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

© 2008 Henry Kisor



N O V 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 the reader comments unfortunately have been lost.]

Nov. 30: 'Puppy rescued from watering can'

“A three-month-old puppy had to be rescued after he got his head stuck in a metal watering can.

“Ted, a chocolate Labrador, got himself trapped in the can while playing in a back garden on Wednesday afternoon.Ted in trouble

“Hampshire fire service’s specialist animal rescue team was brought in to release Ted.

“They had to cut away the watering can using bolt cutters, after initial attempts to free Ted using a hacksaw blade failed.

“Anton Phillips, watch manager, said: ‘. . . The watering can fitted like a glove around Ted’s head and great care had to be taken to keep the pet calm.

“‘Thankfully we were able to swiftly release Ted’s head and he bounded away safely from his ordeal with no ill effects.’”

The foregoing story is notable for four things.

1. It led this morning’s list of the most emailed stories on the BBC International News website.

2. That must mean Brits are even nuttier than Yanks about dogs and dog stories.

3. Specialist animal rescue team? Really? Do they train in saving treed cats?

4. British firefighters are either far more articulate than American ones or much better at preparing canned responses to journalists’ hackneyed inquiries. Or maybe Anton Phillips went to Oxford.

SATURDAY, DEC. 1: This is also from the BBC. Would somebody please explain it to me?

Nov. 27: William Langewiesche

The name is pronounced long-uh-vee-shuh. It’s spelled “Langewiesche.” And that’s all most people know, unless they’re pilots, in which case they’ll say “Wolfgang Langewiesche! Stick and Rudder! Of course!”William Langewiesche

Today’s blog entry, however, does not concern that worthy author of the greatest book on how to fly an airplane, but his son William.

You might have heard of William Langewiesche. A few years ago his book American Ground, about the dismantling of the remnants of the Twin Towers, won all kinds of praise and awards — and condemnation from fanatic admirers of New York firefighters. Langewiesche, a writer as unsentimental as he is careful, revealed that the crew of one fire truck had looted a store just before the towers fell. This was just too much for those who needed to make saints of the entire NYFD. But the dust settled and Langewiesche’s book stands as the most scrupulous, most balanced work on 9/11 and its aftermath.

I first read (and interviewed) him when his Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight was published. He had been a professional pilot for two decades, including years as a “freight dog” flying rickety, crapped-out old aircraft, but he had also been publishing magazine articles about his reflections on flight.

Inside the Sky, along with his earlier Cutting for Sign and Sahara Unveiled, established his reputation as a worthy successor to the best practitioner of narrative nonfiction of the 1960s through 1980s: John McPhee, the New Yorker writer and author of books on subjects as diverse as the building of a birch bark canoe and the weather in Alaska.

That interview impressed me, for Langewiesche in his quiet and intense way would pause during his answers and ask if I was understanding everything. (I am deaf and during my working days taped author interviews for later transcription.) He cared deeply about what he was saying and wanted his interlocutor to understand why. This was quite a change from the usual bored author parroting canned answers to routine publicity-tour questions.

At the time Langewiesche was writing for Atlantic Monthly, where his books would first appear in serial form. Now he is a staffer at Vanity Fair, perhaps the most sparkling jewel in its crown.

Last weekend the San Francisco Chronicle ran an excellent interview with him, and if you care about the quality of modern journalism, I recommend it highly.

Nov. 24: Carpal knowledge

Transverse view of the wrist, from Gray’s Anatomy (1918), courtesy of Wikipedia. The median nerve, which causes all the trouble when it’s pinched, is the yellow structure in the center. The carpal tunnel is not labeled but is visible as an oblong structure surrounding the nerve and the finger tendons.

I have just been diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This is hardly worth mentioning except that I’m a mystery writer, the CTS is in my writing hand, and in one week I have to embark on the autographing trail. That’s reason enough for me to whine about it in public, like a self-absorbed octogenarian who talks about nothing but his ailments.

