A R C H I V E S   O F
The Reluctant Blogger

© 2008 Henry Kisor



S E P T E M B E R,   2 0 0 7


[NOTE: Some of the links to newspaper stories may be broken, thanks to the sources archiving their articles under new links.Also, all comments from readers unfortunately have been lost.]

Sept. 29: Evil runs deep in black waters

Did you notice that the private security company supplying trigger-happy, out-of-control mercenaries for American diplomats and other nervous Western civilian interests in Iraq — the one implicated in the killing of 20 Iraqi civilians last week — has the perfect name?

“Blackwater USA” drips with malevolent menace and melodramatic villainy, like “Uriah Heep,” “Wackford Squeers,” “Flem Snopes,” “Darth Vader” and “Lord Voldemort.” (”Draco Malfoy” is pretty good, too.)

Not for nothing do they say truth is stranger than fiction. Pretty soon, I’m sure, we’ll have a Blackwater Thug action-figure doll on the shelf with GI Joe.

Sept. 28: Sweating the advance notices

Some authors might tell you they don’t read reviews of their books, that the critics’ opinions don’t matter a whit.

Bullshit.

Writing a book and sending it out into the world for approbation is a huge act of ego. Of course we care what other people think about our work. And if we’re not very good at listening to even gentle and constructive criticism (the kind our agents and editors give us), how do you think we’re going to take daggers of contempt from those who like to rip out in an instant the hearts and souls of books that may have taken years to write? (Background sounds of swoons and collapses.)

Anyway, the long watch has begun. Cache of Corpses appears Nov. 27. You won’t see any reviews until about then, and well into December. But right now I’m sweating the advance notices from the top three publishing industry publications — Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Booklist — that will be appearing in the next month. Librarians and booksellers read those things, and they often base their purchasing decisions on what they say about individual books.

I hear the Oct. 1 issue of Kirkus reviews Cache, and I’m not expecting much. Kirkus, whose reviewers can be eccentric and capricious, has never been overly kind to my books.

Maybe I’d better go to the hospital and ask them to store a few quarts of my blood. I may need a transfusion or two in the next few weeks.

Sept. 26: Autumn colors from space

Ever wondered what the autumn colors look like from space? NASA’s MODIS (for Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro- radiometer) site downlinked this photo of the Great Lakes September 23 from the Terra satellite. The big (5,200 by 4,000 pixels) version is here.

Sept. 25: What's in a title?

Can you spot the difference in the two book jackets? If so, take your A and go to the head of the class. (The colors are slightly different, but that’s a graphics software function I haven’t quite mastered.)

Earlier this year Forge, my publisher, decided to lop the indefinite article off the title. Exactly how that happened, I don’t know, but I think maybe at the title conference the sales force (which has strong input into book titles at all publishers) thought a three-worder was sharper than four. I put up no argument. It’s a more accurate title, too — several corpses, not just one, get cached in that upcoming novel.

Which reminds me that there’s a little story behind the title of every one of my books.

If memory serves, my first, published in 1990, was originally titled A Memoir of Deafness. Wow. Doesn’t that just turn you on? Fortunately, a bright young editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in a brilliant masterstroke pulled out an anecdote about mis-lipreading and made it the preface to the book:

Upon hearing me issue an earth-shattering fart from my sickbed, my then five-year-old son cried, “What’s that big loud noise?” Thinking he had said “What’s that pig outdoors?” I got up and looked out the window for a stray hog on the sidewalk. (Go ahead, try both sentences in the mirror. They look alike.)

And, of course, the title became What’s That Pig Outdoors? and the subtitle A Memoir of Deafness. Perfect. What bookstore browser wouldn’t be intrigued enough to pick up the book just from the odd title and peruse the first few pages?

Sept. 24: Home's where the heart is, eh?

