Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Annual Letter


I got such good comments about our letter for the holidays I thought I would post it here.

The year 2008 has been a wonderful one for all of us. Our biggest news is that Matt and Tiffany got married in a lovely sunset ceremony in September followed by an even lovelier party ­– three days of party all told. One nice thing about all the runup and followup events is that we had time to meet their wide and delightful circle of friends. It was like that Bollywood feature Monsoon Wedding without the drama or the henna tattoos. With this event we can pass the responsibility for Matt and Tiff’s news on to them and their annual letters. If I had started these letters when I got married you would have thirty-six of them instead of only a dozen. Given the recent economic news and the value of my older letters you could sell one or two for a mortgage payment. I told you to save them.

Lorraine’s business is better than ever and our plucky media skills trainer improved presentations in Sacramento, New York (again), Toppenish, Walla Walla, and Atlanta, as well as all over the Seattle area. Her book Give Your Elevator Speech A Lift has gone into its second printing and she remains in great demand. But the real news, the stupendous news, is that she cleaned up her office! One weekend she unloaded everything out into the living room and then, like the captain of an overloaded lifeboat, ruthlessly pushed unneeded nicknacks over the side. The tiny stuffed animals, corporate trinkets, and swag bag chachkas slipped under the waves and brave Lorraine saved her ship. [note on January 1, 2009: The cleaning was a cruel ruse. The office is back to its old condition.]

Along with the wedding in Oregon wine country there was Maui, Sun River in eastern Oregon, and New York. Lorraine worked her magic with the Forbes.com contestants before they pitched their business ideas to venture capitalists. While in New York I saw my first Broadway show – Mama Mia – and had to remark that the singers and dancers were all pretty good.

I have a new job. I’m on the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability Review Board. That’s the citizen group that oversees the police department’s internal investigations program and they needed someone with a law enforcement background. We do not sit in judgement of police officers (the chief does that), rather we look at the process, network with the community, and make recommendations. They offered a $400 stipend which I thought was reasonable. Imagine my surprise to learn that wasn’t for the year, but every month. They threw in free parking at City Hall and a week in Cincinnati for a national conference.

While waiting to be discovered as the next breakthrough author I started a couple of new stories, a website, and a blog. Everyone has to have a blog. Take a look at DavidWilma.Blogspot.com. The child advocate job keeps me hopping too. Two kids I represented for five and-a-half years finally got adopted in October. Another kid who was out of the home for five years finally went home, and his brother is soon to follow. I tutored African immigrant kids a bit last spring, mostly in their math. With all the woodworking I have done for more than ten years I have yet to multiply or divide fractions, but they still teach that to immigrants struggling with English. I don’t think the kids noticed the tutors passing around Math for Dummies.

It was a great year for quotes from Lorraine so I started posted the good ones and the other winners on the blog. This year’s winner is: “It’s a G** D*** miracle!”

Everyone have a great holiday season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More Snow

It snowed last weekend, Friday morning, Saturday night, and Sunday night. The total accumulation here on the north side of Queen Anne Hill is nine to twelve inches. Things are a mess. Yesterday I dug out my 4WD pickup truck and almost got stuck before I pulled back into my parking place which means we are pretty much snow bound. I will try again today. Other cars are making it up the hill and my truck has good snow tires. It's probably a matter of technique. Here is my neighbor sledding down the hill on Sunday.
From Snow December 2008

Thousands of airline travelers are stacking up at Sea-Tac and some have been stuck there for two or three days. The concessions are running out of food and the airlines have been cancelling flights. Alaska and Horizon cancelled all flights on Sunday.

It's not snowing now and things certainly are pretty. We are due for another storm on Wednesday, Christmas Eve.

12:41 PM.
I got my truck going up the hill, barely, and when I got to more heavily traveled streets it got easier, but would have been silly without snow tires. A tank of gas helped with the traction of my rear tires, but didn't prevent me from spinning out as I turned into my street. I spun wheels until the truck worked its way back into the parking space where it remains.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow Day

It's hard to imagine that forty years ago Seattle endured two significant storms a season without too much difficulty. Indeed there were street closures and hellish commutes, but residents and officials worked through it all. There is so little snow these days that I don't even have a shovel (I left it in Illinois in 1985). My bag of salt, which I found in the basement when I moved in ten years ago is finally gone. The hardware store is sold out.

