An Unconventional Winter

by Kent Ballard

Don’t ask me anything about global warming. I don’t understand the science behind that idea. It’s logical that nine zillion cars and power plants could have an effect on the earth’s temperature, like most scientists say. What I don’t get is equally credited climatologists pointing out that one good volcanic eruption, like, say, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in ’91 can, in four days, put out an equivalent amount of every nasty gas into the atmosphere that humans have for six hundred years. Is this our fault or not? If it is, we need to change our habits. If it’s not, we can do nothing about it.

Me, I don’t know. We’re gonna get what we’re gonna get.

They say the earth is slowly getting warmer. The fine print at the bottom of some of these articles also states we’ve been getting warmer for three hundred years, ever since the end of “the little ice age” around the time of the Renaissance. That was before the Industrial Revolution and the age of coal power. Me, I don’t know. I can’t remember back that far.

But I do know that last winter was supremely nasty here in the Midwest, as well as other parts of the world, and this winter hasn’t been any better. Last night we were to get three more inches of snow. We got seven. Poor Boston has been buried by snow since Miley Cyrus went nuts. The last time I checked Zach’s town was getting an unwanted renovation by the glaciers crushing it. People are waging guerrilla war against their neighbors for stealing shoveled-out parking places. The city fathers are worrying where to pile all that snow they do manage to scrape up off the streets. I’d suggest driving it out and dumping it on the Atlantic Ocean, since it’s frozen too, but they never listen to me. Or maybe they’re scared of forming real glaciers that would then move inland. The rest of the country has had a good laugh at the mayor of Boston pleading with citizens not to leap off three and four story buildings into snow piles. That sounds perfectly sane to me when your doors and windows are buried up to the second floor. How else are they supposed to get around? At least they’re not as crazy as New York, which declared a blizzard was coming (it didn’t) and ordered all citizens to stay off the subways—and still left them all running, empty–throughout the “snow emergency.” Great city management there, de Blasio. The Algonquian Indians had their act together better than that.

I left the city life in 1998 and moved as far into the hinterlands as possible. It’s great out here. But winter brings a different set of problems. One of the best pickup trucks I ever owned was a two-wheel drive Ford F-150. Good styling, great interior and options, 5.0 liter high-performance engine that would pass anything except for a gas station. It helped me move here. The next winter it was gone, replaced by a 4×4 pickup. The winter after that, our Chevy was replaced by a Jeep. Places to put accumulated snow are not a problem for a county that never runs plows save for the state highways, and I’m miles from any of them.

We’re too far out for luxuries like city water and gas. We burn propane from a 500 gallon tank for our gas heater and pump our own water from a 184 foot deep well. My electricity literally comes through the forest, not down the road and along our driveway. This is all fine and good until storms or icy, sagging tree branches snap the power line. No electricity, no power to the water pump. No power to the electronic ignition for the gas furnace, or power to run the blower. It can become pretty quaint here in the wink of an eye.

Many of my friends have told me flatly they would not live where I live because the nearest burg that passes for a town (a dozen or so miles away) does not deliver Chinese or pizza out this far. I point out that even if they did, the tip would cost far more than the food. And a pox on anyone who would order food delivery in this weather anyway. The poor college kids or men and women working two and three jobs to make ends meet shouldn’t have to risk their necks to save you a trip to a restaurant that’s only four blocks away. Shame on the people who do that.

So what do we do when the 21st Century vanishes at the speed of light? We side-step and go back to the 19th. Sitting next to my gas furnace is a whole-house wood burning furnace. There’s also a wood stove in the basement and a fireplace in the living room. We’ve got deep cycle batteries—always charged—and DC to AC inverters. Those run the computers and a few lights. I’m putting in solar chargers this summer. We’ve a lovely collection of kerosene lamps. That giant wood furnace runs hot enough that we need to open the windows if I stuff too much wood into it, and my Coleman camp stove has cooked many a meal while sitting on the electric range. We store a ridiculous amount of water in the basement in rinsed-out two liter pop bottles, all treated and sealed and far from any sunlight. In short, it’s pretty much business as usual, except when I pour a mug of water and place it in the microwave to make a cup of tea. I won’t admit the number of times I’ve done that over the years.

Same weather, but different places and different problems. As I look outside today, I swear it’s absolutely beautiful. A professional photographer would have a field day here. I live in a picture postcard. But I also know my wood is running low, and sooner or later I’ll have to don more outerwear than a space station astronaut, grab the chain saw, fire up that 4×4 truck, and go cut more firewood. Yup, we’re out of propane. We called over a week ago, but this winter has the drivers for the Podunk Gas Company running their tails off. We didn’t call in time. But fret not. It’s 74 degrees inside, thanks to cast iron, expensive chain saws, and the fact that I live in the middle of hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel. All I have to do is go get it. And hey, we’ve still got electricity…at least for now. Piece of cake.