We’ve been back home in Evanston for almost two days now, but my heart and mind got left behind up north in Ontonagon County. God, I miss the place. I miss hanging with Steve Martinez, the fictional county deputy with whom I have shared some sweet moments during the last few years. This one happened in A Venture into Murder:

On the southern shore of Lake Superior in upper Michigan, the shank of an August evening is the best time of year to sit out on the beach in a folding lawn chair, feet up on a big old log, and contemplate one’s world. Often the lowering sun reddens the sky through a scrim of high cirrus into subtle shades of vermilion. The onshore wind that kicked up a chirp of wavelets on the beach all day usually has settled into a slight breeze, just enough to shoo the mosquitoes inside the tree line. The sigh of grass on the sand is interrupted now and then by squawks of geese and calls from loons. From time to time an eagle that often perches on a snag just down the beach will soar low over the water, hoping to snatch a minnow feeding close to the surface in the shallows. If I’m lucky a doe and her fawn, or perhaps a small black bear, might emerge from the woods by Quarterline Creek a hundred yards or so up the beach to the west and take a sip from the lake.

I could investigate many more interesting cases and make a lot more money as a detective in Duluth or Wausau or any of the small cities half a day’s drive from Porcupine County, but the boondocks routine and subsistence salary of a country deputy does me just fine for now. I don’t miss the crash and yammer, the snarl and snipe of daily combat on urban battlegrounds. Been there, done that, thank you . . .

Got to put on my winter city face now. Maybe tomorrow.

Sept. 21: The last sunset . . .

Pentax K10D, Sigma 17-70 at 22mm, 1/350 f11, ISO 400

. . . of summer, that is. Sunsets having been in short supply up here on stormy and overcast Lake Superior the last few days, I fished in the photo basket for the last good one, taken Sept. 15. Barely visible under the cloud deck just off a promontory a mile and a half away, it’s probably the last sun to sink directly into the lake this year, at least from the Writer’s Lair on the beach six miles west of Ontonagon, Michigan. Compare it with the one taken Sept. 7 in the entry for Sept. 12 below.

And now to take the wireless modem to the phone company, then pack up the computer and paraphernalia as well as button up the place for the winter. See you next week; I’ll be writing from our southern home in the Chicago ‘burb of Evanston, Ill.

Sept. 20: By any name . . . 

Pentax K10D, Sigma 17-70 at 17mm, 1/350 f8, ISO 100

Yesterday the Lady Friend and I drove into the Porcupine Mountains (the Wolverine Mountains of the Steve Martinez novels) for one last look at the Lake of the Clouds, perhaps the most-photographed tourist attraction of the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The fall colors are well started, especially among the hemlocks and maples, but won’t see their height until about October 5 or so.

The name “Lake of the Clouds” makes me chuckle. The lake was originally named “Carp Lake” by the settlers of these parts in the 1840s. In this usage “carp” is short for “scarp,” or “escarpment,” the rocky basalt-and-conglomerate ridge you see to the left, and has nothing to do with the ugly bottom-feeding fish. When the area became the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in 1945, some marketer thought “Carp Lake” wouldn’t fly with city-slicker tourists and insisted the name be changed.

But the Big Carp River far below still feeds the lake at the east and drains it at the west, and the Writer’s Lair sits about 15 miles east on the edge of Carp Lake Township. So much for names.

The bigger, bandwidth-hungry version of the photo is here.

By the way, this may be the last blog entry until the middle of next week. Tomorrow we have to return the wireless modem (yes, Virginia, they got high-speed Internet in these remote parts) to the phone company.

Sept. 19: Bye-bye blues

I haven’t been posting entries the last few days because I’ve been feeling a bit blue at the prospect of having to leave for Chicago this weekend, not to return until next May 1. The Lady Friend and I have been slowly closing up the place, muscling the kayaks and the canoe into the barn, removing the screens and the like, and cleaning out the freezer and fridge by eating what remains. (This is an insult to the stomach of a backwoods gourmet.)

The closing-up job has taken longer than usual because over the winter the builder is going to insulate the ceilings of the entire cabin, so we have removed as much stuff as we can and stuffed the stuff into the barn.

And it has been raining for two days now. It’s not a heavy soaker that might end the drought up here, but an intermittent drizzle that just dampens the sand as well as our spirits.

On the other hand, this fall there will be two long train trips to take (one of them for a freelance writing gig), a new novel to promote and three grandchildren to spoil. Things could be worse, a lot worse.

And the forecast is for partial clearing this afternoon. With luck I’ll get up one more sunset photo before we depart.