In last ten years, since I returned to Seattle there have been perhaps two measurable snows (see January 2007) with the ones this week being the biggest.

With the imact on the area you would think the Big One (earthquake) had hit. The major interstates are down to one or two lanes and frequently on- and off-ramps are closed. Schools closed in Seattle yesterday on the threat of snow only no snow fell. The flakes didn't start until about 5 a.m. Friday and continued into early afternoon. I measured at least three inches of white stuff. The hinterlands are much worse off with lower tempertures and deeper drifts. Sunday morning the accumulation was almost seven inches.

Our hill is basically only four-wheel drive only so it's pretty quiet and a great place for the kiddies to try out their sleds and plastic saucers. I discovered a great blog by a meteorologist who has published a book about the weather hearbouts.

If you don't like the weather here in Seattle, wait a while, it will change.

Here is some driving in our neighborhood

Friday, December 5, 2008

Profiles

On a more serious note I am being drawn into the issue of biased policing as part of my civilian oversight job. (I thought it was a volunteer gig, but they keep paying me.) Last night I listened to a presentation by three members of the community concerned about how racial profiling impacts African Americans (particularly young men), immigrants, and Muslims. We listened to pretty compelling anecdotes about how individuals were being victimized, not for their conduct, but for their race, religion, or civil status.

Immigrants get hit when they enter the criminal justice system at any level. If they don't have legal status, they can be immediately deported since Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE - routine sweeps jails for illegals. If a legal immigrant is convicted of a crime he or she can be immediately deported despite their family ties, clean record, or time in this country.

Muslims have suffered since 911 because they are Muslims. Anyone with middle eastern looks taking pictures can be questioned and even arrested. Federal and state investigators who target suspicious Muslims are seen to be doing a good job. The panelist showed an advertisement from a security contractor retained by a local law enforcement agency offering counter terrorism courses. The training included the naming patterns for Arabic and Muslim children, religious practices, and the tenets of Islam. The panelist did not object to cultural awareness training, but not in the context of battling terrorism.

The panelist from the NAACP, who is also a defense attorney, provided several accounts of how his clients were targeted because of race. That racism exists in America and in all its institutions should come as no surprise.

Alas, these issues of immigrants and Muslims fall outside our board since they reflect federal initiatives and policies. We provide oversight to the Seattle PD and its policies and practices. One panelist complimented the Seattle police chief for "getting it" and notifying is officers that religion and physical appearance was not the basis for a criminal investigation. Another complimented the City Council for reconfiguring its professional accountability system of which my board is a part. So despite the concerning accounts of biased policing, Seattle either was not the problem, or was already taking firm steps to improve fairness and accountability.

What about racial profiling?

The Los Angeles PD's civilian oversight made some interesting findings. Out of hundreds of complaints of biased policing only four were sustained and those were because the employees made some sort of biased comments. Without some demonstration of animus there was no way to prove the stop or action was based on race, etc. In Seattle no complaints of biased policing have been sustained and no employee was the subject of a bias complaint more than once.

LAPD decided that to guarantee fair policing it made more sense to focus on the constitutional basis for the stop or the arrest instead of pursuing prejudice. The police just can't stop anyone, handcuff them, and seat them on the curb without some reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or hard evidence of a crime. So if a motorist suffers from issues of "rear license plate illumination" the traffic stop should be limited to investigating that infraction. Naturally if the officer sees something else amiss he or she should pursue it, but a bad bulb should not, by itself, take forty-five minutes to resolve.

So one of the issues our board will address is the perception that biased policing – racial profiling – is a problem. As for the feds, change is coming. Isn't it?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What are you reading?


I'm the kind of reader who fixes on an author and then tracks down everything written by him. Usually it's a him. I snap up everything by Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park, Red Star) and Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe's Eagle) and even discovered Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose) after he died. When I go to a bookstore I will often go to the fiction section and scan the author's alphabetically for familiar and favorite names.

