The Life of Johnston

Category: 2013

He Started It

Quick Note. I’m trying to write a longer thing about a case that I worked on many years ago. See recent posts Abandoned Heart and What Happened. To distinguish the blog posts that are part of the long law project, I’m going to make them purple. So, in purple, read and discover…

When we were kids, ratting each other out to the local authorities, we’d say, “She did such-and such, on purpose, for no reason!

And the usual retort was, “She started it!”

How well we understood the elements of a crime: act, intent, no justification. On purpose for no reason! And the retort, she started it! covers the last element: causation, which looks at who set the whole thing in motion and who was just reacting and whether that reaction was reasonable and foreseeable. 

A few years ago, Enzo and I got to talking about violence and justice, two of the very few interests that we share, and I explained all the different kinds of homicide, from first degree murder all the way down to justifiable homicide, where you kill someone in self-defense, to save your own life or the life of another person. And even at nine or ten years old, he completely understood that intent is everything. Your heart has to be in the wrong place, or it’s not a murder. 

So I was thinking about all this and about how nicely criminal law corresponds to our natural sense of justice, and to test the theory I told Enzo and Teresa the facts of the case that I’ve been trying to write about. Then I asked them what they thought each of those guys was guilty of.

Enzo said, “The guy who shot first. It was his fault.” (He somehow missed that there were two shooters, but put that aside for now.)

“What would the shooter be guilty of?”

After a few seconds he said, “Attempted murder and manslaughter.”

Teresa said, “What about the guy who started the whole thing? If he hadn’t been in a gang and out causing trouble, that three-year-old boy would still be alive.”

I asked Enzo what he thought about him—the guy who started it all and then got shot at—was he guilty of anything?

After a few seconds he said, “Manslaughter.”

That’s not the answer I was hoping for, but it’s pretty much how the case ended up, at least for Julio, who pled to a vehicular manslaughter and a felony hit and run for seven years and four months is state prison.

It’s too bad he didn’t go to trial. That would have made a much better story. And he had a good chance of walking—all he did was say stuff! But Teresa and Enzo’s reaction shows how risky that would have been. Because once you accept that just saying something is an act, it’s almost as easy to get to murder as it is to get to manslaughter.

So I get why he pled, but it still sticks in my craw. Normally, when someone shoots at you, you can shoot back and kill them and still be on the right side of the law, as long as you were acting in reasonable, good-faith self-defense. (See justifiable homicide, above!) And if your bullet goes astray and kills an innocent by-stander, it’s the original shooter who would be charged with murder. Enzo’s first response was right. The guy who shot first, it was his fault.

And Julio didn’t even shoot back. He ran away. It’s as if all the usual rules went out the window because he was in a gang. The hit-and-run charge seems especially crazy. Are you really supposed to stay at the scene of the accident and exchange insurance information when people are shooting at you? 

But he started it. 


Clickety-Clack, Don’t Talk Back

21 August 2019

Dear Max,

I’ve long dreamed of writing on a typewriter, lonely and free, like a writer in a movie. And here I am. It’s a ten-year-old laptop with sticky keys and no internet. It instantly shuts down when you unplug it, which means that it stays in one place—on the desk.

A message just popped up on the screen. Warning: This Mac has not been backed up in 2059 days. The screen’s a little blurry, so that warning looks like waming in Times. I just switched to American Typewriter Light, 16-point type. Double-spaced. No, space-and-a-half. Perfect.

All this because I put my laptop in the same suitcase as a glass Tupperware filled with chard, beets, red onions and yogurt. I always bring food when I travel for work. And yes the container was in a plastic bag, but not the double-layer of sealed plastic bags that I usually use. The glass didn’t break, but there was lid failure.

And oh dear. I managed to scrape most of it off my suit and make it to my hearing. And I thought only a tiny bit got on one corner of my laptop, but then when I got to the hotel, it wouldn’t turn on. I clung to the hope of a coincidence. Maybe it was the battery. Or the power cord.

