I had a couple of friends visit me yesterday at the bike shop. I hadn’t seen Alan Winslow or Morrigan McCarthy since they left on their year-long bicycle tour to document, through photography and audio, rural Americans’ often overlooked efforts at sustainability, and the environment. Doing the 11,000 mile trip by bicycle broke down the social barriers people often have talking to strangers. Their subjects open up in a way that most journalists only dream of. I haven’t heard/seen most of their footage, yet, but I’m expecting it will add much texture to the public discourse on Americans’ views on the environment.
Ever wonder what makes people tick? Sure, most of us do. As a writer, I feel it’s my job to distill the things I observe in others into words on the page. This link to a short video clip reveals how our brains read other brains and make moral judgments. A must-see for writers trying to capture the essence of “why characters do what they do” on more than a purely intuitive level. The clip also addresses, to a lesser degree, the “hard problem of consciousness.”
The recent decision by the Supreme Court to allow corporations the ability to openly fund political candidates seems to usher in what Alexander Tytler described as the final stages of the fall of Democracy. Tytler, a Scottish history professor living between 1747 and 1813, wrote a paper titled, “Downfall of Democracies” siting his research of democracies from Athens and Rome through his time. Quotes paraphrasing his work have popped up all over the internet for the last decade bestowing the fall of our democracy due to everything from our lack of spirituality, to the “liberal” expansion of government. The unverified quote often attributed to Tytler is this: “A democracy will continue to exist up until the voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority will always vote for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.” Up until the Supreme Court gave free-reign to corporations to openly finance political campaigns, I believed we had something that other failed democracies didn’t have, namely the historical research of people like Tytler telling us what we need to watch out for.
Not everyone learns from history, it seems. Modern corporations take voting themselves “generous gifts” several steps further, not only bleeding the treasury dry, but all of the nation’s resources, natural and human, plus seeking the unfettered right to pollute in single-minded search for profits (which they, through no fault of their own, are designed to do). These actions not only put our democracy in jeopardy, but all of humanity in danger. Corporations are not people. They do not have the ability to fairly judge their needs within a community of others.
Here’s a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Robert Parker, writer of the Spencer PI novels, saved detective fiction. Parker was an icon (and hopefully will continue to be) and will be missed.
Whatever happened to the old airports? I expected to spend my layover in the stark terminals and stiff rows of plastic chairs I remembered from the youth. As I wandered about, searching for the gate to my connector flight, I was stunned to find this would not be the case. Instead, I’d be spending the next several hours trapped inside a shopping mall. Now, rather than sleeping sprawled across three uncomfortable chairs, or getting drunk on $8 Budweiser, I could buy gadgets for my computer, foreign language CDs, or even a stylish jacket at Wilson’s Leather. I could even get a massage or manicure while I waited for my new purchase to be gift-wrapped. There is even a store exclusively selling luggage, in case you forgot yours at home and are tired of carrying your clothes and PDAs stuffed into your pockets. The choices are endless.
The really disturbing part is that the people crowding the shops and the immense food-courts are the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen. Many young. Stylish. Glamourous. It’s as if the teeny-boppers of the shopping malls graduated up to milling around airports on their 19th birthday. Of course, all races seemed to be represented, but if you’re not white, chances are you’re standing behind a counter, wearing some kind of uniform, serving these pale, perfect people.
I am riding a bicycle in the dark, on a bridge in a blizzard. The wind howls through the girders of the bridge. I listen as the howl builds like an animal on the scent of its prey until it wraps around me, pushing me into traffic. I have never heard the water under the bridge before but tonight it is thrashing far below me. I twitch the handlebars to regain my balance and the front wheel slides before regaining traction in the deepening snow and ice. Piles of plowed snow line the concrete railing, pushing deeper into the roadway as I ascend toward the bridge’s apex. The wind shifts and I feel it at my back. Unlike a gentle push, helping me along my way, the wind accelerates me careening through the drifts. My tire skitters over clumps of ice causing another slide. I don’t know what will happen if I pull the brakes. Maybe the tires will hold, slowing me down. Maybe I will experience a quick and catastrophic crash. I decide not to pull the brakes, instead opting to hang on and hope for the best.