Fortunately the condition is still mild, and anyway I am not the kind of writer who attracts lines of autograph-seekers that curve around the block. If all goes well I should be able to scribble my signature, and if it’s semi-illegible, it’s been that way ever since 1977, when I started using a computer to write.

A few days ago I woke up in the middle of the night with numb and throbbing right thumb, index and middle fingers. Of course I looked up the condition on several Internet sources (this one is as good as any) and was surprised to learn that in the majority of cases, the causes are “idiopathic,” a medical term meaning “who the hell knows?”

I asked my physician if perhaps it was enthusiastic overuse of a push-pull apparatus in the local geezer center’s exercise room, but he just shrugged. In most cases, he said, there’s no firm correlation between CTS and gripping something too hard and too much. It’s possible, of course, but not necessarily probable.

He added that there were four things I could do. First, treat the condition with benign neglect. It might not get any worse before it gets better. Second, I could wear a wrist splint at night to keep me from bending the wrist in my sleep, which aggravates the condition. That I’m doing. Third, if the condition gets worse he could send me to a orthopedic hand specialist, who might first try a cortisone injection into the carpal tunnel. Fourth, if the shot doesn’t work, the specialist might perform a bit of common outpatient surgery.

If I take the third or fourth paths, that means I will have three orthopods — a back guy, a knee guy, and a wrist guy. I guess that’s the geriatric trifecta. Hooray for me.

Nov. 23: Even N.Y. Times writers like the train

Michael Stravato for The New York Times

Michael Stravato captured the Sunset Limited’s cafe/lounge car from an unusual but effective angle in this photo for the New York Times.

Here’s a report on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited from that gentleman and scholar Ralph Blumenthal.

Nov. 22: Human flying squirrels

Private pilots with a strong sense of self-preservation will always say of skydivers, “Who wants to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” We believe skydivers all are a few nuts short of a midden.

But today’s Golden Turkey Leftovers go to the flying squirrel suits one Netherlands company makes.

(Thanks to Thom Riddle, a friend and a very sensible private pilot.)

Nov. 21: Lese majeste

A turkey shows undying gratitude for its presidential pardon in a photo most U.S. newspapers chose not to run, but which appeared all over Europe and flooded the Internet political blogs last night. It’s the best Thanksgiving photo-op cliche in years, and it leads me to hope that next spring Punxsutawney Phil will do the same for one of his top-hatted handlers. Maybe he’ll bite.

[Later: Just learned that this photo was taken in 2001. What the hell. It’s a lovely one and I’ll leave it up.

[I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it before. I guess back in the fall of 2001, other things were on our minds.]

Nov. 20: Good news for Lake Superior . . .

. . . for a change. The water level is up and the drought is over. Let’s hope it lasts. The story is here.

Nov. 19: We told you so. We told you so.

“We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life.”

– Dana Gioia, chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

For years newspaper editors have been harping about the decline in reading among young people. High school teachers, too. Not to mention university professors. And corporate personnel directors.

Back in 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts released a study bemoaning a steep decline in the reading of literary materials — novels, poetry and the like. Critics said that was an arcane aesthetic problem, not a meat-and-potatoes one. But today the NEA has issued a larger new study containing a potful of evidence that shows adolescents and young adults are not reading anything and if they are, they are doing a poor job of it.

The thoroughly disturbing Washington Post article on the study is here.

How we are going to solve this latest battle of the Kulturkampf is beyond my poor geezer’s brain, but perhaps a good place to start would be with the parents. Not with the teachers and not with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Perhaps children are leaving themselves behind, because their parents aren’t minding the store. And when these children become parents themselves, what sort of role models for reading are they going to become for their own offspring?

Nov. 17: Advertisements for Myself

In two weeks I’ll be performing the most dreaded task facing a writer with a new book — going out to bookstores and libraries and pitching the thing, feeling like a snake-oil salesman with no talent for selling. It’s not that I’m shy about standing and delivering in front of an audience of strangers — it’s the distinct possibility that there may be no audience at all.

