Monday, October 9, 2017

Has We the People become I the Individual?

I belong to a group of bloggers called Writers Who Kill. It’s not meant literally, of course, but as mystery/suspense/thriller writers our writing includes murder. My books have included mass poisonings, many shootings, attempted suicides, and in my current WIP Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5), a rock becomes a murder weapon.

In the wake of this month’s Las Vegas mass-shooting, I again debated with myself whether writing novels with violence abetted the epidemic of killing in the United States. The easy counter-arguments to those worries include that, given my sales, I’m not even a blip on the collective social conscience. If I removed even that blip, people would read someone else. However, even if something does not matter because it is only a drop in the ocean does not mean the drop is acceptable.

Other countries love murder-mysteries as much as we do in the U.S. They even read many of the same bestsellers as we do, and yet their rates of violence are significantly lower. Something other than reading choices must drive our levels of violence.

The answer might be our heightened sense of individualism and low sense of community responsibility. Unless confronted by incontrovertible evidence, we choose individual freedom over individual or collective safety. We choose individual freedom over individual or collective financial costs.

Evidence, Jim; we need evidence. Our choice to interpret the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as an individual right to buy nearly every kind of gun and ammunition available has led to 1.5 million gun deaths in the last fifty years. In comparison, in the combined U.S. wars starting with the Revolutionary War and including the current conflicts, only 1.2 million Americans have died.[i]

Price of freedom, we say. That price comes to 30,000 people dying each year for fifty years. A huge number, but it means little to us because the chances of it being us are incredibly small (~.01%/year).

Let’s switch to driving habits. Raise your hand if you routinely drive faster than posted speed limits? Me too. Studies have demonstrated that increased speeds lead to more deaths and injuries. Lower speeds use less fuel, save money and the environment, and yet we mostly root for increased limits and don’t obey those that are posted.[ii]

And while I’m on the topic of driving, states have vacillated, but many have removed helmet requirements for motorcyclists. It’s a no-brainer that the chance of death or serious injury are greater without a helmet. I understand the thrill of letting the air blow through your hair (or over a bald pate in my case). I don’t use a helmet when riding my ATV unless I’m traveling where the police are likely to see me.

According to the Center for Disease Control, if every state required motorcyclists to wear helmets it would save $1 billion a year, 740 lives a year (they estimate those states with laws saved 1,772 lives in 2015).[iii] Who pays that $1 billion? Mostly the rest of us through our own vehicle insurance rates, medical premiums (to cover uninsured hospital costs), Medicaid costs, etc. My state of Michigan allows those over age 20 to forego helmets if they have passed a course (or driven for at least two years) and carry at least $20,000 in medical insurance[iv]—as if $20,000 is going to cover the costs of a head injury. Have the legislators paid any attention to the costs of hospital stays?

How about that fundamental right to build your house wherever you want? The seashore? A flood plain? A nice canyon in tinder-dry California? In the middle of the Michigan woods on a nice inland lake? Sitting on top of an earthquake fault zone? Guaranteed: each of those will have a major problem sometime. That’s what insurance is for, right?

Yes, but . . . individuals are often unwilling to pay the true cost to insure their individual decision and instead rely on government funding—i.e. the rest of society—to bail them out. (Full disclosure, I have purchased flood insurance on my Savannah condo.) The National Flood Insurance Program is $25 billion in debt (and that’s before the 2017 hurricane costs). In 2012 Congress raised rates to close the gap between what policyholders paid and the true cost of insurance. In 2014 they fell to pressure from the skyrocketing rates and backed off, instead adding a surcharge to “pay” for the deficit. Current proposals won’t fix the problem either.[v]

It is not impossible to change the way we treat risk and cost. Roughly fifty years ago, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. In 1965 we suffered roughly five deaths for every million miles we drove. Today it is about one death per million miles. That’s an eighty-percent decrease. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/automobiles/50-years-ago-unsafe-at-any-speed-shook-the-auto-world.html

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring kicked off an environmental movement that brought us back from environmental catastrophe from indiscriminate pesticide use (another example of individual freedom to spray trumping community needs—until legislation changed the balance).

We’re facing a similar crisis regarding the overuse of antibiotics and the creation of superbugs.

The list grows, but I have two conclusions resulting from my ruminations. Relying on each individual to make decisions based on individual needs only works when community costs are factored in, which we have not done with guns, freedom from wearing helmets, flood insurance or antibiotic use. Second, I put my name on my books; if someone thinks my writing is responsible for abetting the unacceptably high level of gun violence, at least you know exactly who I am.

This post first appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/8/17




[i] http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/more-killed-by-guns-since-1968-than-in-all-us-wars/ar-AAsUIda?ocid=spartandhp
[ii] https://www.wired.com/2016/05/raising-speed-limits-irresponsible-states-keep-anyway/
[iii] https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/mc/index.html
[iv] http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/laws/helmetuse/helmethistory
[v] http://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/report/the-national-flood-insurance-program-drowning-debt-and-due-phase-out

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Author’s Toolbox: The Auditory Read Through


Every author develops a toolkit of writing skills and techniques, preferred software and hardware, and proven processes to develop a polished manuscript. In my online course, Revision and Self-Editing (next month-long class starts October 1 if you are interested), I suggest authors add the Auditory Read Through to their stockpile of available tools.

If you are like most modern authors, you compose your first draft using a word-processing program, which means you first see your words on a screen. You may rewrite your manuscript using a screen to display your text, or you may print out a copy of your manuscript, make handwritten corrections and then convert those back to an electronic form.

Many authors have learned that they find different problems when they view their manuscript on the screen compared to what they find when using a hard copy. I know authors who change from their standard font and a single column printout and use a different font and two columns to make sure nothing looks “familiar.” In addition to these techniques, I suggest that you will discover different issues when you read your manuscript out loud.

