Thursday, December 29, 2011

Contemplating Eternity and Infinity

As our planet ticks off another solar year, the Hubble telescope has provided Earthlings with a view of the far reaches of the universe. Try and wrap your head around this. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dancing with Devils (1 of 4)

Since September, my partner and I have been investigating the John Norman Collins murders in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor area between July of 1967 through July of 1969. These seven murders of young women became know as the Co-Ed Killings and have since become a local legend - partly because five of the murders are as yet unsolved - partly because of shoddy police work. Despite early media attention nationally, the trial was overshadowed by the Tate/Bianca murders and the Charles Manson family, which occurred at the same time.

My research into this matter includes studies of many of the most infamous serial killers, sex criminals, sociopaths, and pathological narcissists in twentieth-century America - almost exclusively angry white males. If ever there was a Rogue's Gallery in Hell, this collection of psychopaths would make their blood run cold.

What makes these people different from the rest of us? Something called a conscience. These people are lost in a deep and dark existential void where their actions don't have consequences for them - until they are caught, of course. Then they justify their crimes. These people live in a mirrored reality where they are in control - where they are God.

Dr. Martha Stout, PhD, in her book, the sociopath next door (sic), convincingly purports that one in twenty-five people are sociopathic. That is four percent of the population. Many of these people find their niche in society, but too many others carve their way into our consciousness. At their best, they manipulate and use people heartlessly - at their worst, they unleash havoc and horror on an unprotected and terrified public.

What is even more scary is that most of these characters have charm and cunning to mask their heinous acts and desires. Reminds me of Lady Macbeth's advice to her husband, "Appear the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath." Even in Shakespeare's time, this "deceptive" feature of psychopaths was known. More the pity, there is no known cure for their madness. But when push comes to shove - Beware! - they will stop at nothing to manipulate reality to suit themselves and satisfy their ravenous rage against a society that hasn't learned to appreciate or acknowledge them.

The study of  sociopathy is in its early stages, and there are many unanswered questions about it. How do we identify sociopaths? Once we identify them, what do we do about them? How can society protect itself?

Lawyers avoid using the term in court because it has not been precisely defined. The term "serial killer" was not used in court until the 1980's, when an FBI man used it in court to describe the dramatic increase of this crime after World War Two. In Colin Wilson's incisive work, The History of Murder, he states that the FBI estimates serial killers kill 300 to 500 people yearly in America.

People just don't become killers. What makes them that way? And if there are natural born killers among us, surely that tendency displays itself early in their lives. Why isn't sociopathy addressed in public schools? We give lip service against bullies, but what is done with these kids who prey on other students - driving an increasing number to suicide? More often than not, we simply transfer them to another school and seal their records? Presently, there is no known treatment to cure these demons among us, but ignoring them is not an option.

Friday, December 2, 2011

What’s keeping Windsor awake at night? - Life -

Last month, a photo editor at Macleans, Canada's Life magazine, emailed me asking where she could get photos of Zug Island. They were about to publish an article on the Zug Island Hum, which I call the Zug Island Tremors. I guess it depends on which side of the Detroit River you live on. The people in Windsor, Ontario are not amused.

"No problem!" I wrote back. "The photo on my book's front cover was shot by Bill Deneau, a Torontite."

Since Macleans is headquartered in Toronto, I recommended Bill's evocative photograph - but alas - Bill didn't get the nod. The photo they used was essentially the same scene from a distance but without the visual impact.

Here is the article. Enjoy!

What’s keeping Windsor awake at night? - Life -

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wanted: John Norman Collins Information

Forty-five years ago, a dark cloud of terror hovered over the college communities of Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. Seven unsolved, horrific murders of young women over a two year period, July of 1967 through July of 1969, baffled Washtenaw County law enforcement and haunted county residents.

A break came in the case when a rookie EMU Campus Policeman, Larry Mathewson, put two and two together and wrote a police report that spelled the beginning of the end of John Norman Collins' reign of terror. He was brought to trial for only one of the seven Michigan murders, and he was indicted in Salinas, California, for the brutal rape/murder of a young woman - Roxie Phillips - but Washtenaw County refused to extradite him. They had their man and they weren't going to let him go.

In the 1960's, telecommunications were primitive by today's standards and forensic DNA was unknown in a court of law. Washtenaw County had no experience with this sort of unspeakable, senseless carnage. After the third murder, the law enforcement community knew they were playing a cat and mouse game with a psychopath. Panic gripped the college communities of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

Why the mini-history lesson? My study of serial killers and sex crimes indicates that these sociopaths gradually lead up to their horrible crimes. They are usually abused as children, they like to torture and kill animals, they have a need for control and power, they feel disenfranchised from the society at large, they see life through a mirrored reality which has its own rules and logic, and ironically, they seek self-esteem and recognition through their crimes which must be carried out anonymously.

That's why, when they are caught, serial killers usually speak freely about their guilt. Now they are important men, they are getting the attention they crave, their names are in the papers and on television, and their fame/infamy is now complete. They have entered the history books. They have made their mark.

But not so with John Norman Collins. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence for the last forty-five years, even in light of devastating evidence against him in the Karen Sue Beineman case, the only murder he was tried and found guilty of committing. Another of the murders, the Jane Mixer case, has since been solved. Many years later, DNA evidence convicted another man of that murder which always stood out as different from the others.

