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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Back in the saddle after a weekend of nothing but books

You couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – temperatures in the low 80s, nice breeze, some 150,000 people, and endless talk of books, and writing.

I moderated a panel on “Landscapes: Real and Imagined,” which was one of those amorphous themes that made for an engaging talk among three authors, and that was broadcast live over C-SPAN’s BookTV (you can watch it here). The authors were Julia Flynn Siler, a wonderful writer and fellow journalist whom I’ve known for a number of years, talking about her recent Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure; T.D. Allman with his Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State; and Greg Goldin, co-author of Never Built: Los Angeles, about grand dreams and plans for the city that died on the drawing board.

The best part of the festival for writers like me is the chance to sit around and talk about this odd business we’re in, the different projects we have underway, and to drop in on panels talking about both current books and how we go about doing what we do. Plus it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and former colleagues.

I also managed to cover a couple of the panels for the Los Angeles Times, one on American Arguments and the other on gun control.

All in all, a great way for a writer to spend a weekend. Now, back to Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero. The first draft is done and now I’m diving in for rewriting, tweaking, backfilling and trimming. Which, honestly, is a lot more fun than it sounds. Read More 
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History's long arc, and Las Vegas, city of the ever-new

I'm taking a little break* from writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero with a long weekend in Las Vegas catching up with a handful of old friends from college - we all worked together on the campus radio station, WCVF, in the '70s. And we schlepped in from California, Utah, Washington state, and New York (three from there), which makes this a small but national reunion, I suppose.

Early Saturday morning I headed out with one of the friends, Stan Maziuk, before dawn to try to catch the early light in Valley of Fire State Park, about an hour east of Vegas. I was looking for petroglyphs, and had we more time I would have continued on to Lake Mead, now about 100 feet below its normal level. The depleted lake has exposed old settlements that were flooded in the '30s when the Hoover Dam was built, and the Colorado River backed up to form Lake Mead. I've been taken recently with the phenomenon of lost histories revealed accidentally, such as the ancient people's settlements that were discovered a few years ago on Colorado's Mesa Verde after wildfires scrubbed the earth clean of obscuring foliage.

At Lake Mead, the rising waters inundated a pueblo along one of the tributary rivers. Next time back, I hope to figure out a plan to get close to see what time, and water, have wrought -- or even if the ancient ruins are still discernible after all those decades.

Meanwhile. you'll have to settle for the petroglyph above.

* "Little break" is relative; didn't write much Friday or Saturday but put a few hours in the morning. Read More 
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On marriage, gay and otherwise

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week doing a final round of research for my Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero book project, and by sheer happenstance wound up renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court building. And if I wasn’t heading back into the archives, I’d love to stop by the court today to witness the long-overdue judicial look at gay marriage.

Given the deep conservatism of the majority, I don’t have a lot of faith in the Court to make the correct legal and moral call. But I’m hoping they put prejudice aside and decide the cases before them – California’s Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act –based on common sense, and belief in a true separation of church and state. They should find that gays and lesbians have as much right to marry as anyone else.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which focused on state laws barring interracial marriage, that marriage was a fundamental civil right and government could not restrict it based on race. The government should not restrict it based on sexual orientation, either. All are equal in the eyes of the law, or so we are trained to believe (and lord knows that often proves not to be the case), and that should apply to the legal institution of marriage.

I’ve long believed that marriage should not be the state’s business in the first place. It is a religious rite and belongs in churches. But it is also in society’s interest, and thus government’s interest, to have a system that allows for the legal unification of lives, which is the legal side of marriage. I’d like to strip the word “marriage” from the legal documents – all of us who marry should be partners in civil unions. And the faithful can also be married in the eyes of their church.

But that isn’t likely to happen. “By the powers vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank)” is too much of our culture now to change in such a fundamental way. But the wording of that time-honored part of the marriage ceremony, when uttered by a minister, is meaningful. “Power vested in me by the state,” not by the bishop or other church higher up. There is no separation between church and state when the state gives authority to ministers to sanction legal unions.

But I digress. A right is a right. Marriage is a right. Gay marriage is a right. Let’s leave our Puritan past behind and move on as a nation. We have a lot of intractable problems in this country, from economic inequality to a government hijacked by corporations to a world standing built on violence rather than diplomacy. But this issue is an easy one to fix. And I hope the Supreme Court does so. Quickly, and decisively. Read More 
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On NPR, and looking at the problems of Detroit

I had the pleasure earlier this week of sitting through a 45-minute interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea to talk about the current state of Detroit, and the result of that session aired during Saturday’s “All Things Considered” weekend edition. Naturally, given the time restraints and multiple voices in the piece, they only used a couple of snippets of what I said, but I appreciate having my voice added to the national discussion – and am glad for the thoughtful attention NPR paid the issue.

Gonyea, incidentally, is an old Detroit hand himself. We used to run across each other while covering various Detroit stories in the 1980s and 1990s, and then again on the presidential political campaign trail after he joined NPR and I was working for the Los Angeles Times. Solid pro.