Even if on previous read throughs you silently sounded things out in your head, you were not using your sense of hearing. Before the written word, stories were spoken, and you should listen to yours to discover a few last issues you may have missed.

Approaches to the Auditory Read Through

#1 I read it myself

One key to this approach is I try to mimic a reader’s experience.
I print out the manuscript single-spaced applying the same font, type size, lines per page and page size as the publisher uses. As I read, I’ll see, for example, a long paragraph that needs splitting or dialogue that runs unbroken for two pages. [I do not worry about exact layout, orphan lines, where words break on a line, or anything like that.]

What do I listen for? Anything that doesn’t sound right on a sentence-by-sentence basis, or as part of a paragraph, or the entire page. Whenever I stumble or trip over a word, there is a good chance I need a rewrite. This gives me the opportunity to straighten convoluted sentences and exchange flabby diction with precise wording.

I often discover I used a word several times within a short span. I might not see the multiple uses on screen or page, but my ear picks them up. Reading often reveals double words: detritus remaining from earlier rewriting (the the is my most common).

I pay attention to adverbs: are they covering for a flabby verb? Make sure every adverb is necessary. As an example, consider the line “She quickly walked to the sidewalk.” With the multitude of verbs available to describe exactly how she moved to the sidewalk, this sentence employs a lazy approximation for what the reader should visualize as they read.

Where I used multiple adjectives, can I replace them with one perfect descriptor?

Have I noun-ized verbs (xxxxx-ness) or verbed nouns (xxxxx-ize)?

Are verbs that end with “ing” appropriate?

Have I fallen into a repetitive pattern? Do too many sentences share the same form? Are sentences all the same length?

#2 Use software to read the manuscript

I used this technique with Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5) this week as the final step before sending the manuscript to my editor. I allow the software to read the words (fully engaging my ears in the process) while I follow along on the computer screen. A variety of free and for-purchase software exists to read documents. I use the voices incorporated in Microsoft Word.

Most of my POV characters for this story are male, so I chose Microsoft’s David Mobile. Unlike a voice actor, or when I read my WIP aloud, this electronic reading does not provide inflection, which allows me to pay more attention to the actual words. It does take a bit of getting used to. Microsoft mangles many proper names because it tries to pronounce them phonetically and guesses at syllables. One character is Frank Cabibi. I’ve pronounced his last name in my head as Că-BEE-bee. Microsoft David chose CAY-bǝ-BY. David also doesn’t correctly enunciate the difference between the “live” in live bait versus the one in live and let live.

The occasional auditory jar startles me back to listening with careful ears. When I read my own work, I read through typos. (I know what the word is supposed to be.) Microsoft David reads what’s there, catching, for example, “habit” in a sentence where I intended “habitat.” (The error had survived two earlier drafts.) He always reads double words, something I sometimes miss when I read my own manuscript.

Some things are more obvious when I listen to my writing rather than read it myself. I can’t catch words or sentences I stumble over—Microsoft David is too competent to stumble. However, I do catch more clunky sentences when hearing his monotone—words, not inflection, must carry the meaning.

#3 Record, then listen

I have not tried this technique, but I know authors who swear by recording themselves reading their manuscript out loud and then listening to the recording. While they record their words, they muzzle the internal editor. (This is the part I find impossible.) Once they start the playback, they are truly listening (since they are not also reading).

When to perform an Auditory Read Through

My current workflow incorporates two Auditory Read Throughs. The first is as I described in my use for Empty Promises: when I think I have a manuscript ready to send to my editor. I know the editor will find many things for me to change, and much of this polishing will be wasted effort. However, if I’ve corrected all the problems I can see, it allows my editor to spend her time spotting things I haven’t seen. For me that is worth the extra time.

I perform a final Auditory Read Through on the final, final, final, manuscript. It’s my last bit of quality control before I approve the manuscript for publication. I admit it’s probably a belt-and-suspenders approach to a clean read, but hey—it’s my name on the cover!

If you’ve tried the technique, how did you think it worked for you? If you haven’t performed an Auditory Read Through, do you think you might?

~ Jim

There is still time to register for the Revision and Self-Editing class, which you can do from Jim's website.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Two Keys to Page-Turning Novels

Even Bears Sometimes Get Lost in the Wood

Reviews of my Seamus McCree novels suggest many readers find them to be page-turners. Some even “complain” that they lost sleep because they couldn’t put the story down. I can sympathize. There are certain authors whose books I can’t put down—and it’s not necessarily because they are action thrillers.

I researched the issue and paid attention to how authors I can’t put down reel me in to reading just one more scene. “I’ll put the book down at the next white space,” I say, and two hours later I’m still reading. (White space is the term I use for a scene break or chapter break where there are a few blank lines separating the scenes (sometimes it includes a glyph) or—like with chapters—a new page where the next scene starts.)

I incorporated what I learned into Lesson 6 of my online course “Revision and Self-Editing.” Books that capture my attention and don’t let me go have two key components that books I can easily put down do not.

To keep me reading past the point I planned to stop requires a terrific “prompt” at the end of the scene. What makes a good prompt? There is no one way to do it, and if an author uses the same technique at the end of every scene, it could get as obnoxious as the cliffhangers of the 1914 serial Perils of Pauline flicks, where at every break the heroine is about to die.

The ending can be loaded with emotional punch, or a hint or premonition of change, or a question the reader wants answered. The scene can end with a line of dialogue that provides a twist or surprise. The POV character can make a promise (to another character or to herself) and we wonder whether she has really turned over a new leaf or what disaster will come from that decision. Whatever the actual content, it’s important to keep things open-ended. If there is no further suspense, there is no reason to keep reading. And if an author puts their POV character to bed and turns off the light, readers may decide to do the same. Zzzzzzzz.

