I want his head. I want to put it…where should I put Edgar Allan Poe’s head? The mantle is traditional, I suppose. It would probably look silly in the kitchen, next to the coffee maker or on top of the refrigerator. I don’t have to decide now; there’s probably plenty of time to figure that out.
But I want his head. I’m not entirely sure I deserve it, but I won it, fair and square. Really. Last night I won the 2023 Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Short Story. There are probably a lot of benefits that come with winning the award, but the one that has me most excited is Edgar’s head. You get (or at least I’m reliably informed you get) a small bust of Poe’s noggin. How cool is that? Very cool, is how cool.
I was curious about the actual size of Edgar’s head (that statuette’s head, not his actual head), so I googled it. And right there, first page, was a photo of Stephen Goddamn King with an Edgar in his hands. So, not exactly life-size (again, I’m talking about Edgar’s head, not Stephen King’s, which I’m pretty confident is life-size), but still.
Winning an Edgar is really a rather big deal, at least in the world of mystery and detective fiction. There’s a large, enthusiastic, deeply engaged community of folks who love mystery and detective fiction. Writers, would-be writers, fans–they create and join book clubs, reading groups, fan clubs, professional organizations. Groups like the Mystery Writers of America (who sponsor the Edgar awards), Sisters in Crime, and the Private Eye Writers of America–groups that feed and nurture that community. These groups are invaluable.
The thing is, though, I’m not really an active part of that community. I have a lot of respect for it; I’m terribly glad it exists and I benefit from its existence. But aside from writing detective stories, I haven’t contributed to it. I’m just not a joiner. I’m not even a member of MWA, but nevertheless they’re still generously offering me Edgar Allan Poe’s head. That makes me seem a tad ungrateful and vaguely misanthropic, although I’m not. In fact, I’m very grateful and I’m pretty damned anthropic.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m a pretty good writer. But there are a LOT of pretty good writers out there (including all the other nominees for Best Short Story). The thing is (in case you were wondering what the thing is), pretty good writers are nothing without a venue for good writing. And I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with two of the best magazines for mystery and detective fiction.
Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazines are two separate, independent magazines owned by the same publishing corporation. They are incredibly welcoming to writers, especially new writers. Without them, I’d just be an odd guy sitting in a room making shit up and putting words in a row.
If you have any aspiration to write short mystery or detective fiction, I encourage you to submit your work to either of these magazines. They may not buy your work, but they’ll treat you right. And hey, you might just get a shot at collecting Edgar Allan Poe’s head.
A few years ago, on a cloudy, rainy day, I was taking an idle stroll along the riverwalk in Des Moines and I came across a guy sitting on the steps. We chatted for a bit about nothing in particular. As I was leaving, I stopped and asked if I could take his photograph. He said “You gonna make me look sad or stupid?” I said, “Are you sad or stupid?” and he snorted and said “I sure am.” That’s when I took his photo. When I asked his name, he said “I’m just a guy sitting by the river.”
I talk to strangers. I like talking to strangers. I like meeting new people and learning something about them. Granted, most of my conversations with strangers are casually superficial, so it’s not like I’m learning anything important or meaningful about them or their lives. But the simple fact of meeting and having an idle conversation with random strangers tells me something about humanity in general.
And this is what I’ve learned: most people are pretty much okay.
This guy (points up), for example. He’d just bought a bunch of outdated science booklets for kids, and he was happy and excited about them. To me, they looked like badly illustrated pamphlets depicting decades-old information about science. But his enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself actually interested in the best 1960s approach to dealing with prairie dog overpopulation.
Is that information useful? Nope, not even remotely. But I love knowing that somewhere out in the world is a guy who can give a logical, sincere, and passionate defense of relying on natural predation instead of poison to deal with what ranchers consider vermin.
