The Theatah!

theater stage

CC 2006 Nancy

As I start my final year of college (barring some far fetched scenario where I do graduate work in my old age),I have a single fine arts credit hour required. Traditionally, at Wilmington College, this means taking a class called Regional Theater in Performance. Or, as those of us taking the class call it, Date Nite 101. It’s an unusual class. I’m not sure how it’s taught on Wilmington’s main campus, where the students are mostly 18-22. At the Cincinnati branch, it’s what’s called a hybrid class: Mostly online, but with two or more class meetings during the semester. In this case, we met last Friday and will meet again in December. In between…

There’s very little online about this class. You can turn in your assignments, reacting to what you’ve seen between class meetings, via the school web site, but really it’s very simple: Go see three plays with a certain minimum of production values (like your local high school doing Death of a Salesman), write a reaction paper to each, and be prepared to discuss what you saw at the second and final class meeting. It’s kind of interesting in that the last theater production I saw was the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival’s The Tempest. That was pre-Y2K. Yeah. It’s been a while.

The only major production I’ve ever seen was Oh! Calcutta! That’s right. My first professional theater experience was seeing naked people, including local radio jock Bob the Producer streaking across the stage at the end of the show. It was performed at Music Hall, the grand old venue in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and home to the Cincinnati Orchestra as well as the local ballet and opera companies.

Prior to that, my experience with theater was at my own high school. I worked the lights and the backstage crew for Bye Bye Birdie in my junior year, and had roles in A Tomb With a View, the one-act version of M*A*S*H (as Col. Henry Blake), and The Pajama Game. In the last, I was given a non-singing role after auditioning by singing “Hey, There” one octave higher than I rehearsed it (and proving I had no future as a hair metal lead singer.) There is evidence of all this. Somewhere on teh intrawebs floats a picture of a very, very young Jim Winter sitting on stage in a toga. Yes, a toga.

I have three plays picked out, all based on movies. This seems to be a common trend these days. One of them was a no-brainer. The company up in Loveland is doing the musical version of Young Frankenstein, which I want to take AJ to see. The local Shakespeare festival is doing the stage version of The Birds, which should prove interesting. The Tempest looked almost like a movie when they did it, beginning with the cast in rain slickers waving what looked like a giant sail obscuring the stage while an a capella version of Madonna’s “Frozen” played. It was like watching the opening credits. Only without the credits. The Birds? I’m going alone on this one. AJ’s not into this one, and Nita is terrified of birds. And they are using real birds.

But we call this date night, and the first play I’m going to see will be this weekend. A local high school is doing Beauty and the Beast, which is Nita’s favorite Disney movie ever. We intended to see it at the Aronoff Center a few years ago, but a series of problems kept us away (one of which was a leaky gas line, so it worked out that we didn’t get to go.) When I asked Nita if she wanted to see one or two plays with me, she asked what was playing.

“Well, Mason High School is doing Beauty and the…


Last time she said yes that strongly was when I proposed to her. So we’re going Friday night. Yes, it’s date night.

Will I continue to go after this class ends? Maybe. I have it on my bucket list to see all of Shakespeare’s plays live. I’ve seen Richard III and The Tempest. The movies have burned me out on Hamlet thanks to repeated showings of the Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh versions, but maybe I’ll it see it on stage soon enough.

For now, though, I want to watch my wife’s eyes light up when she sees Beauty and the Beast. And I wonder how long “Puttin’ on the Ritz” will be stuck in my head after Young Frankenstein.


Holland Bay Again

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I had to dust off Holland Bay once more this past week. This time, I was asked to do it instead of doing it on some self-imposed deadline. Yes, this means someone took an interest in the book. That’s the good news.

The bad news, of course, is that a check is not involved yet. But that’s okay.

This provides some validation for the decisions I made concerning Holland Bay. A few people are asking my why I would ever go traditional, even going as far as to say, “Well, you’re selling your books wrong.”

Uh huh. Show me your sales figures. Show me some evidence you’ve found a better way. It’s not that I’m against going independent. Just look here for proof. But when someone sells a book, they tend to have more money. I’ve been told horror stories about what the Big Five does to authors and about shady or incompetent agents. All I have to say to that is show me the money. When it comes to crime fiction, it’s almost always the traditional authors who can do that.

