William McKinley

William McKinleyI’d love to tell you what a fascinating guy Will McKinley was, his foibles, his vices, what possessed this unassuming man to choose the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt as his second vice president. I’d love to, but unfortunately, I selected Kevin Phillips’ entry into Arthur Schlesinger’s series on the Presidents for McKinley’s bio. Unfortunately, Phillips spends most of his tome in fanboy mode, a flaw Joseph Ellis had with his Thomas Jefferson bio American Sphinx. However, Phillips is no Joseph Ellis. Worse, Phillips doesn’t really give a chronological account of McKinley’s life. His assassination is mentioned, but not directly addressed.

Too bad, because while McKinley is not a towering figure like his successors, Roosevelt and Wilson, he did slam the door on three-decade era of weak presidents starting with the hamstrung Andrew Johnson and scandal-plagued Ulysses Grant through a series of obscure men mostly from Ohio and mostly Republican. I’ll skip the facial hair cliche; it’s been hammered to death here.

From 1866 on, the American presidency was hamstrung by the Senate starting with the Tenure in Office Act, which barred the President from dismissing cabinet members without the consent (ie – approval) of the Senate. Even when the law ended, the Senate never really yielded its power, leaving presidents such as Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison weak and passive mainly through necessity. But McKinley, an earthy Methodist from Canton, Ohio with a taste for chewing tobacco and the odd Scotch, came to White House with something none of his predecessors had since Lincoln was assassinated: a electoral mandate.

McKinley also entered the presidency with extraordinary run of luck. The boss system that plagued his most recent predecessors had taken several fatal blows, making McKinley the first GOP nominee in decades who wasn’t a compromise candidate. The depression following the Panic of 1893 ended early in McKinley’s first term. The gold standard arguments that dominated post-Civil War America had largely ended. And America’s status as Britain’s BFF solidified.

So McKinley has a lot in common with another president elected in the 90’s who presided over a period of tech-driven prosperity, Bill Clinton, just without the scandal baggage. McKinley is often portrayed as a weak president subject to the whims of Wall Street. Of course, you don’t pay tribute to the establishment by appointing Theodore Roosevelt to run your Navy or share the ticket with you. McKinley spent most of his term implementing policies that would kick-start the Progressive Era. Among them was pushing a Constitutional amendment to change how senators were elected. Prior to 1913, US Senators were chosen by state legislatures. McKinley, as far back as his days in the House of Representatives, supported attempts to wrest the vote from state legislators and give it to the general population.

McKinley was ahead of his time in many ways. He supported women’s suffrage before the Progressive movement made it inevitable. He also insisted on equal voting rights for blacks in the South in the wake of Plessy Vs. Ferguson, and even would change hotels in southern states when they refused to admit black visitors he had come to see. He was, at heart, a reformer. So why does McKinley often get lumped with the likes of Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland?

Blame Leon Czolgosz.

Like James Garfield twenty years earlier, McKinley fell victim to a gunman’s bullet in manner that should not have been possible after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Czolgosz walked up to the President, shook his hand, and shot him at point-blank range. Like Charles Guiteau and John Hinckley, Czolgosz in another time and place would be annoying commuters for spare change on a street corner. While visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley shook hands with the crowd where Czolgosz shot him. Inexplicably, twenty years after Charles Guiteau strolled up behind James Garfield and shot him in the back, the President of the United States still had no security detail surrounding him. The next presidents to be shot, Kennedy and Reagan, were hit through chinks in the virtual armor that has since sprung up. And that protective crowd around Reagan saved his life from wounds that would have killed Garfield in days instead of months.

McKinley might have lived, now that doctors better understood wound infection and had better methods and equipment that either did not exist or was too new for doctors to trust in Garfield’s time. (Plus, and let’s be honest, McKinley’s doctors behaved more professionally than Garfield’s physician, whose hubris ultimately killed the President.) However, the technology failed McKinley. The X-ray machine had been displayed at the expo, but since no one knew what it would do to McKinley, doctors did not want to use it. Also, the emergency room where McKinley was operated on had only candlelight, a bad idea in the age of ether as an anesthetic. They were forced to use reflective pans to redirect sunlight. Had both electric lighting and the X-ray been ready for prime time at McKinley’s shooting, he would have gone on to finish his second term.

