This land was made for you and me

In doing research for a book that deals with property rights, I came across this missing verse from Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song, “This Land is Your Land.”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1940. The earliest known recording of the song (a March 1944 version now part of the Smithsonian collection) includes the verse. Subsequent versions omit it.

What do you make of that?

Playing it safe

The National Association of Realtors has been at the forefront of promoting agent safety. The organization’s Realtor Safety Program website offers several resources for agents as well as background on why a personal safety plan is important. It also provides a context for buyers and sellers who may see some of these precautions as inconvenient or unnecessary.

One of the most accessible tools on the site is the video “Real Estate, Safety, and You,” through which consumers can learn about the safety protocols they may encounter when working with an agent.

(In Curb Appeal, fictional real estate agent CW McCoy breaks it down into the Three C’s: set the initial client meeting in the office, copy their drivers’ licenses and, when showing the property, never get cornered.)

 

 

 

Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.

The final frontier

George Diller, the voice of NASA’s launch control, provided the commentary for many of NASA’s missions, from the space shuttle to the probes to Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. I interviewed the former Sarasota, Florida resident in 1978 and again a few years ago, just as the shuttle program was ending. This week, Diller announced he has embarked on his final frontier–retirement. Here is my latest interview with him.

He is the voice of launch control. When the space shuttle takes off in a blaze of fire, the sound you hear over the roar of the rockets is George Diller, a former radio journalist turned spokesperson for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I met Diller nearly forty years ago on a runway at the Kennedy Space Center, at the dawn of the space shuttle program, when women and men dreamed of space flight as routine as taking the train to work. As a journalist I’d landed in Florida to cover the construction of the first shuttle that would fly into space, the orbiter Columbia. Diller, a contract public relations specialist assigned to show me the inner workings of KSC, gave me a glimpse at that future, and the vehicle that would take us there.

After thirty years we met again, this time by phone, for an interview about the legacy of the space shuttle program and the future of human space flight.

JW: When people write the history of the space shuttle program, what will they say?

GD: I think it will be recalled as a storied program because the space shuttle has had so many different roles and mission objectives during the thirty years it’s been flying. Initially we looked at it as something that would take everything into space, both commercial payloads as well as NASA’s planetary spacecraft. At that time the International Space Station was still on the drawing boards.

The shuttle started by taking a combination of payloads, commercial payloads on a cost-reimbursable basis and then the other things that NASA wanted to put in low-earth orbit. As a stepping stone to the International Space Station we had Spacelab, designed to lay the groundwork for the space station. Some of our most historic payloads were deployed from the space shuttle bay, and they included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo probe to Jupiter, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Ulysses mission to the sun.

After we resumed flying after the Challenger accident we had a very different objective. We looked to one day commercializing the space shuttle. We would move to the moon or Mars, leaving the private sector to do the lower-orbit missions. That is almost exactly what will happen under President Barack Obama’s mission. The Columbia accident also caused us to think of what the long term mission of the shuttle would be. We divested ourselves of the idea that the shuttle would be a commercial vehicle we could launch every two weeks, more as a delivery truck, and doing space science missions as well. We took it back to being a research-and-development spacecraft.

There are three more launches, including the one on May 14. The final launch will be in November but we’re still talking about one after that.

JW: What is the legacy of the shuttle program?

GD: The space shuttle gave NASA and human space flight the flexibility to do things that no other vehicle had done. Because of the size of the shuttle and the volume of payloads it could take into space, nothing else we can see can haul things that weight as much or are as outsized. The shuttle gave us a capability that we never had before and won’t have in the future.

JW: What has the shuttle program contributed to science and society?

GD: That’s what Spacelab was all about. We wanted to prove the kind of science we wanted to do on the International Space Station, in terms of developing new pharmaceuticals, computer substrates and metals. We were also testing whether humans could survive in space for long periods of time—six months or more. That has spun off to us here on the ground. We can take full advantage of that scientific and commercial innovation.

JW: You’re one of the voices of the launch of the shuttle. How do you feel when it takes off?

GD: For me it’s not much different than it was thirty years ago when we launched the first one. It is such an awesome feeling to see that power, to hear the sound and feel its effect on your chest. The visual effect is particularly alluring during a night launch. It is still thrilling to watch, fascinating and breathtaking.

JW: How do you feel when it’s coming in for a landing?

GD: It’s pretty neat to watch if it’s in the daytime. You see it coming overhead like a silver streak. It’s dropping like a rock, extremely fast. As the wheels come down and the parachute comes out you’re dropping from thousands of miles an hour to about 200 miles an hour in a few minutes. When it goes by it sounds just like a jet.

JW: Do you get anxious when the shuttle comes in for a landing?