Sept. 15: Brrrr

Thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit this morning on the shore of Lake Superior, the coldest night so far this season. My lady friend and I huddled under a thick quilt, and Hogan the Wonder Dog snored all night in his bed by an electric heater.

The forecast high for the day, however, is 61 degrees. That’s a typical daily temperature swing for this time of year in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (Tonight, low of 44; tomorrow, high of 66.)

It’s nearing time to close up the Writer’s Lair and return to the city, but we’re in no hurry. So long as plenty of fuel remains on the woodpile to heat the great room, and so long as we have good books to warm our souls, we’re content.

It seems that the summer flashed by much too rapidly. As we settle ever more deeply into our retirements, the days seem to accelerate into a blur. So much to do, so little time left. We’d better shake a leg and get on with our agenda: traveling, writing, reading, spoiling the grandchildren.

Sept. 14: Beautiful, blustery evening

Pentax K10D, Sigma 17-77mm at 17mm, 1/250 f8, ISO 100

A cold front blew through the southern shore of Lake Superior late Friday afternoon, bringing with it gusty 30-knot winds and temperatures in the 40s — and air so clear that everything in the firmament stood out in bold relief. This is really October weather, a touch of winter. For the big (10.2 megapixel) version, click here.

Sept. 13: Slosh!

The two photos of a wooden crib protecting the Writer’s Lair were taken ten minutes apart this afternoon during another Lake Superior seiche, in which the water sloshes back and forth across the lake as if in a gigantic bathtub.

This one, about a foot in depth, wasn’t particularly significant, but if you compare the photos with those displayed on this blog last Dec. 12, you’ll notice a significant drop in the level of the lake since.

The hose in the bottom photo, by the way, leads from the cabin’s old water system to a well point driven into the rocky sand. We had it replaced this summer with potable water from a main running along the nearby highway.

Sept. 12: Sunset No. 14

Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-DA 18-55mm at 55mm, 1/90 f11, ISO 400

Last Friday the waves of Lake Superior began to kick up as chill air and low cloud heralded oncoming autumn, but there was enough of a clearing by sundown to yield one of the year’s prettier sunsets. Click here for the larger (and more spectacular) version.

Sept. 11: Gray norther on Goose Beach

Pentax K10D, Sigma 17-70mm at 70mm, 1/125 f6.7, ISO 100

Just twenty minutes ago I snapped this photo of frustrated Canada geese unable to take off or even wade into the waves on the neighbor’s beach west of us. Today we’re having a September storm with driven rain and 40-knot gusts, and the forecast for tonight is a low of 39 degrees.

We’ve had a warm fire burning all day in the great room fireplace of the Writer’s Lair, however, and a neighbor from a few miles east just called to say she’s bringing a platter of fresh hot buttered scones, and would we like to put on the teakettle? Would we ever.

A larger version of the photo is here.

Sept. 10: Full deflection shot

Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-DA 50-20mm at 200mm, 1/1000 f11, ISO 400

Female mergansers approaching Mach 1, afterburners alight

Around here mergansers commonly paddle past our cabin, posing prettily for family photos, but catching them on the wing isn’t easy. These jet-propelled ducks are so fast it’s difficult, especially for a geezer with slow reflexes, to get the viewfinder up to the eye and the zoom lens tracking before they’re out of sight over the horizon. I’ve spent hours on the beach hoping to capture a few in flight close enough so you can see the feathers.

Only the other day, while I was preparing to snap a few lumbering geese in the air, did I spot a brace of incoming ‘gansers in time for a quick grabshot. Lucky me.

Even at a shutter speed of 1/1000 second, the camera couldn’t quite stop the rapid wingbeats of the species.

There’s more detail in the 10.2-megapixel version here.

Sept. 9: Zephyr revisited

Sometimes I forget that this blog originally was intended only to promote my books. Of course, as blogs will, it got out of hand and skipped down avenues I never envisioned. Who knew I’d become such a Lake Superior sunset freak? Or an aficionado of Finnish cuisine? But I’ve had so much pleasure writing it, and exchanging pleasantries with its readers, that the original purpose has almost been forgotten.