Every stranger I’ve met has a story. They’re not all true, of course. I don’t think that matters. Mickey (above) told me he was a disabled veteran. And who knows, maybe he was. He had a Marine Corps emblem on his jacket but his cap said 101st Airborne, which is a division of the Army. He was using a hand-carved walking stick, which I admired–and that’s how we struck up a short conversation. It was too chilly outside to chat for very long, and as we parted I gave him a quick salute–which he returned.
Here’s a True Thing: in basic military training, they literally teach you how to salute. How to hold your hand and wrist, the proper position of your upper arm, the correct incline of your elbow. They make you practice this over and over until it becomes automatic. Mickey didn’t know how to perform a proper salute. Does that mean he was lying about himself? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, I don’t think it matters. His story didn’t have to be true; it still told me something about what he believed and who he’d like to be and what he finds important.
I met James on a hot summer day, sitting under a bridge. I was riding my bike, he was sitting in the cool shade drinking something in a brown paper bag. I stopped to get a drink from my water bottle. We discussed the heat, of course, but James also told me he worked at a nearby theme park; he liked to get away from the noise and the people, and the bridge was within walking distance. It was relatively quiet, cool, and it gave him a bit of what he called “down time.” You could tell James had been around a long, hard block–probably more than once–but he had a weird sort of muted raffish elegance about him. The careful way he trimmed his facial hair, his necklace, his sunglasses, his ornate tattoos–it’s as much about who he wants to be as who he is. And who knows–maybe he actually is who he wants to be.
Meeting strangers is easy; they’re everywhere. But it’s getting a wee bit more difficult to get them to talk. People are increasingly suspicious of strangers. I guess I can’t blame the guy in the photo above for being suspicious. It was a cold, foggy morning. I was riding my bike; he was walking a bike. So I stopped to ask him if he was okay, if he needed help with his bike. He hesitated, then said, “I’m okay; I live nearby.” I told him I had a small tool kit in my bike bag and I’d be happy to help if I could. He shook his head. He was clearly uneasy, so I let it go. Instead, I asked if I could take his photo. He asked, “Why?” I said something about his yellow hoodie and the fog, which probably didn’t make any sense to him. But he said, “Okay.” I took his photo, wished him good luck, and went on my way.
I wondered later if maybe the guy didn’t want me reaching into my bike bag. Maybe he thought I carried a gun there. Some people do. On one cycling forum I follow, there are lots of discussions about self-protection on bikes. People are afraid they’ll be attacked as they ride or when they stop, afraid they’ll maybe get bike-jacked. A lot of those fearful people have opted to bike armed.
Scared people are the last people who should be carrying firearms. But we now live in a world in which wrong-place shootings take place on an alarmingly regular basis. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that somebody will get shot for being on a bike in the wrong place at the wrong time (assuming it hasn’t already happened somewhere). The fact that a term like ‘wrong-place shooting‘ even exists is an indictment against our society. I’d argue one of the reasons we have wrong-place shootings is because fewer people are willing to talk to strangers. All day every day there’s a ‘news’ station that injects fear porn directly into the veins of its viewers. They tell folks that ‘others’ are out to get them, to take their stuff, to molest their children, to break into their homes, to take away their rights, to destroy their religion, to confiscate their guns. Of course, they’re frightened.
This is Kent. I met him on a cold, foggy morning too. He was walking the streets, sweeping up the trash other people (and their dogs) left behind. He’d been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. I asked him about his work. He said, “It’s not a bad job. I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’d learned which business owners were nice, which ones ignored him like he wasn’t there, which ones were rude. He wouldn’t identify any of the rude ones. Kent said there were about a dozen people who worked cleaning up the downtown area. He thought most of his co-workers were okay; a couple were lazy and some complained about the weather, but basically they were good, decent people. He knew most of the people he met on the street didn’t appreciate his work, but he said clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He wouldn’t say his job was important, but it was clear he felt he was doing something worthwhile.