And it’s too bad, because the seeds sown by McKinley in his four-and-a-half years in the White House started bearing fruit during Theodore Roosevelt’s term. Had he lived, he would likely have been among the higher second-tier presidents of the twentieth century. Already, he had accelerated the expansion of the Navy, essentially kicked Spain out of the Western Hemisphere, and presided over an unprecedented era of prosperity not matched until the post-World War II era and the tech boom of the 1990’s.

Alas, he died only six months into his second term. Because of this, he is left standing in the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt. It must be pointed out, however, that Roosevelt was very much McKinley’s protege, as were most of the younger members of his inner circle. Under the tutelage of McKinley and Lincoln confidant John Hay (Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt), Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Charles Dawes, and others guided their party and influenced American foreign policy well into the early days of the Great Depression. Furthermore, these men helped bring the Progressive Movement to the fore, a movement that straddled both parties and set off a two-decade era of reform.

So is McKinley just a political hack no more relevant than Hayes or Cleveland? Hardly. He was very much the prototype of the twentieth-century President: Powerful, wired in by technology, mobile, and the focus of domestic and foreign policy.

Northcoast Shakedown: What Was I Thinking?

Northcoast ShakedownOne of the biggest jacket blurb cliches from the last decade was “In the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald,” meaning Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross McDonald, as if those three were the only ones who ever wrote private eye fiction. I’m pretty sure Private Eye Writers of America chief Bob Randisi would have something to say about that. I should know. I was a member of the PWA for several years.

For non-hardboiled fans, there seems to be a perception that every private eye story is a rehash of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. So the Hammett and Chandler comparisons are inevitable even for the ultra-violent Mickey Spillane. But is it fair?

Well, I’ll cop to Raymond Chandler in that I wanted a private eye who was something more than a sarcastic guy in a trenchcoat taking names and kicking asses. If anything, Nick Kepler gets his ass kicked more often than he kicks asses. And I did try to put a little style into my prose. But was Chandler the most influential writer on Northcoast Shakedown?

Actually, it was the late Robert B. Parker. I avoided what turns many people off to Parker’s later work: the psycho sidekick, the cutesy patter, and the nearly goddess-like place reserved for the annoying girlfriend. No, I took my queues from Parker’s opening salvo. I read The Godwulf Manuscript back in high school and was blown away by the prose. Parker had a way of hanging descriptive tags on people and places that gave the reader a quick shorthand to carry through the rest of the novel. I picked up on that in my writing early on.

But there’s more. Parker is from Boston and has a certain New England vibe that’s hard to articulate or replicate. You see it woven through Parker’s first ten or so Spenser novels. It’s a big red neon sign in the work of Stephen King, who first surfaced about three years after Parker. Dennis Lehane, whose writing leans more toward King than Parker, is probably the smoothest at it.  And it’s been a growing presence in some of Dave Zeltserman’s more recent work. What is it?

I don’t know. I know it’s pretty obvious when King and Lehane talk about their characters’ childhoods, but beyond that, I don’t know. It’s a vibe that’s crept into my own work, which I suspect is a by-product of growing up in Yankee-influenced Cleveland instead of the languid river vibe of Southern-tinged Cincinnati.

But getting back to Parker himself, it’s also the humor that really shows up in my work. It often shows up in sarcasm, and Nick Kepler is nothing if not sarcastic. Sure, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe cracks wise, but Spenser took it to another level (before Parker got comfortable and let it get out of hand. Let’s just say his later work is more for himself and his fans.) So Robert Parker’s Yankee-tinged smart-assery was a huge influence.