When I got home, Teresa took it to the shop. A few days later a man called with a diagnosis. He spoke with a strong accent, and it was hard for Teresa to understand him over the phone, but she was able to make out the words Spaghetti and Explosion and No Charge.

My defense—it wasn’t spaghetti!—wasn’t very convincing, even to myself. I don’t want or deserve a new laptop. And this is my chance to go low-tech.

I hasten to add that my backup system worked so beautifully that it was almost a pleasure having my data wiped out. I lost an expensive device, but no work. And how often do you get to cringe and gloat at the same time?

My new system goes like this. At home, I’ll type on my new Mac typewriter and save to a jump drive. For backup I’ll take the jump drive to work, where I have another slightly less old Mac laptop that backs up to Dropbox and a portable hard drive.

(Later.) I just wrote and then deleted a long and literary comparison between Ulysses tempted by the Sirens and Myself tempted by the Internet and how, with my new system, I’m free from all that. I had myself chained to the mast of my laptop, and the Sirens were named Google and Amazon and NY Times Cooking. It was elaborate and unsustainable, and it took me a long time to figure out the NY Times Cooking didn’t sound plausible as the name of a beautiful deadly monster. But while I was writing it, still thinking it might work, I wanted to ask Google what Ulysses’s ears were plugged with in that story, but I couldn’t, because I had no internet.

Ha!’ I thought. ‘It’s working!’

I asked Enzo. He thought it was wax. I’d been thinking it might be pitch, which sounded right for a ship, but messy.

I asked Alexa, and she summarized the plot of Joyce’s Ulysses. (What plot? But she didn’t say that.) Then she asked if her answer had been helpful. I said, ‘No, but it was interesting,’ which wasn’t true, and she thanked me for my feedback.

So. We’re not out of the straits yet.

What Happened

Here are the facts, as I remember them, with a little help from the published case.

Julio Covington and Emilio Osorio were cousins, both in their early twenties. They belonged to a gang called the Norteños. Julio was driving a red Pontiac Firebird. Emilio was in the passenger seat. They were at the AM/PM mini-mart on the corner of Norwood and Jessie Avenue, in an area roughly north of downtown Sacramento.

Carlos Zarazua was nineteen. His brother Sergio was fifteen. Their friend, Jorge Ramirez, was sixteen. They belonged to a gang called the Sureños. They were at the gas station/mini-mart too. Carlos was driving a blue Toyota.

Julio yelled at Carlos “Norte,” claiming his own gang. Then Julio said to Carlos, “Scrapa,” insulting Carlos’s gang. Julio didn’t know Carlos, but he recognized him as a Sureño by his clothes. Carlos said, “Fuck you.” Then Julio and Emilio drove away in the Pontiac, east on Jessie Avenue toward Rio Linda Boulevard.

Julio is the guy whose case I ended up working on, and even though I want to write about this as a reporter, not a lawyer, I can’t help sticking up for him. At that moment, driving away from the gas station, he had done wrong everything he was going to do wrong. He had acted like a jerk and then driven away. He didn’t have a gun and neither did Emilio. He didn’t know that the two teenagers in the Toyota had guns. He was done.

On the other hand, he started it. And he knew who he was talking to. And maybe it wasn’t up to him when he was done. He might be done, but the natural and probable consequences (to use the phrase from the jury instructions) were still unfolding.

Back to the scene—and the cars. The red Pontiac is on Jessie Avenue driving east toward Rio Linda Boulevard. The blue Toyota is still at the gas station. And a little ways to the north is a Honda, driving south on Rio Linda. In the backseat of the Honda is a little boy.

Now the red Pontiac takes a detour. It turns off Jessie and drives around a neighborhood for a few minutes. Then it comes out of the neighborhood and stops, waiting to turn onto Jessie again. Now the blue Toyota has left the gas station, heading east on Jessie. Carlos is driving. Sergio and Jorge are passengers. About forty feet from where the Pontiac is stopped, the Toyota stops. Gunshots from the Toyota. The Pontiac peels out and turns east on Jessie with the Toyota in pursuit. The Honda is still on Rio Linda, still driving south. All three cars are moving toward the T intersection where Jessie and Rio Linda meet.