Currently I'm in the Ivan Doig (Ride With Me Mariah Montana, Dancing at the Rascal Fair) fan club and I'm almost out of books to read. Doig lives in Seattle, but grew up in Montana in the 1940s and 1950s where his father was a ranch hand and sheep rancher. One afternoon as a teen ager, while helping his father and grandmother save two thousand sheep from themselves ahead of a sudden rainstorm, Doig came to the realization that days of endless work for little money was not for him. He went off to college and then grad school at the University of Washington. In 1968, he was my teaching assistant for Washington State History, but that's not why I like his writing.


Doig invented a fictitous community of Scot immigrants who homesteaded the prairie in the 1890s and most of his books follow the members and their descendants through the 1980s. Besides being very entertaining tales of the West and how people are the same no matter what their environment or era, his stories really speak to me.


My grandparents and great grandparents homesteaded Montana some distance east of Doig's Two Medicine country, but the experience was the same. (That's my grandmother with my two uncles in front of the sod house in about 1919.) Frank and Elsie laid claim to some land on the Milk river in hopes of finding a measure of prosperity and freedom only to learn that the measure of prosperity was very small and the measure of work very large. Within a year of that photo the Wilmas proved up their claim and sold out to move further west to Washington. Most of the other homesteaders of the 1910s moved on as well having been lured to Montana by stories of bumper crops of vegetables. Only the 1910s were unusually wet and then the rains stopped. Doig tells the story of my grandparents.

A frequent description is of the abandoned homestead, silent testimony to some family's admission that Montana was not for everyone.But Doig doesn't stop speaking to me there. He also writes about working and growing up on the farm, or the ranch, or just "the place." That was my dad's life for more than ten years and although we did not live on a place, I was privileged to witness him wrestle with dim-minded sheep, nut and brand cattle, tractor a field with a D-4 Cat, and to listen to him jaw with other farmers about low prices, high water, scissorbills, and yay-hoos. In one particularly memorable (for me) scene, Doig's camp tender (the guy who rode up into the mountains to take summer sheepherders their weekly supplies) used a fork to cook a flawless fried egg over a campfire in a cast-iron skillet. My dad could do that.

So, I am reading Ivan Doig, slowly, carefully. When I finish this book I will have just one more, then I will have to start over or find a new favorite author.




Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Apple


Every year, two so far, Lorraine joins the staff at Forbes.com in welcoming contestants for the Boost Your Business award of $100,000. Entrepreneurs compete online and in person to convince venture capitalists that they would make the best use of the award. Lorraine's job is to work with each of the five finalists the day before to polish up their pitches. I get to tag along to offer my perspective and to help her enjoy a few days in New York. If you watch the video you will see our cameos. Look at the end for some glowing words about Lorraine. You can also look at each of the contestants' pitches and even vote for your favorite. I thought the Honey Wear people had the best pitch.

We went a few days early and found ourselves in the middle of the annual New York City Columbus Day Parade complete with marching cops and firemen, musical floats, politicians, and high school drum and bugle units. Not just New Yorkers participate. There were police officers and sailors from Italy. and lots of Italian cops from New Jersey. One county even sent its jury transport bus to be in the parade (in New Jersey jury security is very important and they are proud of their measures). We were at the very beginning of the parade so we got to see the various parade personalities in their ceremonial sashes interact. Here is my slide show of the parade, or at least the beginning. I got a kick out of the fact that even the sanitation workers have a dress uniform, green of course.

The hilarious thing about the Columbus Day Parade is that despite the fact that it is in The Big Apple, there is a decided small town feel to the floats and the marching units. Even the Teachers of Italian have an entry. I spotted one news crew doing its location standup in Italian, obviously for an audience in Italy.

I got to see my first Broadway show, the musical Mama Mia. I remarked to myself that these singers and dancers were pretty good, but wait, this is Broadway! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience although I have yet to go buy any Abba albums. To demonstrate the crossroads of the world that New York is, the couple next to us was French, the people behind us were Italian, the ones in front were German, and the ones in front of them were Swedish.

