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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Road trip into the past - and maybe the wind

So Margaret and I leave tomorrow for an eight-week road trip, part business, part pleasure (note to would-be burglars: We're leaving behind the two strapping, lacrosse-playing sons and the dog). The main focus for me is two weeks in Washington diving into the Library of Congress and National Archives for research for the Jones's Bones book project. We'll also be reconnecting with a lot of friends while we're there.

Assuming we get there.

The plan is to take the southern route because Margaret has never been to Austin or New Orleans. And if the National Hurricane Center's current prediction pans out, we and Hurricane Debby should both be in Louisiana on Thursday. So far the prediction is for the storm to slide westward along the Gulf Coast, missing New Orleans itself, so we're forging ahead with the plans.

But if the storm cuts north, so will we. Not as exciting as the adventure our friends Jeremy and Paula Dear are on - a couple of years traveling the Americas in a sleeper van - but Debby is putting a little edge on our plans. Read More 
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Flight 255 and the sole survivor, a quarter-century later

Cecilia Cichan with airplane tattoo. Credit: Soul Survivor
After more than 30 years in journalism, and thousands of stories heard and written, it's easy for the bulk of them to blur into faded memories. The story of baby Cecilia is one that stands out.

On the evening of Margaret's and my first wedding anniversary, a Sunday in mid-August 1987, we returned from a celebratory dinner out as the phone began ringing. It was Ray Jeskey, then my editor at The Detroit News. In his calm, matter-of-fact way, he asked if I could come into work. There had been a crash at Detroit Metro airport. It had been an incredible year in Detroit for news - cops were killed in ambushes, firefighters died in training accidents and fighting a warehouse blaze, kids were killing each other in a seemingly endless wave of violence over coats and sneakers.

I paused, trying to buy time to make up an excuse because I really didn't want to end our first anniversary celebration at my desk. I asked Ray how many people were aboard the plane, thinking it was another commuter flight.

"About 150," Ray said. I left the apartment a few minutes later, and didn't get home for three days. It was Northwest Flight 255, which fell to the ground just seconds after takeoff, disintegrating into a debris field of metal and bodies as it slammed into a bridge. Two people on the ground and everyone aboard the plane was killed -- except for little Cecilia Cichan, age four, who was found hurt but alive in the debris.

As compelling as that story is, even more remarkable was the reaction of her extended family, which took Cecilia in (both parents and a brother died in the crash) and then, in effect, made her disappear. They sought to shield her from people like me, refusing to talk to media or to make Cecilia available for photos. For years, they did this, seeking to let the miraculous survivor grow up in as near a normal way as she could, given the circumstances.

Now Cecilia has emerged, and apparently will be part of this upcoming doumentary, Sole Survivor on survivors of catastrophic plane crashes. I don't see many movies, but I think I'll catch this one (the trailer is embedded below). Margaret, whose fear of flying is palpable, will skip it, I'm sure.

Oh, and in the "small world" category, Flight 255's final destination that night (after a stop in Phoenix, where most of the victims lived) was John Wayne Airport. That's about four miles from where I now live in Irvine, California.
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More than a lifetime of tornadoes in one image

I'm a sucker for dramatic weather (odd, then, that I live in a place that rarely gets any), great web imagery, and unusual maps. This blends all three in spectacular fashion: A map of every tornado that has touched down in the lower 48 United States over the past 56 years - which begins two years before I was born.

Yes, this is essentially my lifespan as told by tornadoes. Put together by John Nelson at IDV Solutions.

tornado paths Read More 
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On Memorial Day, and the honored lost lives

From the Battle of Verdun, World War I
Nearly 30 years ago I found myself in Rennes, France, reporting a feature story while traveling France, England and Ireland with Margaret. We stopped by a local war memorial, which I remember as a stark and haunting place, large, with white marble walls, the names of the dead chiseled into the stone.

I remember as we walked around seeing a thigh-high ark near one of the walls. With my limited French abilities, I made out that the white-marble case was to memorialize the dead of World War II. It wasn't until then that I realized the endless rows of names on the walls were the dead from World War I.

The human costs of war in the 20th century was astounding, with tens of millions killed across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. I guess we should count our blessings that so few people live in Antarctica, or surely there'd have been war there. too.