An intriguing prompt is only half the battle. The terrific scene ending induces the reader to turn a page they didn’t intend to, but they aren’t yet committed to the next scene. That’s the job of that scene’s first few lines. They must set the hook to retain the reader while at the same time orienting him regarding who is in the scene (and who the Point-of-View character is), where and when it takes place, and what the first action is.

Lots of authors (including me in my early drafts) want to make sure readers understand the mechanics of the transition from one scene to the next. But, readers are smart. They know if the character was in California and plans to fly to New York, and the next time we see her she is in New York, she probably took the plane. Unless relevant conflict is involved, we don’t need to get her to the airport, through security and onto the plane, served tomato juice, deplane, grab a taxi, ring the doorbell, go through a long recitation of the last few days in California, etc., etc.

Let’s say we left our heroine worried about whether she was wise to dye her hair purple without letting her lover (who claims to adore her dirty blond hair) know. If the next scene opens with her lover throwing a fit about the dye job, the reader doesn’t care about the details of the trip. Or if the author wants a reaction scene to deepen reader connection with the character, she might cut directly to the heroine’s increasing anxiety as she self-talks her way through doing the laundry, waiting for her lover to get home.

Here’s another example to illustrate the point. Let’s say a scene ends with Barbara slamming out of her sister’s house (an action scene; her sister is named Molly). The next scene is set in a pub where Barbara meets her best friend, Trish, to kvetch (a reaction scene setting up the next action scene). Many authors would take the reader from the sister’s house to the bar: Barbara gets in the car, drives, parks, walks into the bar, her eyes have to adjust to the light, finally sees her friend in a back booth, smiles and waves and walks over, sits down and orders a beer.

I don’t know about you, but I start reading all that and think, “I don’t need to read this now,” and slip my bookmark in place (or close my Kindle).

But if the next scene began with dialogue like this (which assumes we’ve met Trish before), I could be kicking myself a half hour later because I still don’t want to put the book down.

“Next time,” Barbara said, “I’m going to rip her hair out and test her DNA.” She raised her mug high over her head to order another.

Trish’s hoot temporarily drowned out Lyle Lovett moaning from Lefty’s jukebox. “Oh, Molly’s your sister, all right. No one else can jerk your chain so bad. It ain’t even three o’clock and you’re already doin’ shooters with your beer.”

“You say so.” Barbara rolled her shoulders and a bit of tension released from her neck. Thank God she had called Trish. She had been in such a blind fury she didn’t even remember driving here. God, she hoped she hadn’t run that red light with the snitch camera like the last time she was pissed off at Molly. “Mama always said, ‘Don’t get mad. Get even.’ I owe her big, and I got a plan.”

“Oh Lordy,” Trish said. “What do I have to talk you out of this time?”

I’m sure the authors reading this blog could make this snippet stronger, but this example has accomplished a lot in a few lines. The author has defined the POV character (Barbara) and provided additional characterization.

We have a setting (Lefty’s — probably a bar, some place that plays Country music.)

There is a transition from the prior scene to this one as Barbara reflects on how she got here (and provided a speck of backstory about getting nailed for running a red light).

We know the scene objective (Barbara is trying to solicit Trish to carry out revenge).

We have evidence that Trish is going to resist Barbara and so we anticipate conflict between them.

Wouldn’t you want to know what the scheme is and whether Trish can talk her out of it. Of course, good authors make sure to vary their scene openings as well as their scene endings to keep them interesting and fresh.

Readers, does this jibe with your experiences, or is there something else that makes you read late into the night?

Authors, if you’re interested in learning more about Revisions and Self-Editing, the next month-long course starts October 1. You can find more information on my website at https://jamesmjackson.com/2017-course.html You’ll receive a discounted fee if you sign up before September 5.

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill (8/27/17)



Sunday, August 27, 2017

An Open Letter to All Members of Congress

It’s artificial crisis time again: you must decide whether to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Congress, according to the latest Gallup Poll[i], has a current approval rating of 16% and a disapproval rating of 79%. When nearly five times as many people think you are doing a bad job as think you are doing a good job, I suggest it is time to change how you operate—and the debt ceiling gives you a perfect opportunity to begin to change perceptions.

Very few, if any, of you 535 officeholders want the U.S. Government to default on its obligations—obligations which you and your predecessors have committed the American people to pay based on the cumulative effect of prior spending and revenue bills.

Therefore, as a group you will vote to raise the ceiling. Historically, one side or both have held the other “hostage” in a game of chicken to try to score a political gain they don’t think they can accomplish in the normal course of doing Congressional business.

I ask each of you to commit to supporting a clean debt limit increase. Do what is necessary so bond holders, government employees, government contractors, and individuals receiving any type of governmental benefit do not worry about being paid on time and in full.

Should you do this because one voting citizen writes an open letter to you? No, you should do it because it is not only in the best interest of the United States of America, it is in your collective best interest, Republican, Democrat or Independent.

Republicans: You have a great number of changes you want to make in how the U.S. functions. You want to reform taxes, increase infrastructure spending, modify healthcare and other social programs, and much more. If you all approve a clean debt ceiling increase, you can spend your time crafting laws to implement those changes. Yes, many of you are concerned about the continual steep increase in our national debt and want to attach provisions to the debt limit increase to slow or stop that rise. Hold that debate as part of the budgeting process where it belongs. Show that as the party that controls all three branches of government you can actually govern.

