Thursday, September 30, 2010

I'm With the Banned

I grew up reading Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume, Doctor Seuss and Robert Louis Stevenson.  I read Mark Twain and John  Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.  I read Vonnegut and Bradbury and Steven King. 

And all along the way, my path was peppered with people telling me to stop, that those books were a danger; they would be a corrupting influence on my growing mind.  If the books didn't do it, then Dungeons & Dragons was sure to have me dressed up in a black cloak and lighting candles around a pentagram in no time and if that didn't do me in, the rock bands were all trying to get me to commit suicide anyway.

It's a wonder any of us survived, really.

Nonetheless, I drank deeply at the font of knowledge, thought for myself, and often found things that changed my mind about one topic or another.  Judy Blume showed me an unblinking look at the world through a girl's eyes.  Vonnegut changed my mind about the glorification of war.  Anne Frank taught me the horrors amongst hope that even Vonnegut couldn't bear to relate.  Twain convinced me that my racist peers were idiots.  Hemingway was a fine role model for how not to relate to the opposite sex... the list is endless.

I grew up on Sesame Street and managed to maintain an attention span sufficient to read (and write) long-form fiction.  I pulled imaginary capers with The Mad Scientist Club without becoming a brainy hooligan and followed Harriet the Spy through the secret lives of her friends without becoming a snoop.  (Though I did major in journalism, so there might be something there...)  I read the Brothers Grimm without once encountering a witch trying to entice me into her oven and the poems of Shel Silverstien without becoming... well, whatever it was that the people who wanted to ban it were afraid I would become.  I honestly can't be bothered to care what they thought would happen.

And the dictionaries!  Oh my, the dictionaries!  Yes, Virginia, the dictionary is an insidious thing, full of pulchritude and words that will "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."  I picked up many a dictionary containing all of Carlin's Seven Dirty Words and all I got for my trouble was a first-class vocabulary.

Too often I find myself faced with someone whose world is a frightening place, a Place That Is Out To Get You.  And apparently it was a world without personal responsibility, a world where we were hapless victims floating along, performing horrors at the whims of Muppets, dungeon masters, guitarists, and authors.

At times, it seems like my entire childhood was spent traipsing across a landscape of the banned and the forbidden. Jim Henson was destroying our attention span so that MTV could turn us into zombies or sex maniacs.  (Or worse yet, zombie sex maniacs!) 

Come to think of it, with all the "evil" I was exposed to, it's a wonder I didn't become a super villain.  I guess all those Marvel comics I read and bad 50's B movies I watched really didn't do me a lick of good. [edit: All I got out of it was a book deal].

Somehow my generation survived our exposure to the blandishments of the fiendish cathode ray tube, as well as Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, Jim Henson, and Talking Heads.  Just as my parent's generation survived JD Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.  And just as each generation has persevered in spite of (or because of) those cultural influences their elders and betters were certain would destroy them all the way back into the dawn of time.

And I think that's what the book banner is afraid of most. Not that we'll be destroyed or seduced by what we read, but that we won't. That the fear lives only in their heads. That we'll read this Awful Thing That Should Not Be Tolerated and go on to live perfectly normal lives. We might discover that the bad guys don't always get their poetic comeuppance. And worst of all, we might discover that the ideas that they find foreign and threatening aren't that frightening after all.

- Scott

Friday, September 24, 2010

Exit Stage Left, Pursued By Barrister :: Ideas Are Everywhere - Day Six

Writers get their ideas by paying attention to the things that most people ignore and doing the things that other people avoid.  For the most part, jury duty is almost shockingly boring, but I kept a journal of my time on jury duty back in 2008 and I'm posting it here (unedited) to illustrate how even the most banal days can provide us with all the story fodder we could possibly want.  A more complete explanation can be found here. -Scott


Day Six

I have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. At any rate, I was eliminated from the jury at the eleventh hour. 12 Jurors, 2 alternates. The rest of us were told to bail. They grilled all of us pretty hard. Asked a lot of personal and penetrating questions. It was interesting, I would have liked to see the trial but I'm glad I'm not stuck doing this for another three weeks.

Mixed feelings...

Incidentally, I've never been in the audience of a talk show, nor do I watch them if I can help it, but that's what this felt like. I think there are people in the world who bottle it all up their entire lives, just waiting for a talk show host or lawyer or someone to ask them these questions. The admissions... the sheer amount of over-sharing that went on in that room that went far beyond the scope of the questioning was... unnerving.

And at some points it felt like a Philosophy 101 class. What would you do if...

For instance: at one point the defense attorney called on me and we got into it about the death penalty and whether or not I should be offended that the governor of Illinois "usurped the role of the courts by commuting all of the inmates on death row in his state to life terms." This was after five death row inmates were exonerated with DNA evidence, mind you. "Usurped the role of the courts..." took the power of life and death out of my hands and commuted sentences. This is a defense attorney who seemed like he wanted me to be offended by that. As if he was... which is odd, considering his role in the judicial process.

This wasn't a death penalty case. It was an identity theft case. Prison, sure. But when did we start executing people for this? Going back to the days of hanging horse thieves? I doubt it somehow. What he was trying to get at, I couldn't say.

Anyway, I told him I was not offended by the executive branch executing their constitutionally defined role. This power of their exists for a reason, to react to new information that the courts did not know, were not aware of, or could not know at the time. When we kept going we ended up getting into the actual nature of the death penalty. He ended it when I mentioned that I was categorically against it.

There were other clashes. The prosecutor's questions were basic and straight-forward. The defense attorney's hypotheticals were torturously mangled. I applied logic to them and he stopped calling on me.

I'm not sure if it was him or the prosecutor that used their challenge to kick me out.
I guess it doesn't matter.

I'm done.  Joke lady doubts they'll call my group in next week with Memorial Day making it a short week.

In the course of my term in the juror-dungeons beneath the Pierce County Courthouse, I think I managed to read more actual newspapers in two weeks than I can recall in the past few months added together. Actual newspapers, not their websites. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Seattle PI, Seattle Times... the list seems endless. It was almost like old times. Except for the sitting in a bomb shelter part.

