Sunday, July 29, 2012

Going to College in Tahoe

Can you get a college education in a mountain paradise?
Let's face it, the real reason a standard-issue dude or dudette would come here to go to school is because he or she wants to ride their snowboard or ski or sail or bag peaks or go rock climbing or jet-skiing or... You get the idea. College ain't gonna be the first priority.
But unless you're like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other famous dropouts, college is going to be a critical centerpiece of your education. A college degree is the new high school degree, the minimum requirement to nail down most jobs.
When I moved to Tahoe in my thirties, it never occurred to me that kids might come here to go to school. But an unusual set of circumstances found me working as an adjunct teacher at the LTCC (Lake Tahoe Community College). I soon discovered that LTCC was the cultural center of the South Shore.

Lake Tahoe Community College

Likewise, Sierra Nevada College is the cultural center of the North Shore. 

Sierra Nevada College

I had an epiphany of sorts and realized that Tahoe is the kind of place that's great for any student whose affinity for the classroom is a bit down the priority list. And I've since met many students who have discovered that they can get a good education in between sunny days on the mountain or lake. (Note, if you skip class on too many fresh-pow days, you're gonna be in trouble just like if you were going to school in the city!)

Library Launches New Sustainability Resource Center
Sierra Nevada College Library
(You won't find a more beautiful library anywhere!)
So if you're a high school student who loves to ski or ride, consider Tahoe. We're not just for future Olympian wannabes, although many Olympians have come from Tahoe. But Tahoe can provide a fantastic environment for kids who would like to find a town where they can both go to college and pursue the mountain activities that they love.
Both Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra Nevada College have beautiful facilities on beautiful campuses.
Sierra Nevada College is in Incline Village. It offers four-year liberal arts degrees and even offers Masters degrees in Teaching and Education.
Lake Tahoe Community College is in South Lake Tahoe. 

It offers two-year Associate degrees, and, if you live on the California side of the state line, is incredibly affordable compared to most college programs. For those kids who want to go on to a 4-year degree, many LTCC credits transfer to four-year programs. (Note, this is one of the best secrets going in the world of college! I know people who did two years at community college, got good grades, then easily transferred to a prestigious UC school (University of California) that wouldn't have accepted them straight out of high school. You get the cred of a 4-year degree at the fancy school, but you have more fun and pay roughly half the price for your education!)
(For parents reading this, you will want to know that the communities of both of Tahoe's colleges have lots of what parents like: safe neighborhoods, lots of opportunities for good, clean exercise and entertainment, easy-to-get part-time jobs at the ski resorts or in local restaurants and lodgings, and easy parent access because the Reno-Tahoe International airport is only 50 minutes away from Incline Village and an hour and a half from South Lake Tahoe.)
In sum, if you have an appetite and passion for a mountain paradise, think about Tahoe. It is a fantastic setting for a great college education.
Check out our schools:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How Writing Taught Me Greater Respect for Cops

When I started writing crime fiction, I had no experience with law enforcement. My concept of the world of cops was formed by reading the news, going to movies, and by reading crime novels. I had a romanticized idea of cops. They were the dramatic shield that protected society from villains. Cops rescued damsels-in-distress from their watchtower prisons. Cops used feats of daring-do to capture bad guys. Cops combined the driving skills of Hollywood stunt drivers with the bluster of Dirty Harry. In short, I had no clue about real cops, what they did, or even how many kinds there were.
For example, in Tahoe we have city police officers, sheriff's officers from 5 counties, CHP, and NHP, park rangers, and even the Coast Guard, which often takes on cop-like duties. And because of the unique tourist-mecca nature of Tahoe, we also have FBI, DEA, ATF, occasional U.S. Marshals, special drug task forces and others like immigration cops. I didn't even know how to refer to all of the different kinds of cops. (For the record, it was El Dorado County Lieutenant Warren Smith who told me, “We're all cops.”)
After I moved to Tahoe, I began the beginnings of my crime-writing research, reading about law enforcement and talking to cops. They all, without exception, have seemed to me to be dedicated, focused individuals, trying their best to uphold the law, which, I've learned, isn't easy.
Just like bureaucrats behind a desk, cops struggle with excessive amounts of paper work and a crushing burden of rules that, while well-intentioned, make it hard to enforce any law.

Douglas County Sheriff's Patrol officers assisting citizens

As I investigated further, my romantic idea of cops quickly dissolved. I learned that being a cop involves a huge amount of tedious minutiae mixed with much less actual crime-fighting. I also started paying more attention to the friction that cops often experience in dealing with the public. Despite these difficulties, it appears that most cops keep a good attitude about their work.

U.S. Marshals Service

Are all cops perfect or even good? Based on legal cases about bad cops that pop up across the country, obviously not. However, it's good to remember that there are also corrupt doctors, ministers, professors, lawyers, congressmen, etc. (Wait, congressmen are never corrupt, are they?!)
But I've talked to a lot of cops in Tahoe. Every one has impressed me with his or her professionalism and dedication. Are they putting on their better sides, talking to a writer? Maybe. But I think I've got a pretty good BS detector. And I haven't picked up on much BS. I've heard some of the jokes, the non-serious stuff they do to blow off steam, just like the pressure-releasing antics I've learned about when I've talked to firemen. But I've also seen the serious introspection. The sergeant who explained how he considers his role in society and what he thinks about when confronted with the gray areas of crime. The lieutenant who told me about the ethical dilemmas that he faces when confronting a potentially violent criminal. The FBI agent who described, in intellectual law-speak, the myriad legal factors involved in what laypeople might think is just the simple arrest of a common crook.