Recently, several people have come forward to speak with me about their personal experiences with Mr. Collins. He did not start out by butchering young women; he gradually led up to it. What drove him to such a rage as to mutilate and "over kill" these women is still the subject of conjecture. I am looking for answers to the six murders Collins was accused of committing but never brought to trail for. In addition to investigating these cold cases, another issue has arisen which concerns me now.

Please forgive me! I am seeking information regarding young woman who dated JNC and who felt they were violated by him. On an even more personal and painful note, if you are a rape victim who survived the experience and gave birth to a child, we need to talk.

Contact me at my gmail address: All information will be confidential! I am not requesting this information in a vacuum; I have a motivated interest in this matter which has recently surfaced.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Pimpin' Ain't Easy

As 2011 comes to a close, it has been an interesting year for me. In January, after the San Diego State University Writers' Conference, I decided to self-publish my first novel, Zug Island. Beginning in February, I contacted Wheatmark Publishing and entered into a Printing On Demand contract. By May, the cover design was agreed upon and the professional editing was complete. My novel was officially published in June and listed in the trade catalogues. That was the easy part.

Building an electronic platform, establishing a blog presence, and working with social sites like facebook and twitter began to take up more and more of my time. Time I could be using to work on my next book project, In the Shadow of the Water Tower.

Once that system was up and synergizing, I needed to do some advertising and personal appearances in San Diego and Detroit. I hired a local book publicist, Paula Margulies, and she arranged some publicity and book talks which occupied June, July, and August. In September, I did a few local library appearances and became part of San Diego Public Library's Local Authors Program for 2012.

In September, I also went to Los Angeles for an on-camera interview for GateKeepers Post, an online magazine. In October, Paula arranged a WDET - 101.9 FM NPR interview for me in Detroit. Then, on the heels of that, on November 1st, National Book Day, I won a Finalist's Award for 2011 in the USA Best Books competition, in the Fiction-Multicultural category.

Wow! It's been a productive year for me; I look forward to many more.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Detroit Image Audio Collage

Detroit has always been a hard scrabble, two-fisted, beer drinking town. We all know the Motown musical legacy, but the Motor City has been cited in many songs and popular media over the last fifty years.

Enjoy this audio collage complied by Rob St. Mary, from the archives of WDET - 101.9 FM - Detroit's public radio station, located on the campus of Wayne State University. Each clip has helped define Detroit in one way or another, for good or bad. You be the judge!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good Memories of Detroit - Bob Seger

It's not easy being Detroit. After the glory "Arsenal of Democracy" days, this city began to decline.

After the 1967 riots, the city never recovered. There are many reasons and lots of blame to go around.

But there is another side of Detroit - a forward looking city - trying to heal itself and forge a new future from the ashes of its past.

Enjoy Bob Seger singing "Stranger in Town" with these archival photos of the Motor City in happier times for the people of Detroit.

Friday, October 21, 2011

New and Improved CPR Technique

Spend five minutes and learn how to save a life. This procedure does not require certification or mouth to mouth, and it has a higher success rate than the traditional method.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Silent Killer - Heart Disease

Over the weekend, another former classmate of mine from the Class of "66" passed away from a heart attack. The sad news came on the heels of spending Sunday afternoon in the emergency room with a friend of mine who I hadn't seen or heard from in a couple of years. She called earlier in the day and was in the neighborhood, so she decided to drop by.

After about fifteen minutes of visiting, she started feeling faint and proceeded to develop chest and back pain, with labored breathing, sweating, and a tingling sensation in her extremities. While my wife who is a nurse took her blood pressure, I gave her two aspirins. Then the anxiety set in. That was enough for me - I called 911.

I live in a town with excellent emergency medical response services. Before I got off the phone with 911, I could hear the sirens roaring up my street. With suspected cases of heart attack, always call an ambulance rather than drive yourself or someone else to the hospital. An emergency medical team could be saving a life on the way to the hospital.

My friend was held overnight for observation to check her blood enzymes, the tell-tale sign of a heart attack. All of her lab work came back negative. All she could do was apologize for ruining my Sunday afternoon and not waiting to see what happened before we'd called the paramedics, etc. That's crazy talk! Wait for what?

There must be something about October. Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I took a ride to the same hospital on a Saturday night. Actually, my date for the evening brought me to Grossmont Hospital for a magical evening in the emergency room. Luckily, I got there within what doctors call "the golden hour." After a successful quadruple by-pass operation, I've been good to go for over ten years. Not everyone is fortunate enough to get a second chance at life.

My sincere sympathies go out to the family and friends of James Beebe, and to everyone who is grieving over the death of a loved one. Do your family a favor. If it has been over a year since your last physical, make a doctor's appointment. The life you save may be your own!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Detroit Public Library - Main Branch

Before I left town on my last trip to Detroit, I made an unexpected stop at the Detroit Public Library on Woodward Avenue, located across from the Detroit Institute of Arts. I had seen the main branch of the library many times from the steps of the museum, sometimes with students in tow and sometimes on visits with family or friends. The main building was constructed in 1921 in the neoclassical style, like many of the government buildings in Washington, DC and around the country.

After my book tour was finished for Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel, I had about a dozen surplus copies I didn't want to take back on the plane to San Diego, so I went over to the library hoping to donate a couple of them for their collection.