I had to brave ink stains to get a glimpse of the world beyond the bunker. Now I confess that on a daily basis, I read a lot of news. I'm a bit of a news junky. I almost ended up a journalist, after all. But I'd gotten away from print editions, drawn by the blinking lights and video podcasts of Google's Attention Deficit Utopia, so it kinda felt good to get my fingers inky.

No, not all of that ink came from Mary Englebreit, don't start with me. (I never did figure out where that stupid cat went. I think it was an errant piece from a different puzzle).

My curmudgeonly griping aside, can you really think of a better place to wile away the weeks of the national Democratic and Republican Conventions than in a bomb shelter?  I can't. (Well, actually, I can, but I'm trying to be realistic and I tend to burn when exposed to that much tropical sun anyway.)

After spending a week, selflessly gifting me with a multitude of things to blog about, the Pierce County courts sent me home. Sort of.

Please, let us not confuse “sent me home” with “let me go”.  I'm on parole.  Each day I have to check in to see if they’ll need me the following day. Joke lady says they probably won't, but nevertheless, every night I must log into the website (which is frequently down) or call and listen to the automated message to see if I'm going to wake up in the morning headed to work or the court house.

Sheesh! How codependent can you get? I’m sorry, Pierce County Judicial System, but I think I need to start seeing other judges, other attorneys. You understand, don’t you?

Don’t take it too hard. It’s not you… it’s me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Close-in Lunch Counters :: Ideas Are Everywhere - Day Five

As proof that ideas are everywhere if you're just open to them, I'm posting a few days of a journal I kept while undergoing jury duty back in 2008. Note: These are unedited because I didn't want to lie to you or show you anything more polished than it really was.  If you think you can't write Sci Fi from your everyday life, you're really not paying attention.  Read more here.  -Scott


Day Five

So... I got called in on the big multi-week Superior Court Case. Which is all I can tell you at the moment.

I can’t talk about the case. It’s a rule. I haven’t been eliminated in the first few lightning rounds. One of the lawyers bears an unnerving resemblance to Conan O’brien’s sidekick. I forget his name.  Andy Richter?

Lunch, however… lunch I can talk about. And aliens. I haven’t been enjoined from talking about aliens. Strange how those two subjects tend to intersect.

The judge gave us an hour instead of the usual hour and a half right in the middle of the time during which the sign on the door of the 911 Deli warns that they won’t guarantee a turnaround of less than a half hour on any order.

Gotta love any business that can get away with that.

Instead I decide to run upstairs to the 11th floor cafeteria. I meant that literally. Run. Up. Stairs. It’s an odd fact of life here in the Pierce County Courthouse that the elevators only go up ten floors. To get to the cafeteria, one must walk up a flight of steps.

(How is this ADA acceptable?)

I tromp up the stairs, grab a soda out of the cooler, pour a cup of coffee and order a BLT. Get up to the front and the lady frowns at my debit card. “We only take cash up here.” As proof, she points to a handwritten sign (written with neon highlighters so that it’s darn-near impossible to read) posted on the glass next to the register. She smiles like I’m a street magician about to pull a hundred dollar bill out of her ear.

I step out the door and scan the top of the stairs. The door into the café proper. Cast my gaze up and down the entire front of the line. The walls all around… no signs. Just the illegible one next to the register. Did I mention that it's about 5"x7"? And practically illegible?

Am I on candid camera?
Do they still have candid camera?

Don’t you think this would be good information for me to have had before I poured a cup of coffee and ordered a sandwich that you’re now going to have to throw away?”

We’ve never taken anything but cash up here,” she smiles again. I blink at her. I glance down at my jeans and tennies and un-tucked dress shirt, not to mention my red Juror badge and the cheery orange number 42 (they took away my big purple one). Do I look like I work here? Why would I know this? Never? Oh for...
(Deep breath)

Maybe she’s a vogon. That 42 might've been a warning from the universe.  I peer at her teeth, looking for telltale symptoms of alien ancestry. Hrm. No, she’s looks human except for the smile. Maybe she’s under an alien influence. Why is she smiling? Maybe not candid camera, maybe it’s some kind of behavioral experiment. Am I in a maze? If I eat the BLT will I get an electric shock?

I’m on to them now. Stick to your guns, man!

That sign should be over there,” I point back the way I came.

There’s an ATM on the first floor.” (Down and back up ten elevated floors and two flights of stairs… and it charges a pretty steep fee, which I noticed earlier.)

Yeah, I don’t think so.” I set down the tray and walk away. Enjoy my sandwich, lady. And my cup of coffee. If I’d turned left as I entered the maze, would I have been allowed to eat the BLT?

Customer service tip from someone who used to teach customer service skills:  Don’t smile when you say “no.” Smirking like it’s all some kind of elaborate inside joke that you get and they don’t isn’t going to win you any friends on the far side of the counter. I don’t care how often you have to say something or how tired you are of saying it: It’s the first time your customer has heard it. This doesn’t make them stupid, it makes them human. Treat them accordingly… unless you’re an alien. I'm not saying she was... I'm just sayin' someone should keep Sigourney Weaver on speed dial.

First floor lobby and back to the alien experiment-free 21st century and the wondrous aspect of a coffee cart: “Of course we accept debit cards.” I could almost kiss the girl behind the counter but I restrain myself. I’m a married man and what would people think? Surely Kristin would understand.

Definitely not an alien. Unless it’s the Kim Basinger “My Stepmother is an Alien” sort of alien. Ok, she’s not Kim Basinger, but she does have the cinnamon scone, cup of coffee, and someplace to sit, which makes her a perfect 10 in my book.

So here I sit, sipping my coffee and typing this missive to the world beyond these walls. If you should find this bottle adrift on the tides, pause, stranger, and ponder how far into the county’s hierarchy these alien influences have penetrated. If they’ve seized control of the food supply, what’s next?

Darn it. I really wanted that BLT. (I avert my gaze from the demonic gleam of the ATM. Must resist the alien influences!) Oh well. What can I expect from a place where the elevator literally doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.