So today I’ll return to the well and shamelessly flog the books, namely Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America, my 1993 celebration of one of America’s most storied long-distance trains. It’s been out of print for a few years now, but lots of copies are available in used bookstores, both brick-and-mortar and online.

A bit of history: Back in 2000, the “Tracks Ahead” series on the Milwaukee public TV station WTMJ, devoted to trains of all kinds, did a short segment for one of its shows on Zephyr. For it Debby and I traveled back on Amtrak No. 5 to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, with a camera crew, and had a great old time. On the train, we always do.

Now the 6 1/2-minute segment can be viewed here.

Highball!

Sept. 9: Sunset No. 13

Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-DA 50-200mm at 200mm, 1/250 f11, ISO 400

On Sept. 5, my lady friend went a-kayaking into a hazy Lake Superior sunset. Fall’s coming, and there won’t be many more of those gentle ends of the day up here.

Sept. 7: Viilia

The Green Hermit, a regular visitor to this blog, seems intent on converting me to Finnishness, a combination of revival-tent whoopee and boardinghouse festival up here in the Lake Superior country. I doubt that Hermit will be content until I have changed my name to “Henrikki Kisorinen” and sold my Cessna to buy a Brewster Buffalo (Google that and “Winter War” together, and you’ll see what I mean).

He and Mrs. Hermit (neither of them in the least reclusive) stopped by the Writer’s Lair the other day with a container of viilia, a delicacy so Finnish that few non-Finlanders know about it — most of us outlanders are familiar only with nisu and korppu and similar sweet treats already celebrated in this blog.

Tongue-in-cheekily Mr. and Mrs. H. had slapped a hazmat sticker onto the container, but they also delivered a typed two-page sheet of careful instructions. The sticker might merely have been to warn me that viilia can be an acquired taste, but if so, it’s easily acquired.

All right then. Viilia – pronounced vee-lee-a (a as in apple) is a clabbered milk product closely related to yogurt. There, said Mr. and Mrs. H., are two kinds of viilia.

“One is thick and very, very stretchy . . . kind of reminds me of melted mozzarella cheese. You try to get it on the spoon and it literally rolls right off. This is the fun kind that jokes are told about. ‘It rolls right off the spoon, onto the table, down the hall, right out the front door . . .’

“The other kind has a ’shorter’ stretch to it, and is easier to eat, but has the same flavor and texture otherwise.”

This “other kind” was what Mr. and Mrs. H. brought.

To make it, you put a couple of tablespoons of viilia starter (actually, the viilia itself) into a cup of milk and let it ferment overnight on the kitchen counter. Then you pop it into the fridge and it keeps a week or so.

The first batch I made was too watery — my lady friend complained I used way too much milk — but the second (she took the spoon away from me and made it herself) turned out quite well. Done right, it’s smooth and creamy, with a mild flavor.

Eaten white and naked, viilia tastes something like plain unsweetened yogurt, but with a much more delicate flavor. I am not a plain yogurt lover — the sourness repels me — but after the first taste of viilia I thought, “I could get used to this.” My lady friend liked it right away.

I tried mixing the viilia with a little vanilla powder, cinnamon powder and brown sugar, and the result was first-rate. It reminded me of fruit-flavored nonfat yogurt, but the taste was far subtler.

Mrs. Hermit suggested using maple syrup, Jell-O powder, fresh fruit, nuts, jam, jelly and even granola to vary the taste.

“My kids grew up on this stuff,” says Superiorgirl, another visitor to this blog. “My mom always has a pitcher of it in the fridge. She stirs it and they drink it like buttermilk.

“When I was in about the 7th grade,” she added, “one of my teachers decided that the class should all wear purple to school on St. Urho’s Day (a made-up holiday to pre-empt St. Patrick’s Day) and bring Finnish food for lunch. No doubt he was dreaming of prune tarts and nisu and other goodies. Instead he ended up with 15 containers of viilia. So much for lunch.”

It’s not easy, it seems, to find viilia starter at the neighborhood grocery, but there are several sources on the Internet, like this one. This seems to be the stretchy kind.)