I explained my luggage situation, and the librarian at the fiction desk gladly accepted both books. I offered more, but she said maybe an autographed copy that the librarians could pass around would be fine. I walked out to my car, got another novel, and returned.

Seems in the short time it took me to walk out to my rental car, one of the other librarians walked by the fiction desk and saw my novel on the counter. She told the fiction librarian that she had just been reading about Zug Island on her computer, probably my website.

"The author was just here and he should be coming through the front door again any minute now," she was told.

By the time I returned, there were four librarians waiting for me. They were all smiles as I greeted each of them. They wanted to know more about my book and why I wrote it. I went into auto-author mode and gave them a shortened, informal run through of my book talk.

John Norman Collins, aka John Chapman
When they asked me about my next writing project, I told them I was in town doing research on the John Norman Collins - Co-ed Killings of the late Sixties. They showed an avid interest in that subject. Only one of the ladies was old enough to remember these murders. This topic seemed to fascinate them, especially the brutality and cold case aspect of these serial killings.

I want to thank all librarians for being guardians of the printed word, and these librarians in particular, for their kind words of support and encouragement for my success. It was truly unexpected and appreciated.

If that wasn't enough, I imposed on their time once again and asked if they might distribute my remaining ten copies of Zug Island to other branches in their library system. They happily agreed.

As it turned out, I had accumulated so much data and research for my next book, that I paid an extra $50 in overweight baggage charges to take it all home. But it was worth it. I got some great material.

Thanks again, ladies. Meeting and talking with you was one of the high points of my trip back home.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Allen Park Historical Museum

One of the happiest surprises on my recent trip to Michigan was the discovery of the Allen Park Historical Museum, a converted farm house built in 1888, located on Park Ave. in a residential neighborhood. Most of the artifacts in the museum are scattered around the house and belonged to the family who originally lived there.

The museum is a work in progress. It needs some funding support and many volunteer hours to get this place into shape. It has a showcase filled with local police and firefighter memorabilia, there's some interesting military gear, some vintage clothing and furniture, and some rare children's toys, long unused.

The docent of this museum is the great granddaughter of the original owner of the house, who built it during the Victorian period. To give some historical context about the era, this farm house was built the same year as the Jack the Ripper killings in London's East End.

My family moved to Allen Park, a suburban community fifteen miles outside of Detroit, in 1962, the year I entered Allen Park High School as a sophomore. I only lived there for three and a half years before moving to the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, yet I list this place as my hometown.

Recently, I've reacquainted myself with the city and some of my former high school classmates on Facebook and have enjoyed interacting with people I haven't seen or heard from in over forty-five years.

Life and time have separated us, but experience is bringing us back together. Many of us have become parents and are now grandparents; we have prepared, survived, and retired from our careers; and we now have time for other people and for ourselves.

We are lucky in our generation, which has seen more than its share of turbulent history, and we mourn for our family, friends, and colleagues who have passed into the great beyond. I find myself caring about people I barely knew back in the day, and that pleases me.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Remembering The Michigan Murders

My main motivation for flying into Michigan last week was to interview half a dozen people who had first hand knowledge of and experience with John Norman Collins, the alleged Michigan Murders serial killer. It should be remembered that Collins was only convicted of one count of murder; that is what makes this case so enduring in the minds of people familiar with the facts. Once authorities had convicted their man in the Karen Sue Beineman murder, the murders of the other young women went into the cold case files.

My time in Ypsilanti was well-spent. I spoke with a woman who often rode on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle, while he and Collins toured the back country on lazy summer weekends, in an area where all of the young women's bodies were dumped. She left me with several important insights that I've not read or heard before.

Then there is the bike riding buddy, who went with John to "check out" Peter Hurkos, the Danish psychic called in on the case, at his hotel in Ann Arbor. I heard a great story from him, which I'm saving for my book, that I'm certain has never been told before.

I also heard a chilling tale of a young Eastern Michigan University woman who was fixed up on a double date with John Collins. Apparently, they were going to a campus frat party and Collins was withdrawn and sullen. I asked my source to describe her sorority sister: quiet and cute, short brunette hair, slight build, and recently pierced ears. She fit the profile of the murdered women to a tee. This may have been the woman John confessed to, that he didn't believe in the fifth commandment - Thou shall not kill. I am getting her contact information, so I can confirm that when I speak with her.

The next day, I was interviewing someone else over lunch, and I noticed two older ladies sitting adjacent to us in a booth at Haab's, Ypsilanti's oldest and finest restaurant. I overheard them talking about the John Collins case in hushed tones. What a coincidence! I couldn't believe my good fortune, but that will be the subject of another post.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The John Norman Collins House

One of the most surprising and disturbing discoveries on my recent trip to Ypsilanti, Michigan, was that the house where John Norman Collins lived and may have committed unspeakable crimes against young women forty-five years ago, is now occupied by a sorority. I'm told that in 1990-91, a dormitory wing was added to convert the original home, built in 1870, into the Alpha Xi Delta house just south of Eastern Michigan University's campus.

I noticed one of the young women was on the porch getting mail, so I cautiously approached with my researcher, Ryan M. Place from Detroit, who was beside me. "Hello! Can I talk to you for a minute?" I asked.