More gunshots from the Toyota. The Pontiac blows through the stop sign and hits the Honda as it passes through the intersection. The Toyota drives away. Julio and Emilio bail out of the Pontiac, jump onto a boat that’s being pulled by a truck, and then jump off of that and escape on foot. In the Honda, Rocky Duoangmala’s uncle and father are both unconscious, and Rocky is dying.

Later that night, Julio went to the cops and told them what happened. The case was on the news. His car was at the scene.  One thing I’d like to ask Julio, if I can find him after all this time, is how scared he was when he went to the cops. Did he think of himself as one of the killers? Was he turning himself in? Or did he think of himself as a victim and a witness? Or did think he might be both?

Abandoned Heart

11 August 2019

Dear Max,

I’ve decided to try something new. Here it goes:

I only met Julio once, on the sidewalk outside the jail courts. He was out on bail, in his early twenties, tall, good-looking, light-skinned. English was clearly a first language. I don’t know if he spoke Spanish. His mom was there, taking time off work, middle class and out of place and worried. Her son was charged with murdering a three-year-old boy. And other people, teenagers with guns, were charged with trying to murder her son. And those same teenagers were also charged with murdering the little boy that her son was charged with killing. How could Julio be a murderer and the victim of attempted murder in the same case? Especially when all he did was say stuff?

That’s what the Public Defender wanted to know. That’s what our motion was about.

This was almost twenty years ago. I’d been hired as an intern in the research division of the Public Defender’s Office in Sacramento. My first assignment was to write the statement of facts for a 995 motion—a motion to dismiss that comes after the preliminary hearing and before the trial. At the prelim, which I wasn’t there for, Julio had been held to answer for murder on an abandoned heart theory. I was supposed to read the transcript and summarize the testimony, with citations to the page and line number.

I worked and worked and worked. In the transcript, witnesses were drawing pictures and pointing at maps and testifying about them, but I didn’t have any exhibits, I only had the words to go by. At home, I looked at a map of the neighborhood where it happened. What were they talking about? Finally I drove out there and looked around. At the AM/PM Mini-Mart on the corner of Jessie Avenue and Norwood, I reset the trip timer drove down Jessie to where it ended in a T intersection with Rio Linda Boulevard. That’s where the accident happened. Or the murder. The trip timer still said 000. It wasn’t even a mile. I already knew that from the transcript, but I wanted to know what a half mile felt like, when you paid attention. It felt quick. It felt like nothing. That was bad for our motion, bad for Julio’s chances at trial.

Afterward, I was even more confused. I could only write what was in the transcript. I couldn’t write about what I saw or felt—and even if I could, why would I want to? It was bad for us.

Finally, I gave my new boss a draft. He had a reputation as a brainiac, and I already knew that I wasn’t the only one who was afraid of him. For a day or two I sat in dread. Finally he came out of his office and walked out to my cubicle. He was short and slightly built with sparse white hair and very blue eyes. He was holding my draft, and I could see that it was covered with red ink. He pulled up a chair and sat. He looked terribly weary and old, and I knew I was a burden to him.

“Well,” he said, “At least you can write.” I’m still grateful to him for that. Then he told me everything that was wrong with it. When it was over, I didn’t know if I should glow or cry. I worked on it some more. Later, he even let me write some of the law part.

The motion was denied—and by a good judge too, Tani Cantil, who’s now the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. At her confirmation hearings one of the legislators was dumb enough to say something undeniably true—you are some foxy judge! It’s impossible not to notice it. But after you get over how pretty and warm she is, you can’t help but notice how smart and fair she is, and if she denied our motion, maybe we were wrong. Maybe Julio really did have an abandoned and malignant heart. And maybe he did act with reckless disregard for human life. And maybe it was reasonably foreseeable that Rocky Duoangmala would die in a car crash because he taunted a rival gang member at the mini-mart.

