few?"

But that's enough from W.


"Solomon vs. Lord" was just published in Japan, and I'm startled to learn that Steve Solomon (a) smokes and (b) wears a wedding band, and (c) has a manly jaw.

The Japanese publisher released the book with two separate covers, one with a Solomon photo and one picturing Victoria Lord.

Whether we're writing or reading, we all draw our own pictures of the characters. How many times have you gone to the movies and been disappointed (or shocked) by the casting? (Does anyone remember Elliot Gould playing Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe?)

I have my own mental images of Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. I'm certain that's not my Steve on the cover, but the Victoria photo is pretty close.


Monday, December 18, 2006

My man Frank

Patty here…

I just finished going over the copy-edited manuscript of SHORT CHANGE, my third novel due out July 3, 2007. I have a new copy editor this time around. His name is Frank and he’s amazing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how the publishing world works, your editor is the first to read your manuscript. She gives you her broad, sweeping visions of how the book can be improved. When you've made all of the necessary changes, she tells you, “Now it’s perfect!!!!!!!!!!” That makes you really happy.

But not for long. Then she sends your manuscript to the copy editor. He’s the guy who fills those perfect pages with red pencil marks highlighting how abysmally you’ve failed Commas 101. (Mims, should there be a comma after “marks”?) When I’m confronted with that sea of red, I get flashbacks to primary school essays I wrote on how I spent my summer vacation. Honestly, did the teacher want to know that I collected seashells at the beach or did she want Hemingway?

Michael was the copy editor for my first two books. He took exception to the way I used commas. There were simply too many of them and they were all in the wrong places. I learned a lot from him and eventually found myself pausing before every one of those innocuous little swooshes to ask myself: What would Michael do? Michael taught me well because on this third manuscript I saw whole pages without any red marks at all. (Michael, I was itching to use a comma in this paragraph but I resisted for your sake).

I have a new man now—Frank. He knows amazing things. Often we writers don’t think about that one little plural noun we use in a throwaway sentence. Then here comes somebody like Frank, gently reminding us that a Quarter Pounder has only one meat patty, not two.

Frank knows instinctively when to use blond or blonde, that Rhinestone is not capitalized despite what your computer spell-checker tells you. He notices that you’ve echoed the same phrase on the page. He knows the official names of songs, that “loony tune” isn’t “looney-tune” even though you looked that one up and were sure it was correct. He even tells you when you’ve spelled the name of a minor character in different ways throughout the manuscript. Honestly, Frank, picky, pickie, pickee.

Of course, Frank doesn’t force his views on me. Sometimes he writes, “Ok?” next to the change. Usually, I write “ok” back at him. I only used “stet” a couple of times because despite what Webster says, Eugene would say “up the ying-yang” not “yin-yang.” But fair is fair. I let Frank change racquet to racket. Both are acceptable spellings but racket is listed as first choice. I didn’t know that. Sometimes scrutiny is a good thing.

One of the best things about Frank is he draws happy faces next to sentences he likes. Well…most of them are clearly happy. One of them looks somewhat shocked, hopefully it’s because Frank was surprised about a plot twist not because I used a comma instead of a colon, although, now that I think about it maybe a colon would have been better. Whatever. Those happy faces (or is it Happy Faces?) make me feel really really good.

There are a lot of unsung heroes in the publishing business. Copy editors are right up there at the top. I’ve worked with two great guys now and for that I’m grateful. I have only one question. Did anybody but me think barbecue was spelled barbeque?

Happy Monday!

p.s. Thanks to Groupie for the great pictures:o) And to Jeff, so sorry about your car :o(

Friday, December 15, 2006

In the disappearing mid-winter ...

from Jacqueline

I can’t stop thinking about the plight of polar bears. Even before I saw Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, with that animated segment showing a poor, exhausted polar bear desperately swimming, looking for a bit of ice to rest upon, I have been worried about polar bears, and how many have to die before we really wake up. And now, with the holidays upon us, it seems there’s a polar bear on every other greetings card – even Coke (or is it Pepsi) are in on the act. Pretty soon, cards, posters and advertisements will be the only places we’ll see a polar bear.

I know, I know, it’s everywhere at the moment, this global warming debate, but I wonder if we are really getting it? How can the great majority of people be persuaded give up on the need to have so much that sucks the life out of the environment, to the detriment of the rest of life on this planet? Bear with me on this, as I said, I know, you’ve heard it all before, but I am wondering, what do we do to get it into the heads of the mass of population that it really is OK to do the right thing even if the next person isn’t? That it doesn’t make you a lesser person if you choose a car that is smaller than a Hummer. With all the advertising and media coverage highlighting the plight of so many species that make life on this planet so very special, how do we get it into people’s thick heads that every little thing you can do to help the situation makes a difference? Thank God I’m not Al Gore – I would turned to vandalism of SUV’s long ago. Not the most efficient way to drive your point home.