Animals get weird after a long, deep snow. It’s a little-known fact in modern times, but during the westward migration more than one wagon train was snowed in and starved to death. When rescuers finally hiked in with provisions, they found that long after the humans had frozen to death the horses and dogs were still alive. It’s damned near impossible to freeze either one, unless it’s a chihuahua or a poodle. And both of them would be eaten by the coyotes around here anyway. I pick my dogs for cold-weather hardiness and size and I have four of them. Why so many? The coyotes would eat one. Maybe two. But they won’t attack four. I’ve found coyote stool in my yard and driveway. It’s interesting in the summer to sit out at night and listen to them howl, but when food disappears they take on a much darker character. The deer have been browsing the bark off small trees. Squirrels and raccoons have been making do as best they can, including stealing dog food off the porch when the dogs are out somewhere in the forest with me.

I took this job as guest columnist six months ago this week. Then, it was fall and we were all still relaxing in more balmy temperatures. Zach had recently had shoulder surgery and I offered to stand in every other week to help his wing heal. We talked about it becoming permanent, or at least as permanent as anything else on the Internet, but I’m really not much of a columnist so this will be my last entry. When we started, Zach suggested “around 1000 words” for a column. I think the shortest I ever turned in was 1200 or so, the longest over 3000. It takes me nearly 400 words just to say “hello” sometimes. Not all that professional, folks.

But it’s had it’s bright spots too. Four different times now I’ve talked to publishers over the phone who informed me they were adding extra pages to their magazines to print my articles in their entirety, not one word edited out. That’s simply unheard of. Publishers don’t do that. ‘Cept they did, four times for me. I guess it takes me a few words to get warmed up. Or get around to the point, depending on your view. I admit it. I’m long-winded.

But I hope you got a little information or maybe a smile or two from all the hair-pulling I’ve done here not to write major feature articles in a small blog column. If Zach ever gets stuck on the MTA or breaks his hand jumping out a three story window onto a two story building, I might drop in again someday. But for now, it’s back to my excessive verbiage in longer feature articles. Zach’s healed up well enough to take over fully now, and I thank him for this opportunity and thank you for putting up with me.

And now…I gotta go cut more firewood.

PREPARING TO RELAUNCH

by

Zachary Klein

Those of you who read this column already know that Polis Books is publishing the original three Matt Jacob novels as e-books, individually and as a set, then my new one, TIES THAT BLIND, both as an e-book and paperback. What most people are less aware of is the preparation it takes to create a successful relaunch/launch, for both the publisher and me.

If you’ve been to this site before you’ve probably noticed some significant changes with more to come. First and foremost are all the new covers for each book. Soon there will be links to where they can be bought. And while I cherish Michael Paul Smith’s cover designs that I used when on my own, I also appreciate the care and concern that Jason Pinter, founder and publisher of Polis took to create each of the new ones.

One striking difference from now and my experience at traditional publishing houses was Jason’s desire to include me in the cover design process. A whale of a change from when I’d see the covers of my books only after they were published. That’s just how it worked. Instead, Jason sent me multiple mock-ups of each book’s cover. Not only was I given a choice of the different pictures, but also the opportunity to mix, match and discuss the results with him.

For those who never worked with legacy publishers, that sort of care and connection was (I can’t speak for the present) non-existent. To say I’ve been pleased to have embraced this new world of publishing would be a huge understatement.

But where the rubber really met the road was in working with Polis Books after I submitted TIES THAT BLIND. Again, I was used to editorial demands to change the novels’ main character. “How can anyone drive having taken a 5mg valium pill?” Or, “It’s time to place Matt into a 12-step program.” Or, “Change the ethnicity of a character in NO SAVING GRACE.” How about being told that a murder needn’t happen in the first forty pages, then getting thumped when I didn’t have a murder in the first 40 pages? And these were only a few. Each submission was the beginning of a fight. An ugly fight I came to despise.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I received well thought out comments from Jason. Comments that made sense and helped make Ties a better book. This was the first time I didn’t have to argue about Matt’s personality, a book’s interpersonal relationships, or engage in “comma wars.” He also appreciated that this novel doesn’t adhere to the traditional detective fiction framework. It’s been something that I was edging closer and closer to from STILL AMONG THE LIVING to TWO WAY TOLL, and finally NO SAVING GRACE. In fact, this is a wave that’s been happening with other detective fiction authors and one that fits with my work. As I’ve mentioned in other columns, I think detective fiction and jazz are related. Some musicians have broken through the boundaries of their time and redefined their contemporary music. They feel as if they can experiment with the form, create innovations and variations, but it’s all jazz nonetheless. I can’t claim I’ve done that with TIES—but I can say it’s an honest attempt to place all the characters’ relationships at the forefront and let them define and drive the drama.

