Firing Congress

In 1995, Congress and the White House deadlocked over a budget issue and allowed the government to shut down. In 1996, I voted for my only write-in candidate for president and against my Congressman. Why?

If you count the vice president, that made 537 people who were derelict of their Constitutionally mandated duties. Supporters of either side would say, “Well, they have to make a point.” To me, there is no point that important to make. We didn’t live in a country torn by civil war. We were in the middle of an economic boom. The only point to be made was ideological. And in a democracy, ideological points are never ever that important. In fact, they seldom have anything to do with reality.

So rather than choose between the sitting president and one of 100 sitting senators, I wrote in the man who lost the Reform Party nomination to Ross Perot. I’d painted Perot, perhaps unfairly, with the same brush. I suppose if I had to do it over again, I’d have cast a vote for that mad little Ferengi.

So in October of 2013, the government shuts down again, and over even more dubious reasons than in1995. And once again, I will not be voting for my Congressman. Nor will I vote for Republican Senator Rob Portman in 2016, either for Senate or for president. Nor will I give Democrat Sherrod Brown my vote in 2018. It’s too bad on the Congressman. Brad Wenstrup finally kicked that vapid harpie Jean Schmidt to the curb in 2012. And despite the Tea Party rhetoric, he’s always been a reasonable sort of guy.

But Wenstrup, Portman, and Brown were in Congress the day the government shut down. And there are have to be consequences. And the consequences are that I don’t vote for them. Never again.  So I’ll be voting for some guy I’ve never heard of. Come 2016, the Republicans have a chance to court my vote (Slim, maybe) as long as their nominee was not a sitting member of Congress in October, 2013. Likewise, the Democrats. As long as they do not nominate one of that useless body or Vice President Biden, I’ll listen. So what if it’s Biden vs., say, Rand Paul? Well, the Libertarians, Greens, and Modern Whigs usually get a presidential candidate on the ballot in Ohio.

Or maybe I can write in Ross Perot. I kinda feel like I owe the guy.

There are few unforgivable sins in politics. Shutting down the government needs to be one of them.

Friday Reviews: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke

In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

James Lee Burke

Full disclosure: This book was recommended to me by Alafair Burke when I asked which of her father’s books I should read. I’m sure it has nothing to do with protagonist Dave Robicheaux’s teenage daughter Alafair. (Just kidding, Alafair!)

Actually, it was a really good pick. It begins with Robicheaux, a deputy in a bayou parish in Louisiana, delicately letting actor Elrod Sykes off of a drunk driving charge. Robicheaux knows a few things about drunks, having been one in the old days. Something’s spooked Sykes. He claims to have found a body in the bayou while working on a movie. Robicheaux realizes it’s the victim of a murder he witnessed as a young man of 19. He takes up the case which puts him in the crosshairs of local mafioso Julie Balboni, who fancies himself a movie producer. The problem is that he also needs to investigate the brutal murder of a young woman that looks like a serial killer. So much so that the FBI sends Rosie Gomez to work the case.

Both murders pose a problem for Balboni, whose ego is more dangerous than any of his thugs. He proceeds to gaslight Robicheaux, even spiking his drink with LSD to convince others that he’s gone back to drinking. It doesn’t help that sobriety never really curtailed his temper where brutal criminals are concerned. Even Robicheaux begins questioning his sanity when he’s given advice by the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood.

Burke’s bayou is a different world. It’s not New Orleans or Texas or any of a dozen other Southern locales that show up in crime novels. The Old South is very much alive here and at odds with the modern South. But it’s Balboni’s arrogance that drives this story. He has a history with Robicheaux going back to high school. Robicheaux himself is arrogant, slashing Balboni’s tires and having the car towed at one point before nearly putting one of the gangster’s entourage in the hospital. But the difference is Balboni is all about Balboni. Robicheaux is about other’s. He wants justice for the black man he saw murdered and for the girl found carved up near the movie set. He also takes an interest in getting Elrod Sykes clean and sober, sometimes against his wife’s advice.

