Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What is Evil?

by Libby Hellmann

One of the things that strikes me about Chicago’s media coverage of the Family Secrets trial are the descriptions of witnesses. Nick Calabrese, once one of the most dangerous Mafioisi in the Outfit, wears a “gray sweatsuit and rounded eyeglasses. With his white hair neatly parted, he looked more like a doughy banker in his pajamas than a "made" member of the mob.” When the son of mobster Frank Calabrese testified, the Sun Times said, “at first he had a little tremor in his voice. He appeared nervous.”

The media have done their job-- they’ve humanized evil. I’m not criticizing. As crime fiction writers, we do it all the time. We introduce characters we know to be evil, dress them in designer clothes, give them sympathetic traits, and in an effort to fully develop them, even give them a compassionate back story. The bad guys had a deprived childhood… abusive father… alcoholic mother. Whatever. Readers might not root for them, but at least they “understand.”

What I keep wondering is whether, over time, our attempt to humanize evil has watered down the concept. Just what does it take for us to recognize evil these days?

Fifty years ago, the Outfit was one of the most evil organizations known to man. Elliot Ness was a hero. But now, in our Soprano-fueled culture, the Outfit yields not much more than a yawn. Is it familiarity? Too much exposure? Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, not boredom. To a degree maybe that’s happened. We perceive the Outfit as less muscular, more feeble. As Kevin pointed out in his last blog, the holy picture ritual almost made them out to be buffoons.

Our tolerance for evil seems, like so much else in our culture, to have coarsened. We search out “new and improved” evil-doers… the Russian mob.. Asian gangs… Arab terrorists. Quick: which are worse: Nazis or Al Qaeda? Serial killers or pedophiles?

As kids we knew the evil monster in the closet would get us if we didn’t say our prayers, brush our teeth, share our toys. Today, our moral compasses seem so skewed that only the vilest, most reprehensible monsters can rile us. We seem willing to accept, even condone, a laissez faire attitude toward guilt and innocence. (And yes, I’m generalizing to make a point).

But it does become problematic. I’m about to start a new novel. Usually my first step is to define the evil I’ll be writing about. What is it? Who is practicing it? How will it be revealed? Honestly, this time I’m flummoxed—I’ve done the corrupt politician, the neo-Nazi, the vengeful real estate developer, Big Oil, the amoral father. What’s left? An African dictator? Health insurers? The current administration? Whoever killed Kennedy? It all seems so ho-hum. Been there done that…

So, I ask you – writers, readers, observers of today’s society – what do you believe is true evil? What is the worst kind of sin?

Btw, for a study of systemic evil in war, I highly recommend Paul Verhoevens’ film ”Black Book.” It’s a stunning examination of good and evil, and how our perceptions can be upended.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Don't Touch Me I'm A Real Live Wire

By Kevin Guilfoile

It was absurd and chilling. The kind of scene that, as a writer, you wished you'd made up yourself.

Joseph "The Shark" Lopez, defense attorney for accused mobster Frank Calabrese, Sr., was cross-examining Frank Calabrese, Jr., his client's son and the star government witness in Chicago's ongoing Family Secrets trial. Lopez was dressed the part of a mob lawyer in a black suit with pink tie and socks. Frank Jr. was in the middle of a grueling week of testimony in which he had confessed to taking part in more than a dozen murders.

"Are you a serial killer?" Lopez asked him.

"No," Frank, Jr. replied. "I'm just a killer."

If I had to propose a universal theory of suspense novels, a single theme common to almost all mysteries and thrillers (some cozies excepted, perhaps) it would be something like what is suggested between the lines of that exchange. Suspense novels explore, again and again, not just the reasons human beings kill each other but, just as significantly, the reasons human beings don't kill each other more often than we do. Almost all suspense fiction is set at the horizon of decency where we've drawn the line representing mankind's ultimate and universal prohibition against taking another person's life. These stories are frequently about the people who seek to cross that line, the individuals assigned to keep them from doing it, and the people who are terrorized and victimized when that ethical wall is breached. The point of it, if I can avoid making it sound too self-important, is to understand what it means to be human. That's the point of all fiction, of course, but suspense novelists have staked out this particular territory on the edge.

And sometimes, it seems, so have the federal courts.

