Gettysburg Address in 2020

May 23, 2020 by

Yesterday, I read the Gettysburg Address to myself here at home in the middle of 2020. Some days I wonder if these words still have much application to a large percentage of America’s elected “leaders,” and even to the people themselves.

Donald Claxton, the grammatic artist, ponders the value
of the Gettysburg Address in 2020.

Other days, I see many being equally aroused by another famous document, one that begins with, “We the people.” And then I wonder how close we are to repeating the events that caused the solemnity of the document attached. How people are coming to believe that Orwell might have been 36 years early, but right in the end.

And as orders to stay home, confusing announcements from government organizations (CDC for one) vary by the hour, one branch of government, (even branches within the branches are divided,) we all witness the angst among the citizens of these quite un-United States demanding government at all levels has done enough for now.

Or there are those who are frustrated with EOs by governors that many feel are preposterous Constitutional overreaches–limits on church attendance, restrictions on guns were big in several states, when 36 million Americans are now jobless, have few prospects for employment because even places such as Victoria’s Secret and Bed and Bath Works are closing their doors for good. Even JC Penny has joined ranks with Sears and filed for BK protection. Now HERTZ says it doesn’t have the money for to pay the leases on its cars from them sitting idle the past two months and they, too, have filed for BK.

My soul and my heart-of-hearts aches and wonders, will America once again enjoy a “new birth of Freedom?” The outcome of coronavirus is going to reshape the essence of America, no matter how you shake it. Facebook, I believe it is, has announced the past few days that they are permanently going to have a significant part of their workforce work from home from now on. That changes the demands for office space in big cities, creating a glut of office space with no one to rent, so then it’s harder to hold onto a big building, and things trickle down from there. Since fewer people are coming to work, the café isn’t serving as many for breakfast and lunch. The shoe shiner doesn’t have as many feet to engage. Hot dog stands get more expensive because tax revenues are down so cities up their taxes to stay in balance. Dems in Congress keep after a $15 dollar minimum wage, which causes the prices for consumers to go up, thereby reducing the impact of a mandatory wage hike to zero, which in turn causes more businesses to employ fewer people, and things roll further down hill from there.

Meanwhile “progressives,” I honestly don’t know how such a misnomer can be applied to idiots like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who thinks that the government should pay everyone $2,000 a month. In the past three months, the government has increased the federal debt by at least $6 TRILLION. The Morbidly Corrupt Nancy Pelosi rammed a bill she wrote with a cabal of lobbyists and partisans through the House recently and it’s going no where. But in it, the word cannabis is included three times as much as the word jobs, when there are now 36 million people out of work due to the virus shutdown.

But I was wondering about a “New birth of Freedom,” as Lincoln spoke in such a short speech–he was known for long ones–the official photographer didn’t even have time to get setup and the president was finishing. Or shall America fall upon the ash heap of Democracies that once were the beacons of freedom with their bicameral legislative bodies and the will of the people, but were eventually bludgeoned to death by dictators, Communism, or Socialism, where there is no longer a will of the people in any way shape or form, and “redistribution of wealth works well for everyone” except those in power, for they must have more than the rest … the logic for justification never makes sense. And just think, under that system, to express thoughts such as these openly, for discussion, would lead to penalty of death…..

I am an optimist deep inside. But after 30 years of dealing with politics on the inside at various levels, I’ve seen how sausage is made. I believe there is still good in America and that we have a fighting chance. But what some don’t realize yet, Freedom isn’t Free. Not even in a democracy like ours….

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I Can’t Keep Counting Coronavirus Numbers….

Mar 23, 2020 by

As I have been doing the past weeks, I can’t bring myself to post coronavirus numbers everyday. My psyche no longer has the will. I’m not giving up on the situation, but the situation is having its toll on me. A few nights ago before going to bed in Texas, I heard the news about California sheltering in place or “Stay At Home,” as they’re calling it. I shut off the TV after that. Drained.

For nearly all of my adult life, I’ve had positions where putting the best foot forward about a situation has been my job, and I have done it faithfully and honestly. I’ve driven from my home to the offices of the Alabama Capitol in blizzard conditions as far back as 1993 (and even further back) to get information to the news media that their governor at the time was doing what needed to be done. I’ve done this repeatedly for the Dallas ISD for snow storms in Dallas, Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans arriving by the busload, to encouraging a portion of Dallas that after a middle school student was stabbed seven times after school one day and the killer still on the loose for much of the next day, that it was still safe for their parents to send their kids to school. Only seven missed school that day–and we knew where one of them was, sadly. I’ve fought back tears while talking to the press when first graders leaned on the front of a lunch portable counter and when it tipped over on top of them, the boiling hot water in the bin underneath to keep the food warm rushed out on top of them. At the time, I had two first grader twins myself, and I could only imagine, cos hanging on to the unhinged counter’s front tray rails to look over the glass to see what food choices they had, was something my girls would have done, too.