Klaatu, barada nikto!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

That Darn Cat :: Ideas Are Everywhere - Day Four

As proof that ideas are everywhere if you're just open to them, I'm posting a few days of a journal I kept while undergoing jury duty back in 2008. Note: These are unedited because I didn't want to lie to you or show you anything more polished than it really was.  I think today was the day I found a half dozen ideas for a horror novel that I'll never write.  Read more here.  -Scott
Day Four

funny pictures of cats with captions
This puzzle is freaking hard. Can’t find where the kitty goes.


I’m very early. My call was at 9:30 but I wanted to find parking downtown, so I got here at a quarter of eight. Bumming around the area, I spotted a couple of patrolmen exiting a place called “The 911 Deli”. How can you pass up a place called The 911 Deli?

I have a theory: If you want to find the best eats in an area, real stick-to-your-ribs vittles at a good price… follow a cop. When these guys are on patrol, they’re out and about breakfast lunch and dinner. They eat out A LOT and don’t really get paid a whole lot considering. And that means finding the best cheap eats in the burgh. The 911 Deli is just such a place.

Oh... don't follow them too closely. They don't like that sort of thing. Just sayin'.

The sign was lit, the door was unlocked, but the lights over the tables weren’t on and the counter was empty. I looked back, confirmed that the “Open” sign was lit. Am I breaking and entering? In the local cops’ favorite watering hole… great. As I prepare to make my escape and simultaneously prepare my criminal defense (I’m telling you, this place does things to your mind) An elderly Thai lady (I know because she told me) came out to assure me that they’re open, just getting a slow start this morning.

Ah! Good. (Phew!)

I order a ham & cheese omelet and coffee. The coffee’s not ready yet and the omelet will take at least twenty minutes to get it out to me. Is that ok? Um… sure. I’ve got some time on my hands.

The family that runs the joint is very nice to me and brings my omelet out. It only took 19 minutes, but it’s freakin’ perfect. I can’t count the number of quiches, scrambles, and what-the-heck-do-you-call-that’s that I’ve been served with a side of hashbrowns over the years under the dubious moniker of ‘omelet.’ This one is perfect. Light and custardlike innards without being runny, not overly fluffy either, heated-through but not browned, not even vaguely resembling a football. It’s an Omelet.

I knew the cops wouldn’t steer me wrong. The coffee’s not bad either. Not great, but not bad. I’m tempted to come back for lunch and taste their ‘Thai Iced Tea’ whatever that is.

‘Tis an auspicious start to the day. Which comes crashing down as I sit bent over a most pernicious puzzle. That darned cat. I think it might be a piece from some other puzzle. I glare suspiciously around at the other people who have finally succumbed to Mary Englebreit’s puzzling powers. Diabolical.

The room is mostly empty, but there’s still about fifteen minutes until the official call time. My cohorts will surely be along shortly. Surely.

People are filtering in, but I think they’re being eliminated from an early-morning session of truth-telling. Where is everyone? I get that momentary panicked feeling I remember well from gradeshool. Am I late? Did I misremember my call time? Misread the clock? Did I forget my homework? Am I in the wrong class? The wrong School? Where are my pants, anyway?

Get a grip. Is there such a thing as an omelet hangover?

The jokey lady is here, I can hear her laughing in the office. She must be preparing a humdinger for this morning’s standup act. One minute to call. There’s only twenty or so people in the room. Some of them culls from other juries. What gives? Does this mean I’ll get on a jury by the universal forces of attrition?

Side note: Just once, I want to hear a defendant say: “And I’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”

Time to close the laptop. It’s 9:30 and the joke lady is approaching the podium. I think I might see where that cat goes anyway. The joke lady is on my wavelength...

“A man wanted to get rid of his cat. He took the cat ten blocks from home, kicked it out of the car and took off. By the time he got home, the cat was sitting on the doorstep, waiting for him to let it in.

The next day, the man drove forty blocks, turning and backtracking several times, booted the cat out of the car and sped home. There was the cat, sitting on the stoop, waiting to be let into the house.

The third day, the man tried once more. He put the cat in the car and drove all the way across the city, backtracking, turning left, turning right, ending up MILES from his home. Hours passed and the man’s wife began to worry. She called his cell phone and he picked up on the third ring.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“A long way away, is the cat there?” the woman hesitated before telling him, yes, the cat had once again beaten him home. “Good, can you put him on the phone? I’m lost.”
(Ba-dump bump.)

9:35 am. A jury pool they called up yesterday apparently had to dismiss seven of their jurors and they need seven more. The lady calls my name.

I’m number 42.

Now I’ll never figure out where that cat goes! Well, I’m off to get hidden from the world on a case of some sort. Either I will make it through the truth-telling and be sitting on a jury for a couple of weeks or I’ll be back with my nemesis the Mary Englebreit cat on the morrow.

What this will do to my start date for classes, I have no idea. On the bright side, someone just handed me a big purple 8X10 number 42.

Methinks I hear the Vogons approaching…  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jokes, Damned Jokes & Puzzles :: Ideas Are Everywhere - Day Three

Writers get their ideas by paying attention to the things that most people ignore and doing the things that other people avoid.  For the most part, jury duty is almost shockingly boring, but I kept a journal of my time on jury duty back in 2008 and I'm posting it here (unedited) to illustrate how even the most banal days can provide us with all the story fodder we could possibly want.  A more complete explanation can be found here. -Scott

Day Three

The Judge tells me that for every 100 jury summonses sent out, only 35 jurors appear. 65 of my fellow citizens have some ‘splainin to do while I and my 34 cohorts sit in the windowless bunker, wondering when our turn will come. Again. I’ve always been told that you show up and if you get on a jury, you’re done when the case is done. Apparently not the case, since I’m still sitting here.

I told mom about the judge. She laughed and told me that she once got called into a jury pool with a judge’s mother. You see: at the beginning of Voir Dire, one of the first questions they always ask (and the judge always seems to ask it) is “Do you know anyone on the court today?”

Here’s your ten dollars, mom, have a safe drive home.
(Wait for gong to sound.)

Your tax dollars at work folks. Well, they would be your tax dollars if you lived in Missouri. Otherwise, it's just a good bit of state-sponsored silliness to amuse you as it did me when I heard it. Where was I?