This link takes you to a story about the segment, which includes a transcript. The podcast of the show is available here. A catalyst for my book, Detroit: A Biography, was my desire to explain to people who don’t know Detroit what has happened there, that it is much more than tailfins on Cadillacs, Motown, sports teams, “ruins porn,” and drugs and crime. So I hope my inclusion in the program will bring some of that awareness to more people.

The only point I wish they had picked up from the interview and included in the segment is my argument that the current city government budget crisis – as significant as it is – is a symptom of Detroit’s problems, not the problem itself. The fiscal manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder – an abrogation of democracy, in my view – will likely use draconian measures to balance the city budget, primarily by selling off potentially profitable assets to the private sector, slashing services, and laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of people – adding to Detroit’s unemployment and poverty problems.

Those “fixes” will do nothing to help Detroit, the community, and far too many people conflate the two problems. By the time the manager is done, Detroit will still be a city of staggering poverty, and urban emptiness, with dysfunctional schools, massive areas of violence and blight, and no plan for improving the conditions under which 700,000 people live. It is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, but it is also a national problem that we, as a nation, have ignored for far too long.

None of that will change under a balanced city budget. Read More 
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Punk revisited: Richard Hell reflects on a surly birth

For music fans of a certain age - namely, mine - Richard Hell remains a key figure. He was among the founders of the punk era in music, and his torn shirts and spiked hair helped set the fashion tone for what became a cultural movement. And as a part of the bands The Neon Boys, Television, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, then, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he claims paternity for a whole lot of noise.

I interviewed Hell a few years ago when I was still writing for the Los Angeles Times and met up with him at restaurant in his East Village neighborhood in Manhattan. That piece was tied to the release of a semi-autobiographical novel, Godlike, and you can read it here.

I got Hell on the phone a couple of weeks ago for another interview piece, this one a Q&A for Esquire.com about his latest book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, a frank autobiograpy of his life up until the time he got clean of heroin and left music, for the most part, behind.

The Esquire.com piece is here, but this is a bit from it. And I gotta say, I really enjoy talking with Hell:
ESQ: What propelled you to write the autobiography?

RH: Since my 40s — which is now 20 years ago; I'm 63 — I've been disturbed and fascinated by having outlived my youth. When you're young, you don't especially think of yourself as being young. You're just alive and everything's interesting and you don't think of things in terms of age because you're not conscious of it. But then you hit your 40s and you realize, well, you're still alive but you're not young anymore. And things start taking a different kind of aspect. And you start getting curious about what it all adds up to. What does it mean to outlive your youth? I wanted to hold my life in my hands and turn it around and look at it in different ways to figure out what the hell had happened, to see if I could put it outside of myself and make it into a material object that I could grasp. So that was part of it. And the other part was I like writing books.
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On Scalia, 'racial entitlement,' and the power of history

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been getting skewered - and deservedly so - after his from-the-bench comments calling the protections in Voting Rights Act "racial entitlements." It takes a perverse view of the world, and a blind view of history, to call the still-insufficient efforts of the federal government to protect a minority against a majority an "entitlement." It really makes you wish Scalia would follow his pope's example and retire for the good of the institution. Not to mention the country.

The debate brings to mind a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago about a single civil rights-era murder. The victim was William Moore who, much like Viola Liuzzo, was white and gunned down over support for equal rights.

What propelled me to write this piece was the victim's anonymity in our history books. Much like the book I have since written, this was meant to both explore the echoes of the past, and to try to resurrect a moment that seemed to define its time, but that had fallen out of our collective memory.

The link to the story is here, but pasted below is the "nut graph" - the meat of the piece:
Prosecution in the Moore case was bound to be problematic. Despite legions of FBI infiltrators in the '60s, cracking the secrecy of the most violent cadres of the Ku Klux Klan was difficult. In many cases, local law enforcement aided segregationists and looked the other way as Klansmen killed activists, beat pacifists and burned and bombed homes and churches.

It was not an atmosphere conducive to swift justice. William Rayburn, the Etowah County prosecutor handling the Moore case, predicted privately to FBI officials that, given the local mood, he doubted a grand jury would indict Simpson--even if he signed a confession. Rayburn was right: In September 1963, five months after Moore's murder, an Etowah County grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to charge Simpson.

Sometimes justice does reach back. On May 22 of this year, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, the last of four former Klansmen suspected of blowing up the 16th Street Church, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison one year after fellow Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted for his role. Byron De La Beckwith, Evers' murderer, was convicted in 1994, three decades after that killing, and was sentenced to life in a Mississippi prison, where he died last year.

Emboldened by those successes, prosecutors have dusted off at least 11 civil rights era cases in the South, hoping to bring fresh charges. But countless other killings, including Moore's, have simply faded into history. As time passes and suspects and witnesses die, resolution becomes less likely. Simpson went to his grave four years ago without ever publicly discussing the killing, or his arrest. His wife and children maintain his silence.