"Sure," she said.

"Do you know any history of the house you're living in?"

She answered, "I think so.

Then we started talking. Two of her sorority sisters came out and joined us. I told them I was writing a book about the John Norman Collins "Coed Killer" case, and they opened right up to me, a total stranger with a story. I was there with another male, and that didn't send up a red flag.

Considering the subject matter of my research, the serial killing and sexual mutilation of seven young women in Washtenaw County, I would have expected these young women would have been more guarded with me. It bothered me that they weren't.

After examining the case, I don't think John Norman Collins was as clever as many people gave him credit to be; it is just that too many people are naive or stupid. That neighborhood is still murky at night and gives me the creeps to this day. Over this summer, Ann Arbor was plagued with a series of assaults and rapes on young U of M women walking alone at night, on or around campus.

Caution and situational awareness is everybody's business. Women, when you are out in public, predators look for weakness and advantage; then, they choose their moment and killing ground. When you walk or jog alone with ear buds that impair your ability to hear what is going on around you, that sends a flag up that you are vulnerable. Your music or cell phone call can wait.

Walking in high heels also marks you as a potential victim, especially if your are walking alone on a quiet street. The tapping of your heels can announce that you are by yourself, even before a would be attacker has you in his sight. Heels also hamper your ability to flee.

Common sense is your first line of defense. Tune into where you are and what is going on around you. Avoid becoming another statistic.

Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Shadow of the Water Tower

My trip to Ypsilanti, Michigan in September, to research the John Norman Collins Washtenaw County killings, was more productive than I could have imagined. In addition to a wide variety of materials I had gleaned from the internet, my Michigan researcher, Yog Sothoth, presented me with two huge folders of photocopies of virtually every newspaper article written in the state about this case and its aftermath.

After we briefly scanned and discussed his research, Yog and I went to visit the Ypsilanti Archives in that city's historical museum. Once I explained our mission to the archivists, they were falling all over themselves to be helpful.

For some weeks, I had been trying to locate a former English professor of mine from Eastern Michigan University, who was writing a factual account of the murders forty years ago and lent Edward Keyes, the author of The Michigan Murders, his notes on the case.

Unsuccessful in finding the good professor, I mentioned that to George, one of the volunteers at the archives. He told me a retired EMU prof was just here last week researching this very topic.

"His name wasn't Paul McGlynn, was it?"

To make a long story short, George had his email address and contacted him, and McGlynn contacted me. What luck! But not so fast, it seems that my former professor and I are competitors. He still has plans to publish, but our treatments of the subject matter will be materially different. Not bad for my first day of researching in Michigan. 

This case still incites people's interest because five of the seven murders attributed to the "coed killer," from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1969, were left unsolved and are cold case murders. John Norman Collins was arrested and convicted of only a single count of murder for the brutal sex slaying of Karen Sue Beineman.

The rest of my week was devoted to interviewing people who knew John Collins way back when and who were never interviewed. I discovered some very interesting things. Next time....

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Water Tower - Digging up the Past

Hello from Washtenaw County, home of The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. I am in Michigan doing research for my next writing project, which has the working title of The Water Tower. From July of 1967 until July of 1969, a phantom killer left two college campuses in a state of sustained fear and terror.

John Norman Collins is reputed to have tortured, murdered and mutilated seven young woman from the AnnArbor/Ypsilanti area. He was convicted of only one of the murders, but many questions have been left unanswered in the rush to get him off the streets before he could strike again.

There is a strong feeling that Collins did not always act alone. Did he have an accomplice? Is that person still out roaming among us? Surely someone else was at least aware or suspected that Collins might be the guilty party.

And then there are those who believe in the innocence of John Norman Collins after all these years. The suspected psychopath, a clean cut Catholic kid from Centerline, Michigan? It couldn't be.

Several people have come forward with new information regarding this case. There is more story here and I mean to tell it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel?

Several readers of my novel have mentioned that they thought my story would be primarily about the Detroit Riots. From a first-person vantage point, only a slice of that story can be told, which is self-limiting.

I chose to summarize the riots in one chapter with a third-person, documentary style gleaned from the television coverage of the time, not a retrospective. The point of view alternates from first to third person in this chapter.

My novel speaks to the suburban piece of the riot puzzle, which is usually overlooked or simply ignored, and it gives some historical context to help explain Detroit's troubled racial landscape.

For those readers who want more riot material, here is Gordon Lightfoot performing "Black Day in July" with Detroit Riot footage.           

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I'll Have Some Cheeze with That Whine

Had an on-camera author interview for my novel, Zug Island, in LA yesterday. After a lovely afternoon of fighting the Southern Calfornian traffic for three hours from San Diego and finding a parking space near LAX, my time had come.

Lights, camera, sound check, the interviewer was totally unprepared. He must have confused me with someone else he had to interview. He asked me about adapting plays. ??? Good thing I had written one twenty years ago, Crime and Punishment, so I talked about that. Whew! Shall I tell you about the ride home at rush hour on the 405?

Wait!!! It just occurred to me that many people back East have real problems to deal with right now. Many people don't even have a road to drive on this week after hurricane Irene, and many people lost their lives. My apology and sympathy to all those who have suffered this past week. I urge everyone to donate money to the Red Cross and give these people some help.

