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WHAT THE WALRUS SAID--Our Authors' Blog--

HERE'S THE NEW COOPER NORTH MYSTERY

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Just published, When the Wasp Stings—it's the latest Cooper North mystery novel.

 

Cooper's a rarity among fictional women investigators. For one thing, she isn't young. She's 69 years old. She's formidable. She's tall, almost gaunt, with a falcon's penetrating gaze. She sees you, and she sees into you. On the hunt, she's relentless.

 

Cooper's summoned from retirement, back into the prosecutor's office. Her police colleagues need her, because only she can handle the bizarre events suddenly besetting this patch of the Green Mountains, from an alligator scaring shoppers on Main Street to Ninja-costumed psychopaths, rampaging with commando knives. It begins with a maple-syrup entrepreneur's murder, via wasp stings.  

 

Somehow—Cooper isn't sure exactly how—it all fits. Even the Ninjas fit, targeting people Cooper cares about, including a little boy. 

 

Cooper has fans of all ages, but for older readers she's a special delight—here's a strong woman who's been around. She knows some things.

 

I don't know where Cooper came from. She just sprang out of my mind, fully grown and seasoned. I admire her. I wish I could be more like her. I may be her biggest fan.

 

--Richard

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I'M THAT GUY

 

 

You get to thinking about your life, when you're on your back in a hospital bed, leg in agony, waiting for the surgeon to do her thing.

 

I thought, who am I?

 

Here's what I learned as an idiot child, along with a townful of other idiot children.

 

We'd climb the side of the abandoned pocketbook factory, brick by brick, to stand on the roof, looking down four stories at the Hudson River. I already dreaded the climb back down. Braver souls among us felt life's pull—the thrill of being—and they leapt.

 

I stayed back. 

 

So, I knew already, I'm no hero. I'm not that guy.

 

Later, I was the writer guy.

 

I'd put bits of the world into words, for magazine readers to consume. Maybe a physics Nobelist's discoveries, or what the pilots of a terrain-following B-52 bomber experience, roaring inches over mountaintops.

 

Etc.

 

Okay, I thought, whoever I used to be, I'm not that guy now. 

 

I got to listening to my hospital roommate, a newspaper columnist and the host of a public-tv show. He'd go into the New England outdoors, with camera crews, via kayak or canoe or dogsled, if need be. Willem Lange is celebrated hereabouts. He had an infected foot, but told the medical staff he needed to be out by next week---he had shoots scheduled. Also, there was an upcoming trip to Portugal. Willem spent lots of time on his phone, talking to his girlfriend in another state. He called his cane "John McCain."

 

Willem is pushing ninety.

 

He's had six falls this year, he told me. Most recently, in the wee hours. He lay on the floor unable to get up. He had a phone handy, and his daughter and son-in-law live nearby, but he lay on the floor two hours, until they awoke, to call and ask his son-in-law to help him get up, on the younger man's way to work.

 

That's what struck me.

 

I thought about Joyce, back home, worried about me, but carrying on with her own work, which included editing my latest novel, and arranging to visit me every day, and handling most everything in our life together, all our finances and social contacts and just about all else.

 

I thought: have I been appreciating this?

 

So now I know who I aim to be—I'm the guy who looks out for Joyce.

 

I want to be the guy who'll lie two hours on the floor, so people who matter get their sleep.

 

--Richard  

 

 

 

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A LITTLE LOVE STORY

 

 

 

When the national and international news becomes too scary and mean, we look out our window.

 

We see a little park, with a pond and pathways, and a meadow, and a mountain range beyond. Down in the park we see people, but not just people.

 

Yesterday, we saw one of our favorites, Ella Bella Socks, on one of her walks. She is a medium-sized dog of indeterminate ancestry, black, with white feet and stockings, a pretty sight.

 

Also, farther down the path, we saw our friend Ryan, on his ride-on lawnmower. He is a member of the maintenance team here, and another of our favorites…but not just ours.  

 

Socks saw Ryan, and instantly leaped forward—her human companion dropped Socks' leash, and Socks ran, as fast as a dog can run, full tilt toward Ryan and his tractor.

 

He turned off the machine, waited a second, and then Socks—with a tremendous leap—landed atop the lawnmower and in his lap, clearly ecstatic.

 

Later, we asked Ryan about his relationship with Socks.

 

"She loves me," he said. "Whenever she sees me, her owners just drop her leash and here she comes, fast as she can go."

 

Troubling news, yesterday, on the tv and internet and newspapers. It's always troubling. Out our window, however, the headlines were uplifting—

 

"Dog Loves Man!" "Man Loves Dog!"

 

Go ahead, Socks. Do it again. Make our day!