The light flashes but it’s to call in jurors who have already been chosen. They troop into the room, the weird lady that runs the place walks up to the podium and tells a joke:

Q: How do you spot Ronald MacDonald on a nude beach?
A: He’s the one with sesame seed buns.”

My dad told me that joke when I was fourteen. Apparently their awe at having the presiding Superior Court judge in the room has waned. She calls the roll, sends the first jury out with an assistant and then returns to address the rest of us. There will be two Superior Court cases and four Municipal Court cases today.

Everyone will get called, just sit tight and take a short break. Watch for the amber light. In the meantime, another joke…

“A ship captain in heavy seas spots a light ahead on the same course and bearing as his ship. He puts out a call: ‘Change your heading ten degrees!’ the answer comes back ‘Change your heading ten degrees.’

The captain fumes. He’s a navy captain in charge of a warship, and by God he changes course for no man! He calls again… ‘
I’m a navy captain, you will change your heading ten degrees!’ the call comes back: ‘I’m a navy ensign, and you will change your heading ten degrees.

The captain is aghast at this insubordination and grabs the handset away from the radio operator. ‘
I’m a US Navy captain on the bridge of a warship son! And you will change your heading!

There’s a crackle of static as everyone on the bridge watches with bated breath. Soon the call comes back. ‘
Well, captain, I’m a US Navy ensign sitting at the base of a lighthouse, so it’s your call.”

I think this place drives you a little nuts after awhile, because I laughed at that. Actually, I laughed at all of them. Mass hysteria. Mob mentality. Get enough people in a room and tell them a joke and no matter how bad the joke, some of them will laugh and the others will laugh along with them to keep from feeling left out.

I suspect that there are some comedians who base entire careers on this premise.

The real trouble with having a memory like mine is that things like that stick. Perfectly innocent synapses, minding their own business when along comes a really bad joke and SNAP they’re chained to an oar in a creaking galley with a naked Ronald MacDonald beating the drums to set the pace. Yes, I will remember Ronald MacDonald’s sesame seed buns until my dying day but I forget the name of someone I met yesterday. Thankfully, there were already synapses devoted to Ronnie’s buns, so no harm done this time. (Thanks, dad!)

People tell me they wish they had my memory. If you can think of a way to get it into a suitcase, you can have it, but you have to take all of the strange side effects with it: Ronald MacDonald and his buns et al.

Second and third jury selections pass me over but I’m still not allowed to leave. The joke lady keeps sending us on little breaks, “Use the facilities, you’ll be called back in fifteen minutes.” The fifth time I hear it credibility has attenuated to the point of embarrassment.

There are no decks of cards in the bunker. Lots and lots of scary Mary Englebreit puzzles but no decks of cards. Based on the number of older white males in the room, if there were, we’d be up to our ears in a poker tournament in no time. I guess it’s a good thing. I’d hate to get called to my civic duty while holding an inside straight.

I actually don’t know how to play poker, but it’s fun to pretend. I’ve never played Scrabble either. Mine was a deprived childhood, I suppose. We owned Scrabble, I found it in my parents basement when I was visiting last year. It was quite dusty. But it we ever played it I certainly don’t remember it (remember what I said about my memory?). We also owned decks of cards, but at most some rummy or solitaire was their fate. Go Gish in the early years...

A deprived childhood indeed. How do my parents look themselves in the mirror? Deprived, but not depraved enough to want to assemble an entire Mary Englebreit puzzle, however. How bored can you get?

You know, I think the kitty on the front of that puzzle box might be looking at me. I edge away from the puzzle box and open a new document. I have work to do.

Honestly, I don’t “get” Mary Englebreit. Her artwork is a little strange. Like a crossbreed of tole painting and The Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry. So much going on, busy busy busy. Little worms and kitty cats driving cars made out of apples and bananas and stuff.

Work to do. Concentrate. The cat is not looking at you. The flowers in the border are lavender anyway. I’m allergic to lavender. Couldn’t assemble it if I wanted to.

The Judge slipped out at some point. Probably has his own cases to hear, lawyers to frustrate, bad guys to punish. Yes, he’s gone to the bat cave. Or he’s tired of the lady's jokes too and is lucky enough to have an office in the building to escape into.

Work to do. Bye for now...


2:30… the amber lights flash again. Everyone files into the room, puts down the piece of the folk artsy kitty they were trying to find a place for in their puzzle, closes their Grisham novel or looks up from their laptops.

Joke lady walks up to the lecturn… and doesn't tell a joke. A miracle!

A new Superior Court criminal case has been called into session! Forty-five jurors will be called up! A frisson of excitement mingled with dread runs through the residents of purgatory. She reads out names. This is a big one. These cases can run days or even weeks to get through voir dire, witnesses, expert testimony, in and out as the lawyers wrangle over minutia. I set aside my puzzle… I mean close my laptop and lean forward. This could actually be interesting. I haven’t seen a big case yet. I notice the judge isn’t in the room.

Ten jurors in a row are called, all of them on the last day of their final week of rotation. Oooo. That's gotta suck. They howl, they complain, they protest. It’s the computer. It’s random. It’s your civic duty. Take your number, citizen. The computer is your friend. Now, get in line.

My name wasn’t called.

The remaining municipal cases have all pled out. No more jokes for today. Go home.
Ten more dollars. Cold hard cash.

(NOTE: The title is from a famous quote by British statesman Benjamin Disraeli and popularized in America by native son Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned lies and Statistics.")

Monday, September 20, 2010

Telecommuting From Purgatory :: Ideas Are Everywhere Day Two

The most ridiculous question any writer gets is "Where do you get your ideas?"  We get them by paying attention to the things that most people ignore and (this is the most important part) by writing it down.  You'd be surpise how many people tell me they want to be writers but don't seem to want to actually write anything.  I kept a journal during my stint of jury duty in 2008 -- the most banal experience I can think of -- and I'm posting it here unedited so you can see that story ideas are everywhere if you're looking for them.  A fuller explanation is here.  -Scott

Day Two

Sitting in the batcave again. We’re told that if there’s an earthquake this is the safest part of the building, built as a bomb shelter. Nice to know, I guess. We spend a lot of time Not Thinking About Earthquakes in Washington. As if they never happen here. There were two in Pierce County over the weekend. Weak and deep, but earthquakes nonetheless. Guess that’s why they brought it up.