I’ve ridden through eight miles of the aftermath of an F-5 tornado in Birmingham, AL in 1998 and seen a husband and wife couple still lying next to each other on their mattress while the edge of the house has come down on their knees and the only thing visible of them is their lower legs and feet.

All those events, in their time were draining. But I was charged with keeping the stiff upper lip and being the cheerleader. The positive voice on TV, radio and on the pages of newspapers saying, “We are doing all we can to get everyone in the state/area/county/city/block/school you name it, the help they need. From shelters, electricity back on, dug out of the snow, roads reopened, flood waters down, droughts to end, hurricane shelters, beds in coliseums, to ensuring greater numbers of police will be patrolling schools,” I’ve done much of all those things.

These are some of the most beautiful times in life, too. Rewarding times to be a public servant, because of all the tabletop exercises, planning, gathering of materials skeptics said you’d never need, etc. all of that comes together, and people who have been political pains in the ass, are in just as much need, or are expending just as much genuine effort to do goodness, that it is enriching. Sure, there are always those who can’t get away from the chance to seek a political score, but in the end, their selfishness tends to get dealt with later.

Those were the times when a Democrat president called a Republican governor and the call was appreciated. Federal aid flowed to the state. “The VP is coming in a day or two. (You are a Republican after all.) But we have signed the papers freeing up funds that you need. If you need anything else, call us.” After another storm a few months later, Air Force One lands in Birmingham. It’s the Office of the President that’s landing. Not the man. And then it is the man, who expresses his concerns.

Former Alabama Gov. Fob James on the telephone with President Bill Clinton in April 1998 after having toured the damages of an 8-mile stretch from an F-5 tornado. Yes, that’s me with black hair.

Years later we are seeing this in America. Our healthcare professionals are doing their job, risking their lives, living up to the word of their oaths to be there to help those who are ill, those who may have contracted the illness, who are dying from it, who may have it passed on to them if they’re not careful, or just by chance. Democratic governors are praising the efforts from the White House. For the past few years that’s been verboten. For the time being, for the most part, the governors across the country seem to have dialed that down. (Sans Bill de Blasio.)

In Congress and the Senate, some of the partisan bickering remains. Yesterday Senate Majority Leader said that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thinks she the Speaker of the Senate, too. That’s infuriating. But if Ilan Omar can come up with kind words for the president’s vigilance in this time, well, then that’s a good thing. That’s what is supposed to happen in times like these.

For the longest time, I wanted the press to get past the repeated use of the words Russians, the dossier, stole the election, illegitimate, resistance, James Comey, Bob Mueller, the Mueller Report, Impeachment, calling witnesses, not really a trial, acquitted, and forever impeached. Coronavirus has eaten them all up. Sucked them out of the vocabulary of the talking heads. If only it could have taken the hate with it because it is clear that has not happened.

I wish I could be parachuted into an operation right now that’s working to save lives and making a difference doing it. I miss being able to do that in crisis situations. That was when I felt like I was doing my best work for the people of Alabama, and then the Dallas school district, and then hundreds of high-risk teenagers around the country. I finally know what the general in the movie White Christmas must have felt like when he received his rejection letter after asking the Pentagon to let him return to active duty.

But alas, my back and other health conditions won’t ever allow that kind of activity again. So each day I’m trying to find a new way to make an impact. Hence the frequent posts of the Johns Hopkins numbers. People are saying the straight-forward analysis is very helpful. That helps to hear. Thank you to those who have said so. I hope it continues to be beneficial for you to see the numbers often and see how they’re changing. They sure have opened my eyes.

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Current NYT Bestseller Hardcover Fiction List Worth Reading

Feb 26, 2020 by

Throughout 2016-17, I would congratulate Amor Towles via Twitter and even an occasional email on the success of his book, A Gentleman in Moscow, for it’s 60 weeks or so on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List. At that time, no one on the list was close to him. Most of the regular once a month books from the likes of James Paterson, John Grisham, Steven King, Clive Custer, and Tom Clancy writing from the grave, et al would pop up, get their three weeks of fame and then by on the $5 dollar rack at Barnes and Noble a month or two later.