I’ve decided to write about the case now, partly from memory but mostly as a reporter. And this time I won’t be limited by a transcript. I can talk to people and drive around and look at stuff and try to make my own sense of it. I can find out how people’s lives turned, and what it was like for them back then, when things were so scary and puzzling.











Slipping Away


April 11

Dear Max,

My alleged book is nowhere. The two characters that I like to write about are Liz and Mattie. The life of the story is there. I need make it more about them. But then, where would be my law plot?

Never mind that! What about my life?

Yesterday I had my mammogram. Usually, they make your boobs into pancakes. This time it was crepes.

April 12

Dear Max,

A while ago I read about a novelist from Iceland who writes in a hut overlooking the ocean. He plans everything ahead of time, like a movie script. And then he sits in his hut and shoots the movie.

I don’t remember his name. But fuck him and fuck his hut.

All this to say that I’m pretty much in despair about my alleged book. The first draft was easy. I had a delicious feeling of irresponsibility. Try this! Try that! A fire! A drug overdose! An Episcopalian Funeral! A kidnapping! A riptide! A rogue wave! (I almost put a Whale into it. I’m serious.) And it’s just a horrible mess.

And here’s what I don’t get at all—holding information back. I always feel as if the reader’s entitled to know everything I know, as soon as I know it. I know I’ve quoted Trollope’s great passage from Barchester Towers on this subject. But there has to be some planning, right? And in the few Trollope books where a crime is the main plot (Orley Farm, Phineas Redux and The Eustance Diamonds), he does hold information back, at least for a while, but never in a way that makes you feel tricked.

On my way to work, in order to avoid the conclusion that I’ve permanently lost interest in the law book, I rode my bike through the neighborhood where one of the scenes happens. It was only a few blocks off my normal route, but even small changes in routine give your attention a nudge. I have no idea if this will add any life to the book, but it was more fun than going straight to work.

April 26

Dear Max,

Last night for his second dinner Enzo fixed himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs with whipped cream on top, and it looked like genius.

My writing is in a pretty hopeless state. I couldn’t even pass a quiz about the book I’m supposed to be writing. What isit about?

Work is hard and stupid and takes an amount of attention that I resent.

And at a class meeting last night, I volunteered to make 172 ounces of hummus and deliver it to a school event while wearing a suit of armor. Because I am an idiot.

May 3

Dear Max,

I can feel my writing life slipping away. This morning I got up at four, as usual. (I know that sounds extreme but I go to bed at eight.) My coffee and computer were ready and waiting. Sister Liz Book 2019 Rewrite was open on the screen. I poured coffee and settled on the couch with my laptop. And then I just lay down and went to sleep.

I don’t think like a writer these days. I don’t have words running through my mind. I’m not sure what’s there instead.

 May 7

Dear Max,

I was about to write, I’m so depressed. But that isn’t quite right. I’m tired of writing that law book. I still get up at four. That feels like the one thing I can control. But this morning I just sat on the couch in the dark with my eyes closed drinking my coffee. Around five I started working. Then it was six and time to start the day.

May 11

Max, I miss you!

I miss the real you, who I adore as a man, and also the Max in my diary who I talk to in my head when I’m in diary-writing form. They overlap but aren’t the same, just like the real me and the character who writes my diary overlap but aren’t the same.

Teresa and I are reading all Jane Austen’s novels in order, keeping up with each other, more or less. We’ve both read them all before—but not recently or all together or at the same time as each other.

Teresa would have been great in CCS. She likes good things and talks about them plainly. When we finished Sense & Sensibilityand started P & P, she said, “It’s amazing how different it is.” (Better was implied.) Now we’re both in the early chapters of Mansfield Park, and Teresa said that the people don’t seem real. In Pride and Prej.even the caricatures—Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Burgh—were so real.


I suggested that we skip the rest of Mansfield Parkand just watch a BBC mini-series instead. She said she doesn’t even want to watch the mini-series, if the people are the same. And anyway, I’m inclined to finished the book. Mansfield Park is a phenomenon—a perfectly sustained mistake, and fascinating as that.