Here are a few things that get under my skin:

Myth: You live in a place where there is “weather” so you need an SUV. Now, consider this: whenever you see pictures of the English countryside, it’s likely you’ll view the county set with their Hunter green wellies, their Barbour waxed jackets (been a run on those lately, due to Helen Mirren in The Queen), and a slew of Labrador dogs, all clambering into Range Rovers and hurtling off over hill and dale. Well, I was born and raised in that countryside – my first footwear was a pair of wellies – and I can categorically tell you that you rarely saw such vehicles (unless you count the tractors), as most farmers drove the Mini station wagon, a great little car that didn’t need 4WD to get through the mud and water, because if it got stuck you just lifted it out! Moral: You do not need an SUV to negotiate ‘weather.” Good driving skills and paying attention help though. And there are some nice station wagons that make it through the snow in Germany and Japan, and I am sure they could weather Cleveland or Boston and even Montana. In fact, whenever I have visited the places that get real weather in the USA, there seem to be fewer SUV’s. Funny, that.

There’s a guy who lives near us who has one of those mega Land Rovers, the sort that you take into the Serengeti, complete with roof rack for the big containers of gasoline and water. I have never seen it go beyond Safeway, where – as you know – there’s often a run on wildebeest.

One of my friends, several years ago, was in the market for a new car. She said that she wanted a Discovery, to negotiate “all these San Francisco hills.” I just could not contain myself. “This isn’t Mongolia, you know – you need a little hatchback to negotiate the parking, never mind a Discovery!”

This brings me to my next myth – surprisingly enough, you do not need a Land Cruiser to shop at Nordstom. Their sale is good, but not that good.

A thought: Explain “hubris” to a polar bear.

Myth: You have a big house, so you need all the lights on at once to see where you’re going. (Actually, I could have stopped right there at “You need a big house.”)

I usually take the back road to Santa Barbara from Ojai, and over the past couple of years I have watched an absolutely ginormous house being built just off Highway 192. It’s huge and, I must say, seriously ugly. Rooms everywhere, plus a big landscaped estate (sprinklers galore) and even a dressage arena with stables. I think it’s wonderful that these people have their dream home, but for crying out loud, whenever I’ve driven by the house at night, every single light is on and there are floodlights across the landscaping. Now, I am not worried about their utility bills – they are clearly not short of a dollar or two - but explain “greed” to a polar bear.

But according to a report in last week’s New York Times, the rate of new mac-mansion construction has now topped out, and people are beginning to see sense. I am a believer that history teaches you pretty much all you need to know – just look at all those Victorian monoliths now split into apartments, or being used as offices. They, too, were homes once. If you can call a museum a home.

One of my friends chooses a new mantra every year, a word to live by, to consider each day. Last year her word was “enough.” What does it mean to have enough? And if we were brutally honest about what enough really is, would it help others less fortunate to have “enough” and would we end up leaving a smaller footprint on the earth? And so what if the Chinese are belching out more greenhouse gases – just because we can’t change that right now, does it mean we have to consume more than enough without thinking?

I guess this post is really me reminding myself about the little things I can do, whether it’s judicious consumption, being mindful of my place in the world, and responsibility to the rest of it – human, plant and animal – or supporting those who have a louder and more eloquent voice than I.

Speaking of which, I have just received the following from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a timely reminder in the season of winter wonderlands:

“Warm and fuzzy holiday images of polar bears are everywhere you look right now. But the reality near the North Pole is much more grim. Polar bears are drowning off Alaska's coast - as they are forced to swim greater and greater distances to find the disappearing Arctic ice sheets they depend on for survival. They are the first major species to face extinction as a direct result of global warming, and their fate literally hangs in the balance this holiday season. Over the holidays, the Bush Administration will decide if polar bears deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act. They will either throw polar bears a lifeline - or condemn them to extinction.”

The fact is that that the polar bear is the canary in the coal mine. If we ignore their plight, then we won’t need those big houses and big cars and all that stuff in any case. We’ll all be like the desperate hunter-gatherers in Africa who are struggling against drought. Wanderers on a scorched earth, with aching hearts and growling bellies, wondering whatever happened, and where it all went wrong.

And before I close: First, if you are fed up with hearing yet another tirade about global warming, well, I can’t help it, I just had to vent again. Secondly – and I am sure Patty will agree with me here – whoever thought that those SUV’s were more attractive than a regular-sized car in any case? Where is the elegance? When you get down to it, driving around in a big square tin can and making an idiot of yourself trying to park the thing is about as graceless as you get, isn’t it? Can you imagine Audrey Hepburn in a Hummer? Well, maybe she would have happily clambered into a Land Rover to visit starving children in drought-ridden Africa.

Now, check this out, just for starters.

Oh, and remember to switch off the lights on the Christmas tree when you go out or turn in for the night. Every little bit helps, and I am sure Santa will still know your house if the lights are off - he knows who's been nice.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Disappeared: Part One

from James

Two deaths dominated the news in Miami this week.

One was Ellis Rubin, a flambouyant and outspoken criminal defense lawyer whose autobiography was a direct quote from some of Miami's most high-profile criminal defendants: "Get Me Ellis Rubin!"