I still plan to do my science fiction work as “Dick” independently. Science fiction, though, tends to build more loyal audiences. As I said before, if you give nerds something they think is cool, they’ll follow it almost religiously. It’s a very cool process and a lot more interactive. And if I have control over the entire process, then it’s me reacting to the readers instead of me reacting to the readers, the editor, and the publisher’s marketing department.

I don’t know why it is crime fiction doesn’t embrace independent writers more. Yes, I know Kindle has made self-pub a shit volcano. I get it. I just don’t get why some people act like that makes them a victim.

Nor do I get why people have to be so tribal about independent vs. traditional. Tribalism is bad. It’s why we have real wars. It’s why Facebook on some days is a cesspool of incoherent rage by people too stupid to deal with their own problems.

Now maybe I’m being a hypocrite by traditionally publishing as Jim and self-publishing as “Dick.” But it’s my situation. I have to justify the expenses, the level of effort, and the impact on the rest of my time. I’m not just a writer.

Then again, maybe that’s the problem most people seem to have. They want to be writers. I want to write. The former is one of fragile ego and poor self identity. Being a writer becomes more important than the writing itself. That’s ass-backwards. I want to write. For a living if I can pull it off, but I have to remember there are mortgages, student loans, and a car to pay. I have a family that would like me to interact with them more. I’ve known a few writers for whom being a writer occupied their entire time. They worried more about the politics of the business, the promotion, and whether or not other writers (including me) were following the same path. They’ve had some success but are not what you would call bestsellers. They also weren’t much fun to be around after a point.

And then there are the guys who talk about anything but writing. They’re computer programmers and college professors and cops and chefs and… They’re also parents and spouses, musicians and marathon runners. They have bills that pile up just like mine, and they’re not afraid to vent about that in the bar at Bouchercon. Why should they be? They write. And then they get on with their lives. And most of the ones I’m talking about are more successful than me. The ones that aren’t?

Well, they seem to be happier. Even if they aren’t, they’re more fun to hang with.

But someone has taken an interest in Holland Bay, made suggestions, and asked for revisions. These won’t be the last. Had this person not said anything, I had a plan to pitch the novel elsewhere. Failing Plans B, C, and D, plan E would have been simply to offer it to you independently and be done with it. It might even have been the end of the brand called “Jim Winter.” And that’s OK. Because I’m not a writer. I write.

Friday Reviews: Finding Me by Michelle Knight and Michelle Burford

Finding Me by Michelle Knight and Michelle BurfordFinding Me

Michelle Knight and Michelle Burford

In 2002, a single mom named Michelle Knight asked directions from a man she knew to the courthouse for a hearing she needed to attend. The man offered her a lift but needed to stop by the house to pick up something. She spent the next eleven years trapped in his house, a place that calling a slum would be an insult to slums everywhere. Over the next two years, “the dude,” as Knight came to call Ariel Castro, would kidnap two more girls, one of whom Knight knew. Their life consisted of days of torture, rape, starvation, and Castro’s bizarre attempt to weld them into a “family.” Knight was impregnated five times, each time forcefully aborted by Castro, while another girl, Amanda Berry, gave birth to a little girl.

Finding Me is Knight’s memoir of the torture she and the other girls (including Gina DeJesus) endured. Castro’s hold over them was so powerful that, even at times where escape might have been obvious, they were too terrified to leave. Castro’s downfall came when he left the front door unlocked while he left Berry alone in the living room. By the time he returned, the police had surrounded the place and the girls were on their way to the hospital.

Knight had a rough life before Castro got a hold of her. She lived in poverty where a relative – she does not name him – abused her for years and spent some time homeless before returning home and having a baby. Perhaps it is this that allowed her to endure Castro’s sick delusions.

As for Castro, Knight’s attitude proves she is one of the toughest women you’ll ever hear about. She forgave (but clearly hasn’t forgotten) Castro, mainly so she could move on and put the ordeal behind her. Nonetheless, she and the others were upset when he died in prison by his own hand, never to face any real punishment for his crime.