These are just a half dozen of the many strangers I’ve talked to in recent years. All of them have been interesting in some way. All of them are connected in some way, if only by a shared community or a shared humanity. And I like to feel I’m connected to them as well. A guy feeling sad and stupid sitting by the river, a guy excited about science for kids, a guy who maybe lied about his past, a guy sitting quietly under a bridge, a nervous guy afraid to ask for or accept help, and a guy who gets up every morning and tries to make city life a little bit better. These people–these strangers–have enriched my life.
We don’t have to live in fear and isolation. We don’t have to be afraid of strangers. At the risk of sounding hopelessly like a Pollyanna, I truly believe the world would be a lot better place–and we’d all be a lot more relaxed–if we’d just take a few moments and talk to a stranger.
“The truth matters.” That’s from Justin Nelson, one of the attorneys representing Dominion Voting Systems. “Lies have consequences,” Nelson said. “Today represents a ringing endorsement for truth and for democracy,” according to that same Nelson.
Yeah, that’s mostly bullshit.
Yes, the truth matters. Can’t find any reason to disagree with that. And yes, lies have consequences. But Dominion’s agreement to settle the case just reinforces the ugly truth that if you can afford the consequence, you get to keep right on lying. That’s the truth that matters.
A ringing endorsement for truth and democracy? Nope. A ringing endorsement for taking the cash and running. A ringing endorsement for selling out democracy. A ringing endorsement for the belief that heavy pockets are more important than representative democracy. A ringing endorsement for the very worst aspects of capitalism.
The ONLY thing that actually happened yesterday was shifting a fuck-ton of money from one corporation to another. That’s it. Fox News may have to fork over a massive amount of cash to Dominion, but they still get to stay in the business of lying and undermining democracy. Dominion gets a big payday. The American people get…well, Fox News.
It’s true that the lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems represented the interests of DVS and not the interest of representative democracy. They had absolutely no legal or ethical obligation to defend the US against growing fascism and the normalization of lying. I wouldn’t be so bitter about this decision if they’d just be honest about it. Admit they settled for a gigantic wad of cash; don’t try to pass this settlement off as an endorsement of democracy. Because that’s as big a lie as any told by Fox News.
This is how democracy dies. Not in darkness, but right out in broad fucking daylight while corporations smile and shake each other’s hand.
Jesus suffering fuck. This is Commissioner Mark Jennings and Sheriff Kevin Clardy of McCurtain County, Oklahoma having a chat about how just completely awful it’s been for them to be deprived of the right to hang black guys down at Mud Creek.
You may be wondering how not being able to just randomly hang black folks down at Mud Creek–or any other creek, for that matter–gives black folks MORE rights. Apparently it’s because you can’t do that anymore.
I should point out that the lowest geological spot in the entire state of Oklahoma is located in McCurtain County. So is the lowest moral and ethical spot. Also? The only documented area of Oklahoma that falls within the natural range of the American alligator is in McCurtain County. Some of them may hold elective office.
I’m something of a news junkie. Every morning, first thing, I read the news (well, among the first things–I mean, there’s coffee to be made and all that). I want to know what’s happening in the world. And that brings me to Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who said this:
“If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth. If you don’t have truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality. We can’t solve any problems. We have no democracy.”
This is pretty basic stuff. A society ought to be able to trust news journalists to present reliable facts. Beyond that, we ought to be able to trust news commentators to present opinions they actually hold. We should be able to assume that any person employed to present facts or opinions are NOT LYING.
And that brings me to this: tomorrow is the first day of the trial in the defamation lawsuit brought against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion is suing Fox News for allowing its commentators to tell lies about them. This is a big deal.
Look, we all know Fox News is bullshit. We all know the evening commentators act as the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. We all know Fox News ‘personalities’ like Maria Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Piro, and Sean Hannity aren’t journalists; Fox lawyers have admitted as much in court. But this case isn’t really about journalism. It’s about defamation.
