Archive for May, 2014

May 14, 2014

#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

May 3, 2014

#76) Can U-Turns help the economy?

There’s a certain thing that, if legalized, likely may have an impact on the local economy in the form of increased tax revenue from consumer spending and more money funneled to area businesses rather than payment of fines.   I speak, of course, of legalizing a “U” turn in the southeast bound direction on Collier Avenue at the intersection of Central Avenue in Lake Elsinore, CA.

Of course, not being able to make a U-turn is a first world problem to end all first world problems.  But bear with me for just a few minutes.

Collier Avenue heads northwest/southeast, roughly paralleling the shore of Lake Elsinore and Interstate 15.  The section between Riverside Avenue and Central Avenue is also California Highway 74.  When Collier hits Central Avenue, as seen here, drivers can turn left in either of two dedicated lanes to reach the freeway.  However, from neither lane is a driver allowed to make a U-turn.

Why does this matter?

Recently I was driving that stretch of road and saw, in the shopping center on the left, a restaurant where I decided I wanted to have lunch.  Having worked up an appetite hiking the El Cariso Truck Trail nearby, I was hungry and was eagerly anticipating a burger, only to be disappointed that I was not allowed to make a U-turn that would have allowed me to enter the shopping center.

By this point, I have made my first world problem even more of a first world problem, if possible.  But this isn’t about me; it’s about Lake Elsinore and its economy.  I acknowledge that I could have driven farther on Central Avenue to a point where I could have made a U-turn but I decided, like Rosa Parks, to make a stand and instead to have lunch in the neighboring city of Murrieta, thus pulling dollars from the Lake Elsinore economy because I was not allowed to make a U-turn.

Let’s extrapolate.  Lake Elsinore’s population is about 50,000; with attractions such as outlet malls, the minor league baseball team Lake Elsinore Storm, a casino and the lake itself–a popular recreational spot–quite a few people outside of the city spend time there either for work, play or both.  Collier Avenue has a large volume of traffic and I can’t help but imagine that I’m not the only one who has had to pass by the shopping center due to being unable to legally make a U-turn.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the illegal U-turn might cost the shopping center on average one customer per hour.  If each would-be customer represents $10 in spending, that’s $240 per day (OK, so we know that no one’s entering the shopping center at 2am, but there’s probably more than one person during peak hours.  It’s an estimate, not meant to be scientifically air-tight or legally binding.)  If these numbers are right, or at least ballpark, the illegal U-turn costs the businesses in that shopping center about $87,000 per year.  That’s just one U-turn on one street in one city.

Of course, Lake Elsinore probably gleans some revenue from tickets.  However, according to traffic attorney Scott Desind, only about 25% of ticket revenue stays with the local enforcement agency.

Maybe I’m wrong and the legalization of U-turns such as the one at the intersection of Collier and Central would result in an Armageddon of death and destruction caused by reckless drivers.  Perhaps if I was more informed about law enforcement’s side of the argument I wouldn’t be so eager to cry “policing for revenue.”  All I’m asking is that local governments such as Lake Elsinore consider the economic implications of laws and regulations that are allowed to exist under the mantle of public safety.