One author that was not an influence was SJ Rozan. I bring that up because, despite being acquainted with SJ for several years, I was a late-comer to her writing. So imagine my surprise when I read her dialog-heavy, spartan prose and found it similar to my own. So I’d love to say I was influenced by her, but I can only say that a better writer simply confirmed for me that I was doing something right.

During the run-up to the aborted publication of Northcoast‘s follow-up, Second Hand Goods, JA Konrath suggested I’d been reading a lot of Mickey Spillane. In the case of Second Hand Goods, I did, actually. In that one, Nick is pretty enraged. There were a couple of lines I put in his mouth that could have come right out of I, the Jury.

And then Nick pulls out a gun during an interview and casually lays it in his lap, denying that it’s a threat. We’re back in Spenser territory.

But of course, none of this was deliberate. You don’t really pick your influences. They simply grab you.

Jim Winter Is…. The Running Man

I recently started running again. I hadn’t run seriously since my last cross country race in high school. That was in 1983, so I’ve had a 29-year recovery time. I hope it’s enough.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man

Source: Republic Pictures

When I was in high school, I had running clothes provided to me by the school and by my parents. Although my shoes were lousy cheap K-Mart sneakers, they were, in fact, running shoes. From the summer of 1979, when I started to run for cross country until October of 1983, I had about a dozen or so classmates I could run with, even had to run with. For the first two years or so, I lived only half a block from the course of the Lodi Sweet Corn Festival’s Annual 5K run. So running that race was like a morning run for me. The result? At age 17, when I ran my last race, I was 6’1″, what I am now, and 152 pounds. I looked good, felt great, and had stamina to spare.

Fast forward to 2012. One of the advantages of marrying Marylin Monr- er, um Nita – is that we ate well. For a long time, we ate out a lot, and when we didn’t, we ate good at home.  We still do. But some time during the intervening years, I ballooned up to 305 pounds. I had, in about 2 decades, gained an entire high school senior. I’d managed to get back down into the 270’s at one point, but I didn’t stay there.

Thankfully, I never got above 300 again, though I came close. Last year, I decided to do something about it. I got myself back down to the mid-270’s through diet and exercise and have stayed there pretty much since then. But it’s not enough.

I’m a 45-year-old man with high blood pressure, type-II diabetes, and cholesterol. All of these can be traced back to a single cause: I’m still fat. So simply not snacking and playing with the workout band twice a week isn’t going to cut it. I have to do more. Time to get to running.

I’d love to tell you my first night, I went out and ran a mile, got winded, but never felt better in my life. And I could tell you that. You’d have no clue I was lying. Instead, I decided to work into it. I found an online program that eases you into running 30 minutes a day three times a week. Day 1 involved walking for six minutes, then jogging for one minute, then back to walking. Yes, that was very doable, and yes, I felt good. But…

The start of this program coincided with the discovery of a pair of New Balance cross trainers I found in my closet that had been buried for four years. So, instead of waltzing into Bob Ronker’s Running Spot in mid-April with $120 and spending an hour going over a running plan with my purchase, I suddenly had shoes and no excuse. I hopped online and found this particular running plan. I had the shoes. I even had a shorts I could wear. However, this is February in Ohio. I needed sweats. And the sweats I have no longer have elastic in the or a drawstring. I spent my first workout with the waistband of my sweats clenched in my fist and thanking God I wore boxers in case of a wardrobe malfunction.

I looked like a dork.

I don’t care how I look when I run. I’m not doing it to show off or gain anyone’s approval, except maybe my doctor’s. (And he’s paid to tell me “Thou art healthy” when only I’m doing something right.) I’m only interested in dropping my pulse rate, my weight, and my cholesterol. My blood sugar and blood pressure, not to mention my rather irritable liver (another downside to being a fat ass) will follow. Do it long enough, and I can climb into bed without having to strap on what I call “the Darth Vader mask” to keep from snoring.