Truth is, if it wasn’t for this new age in publishing I probably would never have written this book. Writing is difficult and this is a novel that occurs at much later point in time than the first three. Truth also is that I’m grateful in many ways. The book allowed me to maintain continuity, but also move beyond where Matt had been before. It forced me to look at the aging process in terms of Matt’s personhood, lifestyle, and listen to his older voice. And I’m extraordinarily happy that I did because it stretched my abilities. Something that I still enjoy.

There are a lot of people to thank for their support and encouragement along the way. Kent Ballard for covering the fort on alternate Monday columns while I finished my revisions. Sue for her encouragement, and Sherri Frank for holding my feet to the fire and providing insightful comments all the way through. It ain’t easy reading the same book twenty times or more to get it right. And getting it right feels harder than it had been—I don’t know whether that’s because I’m smarter now or just older. But whatever happens with TIES, I’m truly pleased that Polis Books helped make the book the best it could be. And, although it can stand on its own two feet, I really hope people take the time to read the first three e-books. It’s always richer to know how a character grows and changes. I think it’ll add to the enjoyment of this one.

The trouble with young writers is that they are all in their sixties. ~ W. Somerset Maugham

Night of the Living Dead Relatives

by Kent Ballard

Sure, you’ve heard of “The Walking Dead.” You’ve probably also heard of “The Talking Dead,” unless you’ve been hiding in a drainage culvert for a few years. I have a different problem with the dead, and I can’t rid myself of them by popping them in the head with a crossbow. I’m besieged by the Annoying Dead. Thousands of them. Literally.

My wife got into genealogy a few years ago. She was dimly aware of some family spat over fifty years ago that caused one side of her family to split away from the rest. Most would consider that a blessing nowadays with the high cost of Christmas cards, but not her. Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, she began tracking them all down. From that it was a natural step into genealogy, I suppose, and within months she was figuratively digging up dead relatives everywhere in the county.

She’s traced them back to Europe, back through the centuries. I think Ancestry.com must have at least three Internet servers dedicated to her by now. They’ve actually made her an “arbiter.” When two researchers can’t agree on what ancient Uncle Clem’s third daughter’s second married name was, they hand all the information to one of their arbiters and they look at all the records and have the final say.

She began to research my relatives too, but I think she’s given that up as a bad job. Every so often she’d rush into the room and breathlessly announce that I was a direct descendant of King Richard III. “Oh great,” I’d say, “how much did he leave me?” At first it was difficult for her to accurately measure my lack of interest, which was total. “How’s old Dick doing these days? I haven’t heard from him for a while. Oh wait—he’s dead, isn’t he? Too bad, the old despot.” It was the same on the night she traced my ancestry to Charlemagne. I smiled widely and said, “Well, sure. I told you about me and Charley before. We used to get drunk and go swimming in rock quarries, bobbing for catfish.”

This may sound cruel, but believe me if it happened to you five or six times a week over a period of months you’d do the same or worse. For all I know she’s traced me back to Moses or Buddha and won’t tell me just for spite now. Or maybe she just became depressed finding so many horse thieves, gunslingers, and train robbers among my kin. Whatever, she seems to have stopped hunting down my side of the family.

Even so, she’d be beside herself with joy at finding one of her own lost relatives. “Honey, I found William Pratt!”

“Who the hell is William Pratt and what did you find him doing?”

She’d launch into some long tale about an old geezer who died before the Civil War. When she gave the date of his death, I’d look at her grimly and say, “He’s dead, Jim,” and go on about my business. Then, helpfully, I’d stick my head back into her office a few minutes later and ask, “1858? You say he died in 1858? Hmm…yeah, that makes sense. There was an epidemic of syphilis that swept through the Dakotas in ’58. Killed thousands of pioneers. That was before penicillin, you know…”

I never should have taught her how to cuss. Her language can be awful at times. That was a mistake on the same level as teaching my first wife how to shoot. Sometimes it’s advisable to think things through first.