But now in early 2020, there is something special going on. For one thing, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing now has been on the list for 76 weeks, and a good many of them in the number one slot. I read this book last summer and there is still imagery that pops into my mind when I think about the scenes she created in the book. I can still feel what it might have been like walking up to the tower down by the ocean. Hear the rotted steps off the front porch. Imagine what it might have been like in her boat in the bayou. Going to her hideaway shack. The book deserves the notoriety it is receiving.

Yet that is not all. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a book, as of today I’m only six chapters into, but holy smokes, this has my attention. A woman has been charged with murdering her tied up husband by shooting him in the face multiple times in their London or Surrey home. (Writers have long had so many characters live in Surrey its almost funny.) After the woman allegedly did the deed, she has stopped speaking. The narrator is finally about to get her in a mental home. He got a job there just so he could be able to work with her to see what makes her tick. This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I’m intrigued. From the looks of it, the woman is not the murder…. The book, at present sits at 37 weeks on the NYT list.

The present number five book on the list is Ann Pachett’s The Dutch House. For 21 weeks, the book has done like most all Packet books, and been on the list. I am an fan of Ann’s work, there is no doubt. Commonwealth and Bel Canto are wonderful reads as well. The Dutch House includes and older sister character named Maeve. One can’t help but fall for this girl and her grit. I truly enjoyed the book, and by the way, the girl in the red coat on the cover, is a depiction of her.

But I also noticed Stephen King has a book that’s been on the list 22 weeks–The Institute. I read his 2018 tome The Outsider, which also made the list. I don’t know about this one. The tagline on this one is too much for me.

Jojo Moyes is next with 19 weeks on this list. That book, The Giver of Stars, if it gets to 25 weeks, that’s typically when I will finally buy. If you’ve had the chance to read this book, leave comments below about why others should, too.

And then John Grisham has a book that’s lasted 18 weeks, The Guardians. I’m not much for legal and lawyer whodunnits. Leave comments below if you’ve read this book and what you liked about it.

Congrats to these authors for doing something that’s very hard to do. First they made the list. Second of all, they made the list and have stuck around longer than the normal few weeks of marketing push for a book, and are still living, breathing, and selling copies like crazy.

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First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Oct 24, 2019 by

First Love by Ivan Turgenev. I enjoyed this book. First Love is my 10th Russian/behind the Iron Curtain novel to read since December, beginning with War and Peace.

A great final quote from First Love is this one, a summary about living, and an expansion on the American phrase, “Youth is wasted on the wrong kind.”

Oh youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you., even sorrow wits well upon your brow. …Perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to do think that their is nothing you will not do; it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts – that he has a right to cry “Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.”

This is not a very long book. It may be read in one day, but you’ll not want to speed through its pages. There’s too much there you’ll want to think about and absorb.

This is not my first Turgenev book, I read Fathers and Sons not too long ago. This one, however, was recommended to me strongly by a young former Russian ballerina whom I met while sitting at the bar for dinner at the Eighth Avenue Tick Tock restaurant in New York City, Sept. 23, 2019.


Anastasia, the former Russian ballerina who insisted I read Turgenev’s novel First Love, a beautiful story about life in mid nineteenth century Russia.

Anastasia, who could speak very little English, was impressed with how many Russian novels I’ve read in the past 10 months. Ten of them now, one for each month. When she saw my reading list she was highly impressed but quickly typed out in Google translate that First Love is simply a beautiful book that I must read. I ordered it from Amazon between translations in our conversation.

Anastasia was so right, I hope you enjoy it, too,

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The New York Pitch Conference–One Week Later

Oct 1, 2019 by

The New York Pitch Conference–One Week Later

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New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019

Sep 26, 2019 by

New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019

From Sept 19-22, last Thursday to Sunday now, I took part in the New York Pitch Conference, the creation of mastermind Michael Neff. As luck would have it, too, I found myself in Group B, with many fellow writers–most of them focusing on sci-fi and fantasy–and all of us under the tutorship of the sometimes critical, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes hysterical, but always knowledgable, caring, and in particular, focused on what is going to sell in the publishing industry and what will not.

The conference itself was well organized, with three groups separated into three rooms. One group was led by Paula Munier and focused on writing mysteries. Susan Breen led Group A and focused on memoir and women’s fiction.

We only gathered together once to hear a presentation from the funny and strategic thinker, Amy Collins. She presented a plan, Becoming a Successful Author, that is eye-opening about the demands on every author in this modern market of publishing. And we were thinking getting an agent was difficult.