To show how New York has improved over its reputation we walked back to our apartment from the theater. The streets were well lit and we felt entirely safe. We stayed in a condo on 10th Avenue in the neighborhood once known as Hell's Kitchen. We rented the condo by the night from a connection Lorraine has.




Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Oversight


July 14, 2008
I was recently nominated to be a member of the Seattle Police Department Office of Professional Accountability Review Board. This is a seven member panel of citizens which oversees the office that investigates allegations of police misconduct and the discipline system. (That's me, lower right, at the police academy in 1970, not the new board.) This is actually the second iteration of this board which, for seven years, consisted of three members. Complaints about the structure and authority of the oversight system led to two different evaluation committees in 2007. The new setup was signed off by the mayor and the police officers guild, and now the city council will enact legislation to implement the changes. One change is expanding the board from three to seven members.

I had seen in the newspaper that the city was looking for people with a law enforcement background. That was me. And I needed a new intellectual challenge. This seems to be a good fit. Of course there will be meetings, lots of them.

We won't be reviewing individual investigations, but will be monitoring the whole process, conducting community outreach, and keeping up with other developments in the field of police accountability.

August 12, 2008
The City Council confirmed my appointment last night. Here is my testimony before the Public Safety Committee of the Seattle City Council a week ago.

November 1, 2008
The review board job is slow to get off the ground. We have had just one meeting and most of it was taken up with training on how to conduct meetings, how not to have meetings (too many emails can be a meeting), how to preserve records, and how to talk to the press (try not to). With seven accomplished and busy people, just finding times when we can all meet proved the biggest challenge. We want to have two meetings a month, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, to allow for public participation. When we finally came up with one good date, I will be out of town. But I pledged to call it in (which we can do) from Oregon.

The other aspect of the job has been training. I participated in sessions for the officers who staff the internal investigations section, for lawyers wanting to help mediate complaints, and, every Thursday evening, the community police academy.

On top of all that the city council sent me to Cincinnati for five days for the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement conference. Folks from all over the nation and several foreign countries gathered to share information on structure, trends, problems, and accomplishments. Being so new to the job I had little to offer.

But I learned many things including the unique issues of domestic violence by police officers (far greater than with the general population), the tightening standards for officer dishonesty, and the extent to which civilian oversight bodies have reduced the number and types of complaints.

One thing that gets a lot of play in the press is racial profiling, the idea of targeting police services based on race. When I was a DEA agent in the 1970s we did racial profiling as we looked for drug couriers at the airport. The process was even written down. In the 21st Century this is frowned upon (profiling, not writing things down).

The problem is that, absent some spoken slur, it is nearly impossible to demonstrate a racial element in police interactions with the public. In hundreds of racial profiling complaints against the LAPD perhaps three could be tagged as having a racist element.

Instead, the presenters said, we should be looking at the constitutionality of the stops themselves. If an officer stops a SUV with heavily tinted windows at night in a high crime area for a tail light infraction, why did the occupants spend half an hour seated on the curb in handcuffs? Some issues just require a new approach and, of course, more training.




Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dead Relatives



I have always been interested in history and in the history of my family. My maternal grandmother, Pebble Flood, commissioned some family history research in the 1920s to support her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. That research floated around the family for seventy or eighty years. In about 1990, my father's older brother wrote an autobiography which included some interesting tidbits about the Wilmas and the Dorns.

With this information to build on I started compiling a family tree. I read books and took classes and was fortunate enough to live in San Francisco where there were a couple of excellent genealogy libraries. The personal computer helped in keeping track of it all as I collected over three thousand names and relationships. I even added research on my wife's family, mostly Irish from New York and San Francisco. I discovered that Lorraine's Irish grandmother was born Jewish.

After a couple of years reading, taking notes, and lots of postage (no email then) I managed to put together a pretty reliable family history back as far as Rollo, the Norse raider who set himself up as the Duke of Normandy. One of his descendants conquered England. I posted all this on the web and it attracts inquiries from distant cousins, some of whom can add to the story.