That’s what happens when you’re a “midlist” author, not a best-selling novelist and buddy of Oprah. You’re lucky to draw half a dozen people and even luckier if three of them buy your book. More than once I’ve shown up to a wildly cheering throng of absolutely no one, shaken the hand of the bookstore clerk, and departed with my tail between my legs.

A writer of my acquaintance had the worst possible experience of this kind. A big chain bookstore in Seattle decided it just had to have him do an autographing, so his publisher at great expense flew him out from Chicago and put him up in a hotel. But the event was not very intelligently scheduled for kickoff time during a Seahawks home game at the nearby stadium, and so the bookstore was empty, except for a scruffy couple the writer described as “aging hippies.”

They were his entire audience.

But the show always goes on. For twenty minutes the writer pitched his book, reading selected passages and inviting questions afterward.

There were none.

“Well, thank you for coming,” the writer said. “I hope you enjoy the book.”

“We ain’t buying it,” one of the couple said.

This writer does not let go of a potential reader easily. “If I buy the book for you,” he said, “and autograph it, will you take it home and read it?”

“No.”

Now that is humiliation.

All of this is by way of encouraging you, if you reside in the Chicago area, to come see one of my three public appearances for Cache of Corpses. I’ll be showing a Keynote (the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint) presentation with photographs of Lake Superior and the Upper Peninsula, and my Lady Friend will be reading from the book:

Saturday, December 1, 2 p.m., Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison, Forest Park.

Monday, December 3, 7 p.m., Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington, Evanston.

Tuesday, December 4, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Old Orchard Shopping Center, Skokie.

Mystery novels make great holiday gifts. Especially when they’re autographed. And most especially when they’re by me. Capisce?

Nov. 16: Tiling the bathroom

A few readers of this blog have asked if I am all right because I have not posted a new entry for a few days. The same ones always ask. One or two of them is always unkind enough to inquire if I have at last run out of things to blog about. Sometimes that is true, but sooner or later events spur me to speak out.

I have been silent because I am tiling the bathroom. Or, rather, tiling what for six weeks has been a big hole in the bathroom wall. Seems that a vent pipe rusted through and caused washbasin water to cascade down through the wall to the basement. Can’t have that, of course, so we called the plumber, who apologetically but also enthusiastically knocked a hole in the wall to repair the pipe. The hole was about two by three feet.

It gaped there while I racked my brain on the best way to fill the chasm. A drywall patch affixed to furred-out studs? (The original wall is lath and plaster; this house was built in 1909.) Sure, but the hole is low enough so that a do-it-yourselfer with a bad back would end up permanently bent like an arthritic pretzel if he tried to fix it. So we called a plasterer.

He asked if we wanted just a patch or a finish job as well. Since we were retiling (and since we don’t know jack about plastering), we figured we didn’t need the finish job, so said no. Mistake. A wet plaster patch slapped over a steel skeleton hooked to the edges of the hole is extremely rough. A finish job smooths out the plaster and levels it with the wall.

I did the finishing myself, figuring my tile job would hide any sins.

It does, for the most part, but the large depression in the middle of the tilework betrays my amateurishness. Fortunately, when the plumber reinstalls the vanity cabinet and sink, the depression will be hidden. Mostly hidden. You’ll see it if you look for it, but I’ll nimbly distract you from doing so.

The worst part about this is that when he reinstalls the vanity, the plumber is going to peer up at me over his spectacles and ask, “You do the tile yourself?” And when I say yes, he will give me an insincere smile and reply in that patronizing way of expert tradesmen, “Good job.”

Some of my snobbish friends sneer about the intellectual capacity of people who make their livings with their hands and laugh up their sleeves when those in the trades call themselves “professionals.”

All I can say is: Think you can do as good a job? You just try it, buddy.

Nov. 12: Redbeans and rice on the rails!

FLASH. There may be hope for Amtrak’s dining cars after all.

Nov. 11: The first cache of new books

It’s like having your newborn handed to you as you lie back exhausted on the table.