Viilia, Mrs. Hermit declared, is “very healthy for the digestive tract since it has active cultures.” I’ll not comment on that, but I will say that if you call me “Heikki” (Finnish for “Hank”), I’ll respond regularly.

Sept. 6: 'Not your grandfather's e-book'

This photo of the Kindle leaked out last April when Amazon.com filed descriptions of its new wireless device with the FCC.

In October, according to the New York Times, Amazon.com will begin marketing Kindle, an e-book reader with some big differences from its competitors: First, You download electronic versions of printed books to it wirelessly from Amazon.com’s website, not from a computer. Second, it has a full keyboard so that you can take notes. Third, you can surf the Web with it.

It’s not cheap at 400 to $500 (the chief competition, Sony’s e-book reader, costs $300).

What’s more, the Times article says, Google will now start charging people to download the full text of electronic books in its database (it now lets us read short snippets free). Publishers will share the loot and in fact are ramping up plans to digitize their wares.

Does all this at last sound the death knell for the printed book?

It’s enticing to see how far the e-book has come, but I don’t think so. As long as electronic competitors are expensive, breakable and need batteries, Mr. Gutenberg’s invention will hold its own.

Have you visited a used e-book reader store yet? Have you even seen one?

Sept. 5: Packing out the poop

By Heidi Schuman for The New York Times. Copyright New York Times Company

This photo of a Mount Whitney hiker carrying a full “Wagbag” accompanies a fascinating story in today’s New York Times about dealing with human waste in the high country. (Heidi Schuman for The New York Times)

Q. Do bears shit in the woods?

A. Yes, because they’re allowed to.

For the last few years, vacationers in Upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin have encountered stern warning signs at roadside rest stops warning them not to dump their garbage there, but to take it home with them. In fact, the ubiquitous trash barrels of yesteryear disappeared long ago. It has become just too expensive for financially pinched governmental bodies to serve as waste haulers.

More than once Debby and I have carried triple-bagged wet garbage home to Illinois with us, windows wide open against the stink, to jettison in the cans behind our garage in Evanston. The landfill dump in Ontonagon County (whose minimum charge is $12.50 a visit) is just too far out of our way on the drive home. (And the local waste hauler in Ontonagon, citing increased costs, has cut residential pickups to every two weeks instead of weekly.)

This is a simple sign of the times. But it is a mere annoyance compared to the duty hikers in certain national parks and forests must literally shoulder: according to an illuminating story in today’s New York Times, they now must pack out their own human waste in plastic bags (called “Wagbags”) designed for the purpose. In fact, the outhouses that once served as shelters from the elements as well as comfort stations have been torn down.

Again, that’s understandable: helicoptering down 250-pound barrels of waste from the privy on the rocky, treeless terrain of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney is not an economical use of limited resources.

The hikers don’t complain, the story says. We automobile tourists shouldn’t, either. Now take a deep breath and get back inside your car.

Sept. 4: How about that record already?

I hate to keep harping on this subject, but –

The Army Corps of Engineers evidently is rechecking its arithmetic before declaring a new record in the 600.4 feet above sea level that was the running mean height of Lake Superior during August. That broke the month’s 600.5 feet low-water mark of 1926. (Even though its August listings now include the 31st, as of 7:48 p.m. EDT today the Corps was still calling the 1926 figure the record.)

The levels for the first three days of September suggest a new record is in store for that month, too. August’s mean of 600.4 feet still holds — and the low-water record for September is 600.8 feet, also set in 1926.

Five gets you ten that the all-time low-water average mark of 599.5 feet, set in March and April 1926 (what a thirsty year that was!), is also a goner.

[Added Sept. 5: Yesterday an all-day goose-drownder deluged parts of western Upper Michigan — 4.40 inches of rain at Marquette — and possibly, just possibly, the drought that has contributed to the drop in Lake Superior levels has at last hit bottom, so to speak.]

Sept. 3: Small town, big party

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars color guard led off yesterday’s Ontonagon Labor Festival parade. The thoughtless fellow (visible behind the flag-bearer) must have been the only one with his cap still on among the thousands lining the sidewalks of this patriotic town’s main street.