American Red Cross

Friday, August 26, 2011

Grandma Was Just That Way

Sometime in the late1920's, my grandmother and grandfather moved North from Tennessee looking for work. My grandfather found work at GM. He died before I was born. When I was a youngster in Detroit, I remember my grandmother working at Crowley's Department Store decorating cakes for a living. After she had a stroke on a downtown street after work one day, she was left paralyzed on her right side, so she moved to Arkansas and was attended to by a black woman who was every bit as old as she was.

My brother and I spent several summers on "vacations" with our parents visiting my grandmother in Elaine, Arkansas, in the early sixties. The film, The Help, reminded me of seeing the colored cafes and white-only drinking fountains in the small town.The one movie theater in Elaine had a separate entrance for blacks which led to the balcony. The white kids went through the front door and sat on the ground floor. These things do not exist anymore, but it wasn't that long ago when they did. I can bear witness to it.

Back to my grandmother: she lived in a rickety, clapboard house with wall paper, peeling from the humidity off the nearby Mississippi River. The house was across the street from the area's cotton gin and storage silos, where Uncle Ivo worked as the manager of the operation by day. Throughout the daylight hours, Miss Elizabeth, a black woman in her sixties, waited on my grandmother's beck and call. She was my grandmother's constant companion and attendant, until Uncle Ivo got home from the cotton gin later in the day.

"Just ask Miss Elizabeth for anything you want," my grandmother would say. "She'll make you a sandwich or a milk shake. Whatever you're partial to."

Miss Elizabeth didn't say much, but she smiled a lot. Between taking care of my grandma's personal hygiene needs, and feeding four extra people in the household, she sat quietly off to the side, or in the kitchen, gently rocking while cross stitching samplers or mending old clothes.

Having us there wasn't a bother for her. My mother cooked us dinners while we were there, and Miss Elizabeth could go home early on most days when we were there. She would grab her bag of stuff and trek almost a mile down the road to another house that looked more like a shack, with a houseful of family sitting around, and she was glad to be home. Her only day off was Sunday, which she spent at church with her family and friends.

"I don't know what I'd do without Miss Elizabeth," I remember Grandma saying. "I can't go to church anymore, so she reads the good book to me, and it soothes me."

Reading the Bible was the least of the services Miss Elizabeth performed for her in the course of a long day.

My mother couldn't help but ask. "How much do you pay her?"

"Forty dollars cash a month, under the table, and she's glad to get it."

"That's very reasonable considering everything she does for you, Mother."

"It's a good thing I'm a God fearing Christian woman. Who else would hire an old nigger woman like that?"

What ingratitude! I thought. Even as a kid, I was struck by her matter-of-fact, racist attitude.

But by the standards of her community, in her day, she believed she was being charitable. Sad but true. Well, those days are mostly over, thank goodness.

Not since the novel and the film, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has this ugly reality been depicted with such humanity and humility than in The Help. I urge everyone to see this film while it's still in theaters. It has Oscar written all over it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Help - There Is a Difference Between Service and Servitude

My wife and I saw The Help over the weekend and found it to be a moving and an enjoyable film. It depicts an era in American history which will soon be lost to living memory. I know. I'm getting older and I remember the way it was. My brother and I spent several summers in Arkansas in the early 1960s and saw Jim Crow at work in the sleepy cotton town of Elaine.

To find humor from the black perspective in the South during the Jim Crow days isn't easy, but to find heart, soul, and a relevant message delivered in an impeccable period piece is even rarer. This film portrays upper crust, Southern Americana, with a mud pie and a whipped creme dollop on top! All that chocolate, supporting a fluffy, white confection, an apt metaphor. Brilliant!

This film shows the heart wrenching sacrifices these brave ladies made for their families and the injustices they endured against themselves, in an era when a misplaced look or a muttered word could get you fired or lynched.

The struggle for civil rights has been a long, hard battle in this country, and like all great battles, it is made up of one campaign after another, fought over time across the vast American landscape. It is made up of millions of smaller skirmishes, whose victim's wounds go untended and unredressed.

The dehumanization and intimidation of another human being, to support a corrupt class system, is despicable. For those who say this movie is an exaggeration, open a history book or google the Civil Rights Movement. This film puts a face on the outrage perpetrated against these ladies, and honors every woman who ever put on the maid's starched uniform.

The Help made me remember something sad about my maternal grandmother....

Next time!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Zydeco Culture and Gator by the Bay

The music and dance style that sprang out of West Louisiana, known as zydeco, has its roots in Cajun music and the Cajun two-step jig, also called the Louisiana Limp. In 1755, the English, who now owned Canada, expelled the French Canadians for refusing to pledge allegiance to the English crown. Many of these people migrated to Louisiana and became the Cajun people.

Some say zydeco's roots run deeper than that, all the way to Africa from slaves, who held tightly to their music and culture, and to the Caribbean, with rhythms imported from Haiti after a slave rebellion there. Blend in the influences of Les Gens Libres du Couleur (Free Men of Color) and a unique black culture developed in West Louisiana called Creole.

With the addition of the accordion to establish a vigorous, syncopated rhythm and a metal corrugated rub board (once a common wash board), Creole music took off in another direction and a new sound was born. Then, in the 1950s, a blues player named Clifton Chenier added amplified instruments and recorded his music - zydeco music he called it - the local people loved it and it spread.

