Monday, August 02, 2010

Blood, Guts, and Tattoos: My recent ordeal

“I'll never get a tattoo,” I've vowed to myself more than once. While I have many friends I like and respect who sport body art, I've never had any desire to have someone inject ink into my body. The vast majority of tattoos I've seen are no improvement on the original, natural skin. But I'm no crusader against the tattoo industry or against those who have tattoos. I just don't plan on getting any myself.

But recently I found that I had three “tattoos” of India ink, though they were in a place almost no one could see. And while I never consented to them, I was glad I had them. I'm not certain whether any trace of them remains. They served their purpose.

Over the past dozen years, I've had problems with gastrointestinal bleeding. In the spring of 1999 I spent close to a week in Elkhart General Hospital due to G.I. bleeding. The doctor told my wife I didn't have stomach cancer, colon cancer, ulcers, and probably a few other things. But he couldn't locate the bleed except to say that it was in that vast, 18-foot-long small intestine. The bleeding stopped on its own, and the doctor said it was probably a “vascular malformation,” in which a weakness in a small vein manifests itself in bleeding. I was told not to use aspirin or ibuprofen. For me, the Columbine massacre will always be linked to my time in the hospital.

The next year, at around the same time, I had another bleed, and another hospitalization. This time, a colonoscopy detected the problem—a lesion in the large intestine. The lesion was cauterized, and I had no G.I. bleeding for a decade.

But on Thursday, July 8, it came back, first in the form of dark stools, and by Saturday the 12, I it was clear that I needed to check myself into the hospital. I drove back from my job at the South Bend Amtrak station, left a note for my wife, and drove myself to Elkhart General Hospital.

I was there for just over a week, while the doctors and technicians tried to locate the source of the bleeding. I had an upper-G.I. endoscopy, which ruled out the esophagus and stomach. I had a colonoscopy, which eliminated the large intestine. Once again, I was bleeding from the small bowel. After a capsule endoscopy, in which I swallowed a capsule that took pictures of my intestines, gave inconclusive results, it was clear that Elkhart General had done all it could do. On Sunday night, July 18, I rode in an ambulance to the University of Chicago Medical Center, one of the nation's best hospitals for gastroenterology.

Things went slowly at the big hospital. While I did the preparation for the double-balloon enteroscopy on Monday (drinking a dreadful laxative concoction called GoLytely, which supposedly doesn't drain the electrolytes from the system, though it wipes out nearly everything else), I didn't have the procedure until Thursday. But once I finally had it, the physicians found the problem. The team spent about three hours checking my small bowel first by way of the anus, and then by way of the mouth. And in that second scan, they found “submucosal lesions,” which were responsible for the bleeding. And to mark the lesions, as well as the part of my small bowel which was not surveyed, I received three “tattoos” of India ink.

The next day, Friday, July 23, I had laproscopic surgery. I awoke to find five small scars on my belly. Later I learned that the surgeon had removed about 3 feet of my small intestine. “You'll never miss it,” he said.

I sill have to do follow-ups, and there's some possibility I'll have to do a round of chemotherapy if the labs find anything potentially cancerous. But right now, I'm glad to be home. And since I haven't heard anything from Chicago, I'm hoping no news is good news. And I'm happy to be in the land of the living, albeit with 20 percent less guts and perhaps some vestige of India ink tattoos.

Photo: University of Chicago Medical Center (Wikimedia).

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Grammar Girl, August Dvorak, QWERTY, and the Art of Tai Ping

Grammar Girl says I should put only one space between sentences. It’s a hard habit to break. Back in the 1967-68 school year at Cedar Falls High, the typing instructor stressed that the break between sentences required two spaces. It was the one thing I really learned from that class, which I passed with a D. My biggest problem with typing, then and now, is that I can’t type without looking at the keyboard. Believe me, I tried. And I felt lucky to escape with a D.

According to Grammar Girl (a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty), typewriters were designed so that each character had an equal amount of horizontal space. To make a clear separation between sentences, a second space was necessary. But present-day word processing programs have done away with letter equality. They’re also designed to regulate the space between sentences, so the two-space rule can foul things up for the publisher.