Acquisition editors from some of the major publishing houses were brought in beginning on the 20th after Michael Neff guided each of us in sharpening our pitches on the 19th. The sharpening continued after each pitch based on the feedback received from each editor. By the time we were pitching on Sunday, our pitches were well-honed. Based on interests of the editors, some received requests for more, others did not. We all returned home with the need to do more revising. (That is nothing to be upset about. Revising is about 99 percent of writing a book. It is not at all like they portray in the movies where one sits down at a typewriter or computer and you see them starting and then finishing and it’s ready for publication.)

The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch

“Kirk Egerton is resentful when he sneaks from his house in the middle of an Upper Michigan blizzard because five of his friends are missing. They all live on an air force base where bombers are armed with nuclear weapons and sit on alert ready for the call to attack the Soviet Union in December 1977, whether it is snowing or not. But while Kirk knows the others should be at the tree house they built during the summer months that year, no one knows a Russian spy has captured the five when they found his hut while trying to get home in the storm.”

The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch Improvements

We made some important decisions about my present project. It’s something of a square peg. The industry prefers round holes. But at the suggestion of Brendan Deneen, we are now using the comp of the movie The Goonies to pitch my book.

But that’s not all.

I’m now saying the book is “a mixture of the movie The Goonies and a modern-day Tom Sawyer living in an atmosphere of the 1970s.”

At Brendan’s suggestion and with the reinforcement of the responses that followed from others, I’m now also including some of the “cool stuff” that happens in the meat of the book.

“To build the fort one of the guys overcame what he thought were the threat of killer bees. Another swears he sees Bigfoot when he steps away from their camp the first night they spend the night out in the woods. As four trained Scouts, they fail to notice until it’s too late that they’ve sat down in poison ivy. Rather than risking treatment at the base hospital, one of them persuades the rest that using skunk oil will relieve the itch. This leads to them building a trap and….

“For initiation one walks alone at night through a cemetery, that is a former Indian burial ground. Another climbs the base water tower at 10 p.m. and play Reveille after Taps. For the final initiation, they all climb into a cave behind the tall rock face in the Little Laughing White Fish Falls lagoon and the entry collapses.”

The Closing Questions

“At the end, Kirk must rescue the others from the top of the rock face, known as the Devil’s Ledge, by climbing the face of the rock. The spy intends to force the five off the top and let them plunge to their deaths. Kirk engages the spy with a combat knife when the Russian has a pistol. Is he able to rescue the others and keep them from getting killed? How have the events of the year affected Kirk and shaped him for this one moment that will matter the rest of his life?”

I ask some good closing questions. They are designed to get an agent to ask for more, not to give away the whole story.

What I Learned

I’ve been to a number of writing conferences and spent three years in the Southern Methodist University Writer’s Path Program. There is some variance in how to do a few things, but the rules for how to pitch, what New York editors and agents are looking for, those things are pretty much set in stone. There is some fluctuation, but not much. There are so many queries sent to agents each week, their screeners, and the agents themselves are looking for the slightest anything they can find to say no to passing on your book.

Neff said he’s even seen screeners even highlighting lines of queries in email in boxes and randomly highlighting them and then hitting delete just so they could get to a manageable number of queries to read in a week. Not fair, no, but there is nothing can be done about it, and one will never know if that brought a pass or if they read your pitch and did not like it.

The proverbial “they” say there is a difference between a writer who got published and one who did not. The one who got published ignored the umpteen rejections and kept querying.

One of my mentors once told me that until I got into the 130-rejections range I really had not tried to query anyway. I’m almost half way there and I have to tell you, my pitch has changed considerably, my book has been revised about five times since then, and the writing is much stronger.

The New York Pitch Conference

I recommend this conference to well-seasoned writers who have a book that’s in its fourth or fifth draft. If you take a first draft or second draft to pitch, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. While your idea may be exciting to the editors and coaches you’ll work with, your book will not be ready for the scrutiny that will follow and in a couple of years their passions will likely have moved on to something else. Writing a book takes time. A novel does. Remember the Ernest Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

I shared my first draft of Voodoo Hill with my family and a few friends. I’m embarrassed now that I did. I wish I could sneak into their homes and get them all back and burn them, but most likely they’ve all thrown them out already anyhow. That is what should have happened to that copy. The next year when I made a 10-CD audio recording of the next draft, ugh, I shudder to the think about it.

This latest draft I feel is pretty sound, but I felt the same way about the others and I know they weren’t ready for human consumption either.

Go slow. Be deliberate. Let your words simmer. Finish a revision and then put the book away and forget about it for a month or two. Maybe even six months. Then come back to it. The words will still be there. So will the publishing industry. And the trends will change. Maybe square holes will be the thing soon. I sure as hell hope so….

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