“This is the smallest town we’ve ever played, but this is the largest audience we’ve ever had,” I said last Friday night at the beginning of our Powerpoint-and-reading presentation in Ontonagon, Michigan (pop. 1,743), on the shore of Lake Superior. “I think that speaks well for all of us.”

Some 50 to 60 people showed up to hear me talk about my mystery novels (set in a mythical Upper Peninsula locale based on Ontonagon County) and to hear Debby read passages from them. We had stiff competition — a free hot dog supper and noisy lawnmower racing on the other side of town across the river. The audience bought books, too (the proceeds were donated to the host Ontonagon Township Library and the Ontonagon Theater of the Performing Arts, where the event was held). And we had coffee and cookies afterward.

For me this of course was the high point of what might be the world’s biggest (or maybe happiest) block party, the annual Ontonagon Labor Festival. This town rocked with four days of low-cost, high-energy hoopla that began Thursday night with a Christian rally, then continued Friday evening with the lawnmower rallye, the free hot dogs, the high school football game and our dog-and-pony show.

Saturday morning all of the quarter-mile-long main drag was closed off for a Maxwell Street flea market, dances, a karaoke tourney for all ages and a rocks-scissors-paper contest as well. Sunday brought a parade with high school bands, a couple of drum and bugle corps, Boy Scouts, the ubiquitous Shriners shrimp cars, fire engines, Jesus people, peace people, the congressman for the entire Upper Peninsula and the local state representative, and floats funded by entities from the phone company to local taverns. (Today is the day of the kiddie parade. We’re going, of course.)

Yesterday was as if the big Fourth of July parade in Evanston, the Illinois city where I live most of the year, had been transplanted to this tiny town in the semi-wilderness. Thousands of people, most of them from neighboring counties, thronged the street to standing-room-only capacity.

But there were a couple of differences. First, the parade in Evanston, a liberal city, often rocks with raucous boos and catcalls for the elaborate Republican Party and Right to Life floats and wild cheers for Democratic pols and pro-choice displays. Conversely, the Ontonagon paradegoers seem polite almost to a fault, treating potentially divisive displays with respectful silence and reserving their applause for the bands, the veterans groups — and the youngsters.

Second, this Labor Day celebration helps draw together those who survive in a frontier county whose population falls by ten per cent in every decennial census, those who must scratch a living any way they can, sometimes from the wilderness. They have a big Christmas parade, too, but also without the ostentatious and expensive displays the rich Evanston parade marchers like to flaunt. Ontonagon’s celebrations are put on with a few business donations and a lot of pass-the-hat financing.

I’ve never seen any other place in the United States where people have so much fun for so little money. That’s just one reason I set the Steve Martinez mystery novels there.

This Scottish drum-and-bagpipe band from L’Anse, Michigan, was one of the many crowd-pleasers in the parade.

Sept. 2: Still waiting for the record

The Army Corps of Engineers evidently has taken the Labor Day weekend off. Here it is Sept. 2 at 7:38 a.m. EDT, and it still hasn’t posted the Lake Superior water level mean reading for August 31. If that one should be another 600.4 feet (or less) above sea level, then we will have a new all-time record for mean low water in the lake for August, breaking the mark of 600.5 feet set in 1926.

Sept. 1: The 18 best Jewish ballplayers of all time

That’s the title of a Salon.com piece by Jonah Keri, an ESPN.com sportswriter, that I found the day’s most charming item on the Internet. And I’m not Jewish — in fact, I’m not anything except maybe a secular humanist when I’m feeling particularly skeptical, which is not every day. (What could create a Lake Superior sunset except God?)

There’s no surprise that Nos. 1 and 2 are, respectively, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, both of whom famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. But I had no idea that Rod Carew (No. 3) was Jewish by association (Keri is nothing if not inclusive).

And Lou Boudreau (No. 4)? “His mother was on the team,” Keri writes.

I had never heard of Ryan Braun (No. 15), the Braves’ third baseman, or Ian Kinsler (No. 18), the Rangers’ second baseman (”You ever try getting a decent potato knish in Arlington, Texas?”). That just means I have been too much of a fair-weather Cubs fan and don’t pay enough attention to the sports pages.

Mazel tov, Mr. Keri.