She’s probably right. Still, I hate to give up the sum of my knowledge from that long-ago class. My girlfriend in my next and final year of high school, at University High School in Iowa City, was an ace at the subject (along with all of the other subjects), and referred to it as if it were a Chinese martial art: Tai Ping. She would have earned a black belt had the school awarded them. (Like most high school romances, ours did not last; she and I are both married, but not to each other. I'm really glad we're friends, though.)

She now makes good money with her prestidigitation, surely typing on the 21st century equivalent of what the Harvard Lampoon called a "a supercharged, fuel-injected, 345 hp Smith-Corona.” (Bored of the Rings) What’s more, she uses the Dvorak keyboard. Well, actually, she uses a QWERTY keyboard, but programmed as a Dvorak. For somebody who has to look at the keys, it’s well nigh miraculous. (Dvorak Simplified Keyboard below [Wikipedia])

A note of explanation: when typewriters were introduced in the nineteenth century, manufacturers experimented with a lot of different keyboard formats. The biggest problem with manual typewriters was that a fast typist would jam the keys; the QWERTY format reduced the jamming problem and thus became the standard of the industry. But in 1961 when IBM introduced the Selectric, with its rotating type head, there was no longer a jamming problem. And the QWERTY keyboard wasn’t necessary.

Enter August Dvorak, who had, in 1936, redesigned the keyboard with help from his brother-in-law , Dr. William Dealy and ther friend Etaoin Shrdlu. Shrdlu, as I discovered by reading Harvard Lampoon’s 1968 parody of LIFE, is not really somebody’s name, but the twelve most common letters used in the English language. If you look at the QWERTY keyboard, you’ll see that the three most common letters are on the left side. And most are not on the middle, or “home” row of keys. Dvorak's redesigned keyboard makes it possible for professional typists to type much more rapidly. This was true even before the IBM Selectric and computer word processing, but with the decline of the manual typewriter, the last reason for the QWERTY keyboard as a standard has disappeared—at least for touch typists, If you’re Steve Wylder and have to look at the keys, it doesn't much matter. I'll stick with QWERTY.

I'll probably keep typing two spaces between sentences. But the wizards at Sun Microsystems have made it possible for me to do so with no harm to the text. OpenOffice Writer's AutoCorrect function lets me keep typing the double space and still end up with a single space between sentences.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Maybe the "Worst" isn't so bad after all

During the time when I was an active Authonomy member, I read some incredibly bad writing. But a yellowed newspaper clipping reminded me that these Authonomists couldn't hold a candle to Michael “The Fastest Typewriter in the East” Avallone.

The article, a “Weekend Whodunits” column by Henry Kisor, in the April 17, 1987 Chicago Sun-Times, reviewed Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to the “Worst” in in Mystery Fiction (Mysterious Press) by Bill Pronzini, a compendium of bad mystery writing, mainly of the hardboiled variety. Kisor begins with this excerpt from “one of a series of abominable pulp mysteries of the 1950s by Richard F. Prather, that featured a private eye named Shell Scott,” Take a Murder, Darling:

He was dead, all right. He had been shot, poisoned, stabbed and strangled. Either somebody really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I ever heard of.

Two of the funniest examples were from the speeding typewriter of Avallone, who seems to have had trouble with human anatomy:

“His thin mustache was neatly placed between a peaked nose and two eyes like black marbles.” (Don't Die in Bed)

“She...unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt.” (The Horrible Man)

Pronzini even finds examples from more contemporary mystery writers: “The sun [was] shining its ass off.” (Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker, “who of all writers should have known better,” remarks Kisor.)

Pronzini's examples were not exclusively American. “Nobody,” writes Pronzini, “approached the art of name-calling with more verve and scorn” than British writer Berkeley Gray's detective, Norman Conquest. Kisor provides a few examples:

“'Reach, slugs!' he said calmly.”

“'There are a a lot of things you don't know, reptile.'”

“'It's a shame that a chunk of hellspawn like you should be one of the throng.'”

“'Say that again, filth, and my trigger finger will give a very nasty jerk.'”