The Short Challenge

Boxer briefs

CC 2008 Luis2402

A few weeks back, I announced my plans to offer a new short story monthly and to release a quarterly magazine called Winter’s Quarterly. All the while doing this, I’m writing novellas leading into the SF novel and writing short stories to send to science fiction markets, all under the name I refer to here as “Dick.” I’ve also been asked to revise Holland Bay and need to plan its follow-up. A lot of work on top of a day job and college, right?

Already, I devote my early mornings to writing original material. Get 500 words written, and I’m off to work. But Winter’s Quarterly and the page Get Into Jim’s Shorts will need material, too. So I issued myself a challenge.

Last time I sketched out potential shorts to write, I came up with three potential crime stories for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The challenge? Start one story each weekend and finish the first draft in that weekend. When those three are written, come up with three more stories. And so on. And so on.

Part of this will be to come up with original material for the first few Winter’s Quarterly. The stories, including “Trick or Treat” that was finished this past weekend, are timed for the season, so I’d rather they be held back until next fall when they’ll be more timely. So the first Winter’s Quarterly in January will be have mostly new material never before published.

There’s another component to this. As I do more and more around writing, I have to be able to keep up the pace of creating new material. It’s a frequent complaint among writers I know that it’s hard to move on after the first draft of a novel is finished. “What do I do next?” they complain. One publishing maven whom I was friendly with for several years said she would come down with some sort of bug every time she finished. Plus, I’m being two writers: Jim and Dick, who will have his coming out very soon. So I need to be in a mode where I can shift gears from short to long work, from crime to science fiction, from Jim to Dick. The challenge of writing every weekend will make this easier to manage. If I stockpile enough stories, I can devote more time to long work without worrying about an empty pipeline.

Perfect? Nothing is perfect. Anyone who says there’s a perfect way is lying or in for a shock.

Mind you, it took me a long time to reach this point. Just as writing a novel is a learned skill, so is writing a high amount of material and writing it well. That second part of equation is very important. Because you don’t shoot for quality, there’s no point to quantity.

You Are Not Victims. Get Over It.

There’s a growing debate in social media these days about geek culture and whether or not it is under siege. It’s risen to new heights of hysteria as one gaming critic received death threats and had to leave her home temporarily for the safety of her family. What’s going on?

Well, for a certain subset of geek culture, the move to the mainstream threatens their very identity. And therein lies the flaw. The culture itself is not under threat. If anything, it’s growing, changing, becoming more interesting and more relevant. ComicCon is covered the way rock concerts and fashion shows were once on MTV. It’s hip to be seen with Chris Pine or Peter Dinklage or Hugh Jackman. It’s cool to dress up as your favorite Game of Thrones character or Batman at a large gathering. Suddenly, the public gets the whole Halloween all year vibe of geek culture. Cosplay is in. Video games are in. Scifi/fantasy/horror are in. Wil Wheaton, who spent years taking flack for playing one of the least liked characters on a Star Trek series is rapidly becoming the next Jon Stewart. Welcome to the new age, my friends.

So why the hate?

When I first got into IT back in the nineties, computers were becoming mainstream, and there was a certain degree of this sort of angst around it by people who hunkered down and did arcane things with the pre-Netscape Internet, with distant Unix boxes, and with cryptic command-line operating systems. Now PC’s and even Linux boxes started to look like Macs. “Oh, noze,” they cried. “Everyone can do this now. We’re not special anymore!”

Since I got into the technology realm in the mid-1990’s, I had no stake in the “old ways.” If someone told me to quit using a mouse and use the DOS prompt on a PC, I looked at them like they were stupid. They certainly were telling me stupid things. But the mouse represented change, and not the cool kind of change like big hard drives and high-speed Internet brought. Those icky muggles now knew how to do magic. Ew!

Eventually, that went away, and to some degree, the novelty for the non-technically inclined went away as well. I used to have a rule that, if you graduated high school after me, you had damn well better know where the Start button was, what it could do, and, oh, you also forfeited the right to complain when I said “Reboot” sometime around the Y2K changeover. The old guard looked at these things as secrets of a mystic art. I looked at it (admittedly being an arrogant ass in the process) as a benchmark one needs to function in the modern era. We got more than three channels on the TV, Corky. Better master that remote or no HBO for you.