The book is short and cowritten with New York Times reporter Michelle Burford. They keep the book short as a ten-year blow-by-blow account would not only run long, but would become both tedious and more horrifying than just the sketches Knight gives. Some of this is also a function of coping with the tragedy. Giving more than just the highlights of what happened over that lost decade would be too painful for anyone. (Note the brevity with which most Holocaust survivors give their stories.) This book is not for the faint of heart.

5 Presidents Who Hated The Job

Presidential sealBeing president is a sweet gig. The White House staff is at your beck and call. You have Air Force One to take you anywhere in the world on short notice, no TSA lines at the airport. And let’s face it, it’s still the most powerful political office in the world.

But sometimes, the job ain’t what’s it’s cracked up to be. At any given time, half the nation thinks the president is wrong and is evil, no matter how popular he is. Some, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, let it roll right off their backs. Others, like Nixon, couldn’t wait to get on Marine One and get the hell out of DC. Most men, however, enjoyed the job, including Nixon. A handful didn’t. In fact, five in particular hated the job as soon as the finished taking the oath of office. Who were they?

Andrew Johnson5. Andrew Johson

Lincoln’s second vice president was chosen for several reasons. As the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln wanted a Southerner and a Democrat to unify the nation and make it easier to reconcile North and South. Johnson, former military governor of Tennessee and the only Southern senator to refuse to give up his Senate seat when his state seceded, was perfect from a campaign standpoint. Like Lincoln, Johnson was self-educated and self-made. Unlike Lincoln, he was a slave owner, though the Emancipation Proclamation did not exactly break his heart. Johnson hated the planter class so much that the end of slavery meant sticking it to the man. But…

He did not begin his vice presidency very well, showing up for his oath of office drunk off his ass and giving a rambling, incoherent speech to the Senate, which did not exactly go well with Lincoln’s famous With Malice Toward None speech happening outside at the same time. On the night Lincoln was assassinated, someone also tried to kill him. (The would-be killer chickened out and was hung weeks later.)

Senate impeaches Johsnon

“Wait. Impeachment? But who’d give him a blow job?”

Then the fun really began. Johnson, hotheaded and stubborn, originally wanted to seek revenge on the fallen Confederacy, yet another dig at the planter class. However, after about a month in office, Johnson decided that Lincoln’s plan of gentle reconciliation while adjusting newly freed slaves to life as citizens was the best route.

Congress wasn’t having that. Just to make a point, they passed a silly law called the “Tenure in Office Act,” which said that the president not only had to consult the Senate to appoint his cabinet, he had to consult them to fire them, too. This brilliant piece of stupidity set Johnson up for a fall. Johnson fired the combative (and let’s be honest, self-important) Edward Stanton as War Secretary. Congress, dominated by revenge-minded Radical Republicans, responded by impeaching Johnson, the first president to have been tried in the Senate. Johnson survived by a single vote.

He got his revenge, though. In 1875, Tennessee returned him to the Senate.

Warren Harding4.  Warren G. Harding

Warren Harding was a likeable senator from Ohio who was one of the handsomest men in the country at the time. And that was the extent of Harding’s qualifications for office. Oh, he liked the presidency well enough. It had a perk that would more famously be used and abused by Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton in later years:

Sex in the Oval Office. Harding famously quipped after becoming president, “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I’d be pregnant all the time.”

However, Harding also had the most corrupt cabinet of the early twentieth century, possibly since Grant’s cabinet in the 1870’s. His attorney general, Harry Daugherty, engineered Harding’s campaign, beating out much more qualified candidates such as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, General Leonard Wood. However, Daugherty had a plan.

Bill Clinton

“That man is still the coolest president ever.”

Harding was so likeable and docile that it would allow Daugherty, Albert Fall, and several others to loot the nation’s land holdings for cash. Ultimately, this resulted in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which embarrassed Harding. At one point, he said he wasn’t worried about his enemies, it was his friends who kept him up at night worrying. He’s also rumored to have said “This fucking job’s going to kill me.”

As he embarked on a tour of the nation to restore his reputation (and get out of Washington), he admitted he was in over his head and should never have run for president.

The job did, in fact, kill him. Harding died of a stroke in 1923. Calvin Coolidge, with no loyalty to anyone but the more talented members of the cabinet, took the oath of office, came back to DC, and fired the Ohio Gang.