Saturday, November 1, 2008

Adoption Day

At the King County Courthouse most of the product is heartbreak. People come there to be convicted and sentenced and to sue and be sued. Even the winners leave having paid a great cost for the chance of justice. Plaintiffs, defendants, jurors, and witnesses queue up at the screening tables all wishing they were somewhere else. Lawyers carrying thick file folders wear their officious faces and speak with contrived authority. Courthouse workers greet each other and speak of weekends and food oblivious to the pain around them.

The idea of making new families is completely out of character there. The tiny courtroom sits on the third floor with a view of Third Avenue and the Pioneer Square area. A glass wall separates it from a waiting area where happy, nervous people and fidgety babies and children laugh and chat. One at a time the families file into the courtroom while the people in the waiting room watch through the glass hoping to learn something of what would happen to them. A chalkboard next to the window helps distract the kids as they wait for their case to be called.

Robbie and Meranda's prospective mom and dad had lost out on adopting another child before and they were pretty nervous that this adoption might not go through. Every phone call and voice mail message threatened disaster and sadness, but all the news was good and 9:00 a.m. finally rolled around.. A couple of aunts were there (when we describe relatives, we always use their relationship with the children) along with the family minister. With me and the social worker we are quite a crowd. Meranda wore a nice maroon velvet jumper and Robbie's necktie might have looked better with another shirt, but he was more than presentable.

Then our case is called we file into the courtroom where a white haired judge greets everyone. One aunt lines up behind the judge to catch a video of the proceedings.The lawyer hired by the parents announces his business and the judge asks for everyone to introduce themselves, even us spectators. I rise and state, "I am the children's CASA. I have been with them five-and-a-half years." The judge also asks the kids if they are good with being adopted and they both nod. He even asks them their new name which they manage to recite.

After pronouncing the children adopted, the judge invites the parties around to his side of the bench where everyone poses for snapshots. Within a total of about seven minutes the process is done and we relinquish the court to a couple carrying an infant and more happy relatives.

The new mom fights back tears as do I. I have represented these kids since Meranda was an infant and so neglected she could not hold up her head. They experienced three other prospective sets of parents until Tom and Janet were able to come through and the best home for them. Amazingly enough the kids do not exhibit any special needs and have every prospect for a normal happy life ahead of them.

My job being done, I gave Meranda and her mom hugs and went about my day.

I have one other case that has lasted nearly as long as Robbie and Meranda's, but that one is steering towards a return home, another happy ending.

Journeys


Click here to see how Lorraine and I spend our vacations.
Click to see our albums of Normandy, Brittany, and Paris.

The shot at the right is us, off our bicycles, near Mt. St. Michelle in Brittany in 2006. This old monestary is the number one tourist destination in France, maybe Europe. What you don't see is the wind that comes up from the English Channel every afternoon.
In 2007 we cycled through Southern Vermont. What you might see are the many hills. We also spent time in Burlington.



Advocating for Children

May 7, 2008

I have a volunteer job that is some job. I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate sometimes called Guardian ad litem or just CASA in the King County Superior Court Juvenile Division. It is my role to investigate, report, monitor, and advocate in cases where kids are removed from the home for neglect and abuse and then report to the court on what is happening and what should be done. The kids have social workers, but the workers' job is to comply with state and federal law and departmental policies and procedures while still trying to restore families. And note that I say social workers. Any case going longer than two years (I have two cases five years old) the kids can get two or three workers. More on The System another time.

I had to go through an application process, provide references, be interviewed, undergo a background check, take twenty-four hours of training (plus twelve more hours every year). All that does is teach you what you don't know.

Then you make a choice from among dozens and dozens of gut-wrenching cases involving drugs, alcohol, insanity, and just plain criminal behavior. I have a leg up on most of the other volunteers. I have a background in investigations so reading reports and case files and interviewing witnesses was a snap. And I have a pretty good ability to keep emotions out of the situation.

What I wasn't prepared for was the mystifying array of social services that come into play when children become dependent. There are psychological evaluations, educational evaluations, drug and alcohol evaluations, domestic violence evaluations, and others I don't remember. And these evaluations trigger services with acronyms like PCIT and TF-CBT. The people who come up with these concepts must be really smart.