Defamation is false information that harms the reputation of a person, business, or organization. Fox News commentators spent a big chunk of time after the 2020 election claiming that Dominion Voting Systems 1) was deeply involved in election fraud, 2) had developed an algorithm that somehow rigged vote counts, 3) was owned by a company founded in Venezuela to rig elections (for socialist dictator Hugo Chávez–seriously, I’m NOT making that up), and also 4) paid kickbacks to government officials.
Guess what? That was all bullshit. Also guess what? The people spreading that bullshit KNEW it was bullshit when they spread it. The judge in the case, Eric M. Davis, in pre-trial hearings, has already stated that those claims were all total bullshit (although, to be fair, he didn’t actually use the term ‘bullshit’). He wrote that it was “crystal clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.”
But wait, there’s more. Because it’s all bullshit, Judge Davis has also ruled that Fox News can’t argue their ‘contributors’ were simply covering the news (because bullshit ain’t legit news). He further ruled that Fox can’t argue the bullshit could be considered the First Amendment-protected opinions, because there’s plenty of pre-trial evidence demonstrating the hosts KNEW it was bullshit and they didn’t believe it themselves.
So cased closed, right? Fox News loses, right? Dominion wins, right?
Well, yes and no. The jury will have to listen to all the dreary facts; they’ll have to listen to the Fox News commentators testify under oath that they knew they were lying to their viewers (and reader, that testimony is going to be as sweet as Tupelo honey). And THEN the real meat of the case will be presented.
Just to be clear, let me say this again: there’s NO QUESTION that the Fox News commentators were lying sacks of shit. That’s not even at issue. What’s at issue is this: Damages. The jury has to decide if Fox News, by lying and spreading bullshit about Dominion Voting Systems, caused severe damage to the company’s reputation. IF they find Dominion was damaged, then the jury has to decide whether the damage was the result of actual malice.
Actual malice is a legal term of art. Back in 1964, in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, SCOTUS defined actual malice as a statement made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” That matters because this is where it all comes down to money.
There are two types of civil damages: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are intended to help the victim; punitive damages, obviously, are intended to punish the offender.
Assuming the jury finds Fox News liable (which ought to be a safe assumption, but you never know when a jury is involved), they’ll first have to decide how much Fox should pay Dominion to compensate for the damage to their business. Then they’ll have to decide if Fox News should be punished financially for deliberately spreading bullshit to the public, and if so, how much.
And that brings us back once again to Maria Ressa. Because Fox News wasn’t just harming Dominion Voting Systems; they were–and still are–harming representative democracy. They’re harming this entire nation. If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth. If you don’t have truth, you can’t have trust. If you lack trust and truth and facts, you can’t solve society’s problems and you can’t have representative democracy. If you allow a major media platform to deliberately and knowingly spread lies and bullshit to a wide audience, you shred the fabric of society.
And that’s really hard to mend. Compensation for the damage done isn’t enough; punishment is necessary.
The photograph below shows a pair of bloodroot blossoms, one of the first flowering plants we see at the beginning of morel season. It doesn’t look at all bloody, does it. The sap, however, is generally orange to bright red. It’s sometimes used by native artists as a dye. The sap is also somewhat poisonous; eating bloodroot probably wouldn’t kill you, but it would certainly make you vomit like a high school drunk.
What’s cool about bloodroot, though, is the way it’s disseminated. The flowers produce pollen, but no nectar–which means all those bees and flies that land on the blossoms foraging for nectar are getting scammed. They’re helping pollinate the plant, but they aren’t getting jack in return.
But what’s really cool is that the seeds of bloodroot are spread by ants. That’s right, ants. The seeds have a fleshy organ–an elaiosome–that ants fucking love. They take the bloodroot seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes off them, then chuck out the seeds with the other ant trash and nest debris. Ant trash turns out to be a terrific medium for germinating seeds.