The first author’s copies of Cache of Corpses arrived via FedEx late last week, and even though this is the sixth literary child I’ve birthed, the event always seems like a miracle.

All those months of writing and rewriting, revising and recasting, proofreading, dealing with errors minor and major, answering skeptical questions from editors — all those months of labor have at last come to fruition. This is it, the grand thing: The new book.

Some women (all right, maybe most) will harrumph that writing a book is not at all like giving birth to a child. But if the pain of producing prose is not quite that of parturition, for guys it’s the closest we’re going to get.

Now I’ve got to get cracking on the PowerPoint (actually Keynote, the Mac equivalent) presentation for bookstore autographings and library spiels. Those begin Saturday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. at Centuries & Sleuths, 7419 W. Madison, Forest Park.

And also to wait for the reviews . . . In some ways this is the hardest part. One worries not only whether the notices will be good, but also if there will be any.

By the way, although the official on-sale date is November 27, many bookstores display new stock as soon as it rolls in. Yours may already have Cache on the shelves.

Nov. 8: Dispatch from San Francisco Bay

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Amtrak is just as bad as the airlines at “schedule creep,” inflating the timetable so that flights — and trains — arrive on time. But the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco Bay has more slop in its schedule than Manute Bol had in his basketball shorts.

The Zephyr I took was 2 hours 15 minutes late getting into Salt Lake City, thanks for delays that began with “slow orders” on the track east of Denver. Slowly it made up time, leaving Reno just 6 minutes late, then arrived in Roseville, Calif., 40 minutes in the hole. Finally it tied up last night at its terminus, Emeryville, Calif., one hour and three minutes early.

Come on!

For all that, my 23rd trip aboard the Zephyr was pretty good. The cars all seemed to be in good order — no duct tape repairs I could see — and everything worked as it should, including the shower in my sleeping car.

So far as I know, the seven GrandLuxe Express private cars coupled to the rear of the Zephyr did not affect the timekeeping at all, except perhaps at Denver Union Station, where the backing-in maneuver seemed to take a little longer owing to the unusual length of the train.

My only real complaint is with the Lexan windows in all cars, which over the years have become finely scratched, even half opaque. This is not good for photography from the train, and even affects ordinary sightseeing. I’m hoping Congress — ah — railroads through the Lautenberg/Lott bill, passed by the Senate last week, to provide Amtrak with not only enough millions to operate its trains but also fix things, including replacing those windows during car overhauls.

And, I devoutly hope, the windfall will also include returning the dining cars to some semblance of their former glory. On most of its long-distance trains Amtrak serves something called “Simplified Dining Service,” in which meals are prepared in a private commissary off the rails and reheated in convection ovens on the trains. I had a sample of this last winter on the Lake Shore Limited to Boston and was so appalled I bought box lunches at a deli for the trip back.

Things seem to be better now. Today I’d rate the dining cars at a C-plus rather than a D-minus. On the first night out of Chicago this trip, the beef bourguignonne was both tasty and juicy, and so was the rice — although the vegetables were a tad overcooked and watery. Breakfast (an omelet) and lunch (a burger) were perfectly acceptable, though hardly memorable.

Dinner the second night, however, was disappointing — the salmon was oaken, just barely chewable. The rolls were stale, as I expected. Breads don’t keep well in the dry air conditioning of a dining car.

Railroad passengers, like armies, march on their stomachs. A good experience in the diner leads one to forgive a multitude of sins aboard the train.

The scenery from this train is never anything to complain about. The long pull across rural Ilinois the first afternoon may be boring, but I never get tired of the majestic vistas of the Rockies, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. More than any other American train trip, the Zephyr traverses landscapes that look much as they did a century and a half ago when the first transcontinental railroad opened the American West.

I did notice, however, that many Colorado towns on the tracks seem to have acquired middle-age spread. Fraser, gateway to Winter Park, used to be a little seasonal ski town, and now huge condo developments have oozed around it like rampant amoebas. Rifle (what a name!) seems to have morphed into a substantial burg from a lonely crossroads. Grand Junction is now a huge metropolitan area that takes ten minutes for the train to pass.