On Memorial Day we tend to wax patriotic about soldiers giving the ultimate sacrifice to defend our way of life, a take that leaves me with a sour feeling. Some wars are just; most are not, sparked by greed, hubris, and tribalistic nationalism. But I can never shake the feeling that the military graveyards of the world are filled in large part by the bodies of men and women who never should have been sacrificed.

On Memorial Day, I join the nation in thanking and remembering fighting men and women who have died simply because they were asked to fight in their nation's name. But we also should hold accountable those who put them in harm's way for reasons other than our common defense. And no, a cheap gallon of gas or access to markets, no matter how shrouded in patriotic jingoes they might be, are not issues of national defense. Read More 
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Cheering on an old friend's new book, and re-invented life

There was a nice piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day by Julia "Julie" Heaberlin, an old friend and former colleague (at the Rochester Times-Union and The Detroit News), on this process of re-invention. In her case, it's as a thriller writer with a debut novel, Playing Dead, hitting shelves next week.

It's a very good book, especially for a first-timer, with a sharply drawn plot, a likable and unusual central character (Tommie McCloud, who makes a tomboy seem prissy), and some lovely stretches of writing. The novel is set mainly in Texas, where Julie was raised and now lives, and I told her after reading the galley that she shouldn't have wasted all those years as an editor for newspapers (an honorable profession, but still...). She took it the way it was intended, as a compliment.

In her piece for the Star-Telegram, Julie writes about the decision she and her husband, Steve Kaskovich (another old friend and former golfing buddy), made to live on his income as a newspaper editor while she pursued her dream. No easy decision, that, and one that was complicated by timing: She quit her upper-management job at the Star-Telegram just before the Great Recession hit both the economy, and the newspaper industry.

So a deeper layer of uncertainty was tossed over the endeavor. It took a lot of work, and a lot of tears from Julie, she writes, but she finally sold a book - two, actually - achieving a dream nurtured since childhood:
When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magical place where ideas come from. So I generally don't tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves.

I'd already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after 31/2 years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn't going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.

Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.

The difference between Julie's writing carrer and mine is that she made the conscious leap to leave a lifelong career, while I was pushed. But we're in similar places now. I've published three nonfiction books, and still relish the sense of accomplishment, and semi-permanence, that comes with seeing my name in the Library of Congress.

I've also written a crime novel (and the first draft of the sequel), and am now enduring the ego-slaps that Julie went through as book editors initially rejected her first novel as not being enough XXX. In my case, the rejections, couched in supportive words about the writing, changed by the editor, sometimes contradictorily so. One reported that the novel moved too quickly, another too leisurely. It can be maddening if you take it too personally, something I learned long ago not to do with the criticism others have for my work.

So as I slog on hoping my hardworking agent can get the manuscript in front of the right editor, one for whom my Detroit-based story and characters will resonate, I'm excited for Julie that she's achieved the dream, and wish her great luck and success in these reinvented lives of ours.  Read More 
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A 'High Maintenance' musical interlude

Both of our sons graduate this year, Michael from the University of California-Irvine with a bachelor's in history, and Andrew from University High School. This is from Andrew's final jazz band concert at the school. Both sons are musicians, and it's been a lot of fun watching them evolve both as musicians, and as people.
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On biographies - and talking about them

This weekend I'm taking part in the annual conference of Biographers International, a fairly new and quite interesting organization of writers who focus on biographies (the conference is at the University of Southern California). I'm involved with two panels on Saturday, which I'll get to momentarily. But first let me address a question: What is a journalist writing about history doing at a conference for biographers?

It's more than just throwing the word "biography" in the title of a book. Writing history is writing biography, though not in the David McCullough vein. To write about historic events for a general audience, as I do, it's imperative to tell stories, not just string together facts. And to make these moments in time resonate with readers, you have to bring to life the people involved. That means dipping into the biography pool so you can explain how and why people acted as they did. The research that I do in learning about the characters in my books is not as deep, or time-consuming, as required by a full biography. But it covers much of the same ground, and requires the same discipline.