Lopez's half-serious but still provocative question--Are you a serial killer?--was obviously meant to shock both jury and witness (if it's possible to shock a person with so many notches on his holster). And it's easy to see why readers and writers are attracted to and repulsed by the psychology of serial killers. Our fascination with mobsters might even be more complicated. Men like Frank Sr. and Frank Jr don't seem to be mentally ill. I'm not qualified to say whether any of the men accused in the Family Secrets trial is a sociopath. But what becomes clear in the trial testimony is the way killing is not just a method for mob members to eliminate enemies or remove obstacles in their way. For them, murder is a tool of business the same way retailers have QuickBooks and White Sales. If there were a Malcolm Gladwell for mobsters he might be writing THE WHACKING POINT.

The popular notion of some mobster code in which members of the Mafia limit violence to their own kind is rooted partially in this seemingly business-like approach to murder. The serial killer murders for pleasure or to quench some pathological thirst. The mobster always claims to have a commercially viable reason.

But on another day of the trial we got a glimpse at just how frightening and arbitrary those reasons can sometimes be. After someone broke into the home of mob boss Tony Accardo in 1978, burglars all over town began disappearing. Bobby "The Beak" Siegel had nothing to do with the Accardo break in but he was getting the distinct feeling that he might be next. His fears were confirmed in a conversation with mobster Gerald Scarpelli, who told Bobby that The Outfit couldn't be sure exactly who had been involved and so they had decided to go after any and all small time burglars in an effort to send a message. "They were trying to make it one guy of every nationality," Siegel said he was told by Scarpelli of the hit list. "He said, 'You just happened to be the Jew.'"

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


By Barbara D'Amato

English author John Creasey is said to have received 743 rejection slips before he got an acceptance and a publisher. He is famous for his productivity, publishing 564 books in the years following, using thirteen pen names.

How do you take 743 rejections? It is often said that being told your novel is no good is like being told your baby is ugly. Well, maybe. But usually when that happens you usually keep the baby. A writer may just give up.


Libby Hellman has a rejection story:

‘After finishing my second novel, I got an agent. A reputable, solid, NY agent. He took the mss and submitted it to everyone. It was roundly rejected by everyone (in retrospect… it should have been. It wasn’t ready) But I didn’t know that at the time. Six months later he called and said, “Libby, I haven’t been able to sell your mss.” I replied, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve been working on a sequel, and it’s better. The characters are more developed, the plot is tighter, everything’s better.” He said, “No. I don’t think you heard me. I don’t think it will sell. In fact, I think you should change your stories. Change your characters. Change your voice. And change agents too, because I don’t want to represent you anymore.”

‘After I picked myself off the floor, I ended up doing what he suggested. The result was “An Eye for Murder.” I got another agent once I completed the mss, and she sold it 10 weeks later.’

Sara Paretsky says, ‘I had 37 rejections before I sold my first novel. Most of them were oral to my agent, but 13 put them in writing to me..."wooden, talky, derivative, Chicago setting of regional interest only" are a few that I remember. As for how I handled it--and how I handle current rejection of new story ideas, or bad reviews--Oscar Brown, Jr's "But I was Cool," pretty much sums it up.’

Kevin Guilfoile says, ‘I don't know if this counts but when John Warner and I agreed to write MY FIRST PRESIDENTIARY (which had to be produced in less three weeks following the 2000 election) we basically told the publisher that we could illustrate it because we didn't want to split the money with a third person. Unfortunately, neither John nor I had ever drawn anything in our entire lives except for Chemistry notebook doodles of Asia album covers. We basically flipped a coin and I lost and so I ended up illustrating the book. Or doing my best anyway.

‘After MFP made a couple bestseller lists I received a call from an editor at a major national political magazine. He said their Pulitzer-winning cartoonist was moving on to a new gig and they were looking for someone to take his place. He asked if I would be interested in auditioning for the job by submitting a handful of cartoons.

‘Figuring he had been impressed by my work in the book, I was suddenly very full of myself. I put together a few single panel gags and sent them off. The next day the editor called me back and he said, "Um, this is an embarrassing question but do you not know how to draw?"’

Sure, these are people who went on to publish. But suppose they’d given up at the first, or seventh rejection? Oh, maybe we could have survived without Kevin’s drawings. My good friend, the late Hugh Holton, had written seven seven-hundred page novels before he sold on – it was number five. Then he sold six and seven, but not the earlier ones. As he said later, “They weren’t polished.”

So, bottom line. We aren’t born knowing how to write a novel. How do you get published? Persist.