Democrats: You can demonstrate to voters that you are not the party of politics as usual: the minority party of “no.” Take the lead by making a 100% commitment to vote for a clean debt ceiling increase. Let the Republicans fight among themselves, if they choose, about what else should be attached to raising the debt ceiling. You have made it clear to the public that you are mature adults looking out for the best interests of the entire country. Introduce your bill to cleanly raise the debt ceiling on your first day back to work. Should the Republicans not support it, spend the time generating specific bills to improve the parts of Obamacare that must be fixed.

Independents: In theory, you are not mixed in the fractious party politics. Prove it. Commit to a clean debt ceiling rise.

Pledge your support of a clean debt limit increase, and let’s move on to debating the important issues that face our country.

Thank you,
James M. Jackson
Amasa, MI



[i] http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fire and Ice




Here’s a YouTube version of Robert Frost’s short poem, “Fire and Ice,” which was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1920 and later incorporated in the Pulitzer-winning book New Hampshire. It’s a short poem, and I give you permission to do a quick listen before reading the rest of this blog.

With all the bloviating going on between the heads of state of North Korea and the United States, I was reminded of Frost’s poem, written not long after the end of World War I, but well before the nuclear attacks by the U.S. on Japan at the end of World War II.

I grew up in the age of “duck and cover.” [Oh heck, I just Goggled the phrase and came up with this nine-minute 1951 Civil Defense film featuring Bert the Turtle.] I remember in school curling into a ball under my desk, covering my head and neck with my arms. Other times we filed into the hallways and, making sure not to be opposite a door where flying glass would be a problem, we impatiently sat covering our heads with our hands. The assumption was we should do everything possible to survive an enemy attack.

My house and school were about six miles away from Kodak Park in Rochester, New York. Kodak Park would have been a very likely target in a nuclear war with the USSR because of its film production and processing capabilities. At the time, all the spy-plane cameras and film were produced by Kodak or Polaroid (also a Rochester company back then).

What no one told us back then was that a typical mid-sized hydrogen bomb when exploded in the atmosphere would have a blast zone of nearly seven miles and a thermal radiation hot zone of fifteen miles. That would have been the effect if either of the four megaton H-bombs the US accidentally dropped on North Carolina on January 24, 1961 when a B-52 broke apart had exploded. Although three of the four “fail-safe” devices on one of the bombs did fail, the fourth held and the devices didn’t trigger an explosion. [i]

The world for me would have ended in fire. Crushed or not, I would have been toast.

For those not so near a likely target, the world might have ended in ice. For many years, “experts” predicted a nuclear winter would follow an all-out nuclear war. The hypothesis was that the firestorms caused by the nuclear bombs would combine to throw so much soot into the atmosphere it would block sufficient sunlight to cause a significant temperature drop and induce a permanent winter—at least until the soot precipitated out of the atmosphere.

Hey good news: we have a cure for global warming—a global nuclear war! While generally discredited now because models show cities won’t burn as originally anticipated and therefore not produce enough atmospheric debris,[ii] it struck a chord of plausibility as the world has experienced global cooling because of atmospheric soot. In 1816 the northern hemisphere suffered a “volcanic winter” generally attributed to the ash plume from the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Dutch Indies. In the Berkshires and upstate New York where my ancestors lived there, was wide-spread crop failure as snow fell as late as June and frost occurred throughout the summer.[iii]

As a child, I was never scared of nuclear war. It had no meaning for me. The drills were just one of the things you did, like saying the pledge of allegiance every morning. You didn’t think about the meaning of either one. That changed for me in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. It’s the first international news event that I really recall (I turned twelve while it was going on), and I remember it because of the palpable fear I sensed from adults around me. I remember watching the news with my family as President Kennedy announced on live television the embargo of Cuba. I had to ask my parents where “Cuber” was (and learned about New England accents!) I remember the huge typeface of the newspaper that included the critical word: BLOCKADE.

Negotiations worked that time, but there was a subsequent boom in backyard bunker building.

Now it seems some of the 1% are preparing for all kinds of potential disaster with luxury bunkers.[iv] I have neighbors who are contemplating how they could become subsistence farmers and hunt the woods for their meat. My neighbors have armed themselves in preparation of that dystopian future; they would surely have to defend their supplies and food from those who won’t be prepared.

I am making no such preparations, and I frankly have no fears of a nuclear holocaust. When I think of what it would take to survive a nuclear war or collapse of our food supplies, whatever the cause, I realize I don’t want to be a survivor. Maybe it’s because I’m on the downward slope of life. Maybe it’s because I am so distraught about our continual worldwide inhumane treatment of our fellow humans that I secretly think the world might be better off if our species became extinct.

I admit to being a chicken when it comes to death. I’d prefer it to happen with no pain and in my sleep. If it comes to a great disaster, I’d rather go in the fire of one big flash and know nothing of it than by the slow freeze of ice.

I have been thinking about the collapse of our food supplies, but in a fictional sense. It’s the proximate trigger for a future I am sketching out for a possible trilogy. I’ll let you know how that works out.

This post first published on Writers Who Kill

Monday, July 31, 2017

Chihuly Garden and Glass


The last morning we were in Seattle as part of a 19-day excursion with our youngest granddaughter, we took in the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition. It’s part of the Seattle Center, whose best-known attraction is the Space Needle. A series of five short films are part of the exhibit. They feature Dale Chihuly talking about his approach to some of his exhibitions. Pictures in this blog come from the Seattle exhibit.


Having visited some of his other exhibits, I would have guessed that he was a deep planner, with each piece’s placement well-considered before the glass-blowing began, and then placed in its pre-determined spot. Turns out he’s more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy.

Oh sure, he sketches out big pieces, but he’s not a slave to the design. For example, while developing one exhibit, he took great delight in tossing his glass creations into a river to see how they would float together, what patterns they would make, how they would flow, and so on. Kids collected them and stuck them in a large rowboat. Chihuly was so struck by the arrangement the kids made, he included the same concept in several subsequent exhibits, including the one in Seattle.