So having said all that, my role at the conference will be two-fold - and has nothing to do with writing biographies. At 9 a.m. Saturday I'm moderating a panel, "Show Me the Money," in which I'll lead a conversation with Elizabeth Hoover and Robin Rauch on financing big projects (it isn't easy), and at 10:45 a.m. I'm on a panel about "Blogging to Boost Sales" with Beverly Gray and Mark Sarvas to talk about, well, this blog and other ways of connecting with readers.

I hope to see some of you there. Read More 
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A fascinating time-lapse video of earth

Every now and then you stumble across something that is just so compelling you have to share it (hmm, I wonder if we could build a social-networking site around that idea?). This is a time-lapse video of photos taken from a Russian satellite about a year ago. The photos are fairly high-resolution - one kilometer per pixel - for the amount of terrain covered, which gives the video a heightened sense of sharpness. The orange is vegetation, the color a result of the infrared cameras used.

The rest of the technical details (121 megapixel cameras, photos taken every 30 minutes, etc.) are on the Youtube page where I found this, but I thought the video remarkable enough to share here. This really needs to be done as a screensaver, no?

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A well-traveled friend buys a well-received book

Paula Dear could well be the most-traveled reader of Detroit: A Biography.

Paula and her husband, Jeremy, are from England, and visited with us for a couple of weeks last summer as they prepared for the trip of a life-time. Both had pitched their jobs (he as general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, she as a journalist for BBC news), packed up their keepsakes with family, came to the U.S. and went shopping for a sleeper van. The plan: To spend a couple of years driving around the Americas (which they're chronicling here).

Oh, and neither spoke Spanish.

They've been marooned for a bit in Honduras, awaiting delivery of a new transmission (a long story amusingly told on their travel blog). But they took a planned break last week, Jeremy to head to Havana for May Day (as close to a religious holiday as he celebrates), and Paula to New York City for some facetime with old friends to celebrate her birthday.

And there, in a Barnes & Noble, she bought my book. Thanks, Paula. And for any others with photos of the Big Purchase, email me and I'll try to pop the picture up here on the blog.

Now, back to John Paul Jones. Where is that body? Read More 
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The Festival of Books, and an unanswered question

Northeast Detroit, summer of 2010.
Well, it was a hectic couple of days at the LA Times Festival of Books, with an appearance on a panel Sunday and writing up three blog posts for the Times's Jacket Copy blog Saturday and Sunday morning. But I found myself thinking last night about an answer that slipped away.

I was on the "We Built This City " panel Sunday, moderated by LA Times book editor Jon Thurber, and that included former Times c ity editor and columnist Bill Boyarsky and writer Rebecca Solnit. Boyarsky was there to talk about Los Angeles, Solnit about San Francisco, and I about Detroit. Before it was opened to audience questions, Thurber asked about catastrophic events, and how cities seem to pull together after them (something Solnit has written about) and why, in a case like Detroit, they don't. Before I got a chance to weigh in the conversation drifted a bit, and I didn't bring it back.

So here is my answer: Because people tend to respond to incidents they can react to in an immediate, and human way. We don't, as a society, react to slow evolution. Or, in the case of Detroit, a slow dismantling.

A popular theme in Detroit is to say that the city is just as devastated as New Orleans, but without the hurricane. There's some truth to that. People like to donate to the Red Cross and other organizations in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, or something like the 9/11 terror attacks. It helps them feel connected, as though they've done something that recognizes their sympathy with those directly affected. It makes them feel good.

But when it comes to large but slowly unfolding socio-economic crises, we turn a blind eye. Especially if those suffering are outside the mainstream - people of color, the chronically poor, the detritus left behind by an economic ebb tide. Which is really quite interesting when you think about. These slowly unfolding crises are the results, in most cases, of national and corporate policies, regional housing patterns, a crumbling sense of physical community, and a surrender to individual fears and prejudices.

A hurricane we rally around. Our national sins, not so much. And it's all the odder when you realize that many of us who are getting by in this economy are one serious illness away from abject poverty - even those of us with health insurance. We need to pay more attention to these glacial, and transforming, changes in our national fabric, and our national priorities. We need to start thinking more about ourselves as part of a inclusive community.

A lot of people these days are quoting the Founding Fathers as they try to define what the government is, and should be. It would behoove us to heed another quote from that era, too, about what happens if we don't all hang together..... Read More 
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