Although I kind of grieve for those unpublished Guilfoile drawings.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Searching For a Few Good Books

by Marcus Sakey

I used to go book shopping by wandering into a store, running my hands along the shelves, inhaling deeply, and grabbing books at random. This was fun, sensual even, but the results were scattershot. Sometimes I stumbled on gems. Sometimes I bought losers. The truth is that it's pretty easy for a publishing company to make a jacket look enticing. And though you can read the first pages, I've grabbed plenty of books with dynamite initial chapters and lousy everything else.

In the last years, the Internet has changed the way I read. Oftentimes I'm getting titles from blogs or columns, people whose taste I trust. Before I buy a book, I can scan reviews from both readers and the media. I can still read the first few pages, but I can also check out the author's website. As a result, I've been fortunate to have consistently good books for the past few years.

This is a wonderful thing. But it spoils you, too. Because when the standard is generally high, you're always searching for the exceptional.

Which is where y'all come in. I've read a lot of excellent books recently. But it's been a while since one truly startled me. I'm not talking about being a heck of a read, or fun, or smart. I'm talking about absolutely blowing the doors off. A book that is a serious and sudden contender for the prized Number One slot.

I'm hoping you can suggest more.

I'll give you an example to kick it off. CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. I picked it up on a friend's rec, and didn't get to it for more than a year. Then, once I did, I walked around in a daze throughout reading it. Sheer and pulsing genius on every damn page. A story--a series of stories, really, but all connected--that wouldn't let go. Virtuosic command of the language. Lines and images that haunt me still. If you haven't read it, I urge you to pick up a copy.

So, the rules: No rules. I'll take recs in any category. I read litfic and fantasy and science fiction and crime and graphic novels and the sides of cereal boxes. They can be old or new, acclaimed or unheard of, native English or translations.

They just have to have really shaken you to your core.

How about it? What blew you away?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Crime on a national scale

by Michael Dymmoch

The Outfit prides itself on crime commentary, and mostly we confine our remarks to local or fictional violence and organized crime. But here’s a national crime that’s almost as stomach churning as Abu Ghraib:

Since 2001, according to a report by Bob Woodruff on ABC World News (July 12, 2007), 22,000 soldiers have been separated from the US military with a ‘Separation because of personality disorder’ discharge. The military defines personality disorder as a “deeply ingrained, maladaptive pattern of behavior." Because personality disorder is considered a pre-existing condition, soldiers so separated are ineligible for disability pay and benefits. EVEN SOME WHO SERVED TOURS IN COMBAT ZONES AND WERE TREATED BY THE MILITARY FOR POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER! Some of these folks were encouraged to reenlist before discharge, and were billed for return of their reenlistment bonuses when their disabilities prevented them from serving out second hitches. They will be branded for the rest of their lives with a resume that insures they’ll be discriminated against when applying for jobs and insurance.

This is how we support our troops!

If these soldiers really had previously existing personality disorders, the military had no business accepting them for service in the first place. If in fact they served without incident before suffering in combat, THEY DESERVE DISCHARGES THAT ENABLE THEM TO LIVE DECENTLY AFTERWARD. And they deserve veterans’ benefits.

And the geniuses who decided that abandoning veterans is a good way to trim the military’s bottom line, belong in the brig.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Series Charaters . . . Static or Evolving?

by Sean Chercover

I just got back from Thrillerfest, where Marcus and I were on panel (with great fellow panelists Jack DuBrul, Christine Goff and super moderator Jon Land) about the pros and cons of writing a series. One of the subjects we batted around was whether a series protagonist should grow and evolve over time, or remain basically unchanged.

When I sat down to write the second Ray Dudgeon novel, I found that Ray had to have been changed by his experiences in Big City, Bad Blood. Had to. You just can’t go through the kind of hell Ray went through in that book and come out of it unchanged. It was the only way for me to continue believing in him.

But that’s Ray. There are some excellent series characters that don’t fundamentally change, no matter what happens to them over the course of a series.

Two of my favorites: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. These guys are larger-than-life archetypes, both relatively unchanging over time. Yet I have no trouble believing in them.

I’m generally more interested in character than plot, so in most cases a static protagonist will only hold my interest for a few books, and then I'll move on to a different series. I usually prefer evolving series protagonists. But Child is such a damn good writer and storyteller (and Reacher is such a damn good character) that I’m always eager for the next book. The same can be said (in the past tense) for MacDonald and McGee.