A few people have struck up conversations. Nearby a minister is writing his Sunday sermon. I’m on the laptop (obviously) writing this at the moment. I even have actual work to do open on another window, which I will get back to in a minute.

The introductory speech has been given and the orientation movie watched when a man gets up from the middle of the crowd. He’s the only one in a suit. White-haired and distinguished-looking. As it happens, he’s the presiding Superior Court judge (the boss) and he’s been called in for jury duty. He gives a lovely speech about how much all of our participation means to the jury system and how it all underpins our form of government. Tells us about a pilot program currently running in other counties where jurors are paid minimum wage and how he finds the initial results encouraging.

We still just get ten bucks a day here in Pierce County. Sorry kid, maybe next time around.

The people running the room look a little shell-shocked. They didn’t know he was here. I notice thereafter that they’re all moving with a bit more alacrity than yesterday. The boss is in the house. Hope I end up on a jury with a judge. That would be interesting.

The first culling goes by without my being chosen.

Second culling… still no call for me. (Or the judge.)

Question: If you’re an attorney do you want the county’s presiding judge on your jury? I wouldn’t think so, but if you challenge him during voir dire because you don’t think he can set aside his prejudicial feelings as a jurist to render a fair decision... the 22 gets caught, doesn't it? Because aren’t you casting into doubt the single central salient aspect of the whole system, the ability of a judge to leave his or her bias at the courtroom door? Food for thought.

This is why I hope I’m in the room when he’s called. If nothing else, when the judge and attorneys ask if anyone on the jury has a relationship either personal or professional with any of them there, I want to hear how they handle it…

Get up to fetch another cup of coffee and then back to my seat. Open the laptop again. Stare at the screen.

I’m going to be here awhile, I guess. The gears of justice grind slowly. We’re told to stick around. Everyone will be part of the next call. That will be this afternoon. Get some lunch. Take a break. Come back at 1:30.

I brought my own lunch and just enough money for coffee. Nuts. I should get out there and walk around. Run over to the library and check my email. Instead I spend a few hours working on some things I brought with me from work.

I’m writing a manual for the Northwest eTutoring Consortium. Telecommuting from purgatory in a manner of speaking. Hours tick by in the windowless bunker. The minister is discussing the WSU football team with a woman who sat down next to him. A man is talking to a private investigator on his cell phone with a loud voice. (What?) Another man’s on his phone talking to a kid about losing his first tooth. My phone doesn't work in here. I wonder who their carriers are?

Another day in purgatory. Back to work.

It’s almost two o’clock. The people running room confer, mill around near the door. They don't seem to know what the holdup is. Patience, they tell someone who pipes up to ask. The judge isn't here, he's probably holed up in his office. I would imagine he has work to do too.

Wonder if they’ll ask more pertinent questions during voir dire this afternoon? Or is this what it’s always like? I'll sign off and do some real work. Talk to you later.


2:30... they finally get word from on-high. They call out a list of names. The lucky ones who didn't just waste an entire day leave in train to go get grilled by defense attorneys and prosecutors. People from the first culls enter, mill around and then leave again. What was that about? The judge's name is called but he's not here anymore. The lady makes a few snide remarks about judges being late for everything, living in their own time zones. The boss is away, we can be silly now, I guess.

Roll call. We're all here. (Except Judge Wopner)
You can all go home, we won't need you. See you again tomorrow.

Shut down the laptop and pack up.
I packed a lunch for this?
Another day, another ten bucks.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Juris Prudence :: Ideas Are Everywhere Day One

As proof that ideas are everywhere if you're just open to them, I'm posting a few days of a journal I kept while undergoing jury duty back in 2008. Note: These are unedited because I didn't want to lie to you or show you anything more polished than it really was.  Read more of my reasoning HERE.  -Scott


Day One

A hundred and twenty strangers sit in a windowless room. We sip coffee, type on laptops, read books or newspapers and generally ignore one another in the manner typical of such gatherings. Every once in awhile a yellow light flashes. Numbers are called and some depart, leaving the rest to wonder when our turn will come. Some of those called away return. Most do not. Our eyes drop back to our screens and our books, waiting for the next flashing harbinger of a new selection.

We are all of us here, none of us voluntarily, and each getting paid ten dollars for our presence. Plus mileage. Welcome to my very own corner of the Criminal Justice System.

This morning, Kristin packed me a lunch, made sure I remembered to put my MapQuest directions in my bag, patted me on the head and sent me off to do my part in the whole "smiting evil" thing. I didn't know it would entail an actual bat cave... okay, to be honest I haven't seen any bats per se, but that's not proof that they're not here.

To be honest, I’ve never done this before, and the whole thing has a certain ‘down the rabbit hole’ feel to it. Like most people, I really wanted to get a good solid case in front of me, a mustachioed villain facing life for tying a rancher’s daughter to the train tracks. Or a man in a purple suit stammering out a defense and blaming it all on the guy dressed as the giant bat. Real criminal justice is just so… banal.

Most defendants are just normal people in a bad place, at a bad time. Having a bad day. Or a series of bad days. Cause and effect. If they are guilty, then their choices put them here, if not, then our choices will set them free... at least theoretically. Hence the assumption of innocence. And the appeals process as well, I suppose.

With this in mind, was I summoned early by the amber light to endure the oddity of Voir Dire.

Handed an 8x10 number I'm herded into a small courtroom to be asked penetrating questions by savvy lawyers to discern your prejudices and biases. All questions will be general, if you have an affirmative response, raise your number.

Voir Dire, by the way, means “Telling the truth.”

Questions: Have you ever been in an auto accident where you were injured? (Scott’s hand rises) Do you have any problem or have you had a past negative interaction with law enforcement? (Scott’s hand stays down), Have you ever been prosecuted for Wreckless Driving (Scott’s number remains in his lap). Why are you here, why didn’t you beg off like most people do? (Scott is called on and says “If I didn’t do it, who would?” they nod sagely and move on) etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum.

Some of the questions seem pertinent. Others don’t.