My own alleged book is not a perfectly sustained anything. It’s stuck. It’s not surprising me anymore. I don’t want to work on it. And I wonder if I’m just writing the wrong thing. Even the greatest novelist in English wrote the wrong thing now and then. There’s no shame in that. But I’d rather write the right thing.

May 15

Dear Max,

I have an idea—probably a bad one.

To surprise myself into joyful activity on my book, why not write it in public? Why not publish it serially in my blog? And when I get stuck, maybe other people will have ideas, which I won’t like, but which will suggest things I’d rather write instead, other directions to take.

I told Teresa that I was stuck and asked her what should happen next. She said, “I don’t know. How about—everyone goes to Disneyland!”

Fuck it. Why not?

The school event that I mentioned a while back is upon us. I decided to just buy the hummus, but I still need a costume, something medieval.

Sexy Abbess?

May 24

Dear Max,

A friend of Enzo’s at school claims to have ten-pack abs. The tenth goes down to his groin and therefore can’t be shown. Enzo says this is impossible. So they’re getting into body image insanity, poor dears.

May 26

Dear Max,

I’m pretty much in despair about my law book. I keep starting little plot-lets, and then panicking because I can’t keep track of them, and then all my attention goes into explaining the plot (mostly to myself, but the reader is forced to listen), and explanations are a pretty harsh environment for any life that’s trying to grow.

I keep fantasizing about changes in circumstance that would allow me to Create. More Time. A Room of My Own. Fewer Dogs. No Internet. Larger brain.

But it’s my own Self that needs to be different. Oh dear, oh dear.

Right now circumstances are ideal. I’m alone in the house. Teresa and Enzo are out to breakfast. It’s Sunday morning, all fresh after a rainy night. The streets are quiet. Both dogs are asleep after their respective outings. A room with a sleeping dog in it feels lively and soothing—ideal for Creation. And yet—

I need a snack.

Enzo and Teresa are home now. I have to go to work. Yes, work, and yes, it is Sunday, and yes, dear California tax-payers, you are getting your money’s worth.

May 28

Dear Max,

I’m writing without my glasses. Fuck it, what’s the difference?

I want to record that we stopped reading to Enzo at bedtime. It happened a few nights ago. Reading was late for some reason, and we decided to skip it. He went into his room and read by himself—the Fish Sniffer, if memory serves. And then we did it again. And again. And now reading is over.

May 31

Dear Max,

My job has me in its grip. Yesterday in court, a lawyer treated my young witness like shit, and I didn’t protect him. It keeps going through my mind, along with what I should have said and done—brave, unrealistic speeches.

When I got home from the airport it was late, everyone asleep. The dogs woke up and barked in alarm, but before I got the door open, they knew it was me. I put everything down and hugged D-Day’s smooth wriggling bulk. He mouthed my hand and arm. Colin hung back, tail wagging. I scratched him behind the ears with both hands. Good boys! I’d been gone only three days, but my nose had adjusted to foreign air, and the house smelled doggy and comforting. (Usually I can’t smell my own house.)

My book seems far away and not interesting.

It’s 5:30. I just want to take Colin for a walk with a huge cup of coffee, be out in the morning air, not thinking about my case, but I know I will think about it.

I just stopped writing for a while, and I was doing my closing argument, partly out loud, partly in my loud head.

June 10

Dear Max,

I’m going to be a poorly performing old person.

I pulled my right boob muscle doing a 5K obstacle course, and now it’s hard to take a deep breath. Coughing is a problem. I have to clutch my boob and then give these careful ahem-sounding coughs.

Pain is a pain in the ass. It takes up your attention, and attention is already in short supply.






Wrong Way

Dear Max,

I’m so depressed. I’ve been up for half an hour and haven’t even started writing yet. My alleged book is a labored shambles. My laptop just went back to sleep. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to read? Or watch TV?