(Sure, McGee was a product of his time and his attitude toward women is at times cringe inducing. But he did reflect many men of his era, so it doesn’t diminish his believability. The same criticism cannot be made of Reacher. Reacher respects women as his equals, and the Reacher books are well populated by strong and intelligent women.) But I digress . . .

Another thing that keeps the Reacher series fresh is that some books are written in the third person, others in the first. So even if the character is not changing much, the shift of perspective gives us different views of him.

My favorite evolving series characters? Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder leap to mind. And, as our panel moderator pointed out, James Bond changed a great deal over the course of the original Ian Fleming series.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you prefer to pick up the next book in a series knowing that you will find a reliable archetype, or are you looking for a character that has been changed by his/her previous experiences? Who are your favorite archetypal or evolving characters? And why?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Amy, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Libby Hellmann

One of the biggest challenges for crime fiction authors (at least this one) is coming up with a credible plot. Is it authentic? Could it really happen? Does it make sense? Will the reader believe it? We ask these questions endlessly, discussing the finer points of crime scenes, weapons, police procedure, and more with each other, law enforcement, editors, maybe even criminals.

One of the hottest stories in Chicago this summer touches on that credibility. And I have to admit, I’m having a hard time with it. If it was fiction, would it pass the credibility test? The fairness test? Would it play? Or is it an example of what’s happened to the media in the 21st century, shielding themselves (and their corporate stockholders) from risk, bad press, and the threat of litigation?

You be the judge.

Last week Amy Jacobson, an ambitious TV reporter for Channel 5 News (the NBC station) was fired. Why? She was videotaped in her bikini at the home of a man whose wife has been missing over two months. The tape was shot by a rival local station, WBBM Channel 2 (the CBS station).


But let’s proceed.

The story is this: Lisa Stebic, mother of two and husband of Craig, disappeared last April. The couple was in the midst of a contentious divorce. In fact, Lisa had tried to evict Craig from their house in an affluent suburb when she went missing.

Jacobson was covering the story for Channel Five, doing what a good reporter does on a potentially big story: following leads, developing sources, piecing it together.

Apparently one of those sources was Craig Stebic’s sister. She called Jacobson on her day off, inviting her to the Stebic house. Craig was there – maybe he’d talk to Jacobson. After consulting with her husband, Jacobson, who says she was on her way to a swimming date with her kids, went to the Stebic house instead. Everyone went swimming: the kids, Stebic, the sister, Jacobson. Which was when the video was shot.(Btw, the link is to the unedited, raw footage)

A few days later, she was fired for breaching journalistic ethics. They claimed she was too close to the story; that by going to the house and being captured on tape, she became part of the story – a journalistic taboo.

I’m still scratching my head over this.

Clearly the story isn’t as important as Watergate, when the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham condoned the fact that Woodward and Bernstein did pretty much the same things Jacobson did. And stood up to Attorney General John Mitchell when they were challenged. And no one claims Jacobson was undercover, where secrecy – and putting oneself in jeopardy -- are tacitly approved, in order to “get the story.” Although it turned out that she’d been briefing the police about her contacts with Stebic -- without her boss’s knowledge. (Just after she was fired, btw, the husband was officially named a “person of interest” by the police.)

I do think she showed poor judgment by exposing her children to a potentially dangerous situation. They should have never gone with her. I also think she was foolish not to have told her bosses she was talking to the cops. It’s never a good idea to be free-lancing during the investigation of what might become a serious crime.

But should she have been fired?

No one denies Jacobson is ambitious. And apparently this is not the first time her methods have been questioned. Maybe she has cut a journalistic corner or two. But she does get stories. Exclusives. This time she gave up her day off, dragged her kids to the house, in pursuit of an interview. Does that make her damaged goods?

Another point that has been raised: the video aired by Channel 2 shows Amy in a bikini with a towel around her waist. If it had been a man, would we even be having this conversation?

Some reporters have contractual language which says they can’t be fired unless they commit a felony while pursuing a story. A felony. Not a misdemeanor. What Amy did wasn’t remotely close to that, and yet, she got the ax. Was her breach of ethics all that egregious?

Finally, let’s apply the credibility test. I realize I’m jumping from reality to fiction here, but how many novels have you read that center on a journalist who goes to extraordinary lengths to solve a murder?
Consider Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly… Edna Buchanan’s Britt Montero… Denise Hamilton’s Eve Diamond… The Outfit’s own Cat Marsala by Barb D’Amato.

Would they brief the police if they had crucial information? Of course they would. There is a symbiotic link between journalists and law enforcement. Both reporters and police need information. A sophisticated barter system between them often results, which can lead to important developments in a story.