 

--Joyce and Richard

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TIDAL WAVE INCOMING

Here comes AI

 

A few days ago, The Authors Guild asked members for their opinions on the tsunami of artificial intelligence (AI), already beginning to flood the land.

 

I said it will mean the end of human authorship as a profession, and the end of literature as an art that reflects humanity, in all its evil and decency. How can a thing with no heart write from the heart?  

 

My only expertise (I have none) is that five years ago I published a novel, Caliban Rising, about an AI program meant to transform life on Earth by ceding all decision-making to an algorithm way smarter than any human. Problem: the original programmer was a human, who had, let's say, serious moral flaws. Result: this self-teaching algorithm quickly developed a mind of its own, and it didn't give a bit or a byte about humans.

 

I wrote the novel to pit a human armed only with his wits, but with a heart, against an AI program with awesome brilliance, but no heart at all.

 

I hope I wasn't prescient, but here we are. Programs like chatgpt can spit out stories and essays seemingly produced by human writers. Already several magazines have stopped accepting stories, because so many submissions are now written by computers. Students see a bonanza when it comes to term papers. How long before, in the doctor's waiting room, the robot nurse emerges and tells you: "The algorithm will see you now."

 

People already are turning to AI for boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends. Elon Musk, who presumably has expertise, says it's absolutely conceivable that AI could take control and reach a point where it makes decisions. Interviews with tech-company leaders sometimes feel creepy, as if they're terrified by AI's ramifications, but can't stop themselves, because the fundamental operating principle of any corporation is to make a profit.

 

Can democracy survive when every word we hear, every photo or video we see, may be generated by a computer, totally unreal?   

 

I'm a worrier. Maybe AI will be our disintegrating civilization's salvation, diagnosing more accurately than med-school graduates, creating more airtight wills than law-school graduates, figuring fixes for climate change in time (and forcing us to make those fixes, perhaps). Curing cancer.

 

Who knows?

 

I only know it's painful, thinking that soon our books and movies and poems will be composed by an interplay of ones and zeroes, and the human mind, with all its complexity, all its experience of life, its guilt and joy and awe, will be entirely out of the loop.

 

--Richard

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PALS

 

 

In case you missed it, we just saw a CNN story that hit a chord, and we want to share it.

 

Cinnamon, a goat, and Felix, a 1-year-old bulldog mix, are totally buddies.

 

They hang out full-time, eating, playing, and sleeping.

 

They came to the Wake County Animal Center, in Raleigh, North Carolina, on March 13, 2023, because they each needed a home, and they found one—together.

 

Now they're BFFs, because a local family, with a history of fostering homeless animals, has taken them in. They now have a small herd of goats, for consorting, pastures for romping, and—of course—each other.

 

Animals, we believe, are sentient, like us, with awareness and emotions, a belief based on really smart and caring dogs we've had in our lives.

 

Plus, a bit of back story—when one of us (Richard) was a child, his dog was an exceptionally bright border collie (mix), who took it upon herself to watch over a boy she considered incapable of looking after himself.

 

Richard had a friend up the street who also had a devoted animal in his life, Clover, a goat. Goat and dog became good friends, and when the two boys played together, so did the animals, fun for all.

 

Only sour note: Richard's mother looked askance at a goat in her house, prancing about on sharp little hooves.

 

--Joyce and Richard 

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WALTER'S WINTER

 

 

Now it is March, which is northern New England's season of impatience.

 

Four months now we've had snow and ice, and slippery roads, and frigid Canadian winds. We're ready for crocuses and incoming robins singing cheerio. But that's not yet.

 

South of here, March is when spring finally opens its eyes. Here in the north, it's when spring gives us an occasional sexy wink, to soften us up, then blows more snow in our face.

 

So, here we are, looking out our west-facing windows at the horizon's mountain range, white all the way up the flanks to the peaks. There's a meadow below our windows, rising to a knoll, all buried under a foot of snow.

 

Gray sky, looming clouds. More snow forecast.

 

We stare out the window glumly. After all these months, winter lies heavy on the mind.

 

But what's that, coming up the meadow knoll? It's a woman, bundled in a parka and heavy mittens, and at her feet prances a small mahogany-furred presence, performing ballet moves in the snow.

 

It's Walter!

 

He's a Pembroke Welsh corgi, with a huge personality, but short legs. Walter can't walk through the snow, with those short legs, so he prances through it, jumping, pirouetting, burrowing, leaping up in a geyser of white—having a blast.

 

Walter's endured the same four frozen months as we have, and now he's out in it with no parka, no mittens, no boots…but he's not glum.

 

Walter is joyfully alive, relishing the white stuff in which he prances, gleefully using his snout as a shovel, to throw up powdery white clouds.  

 

Presumably, we should learn from Walter—take what life gives you, cold or warm, find joy, prance.