The process of ants foraging seeds for their tasty elaiosomes, then getting rid of the useless seeds in ant trash middens is called myrmechory. It’s from the Greek term for ants (mýrmēks) and a circular form of Greek dancing called khoreíā. The ants don’t actually dance in circles, of course, though they probably could if they wanted to. Who’s going to stop them? The important thing, though, is myrmechory works. It’s great for the ants, who get a scrumptious treat, and for the bloodroot, which gets dispersed across a wider range.
Of course, bees and flies and other pollen-seeking winged foragers get completely fucked over, which probably adds to the enjoyment of the elaiosome-eating ants. I’m okay with that. I mean, bees get to fly, after all; they get a temporary pardon from gravity. Hard to blame ants for being a wee bit envious and taking some small pleasure out of seeing the winged bastards get stiffed.
You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.
In 1861 our boy Wilmer was a successful merchant and farm owner. He was happily married to the former Virginia Mason (a wealthy widow). They had a young child and lived in a nice house on a good piece of farmland near Manassas, Virginia. Life was good. At least it should have been. It would have been, except for the brewing civil war.
In April of that year, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard had been appointed a general in the newly formed Confederate Army and assigned to defend the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Beauregard’s artillery assault on the Union Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor were the first shots fired in the American Civil War. By July, Beauregard was placed in command of Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and he needed a place to establish his headquarters.
So one fine summer day, there was a knock on Wilmer’s door. An aide to Gen. Beauregard politely let him know his farm–his home and his barn–were being commandeered. Wilmer wasn’t happy about it, but as a young man he’d served in the Virginia Militia; he understood that sacrifices had to be made. So he and his family abandoned their farm while the first major land battle of the Civil War–the Battle of Bull Run–was fought on his farm.
Not surprisingly, the McLean home and barn were both damaged during the battle. Beauregard liked to tell the story of how his dinner in the house was interrupted by a Union cannonball coming through McLean’s fireplace. Still, Wilmer and his family returned to the farm after the battle and remained on the farm for another year–until the Second Battle of Bull Run. At that point, Wilmer said, “Fuck this.” He packed up his family (his poor wife was pregnant again) and they moved a hundred miles south to a small quiet town in Southern Virginia, where the war wouldn’t interfere too much with his life.
And hey, it worked. Mostly. By 1865, our boy Wilmer had been living as quiet a life as one possibly could in a nation torn apart by a long, brutal civil war. He was 51 years old; he and his family had a nice house and he was making a fairly decent living as a merchant and a sugar broker for the Confederate Army.
But then, on this very day, April 9th, there was another knock on Wilmer’s door. Charles Marshall was an aide to another Confederate general–Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Marshall wanted our boy Wilmer to show him a house suitable for a meeting between Lee and another general. Given his previous unfortunate experience with Confederate generals, Wilmer showed Marshall a couple of ramshackle houses. Marshall rejected them. After a bit of pressure, Wilmer reluctantly agreed to let Gen. Lee use his own house for the meeting.
The meeting, of course, turned out to be between Lee and Gen. Ulysses Grant, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. During that meeting, held in Wilmer’s parlor, Lee agreed to surrender his army, essentially ending all major combat operations in the Civil War. It was all very quiet, very formal, very somber.
But once the surrender was signed and Lee had ridden away, the Union officers wanted souvenirs of the historic event. They began helping themselves to various household items–tables, chairs, lamps, whatever was at hand. It wasn’t exactly looting; many of them actually paid Wilmer for the items they took. But as before, Wilmer had no choice in the matter. In 1861, the Union Army damaged his property with artillery; in 1865, they did it by hand. War doesn’t spare civilians.
The end of the war also brought the end of Wilmer’s career as a merchant and sugar broker. He was eventually forced to sell his house and move his family back to his boyhood home of Alexandria, where he found a job with the Internal Revenue Service.
Wilmer McLean liked to say the Civil War began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. It’s a good line. That good line was the only good thing our boy Wilmer got from the war.
You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.