And what about cozying up to suspects? According to neighbors, Jacobson had been seen at the house before. Maybe she was getting background. Advancing the story. Confirming a rumor. In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to work in TV news – coincidentally a lot of that time at NBC -- and I once bought a pizza for Walter Mondale’s kids the night before he was named Jimmy Carter’s running mate. We were trying to confirm the rumor. Following the story. If I’d been fired for what I thought was just doing my job, I would have been devastated.

So why did NBC fire Amy? Unless there is more to the story we don’t know, their decision looks to me to be excessive. I can’t help but wonder whether the constant beatings the press has taken over the past eight years have had their effect. Owned by major corporations, the networks are now so risk-averse that the slightest whiff of controversy has them scurrying to the sidelines, sluffing off anything that could damage their stock prices. I keep thinking that maybe Amy was collateral damage.

As you’d expect, the story has resonated with other reporters, media and bloggers. Some of it is funny… Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera, for example, proclaiming Amy’s termination a “no-brainer” -- this, from the guy who opened up Al Capone’s vault on national TV and found… nothing.

What do you think? Is this just a tempest in a teapot? A case of reverse sexism? Revenge of a competing TV station? Is it misleading to compare Amy’s plight to fiction? Are there a different set of rules for fictional reporters? Can they get away with tactics “real” reporters can’t? Or is something amiss with the way information is purveyed today?

PS Speaking of information purveyors, maybe someone else can weigh in on the Conrad Black guilty verdict…

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I Know You Don't Love That Guy 'Cause I Can See Right Through You

By Kevin Guilfoile

Good stuff in the Family Secrets trial this week.

The prosecution played a recording of a conversation between alleged mob boss Frank Calabrese, Sr. and his son, prosecution witness Frank Calabrese, Jr., in which some of the details of the long secret initation ceremony of the Chicago Mob was revealed.

Much of this has showed up already in movies and television which, thanks to the natural craving of some mobsters for celebrity, are our primary sources of accurate Mafia information.

But there was one detail I'd never heard before. According to the Chicago Tribune:

The underboss, the Outfit's second-in-command, and capos, who led the street crews, initiated new members one by one, cutting their fingers and then burning a holy picture in their hands, the elder Calabrese said in the 1999 conversation.

The burning of "holy pictures" was apparently meant to convey to the largely Catholic membership of Chicago organized crime that loyalty to the mob came even before loyalty to God. And I suppose it was intended to be a fearsome moment. But as a Catholic myself, I can't help but find it a little ridiculous.

It reminded me a little bit of a story that I first heard in the bestselling book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. In a chapter about "information asymmetry," the authors describe what might have been the killing blow to the mid-century Ku Klux Klan.

In the wake of World War II, the Klan was enjoying a resurgence and Atlanta was its new base of operations. Atlanta was also home to a wealthy young man named Stetson Kennedy, whose ancestors included two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the founder of a famous hat company. Stetson's uncle had been a Klansman, but his family's maid had also been beaten and raped by a KKK mob for the crime of "talking to a white trolley driver who had shortchanged her."

Kennedy decided that, with the Axis defeated, bigotry was this country's fiercest enemy.

He attempted to attack the organization as a journalist, but he was chagrined by the lack of information about it. So he had an idea. As a southerner whose blood relative had been a member, he thought it would be a simple matter to infiltrate the group as a member and take it down from within.

Joining proved to be easy. The recruiting pitch at the time was simply, "Do You Hate Niggers? Do you Hate Jews? Do You Have Ten Dollars?" Stetson was able to join at the discounted rate of eight bucks, plus additional fees for dues and a sheet, etc.

Soon Stetson was attending regular meetings and jotting down their most secretive secrets. To his astonishment, the Klan secrets turned out to be almost infantile. Their most evident innovation was to affix a "KL" to the beginning of ordinary words, "thus two Klansmen would hold a Klonversation in the local Klavern."

Kennedy attempted to use this information to undermine the Klan locally, but it didn't work very well. Then he had an inspiration. He contacted the producers of the hugely popular Adventures of Superman radio program and asked them if they would be interested in doing some episodes about the Klan. Stetson handed over what he knew--real passwords and secret rites of the Klan--which the Superman writers incorporated into the show.

Within days, thousands of children all over the country were role-playing Superman vs. the KKK, using the Klan's actual, ridiculous vernacular.