At one point near the end of proceedings, after several rounds of questioning by both parties, the defense attorney singles me out. Consults his jury list, addresses me by name. “You’ve been quiet this morning. But I guess no one has asked you any questions, have they?”

Well, there was the one about why wasn’t I smart enough to figure out a way to get out of jury duty…

“What do you do for a living?”

I tell him.

“Then you can teach me how to write?”

Scott swallows his first smartalecky impulse and says: “Yes, I probably could.”

What does that have to do with anything in a wreckless driving case? Or racing? He doesn’t ask me any more questions. Neither lawyer ever asked me about the accident I was injured in, how I felt about it or anything pertaining to the case.

I’m chosen for the jury. I have no idea why. Maybe they like people who work in education. Maybe because I have glasses. Nerdy guys with thick glasses make good jurors? I assume I’m less offensive to the needs of either party than those who were dismissed. There are seven of us. Five men and two women. A good mix of ages and people pinning down several levels on the graduated scale of melanin. Nice that we’re not all the same age and backgrounds, I like to think that justice is a bit more blind the farther the net is cast across the spectrum.

We’re told that one of us will be eliminated at the end of the case as the ‘alternate’. Like some kind of Jurisprudence Survivor. I wonder if they’ll make us eat anything icky?

Both sides and the judge tell us this one will be over quickly. They repeat it several times. Everyone there says it at least once. One day unless deliberations drag on into tomorrow. They kind of laugh when they say it. Seems odd. Some kid’s criminal record is in the balance but everyone’s being just a little laid back. The lawyers are almost flippant. Everyone seems laid back, confident in a win.

How weird.

The county’s prosecuting attorney for the county is new. Young. Green. I swear he needs to find someone to tailor that suit for him because it looks like he’s wearing his dad’s jacket. He has a senior attorney with him as co-counsel who is acting as a trainer and giving whispered input on everything the guy says. It’s a little distracting, but I’m good at ignoring things. The defense attorney is older, has an earring. Longish hairstyle. Hip old guy.

I squint at the defendant. No curly mustache. No purple suit. He’s just another kid. Young, good looking, wearing street clothes and a determined look. How are you supposed to tell the good guys from the bad guys when they all look like good guys? How do you know when you’re looking at a basically normal person who is having a bad day?

Opening arguments. The cop who pulled the kid over testifies. Cross-examination. The kid testifies. Cross-examination. Jury instructions are given. Closing arguments are given. They each go over the legal definition of racing and one of the women is eliminated from our jury by a random drawing of names.

(No one had to eat anything icky, alas.)

A jury of six? What happened to twelve? Must be different in lower courts, I suppose.

We bid our alternate goodbye. We’re locked in the room. We elect a foreperson by the age-old method of whoever doesn’t say ‘no’ fast enough gets it by default. We discuss things. Two of the older men have a history of drag racing as kids. They tell some stories to illustrate their points. It gets a little too "American Graffiti" at one point and some of us have to intervene to get things back on track.

After some discussion, we find for the county.  It's a very near thing and I don't fell like the case was presented well by either lawyer.

We notify the judicial assistant (which is the new term for Bailiff) and the verdict is read.

Afterward, the attorneys follow us back into the jury room.

This is odd, I’ve never heard of this before. We present our finding and then endure a debriefing? An after-interview?

This is strange. I just want to go home now. "This is voluntary," we’re told, "just a way for the attorneys to get some perspective on how they handled the case."  Poorly. Especially the scribbling on the big sheet of paper that was supposed to illustrate where each car was at what time.  I'm told that I can leave, but I don’t want to be the only one to do so. Awkward. I read the newspaper through the whole thing. I want to quiz the attorneys but I don’t. It was either a strategy that I don’t understand or not in which case… I don’t see any value to knowing. Some of the others ask desultory questions about the young prosecutor in training and then we’re thanked for our service and told we can leave.

Home by four o’clock. Asleep in the couch by five-thirty. Even though I was on a jury I'm to report again tomorrow to go back in the pool. Two weeks of this.

At least I get Memorial Day off.

No idea what happened to the kid. Is he sleep on his couch?
Guess I’ll never know.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stories In Surprising Places :: Finding Ideas

The most ridiculous question I get -- that any writer gets -- is "Where do you get your ideas?" We don't know. Sometimes we answer flippantly and spin yarns about a clandestine mail-order catalog that we all have a subscription to, but in truth we usually have no idea or just can't remember.

But the truth underlying the truth is that we know exactly where we get our ideas and aren't willing to admit it: we get them by paying attention to the things that most people ignore. And by doing the things that other people avoid. By watching and paying attention to the world around us. And (this is the most important part) by writing it down.

You wouldn't believe the number of people who tell me they want to be writers but don't actually want to write anything.

Once in awhile, I post a picture on Dailybooth where I'm holding a sign (or some children's blocks) that says "Tell a story".  I'm always surprised by the results and the stories have almost always been anecdotal (at least they were until a recent deviation into matters of passing gas in elevators... we don't judge here at Pages to Type...).  These stories from life, from your past, from your present, from a road trip you took through Pennsylvania or riding your bike down the street when some hoodlums jumped you.... these stories are the nuggets from which many a novel or short story could easily grow.

I think that we tell anecdotes because it's easier than making something up and because we don't feel licensed to do so.

And that's an important lesson. It's not because there's anything wrong with storytelling based upon our lives (don't ever say that were Bill Bryson can hear you) but because the people who paid attention are the ones with stories to tell. The people who stepped out there and got involved, have the stories to tell.  And if you take that a step further, they have in a single experience the nuggets for a lifetime's writing in any genre.  Yes, even science fiction.

In 2008, I was summoned for jury duty and was cut off from the internet by dint of the fact that the jury room in the Pierce County court house is in a bomb shelter and therefore doesn't allow for WiFi. Cut off from the rest of the world, I kept a journal of my experiences.  Over the course of the next few days I plan to share it with you, because I want you to see how even perfectly banal days (and there's nothing more banal than jury duty) are packed full of story ideas ranging from the mystery novel to the flights of science fiction and certainly a certain kind of horror.  Romance might require a bit more of a stretch...