Chester Alan Arthur3.  Chester Arthur

Here’s a man who never expected to be president. In fact, he intended to spend Garfield’s first term in office in New York, minding his investments. Chester Arthur never held an elected position in his life. Instead, he was the rare honest cog in New York Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political machine. Conkling saw himself as the Henry Clay of his time, wheeling and dealing, making things happen. However, Clay was considered honest, likeable, intelligent, and level-headed. Conkling was an asshole.

Nonetheless, Arthur made the patronage jobs Conkling procured for him work to the advantage of both Conkling and the nation. As a reward, Conkling strong-armed the Republican Party into making him Garfield’s running mate. Garfield and Arthur actually never met until inauguration day, and Arthur only came to Washington to cast tie-breaker votes.

All that changed when Garfield was shot in the back by a man who, in modern times, would probably be sitting on a city street with a cardboard sign and rambling incoherently. And Garfield might have survived if his doctors had not botched his treatment. The president actually died of infection, not the bullet itself. (Which, kids, will not get you off when you shot the bullet that caused said infection.)

Conkling saw Arthur’s ascendancy as an opportunity. He proceeded to instruct Arthur on how to run his White House. Arthur instructed Conkling to go to Hell. It ended Conkling’s political career. The new president was so disgusted by the disrespect given the presidency by office seekers that civil service reform, which would dismantle the very system that made Arthur president, the centerpiece of his administration. How bad was it? One office seeker waltzed into the White House (because you could do that back then), plopped down in front of “Chet’s” desk, and put his feet up on the desk, telling “Chet” what office he wanted. Arthur told him to put his feet on the floor and address him as Mr. President.

"Told you I was sick."The job took its toll. Arthur came into office with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment caused by high blood pressure. By the end of his term, he was so ill that he almost could not do his job. However, he put up a token campaign to win the Republican nomination in his own right. Fortunately for Arthur, they nominated James G. Blaine to run against Grover Cleveland. Arthur died only months after leaving office, completely unable to work. So like Harding, the job killed Arthur.

William Howard Taft2. William Howard Taft

Few men came to the White House as qualified as William Howard Taft. Governor of the Phillipines and Cuba, supervisor of the Panama Canal project, Secretary of War and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, Taft was the logical man to carry on Roosevelt’s policies. Only Taft didn’t want to be president. He wanted to be on the Supreme Court. Taft started his career as a lawyer, then a judge before William McKinley plucked him out of Cincinnati to run the Civil Service Commission. So why did this man who loved the law run for president?

First, Roosevelt asked him to run. Fair enough, but he needed one more reason to do it. He had it. His wife wanted to live in the White House. Can you think of a better reason to run for president?

Taft was not the healthiest man to sit in the Oval Office. Beset by weight-related issues such as sleep apnea, he would fall asleep during cabinet meetings. It’s also rumored that he got stuck in the White House bathtub and had to be buttered to get out of it. It gets worse.

"In what universe does the progressive movement work?"

“In what universe does a ‘bull moose’ make a good president?”

His own party derided him for not being progressive enough. It got so bad that Roosevelt decided to run again in 1912, which told Taft that Roosevelt saw him as keeping the Oval Office chair warm. The battle between the two became so bitter and protracted that it all but guaranteed the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Sheldon Cooper of presidents.

Taft and Roosevelt eventually patched up their differences. In 1921, Harding made Taft a happy man by naming him to the Supreme Court. There, as Chief Justice, Taft excelled, overhauling the federal court system and moving the judicial branch of the government to its own building by the 1930’s. In all that time, Taft never spoke much about his time as president. To him, it was an interruption in his legal career.

James Buchanan1. James Buchanan

Like Taft fifty years later, James Buchanan came to the White House more qualified than most of his predecessors. Secretary of State. Minister to Britain and Russia. A long-time Pennsylvania congressman and lawyer. His resume screamed president.


“We find Mr. Buchanan fabulous!”

He also was likely our first gay president. While Buchanan never confirmed the rumors that swirled around him, particularly while he roomed with senator and vice president Rufus King, he did little to convince anyone he wasn’t gay. He would also be our only bachelor president. Others would come to the White House married, widowed, or would even get married while in office.

So a guy that comfortable with himself and with a resume like his would be the perfect guy to keep the nation from flying apart on the eve of the Civil War. Right?