But it's an American Kisor uses for the final quote in his column. “Nobody,” he writes, could construct a stumbling metaphor better than Joseph Rosenberger... in his Death Merchant spy series:”

Tuskanni stood in the open doorway at the top of the stairs, a .38 Colt automatic in his hand, watching as the burly drivers tried to bring down the two brothers—their efforts making as much sense as the termite who was a conscientious objector and went around trying to eat up draft boards.

The column inspired me to read Pronzini's book. As I recall, though, Kisor managed to get the best examples from the book. But rereading the article gives me pause to reconsider my judgment. All of the examples are in grammatical English, with no comma splices, dangling participles, or other errors. Richard Prather uses “all right,” as opposed to the “alright” which abounds in Authonomy—even among the better writers. (What's scary is that the spell check in Open Office Writer has no problem with “alright.”) Avallone may have had trouble placing the parts of the body, but he knew the parts of speech. Quite a few of my fellow Authonomists don't.

“May their roscoes forever spit 'Ka-Chow! Chow!'” concludes Kisor.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Forgotten Books Friday: "Up 'Til Now," by Eugene McCarthy

Some months ago I found Eugene McCarthy's Up 'til Now: A Memoir (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987) on the library discard shelf. It's a witty and very readable look back at American politics from 1948 until the 1980s by the man who dared to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

Up 'til Now includes a large section about the '68 campaign, but McCarthy's bitterness over it—especially over Robert Kennedy's decision to enter the race—makes it the weakest part of the book. But when he writes about his 1948 campaign for Congress and his years in the Congress, he's at his best. Take, for instance, his comparison of 1968 and his first Congressional race in 1948:

The support I received in the anti-Vietnam campaign of 1968 was described by some observers as motley and unprecedented. It was in fact little different from that which I received in 1948—from students, some old enough to vote, some not, old liberals, and party persons, especially women.

Or his description of the Philadelphia delegation to the 81st (1949-1951) Congress:

It was a noteworthy bunch, consisting of four members: Green, Granaham, Barrett, and Chudoff. They were all of the same height, roughly five feet four inches. The word was that Bill Green, who was the political boss of Philadelphia, would not approve any Democratic candidate for Congress who was taller than he. None of the delegation was. Moreover, the delegation of four sat in the last row of the House Chamber and voted as one man.

When he gets to his 1968 campaign, he seems defensive. He never really explains why he made virtually no effort to win after the California primary, except to write, "After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the chance of carrying the antiwar issue at the Democratic convention was, barring unforeseen developments, lost."

His bitterness about Kennedy colors his entire treatment of 1968. He has a point—Kennedy's organization did run a ruthless primary campaign against McCarthy, in addition to coming into the race only after McCarthy had made his impressive showing in New Hampshire. Still,
McCarthy has nothing to say about the 1968 Democratic Convention or his lukewarm endorsement of Hubert Humphrey after Humphrey broke with Johnson on Vietnam.

He's surprisingly kind to Richard Nixon. "I think it fair to say... quite possibly no one could have done any better in ending the war unless he had ended it sooner, but quite certainly no one could have done any worse."

But he does go on to write that "traces of the old Nixon showed through." McCarthy is bothered
less by Watergate than by Nixon's 1971 "enemies list."

In the final section of his book, "Entropic Politics," McCarthy writes,"The politics of the United States, and especially of the Democratic Party, following Watergate and the end of the Nixon administration might best be labeled 'entropic,' a state attributed to society generally by Professor John Ahearn of Stanford University as having 'no goal' and 'no path of effective action.'"

McCarthy sees the America of the late 1980s as "overtransported and overfueled... overdrugged... overadvertised, over info-tained...overbureaucratized... overincorporated... overdefensed."

In the course of his scathing, but largely accurate assessment of American society, he goes on to say, "President Reagan and his administration have judged the growing power of the corporation to be a good thing." Yet he does not explain his 1980 endorsement of Reagan over Jimmy Carter, who had proposed an extensive program of energy conservation in 1979. While McCarthy's personal dislike of Carter is well-known, McCarthy must have realized that Reagan was working hand in glove with the multinationals.