 

Yes, it would be nice. However, that's not how it is. Our sky's still gray, our meadow's still  mineral white, it's still gusting cold.

 

We watch Walter prance back down the knoll and out of sight, leaving just a memory of exuberance.

 

We're still staring out the window, looking at another month of winter.

Yet, not quite so glumly as fifteen minutes ago.

 

Thanks, Walter.

 

--Joyce & Richard 

 

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BOMB CYCLONE

 

 

Our apartment went black.

 

Outside, the same "bomb cyclone" ravaging much of the country ravaged us. Snow. Sub-freezing temperatures. Winds gusting to 70 mph. Falling trees. Downed power lines.

 

We had two battery-powered hurricane lamps. Just enough light to save us from bumping into tables. Too dim, though, to read a book or magazine.

 

No television. No radio. No internet. No CD player.

 

Just sitting in the dark, thinking.

 

We thought about how much of our consciousness, here in the twenty-first century, is regulated by pixels. We almost forget we don't actually know those pixel-generated people on our tv and movie screens. What we see on our "devices" constantly modifies our perceptions. Ukraine? Washington? Such places may occupy more space in our heads than our own community, all around us.

 

Now an artificial intelligence program can write essays and stories and tell jokes and totally fool us into thinking it's a real person.

 

Just some thoughts, sitting in the dark.

 

--Joyce and Richard

 

 

 

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ROAD CUTS

 

 

I have lately become unsettled by road cuts.

 

We have lots of them here in northern New England, spots where workers building a road dynamited through a hill, so the road could run straight and level, leaving a rock cliff on either side.

 

I have the same unsettled reaction to cliffs in general.

 

On top lies a few inches of soil, where grasses grow, and trees. Below that, it's granite or basalt or limestone—rock—down to the molten core.

 

What unsettles me is the thinness of that topside soil fringe. We see our world as blue and green, but in reality—except for that thin living layer—we live on stone.

 

I realize our New England soil is especially skimpy. I've seen spots in the Midwest where the soil goes down feet, instead of just inches. Even so, underneath, it's rock, all the way down.

 

Road cuts unsettle me because they force us to see life's fragility. Given a nudge, some kink in the climate, say, or a whack from a large asteroid, and our world of water and chlorophyll could so easily become what it's built upon.

 

If that top fringe goes, we might as well live on Mars, or some moon of Jupiter.

 

—Richard

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BEAR CROOKS

 

 

I once worked at a zoo, as keeper of the bear-cub pit, overseeing twenty-eight orphaned baby bears, all roughhousing in their enclosure. I've been a bear fan ever since.

 

So the other day, on national public radio, I tuned into a Fresh Air interview with science-writer Mary Roach, author of a new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. She got my attention right off, because she said "bears."

 

She talked about bear home invasions.

 

She said bears have learned how to use door handles to open doors. Sometimes they do break the door down, but they can be thoughtful about it. For instance, one bear knocked down a house's front door, then carefully picked up the fallen door and neatly leaned it against the adjacent wall.

 

My favorite bear crime was ice-cream theft. Mr. or Ms. Bear breaks into your house, bee-lines for your refrigerator, opens the freezer, and takes out the ice cream containers. However, says Mary Roach, the bears have become particular about ice cream.

 

They ignore supermarket-brand ice creams. If it's not Ben & Jerry's or Haagen-Dazs, or some other gourmet ice cream, they just leave it in disgust.  

 

Often, though, before lumbering out with their haul, they politely shut the freezer door.

 

Thanks for the bear uplift, Mary Roach. I'll be reading your book!

 

--Richard

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BIRDHOUSE FOREST

 

 

South Hero Island, in Vermont, offers stunning views of Lake Champlain. It also offers "Birdhouse Forest."

 

Driving north, toward Canada, you pass a sign: "White's Beach." Look to your right.

 

Most travelers stop here, where a swamp borders the road, unsure what they're seeing.

 

Every tree sports a birdhouse, each in bright flower colors—rose, lilac, daisy, buttercup….

 

This might be a fairy city.

 

Even a few dinosaurs roam among the trees.

 

All this began when two neighbors learned tree swallows eat huge numbers of mosquitoes. Living beside a swamp, they had mosquitoes. So they decided to craft twenty swallow houses and put them up.

 

Swallows came, and flew through the swamp on mosquito hunts. So the neighbors put up more birdhouses, and more, and more….

 

Twenty years later, Birdhouse Forest is a swallow city, with 800 brightly colored birdhouses. For an added frisson, they installed carved wooden dinosaurs. Probably the reptiles wouldn't scare away mosquitoes, but still, worth a try.

 

Keep a lookout, driving America's back roads—you never know what you might see.

 

--Joyce

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