I’m not hoping to accomplish anything more with this than to get healthier. My goal, when I turned 40 (shortly after I shed some of that 305 pounds that damn near killed me), was to be healthier at 50 than I was at 40. I think I’m on a good start. I’m flirting with dropping below 270 pounds for the first time in a decade. Back then, 270 was something of a magic number for me. At 270, my blood sugar plummeted to normal levels, I didn’t show signs of an angry liver, and my blood pressure was quite manageable. (It still is, but I want to lose the number of pills I’m taking.)

Down the road, however, I have two goals I want to reach: I want to run the annual Flying Pig Marathon, and I want to bike the entire length of the Little Miami Trail, starting in Yellow Springs and ending…

Well, by fifty, I can bike all the way down to Newport, Kentucky, and celebrate with dinner on the Levee. The trail will be finished by then.

An Odd Lenten Fast

The running joke when I was a kid was that I’d give up booze, sex, drugs, and rock and roll for Lent. I wasn’t Catholic, but I went to school with plenty of kids who were. I was too young to truly appreciate rock and roll, have sex, drink, or do drugs. We’ll start with my junior high obsession with The Beatles as the point where that list began to shrink over the next few decades.

At age 45, thanks to to a huge music collection, a highly developed beer palate, two marriages, my doctor, and yes, one evening where someone offered me a toke and I said “What the hell.  Why not?”, I need a new list.

(Note: I didn’t really pick up a drug habit, but I really want to get rid of the brown bottles on my shelf. Metformin, lisinopril, and cholesterol meds are really boring drugs.)

Also, while I eventually became Catholic, I’m feeling much better now. Since then, though, I’ve treated Lent with its original intention. You spend 40 days fasting from something that’s holding you back. I don’t do it every year, but sometimes, you have to take stock and say, “What’s really dragging me down?”

Well, this year, I found an odd one, something I thought was supposed to help me.

I’m getting rid of the To Do List.

For the past four years or so, I’ve kept a text file on my thumb drive that tracks everything I want to do on a given day. Well, not everything. I keep a notepad at my desk at work. But I usually plan things out two, three, four weeks in advance, supposedly so I don’t forget to go to night school, take a test, etc. My writing was on that list. My household chores (save the obvious, like dumping the trash or throwing on a load of laundry) were on it.

This was a natural solution for an attention-challenged person such as myself. When I started at BigHugeCo, I practically lived out of my Franklin Planner until my job duties became more reactive. You can’t plan for someone’s hard drive blowing up or their monitor suddenly pouring smoke out the back. So I ditched the planner. For a while, that worked, then I went back to college.

Um…

I forgot a homework and a couple of tests. I didn’t want to lug a planner around again, despite BigHugeCo generously refillng them for us every year. So I just wrote a text file listing everything I wanted to get done today, tomorrow, and so on. For a while, it worked. But then…

I got obsessive about it. Some mornings, I’d spend twenty minutes arranging and rearranging my schedule. I’d come home, think, “Tonight would be a good night to walk. But I can’t walk because I scheduled a workout downstairs with the bands, and then I’m going to play with PHP.”

Or, Nita would want to go out and see a band or just hang out at one of our favorite watering holes. I’d go, but I’d be upset with myself for getting off schedule.

Or I’d leave something off and forget about it.

Finally, I said, “To hell with it.” I ditched the thing. If there’s an appointment to keep, I have a calendar in Google Apps. I keep a notepad at work listing what I want to do the next day, and I consider it a polite suggestion as part of my job is still reactive.

It’s only been one week, but it’s quite liberating. It’s also a little unsettling. I keep wanting to fiddle with the list, and the list is no longer there. On the other hand, I find I’m perfectly capable of tracking all those tasks I wanted to do without a file dictating when I do them. I can respond to life a lot better if I don’t have a list getting in the way.

Nita put it best. She said, “I hate to do lists. I don’t like some piece of paper telling me what to do.”

Thursday Reviews: In The Light of You

IN THE LIGHT OF YOU

Nathan Singer

Tyrus Books rereleases Nathan Singer’s In the Light of You, which is one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a while. From the outset, we learn this is a tale of redemption. Mikal Fanon is one of only two white boys in his neighborhood, which leads him to fall in with a gang of skinheads calling themselves The Fifth Reich. It’s a tale of gang life from a different point of view, with this particular gang existing only for pure rage. They sleep in their steel-toed combat boots because “you never know when you’ll have to stomp someone.”