He was definitely creative. Rubin won the first case in Florida using the now-common battered-woman syndrome as a defense (literary/legal trivia: Phil Margolin was the first to succesfully use that defense in the state of Oregon). His creativity, however, was sometimes regarded as off the wall. When 15-year-old Ronny Zamora was accused of shooting to death an 83-year-old woman in Miami Beach in 1977, Rubin came up with the "television intoxication" defense--too much violence on television made his client prone to violence. That argument seems worn out now, but it was probably ahead of its time when Rubin made it. In another case that riveted Miami, husband and wife Jeff and Kathy Willets were accused of running a sex business out of their home. Rubin argued that the antidepressant Prozac turned Kathy Willets into a nymphomaniac. It didn't fly, but the subsequent tell-all book did.

The Miami legal community will be a strange place without Ellis Rubin. Rest in peace, Mr. Rubin.

This week's other front-page obit was Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who died Sunday. Pinochet led the miltary coup that ousted Salvador Allende from power on September 11, 1973. (More literary trivia: President Allende was Isabel Allende's uncle). President Allende died in the bloody takeover, though some say it was from self-inflicted wounds.

Pinochet didn't live in Miami, but many who either loved or hated him do. Not much middle ground on Pinochet. He is credited with turning around the Chilean economy, but at the time of his death Pinochet was the target of some 300 prosecutions for human rights violations. The "official" count is 3,197 people who were executed or disappeared during Pinochet's 1973-90 government, and thousands more who were tortured. Families of "the disappeared" were still seeking justice at the time of Pinochet's death.

I did a lot of research on los desaparecidos--The Disappeard--for my upcoming novel, When Darkness Falls, due out January 2. I focused not on Chile, but on an even greater tragedy in Argentina. More about that next week. Stay tuned.

James Grippando

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Giftie Gie Us

By Cornelia

If you are, like me, most often a last-minute gift seeker, I offer the following objets d'late start for your consideration (click on red title text for links to purchasing info):

Smitten Mittens

For the newly besotted duo on your list, here's a fleece mitten for two--comes with or without a pair of matching gloves for their non-perpetually-entwined paws. $11.95 with gloves, $9.95 without.

Chast-ity Gelt

Got a pal who's wry and sardonic? A true connoisseur of the finely wrought kvetch? Offer up the complete Roz Chast oeuvre in one volume.

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 contains 600+ cartoons from everyone's favorite angst-meister. $45

Soccer Daaz

Load this baby up with dairy products, sugar, rock salt, ice--plus your favorite flavor-stuffs-- and put those bouncy housebound kids to good use. 30 minutes of tossing, passing, dribbling, etc.* and you've got a quart of homemade ice cream. $39.50 (cheaper in pint size).

(*Pele-style headbutting not recommended)

Think Again

This is a high-end prezzie, at around $225, but well worth the investment. I mean, who wouldn't want their very own think tank?

According to the evil geniuses who came up with it: "This glowing life-like brain in a bubbling self contained unit... come[s] fully assembled – (just add water!)"

It stands 47” tall and operates on standard 110 house current.

Primal Pillow

Got the Munch-ies? Squeeze this handsome cushion for a suitable shriek to express your true feelings about the holidays. Available in color or black-and-white. $27.95

Quack Attack

Spice up bathtime with a pair of Ninja Devil Duckies. These quack-ssassins are not for the faint of heart. $8.50 for two.

Outlook: Bleak

The perfect rubber-bracelet antidote to an overdose of seasonal schmaltz. Fully eggnog-proof. $5.95 for the set of three.

Change Your Spots

Fuzzy leopard embellishes "a stainless steel container that is contoured to fit discreetly in your pocket or purse." Why should your nearest and dearest settle for "hair of the dog"? $17.95

Jingle Arrrgh

Perfect for brown-bagging at Bouchercon. A mere $16.95, matey.

Mentos Noir

A hardboiled take on "the fresh-maker." 45 mints to the tin. Set of two, $4.95.

Book Tats

Know a librarian with cojones? Temporary body art for the literati, from "Read or Die" to "I (heart) the Dewey Decimal System." $7.95 for the full set.

Author Wear

Forge the uncreated conscience of your race in the smithy of your soul now, party later. Comes in olive or navy, Men's S to XXL. $17.99.

Dashing through the Snow, in a Home-made Trebuchet

Wooden war engine kits for the world-weary. Machiavelli never had it so good. Trebuchet, catapult, or ballista. Assembly required; batteries not. $19.99 to $29.99.

Cutting Edge

The Ex is "an innovative knife suspension system with individual protective knife sleeves for each blade." Includes five knives "made from heavy gauge durable stainless steel." Each slot magnetized to secure knives in the holder. $69.99.

Wake-up Shot

A hot cuppa whatever. Need I say more? $6.99.

Gifting and Nothingness

The gift of last resort, for those of indeterminate taste.... 48 flavor-free packs for a mere $12.95.

Ruh Roh!

Your very own mystery machine--with dual compartments and thermos! Just don't ask what kind of meat's in the sandwich... $13.95

Order Before Midnight, and We'll Throw in...

Only $59.99!!

What's the coolest gift you've run across so far this season?