In spite of all its shortcomings, Up 'Til Now is a refreshing look at American politics. And in a time when the TEA party folks are screaming for term limits and denouncing career politicians, McCarthy's book reminds us why we need professional politicians. In what is really a eulogy for Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, he writes:

Philip Hart was a politician. He recognized politics as an honorable, necessary, and difficult vocation. He practiced it not as "the art of the possible," which is wholly inadequate as a definition, but as a discipline of mind and will, as a profession that should carry the common good beyond what is considered prudent and possible. He knew that politics is not a game to be scored, to be marked by winning and losing, but that it is a continual challenge.

I was too young to tramp through the snows of New Hampshire for Gene. I did what I could, selling McCarthy's Million buttons to my high school classmates, and working to nominate McCarthy at the Cedar Falls High School mock Democratic convention. (See "When I was Clean for Gene.") Even though it reminded me of McCarthy's many contradictions, quirks, and foibles, reading Up 'Til Now gave me a new respect for the man, who died in 2005, and for the thousands of idealistic students who cut their hair, put on suits and dresses, and went off to campaign for the only Democrat willing to challenge LBJ over Vietnam.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Last Train to Des Moines, Forty Years Ago

Note: The following was submitted to the Des Moines Register as a guest editorial. As the Register has apparently decided not to use it, I'm posting it here. Photo Credit: Ron Goodenow. (Train No. 7 near Grinnell, IA, late 1960s or 1970)

On May 31, 1970, I took Trailways from Iowa City to Davenport, walked across the Government Bridge to Rock Island, Illinois, and walked a few more blocks to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad station. I was there to ride the last run on the Rock Island Lines' Train No. 7, which, along with its eastbound counterpart, No. 10, were the only passenger trains serving Des Moines and Iowa City. The Rock Island depot was filled with families taking the children for a first, and presumably last ride on the train. They rode from Rock Island to West Liberty, West Liberty to Iowa City, and so on down the line to Council Bluffs, the train's western terminus. Forty years later, Des Moines, Iowa City, and the entire state of Iowa north of U.S. Highway 34 still have no passenger train service.

From the vantage point of 1970, that wouldn't seem very startling. Louis W. Menk, who was about to become chairman of the newly-merged Burlington Northern Railroad, appeared on NBC's Today Show on February 26, 1970, and said, "in my view we ought to let the intercity passenger train, the long-distance passenger train, die an honorable death, like we did the steamship, or the riverboats and the stagecoach and the pony express." Gasoline was cheap, the airlines were profitable and expanding, and passenger trains were being eliminated all over the nation. Des Moines wasn't even the biggest city in America without rail passenger service. Dallas, Texas had that dubious honor.

But even though things looked bleak for the passenger train, there was change in the air. Congress was working on a bill, popularly known as Railpax, that would create a quasi-public corporation to operate a national network of passenger trains.

In fact, the Rock Island was desperate to eliminate its passenger service across Iowa because the Railpax bill would put a hold on train discontinuances. And because membership fees in the proposed National Railroad Passenger Corporation would be based on the railroad's passenger train losses for 1969, the Rock Island wanted to stay out. (The railroad had claimed a $1.3 million loss on Nos. 7 and 10 for 1969. It had also run a Minneapolis-Des Moines-Kansas City train for the first half of 1969, for which it claimed huge losses.) It was cheaper to run its two remaining intercity services: Chicago-Rock Island and Chicago-Peoria, than join NRPC.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, the agency with jurisdiction over passenger train discontinuances, gave the Rock Island what it wanted, and allowed the line to drop Nos. 7 and 10 before the ICC held hearings on the discontinuance petition. Normally the ICC would order the trains continued during the hearing process. As expected, the Commission reaffirmed its original decision, and the Rock Island remained "freight service only" west of its namesake city. (The Rock Island and Peoria trains survived until the end of 1978.)

Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon signed the National Railroad Passenger Act of 1970 on October 30 of that year, and Railpax emerged as Amtrak on May 1, 1971. In spite of efforts by every administration from Nixon through George W. Bush to curtail or eliminate Amtrak, passenger trains continue to cross the nation. And President Obama, with assistance from his train-riding vice president Joe Biden, has made high-speed rail a priority of his administration.
In 1974, when the energy crisis made the fuel-efficiency of rail attractive, it seemed likely that passenger trains would return to central and northern Iowa. The Iowa Legislature even approved $4 million for passenger train service that year, but in what state Representative Stephen Rapp (D-Waterloo) called a "sell-out," the appropriation was eliminated in conference committee.

Amtrak planned a Chicago-Des Moines train in 2000, when then-CEO George Warrington thought the corporation could make money by hauling freight as well as passengers. The expected freight contracts never materialized and the plan was dropped.

In the forty years since I stepped on board the last No. 7, I've promoted rail passenger service both as a citizen and for the last 26 years, as an Amtrak employee. But though I've lived out-of-state since 1981, I'm still an Iowan at heart. It's refreshing to hear of Governor Chet Culver's interest in reviving intercity rail service in Iowa.

I hope Iowans will continue to work for fast trains in the Hawkeye State. Another forty years is too long to wait for good public transportation in Iowa.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Happy Flora Day!

Every year, around May 8, the people of Helston, Cornwall celebrate Flora Day, culminating in the "Hal an Tow," with the plays of St. George and the Dragon and St. Michael and the Devil. I'm sure the celebration evolved from a pre-Christian Celtic spring festival. Here are the lyrics:

Robin Hood and Little John
Are both gone to the fair-O
And we will to the merry greenwood
To see what they do there-O
And for to chase-O
To chase the buck and doe

Chorus (after each verse):

Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow
For we are up as soon as any day-O
For to fetch the summer home
The summer and the May-O
For summer is a-coming in
And winter is a-gone-O

As for St. George-O
St. George he was the knight-O
Of all the knights in Christendom
St. George he had the right-O
In every land-O
The land where'er we go

But for a greater than St. George
Our Helston has the right-O
St. Michael with his wings outspread
The archangel so bright-O
Who fought the fiend-O
Of all mankind the foe

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Maybe I made a mistake by allowing AdSense

Last week I decided to try to make a few bucks from this blog by allowing Google AdSense. I've had two politically-oriented posts which clearly indicate that I'm a liberal Democrat and opposed to the the worship of markets. Yet I'm getting ads urging people to urge Senator Bayh to vote against environmental legislation and the regulation of banks. I'll keep AdSense on for a while, but if my liberal blog is going to become a platform for right-wing nuts, I'll have to forgo the money.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Kent State and the Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon

The verdict of history is never final. Warren G. Harding, almost universally considered one of worst American president, has been rehabilitated by at least some historians. Conservative columnist Mona Charen, in an October 13, 2009 article in the National Review, quotes two historians who lionize Harding.

Richard Nixon has never lost his defenders. And sometimes they make a strong case for him. The historian Robert Dallek, in his Modern Scholar lecture series, The American Presidency , gives Nixon high marks for his economic program and his ending of the Vietnam War. And Dallek is very much in the progressive school of historians. Yet the memory of the Kent State killings, which happened forty years ago this week, reminds us of the vicious and divisive nature of the Nixon presidency.

George W. Bush's campaign strategy of polarizing the American electorate and demonizing his opponents was nothing new. While Nixon used the slogan "Bring Us Together" in his 1968 campaign, by 1970 he had become the most divisive president in recent history. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, began the assault on intellectuals, the press, and dissidents. In 1969 he made headlines with the line, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." The Nixon machine, while never employing the outright racism of George Wallace, the 1968 American Independent Party candidate for president, took advantage of racial prejudice in what was called the "Southern Strategy."

Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, promised "an honorable end to the war." But once he became president he widened the war while launching a domestic offensive against the antiwar movement. The Johnson Administration took no action against Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and others who demonstrated in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was the Nixon Administration which ordered the Chicago Eight (later Chicago Seven after Seale was tried separately) trials.
In the spring of 1970 Nixon widened the war by approving an invasion of (he called it an "incursion") of Cambodia. As a result, there were antiwar demonstrations on hundreds of American campuses. Nixon's widely-quoted May 1 reaction to the demonstrations was:
You know, you see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world and here they are, burning up the books, I mean, storming around about this issue, I mean, you name it. Get rid of the war, there'll be another one. (American Experience, Nixon).
Three days later National Guardsmen fired on students demonstrating at Kent State University, killing four. "My child was not a bum," said the father of one of the girls killed.
Many Americans blamed the students for the deaths, as they had blamed demonstrators for the violence at the 1968, Democratic Convention, which the Walker Commission deemed a "police riot." The Republican National Committee decided to make campus riots, or "law and order" the main theme of its 1970 campaign.
The culmination of the 1970 Nixon effort was an election-eve broadcast:
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (AP) President Nixon will climax his strenuous role in the 1970 campaign by appearing on major television networks tonight in filmed segments of a speech decrying violent dissent..." -Elkhart Truth, November 2, 1970.
The broadcast turned out to be a disaster. The grainy black-and-white film, with a poorly-recorded soundtrack, showed an angry Nixon who seemed out of control.
The Democrats aired a speech by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine (the 1968 vice presidential candidate). It was in color and professionally recorded. Muskie exuded calmness and rationality in contrast to Nixon's anger. Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the PBS NewsHour put it this way: "In 1970, Muskie's star rose when he responded in a nationwide speech to a divisive Republican campaign that attacked the patriotism of college students and Democrats."
In fact, polls showed Muskie beating Nixon during much of 1971. And so began Nixon's "dirty tricks " campaign, which succeeded in eliminating Muskie as a 1972 presidential candidate.
Nixon may have been progressive in his economic policies. The Environmental Protection Administration and Amtrak began under Nixon's watch. He helped bring about detente with Moscow and opened up relations with China. And after four bloody years, he removed our combat troops from Southeast Asia. But all that pales in comparison to his campaign of division, anger, dirty tricks, and yes, hatred.

Indiana's Third District: A Race for the Extreme Right

It's Primary Election Day in Indiana: the first Tuedsay after the first Monday in May. I'll be taking a Democratic ballot, so I won't have many choices. But I've had fun watching the Republicans trying to one-up each other. The Third District of Indiana, which includes part of my hometown of Elkhart, is represented by Mark Souder, a Christian Right Republican who's best known for his "Drug-Free Student Loan Amendment" to the federal student aid law. While the restrictions have been softened in recent years, the gist of his amendment was that students with drug convictions were ineligible for federal aid. Or, as my daughter Sarah put it, you can be an axe murderer and get student aid, but not if your record is clean save one conviction for marijuana possession. In any other state, Souder would be considered a right-wing extremist.

But apparently not in Indiana. He's got a primary opponent this year, Fort Wayne car dealer Bob Thomas, who virtually calls him a tax-and-spend liberal. Thomas is from the business right. He's against professional politicians and wants to impose term limits. And while Souder has been known to vote for omnibus bills which may contain things he doesn't like, Thomas appears to be a no-compromise conservative.

After enduring Thomas's attacks from the right, Souder began airing a rather clever commercial:

I live in the Second District of Indiana, currently reperesented by Blue Dog Democrat Joe Donnelly. But if I did live over in the Third, I think I'd take Souder over Thomas. At least Souder has a sense of humor.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Strange Saga of the Akkadian Libation Vase

My father -in-law, who worked for the Davenport City Sewer Department before he retired, would sometimes bring back some strange items from the world below. And surely the strangest was this heavy stone vase. Kathleen took possession of it, as she recognized it as something ancient, or at least a reproduction of something ancient. When she first showed it to me, she said it was probably a museum-quality reproduction of something very old from the Near East.

After watching too many episodes of The Antiques Road Show, she began to think she may have a real ancient relic. She had identified it as a libation vase, and thought it might be Akkadian. But why would something that ancient end up in the sewers of Davenport, Iowa? Actually there was a plausible reason: Davenport was once home to a museum called A Little Bit O' Heaven, which housed an eclectic collection of art and kitsch assembled by B.J. Palmer of the Palmer Chiropractic School (now the Palmer College of Chiropractic). One visitor to the museum recalled that he saw a magnificent Buddha next to a plaster frog. Sadly, A Little Bit O' Heaven closed in 1973. (Kathleen and I blew our chance to see it--it cost $3.00 per person in 1973, the equivalent of $14.38 in 2008, according to The Inflation Calculator.) In any case, the vase might be something Palmer would want, especially as a triumph over medical doctors, who would envy his possession of something with a caduceus design. And someone who stole it and had no knowledge of its value might indeed throw it down a sewer grate.