This run of the Zephyr had a good crew. Everyone seemed professional and efficient, and, best of all, seemed to like his job — a phenomenon I wish applied to all Amtrak workers.

There were a couple of connections to my 1994 book Zephyr. My sleeping-car attendant on this latest run, Isaac Heath, is the “little” brother of Bob Heath, a nonpareil sleeper attendant who was featured in that book. Isaac is just as tall as Bob though a few pounds heavier, and is also as cheerful and helpful. Every time I pressed the call button he was on the scene within five minutes, unlike that Empire Builder attendant I complained about last week.

And when the Zephyr stopped briefly in Glenwood Springs, Colo., Sandi Brown, an Amtrak station agent and one of the heroines celebrated in the book, spotted me standing by the sleeper door as she drove the baggage cart down the platform. She leaped off the tractor, ran up and gave me a big hug.

A sweet embrace from a pretty lady out of one’s past — now that’d be the highlight of any trip.

Tomorrow I’m off on a freelance writing job, but will be back in Chicago and at this blog next weekend.

Nov. 4: Return to the Zephyr

The route of the California Zephyr boasts Amtrak’s most spectacular scenery. Here it snakes around a curve in the Colorado Rockies.

Tomorrow this blog will go dark (is that how they say it?) for a few days while I hop aboard another transcontinental train. This time it’s an old love, Amtrak’s No. 5, the California Zephyr, from Chicago to Emeryville on San Francisco Bay.

Back in the early 1990s I rode the Zephyr sixteen times as research for a book on that storied transcontinental route, and since then have taken half a dozen more rides on it — 21 or 22 in all; I’ve lost count. I never get tired of breathtaking Byers, Gore and Glenwood Canyons in the Colorado Rockies, the lonely desert of the Great Basin, and the long, glorious haul over the Sierra Nevada. They are forever etched in my memory. (Click here for a route map.)

This time the trip is to position me, as railroaders say, for a free-lance gig. But I’ll give a full report here on my ride aboard No. 5, perhaps Wednesday from my hotel in Emeryville.

One thing I’m curious about is the Zephyr’s version of Amtrak’s “Simplified Dining Service,” called “Diner Lite” by rail buffs. To save the railroad money, meals are no longer cooked to order in the dining car, except for the Empire Builder in the west and the Auto-Train in the east. They are prepared by an off-train vendor and reheated in convection ovens in the diner’s galley.

I first tasted “Diner Lite” last winter on the Lake Shore Limited to Boston and was appalled. But at dinner last week on VIA Rail’s The Canadian (whose cuisine is superb), a California couple who had ridden east on the Zephyr just a few days before pronounced it “pretty good,” and others who frequent the railfan forums on the Web have said that the food vendors and on-board cooks (dare we call them chefs?) seem finally to have got their ducks (a l’orange?) in a row.

We shall see.

By the way, today’s Parade magazine — the supplement found in just about every small Midwestern city’s Sunday paper — contains a cover article on “A Better Way to Travel.” When such a red-state stalwart becomes an advocate for subsidized rail travel, it offers new hope for beleaguered Amtrak. Maybe, just maybe, it will restore “real” food to the dining cars.

Nov. 3: A year in the blogosphere

This blog began one year ago tomorrow. It was intended as a way to help me work through writer’s block while I wrote mystery novels. As these enterprises often do, the tail began wagging the dog and now I write this blog instead of working on the mysteries.

Why?

One reason is that it’s practical. It makes sense not to spend a lot of time on a new book in a mystery series until the latest one has appeared in the bookstores and sales can be added up. If those don’t please the publisher, he’s not going to buy a fourth book in a series that doesn’t add appreciably to his bottom line. Yes, Cache of Corpses will either be my breakthrough as a mystery writer or it won’t. If it’s not, I’ll just return to work on a historical novel that’s still in the researching stage — or go back to nonfiction, my first love.