Moore's widow, remarried 32 years ago to a quarryman and stone artist, lives on a 288-acre spread in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Mary Moore Birchard still has questions about what happened on that dark road in northeast Alabama, about why the grand jury decided not to indict Simpson despite eyewitness accounts placing a car like his at the scene, ballistics tests that found the killer's rifle was the same make and model as Simpson's, and Simpson's refusal to tell investigators what he had done after 4 p.m. on that cloudy spring day.

''It's always been my prayer that I would know who killed him before I die,'' Mary says.

There's more at stake than a widow's desire for certainty. Moore's murder remains part of the nation's unfinished business, a stain that can only be rinsed out with the truth, even if the guilty are beyond reach.
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Amid a national darkness, our hopes for a brighter year

May you all have a happy holiday season, whatever your faith or traditions, and may you have a peaceful new year. With the emphasis on peaceful...

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A night at the ballpark, and the freedom to insult

Frontier Field, Summer 2010/Credit: Scott Martelle
Last night was beautiful in Rochester, New York, a perfect night for baseball. So off I went to Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings, and one of the prettiest AAA ballparks in the country (I try to go every time I'm back in town). It was my second night in a row at the ballpark, after joining eight members of my wife's extended family on Tuesday. Last night I went alone and splurged the couple of extra bucks for a $12 seat a dozen rows back from the field on the third-base side.

Turns out it was the "insult" section. I was surrounded by regular attendees, many of whom knew each other by first name, and many of whom also embraced baseball's questionable tradition of heckling the players.

But a few of them also were heckling other fans. A young man with long black hair and sunglasses walked past to a seat in the second row; a woman in her late 50s called out, "Get a haircut!" Another woman around the same age, in the row behind her, added, "The sun set an hour ago!" An older man in the next row closest to the field spewed an endless stream of criticism, all audible to those around him, about the play, the players, the audience, the music -- he was like one of the two crotchety old men from "The Muppet Show," but without the humor.

Sitting there on a balmy evening, sipping a cup of beer, and watching the two squads of young players struggling to achieve a dream, I got to thinking about the divide between the players on the field, the fans around me in the stands, and the stream of negativity. Players sucked, coaches couldn't coach, pitchers couldn't pitch, the music was crap, this guy will never make in the majors and that guy, he used to be up but they sent him back. Nope, couldn't cut it. Did you see Kent Hrbeck, here tonight to sign autographs? Man is he fat, really let himself go, didn't he? Get a look at that girl; my mother never would have let me out of the house dressed like that! Ugh! The tattoos on that guy! Do you see them? He's going to regret that later, I tell you.

America's favorite past-time: The tearing down of others. Next time you wonder what motivates kids to bully others, think about the role models we give them, and the kind of behavior that passes for acceptable in the adult world. Read More 
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The summer of John Paul Jones, and high-impact gardening

Photo - and truck - by Craig Martelle
Posting has been light around here for a variety of reasons, most deriving from being on the road. I'm in Western New York now, bouncing between my parents' house in Wellsville and my in-laws in Rochester. Lotta labor on the Wellsville end as my brothers and I have been digging out old rotted lilacs, scrub brush, railroad ties and the occasional yellow-jacket nest (I won't show you the welts from the stings).

The picture at left is a mass of lilacs (one of many) that we dug out with a backhoe and are taking to a gully on land one of my brothers owns that needs fill. The lilacs haven't been thinned in decades, and the trunks and roots were too rotted to save. We're thinking of replanting with new, healthy lilacs, but may just leave the open space.

And, every morning, I'm working on the manuscript for Jones's Bones, at a pace of at least 1,000 words a day. It may please you to know that I've just polished off the Battle of Manila Bay. As for why, you'll have to wait for the book to find out (I'm such a tease, I know).

We begin the drive back to California in a little more than a week, with a stop at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan, on August 14 for a talk and signing. I'm really looking forward to that - I imagine there will be a lot of interested folks turning out, most with personal Detroit stories to tell. It should be a very engaged conversation. I hope to see some of you there.... Read More 
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Detroit: A Biography heading back for another printing

Words an author loves to hear from his editor: We're going back to press to print more copies of your book.

It doesn't mean the first printing of Detroit: A Biography sold out, but it does mean my publisher, Chicago Review Press, feels it needs more copies to fill the demand (and technically, this is the third printing - CRP went back to press for more copies before the first printing reached the warehouse).

So from somewhere deep in New Mexico - actually Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, Texas - my thanks for the interest, and the support. Folks like me tend to write by compulsion; it's very nice to know that people are reading the work, liking it - nearly unanimous positive reviews - and, most importantly, buying the book. It is, in the end, how we get paid for our labor.

Now back to the road trip: After a slow cruise through Saguaro National Park near Tucson, we put in for the night at Las Cruces. Tomorrow: Way too much of Texas, but with a couple of days in Austin looming.

And it looks like Tropical Storm Debby is being nice and heading east and out of our way. Sorry about that, Florida .... Read More 
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