GD: I feel like we have a capability since the Columbia accident to know whether we have anything to be concerned about. I have a little apprehension in the launch control center while we’re waiting for Kennedy to make contact. We don’t have communications until 500 miles out and 12 minutes before landing. When we had Columbia going over Texas we were waiting for that contact to happen. We were having communications problems. We know in reentry there can be brief blackout periods. None of the acquisition systems here at the Cape could pick it up.

JW: What’s next for NASA?

GD: It’s still a little hazy. We know that President Obama has cancelled the Constellation program, which offered a smaller version of the shuttle to go back and forth to the space station and a larger version to go back to the moon. Obama has penciled out the craft to the moon. Astronauts will go on commercial rockets in about five years. Since the moon is not in the president’s vision for the agency, we might be going to an asteroid. But we have to have a vehicle different from the one that would go to the moon.

We’re developing technologies that that would go beyond the moon, and that’s going to take about five years to do. We have to decide what kind of rocket that is going to be, who is going to design it and who is going to build it. We need to develop new propulsion technologies.

The rockets that go to the space station will be owned by commercial interests. In the long term all things will be commercially launched by commercial space taxis. It’s not far from NASA’s mission of twenty-five years ago. It wanted to move on to higher programs. It can’t own and maintain all launch vehicles. Commercial rockets will be reconfigured so they can carry astronauts back and forth to the space station. We’re going to reconfigure Complex 39 and Cape Canaveral Air Force station for commercial low-earth orbits.

JW: What’s the future of human space flight?

GD: In the near term the International Space Station is where it’s at. The capabilities that NASA is going to help the private sector develop will create more human potential in low-earth orbit. Beyond that it’s a little hard for me to see. This change in direction from what we’ve be doing over the past five years is a 180, a completely different approach. You have to design and build a new propulsion system. You have to have funding. The legislative process has to weigh in. The Congress feels we need more answers. We’re going to need more time to see. In the meantime our geophysics loads will continue to be launched on unmanned vehicles. We’ve got some exciting planetary flights and earth observation satellite launches planned. That will all continue without missing a beat.

JW: You were there at the inception of America’s space shuttle program. How do you feel when you look back on it?

GD: I feel like I’m privileged to be with NASA. At some point in history we’ll look back at the shuttle much as we did the Apollo program. I was there for the first one and I’ll be there for the last one.

JW: Thanks. I’ll see you in another thirty years.

 

Return of the Sybarite5

Sybarite5, the rock stars of the classical world, return to the home of their founder with a week-long residency in Sarasota, Florida. For me, the highlight will be an 8 p.m. concert Thursday, Nov. 10, in the Goldstein Cabaret of Florida Studio Theatre. In honor of their return, I’m reposting a piece I wrote in April of 2013. Enjoy.

Someone left the radio tuned to a station that programs NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings. As I reached for the dial to switch to a classical music station, Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, cued up Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” by the string quintet Sybarite5, recorded live in Holley Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

My wife and I had just seen a series of bracing concerts there, and so I stepped into the shower . . . and back a lifetime to a concert by the Guarneri Quartet, who played Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 with an intensity that shredded their bows. And here was a quintet whose founder came from Sarasota and who could play with the same nuance and fervor. Not what you would expect from a laid-back city by the sea.

Then Child announced that Sybarite5 had recently recorded an album of Radiohead covers. Time to step out the shower and learn a bit more about the group.

Named after the ancient Greek city in southern Italy now identified with seekers of pleasure and luxury, Sybarite5 is the first string quintet ever selected as winners of Concert Artists Guild International Competition in its 60 year history. The media have compared the group to rock stars who play with missionary zeal. Its members have performed in traditional venues (Carnegie Hall) as well as nontraditional ones (the CBS Early Show).

And while their repertoire includes composers known in the classical world, such as Piazzolla and Mozart, the quartet released a recording of covers of the music of Radiohead called “Everything in its Right Place,” following in the wake of another musical pioneer, pianist Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s From the Top, who has released several transcriptions of Radiohead music.

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 was founded by double bassist and former Sarasota resident Louis Levitt. In addition to his work with Sybarite5, Levitt has been featured on chamber music appearances that have included the Aspen Music Festival as well as performances with Grammy winning composer Bob James. He has also performed with the Sarasota Orchestra. He recently became the first ever double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition.

As for the other members of the quintet, many have a foot in both classical and contemporary worlds:

  • Laura Metcalf, cello, was featured as a soloist with the One World Symphony playing an arrangement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
  • Sarah Whitney, violin, led the Cleveland Central Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster on tour to Carnegie Hall.
  • Angela Pickett, viola, performs with the Princeton Symphony and has played the fiddle with numerous ensembles, including the Chieftains.
  • Sami Merdinian, an Argentinian violinist, has received worldwide recognition for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician, including his work with the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop, which holds a winter residency in Sarasota.