When Chihuly creates his very large chandeliers, he and his team produce the component parts, but when it comes to constructing each chandelier, serendipity plays a huge part. One film shows the team putting together a new chandelier for an installation. Chihuly stood below and periodically held up a piece and said, “Make sure to include this somewhere. I like this piece.” Later, a small hole in the pattern developed that he commented on several times, making sure they knew it was there and kept it. “After all, nature does the same thing.”







It was clear he enjoyed himself throughout the whole process. When it comes to his art, he has kept the freedom of a child: willing to experiment, follow a wild idea, challenge himself and his partners.

Exiting the exhibit, I was looking forward to the next chance I had to write. Thanks, Dale.

This blog originally appeared 30 July 2017 on Writers Who Kill.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Living on Borrowed Time

Last week a five-minute blast of very high straight winds hit our property in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the hundred feet between our house and cabin and the lake, we lost all or parts of eight large trees: three hemlocks, two spruces, one cedar, and two maples. I haven’t explored the south end of my near-shore property, so there could be more. I have traveled most of the paths that wander through the remainder of my eighty acres looking for damage and found nothing major.

Why the disparity in damage levels, and does this have any larger significance beyond me having serious chainsaw work ahead of me?
  
View of lake 2013. Note density of trees and short understory

When I bought the land in 1997, the trees at the lake’s edge were generally towering white pines and sprawling white cedars. The next tier of forest consisted of black spruce (60%), white pines and white spruce (10%), and deciduous trees (mostly red maple, white birch, quaking aspen – 30%). Beyond that 100-foot line, the deciduous trees became dominant with evergreens accounting for at most a quarter of the trees.

The black spruce were already starting to die from blight. A diseased tree would first exhibit the problem in the fall when many of the needles at the treetop turned yellow. By the next fall, the tree would be dead, and within three years the top would blow off, leaving a twenty-five-foot stub, which generally fell in the following decade. After twenty years of this infestation, perhaps five percent of black spruce near the lake remain.


The understory 2017

The spruce deaths have opened the understory for new growth, and a mass of balsam, pine, and hemlock have reached up to fifteen feet tall. During this period, a few of the white pines, which were already past their prime and on their decline, have also died, losing their needles and dropping branches as the years pass. A third source of destruction occurred when beaver “harvested” up to a third of the large deciduous trees in that first hundred feet, including almost all of those at or very close to the water.

One advantage of all this woods-thinning is that we have a much better view of the lake from our house than when we first built it. The bad news is that when we consider the density of trees taller than twenty-five feet in that first one-hundred feet, there is no forest. Those trees have become a collection of individuals.

More open view of lake 2017 (of course it was foggy the day I took this)

Those of you without significant forest experience may not realize that trees in a forest grow differently compared to the same tree in a suburban yard. Because of the lack of competition in the yard, trees grow out, expanding their canopy using long limbs that require thick trunks. The quest for canopy space in a forest requires rapid vertical growth. Light reaching the floor of a forest signals affected trees to grow tall as quickly as they can so they can grab that small spot in the canopy. Lower limbs are quickly abandoned. Strengthening the trunk takes a back seat to reaching height quickly. This results in tall, thin trees whose trunks are often brittle.

Twenty years ago, high winds that whipped across the lake were met by a dense collection of trees. Pines formed the core of the defensive front. Tall and supple and strong, and backed up by the large numbers of spruce behind them, they forced much of the wind to deflect up and over the forest. Now the big trees are isolated, with large gaps between. High winds are no longer deflected up; they retain their strength, sweeping past the pines, and pounding individual trees with their full force.

The unbroken wind uses the densely packed needles to apply extra leverage to individual trees, causing those cedar and spruce trees with shallow or weakened root systems to tip over. Trees with stronger root systems, like maples, birches, and hemlocks, remain standing, but the unchecked winds apply immense force to their leafed out or needled upper portions. If the trunk has a weaker spot, the winds can rip the tops of those trees off their bases. This is what happened to the hemlocks and maples.

Collectively, the forest—before it was weakened by disease, old age, and beaver—could withstand almost any straight winds with only minor damage to the tall trees. Individually, trees are hard-pressed to sustain the periodic battering we receive in the U.P.

The birch and maple trees initially benefited when the black spruce died and dropped to the forest floor. There was more light for them. Their roots had less competition. When the beaver wreaked its devastation, it didn’t chew down the evergreens, leaving the towering hemlocks to stand alone. When a huge pine died, all the other trees grew faster using the extra light.

The tall trees that remain now claim a disproportionate share of the natural resources. Their leaves or needles gather most of the light. Their extensive root systems, hidden under the ground, absorb most of the water and nutrients.

The tall trees are now this forest’s billionaires. The black spruce were the forest’s middle class: hollowed by a disease that benefited those at the top of the food chain that claimed much of the canopy and feasted on the nutrients released to the soil. The understory trees are the forest’s working poor, struggling to get by on the scraps left by the big trees, but flourishing where they do receive enough light.

Those billionaire trees are living on borrowed time. When the winds come, the eviscerated middle class can no longer support them, and one by one they will be toppled.

~ Jim

This blog first published 17 July 2017 on Writers Who Kill.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Life Lesson from Choral Experiences

I started singing in choirs in elementary school. In those early years, we learned music by ear: listen to the teacher and reproduce what you hear. It’s how we learned to speak, but easier for some than for others. Later, we learned to sing by reading music. In that, I had an advantage because my parents forced piano lessons on me starting in second or third grade. I discovered you can learn by rote, but it’s much easier if you first master the tools of the trade. That, it turns, out, applies to much in life.