So it is with geekdom. One columnist complained that too many hot chicks were wearing costumes at conventions without earning their geek cred. Said columnist got his ass handed to him by John Scalzi, whose initiation into geekery happened roughly at the same time as mine did (even though John is younger.) As creator of the Old Man’s War series, a noted expert on all things scifi, a Heinlein scholar, creative consultant for one of the Stargate series, and probably the most popular SF author today, Scalzi made two declarations that, I’m sorry, but are not open for debate: 1.) Anyone who wants to be a geek is a geek. No exceptions; 2.) there is no king of the geeks (though Wil Wheaton could make a case) nor any rules for initiation. It is not a closed society. It is not a mystic cult.

And therein is the parallel to the technology sector in the 1990’s. Long time geeks don’t like all this change!

Man up, buttercup. When you go mainstream, you have to open the gates. Otherwise, you’re no better than those idiots in pretentious literary circles sniffing their own farts and sneering at anything that doesn’t sound like Hemingway or Faulkner and whining if their work does something horrifying like sell over 10,000 copies. (I’m looking at YOU, Franzen, you self-absorbed pretentious hack!) You are no longer the outsiders. Isn’t that what you’ve been pining for? Acceptance? Respect? A little bon ami for whatever franchise it is that you love?

Well, here’s the second part I alluded to earlier. There’s a culture of victimhood in geekery. Not every geek has thought this way. I did cosplay back in the 1990’s when it was “grownups in silly costumes.” And it was fun. It let me blow off steam. It gave me (Surprise!) social skills. But there were plenty of folks in that then-smaller community that felt slighted by the mainstream. They felt hurt to be ridiculed, and much of it was carry-over from adolescence and childhood, when a love of Star Trek or Star Wars replaced the mandatory love of the NFL. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were supposed to be your gods, not Captain Kirk and Han Solo.

And I get that. I was not the most athletic child. I sucked at baseball. (A few dozen men who played Little League with me are reading this and going, “No! Really?” One star pitcher reminds me of it on my birthday every year as a joke.) I found solace in Star Trek, in the monster movies on Saturday afternoons, in repeated viewings of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on HBO when we first had it. I loved this stuff. I wanted to make up my own.

And then, as a young adult, I fell in with the Trekkies. Often ridiculed, most of them didn’t care. We had a blast together, and it was about more than the television show. I drifted into the Klingon fan groups because, frankly, they threw better parties and were better draws for charity events. Plus, you haven’t lived until you and several of your friends barge into a Denny’s dressed as alien berserkers and growl at the manager, “We demand finger food! Bring us pudding!”

But there’s that obsessive component of which the victim mentality plays into. Fandom began to suck up all my time. The politics of the clubs started intruding on other aspects of my life. I was going broke trying to pay for all the gear it took to be a Klingon, and, alarmingly, I had little time to actually watch the show we all claimed to love. One day, I posted my farewell on a local Fidonet bulletin board, took my costume (which a few fanatics insisted I call a “uniform”), and dumped it in the Salvation Army clothing bin, latex forehead and all.

I have never taken so much flack for a decision in my life. When someone called or emailed me, hurt that I’d turned my back on the group, I said, “I’m in debt. I need to go to school and learn some skills. And I need to have time to myself that’s not devoted to a television show you guys won’t give me time to watch.”

“But that’s not fair!”

No, working sixty hours a week at three jobs for two years so I could catch up on my debts was not fair. Driving cars that were expensive rolling death traps bought for less than I now pay on my mortgage each month wasn’t fair. Having no social life beyond the group wasn’t fair. Even the most fanatical churches acknowledge you have a life beyond the sanctuary (unless it’s a cult.) All this did was bolster my decision to leave. Too many people made it central to their lives, and I, having been vetted and approved to join the sacred congregation, was a traitor.

Some of those people I still called friend afterward. One of them is an online member of my current writer’s group. But the mentality is still there across all franchises and formats, from gaming to movies to comic books and beyond. A small group of hardcore fans feels threatened that they’re suddenly not special anymore. And that victimhood of being outsiders is a huge component of that core belief.

All I have to say, having been in that world and having fond memories of most of it is…

The only threat to geek culture are the hardcore fanatics who can’t stand change. If you want to know what’s threatening your culture?

Go look in the mirror.


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.