If you don't see how you find story ideas from every day life by the end of this... well, the world needs readers too. ;o)

Incidentally, If you like storytelling, you owe it to yourselves to and read @jimbonius's "Uncle Milt" story from the first go-round of Dailybooth storytelling:

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Circuit Board Jungle :: E-Booked

Emma Silvers for
...One recent story in the New York Times went so far as to claim that iPads and Kindles and Nooks are making the very act of reading better by -- of course -- making it social. As one user explained, "We are in a high-tech era and the sleekness and portability of the iPad erases any negative notions or stigmas associated with reading alone." Hear that? There's a stigma about reading alone. (How does everyone else read before bed -- in pre-organized groups?) Regardless, it turns out that, for the last two decades, I've been Doing It Wrong. And funny enough, up until e-books came along, reading was one of the few things I felt confident I was doing exactly right.
Read more at Slate...
This article from slate was bandied about quite a bit on Facebook the other day.  Mostly, I think it draws attention because it's a voice rising from a generation that led us in lockstep into the digital world: cell phones, iPods, digital filesharing.  These so-called "Millenials" are the engine in that change, a generation that we are told has never worn a wristwatch or known a time when TV's weren't video game monitors or desks didn't have computers (or laps for that matter).  And this 'kid' (at 26, no one's a kid really) doesn't want e-Books.

Gasp.  The horror!
The statistical outlier gets the press, as always.

While it's at times funny and poignant and a lot of the points are well-argued, there's an underlying problem with it that most of the retweeting and facebooking and commentary have missed: the issue of ownership.  Therein lies the single greatest logical leap from Generation X (me) to Generation Y (Emma Silvers).

The single greatest problem we should all have (or so I arrogate) isn't that we can't read the spines to see that the burly biker next to us is reading Harry Potter, but that whether he's reading Grapes of Wrath or Artemis Fowl, it's not his.  He's just leasing it from Amazon or Apple.  We don't own our e-books or i-books, we lease them from the distributor and for the most part are only able to read them on that distributor's software preference.

Less like your local library and more like literary pay-per-view.

I think she was fishing around for it and couldn't find it.  Her generation feels that these things they paid for should be theirs -- they should be able to pass that great song or cool movie along to their friends.  "You've got to see/hear/read this!"  But to do so with digital downloads requires the breaking of laws.  And they do break that law.  In droves.

The central problem of most articles on e-books is that they avoid this topic like the plague.  When we ceded our right to own the music we listen to in solid-state, we gave up thinking about ownership.  It gets argued ad nauseum on the internet, but most people don't seriously think about it outside of the comments section of Wired magazine's latest article on the subject.  And just about all of those commenters have iPods.

The zeitgeist states that this format change could "save publishing".  If a format change is all it takes, then there's no conclusion to be reached other than there was something wrong with the prior format.  And as far as publishing was concerned, there is something wrong with print books: You could hand them to someone else or to a used bookstore and they could go on shelf-hopping forevermore without a dime making its way back to New York.

But this puts publishing in a terrible position where the fan advocacy that once pushed the great and the good to the top of the bestseller lists is shackled by the inability to press a well-thumbed paperback into the hands of a friend with the earnest insistence that YOU HAVE GOT TO READ THIS!.

I'm a writer and I want, oh yes, I want to make a living from my work.  So I am in no way, shape or form advocating that writers should give away their books for free.   Library bookloans, used bookstores, earnest friends, garage sales... those are lost sales.  Authors and publishers don't get a dime (at least in the United States) from that secondary and tertiary trade in books... but really, who cares?  There isn't a bestselling, successful author working today that wasn't helped by that trade - helped far more than they were hurt.

And to say there's something wrong with that is to say that I somehow gypped Nissan or Subaru when I sold my last couple of cars to some college kid I found on Craig's List.  A secondary market is part of doing business that only musicians, writers, and publishers in music and print seem to think they should be immune to.

Bookselling :: Behind the Publishing Curtain

How a book with potential becomes something more than just another tree sandwich:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fountain Pens, Paper and Stamps

In honor of Labor Day I'm going to try to entice you to do something laborious, something you've long since given up in favor of something easier, quicker and infinitely less beautiful than what you gave up.

I want you to write a letter.

Oh alright, this has nothing to do with Labor Day other than the fact that I'm spending the day home and it's raining so I can't go out and putter in the garden or have a barbecue or any of the traditional American 3-day-weekend pastimes  Which takes me to the woolly wilds of the worldwide web and an echo of something I wrote back in December.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword was a counterattack against the notion that hand writing something is somehow outmoded or a bad idea.  I think otherwise.  I propose the wild and woolly notion that to say that the advance of digital communication is no more an excuse for giving up handwriting than the advent of Adobe Illustrator meant we had to stop teaching artists to use a real paintbrush.

Which brings us to the undeniable brilliance of a blog called the Letter Writers Alliance that reawakened my love of the written word.  The handwritten word.  It's no secret that I'm a big fan of paper and ink and these guys have taken it to a wondrously obsessive level.

So yes, I implore you to write a letter.  You don't even have to lick the stamp anymore (though you might have to lick an envelope).

It's time to write something before we forget how.  Get a ballpoint, a fountain pen, a crayon or a piece of chalk, it's all the same to me.  I just want to illustrate how untrue is the subtitle of the New York Times article that "Handwriting is dying because it’s a slow and inefficient way of getting our thoughts out — a hindrance to thinking, given the alternatives..."


Friday, September 3, 2010

Mythic Structure :: In a World Without Genre

Genre has its place.  Certainly most readers see a long walk between Tolkien's war of the ring and Tom Clancy's war of the submarine.  Anything thing we can do to help a customer who loves one or more of those find others like it is a good thing.

The other day I implied that genre differences were almost entirely marketing.  I don't want to leave the impression that I think marketing books is a bad thing.  Genre is in the strictest sense, mostly about marketing.  Guiding a customer from the front door of a bookstore (remember those?) to the section most likely to hold books they would be interested in is marketing.  In my view, it is marketing of a mostly innocuous and helpful kind but marketing nonetheless.

Discover new authors + buy new books = happy readers, authors, booksellers & publishers.

Certainly my frequent assertion that bookstores should have a fiction section and a non-fiction section, alphabetized by author from A-to-Z never met with much success in my bookstore days.