There can be stars in choirs, but a discerning listener of the best choruses can’t distinguish one voice from another. Unless you have a solo, you are supposed to blend in, not stick out. And, it turns out, sticking out is not just about the sound. Choruses, like teams, often wear uniforms, coordinate moves: lifting and setting down their music folders, entering and exiting a stage with precision. Much of being a chorus doesn’t just involve singing well.

In sixth grade, I made the all-county chorus—as a first soprano! The only thing I recall of the experience is the principal of my school mentioning he spotted me right off—I was the one yawning before the performance began. Even from a distance he recognized me because of my idiosyncrasy.

In junior high, competing schedules forced me to choose between band and chorus. With a voice that provided random octaves and a pre-teen boy’s embarrassment over the same, my tenor sax and I chose the band. I was content to sing long hours along with the radio.

By the time I reached high school, my voice had sorted itself out and I sang tenor in my church choir. The choir had a sufficiency of bass/baritones, so both my father and I sang tenor. Neither of us were natural tenors, but we could hit the high notes. We did have a third tenor in the choir and he had a fine natural voice but was, unfortunately, a bit shaky on the notes. The director determined that if Dad and I bracketed him, the true tenor sang the right notes, and as a threesome we had sufficient volume to carry our part. The result of making individual sacrifices (my throat did hurt after pieces like Handel’s Messiah) made for a better overall result.


For nearly twenty-five years after high school, I was not a choir member; but when I changed jobs and moved to Cincinnati, I was determined to join a church with a choir. I visited St. John’s Unitarian (one of four Unitarian churches I was checking out) the Sunday their morning service consisted of a congregational sing of selections from their brand new hymnal. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and need to recognize your luck. I had a blast sight-reading the bass parts. Someone in the congregation ratted me out to the choir director, who buttonholed me before I even left the sanctuary. The next Thursday I attended my first rehearsal.

That choir performed some great music, especially as part of our annual Spring concerts: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Vaughn Williams, contemporary pieces as well, including my favorite American composer, Morten Lauridsen, plus South American and Indian works. I sang English, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hindi, and Swahili (and probably others as well). Those works were a stretch for me and for the choir, but the hard work was always worth the effort even if the concert performances were never perfect.

[Here's a YouTube of Lauridsen's "Dirait-on" if you'd like a 5-minute treat.] 





Through that association, I had an opportunity to sing in a chorus that performed with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. We had only four rehearsals and were expected to come to the first rehearsal knowing the music (light years away from my early grammar school days of learning music by rote). What an eye-opening experience that was for this decidedly amateur performer. Everyone sang out (in church choirs there are usually just a few who sing out and the rest follow) and it was easy to find my mistakes and correct them because people on the right and left of me were singing something different. The rehearsal conductor expected us to correct our own mistakes. He concentrated on entrances, cutoffs, and shaping the sound. We had one dress rehearsal with the full orchestra under the baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and then the performance.

It was also through the church choir that I met Jan, my partner of twenty-three years.

When we left Cincinnati and joined the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah in 2010, it was very small with a few excellent singers, but many much less skilled than I. We sang simple music, often in two or three parts, not the eight-part harmony of the works we often did at St. John’s. It was a bit discouraging, but I held onto a recognition I had made years ago: no matter how tired I was as I dragged myself from work to rehearsal, I felt refreshed at the end of the two hours. Even though in Savannah rehearsals were shorter, and the pieces less satisfying, I still retained that feel-better-after-singing experience.

And over the years, more quality singers joined the Savannah choir. I thought, oh good, now we’ll start doing more robust works. That hasn’t happened; this choir director has chosen to take her finer choral instrument and shape its sound. Pitches are now spot on, not just very close. She works on the sound of vowels, precise cutoffs and entrances. Rarely, we’ll end up with six or eight parts for a portion of a piece, but what is most important to her is our sound.

For a boy brought up in the nasal-speaking Rochester, NY area, rounded vowels are sometimes a stretch. I still miss singing the big pieces and would like to do more of that before I lose my voice and can no longer sing; but in the meantime, I’ve discovered I can bury myself in the hard work of sounding as one voice of a beautiful chorus.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 5/7/2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Jim Jackson Simplified Income Tax Plan



I posted the first version of my tax-simplification plan in February 2012. Five years later, I made a couple of tweaks, but the essence stays the same. It's clear, simple, and best of all would be completely transparent. I've emphasized that last aspect more in this updated 2017 version.

I challenge President Trump to match me in boldness and effectiveness in generating revenue to run the government and being transparent about how the Federal government spends our money.

Personal Income Taxes:

1. All income, regardless how earned is treated equally under the Jim Jackson plan. A dollar earned by wages, dividend, interest, capital gains or pass-through from some corporate-like entity are all taxed the same. Everyone should feel they have a stake in funding the public services provided through the Federal government.

2. Every person is taxed individually. If a couple owns a joint account, each is taxed on 50% of the income. If one spouse works and the other stays home to take care of the children, pets, sick relatives or lays on the beach, only the income earner is taxed.

3. How you spend your money, if legal, is no matter to Federal government or its income tax structure. There are no deductions for mortgage interest, medical expenses, casualty losses, contributions to charity. Nor are there credits or deductions for the individual or their dependent children or extra deductions for being older than someone else, or blind or anything. Taxable income equals gross income.

4. I propose graduated rates. Having four brackets seems fine to me, but if tax experts prefer three or five, I’m not going to argue. The first bracket should be 5%. To repeat, everyone who earns income should contribute to the Federal government. (And yes, I know some will need more support than their income is taxed. That’s fine; provide them the services they need or make a direct payment to cover the need. Do it directly, don’t try to cram it into an income TAX system.) The top rate should be 45%. I personally think it should be higher, but at 45% the income earner ends up with more than the government. Make the other two rates 15% and 30%.