After doing some online research, I discovered that Kathleen was right all along: it had to be a museum-quality reproduction--the original is in the Louvre.

it's the libation vase of King Gudea of Lagash, (ruled circa 2144-2124 B.C.). Under Gudea, Lagash was a semi-independent city-state in the Akkadian empire. The vase seems to be the first use of the caduceus, which later became the symbol of the medical profession.It seems likely that our vase is a reproduction, perhaps from the Louvre, of Gudea's vase. Whether it was discarded by its owner, most likely a medical doctor, or stolen and then discarded, we don't know. My father-in-law found it sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. Who knows how long it had been there before.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Authonomy: The Game

In November I uploaded the bulk of my novel, Things Done and Left Undone, onto the HarperCollins Authonomy website. Authonomy's motto is "Beat the Slush." The idea is to supplement the "slush pile" editors, who sift through the thousands of unsolicited manuscripts HarperCollins receives, with what amounts to volunteers. I suspect that's reader reviews were the inspiration for it.
The publisher has apparently found some gems among the slush. And I've read some fine writing. I've also read some writing that needs a team of editors to work overtime to get the writing in shape. One such book, which has a very interesting storyline, has potential. It's a Black Mask-style detective novel set in 1945 New York. But the author is British or Australian and uses terms that would be foreign to an American. I've made some comments on the book, explaining, for instance, that "suspenders" in American means "braces" in British. The term he needed was "garter belts." He uses British/Australian terms such as "whilst" and "walkabout" and puts in a lot of anachronisms, such as a reference to the New York Mets in 1945. I'm afraid this author will get his book to the Editor's Desk before it's ready for the editors. Maybe I'm wrong. In any case, he's extremely good at playing the game.
The object of the game, of course, is to get published, and a big step toward getting published is to reach the Editor's Desk, where a real, professional team of HarperCollins editors will review your book. Every month the top five books are sent to the Editor's Desk. But getting a manuscript to the Editor's Desk has less to do with writing than with horse trading. I haven't been playing the game very well. Each book has a ranking, based on the number of people who have recommended it by placing it on their bookshelves. You can back up to five books at a time. I wasn't sure how it worked, until another writer let me know:
"A good tip--you can back any number of books and if you take one off your shelf to save space it loses no points."
I thanked him for the tip and got a further explanation:
"I'm afraid it's a bit of a game on site here, the more books you look at, the more people are likely to look at your book. The better ranked a person is that backs your book the more points you get."
I replied that I thought the point of looking at books is to provide constructive criticism. His reply:
"HC would love you to read whole books and make weighty comments. But I'd only get through 2 or 3 books per week. And that's not going to compete with someone who's apparently reviewing twenty books a day. I usually judge on one chapter plus the pitch. I honestly think that's enough."
I backed his book, even though it's not the type of book I'd normally read. It was well-written.
So it's back to Authonomy, to rewrite my pitch and start judging books one one chapter plus the pitch.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

I haven't quit--honest!

I haven't been keeping up with my blogging recently. One regular reader even decided I'd quit blogging. It's mainly because I've been spending a lot of my time at the squat blue building pictured above (courtesy of TrainWeb).

While working at the South Bend station has been a blessing to me because I can now live in the same house as my wife, it's a place with no Internet access. So while I've been able to get writing done during the slow times, blogging has been another matter. And because we had no extra-board agent to fill in for vacations and personal days, I've had very few days off during the month of December. I hope to return to the blogosphere soon, now that I've got a few days off. And an extra-board agent is in training right now.

P.S. I'm not the one driving the Taylor-Dunn baggage cart. I think it's Dale Crawford, whose retirement allowed me to get the position.