Modern zydeco music thrives in big cities and small towns across much of America. There is even a group of zydeco dancers in London, England. The basic sound has evolved and been influenced by pop music, hard rock, rap, reggae, and hip hop. The music has a joyful and happy sound, but it can also be bluesy, soulful, and sad. The rhythm is always vibrant and infectious.

This is music that makes people want to get up and dance. The basic foot movement is slow-quick-quick-slow, with or without a rock step. In California, where there is a strong swing dance influence, many dancers use the rock step like in East Coast Swing. Zydeco is more fundamental than swing dancing and easier to do. That is one reason why it is so popular. A person can get out on the dance floor with very little instruction or practice and have a great time.

For decades, Zydeco music was looked down upon by the New Orleans music establishment as bayou or swamp music. Not until Buckwheat Zydeco and Beau Jocque, and others, started making money, getting radio airplay, drawing big crowds, and getting media attention did they invite their country cousins into the New Orleans musical family. But make no mistake about it, the epicenter of zydeco music is still Lafayette and the surrounding area.

In San Diego, we have an active zydeco dance club named Bon Temps (Good Times) that hosts a weekly dance of zydeco and Cajun music, and on the second Saturday of each month, the club gives free lessons and holds dances with a live band. Some of the bands come from Louisiana, while others are home grown like Theo and the Zydeco Patrol, The Swamp Critters, The Bayou Brothers, and the San Diego Cajun Playboys.

Bon Temps organizes a yearly event every May over Mother's Day weekend called Gator by the Bay, which draws over 6,000 people. It is held on San Diego Bay at Spanish Landing for two full days of music and dancing on two large dance floors. One of the 2,160 square foot dance floors is primarily for Zydeco/Cajun performers and the other is for blues, jazz and contemporary music acts.

There is something for everyone. For a taste of Louisiana, the food court serves up jambalaya, crayfish, gumbo, roast turkey legs, and lots more. Throughout both festival days, dance lessons from top instructors in several styles of dancing are given for free.

Not a bad way to spend Mother's Day.  Put the Gator by the Bay festival on your calendar for May 2012. You'll be glad you did. This is a family friendly event.

Laissez les bon temp rouler!


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Take Me Back To The Sixties

Take Me Back To The Sixties

As close to being there again as I dare get! Enjoy it along with me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 3 - The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

A wonderful surprise on the last stop of my Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel book tour in Detroit was The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on E. Warren Ave. This awesome building sits nicely on a landscaped city block, flanked by the Detroit Institute of Arts on one end and adjacent to the Detroit Science Center on another. For people who think modern architecture lacks style and passion, they need to see this unique museum. This building is just one of a number of signs that this city is far from defeated.

The museum has two levels crowned by an eye catching glass and steel dome which covers the Ford Freedom Rotunda on the upper level. The dome illuminates the Ring of Genealogy centered beneath it on the floor. The ring is comprised of brass tiles engraved with the names of notable African-Americans from American history. The General Motors Theater, the Museum Store, the Research Library, and the four exhibit areas radiate from this expansive, circular public area.
The lower level is dedicated primarily to the museum’s educational mission with classrooms, an Orientation Theater, a large Multipurpose Room, and an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen Project. The museum cafĂ© is also on this level.  This is one of the best museums I’ve been to in the United States. It was an honor to speak here about about my novel, Zug Island. Many thanks to the museum staff for being so helpful and making me feel welcome.

In addition to its museum and education functions, this venue can be hired out for business, corporate, public, or private gatherings with a full array of services. The Charles H. Wright Museum is truly a community resource and a welcome addition to Detroit’s long overdue recovery. For more details, check out their website at

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Michigan Mania - The Ann Arbor Art Fair

On my recent trip to Michigan to promote my novel, Zug Island, I stopped by the Ann Arbor Art Fair held annually in July on the University of Michigan campus. I hadn't been there in over thirty years, so I was anxious to go again.

Despite a punishing heat wave and threats of thunderstorms, the crowds braved the weather and made Michigan's premier art event a success once again. Artists from all over the country come to display and sell their art work, their crafts, and their unique clothing.

"The Ann Arbor Art Fair is my biggest venue of the year," says Jan Kaulins, a  photographer and print artist from Manitou Beach, Michigan. "This is my busiest time and most important event; I've been coming here for longer than I care to admit."

This sample of his work, "Liberty and State - Ann Arbor," was created from nine individual bracketed digital exposures which produced this high dynamic range photograph. The subjects of much of his work feature Michigan and Detroit sights accented with his distinctive flair for color.
If my memory serves me right, the art work and displays at the Ann Arbor Art Fair have always been top notch, but one thing is definitely better than I remember from the past - the food. The variety and quality of the ethnic fare was better than many sit down restaurants I've been to lately. I can't wait to come back again.

Michigan Artist - Jan Kaulins- link

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 2 - Zug Island, the Firemen, and the Police

A couple of days before my first book talk, I decided to cruise the Detroit Riot areas and look at the current state of some of the neighborhoods. There are still signs of the devastation, but much of the area has been cleaned up, the vacant lots awaiting reinvestment and redevelopment, thanks to Detroit mayor, Dave Bing.