5. I propose a five-year transition. In the first year, everyone can choose to pay either on the new tax plan or 20% new and 80% old. The next year, the same choice, but with 40% new and 60% old. After five years, we are totally under the new plan. Once a person chooses to pay entirely under the new tax plan, they can’t revert to the transition.

I know that my proposed transition will initially bring in fewer taxes than the plan without transition because everyone will choose the alternative that works best for them. Here's where I'll rely on the experts, since I do not know what income levels each tax should kick in since I don’t have the data, time nor requisite skills to determine the revenues from my proposal. Given the current budget deficits (and my proposal for corporate income taxes), we clearly need more income than we are getting. Here's what I would charge the experts to do: Set the income levels so that if there were no transition, the current level of Federal government expenditures would be fully paid for (after reflecting the minor income the government receives from fees, tariffs, etc.)

This solves the economic catastrophe if we were to immediately eliminate the current budget deficit. The difference between the projected post-transition income and actual income paid will be the budget deficit for the first year. The projected deficit shrinks over the five-year transition to zero.

Another reason for the transition is because a lot of smart people who earn their living off an overly complex tax system will need to retrain for productive work. My proposed transition provides a planned obsolescence of their skills. Just think how the economy can grow if these bright people apply their minds to productive activity.

6. Note that personal income tax rates will need to be higher than they would otherwise be to reflect the elimination of corporate income taxes (see below). I charge my experts when setting the income breakpoints for the brackets to make sure that this primarily effects those well off who receive substantial income from interest, dividends, partnership income, etc. Hence the need for a 45% rate.

Corporate Income Taxes

1. Eliminate all corporate income taxes. End of plan. No transition. No deductions for anything. [I challenge you, President Trump to be so bold and comprehensive!]

2. This plan eliminates all loopholes. That means, if Congress wants to “encourage” some business activity, they must cut checks to provide corporations incentives, not hide the largess within “tax breaks.” This provides clear transparency regarding government spending and will allow better and more effective analysis of the results gained for money spent.

3. Eliminating the corporate income tax means the US should become a tax-haven for corporations, bringing back some jobs from overseas. Let the other governments figure out how they want to respond. [Again, President Trump, will your plan provide as much of an incentive?]

4. It also means corporations will be making more money, which they will eventually have to pass through to shareholders in the way of dividends, which (see above) are fully taxed. It's unclear how much of a lag there will be between the increased cash flow and increased dividends. Much of the billions held overseas to avoid U.S. taxes will be repatriated and paid out to shareholders (or go to increased investment, which would also be a good thing). I do recognize that those who own U.S. equities will disproportionately gain value as stock markets would react positively to the elimination of corporate income taxes. However, individuals will need to use it or lose it (see estate taxes below) and therefore will convert significant portions of those gains from unrealized to realized (taxable) income.

5. Since corporations get no deductions for charitable, political or other contributions, they might wonder why they should make them—or at least shareholders should be asking that question since the money is coming directly from their future dividends.

6. Government lobbying will continue, but taxpayer scrutiny of political votes will be easier when the only way they can give money to corporations is through direct payments, not hidden as deductions and credits deep within the corporate income tax. It should also focus attention in political races to how each side proposed to spend money, which I believe would be healthy.

7. Personal income tax rates will need to be higher to reflect the elimination of corporate income taxes—which is fine in the long run but might cause some larger deficits in the short term. Unlike other budget deficits, this one is self-correcting since it is only a temporary imbalance until the increase in corporate net income is passed through to investors.

Estate Taxes

1. A hereditary oligarchy is an anathema to a broadly representative government. Therefore, if someone didn’t manage to spend or give away their money before death, the government shall help them do it through the estate tax.

2. This item more properly belongs under the income tax section, but it occurs after death and Republicans have labeled the estate tax a death tax anyway, so I’m including it here. What am I including? At death, the difference between market value and book value of all assets is income in the year of death. The individual could have sold the asset, realized the gains and paid taxes. They chose not to make the sale while they were living, but now they are dead and income taxes are owed.

It does not matter whether we are talking about shares in Apple or the family farm that has increased in value or a small private business. Income has been earned and it shall be taxed. Life insurance agents will be happy that they still have a role in estate planning for small businesses.

3. After paying any income taxes, estates over $1 million dollars (adjusted for inflation from the date the limit was first $1 million) are taxed at a 50% rate. The very rich will still be incredibly rich, but less so than with no estate tax.

4. Estate tax planners still have a modicum of work to do since planned giving/ gift taxes etc. will still exist. However, note that under the proposed plan, the Government gets its 50% off the top before any distributions to heirs, charities or created foundations.

Summary:

I estimate (based on nothing concrete) that the Jim Jackson tax plan eliminates 99+% of the current tax code and regulations. By eliminating all deductions, it allows each individual to decide for themselves without government incentive how to spend their income. It forces government to make explicit expenditures to corporations or individuals rather than hide them in the tax code, which will allow the public to better understand where we are spending our money and whether the government is effectively addressing the needs of the people.

Does the Jim Jackson tax plan need to be fleshed out? Of course, but I suspect I already included more than sufficient detail to attract plenty of attacks from the entrenched corporations and wealthy, not to mention the anti-corporation liberals.

~ Jim

Monday, April 24, 2017

10 Similarities Between Birding and Writing

Birding and writing have a lot of similarities. Say what? Read on.

I'iwi
As part of our Hawaiian vacation, Jan and I joined a birding tour of the islands. It was a great vacation and I did very little writing while we were gone, but I did think about writing. Here are ten ways birding and writing are similar.