The CASA's job is to look over the shoulder of the social workers and their department and see that the kids are getting everything they need. The squeaky wheel does get the grease and CASAs help keep kids from slipping through cracks and help kids stuck in cracks. For it's a big dumb system. I could tell you stories and you probably read about some of them when, tragically, a child dies. In those cases the kids either don't have CASAs or the CASA program is so small as to be ineffective. The latter is the case in most small jurisdictions. Better no advocate than one not doing a good job.

Most dependent children are not in foster homes. Dependent just means they are under state supervision and their parents are ordered by a court to undergo certain services like drug and alcohol treatment. If kids are actually taken out of a home the first stop is usually a relative. Most of my cases have involved a relative placement. Or they are dependent in-home. Only when there are no relatives do kids go to licensed care.

And some kids have problems so profound that an institutional setting is needed. The stories of kids being bounced among foster homes are horrific, but they don't speak of how the child assaulted other children or tried to burn the house down.


Clout

What still amazes me after six years as a CASA is the extent to which I can actually influence the outcome in court. Chalk it all up to persistence. Let me set the stage.

Child dependency cases are heard by commissioners, lawyers appointed by the elected judges to handle these kind of routine matters. In many cases the commissioners come out of the ranks of family law practitioners so they have a leg up on the business. Not only do they know the language of social workers and child protection law, but they know the types of people that routinely end up in dependency court. So imagine a judge's bench and the concurrent clerks and courtroom specialists who keep the paper moving only there is one bench for spectators. It's really for the overflow of parties to the case.

Instead of one table for one side and one table for the other there are three tables; one for the State people, one for the parents and their lawyers, and, in the middle, one for the CASA and his lawyer. (Actually most CASAs are women, but this CASA is a man and this is his blog.) So right off the bat this volunteer is given equal status with the other "parties." These cases used to be closed so the courtrooms have little in the way of spectator seating; just chairs or benches along the back wall.

As the cases drag on it is usually only the CASA who can provide any sense of continuity. New social workers and Assistant Attorneys General get assigned, and the public defenders juggle so many cases they have substitutes as often as not. After about a year – most cases go years – the CASA is the only one with any institutional knowledge. It may come as a surprise that this civilian volunteer has all the information that the people who are paid to be there need. I have slipped notes of correction to the AAG who has no clue who these kids are and who is sitting next to a substitute social worker.

6/4/08
The Last Visit

The other evening I visited R and M who I have represented for over five years. M was about six months old then and was "delayed," a child development term meaning she wasn't growing well. She couldn't even hold up her head. Through the inspired help of the staff at Childhaven she got back on track. They are now seven and five.

But through a number of missteps by The System, some unavoidable, the kids did not find permanency until just a few months ago. They moved in with a lovely couple who just wanted to be caring parents. The case is approaching the point where R and M will be adopted which will conclude my involvement with them. A hearing is coming up so I needed to file a report and for that I needed to see how they were doing.

Monday afternoon was lovely and the kids were playing on the front porch. They greeted me with "Hi, Dave" and rushed to show me their bicycles (R just got the training wheels off) and the storage shed their new dad was building for them. The shed is not just for storage. It will include a playhouse in the upper story. M wanted to show me the lovely flowers, but only if I was unafraid of bees. I assured her I was fine.

The judges like to have photos of the kids to go with the reports so I brought along my digital camera. I posed with each of them while the other took some pictures.

Naturally, I visited with the prospective adoptive parents and got a good picture of how they are doing. Both R and M wanted to show me all the family snapshots of the great adventures they had had such as a Pacific beach, motocross races, and just a trip to the park.

The next step for them is adoption and then I will be out of the picture.

6/9/08
Indian Cases

Probably the most complex kinds of cases we see in dependencies are those involving Indian children. Before about thirty years ago, Indian children were commonly adopted off the reservation to non-Indian families. Naturally the tribes took issue with this latest depredation by the United States of their identity and culture.