Nevertheless, the distinction between the stories I mentioned is largely a matter of setting and macguffins.  The edges of the genres are much fuzzier than most devotees like to think.

JRR Tolkien was writing a war novel blended with a quest to end the war.  Reams of paper has been spilled drawing parallels between the War of the Ring and WWII, the One Ring being the Manhattan Project, etcetera.  Professor Tolkien denied any correlation, but it doesn't matter whether there was or not.  I have an edition of War & Peace featuring a forward that does exactly the same thing with Tolstoy's tale of the Napoleanic wars.  It doesn't matter that Tolstoy would be as surprised and annoyed as Tolkien was by the connecting lines that were being drawn from their tale to world events, the meaning of a story is in the mind of the reader.

Take almost any hero of almost any novel or story that actually resonates with readers (reflected by its success) and you'll find more commonalities than differences.  Change the age or gender of the characters and in strictest terms, there's very little to distinguish Tom Clancy's character Jack Ryan from Ernest Hemingway's Robert Jordan or JRR Tolkien's Aragorn, JK Rowling's Harry Potter or even Charles Dickens's Daid Copperfield and Lois McMaster Bujold's diminutive space admiral Miles Vorkosigan.  Heroes carry a universal tie that transcends genre.  Add just about any great literary hero to that list and you're going to find that they follow essentially the same path, crafted to fit their specific circumstances.

It's possible to write a great book completely ignorant of the universal thematic elements you are employing. The very nature of universal themes is that they are encoded into our collective subconscious.  How much easier would it be to do, though, if you know what you're about?  (JK Rowling has a BA in Classics from Exeter, you bet your sweet bippy she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote Harry Potter.)

Readers frequently deny this, but any author striving to create characters and explore themes that will stand the test of time won't get far denying it.  If you don't believe me, read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Or if you prefer, there's a superb re-treatment of Campbell's lessons aimed directly at writers called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.  One or both books should be on your shelf (or in your e-reader if you're so inclined).

It's pleasant to think that it's also true in terms of storytelling, stretching much further back into the history of words exchanged around a campfire, an unbroken line from Gilgamesh to Odysseus to Frodo Baggins and beyond.  But how does all of this tie to genre?

I posit that the lines dividing genre are being slowly eroded by electronic bookselling.  Just as there are tags at the bottom of every post on this blog that you can use to explore by theme, so too are books in online bookstores drawn together by thematic tagging.  No longer are you confined to a bookstore shelf holding only the books in your chosen genre, books are linked across the spectrum irrespective of genre distinctions.  Harry Potter is likely to turn up as "You Might Also Like" in a search for David Copperfield because both feature orphan heroes.  In a bookstore an adroit bookseller might know to make that suggestion, but such booksellers are getting fewer and farther between.

If you are unaware of your structure and thematic elements in your writing, then in a world where the reader isn't standing in front of a shelf surrounded by only books by you and people who write just like you, then you're drawing random cards in hopes of getting a royal flush (or at least a straight).  Personally, I prefer to stack the deck any way I can.

It's not the first time I've said it nor the first time it has been said: Writing is an industry that has - more than any other - remained virtually untouched by the last 500+ years of technological advancement.  Usually I say that in relation to the shockwaves still rocking the industry as they try to adjust to the idea of text on a screen instead of ink on a page.  This too is a change that will take a long time to get used to and benefit best those who address it first and those who are aware of it earliest.  I am tempted to trumpet it as the ultimate triumph of the storytelling form, millennia of storytellers who spoke tales to the heart, not the marketplace -- the marketplace coming back around to meet the storyteller rather than the other way around... but that might be too much to say too soon.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome this much I know is true: In a world of bookstores without bookshelves, being ignorant of your thematic ties to other books in other genres is well nigh suicide.

Edit: Repaired some wonky formatting (gosh, thanks Blogger) and retooled that final paragraph where I wandered a bit.  -Scott

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Editing for Length & Pacing :: Lessons from YouTube

I get YouTube videos sent to me all the time.  Most of them are cats or gerbils practicing to ride their Roomba tanks to prepare for world domination, but every once in awhile it's something artsy and/or funny and sometimes they're just plain cool.  This morning, I found a lesson in editing that is very much applicable to writing.

The following video is very violent in a video game sense, and a cool homage to the game Time Crisis and any number of ancillary action movies, Hong Kong flicks and pop culture tidbits tossed in for spice.  The guy that makes these vids is FreddieW and there aren't many indie filmmakers on the net doing it better.

Go ahead and watch it and I'll see you at the end.  (Sorry about the political ad at the beginning, YouTube ads are what they are.)

Why did I just ask you to watch all that?  Because one of the things I heard a lot at PNWA and elsewhere is writers griping about cutting a manuscript. 

A manuscript -- especially from an unproven author -- shouldn't be over 100,000 words unless you're writing fantasy.  The first pass at Palimsest clocked-in at 120,000.  I could get a long way just eliminating a word here and there, but 20k isn't going to go quietly.  I had to cut something I really liked.  And that means examining each scene and asking myself "Why is this scene here?"

Cutting a manuscript is a lot like cutting a movie.  You take what you have and you try to craft the best story you can.  If necessary you go in and write additional material (re-shoots in the film world) but that's an expensive use of time and resources, so it's best to use what you already got.  At the end of this post is a video with the young filmmakers talking about the process of making and cutting this action sequence together.  They spend a lot of time talking about procuring enough cardboard boxes for the shoot and a little about shooting and editing it together, so if you want, you can skip to the 4:00 mark because that's when they start talking about editing.
"Remember -- With editing, the only thing that matters is the the movie as a whole.  It doesn't matter how "cool" it is, or how hard it was to get (or write).  If it doesn't add anything, it doesn't belong."
That's an important lesson for anyone working on a long project like a movie or a novel.  At least with novels you can 'reshoot' without worrying about matching the lighting or whether your actor cut their hair in the interim.

Cultural Cross-Pollination is a series of posts on how writers can draw from other creative venues like stage, film, games, and even cartoons to apply their lessons to writing.  Click the tag below to see previous posts in this series.