And I may as well come to the point. I’ve had a setback in the thing I’ve been working on, the rewrite-from-scratch of Volume 2 of my Law & Disorder series. (Volume 1 is being rejected in geological time by Algonquin and Fahrenheit, which is fine by me. As long as someone is rejecting it, I’m fulfilling my obligation to try to get it published, which means I can forget about it and get on with the next one.)

The setback. I wrote and rewrote and then rewrote again two chapters that are set in Dependency Court, a place I have never been and a branch of law that I know nothing about. And I can’t even visit and soak up the atmosphere, because Dependency isn’t open to the public. So I wrote the chapters out of my own empty head, guessing away like sixty and reasonably happy with the results. (And I looked up some law. That I can do.) Then I consulted my lawyer pals who do know Dependency. I wanted to understand the set up. Who sits where? Who comes in what door? And is the social worker who tells the judge what to do the same social worker who took the child from his home?

Well. It turns out I should have talked to them first, because I wrote this whole chapter where the characters are in the courthouse hallway,  waiting for the case to be called. There are kids in it. The kids are pretty much the point. But it turns out that in Sacramento (and probably in any big county) the kids wait in a special room and go into court through a special door, so that they won’t have to wait out in the hallway with the various adults who want them back or maybe don’t want them back enough.

I could just pretend I don’t know this and keep what I have. Or I could re-set the case in a small county, like across the river in Yolo, where the kids probably do have to wait in the hallway with everybody else. But what about jurisdiction? I would have to change where a bunch of other stuff happens too.

And what does it matter if my setting departs from real life? It’s fiction, I’m allowed to make it up. But it reminds me of that scene from The Graduate where he’s driving from Berkeley to Santa Barbara to grab the girl out of the church, and he goes through Gaviota tunnel the wrong way. Northbound must have been more practical to shoot or maybe just prettier. But if you happen to know that stretch of 101, the mistake takes you right out of the story.

On the other hand, when I watch TV shows with courtroom settings, I pay no attention to the inaccuracies, which are pretty much constant. I’m in the world of the story, law be damned. I’m talking about The Good Wife, of course, where the law scenes are all right, but mostly I just want to get to the part after court where they let her drink.

Anyway, here’s an attempted link to just that chapter, which I’m pretty sure will have to be jettisoned, so this is its one chance to get read. Attempted Link To Chapter 15   It’s about a hundred pages into the story. The narrator is more or less me, a lawyer, not fancy. The Jill character is an investigator, and she has a foster son, Mattie. I guess I should add that the Dependency case is a bit of a side story. The main story is about Sister Liz, a lefty nun with little regard for the law who gets charged with murder. But I can’t seem to get anyone to die in this draft, so the murder plot isn’t really coming together.


(Next morning.) I tried to write about D-Day, but the result was insufficient to his greatness. Meanwhile I have my period again, something I was never good at, and since I hardly ever get it anymore, any small skill I’d developed has fallen off. I need a pair of bike shorts constructed entirely of maxi-pads.

Themis & Alexa

December 12

Dear Max,

Yesterday, when I boasted about how easy it is to get up early, Alexa was listening, and her punishment was swift. This morning, her alarm was so quiet and polite and soothing that I slept right through it, and now it’s almost five.

I bow to the goddess.

Continuing my exercises in putting in the world—

The main courthouse is two blocks from the jail, a six-story glass and concrete block with the look and feel of any bland government building. Inside, once you get past the metal detectors and make your way to one of the courtrooms, you find up-to-date office-style furnishings, durable carpet, fluorescent lighting—and no windows.

It took me a while to understand how this could be, since there’s plenty of glass on the outside of the building. It’s because the perimeter of every floor is a white-painted sun-filled hallway ruled by the sheriff. These hallways connect to the holding cells on the first and second floors, which in turn connect to the basement where the buses from the jail arrive early in the morning, long before the sun comes up. And so a prisoner arrives in darkness and ascends toward light, and then comes from the bright hallway into the blandly lit courtroom, blinking as his eyes adjust.