She’s not into spiritualism or mediums or trying to contact the dead. That explains why I haven’t had her locked up. But otherwise she lives and breathes dead people. She knows stories from their lives. To her they’re not merely names in an old census report, or faded faces in ancient photographs or tin-types. I believe she could sit down with most of them and in ten minutes be talking merrily with them, swapping old family stories. That is, if they weren’t dead. I’d wonder about her mental health, hanging around all those family members who have joined the choir invisible, but I have my odd habits too. Running the pros and cons through my mind, I came to the conclusion that the strange things I do far outweigh her quirks and if anyone was to be taken away in a straight jacket, it’d be me. Best not to risk it.

But I’m serious about her hobby with the dead. She has collected birth and death dates, plus any information and available photos of gravestones, on eleven thousand, seven hundred and some odd of her relatives. She’s printing these into hand-bound books. The first one has 420 pages. She figures on making ten more before she finishes. I told her I didn’t think it was physically possible for one person to have that many relatives, but she just laughed. “Well, some are in-laws, some are children. Then there are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and their spouses…”

She’s traced tombstones through “Find-A-Grave.” I used to think that was just a kinky site for Elvis fans or old stoners who still believe Jim Morrison is alive. Nope. They have a large and active group of graveyard detectives scouting in every state. My wife has taken cameras and traveled an hour or so to different graveyards to photograph stones for people who have requested them. Go figure. If someone asked me to go a graveyard to take pictures I’d claim that I did but they all turned out black, just to freak them out.

I guess love allows us to simply get over another person’s odd habits. As long as she doesn’t start floating around the house, I can deal with her armies of the dead. She doesn’t complain when I can’t sleep and take an hour or two’s walk through the forest that surrounds our house in the middle of the night. Some folks might find that creepy, too. I’ve listened to her explain the importance of all her research several times. I still don’t understand it. She just does that. And I love her.

But…I will have my vengeance.

When I have ceased to be, when I have left this veil of tears, I’ve made arrangements to donate my skin and vital organs to anyone who can get some use out of them. That won’t leave much, and the remnants will be cremated. Out in our woods, there’s this certain hill, and on it this certain tree, and my final wish is to have my ashes scattered there. No tombstone, no marker of any kind.

My family has all agreed to this, but asked why? I told them if any of my descendants become genealogists, they’ll find plenty of records that I once existed, but they will all go mad looking for my gravestone.

MICHAEL PAUL SMITH

BY Zachary Klein

I’ve known Michael for close to thirty-five years. During that time we decorated my apartment together (he was living downstairs), wallpapered (actually Michael did that with Sue), and attended his “decades” party. He threw them at his place and completely remodeled the interior to match the time in which the party was taking place. And of course Michael designed the previous covers for my Matt Jacob novels.

But more importantly, I’ve watched his growth as an artist and learned that acclaim and acknowledgement don’t have to change who you are and who you want to be. That’s a gift that keeps on giving as I travel through my own creative endeavors. But rather than  go on about Michael, his life, and his work—please just enjoy.

Far Worse Than We Thought

by Kent Ballard

There’s not much I can say about parents who insist on their children wearing crash helmets and body armor when they ride bikes while neglecting their childhood immunizations. Sure, piling up a bike can dent your head or scrape your knee. But the diseases stopped by safe and routine immunizations can kill a child, and not only that child but everyone else he manages to infect. Typhoid Mary (or Timmy) took a stroll through Disneyland recently and the butcher’s bill has yet to be calculated. Kids can ride out the measles. They’ll be sick, have a nasty fever, itchy spots and all that. But measles can kill any adult who’s never been exposed to them. It’s a safe bet we’ll be hearing more about this in the near future.

I don’t know about you, but if I had to forego the advice of medical professionals and trust, say, somebody’s wise old grandmother or a B-list TV personality, I’d probably go with grandma. Jenny McCarthy may have started the anti-vaccination movement which has now been discredited several times over, but without the sheer stupidity of many thousands of parents who listened to her it never would have become the problem it is now.

The parents who refused to have their children immunized should be tied into chairs and forced to watch Penn and Teller’s brilliant YouTube explanation about childhood vaccines. Leave them tied there for a week or so, however long it takes for the truth to soak into their cement skulls. Forget medical journals and hundreds of thousands of written words of research. What Penn and Teller did in around three minutes is the strongest case made for having children vaccinated I’ve ever seen.

But while McCarthy’s advice was both ridiculous and deadly, she did have the laudable goal of reducing the number of autistic children born in the United States. It’s hard to knock her for that, even if she inadvertently created another deadly public health problem. More children are born autistic every year. For some time the reason for this was a mystery. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the children themselves, and study after study could find no fault with the parents or anything they had in their environments.