Congress passed a law which gave the tribes the last word in handling any Indian child who goes into dependency — foster care. A tribe can get involved in the case in almost any way they want, from taking the case entirely away from the state court, to helping, to doing nothing. And if an Indian child is to be adopted, the tribe has final say on where the child goes. Some children have found homes in non-Indian families only to have the tribe come along later and say, no, we want the child with us. The child has no say in the matter other than through an advocate — me.

So the trick in these cases is to find out if a kid is an Indian. Easy to say. There are more than five hundred tribes recognized by the U.S. Government and many more not recognized. There are Canadian first nations which have cultural and political relationships with U.S. tribes and can lay a claim to a child and Native Alaskan community. If someone says the kid has Indian heritage, we have to write letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to all the possible tribes and ask if he or she is one of theirs. Some tribes write back and some don't.

Even if we don't hear back from tribes, they can still come into the case and undo everything that has been done. So it is critical to engage these tribes early, if we can.

Some tribes are large with sophisticated governments and large, profitable casinos generating cash to benefit the members. Other tribes are very informal with the barest of structure, very poor, and might only have a post office box for contact. The hardest situations is where a tribe is made up of idividual bands and each band has rights under the law.

I am fortunate with the one Indian case I've had. The kid was clearly a member and the tribe had a large casino (getting bigger) along an interstate. They have a lawyer who attends all proceedings and they have money they shower on services for the kid. Or just shower him with money. But with the growth of Indian gaming some of the tribes are now more reluctant to extend membership to someone with tenuous ties to the reservation.



Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Solstice 2008


Here in Seattle is the neighborhood of Fremont, "The Center of the Universe." In addition to a colorful bridge across the Lake Washington Ship Canal Fremont has an nuclear missile and a statue of Lenin, both obtained surplus after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At one time Fremont was something of a funky artists' colony, but gentrification sent them packing for more reasonable rental markets. It was during the funky years that they started celebrating the Summer Solstice, something suitably non-traditional. The event became formalized by the neighborhood association.

The parade prohibits motors, animals, and signs. Everything else is a go. Naturally someone thought they would march nude and it caught on. Ten years ago there were maybe a dozen men and women who painted themselves up like Celtic warriors and rode their bikes along the parade route. This year there must have been a couple of hundred.

Here is my photo record.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Marketing a Mystery

I have just completed entering the edits on my other book Tiny Details, a mystery. This is the first book I wrote and I tried to sell it in 2000 without success. After eight more years of experience I dusted it off, revised it, and sent it off to my editor who offered several thousand corrections. Now it's ready for prime time.

I will do as before, assembling lists of publishers and agents and sending off query letters and sample chapters. The mystery market is very different than the historical fiction market so perhaps it will catch an influential eye and find a place in the publishing world. I mail off the first query letters to publishers. I approach publishers first since they pay royalties directly to the author.

A literary agent, the only avenue to the large houses, takes a fifteen percent commission. That's a standard and probably fair share, but it does come out of my end. So the small publishers get first crack. Down The River, is still under review at one publisher who thought enough of the first fifty pages to ask for the whole manuscript. One agent in New York who I had not heard from in months and months wrote back today that she liked the story, but had some reservations and declined. It was the most thoughtful reply I have ever had from an agent or a publisher. At least she read it and for the most part, she liked it. I sent her a thank you email.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Writing



Getting Published - Now and Then 05/02/2008
I have written two works of fiction and I am actively trying to get one, Down The River, published. The process of getting published has changed dramatically over the past five or ten years. At one time a novelist pounded away at a typewriter (or prevailed upon a skilled typist) until he or she had a manuscript. The process of creation and revision entailed laborious finger and mind work until the likes of John Updike or Kurt Vonnegut had several hundred pages of masterful prose in typescript. Tom Wolfe has his signature IBM Selectric (if you don't know what that is, don't ask). The number of submissions to publishers and literary agents was physically limited by the endurance of writers and the availability of typists. A manuscript was singular as in one original and perhaps one copy (Assuming the use of carbon paper – if you don't know what that is, don't ask.) Photo copiers came into wide use in the 1970s making the idea of an original rather quaint.