Do I really have to describe the courtroom set-up? Aren’t they all the same? The judge’s desk, still called a bench, on a raised platform with a couple of carpeted steps leading up to it. A computer monitor on the desk, placed off to the side. No gavel, except for a few judges who can’t do without the toy. Some neat stacks of books: Cal Crim (jury instructions), Emwinkwelreid’s Annotated Evidence Code, Search & Seizure Benchbook, California Felony Sentencing Handbook. And often, beside the books, a small statue of Justice in her fetching Greek drapery, blind-folded, holding up her scales, sword in hand. (Themis, actually—I just looked it up.)

Beside the bench and part of the same wooden structure is the witness chair. In front of the bench, close to the witness chair is the small table where the court reporter sets up. The jury box is off to the side, so that the witness is between the jury and the judge. The DA’s end of the long counsel table is always closest the the jury. The defense end of counsel table is closest to the bailiff’s desk, and next to the bailiff sits the clerk with her stacks of files and silent phone that lights up discretely.

Judges wear robes. They sit up high. The lights over their desks are brighter than the other lights. It’s a stage, and very few judges can resist the temptation to perform. Sentencing is their time to shine, and how they do polish their remarks.

Being a judge is one of those tests of character that most of us are never subjected to. How many of us are capable of handing down a sentence without a lecture?

All right. That’s enough exercise. Can you tell how completely bored I am by describing what things look like?

The Jail Courts: An Exercise

December 11

Dear Max,

I woke up at 3:45, before the alarm. It’s not difficult if you’re asleep by 8:15 the night before. And I love the feeling of being the only one awake. It’s luxurious and lonely.

But the sound of me moving around the kitchen to get my coffee woke up D-Day, and he and Teresa got up to pee. Now Teresa’s back in bed and D-Day is lying on the couch beside me in the dark. I can’t tell if he’s gazing into the fire or asleep. Either way, he’s a comfort, stretched out long beside my thigh, chin on his paws.

He shakes now—as in shakes hands, or paws. And twirls in a circle. But his best trick is lying beside you with his smooth compact bulk pressed heavy and close and warm. He does it perfectly.


I said that I needed to put the world into my book. Mostly I just mean setting. Where is all this talk happening? So here’s an exercise in that direction:

The Sacramento County Main Jail is an eight-story concrete building with four courtrooms on the ground floor. The courtrooms have no windows, and each has a cage where in-custody defendants come out to face the judge. Defendants used to come into a little fenced area, a small corral, but one day, years ago, a defendant jumped the fence and escaped, and then they built the cages.

Corral, cage, cell. It’s all confinement. But visually, there’s something offensive about the cage, especially since so many people inside the cage are brown or black, while most of the people outside the cage—the judge, the DA, the Public Defender, the crush of private attorneys—are white. But you get used to it. At least, as a person outside the cage, I have.

When the jail was built, in the late eighties, there were some stabs at humanity. The entry is a tall light-filled atrium with a huge fishtank built into the wall. The fish are supposed to be calming, and maybe they are. The hallway leading to the four courtrooms is also filled with light. The exterior wall and ceiling are glass. Outside on I street, three lanes of traffic move toward the interstate. And on the sidewalk there’s a steady flow of lawyers with our everlasting wheeled black briefcases, or sometimes a DA or Public Defender with a whole cart full of files for the arraignment calendar.

Around the corner from the jail, in the same block, is the old courthouse. The county still owns it, but it’s rented out to a fancy law firm—one that wouldn’t touch criminal defense, except maybe the starchiest of white collar. It’s a beautiful building. Even when it was new, it must have been beautiful. Broad granite steps, marble columns, tall arched windows, and inside more marble and warm old polished wood. The old court house aspires to something. It says, “Enter this temple and receive Justice.” The jail courts say, “Stay in your cage and be Processed.”

Plans & Schemes

December 7

Dear Max,

I read the first draft of the second book in my mystery-law series—the one I finished in October and set aside. (See Naming Names.)

It’s not a disaster. Its main problem is too much incident, not enough story. By incident I mean events thought up by the author that the people in the book react to. By story I mean what has to happen because of who the people are.