Until now. And what has been discovered is beyond worrisome. It’s absolutely terrifying.

Stefanie Seneff is a research scientist for MIT. She worked in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence before turning to biology. She’s had papers published on everything from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s. In layman’s terms, that woman knows her stuff. Not too many people can be accurately described as brilliant. Ms. Seneff is one of those people.

Around seven months ago (June, 2014), Stefanie Seneff was asked to address a wellness organization in Groton, MA. No one was certain what her topic would be, but anything coming from her would be well-researched, timely, and highly interesting. But with her opening sentence, a hush fell over the assembled throng and she had the riveted, undivided attention of every soul in the room.

She said, “At today’s rate, by 2025, one in two children will be autistic.”

They said there was dead silence for a moment, then a murmur raced through the crowd. Surely they had misunderstood her. What did she say? Is she joking? No, no, no, this can’t be real…

It was. Those were her professional projections. Half of all kids will be autistic in ten years. And she went on to identify the real culprit behind this.

The Monsanto Corporation’s flagship weedkiller “Roundup” began to be heavily used in 1990 and has become more popular every year since. Seneff produced a chart showing the use of Roundup overlayed against the rising incidence of autism. They match almost perfectly. Even a mere glance at the chart indicates a dramatic correlation. She went on to describe MIT’s findings proving Roundup’s active ingredients were far more deadly and long-lasting than Monsanto’s claims, and that even what they referred to as “inert ingredients” in Roundup were anything but. Not only that, she proved exposure is cumulative. We’re all exposed to it daily, regardless of where we live, and we’re exposed often enough that we can’t shake it, can’t rid our bodies of it. It accumulates within us.

“But I live in the city”, you say. “I haven’t even seen a farm since my third grade class trip.” Okay, I have a few questions for you—Do you eat? Do you drink water? Do you have any bloody idea how many products contain corn and soybeans? Your pet’s food even contains both. Any meat you eat (and feed your children) was raised on corn and soybean meal in its feed, too. And after Roundup is sprayed on a field, where do you think it goes from there? It doesn’t just evaporate. The first rain will melt it into the ground. All rains after that press it deeper into the earth and spread it through the nations aquafiers. Millions upon millions of tons of grain are planted, grown, harvested, and sold from fields sprayed with Roundup. Helpfully, Monsanto sells a wide variety of seed to farmers that is “Roundup-Ready,” meaning it can be planted in a field that’s just been soaked with Roundup and will be immune to the poisons therein.

This isn’t the farmer’s fault. Monsanto assured everyone—including the FDA—that Roundup was perfectly safe. To the farmers, it’s just a great weedkiller, no more, no less. Their advanced knowledge of chemistry is probably on a par with any other profession. And you can “go organic” all you want. You’re still going to get thirsty sooner or later and the majority of all bottled water comes from a regular city tap somewhere. Or you might even take a shower or bath.

I live in farming country. Most farmers buy that stuff by the barrel anymore. Huge farms buy tanker trucks full of it. And very few involved with the sale, shipment, or use of that product knows what you know now…but word is spreading fast. Roundup is good, but not that good. And there are other weedkillers that can be used in modern agriculture. But Monsanto is not a humble mom-and-pop country feed and grain store. It’s a multibillion dollar industry giant with lobbyists, deep pockets, and heavy political clout. Roundup is their cash cow. They won’t go down without a fight. There will be investigations, more studies, hearings, and several setbacks before any kind of ban on Roundup and its satellite products can be put in place. But you’d better start supporting one now.

By the way, Monsanto was named “The Most Hated Company in America” several times. Don’t expect them to use their sense of public decency and the common good to kill one of their most profitable products. They’ll protect it at all costs. They will buy scientists, researchers, Congress if need be.

Here are a few things to remember: the number of children with autism has gone from 1 in 5,000 in 1975 to 1 in 68 in 2014. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been found in the breast milk of American mothers at “dangerous” levels, 760 to 1600 times higher than the allowable limits in European drinking water. Americans have ten times the level of glyphosate in their urine than Europeans. Why the comparisons with Europe? They had the good sense never to legalize glyphosate for widespread use, only in very limited applications, most by goverment-trained and regulated agencies. And we are eating it, drinking it, literally bathing in it every day.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” brought an end to the use of DDT, but that took years. Roundup, in ten years, will leave this nation with 50% autism, and if that happens no one can predict the cost, or even if our nation could survive such a catastrophe. Think about that for a moment. Just think about that…and what it could lead a desperate and failing society to do.