One area I drove through was old Delray, now, all but a fading memory. Most of the buildings have been razed, but so have some of the rust belt industries. The Solvey Chemical works has been taken out, and Scott Paper is no longer there, but Zug Island's blast furnaces still dominate the skyline and the olfactory senses. One of the blast furnaces continues to operate, and coke oven battery #5 still belches out smoke and steam like clockwork.

In the past, I've been denied official admittance to the island to do research for my novel. I took another approach this time. Driving up to the security booth, I rolled down my car's window and waited for someone to come out of the shack. When I showed the security guard a postcard with my novel's cover and title on it, I knew I had his interest. By this time, a second guard wanted to see what was taking soon long. I pitched my novel for three minutes and they agreed to pass out a bunch of bookmarks for me at the plant. Then I turned the car around and left. If nothing else, my visit will generate some conversation.

Fresh from that success, I saw the only building still open for business in Delray, the local fire station. It struck me that the fire fighters are part of the Detroit riot story, so I walked into the fire hall. A fireman took me in to talk with the chief in his air conditioned office. "What's it about?" the chief asked.

Delray Firehouse #29
"That monstrosity across the street," I answered. I gave them my mini-pitch, which they were very interested in. They agreed to put some of my bookmarks in their mail room. The chief suggested I go to the area's main station house at the Southwestern Safety Center.

"Joe over there is crazy about anything having to do with Detroit. You should go over there."

The center has a police station next to the parking lot, so I went in there first with the same story. By now, I perfected my pitch. They took some bookmarks and wished me well. The fire hall was on the opposite side of the building, so I walked around and found someone polishing the chrome on a fire truck. "Hey!" I said. But before I got too far into my pitch, the fireman said, "Come into our lunchroom. The guys are eating back there."

Former party store and soda shop.
Six or seven firefighters were waiting around for the next emergency run. "Hey! This guy is an author and he wants to talk to you." At that, they all stopped what they were doing and politely listened. I left the rest of my promotional materials there with them. What an interesting day in the neighborhood!

I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to try and find the house I spent the first five years of my life in. I hadn't been back to the old place since we moved out in 1953, but it wasn't far from Zug Island. As I drove down Oakwood Blvd, I recognized a brick building and turned right. Then I saw the old soda shop on the corner of our street. It was now boarded up but not burned down. I remember my grandmother buying my younger brother and me penny candy there, and if she had enough extra change, she bought us ice cream cones too.

Home Sweet Home
I turned left and found our address--444 Bayside St. There it was, a vacant lot. All of the homes on this short, three block street were intact and lived in--but ours.

Sometimes, it is too late to go back home. Still, I can't believe I found the spot after fifty-eight years. What I wouldn't give for one of those ice cream cones now.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 1 - Duffield Public Library

Thomas Wolfe once wrote, "You Can't Go Home Again." I just returned from Detroit, and I wanna tell you, he was wrong. After more years than I care to admit, I flew into my hometown for a Zug Island mini-book tour and was warmly greeted with courtesy by everyone I came in contact with.

Detroit's Duffield Public Library on West Grand Blvd. was my first stop. It was 100 degrees outside and even warmer in the almost 100 year old building. An African-American woman in her fifties, walking on a wooden cane, braved the heat and climbed a flight of stairs where it was even warmer, just to hear me speak about the Detroit Riots of 1967.

I'm not going to kid you, this woman took me to school on the Detroit Riots. She was fascinating as she reminisced about being a twelve year old girl at the time.

"I was standing on my front porch watching people running towards the stores and others riding new bicycles in the opposite direction. I ran in the house and yelled up the landing to my mother. 'Mom! Why are all those kids riding new bikes?' She came down and looked out the front door; then she locked it. It stayed that way for a week. I remember it. It was hot, like today."

When my presentation was over, we kept talking as we carefully walked down the stairs and the ramp onto the steamy boulevard. My rental car was parked right in front of the library. "Can I take you anywhere?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I have a bus pass."

"I have new air conditioning and comfortable seats."

I think I made a friend. She needed to go across town to the main branch of the post office on Fort St., and she told me wonderful stories about the city as we drove through Detroit's almost deserted streets. She pointed out the new Motown housing development with streets named after Motown acts and stars. She told me about the gambling palaces that cleaned out some of the slums and then fleeced the people.

"You know," she said, "there are more churches in Detroit than anyplace."

"No. I didn't know that," I said as we arrived at the post office.

She thanked me for the ride and the conversation. I hadn't felt this connected to the city in over forty years. I am sad to say that I don't even know the lady's name. I hope she likes my novel.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Blast from the Past

I received an interesting letter the other day from a college friend of mine with a forty year old, yellowed news clipping in it dated March 15th, 1971. Our university newspaper, The Eastern Echo, interviewed me about a poetry reading I was about to give, my first of two. I had forgotten about it.

There I am in a photograph, twenty-two years old and looking gaunt, with my trusty companion, Blitz, who is wondering when we are going for our walk. I'm spouting off about one thing or another. The reporter asked me if I was going to pursue a writing career.

"It's something I'd like to do. If I can make a living at it, I will; if not, I'll do something else. Eventually, I'd like to write longer works like novels, but I don't have the control over my writing I'd like to have."

After thirty-seven years of teaching English language arts and literature, a great preparation for a writing career, I've finally written that novel, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel, and seen it through the publication process. It was a long time coming.