According to Levitt and Dubner:

Of all the ideas that Kennedy had thought up--and would think up in the future--to fight bigotry, his Superman campaign was easily the cleverest and probably the most productive. It had the precise effect he hoped: turning the Klan's secrecy against itself, converting precious knowledge into ammunition for mockery. Instead of roping millions of members as it had a generation earlier, the Klan lost momentum and began to founder. Although the Klan would never quite die, especially down South...it was also never quite the same. In The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, the historian Wyn Craig Wade calls Stetson Kennedy "the single most important factor in preventing a postwar revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the North."

I'm not suggesting, as some have, that the Family Secrets trial represents the end of The Outfit, and I don't want to suggest that mobsters have always been harmless buffoons. But I think it's true that every time we see a glimpse of the real mob, we find it a little less glamorous and a little more dreary and thuggish.

But no less fascinating for some reason.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not for the Squeamish

Sara Paretsky

I keep thinking about Pulp Fiction. It makes everyone’s top ten movies but mine, and I wonder why. Tarantino has been compared to Euripides and Shakespeare, and he doesn’t disagree. I read the glowing reviews—3.5 – 4 stars, all of them, though they come with the proviso, “Not for the Squeamish.”

I’m not squeamish. Nosiree, not me. Squeamish people are definitely Uncool. They’re not hip, they’re not tough, they’re not American. That’s the implication, anyway. If you’re not comfortable with graphic violence, you’re just not a sophisticated a viewer/reader/consumer of pop culture. Sara, your rural Kansas roots are showing!

Tarantino is dabbling in horror porn these days. Hostel II, which just came out, features a scene where a woman is hacked to death with a scythe and the viewer gets to relish each scream of the victim, while watching someone else bathe in her blood. The reviews? “The movie is a dark comedy...that delivers the goods and never feels like a rehash.”

If I were squeamish, it might make me uncomfortable to watch the pyramids of naked bodies at U.S. run prisons, or see electrodes attached to someone’s genitals, or a Koran shoved into someone’s rectum, or see someone forced with an electric stun belt to get down on all fours and bark like a dog. But I’m an American, and I know, whether these are in Abu Ghraib or Texas, these are no more than fraternity pranks.

Eddie Izzard explains the difference between movies a squeamish prude can watch, and those for a red-blooded American audience, and I am an American, and, last time I sliced my hand open on a glass shard at the beach, the blood flowed bright red; people lined up to bathe in it. So I still don’t know why I don’t like Pulp Fiction. Unless the dialogue’s too sophisticated for me.

Monday, July 09, 2007

By Barbara D’Amato

Woofy is a yellow Labrador, nearly four years old. At any rate, we think he’s a yellow lab. Woofy was sort of a stray.

Near Halloween three years ago, our friend Deb noticed a yellow lab wandering around the fields behind her house. She lives in the country, and people there do let their dogs stray, so she didn’t think much about it. The next morning, she went to her garage and found the lab and eleven newborn puppies.

“Eleven,” I said. “You must have counted several times.”

Deb put a “dog found” notice in her paper and posted cards in stores in her area, but nobody ever responded. Deb has labs herself, and we think that the mother dog may have smelled them and thought, rightly, that Deb’s place was a safe place to go. Deb raised the puppies and at twelve weeks started to look for homes for them. All were yellow and looked like the mother.

Shortly before Christmas, Deb came to our house with the three males she had not yet placed. Just for us to play with a little while, she claimed. She went home, of course, with two. Woofy is really my son’s dog, but he brightens all our lives.

Woofy is serene, not the sort of dog who barks at every falling leaf. He will chase deer that come into the yard, but not far. He doesn’t seem to want to worry them. When rabbits hop across the lawn, he watches as if thinking, “How nice. Rabbits having fun in the summertime.”

Woofy is pleased with almost everything, even the vet. We often remark that every day that comes along is the happiest day of his life.

He’s a watchdog in the sense that he barks when a stranger come into the yard. But he’s no guard dog. Woofy completely lacks a killer instinct. But we don’t want and wouldn’t have an attack dog. Woofy is just sweet. He will let you take a bone from his mouth—unless you’re another dog. That’s the only thing up with which he will not put.

My point, and I am getting to one, is that Woofy is very lucky his parent found Deb’s house. Had she not done so, Woofy and his siblings might have been dead by the side of a road somewhere or attacked by the bobcats we have around here in Michigan. If they had been found by someone who did not want them, the best that could be hoped for is that they would have been taken to the local animal shelter. Our local humane society animal shelter is no-kill and good, but that doesn’t mean that a dog wants to live out its life there.