Like in the Last Chronicle, there’s hardly any incident at all. The event that sets the story in motion is as simple as can be, and hardly believable. (I think Trollope said that himself in his autobiography.) But the story is tremendous. Mr. Crawley, Mrs. Proudie, the Archdeacon—these enormous, complicated forces stirring up the world—it’s like something out of the Iliad. And you get to laugh too, never as decoration or comic relief, but always with recognition and sympathy.

But back to my book. I’m not going to get depressed because it’s not as good as Trollope’s masterpiece. I just have to start over from the beginning and try to do more with the parts that have some life in them. Get rid of the rest. Hope the plot still works at the end of all that. And put in the world. I always forget to do that.


December 8

Dear Max,

Teresa set up our higher-speed internet yesterday, and now my laptop won’t go online until I figure out how to make it speak to the new router, or possibly modem (if those still exist), and it’s probably just a matter of putting in a new password, but it always seems to be harder than that, and I don’t really want to hassle with it, and it just occurred to me:


I’ve been fantasizing about a computer that doesn’t go online—in short a very fancy typewriter—and wondering how to disable the parts of my laptop that connect it to the internet. And here I am.

If I had internet right now, I would be picking out a cheese grater for Enzo and Teresa to get me for Christmas. And there would be so many cheese graters. And other cheese-related items. And graters that do other things, not to mention the cheeses themselves, all different kinds, which would somehow lead to cashmere sweaters, slippers for Enzo, lip gloss for Davia-Astrid, and that’s just the shopping. I might also check my email to make sure I don’t miss the rejections from Fahrenheit or Algonquin, and there would probably be something from The New Yorker, and I might click on that and read a whole article, and click on the links in the article, or the ads beside the article, which would probably be cheese-related, because Google Knows, and that might take me back to—No!

I reject the false wonderland of infinite choice.

I say fie to the vortex of trivial distraction.

And yet I long to be shopping. I feel so powerful when I click Place This Order—and then it arrives. And when you think about it, it’s a huge time-saver, which means I have more time to write. Right?

Get away from me, you devil!


December 10

Dear Max,

It’s 4:18. I guess I should add—a.m. I’m at the kitchen table with coffee. Even though I’m not re-writing my book yet, I’m trying to acclimate body, mind and spirit to the Trollopian schedule that’s my only hope for rewriting it next year. (He had servants, but I have modern conveniences.)

Things to acquire:

  • Coffee maker with timer and a thermos carafe.
  • Alexa plug that automatically turns on lamp and heater at my desk at four o’clock. Maybe not the heater. I don’t want Alexa starting any fires.
  • A computer that works only as a typewriter. (See above.)
  • A small printer.
  • Bigger thoughts

I had a couple of story ideas for the re-write, and I may as well include them here:

  1. You know how, when you write text messages, the phone suggests the words to complete your sentence, based on its knowledge of what you’ve texted before? And it’s mortifying how often the phone is right—that is exactly what you were going to say next. (It’s bad enough to be so predictable, but by a phone? Maybe I should just have my phone rewrite my book.) Anyway, my idea is that a person who is trying to cover her tracks might well erase her text messages. But if you had her phone, you could type in a word or two, and the phone would auto-complete the sentence in a way that revealed—something important!

The other idea has dropped out of my mind. Dang it. Oh, it was to include a scene of running into the judge in the shower at the Y. That’s all. This is probably a perfect example of what I’m calling incident, but maybe if I make it good enough, it will turn into story.


December 7

Dear Max,

I saw in The Washington Post that this is the first year that no crewmen from the Arizona attended the annual ceremony at Pearl Harbor. There are only a few left, and they’re too old. I don’t have anything to say about Pearl Harbor that others can’t say a lot better, but here’s a picture of my grandfather, Kenneth Wells. He was on board the Vestal, which was tied up alongside the Arizona. On December 7, 1941, he was seventeen years old. He’d had to get a note from his mother to be able to enlist.

I hope others who know more will comment.

Ken Wells USN


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