Buchanan stuck to the tried and not-so-true policy of appeasing the South. This idea cost Franklin Pierce his presidency, and Buchanan only succeeded in angering both sides. His handling of the crisis over admitting Kansas as either a slave or free state resulted in aggravating the civil unrest there. And then South Carolina seceded.


“Later, bitches!”

Buchanan took the odd (and untenable) position that secession was illegal but that the federal government could not do anything about it. In other words, it became official policy to sit on his hands until Lincoln came into office. On the way to Lincoln’s inauguration, Buchanan said to the new president, “If you’re as happy to be coming to the White House as I shall be leaving it, you are a very happy man indeed.”

Football Calculus

Yesterday, pro football began in earnest. Unfortunately, I’m writing this more than two hours before the kickoff between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens so I can’t tell you how my season started yet. That’s what happens when you do your blog posts on Sunday morning.

Anyway, last year was an aberration for me. I actually rooted for the Baltimore Ravens when they weren’t playing the Bengals. Why?

They weren’t the Steelers, and a Cleveland boy living in Cincinnati is honor-bound to hate the Steelers. It more than makes up for the four years during the Bengals’ lost decade when Cleveland did not have a team. Because the Bengals did not meet my standards, I was forced to join Steeler Nation until 1999. Thank you, Al Lerner. Thank you.

But two things happened. Despite all the trappings and records, the Cleveland Browns playing on the lakefront today are not the Browns I rooted for until 1994. No, those Browns were kidnapped and spirited away to Baltimore. While I sympathize with the people of Baltimore, who themselves were treated shabbily, let’s be honest. They took my team away from me.

So how did I not become a Bengals fan until the mid-2000’s? Simple. Let’s say I move to your city: Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco. I don’t automatically adopt the home team. Why should I? Why should anyone? But I have a rule. New city? Give me three consecutive seasons of 8-8 football. It’s not a winning season, but it at least shows me that ownership is serious and does not have its head up its corporate ass. When I announced to my then girlfriend this rule as we moved in together, the Bengals still had Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz. The last Super Bowl was still fresh in people’s memories, and they’d just come off a playoff year. Even if the current roster dispersed, one could reasonably assume that the Bengals would rebuilt within five years. So I would have five years of sweet, sweet Browns football to enjoy. Right?

No. See, Paul Brown, the man who created both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, died just before I arrived here in 1991. Little did I know that his son Mike Brown would be a horrible owner.

Eventually, Brown’s daughter, Katie Blackburn, would begin taking over. She pushed Brown to hire Marvin Lewis. Lewis brought the team back from the grave after years of cellar-dwelling football. And it takes a special talent to deal with the likes of Chad Ochocinco or to get Chris Henry to settle down and play football.

So now I have calculus as to who I root for, all based on that history.

  • I stick with the Bengals. I’ve been here 23 years, and anyway, I’m paying for the stadium. And now that they have Andy Dalton at quarterback, football is interesting again.
  • I do not root for the Steelers. Ever. Except when they play the Ravens. It is the duty of every AFC North football fan outside of the Greater Baltimore area to root against the Ravens, but, now that Cleveland and Cincinnati have pro football once more, living in Ohio and rooting for the Steelers is similar to treason.
  • Last year, I gave them special dispensation mainly because Ben Rothlisberger was having such an awful year, but I never ever EVER root for the Ravens. They stole my hometown team, and their former owner betrayed the late owner of my adopted team. Twice. Once in the 1960’s and once in 1994. That is unforgivable. (That said, the Baltimore Orioles were once the St. Louis Browns. If Baltimore would like the NBA to return to the city, I suggest renaming the LA Clippers to the LA Browns. Get crackin’, Mr. Ballmer.)
  • There is one team I will pick the Ravens over: The Indianapolis Colts. Don’t get me wrong. I got nothing but mad love for Peyton Manning and was sorry to see him leave the city 90 minutes from my house. But Bob Irsay, the late owner of the Colts, didn’t just steal another city’s team, he sneaked them out in the middle of the night. So Bob Irsay is responsible for so much pain and suffering in both Cleveland and Baltimore. When Baltimore plays the Indianapolis Colts, I’m in a Joe Flacco kind of mood.

So there you have it. How my football calculus works. Which made watching Draft Day the other night fun.