Prompted by that article, I dug out some of the poetry I wrote back then and read it with a mixture of amusement and humility. In retrospect, all that comes to mind is what a pretentious twit I was. But one poem in particular has withstood the test of time.


Looking back,
I saw my footprints
Glow and then melt
in the sand.

Washed away
by the metronomic mix
of breeze and sea,
It rushed at me.

Time doesn't pass in anything so glorious or regal as a "winged chariot," it is measured in the silent footfalls we make as we walk through life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Far Seems Shangri-La Now?

Being an author is something I've wanted to do since I was in junior high school. I spent more time in the bookmobile than on the sports field. One rainy Sunday in April, I began reading James Hilton's Lost Horizon and I was hooked. It wasn't a huge novel, and I read it in one day. But it was full of wonderful ideas and strange places to an eighth grader from Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

The novel touched the Shangri-La of my heart and soul. It wasn't until I was older, an English teacher as a matter of fact, that I discovered that this simple novel, which spoke to me on a personal level at age thirteen, was a cautionary and prophetic warning about the coming of World War II, or more accurately, the continuation of World War I. If you haven't read it, do! The restored version of the Ronald Coleman movie is marvelous as well.

Almost fifty years after my first reading of Hilton's classic, I've finally authored and published my own book, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel. I start a summer book tour in Detroit next week. My hope is that I can move readers the way I was moved by Hilton's words those many years ago.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

When the Concert Hall Met Tin Pan Alley at the Globe Theater

The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego continues to produce quality shows, season after season. Last week, I was fortunate to usher one of the final performances of George Gershwin Alone before Hershey Felder, author and performer, retires his one-man show Sunday, July 10th, 2011. He has toured with this show for the last fifteen years, but the performance is not lost to posterity, it has been preserved on video for future broadcasts. Hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" performed live was a moving experience.

Hershey Felder has performed on Broadway, at London’s West End, and over 150 theaters worldwide. He has been a Scholar in Residence at Harvard and is married to Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. The man can teach, write, act, perform concert music, and charm audiences with his easy manner and polished performances.

Collaborating for the fourth time with director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Hershey Felder brings his latest work to the Globe stage: Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein on July 22nd through August 28th. I am looking forward to ushering this one in a few weeks. George Gershwin Alone and Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein are the last two shows (or movements) in a sonata of four one-man shows called “The Composer Sonata.” Two years ago, I saw the first two shows (movements). Beethoven As I knew Him, the first movement, followed by the intermediate romantic movement, Monsieur Chopin. I will have seen the entire “The Composer Sonata” performed live by its creator. What a thrill!

Don’t miss this show if you are going to be in San Diego this summer and you are a lover of fine music and virtuoso performances. Felder is a musical genius.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Computer Violation

Ever felt seduced and abandoned, even after you've loaned someone money? If the computer is an extension of the central nervous system, then I've been having a nervous breakdown for about a week. There were signs that things weren't right, but I didn't see them; finally my brain flat lined on Monday. Yes, my computer died. It clicked and stuttered before it seemed to say, "You know, it's over between us."

I took it to Office Depot where they "backed up my data" and sold me a bunch of services I didn't need. Finally, when they wanted to put on a gigs worth of more memory, rather than tell me a six year old computer with Windows XP isn't worth upgrading, I said, "Enough."
I felt like the Beaver: "Hey, Wally. Is Eddie giving me the business?"

So I took the computer to a better place, the Santee Recycling Center, and started all over again. My new computer has a burly one terabyte of memory on the hard drive, so I'm back in business.

Everything was going along smoothly until I took the thumb drive of my data, that Office Depot had "saved" for me, and entered it into the new computer. There was no address book, no bookmarks, and no emails on it. Nada! Stripped clean.  "#%$*!!!"

This time around, I got smart. I bought a new computer with Windows 7, and I purchased an off sight backup and recovery service. Over this Independence Day weekend, I plan to recover as many email addresses as I can and contemplate how dependent we have all become on rampant technology.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Santee Lakes, continued...

Endangered Wood Duck
The beautiful park, with its seven stepped recreational lakes flowing one into the other, is what the general public sees. But the park is only one aspect of the Santee Water Reclamation Project, which began in 1959. Further north, up into Sycamore Canyon, the business of waste water recycling begins.

Used water from Santee residences, not sewage, is pumped into the water reclamation plant where excess flow and sludge is diverted and sent to the San Diego Metro System. The "gray" water is routed to a series of three stabilization ponds with a combined capacity of 40 million gallons. The water, with the help of gravity, works it way through eleven percolation beds, 400 feet long which drain into a French drain.

From there, the water is treated in a chlorination station before it is released into the first of the seven man-made recreational lakes. Once the water works its way through the park, it is pumped into the City of Santee's irrigation system which feeds the commercial Town Center area and also irrigates the Carleton Oaks Country Club.

Historically, many of the American West's worst conflicts were over water rights. That was true 100 years ago, and it's true today. Water Rights is still one of the most contentious issues among the Western states.

Santee Lakes is a successful role model for water conservation with its three use system: household, recreation, and landscape. Check out A&E's Modern Marvels: "Water Conservation" for more information. Saving water is everybody's business because every drop is precious, that's why I'm proud to support my water department's conservation efforts.