Other good animal-helping organizations are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Anti-vivisection Society.

So, two things:

If you want a pet, visit your local humane society.

Two, visit your local humane society or shelter anyway. See whether it’s pleasant and clean. If not, do something. Contribute.

Woofy has just told the UPS man that he may come to the door as long as he leaves promptly. Woofy is having a wonderful time. A lot of good dogs aren’t.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Focused Explosions

by Marcus Sakey

Ever fired a gun?

You've seen it thousands of times on screen, of course. But have you ever actually held or fired one? Most people haven't, and so there's something they don't realize.

Guns feel terrific.

Just holding one. A gun embodies a tactile balance of metal and grace. Smooth and heavy, they smell faintly of oil, and fit your hand so perfectly that you wonder if your hand wasn't made for the gun, rather than the other way around.

Which is maybe part of the problem, too.

Two weeks ago, I was out in Utah, writing an article on rock climbing, which is very good work indeed. Afterwards, I drove to Los Angeles to see a friend, a former Army Ranger, gang cop, and current LAPD firearms instructor. We went to a range in the hills and spent three or four hours firing a multitude of weapons.

I had done a little shooting before, when I was about eighteen. I had a .22 rifle, and once or twice fired my dad's .38 snubnose. I remembered it fondly, the feeling of holding a weapon, the precision and ease and rhythm required, the satisfying roar and punch when you pulled the trigger.

This was different.

We shot an AR-15, structurally a very similar weapon to what our troops are using in Iraq. An AK, the most popular insurgent weapon in the world. An authentic World War One Mauser with a kick like a rhino. We shot skeet with his imposing-as-hell shotgun (my best run was 6 of 8, launched one at a time; his was 10 of 10, flung 2 and 3 at once.) But the real fun was the handguns. He had about a dozen: several Glocks, a Beretta, a 1911, and some others.

As I mentioned, my friend is an instructor. So this wasn't just a couple of yahoos blasting away. He taught me how to hold a weapon, hands braced, maximum amount of palm to the grip. The proper stance, legs apart, gun directly in front, arms extended, elbows straight, wrists steady. How to pull the trigger slow and gentle, keeping the sights as centered as possible, but not trying to catch a moment--just keeping them on target and pulling so smoothly that you are almost surprised when the thing actually fires.

All which allowed me the supreme pleasure of sending row after row of bowling pins flying.

Now is probably a good point to interject and say that despite the tone thus far, I'm really not a gun nut. I'm a member of the ACLU, and well left-of-center politically. I wouldn't say that I'm against the NRA per se, but I do question the need for readily available armor-piercing rounds. And while I respect the Constitutional right to keep and bear, I also think the country would be a far better place if we weren't awash in weapons. I don't worry about people like my friend having guns; I worry about fourteen-year-old gangbangers.

They say that guns don't kill people, that people kill people. That's true. Guns just make it a hell of a lot easier.

Having said all that, let me say this: Firing a weapon is an intense experience. You are tapping into raw power. As a kid, I used to stare out the car window and pretend my eyes were laser beams that could slice everything I saw. A gun is the physical manifestation of this fantasy. You point it, move a finger, and something far away is shattered.

As I said, intense. Which is part of the problem, too.

The title, and theme, of my debut novel comes from a Homer quote that reads, "The blade itself incites to violence." I've held swords. Real ones. They don't incite nearly the way a gun does. The fact is that guns are made for shooting, and when you pick one up, it's very hard not to aim it at something.

At the same time, in the hands of a trained individual, a gun is a tool. It might be all that protects you or your family. In 1987, Florida made it legal for adults to carry concealed weapons; since then, more than 20 states have followed suit. And while the subject is hotly contested, research by the University of Chicago suggests that states that adopt those laws reduce their murder rates by 8.5%, rape by 5%, and aggravated assault by 7%.

What's my point? I haven't made up my mind. I've been musing about it since I returned, and it's had me swinging back and forth. So I thought I'd throw it out for discussion, see what you all had to say.

If you could, would you get rid of all our guns? Or would you go the other way, and allow regular civilians to conceal and carry in order to protect themselves and their loved ones?

And have you ever fired a gun?

Ever want to?

The Outfit is in the Tribune

If you live in the Chicago area, pick up a copy of the Trib today; we're featured on the front page of the Tempo section. Or you can read it online here.