1. In birding and writing, no matter how good you are, someone is better than you, at least in some aspects.

No additional commentary needed on this one.

2. Birding and writing can both be solo activities.

Much of my writing time is spent by myself, often in the early hours of the morning before others have risen. One of my favorite times to bird is soon after sunrise before heat sears the day. The birds are frequently most active then (they’re hungry) and, even in suburbs and cities, human activity is mostly quiet. The commitment and effort for each activity can be individual and requires very little more than directed effort: paper and pen or computer for writing, alert eyes and ears (binoculars help) for birding.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds
3. It’s often more fun when you bird or write with a group.

I do love being out in the woods or fields by myself (or joined by a faithful hound), but birding with a group has some real advantages. Multiple sets of eyes spot more birds. Group expertise aids any identification problems, and I gain insights from other group members. Lastly, there is the comradery of a shared passion.

So, too, with writing. Many of us benefit from critique groups, writing retreats (even when they are virtual), and the comradery of a shared passion.

4. Sometimes the fastest way to a desired result in birding and writing is to pay for expertise.

I dislike paying other people to do things I can do myself. However, I’ve learned there are times and places where paying for expertise provides a superior result. In writing, a professional developmental edit not only saves me the time of countless rewrites I would have to suffer through to make a story as strong as I would like it, but a professional spots issues I would never see for myself.

Young Laysan Albatross waiting for parents to return with food (this was in someone's front yard!)

In birding, I could bumble around trying to find the right places to see a particular bird and then struggle to identify it when similar species are also around. Paid experts who have scouted the area can significantly increase my odds of seeing more and different birds than I could do on my own.

In an expert’s hands, arcane becomes accessible. For example, when asked how you can tell a yellow-billed cuckoo from a black-billed cuckoo, a novice takes the name clue and concentrates on the bill. Someone who knows those two species can tell them apart in a flash by looking at the tail. Now you know, too.

5. Sometimes in birding and writing one significant detail paints a memorable picture.

In Hawai’i, there are no woodpeckers. The pound-on-a-tree-to-get-food niche was taken by the Akiapolaau, which over generations shortened and strengthened its lower mandible into a strong stub it uses for pounding holes into the tree. The top mandible curved into a specialized instrument to pry food from the hole. One look at its bill, and I can remember that bird forever. There is nothing like it.

Akiapolaau

Nor can one forget a character described as, "He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola."

6. In birding and writing, little details often make a big difference.

LBJs: Little brown jobbies, are the bane of birders everywhere. Yet, if you focus on the correct detail, you can differentiate between one confusing fall warbler and another, a male versus a female. The differences can be subtle: white wingbars versus pale yellow, a full eye-stripe versus a partial, winter coloring versus mating plumage. These differences give clues to birders about species or subspecies, age, and sex -- useful when birding and important when we write about a specific time or space.

Pacific Golden Plover in winter and summer plumage

Consider these Pacific Golden Plovers in winter and mating plumage and think about how impoverished a paragraph would be that only mentioned their name without any sense of which set of clothes the bird was wearing.

Forest devastation
7. You never know what else you’ll learn while you’re birding or writing.

Keeping an open mind while writing or birding often leads to interesting insights. Sometimes I am drawn to write about something as a way of exploring a topic that perhaps I didn’t realize I needed to understand. When birding, I often discover something I had not understood. I knew before my trip to Hawai’i that the islands had suffered significant avian species losses since Captain Cook “discovered” the island chain.

While in Hawaii, I “discovered” that the remaining endemic bird species are being ravaged by a combination of avian diseases new to the islands and decreasing habitat caused by new microbes and viruses recently introduced into Hawaii. The death of forests inevitably leads to the death of birds, especially those specialized to only one or two plants.

8. Setting the scene is equally important in birding and writing.

Common Myna with attitude

In good writing, a character acts within a setting, and the setting brings out certain character elements. Eliminate setting cues and the writer must rely on talking heads or internal dialog. Setting is a major clue birders use in their attempt to identify an unknown bird. Some birds are ground dwellers, others prefer the tops of trees. Some like forest, others prefer open space or ocean.

Marsh Sandpiper, taken through a fence at a LONG distance
And yet the biggest surprises are when a character or bird are found out of their natural habitat. How did they get there? How do they adjust? We want to know what will happen. On our last official birding day in Hawai’i, we visited sewage treatment settling ponds and spotted a Marsh Sandpiper. This species breeds in Central Europe and Central Asia and normally winters in Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, or Australia—and yet this wanderer found its way to the big island of Hawai’i. Anthropomorphize for a moment: what stories it can tell after it returns home to its flock.


9. A picture can be worth 1,000 words.


My memory is triggered by pictures. I could journal a thousand words to describe the power of waves lashing the shore created from lava flows centuries ago in an effort to remember the experience, or I can take a single picture and use it to trigger a remembrance of the day, including the wind whipping the tops of waves, the scent of the sea. I use those same picture-triggers to inform my writing when I am describing a scene, for instance standing on a Hawaiian cliff, watching Red-footed Boobies flying by.

Red-footed Booby

10. Paying it forward works equally well in birding and writing.

I could spend an entire blog’s worth of words simply listing names of writers who have befriended me without recompense. I like to think I would appear on others’ lists as well. Similarly, I can think of birders who have gone out of their way to help me become a better birder, for example differentiating between Greater and Lesser Scaup. I always offer my telescope to others to see birds in a way their eyes or binoculars will never allow them to see, like seeing a Black-crowned night heron “up close.”

Black-crowned Night Heron

I either convinced you or not about the similarities between birding and writing. What I’m curious about is which picture you like best and why.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared 23 April 2017 on Writers Who Kill