I've developed a great deal of respect for cops and the difficulties of what they do. Would I want to do it? No. Would most of my readers? No. Yet, as the old cliche says, we're glad they're there when we call them.
It was unexpected, this new respect for cops that I've developed over the last twenty years. And writing brought it to me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

People Do Judge a Book by its Cover

There have been studies – hidden video camera stuff – that show how people choose a book. First, book browsers scan a bunch of books, looking at the covers. They pick one out, look at the front up close, turn it over to read the back copy, then turn back to the front. They scowl and frown and smile and touch.
If the book manages to get through all of those tests, only then do they open it up, read a few sentences and maybe buy the book.
Covers are that important.

The covers of my books – the American ones – have all been designed by Keith Carlson, a graphic artist in Portland, Oregon. He is a design wizard.
From the first book, the idea was to have bold designs, strong colors, and somewhat over-the-top illustrations. Not as racy as the pulp covers of the '40s and '50s, but definitely not soft and subtle, either.
For 11 years now I've watched reader reactions. Many people tell me they love the covers. One of the most common questions I get is, “Who does your covers?”
A few just look without talking. They stare, their eyes moving from book to book. Then they pick up a book, read the back, and look at the front again, just like in the hidden-camera videos.
All ten of my covers have individual components, but they also share common design elements so that they subtly communicate the sense that each book is part of a series.
Many times, people have said, “These covers make such a good set, they must have all been planned from the beginning.”
The truth is that Keith Carlson made it look that way. I owe him a great deal.

P.S. I hope the stories live up to the covers!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Time for Owen and Spot's Next Adventure!

My 10th book will be out at the end of this month. Called TAHOE TRAP, it is about a 10-year-old illegal, Mexican, immigrant boy whose foster mother is murdered, leaving him homeless and, because he doesn't speak any Spanish, without even a country he can call home. I'm exited about this book. It may be my best, yet.
For my schedule of talks and signings, please visit my Events Page.
The 10th Owen McKenna Tahoe Mystery
Thank you for your interest and support!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Big Dog or Small Dog? Dogs Don't Care.

In a couple of my books, Spot, a Harlequin Great Dane, plays with a Toy Poodle vastly smaller than he is, always an entertaining thing to witness in real life.
Speaking of which, today I exhibited my books at an Art and Craft Festival. A gentleman stopped at my tent to see which of my books he hadn't read. Tugging on the leash in his hand was a tiny Chihuahua, a female, maybe 5 pounds, maybe less.
While we chatted, a woman strolled up with a St. Bernard. Maybe 225 pounds. Nowhere close to the largest that St. Bernards come, but a big dog by any measure. In addition to the huge size discrepancy of these two dogs, the Chihuahua had really short fur, while the “Saint” had a thick, long, coat. The Chihuahua had pointy ears, the Saint, floppy ears. And as everyone knows, the body shape of Chihuahuas and St. Bernards are as different as it comes for dogs. Chihuahua barks and growls are very different from those of a St. Bernard. In fact, these two dogs at my tent were so different that a person raised without exposure to dogs would believe they were two very different species of animal.
An illuminating example of similar animals from different species would be to compare a coyote and a wolf with a Husky or a German Shepherd, three related canine species. Their similarities are much more obvious than any similarity between the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard, but coyotes, wolves, and dogs know they are different from each other.
Just the weight difference between the Chihuahua and the Saint is astonishing, a ratio in the range of 1 to 45. And some dogs come even smaller and bigger than these two. (A similar ratio for us would produce people ranging from, say, 50 pounds up to 2250 pounds.)

But despite such major differences, these dogs didn't seem to notice it.
The two dogs sniffed and wagged, each happy to see a fellow dog, but exhibiting no unusual reactions. They could have been same-sized dogs like a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab.
How does that work? How do they know they are so close as to be like humans of different races?
By contrast, if you took a 10-pound house cat and a 120-pound Mountain Lion and introduced them to each other, they would see no family link. Their body shapes are much more similar than those of the Chihuahua and the Saint Bernard. Their fur is similar. And the weight ratio of 1 to 12 is much closer. Yet the lion would see the cat as lunch and the cat would see the lion as something to keep them hiding under the bed until long after the lion left.
How do cats and lions know they are different even though they look so similar? The Saint Bernard would never consider a Chihuahua food. And the Chihuahua had no fear of the Saint Bernard.
The probable answer is that recognition of fellow dogs is so hard-wired into a dog's DNA that it works even when the size and shape and sounds are hugely different. I think that, in our 30,000-year association with dogs, while we've shaped the evolution of the different breeds, we've also shaped and socialized their behaviors, helping them to understand that they are all dogs, regardless of size or shape or sound.
The result is impressive to watch.
Big dogs or small dogs? Dogs don't care.