I’m downloading another of the group’s recordings now, the EP “Disturb the Silence.” It features music by Radiohead and Piazzolla, plus two original works written for the quintet, and made its debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart.

It’s a good way to start your weekend.

 

The Candidate

As an antidote to the election season, I’d like to share an excerpt from my new suspense/thriller, Mr. Magic. You can read the full-tilt lunacy of the role public relations plays in elections and other marketing campaigns at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.

Be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

And now, Brinker, the defrocked journalist turned PR whiz, will demonstrate how sausage is made:

On a blustery day in early April, Mary Margaret Paulson stood in an open hanger with the snow swirling like dust devils and gazed at the adoring masses. She looked every bit the presidential candidate. Perfect cheekbones, glossy red lips and a bushel of rich brown hair. Long legs in a black pencil skirt, lacy blouse and a red power jacket with shoulders big enough to carry half the states to the nominating convention.

On the campaign trail she’d been called Chillbilly and Bible Spice for her passionate if uninformed defense of religious freedom. The media mocked her. The pundits hated her. But Brinker knew one thing that many had forgotten: the woman oozed sex from every pore, and men and women alike would sacrifice their firstborn to share the air with her.

The scene resembled a campaign rally. An American flag hung behind two corporate jets emblazoned with the cement company’s logo. Paulson stood on a wooden A-Treat box behind a lectern decorated with patriotic bunting and waved like the queen on parade. A crowd of at least a thousand swelled around her, a line of police officers in reflective vests keeping protesters and supporters on opposite sides of the concrete apron. Sitting in rows of folding chairs under space heaters were local and state dignitaries, representatives from the governor’s office, county council members and the mayors of every city within a fifty-mile radius. The rest of the rabble stood in the cold, their hats declaring allegiance to Garth Brooks, the Phillies and the NRA.

palin-legs-from-backBrinker focused on Paulson’s speech. In an effort to cut costs, the cement company wanted to burn hazardous waste. Residents weren’t convinced by the company’s health studies, which showed emissions would remain below EPA thresholds. His position paper had dealt with the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth. He’d reduced it to three bullet points. Paulson hadn’t gotten through the first when she veered off-message like a bike that had lost its training wheels. She ranted about liberals and intellectuals, the elite and the effete, people who were ruining the country with their bleeding hearts and costly regulations, stifling growth and free enterprise and everything that made America great.

The crowd cheered and Brinker, the PR whiz who’d turned a serial killer into a national brand, started to worry that the stunt wouldn’t backfire, that it wouldn’t create the chaos that guaranteed national coverage. Then, from across the tarmac, he heard the sound of grinding gears and smelled the belch of diesel exhaust as an ancient blue school bus tottered around the corner of the hanger and four dozen Korean woman dressed in hot pink jumpsuits piled out, Buddha at the fore, the notes of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” throbbing from a speaker on the roof.

Buddha, AKA Benjamin Kwon, community organizer and ace travel agent who helped the pursued disappear from the grid. Handing signs to the women—he’d economized by printing both sides, “Feel the Burn” on the front and, on the back, “Burn, Baby, Burn”—he marched the women through the crowd, the Koreans forming a wall between supporters and protesters. As they twirled their signs and waved to the camera, Buddha broke away and headed for the perimeter.

Brinker sidled up to him. “How’s it going?”

“’Oppa oppa Gangnam style.’”

“You should run for office.”

Realizing that reinforcements had arrived, Paulson pointed at the ground with a sharply manicured finger and shouted, “This is it! Right here in little old Allentown, PA! The front lines of the battle, the home of concrete and steel that made this nation great!”

The crowd surged, one half cheering, the other half waving signs mounted on wooden stakes the size of baseball bats. Brinker could smell the blood lust as it raced through them, flaring nostrils, pumping muscles, raking their skin until they began to howl.

The handlers must have felt the massive animal coiling for a strike because two of them flanked the lectern as Paulson finished her speech with the pump of a fist and the cry of “Burn, baby, burn!”

The audience exploded, the police line collapsed. Protesters wielded their signs like clubs. Politicians ducked behind the flag. The cement company’s security force, standing respectfully at attention during the remarks, formed a firewall while the handlers hustled Paulson through the back of the hanger.

As police rushed in with batons, Buddha pulled Brinker to the sidelines. Above the roar of sirens, he said, “We have failed you, my friend.”

Brinker smiled as video crews captured the melee. “It’s all good.”