Another reason for writing the blog is that it’s simply fun. Although it was originally intended also to promote the mystery series and to interact with its readers, it has become a good way to unload observations, opinions and personal reports on a variety of subjects close to my heart — train travel, small plane flying, Lake Superior, nature photography, unusual journalism among them.

Not book criticism; I did that for 33 years and don’t want to keep on keeping on. (Besides, I was never a critic at heart, although I studied the craft and wrote reviews; I was at bottom a literary journalist happiest at editing a book review section and occasionally interviewing authors.)

Not politics, either; I don’t want to add my small voice to the thousands and thousands of thundering bloviators who promenade bias and ignorance instead of offering thoughtful analysis. Of course, now and then something so unutterably stupid or hateful happens, usually within the Beltway, that I just have to unload.

There are still more reasons to blog. Because deafness can be isolating, writing a blog enables me to communicate easily with the hearing world on its own terms, without having to struggle against barriers of fear and ignorance. As that great New Yorker cartoon of two pooches at a ‘puter has it, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

For a word worker growing old, blogging keeps the mind nimble and Alzheimer’s at bay. An hour whetting words is as important to health as is an hour pumping an exercise bike.

And blogging every day, or trying to, has given me new respect for echt newspaper columnists who must come up with 800 fresh, cogent and readable words every three days — especially those who venture out of the office and actually talk to people in order to find startling new things to write about. Doing this kind of work for years, often decades, takes a lot of sweat as well as talent.

Blogging has also given me new contempt for ersatz columnists — particularly glib TV moonlighters devoted to sports, popular culture or celebrity — who lazily react to the news instead of digging for it. (Yes, as a blogger I’ve been guilty of that, too, of surfing the Web and building on other people’s reporting. But I try not to do it too often, and when that happens, to disguise the sin with as much wit and irony as I can muster.)

This is my 329th post since Nov. 4, 2006. If half of those pieces have been readable, and a quarter of them memorable, then I’m a lucky man indeed. Thanks for reading them.

Nov. 2: Bats in your belfry?

Bat habitat

This $95 cedar bat house from Batroost.com holds up to 600 bats.

To return to the subject of our cabin at Lake Superior for a moment:

It has bats.

Or, rather, a bat.

Each of the last few summers, the Lady Friend and our chum, Tina, have spent long and sleepless nights trying to deal with a little brown bat that flits around the cabin. They’ve stuffed wads of plastic bubblewrap into crannies in the ceiling until it looks like a haunted house festooned with high-tech webs. They’ve run about the place beating the air with a broom. They’ve stood guard for hours with a trout net. They’ve slept with the lights on.

Of course, I’m deaf and can’t hear the whup-whup-whup of tiny wings. I slumber happily under whirling squadrons of bats while Lady Friend and Tina man the ack-ack.

They pay no attention to my protests that Bats Are Our Friends, that they help keep down the fly and mosquito population, that they are vital members of the ecosystem, that they are harmless (only a minuscule number of them carry rabies), that it is a myth they get tangled in women’s hair, that . . .

They grab me and point to the pillows. “And what are those turds?” they demand.

I guess they have a point. Bats are fine, as long as they stay out of the house.

But what to do? Human development has destroyed a lot of bat habitat, protected natural nooks where they can hang happily by their little feet without worrying about winged predators and the like. Houses and cabins are perfect refuges, provided there’s a way in. And, of course, our log cabin being more than half a century old, there are lots of ways in.

But there is a solution, I discovered this morning while looking up something else (Hank Aaron’s lifetime batting average).

Bat houses. Purpose-built ones.

They’re something like bird houses and in fact often look like them. They also often look like really, really, really big mailboxes.

Googling “bat houses” brings up a lot of sites that provide ready-built examples, such as the Organization for Bat Conservation.

Or, if you’d rather build one yourself, woodworkers.com offers plans. So does free.woodworking-plans.org.

Save a bat. Buy a house. Or build one. I plan to do that in the basement shop this winter.

By the way, Aaron’s lifetime BA was .305. So far, thank goodness, Lady Friend and Tina are batting .000.