Singer doesn’t flinch from this first-person depiction, and despite references throughout that Fanon is writing a book, we don’t know if he’s writing Mein Kampf, a prison memoir, or a literary version of American History X. Fanon is caught up not so much in the hate and rage of the Fifth Reich as he is enamored by Richard Lovecraft, the group’s charismatic leader, a cult figure, and an extremely complicated man. He is also enamored with three women: Suzy, who is mainly a sex partner looking for an escape from home; Sherry, who is a Lovecraft’s girlfriend; and Niani, a black woman from Fanon’s old neighborhood and something of a cult-like figure herself. It’s Fanon’s unrequited crush that causes him confusion. He is supposed to be a dedicated Aryan warrior, but he develops a growing obsession with both Niani and Sherry.

What made this most unsettling for me was Singer’s somewhat fictionalized version of Cincinnati. I could recognize a lot of the neighborhoods in the book, even though they had altered or generic names. I found one scene set on the city square (really Fountain Square) where the Ku Klux Klan has an anemic rally, and even the Fifth Reich thugs are not all that impressed. It does give this story a real world feeling, but what makes this so compelling is Fanon’s transformation in the book. It has nothing to do with jail or religion. Violence is a part of that change, but it happens over time, perhaps before Fanon even finds an identity with the skinheads.

Nathan Singer has written an unflinching look at the darkest corner of society’s dark side, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Favorite Bands: The Rolling Stones

If The Beatles reinvented rock and roll in the sixties, the Rolling Stones gave it its mojo. No disrespect to Messrs. Lewis, Presley, or Holly, but rock was in decline since The Day the Music Died.

Rolling Stones logo

rollingstones.com

I could rehash their history, but you already know it. And if you don’t, GO LOOK IT UP RIGHT NOW!

The Stones are, essentially, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Charlie Watts laying the beats. They didn’t replace Bill Wyman with a full-time bassist, and the second guitar slot never found stability until Ron Wood replaced Mick Taylor.

No, it’s Mick and Keith the band revolves around. From their first song, “Time Is on My Side” to the disturbing “Sympathy for the Devil” to “Start Me Up,” there’s a memory attached to every song. Three that stand out for me are “Satisfaction,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Miss You.” I’ll take the last one first. It’s the first song I remember when it was new. “Miss You” came out during disco’s waning days. It was disco, and yet it wasn’t. This was a time when The Beatles were twiddling their thumbs over reuniting or just continuing their solo careers. (McCartney’s efforts after about 1976 were a big snore fest, and Lennon was baking bread. Literally.) Arena rock was on an upswing, but the bands had trouble trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up or Led Zeppelin got out of rehab. Leave it to Mick Jagger and Billy Preston to give rock its identity back. I was twelve at the time and went around singing the falsetto hook, “Who-oo-HOO-oo-Hoo-oo-oo! Who-oo-HOO-oo-Hoo-oo-oo!” at the top of my lungs. My brothers, who were 5 and 3 at the time, thought it was funny. Mom was not amused.

Nor was she amused by “Sympathy for the Devil.” Growing up in a religious household where the rumor about “Stairway” having backwards messages (It doesn’t. I’ll tell you how I found out for sure in another post.) was given credence, a song sung by Satan about all his achievements did not go over well. But then just listen to that bongo intro and Mick screaming “Yeeooow!!!”, you get a real taste of evil’s seductive power. It eventually helped in writing whenever I wanted to write about someone who is deliberately, whether they believe they are or not, evil.

And then finally, we come to “Satisfaction,” the Stones’ signature song. As a kid, I just thought it was a cool song. As a teen, I thought it was a really cool song. As an adult, I was fully aware of song’s raw sexuality. I suspect many people reading this (possibly even me) were conceived to “Satisfaction.” The song even gave a date a very happy ending one evening.