And welcome to all you readers who dropped by as a result of the article! We hope you'll stick around and join the conversation.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Examined Life

by Michael Dymmoch

One of the required philosophy courses I had in college was non-traditional. Instead of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Spinoza or Nietzsche, we studied Catch 22, J.B., The Last Temptation of Christ, Mother Courage and other “contemporary” works of art. My instructor’s premise was that no one sits down to write philosophy anymore. Contemporary philosophers write fiction—prose, plays, screenplays, and music trying to make sense of the universe.

Independence day is a good time to think about philosophy. Nominally, we live in a democracy, an idea our founding fathers borrowed from ancient Athens. Back in Athens, only free men were allowed to participate. Women and slaves were SOL. America’s first efforts pretty much emulated that model. I like to think we’ve improved on it. Today women can vote if they will. Slavery is officially illegal. Banning books results in increased sales. Victims can sue when their unpopular ideas get them fired or demoted. Hemlock is reserved for mass murderers.

Socrates insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had the courage of his convictions, too, electing to die rather than quit “corrupting” the youth of Athens by encouraging them to think. American society doesn’t ban thinking, but seems to discourage it by filling up every moment with noise. Some of it’s disguised as entertainment, much of it is advertising. Cradle to grave. Maybe that’s why literacy is vanishing and books sales are dropping.

But some of us are still trying to get through, to persuade people to revisit their philosophies. My first real exposure to homosexuality was the 1970 film The Boys in the Band. My parents hadn’t ever mentioned the subject, so I had no entrenched beliefs. The movie made me realize that people are more alike than different. So did Moscow on the Hudson, an entertaining but sympathetic look at immigrants and a reiteration of the melting pot concept of America. As soon as he was old enough to understand them, I introduced my son to Catch 22 and The Prisoner. I’m still pushing them on nieces and nephews. Some of the authors who corrupted my youth were James Baldwin, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Dick Francis, Harper Lee, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Who influenced you?

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Place To Write. . .

by Sean Chercover

I know writers who can write anywhere. Some write on airplanes, somehow able to ignore the prying eyes of the passengers on either side. Some grab a few minutes from the day job and bash away in their cubicles, blocking out the ringing phones and gossiping coworkers. Many are even able to write in coffee shops.

“Just banged-out a thousand words down at Starbucks this morning. The cappuccino machine’s milk-frother? Didn’t even hear it. The superficial yuppie chatter? Didn’t bother me. The over-roasted coffee? The fluorescent lighting? The new-age muzak? All water off a duck’s back, man. I can write anywhere. Got my thousand words with plenty of time to bike across town to Yoga class.”

I hate these people.

Hate them.



Okay, hate is a strong word. Maybe I don’t quite hate them. And maybe my pseudo-hatred is really envy, because I can’t do what they do. Oh, I’ll take a notepad and a pen down to my local pub or coffee house. Well, the pub. And I’ll do all sorts of brainstorming with said notepad and pen. But when it comes to actually writing prose, getting the actual story down, I put aside the tablet and chisel, and switch to a laptop and keyboard.

And for some reason, at that point, I need to be alone.

I need quiet (even though I often play music while writing) and I need to feel the absence of prying eyes, or eavesdropping ears (I often vocalize while writing).

Am I strange? Okay, don’t answer that. I know I am strange. But that’s how it is with me, and I know that there are others like me out there in the world.

As many of you know, my wife and I have a ten-month-old baby. Love the little critter, and I’m having a blast. Never thought it could be this much fun, this rewarding. But remember what I said about needing quiet? Not really an option, at home with a teething baby.

Luckily, my wife and I have a very generous friend named Kit, and Kit has a cottage, and Kit’s cottage is my Place To Write.

Kit’s cottage is semi-rustic. No phone and no Internet. There is electricity, so the computer works and you can play music, and you can cook indoors when it rains. But there’s no running water, so you wash the dishes in the lake. And you wash yourself in the lake. And, well, there’s no running water.

You can take the canoe out and fish for bass. You can swim with your dog. Or you can just sit in the boathouse and take in the beauty of it all. And at night, there are so many stars. Living in the city, you forget about the stars. This place reconnects you with the planet you live on. It is a good place to be, and a very good place to write.

I come here with my dog, Edgar, and I write. My wife and baby come up in the evening and visit. They go home again, and I write some more.

And then I return to the city, and try to figure out how to bring that place, that head space, home with me.

Tell me about your writing place.