 

A Narrow Escape

When the owners of a dying ad agency ask Brinker to make the competition disappear, the PR whiz must choose between jail and the love of his life.

In Mr. Magic, the disgraced journalist struggles with the forces of greed, addiction and affection as he tries to rebuild the bonds he broke in last year’s debut novel, Mr. Mayhem. Can he carry out his assignment without vanishing himself? Chapter 1 sets the stage for the conflict to come.

(For more on Brinker, the CW McCoy series and news of the publishing world, be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)

1.

BY THE TIME the first bullet struck the concrete wall, Brinker had run halfway across the parking garage. The second slug hit a car and set off its alarm. As he plunged down the metal stairs, he heard a third strike the blockhouse.

Stumbling out at ground level, Brinker hit the sidewalk at a dead run. A half-block later, he glanced behind to see Buddha gaining on him, the streetlights showing the big man breathing through his mouth. Rounding the corner, Brinker pressed his back against the plate glass window of an abandoned hair salon as a car roared out of the deck, blew through the traffic light and disappeared.

He was twenty yards from the ad agency in downtown Bethlehem and a million miles from safe.

Buddha waved him to keep going.

Chest heaving, Brinker held up a finger and tried to swallow. “She pulled a gun!”

Hands on his hips, Buddha bent forward and talked to the ground. “I am mindful of that fact.”

Brinker massaged a stitch in his side. “She could have killed us.”

“If you remember, I suggested you stay out of sight.”

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]Close to two a.m. on a bitter day in early April and Buddha wore sunglasses, a hooded sweatshirt and camo shorts. He straightened and started hopping in his high-top sneakers, his face as round as a balloon. For a moment he looked like that Korean rapper with the bowtie, the guy with the jerky dance moves.

Brinker said, “I thought you said she was drunk.”

“That would be my guess,” Buddha said. “Why else would she open fire on a pair of outstanding citizens in a public garage?”

They started walking, tracing the route Ginger Wright had taken in her flight.

“Christ almighty,” Brinker said. “I thought women only carried Mace.”

“At this point,” Buddha said, “I am more concerned about the police than her method of self-preservation.”

They stopped on Main Street with their backs to the three-story building where Brinker worked and stared at the bulk of the Hotel Bethlehem. The street that ran past the Moravian settlement toward the Hill to Hill Bridge appeared deserted, not a flicker of taillights at this hour to show where the owner of the rival ad agency had fled.

Brinker shook, from cold or adrenalin, he couldn’t tell. He gazed past the hotel with its ancient brick façade and pinprick lights in its arching windows and remembered the last time he’d gotten himself in a jam like this, when an assassin he’d hired came gunning for him in a deserted sandpit. He’d run so hard he could have swallowed a lung.

“No more,” Brinker said as they walked past wrought-iron tables and chairs to the car they’d left in front of the Italian restaurant. “You said when we got into this there’d be no violence.”

Buddha used a remote to unlock the door of the Lincoln. “It is a little late for that, my friend.”

The Big Dig

Author Ann Hood came to Sarasota, Florida on Tuesday with a message for readers: It’s OK to feel.

Hood, the author of twelve novels including The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer, was in town to promote her latest, The Book That Matters Most, a work that involves one of Hood’s favorite groups—book clubs.

That was how she conducted her talk and signing at Bookstore 1 in Sarasota, a group of more than fifty people seated around her, enclosed by shelves of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Growing up, she said, “I wanted to live in a book.” Books provided relief from conflict. She wrote her first short story at the age of eight, after a reprimand from her grandmother. That, Hood said, was the beginning of her literary career.

But it was the tragedy in her life that has forced her to dig deep for meaning, and that process, something akin to an archaeology expedition, gave her writing a purpose.

“When I wanted to escape, I could pick up a book. But when I wanted to understand something, I could write a story.”

ann-hood-closeup

Return of the antihero

Brinker’s back. Can the advertising world survive?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]The antihero of last year’s Mr. Mayhem has lost his magic. The agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail.

If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.

Throw in toxic waste, a nude car wash and a gun-toting presidential candidate and the czar of PR will have to spin some potent magic to escape the snare of sex, lies and greed that threatens to destroy his job, his sanity and the love of his life.

In Mr. Magic, the ad world struggles to cope with the defrocked journalist famous for sex, satire and PR events that push the boundaries of legality and taste.

Published by Allusion Books, Mr. Magic is available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere. It is the sequel to Brinker’s debut novel Mr. Mayhem, a book Kirkus Reviews calls “eccentricity at its finest in a detective story, and proof that a flawed protagonist can still earn sympathy.”

And be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

Month of Magic

J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.

We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.

As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.

The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)

Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?

 

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

 

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

 

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

 

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

 

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

 

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in