*Ahem*

There was a time, the 1980’s, where I questioned whether the Stones should continue. Tattoo You is a classic Stones album, but then they came out with Undercover, which sounded like a misstep, followed by the weak Dirty Work. (I liked “One Hit to the Body,” which had a guest appearance by Jimmy Page.) And then Keith’s habits caught up with him and turned him into rock’s first zombie guitarist. It looked like they were done.

But then came Steel Wheels. It was closer to the classic Stones sound than the previous two albums. Still, Bill Wyman retired during the sessions. How did that affect them? Many bands have a member they simply can’t afford to lose even though he’s not in the spotlight or part of the creative core: Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted of Metallica.  For the Stones, it was Wyman. Darrell Jones stepped in nicely for the live shows, but in the studio throughout the nineties, there was clearly something missing from the Rolling Stones since Wyman’s departure.

Still, the Stones press on. I could see them doing something bluesey and acoustic along the lines of Johnny Cash’s American recordings. That would rock.

Which is what the Stones have always done.

Ebookery: Google Buying Barnes & Noble? Why Not?

Before we begin, go read this article from a few months back by GigaOM’s Mike Wolf.  Go on. I’ll wait.

Finished? Good.

Mike is absolutely right. Google should buy Barnes & Noble. And lest the European Union get a bee in its bonnet about competition, it needs to think of this: Content is what Barnes & Noble does best. Google does not do content. It just serves it up via its search engine. Oh, Android is a terrific operating system, but it’s too fragmented. In an age where Amazon is replacing the ereader with full-blown tablet on Google’s Android OS, producing a generic version of Android to be used wherever will not work the way Windows works for Microsoft.

Of course, Microsoft kept a tight grip on Windows. Want to run our operating system? Here are the rules. And in the case of Windows 7 and the forthcoming Windows 8, if you want to play, you have to supply drivers. (Yes, Vista is just as much HP and Dell’s fault is is it Steve Ballmer’s.) Google placed no such restrictions on Android, and more’s the pity.

But the Android genie is out of the bottle, and now the platform is fragmenting. Good for Google in terms of licensing. Bad in terms of relevance.

Yes, Jim, but what does this have to do with ebooks?

Glad you asked that. Unlike one bitter former midlister’s irresponsible rant to basically get out of Amazon’s way, I don’t see Amazon as invincible. Oh, sure, I’ll do business with them. I like Kindle. I own one of the old school units and have the Kindle app on all my PC’s and my phone (An Android, where Kindle nestles with Angry Birds. I’m never bored on the john.) They’ve been snubbed by Barnes & Noble and by Books-A-Million in the print market. Stupid? No, Amazon will need more than it’s own stores to thrive in real space, since print is clearly not going away any time soon. (Sorry, bitter former midlister.) But Barnes & Noble is bleeding. If it is to be saved, it will be through technology. Google can provide that technological muscle. It’s revenue model can also take some of the retail pressure off the brick-and-mortar stores and their online outlet. And it would even the playing field. Sooner or later, bookstores will have to carry Amazon titles. It would be better if they could dictate terms of their own to get a deal.

More importantly, Google bought Motorola. With a hardware arm now and an R&D approach that makes Microsoft look like Commodore Computer, Google needs only a ready-made content arm to jumpstart its attempts to sell books and music. Even with its current problems, Barnes & Noble is better positioned to deliver. Plus the combination of Motorola and Google will allow Nook to innovate, possibly even exceed the capabilities of Amazon. And as I said before, Google’s revenue model may make the Nook a less expensive alternative to Kindle. After all, Google is unobtrusive in their advertising.

So where does that leave Apple and Microsoft? Apple is going nowhere. It has the iPhone/iPad platform. It has Mac and the iCloud. It’s an ecosystem designed and built by Steve Jobs and maintained by people he personally trained. Microsoft? Windows, especially Windows 8, could easily eclipse Android and the iPad, but they’ll need new management.

Kind of like Barnes & Noble needs. Google has it.