Enter the digital revolution, desktop computers, and the word processer. Even in the days of the 8086 microprocessor (if you don't know what that is, don't ask), the desktop computer with one or two floppy drives soon became a credible and efficient way to transcend the barrier of the skilled typist, muscle- or power-driven keys, a dancing type element, ribbon, and eraser or correction fluid. The writer could create, type (more accurately keyboard, now a verb), edit, and produce a clean printed copy in a fraction of the time and trouble as with a typewriter. The writer didn't even have to know how to type because mistakes dissolved under the backspace and delete keys. The programs automated carriage return, paragraphs. margins, page numbers, footnotes, and even centered titles. Everyman and Everywoman became a potential blockbuster novelist.

The digital revolution not only changed writing habits, but it changed reading habits. Books, magazines, and newspapers encountered more competition as the number of television channels grew exponentially from four or five to four or five hundred. Magazine subscriptions lapsed, articles became shorter to accommodate busier days, and publications even disappeared. The short story as a commercial product neared extinction. The number of writers increased as evidenced by the proliferation of writing schools. Fifty years ago there were two writing schools in the U.S. In the 1990s there were more than two thousand.

Book publishers and book sellers consolidated to make publishing (really printing) more efficient. The publishers slashed their lists and even established writers found themselves swimming upstream in a crowded marketplace. The bad news was that even if you were a good writer you might not get published. But the good news was that even if you weren’t a good writer, you could get published.

Prospecting 05/05/2008
Numbering among thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of aspiring novelists I have a manuscript. Now I want to get it published.

The most direct route would be to seem to send the book to publishers and wait for a reply. Or perhaps send the book to a literary agent who will use his or her liquid luncheon dates to extract a great contract and a hefty advance – less his or her fifteen percent. It’s just a function of printing and postage, right? Wrong.

First of all, the biggest publishers will not talk to, read letters sent by, or open emails from authors. And they certainly do not answer the telephone. This traffic is called “over the transom” referring to the old-fashioned ventilation window over an office door. Manuscripts were too large to fit in the mail slot so the letter carrier just threw it over the open transom to crash to the floor inside. Over the tramsome. Small publishing houses will talk to authors, but these are publishing HOUSES, as in single-family residences with an attached garage full of unsold books. I overstate, but small houses do only a few titles a year. That leaves literary agents.

The good news is that agents, and even publishers, want to meet good writers and they offer their names to books of listings that writers pay to read. The most popular one is the Writer’s Market, a thick, $50 book with thousands of book, magazine, and other publishers, and literary agents. And it has a current how-to guide for placing your book or article, writing compelling letters, and even formatting a manuscript. Even better, there is an online version included in the purchase of the book that is updated daily. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there are tens of thousands of wannabe Stephen Kings out there simply inundating agents and publishers with proposals and sample chapters. With modern word processing technology the task of preparing and mailing manuscripts and information becomes easier for the writer, but harder for the reader.

I have been doing everything I am supposed to, reading the listings, finding companies and agencies that handle what I have written (historical fiction and maybe literary fiction), and sending them letters. Sometimes the agent or publisher wants something on one page. A few want sample chapters, or a synopsis, or an author biography.

To date I have sent out 128 queries. About 10 wrote back for sample chapters or even the full manuscript (by email). I call those “nibbles.” Of those 10, one is still considering the sample chapters. All the rest either sent back form letter replies – “Dear Author. We have carefully reviewed…” – or did not respond at all. My compliments to agencies that at least have a mechanism for acknowledging the query.

I am down to about half a dozen agencies left to contact so I save this list for Friday mornings. That’s when I select two or three to send queries to. Then it’s a case of just watching the mail.


On Writing 5-6-2008
Having just related the still-unfinished journey of an author I realized that I left something out. Why? Not why I left it out. Why write? Writing should not about making money, although for many it is a living and none of us will say no to a handsome royalty check. Alas, focusing on the money will undoubtedly lead to disappointment. Writing should be about telling the story that you have inside. Getting published is one indication that the story is a good one and commercial support is a good endorsement. But telling the story is the important part.