I am out in this nasty weather to participate in the inaugural “Parking Ban Ride.” At nine PM tonight I meet up with ten other cyclists (obviously suffering from some kind of arrested development) at Portland’s Monument Square. Portland, with its copious amounts of snow, issues “parking bans” to facilitate snow removal, making it illegal to park on the streets after snow storms. Our reasoning is: with parked cars banned, the streets are ours! We decide to take full advantage, setting off at a reasonable pace from Monument Square toward the beach on the Eastern Promenade in deep snow and winds up to forty miles per hour.
I first met up with this group working at my job at the bike shop. One of the other mechanics, a hard-core bike commuter like myself, suggested I attend one of his “Bikes, Beers and Burgers” rides. Though I’d spent years riding bikes, my cycling had mostly been solo. Besides wanting to get out of my anti-social shell for a while, I had another reason for wanting to tag along with this rag-tag group of cyclists who consider bikes more than mere toys: this was the perfect place to observe exactly the kind of behaviour the characters in my current novel involving bicycle messengers exhibit every day. The vibrant urban bicycle culture. That first ride became the first scene of my book (with some liberties taken.)
That was late summer. This is mid-winter, in a blinding snowstorm, and I’m far from my laptop. Listening to the whoops and laughter of the guys (and one intrepid gal who had never ridden on snow before), weaving through the snow trying to keep their balance, reminds me that this goes way beyond novel research. We rocket down a treacherous, snow-packed hill, get yelled at by a guy in a diesel pick-up and get chased by a dog released by some night-time sledders. Not once do I think about the written word. At each stop a can of beer is opened and passed around, so cold that ice forms inside the can. No one drops out. No one flees the streets for safety or warmth. And at one point or another, we each congratulate the others for coming out in such unpleasant weather. Tonight I am learning something about writing I couldn’t get from a workshop or a book. You never know where a story will take you.
At our final destination, a hole-in-the-wall pub in the West End, we wrap our frozen fingers around steaming hot drinks and toast. We toast to our superheroic efforts riding in conditions that would make most drivers hunker down in front of their fireplaces. We toast to forging friendships. We toast adventure.
Writing stories isn’t always about sitting in a room, striking keys in solitude. Recently, I jumped at the chance to meet with Deputy Chief of the Portland Police Department, Joseph Loughlin to talk about police procedure for my current novel project. (This is one of the benefits of going to conferences, by the way. I would never have gotten time with a man as busy as Chief Loughlin had I not met Kate Flora at the New England Crime Writers’ Conference, who co-wrote the book Finding Amy with him.) I expected little more than a short question and answer session between meetings. What I got was one of the most interesting and informative research sessions I’ve ever had. Chief Loughlin is friendly and charismatic with a vast amount of experience to share. Not only did he answer all of my questions, he helped me think of ways around some of the roadblocks police procedure posed for my characters. He also gave me a comprehensive tour of the police station including the new regional crime lab just being completed.
I learned from the meeting that parts of the story I put a lot of time and effort into will have to be tossed out and redone. I also know that once that’s finished, the story will ring truer, and the reader will find far more texture to dive into.
The meeting was much more than just jotting down a few details for the story. The real experience was meeting a great guy who is passionate about what he does and who was willing to open a door to a world that is very different from the world I wake up and inhabit every day. Sitting down at a lonely desk to write each day can seem dull or frustrating at times, but moments like these remind me why being a writer may be the best job in the world.
The first blog post always seems the hardest. You have all this blank space to fill and you don’t know where to begin. I’m certain that this blog will change over time, as I move through projects and my constantly shifting focus drifts from point to point like a dog wandering through a park.
My first goal will be to inform interested people of the things going on in my life, mostly regarding my writing projects and happenings. My second goal will be to pass along any unique information I happen to come across. Third will be to provide a glimpse into the imperfect machinery of my brain as I struggle through writing projects, and the techniques I employ to keep me from throwing my word processor into a busy street. Like any piece of writing, things will creep out of the ether while I’m not looking and set themselves down in writing, revealing insight I didn’t even know I was capable of.
At least I hope so. That’s where the best stuff comes from.