Monthly Archives: November 2015

53. Irritants

Arrggh!Dear reader, batten down the hatches. I am going to rant.

I work very hard at appearing calm, balanced, and of “an equable disposition”. It’s all a lie. I really live at a slow simmer, ready to break into a full boil.

I hate ignorance, complacency, and sloppiness, which makes it very hard to watch TV news and all but impossible to watch commercials. I can’t drink coffee while watching TV for fear I’ll throw my mug at the screen.

Of all the irritants in daily life, probably nothing grinds my gears as much as those who torture the English language while thinking they are speaking well.

So, get ready . . .

Small means little. Little means small. What does small-little mean? Is it smaller than little, or littler than small? Despite the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever, small-little seems to have completely replaced both small and little in everyday speech.


First ever — are you kidding me? First ever! First means first. Period. It is an absolute. All reasonable modifiers added to first reduce the field over which it is absolute. The first person to graduate from Harvard is absolute. The first black person to graduate from Harvard is also absolute, but from a smaller set of people. The first left handed, gay, Canadian Mormon to graduate from Harvard is absolute, from a yet smaller set.

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. Saying he is the first ever man is space doesn’t make the statement more absolute, it just makes the person speaking seem ignorant.

If you’re first, you’re first. Saying first ever doesn’t make you more first. It doesn’t make you any firster.

What next? Infinity-er, followed by infinity-est?


The English language changes constantly. What is normal today is likely to seem quaint tomorrow. Despite this rant, I have no problem embracing change, but as users of the English language we still have one obligation.

If the change is stupid, don’t use it.


52. Anthropology 101

220px-Nehru_gandhiFirst I wanted to be a scientist, an inventor, and a spaceman. The word astronaut hadn’t been invented yet. By the time I reached high school John Storer, Peter Mathiessen, and Marston Bates had converted me to ecology. I entered college majoring in biology; following their rules, I took chemistry and math the first year and enrolled in Biology 201 at the beginning of year two. I lasted less than a week, because the whole department was DNA crazy. In the words of Marston Bates, they were only interested in “skin-in” biology, while I was only interested in “skin-out” biology. They were wearing white lab coats; I wanted to wear khaki.

rolling sched...Ten years later, everyone would have been studying ecology. My timing was a fortunate misfortune, because twenty years later the study of ecology had degenerated into fighting with government bureaucracy to save what little of the wild remained. Diplomacy is a skill I never had and never wanted, so it’s a good thing my life didn’t lead me down that path.

Anthropology was the closest thing to behavioral biology that MSU offered. I switched majors and it served me well. I spent two summers on archaeological digs which taught me I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. I did want to look like one. My roommate and I took our first archaeology class in 1967. Professor Cleland was tall and lean, with close cropped hair and a full red beard. We went back to the dorm and threw away our razors. I never went back to bareface, which came in handy a year later when the Summer of Love occurred and suddenly there were hippies everywhere.

All this, you understand, was years before Indiana Jones put on his hat and picked up his whip.

My interests within anthropology soon narrowed down to South Asia, that is from Pakistan, through India to Bhutan and from Nepal to Sri Lanka, including overseas populations in places like Trinidad and Fiji. I mined that knowledge heavily in A Fond Farewell to Dying and made two of the main characters in Cyan Dravidian Indians from Trinidad.

Although I spent a lot of energy studying Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, the religion around which I built Jandrax came from a more personal source – from growing up a fundamentalist and then bailing out.

The core concept of Anthropology is culture.

Putting it as simply as possible, we do not see with our eyes or hear with our ears, but every sensory perception is filtered through our cultural upbringing. We have an internalized vision of what the world is like, and every perception is censored by that view.

That is a quote from a paper I gave at Westercon 34 in Sacramento, California in 1981, in which I summarized what the study of anthropology and the writing of novels had taught me about creating alien cultures. Thirty-five years later, it stands up well to the test of time, so I am presenting it on this website. It starts today in Serial.

It’s called How to Build a Culture. Pop over and give it a look.

51. Thanksgiving

DSCN0636My father said, “A man who sits down to eat without saying grace is like a pig eating acorns without looking up to see who’s shaking the tree.”

I like that, even though I no longer think there is anyone up there.

rolling sched...When I lost my faith, it was instantaneous, like a soap bubble bursting; and my father, who had been the shining center of my childhood, was of no help. He was a man of arrogant humility, and I feared him too much to tell him about the change.

I owe you an explanation for that oxymoron. He believed that any man, however good in the eyes of other men, was a worm before God. He also believed that God was all powerful and had given us his Word to follow, and he read that Word daily.

My father had the humility of knowing he was nothing, and the arrogance of knowing he had all the answers in the Bible in his hand. It was a lethal combination. When I was a child, I feared his godlike certainty, though now I see the deeper uncertainties behind it.

So how do you stay thankful when there is no one to whom you can direct your thanks?

You can, you know. I am thankful every day of my life. I put the question into the words of Ian Gunn in the novel Raven’s Run, as he tries to explain to his lover:

“Faith isn’t something you can turn off and on. When it’s gone, it’s just gone.”

Raven said, “I couldn’t live like that. Don’t you ever miss it – miss Him?”

I shuffled the words around in my mind to get them just right. It was something I didn’t want her to misunderstand.

“What I miss,” I said, “is like this: I go out in the evening and I’m alone and I see a beautiful sunset. The clouds are on fire and the sky is so blue it’s almost green. It is so beautiful it makes me hurt and I just want to look up and say, ‘Thank you.’ But there’s no one to say it to. That’s what I really miss. Having someone to say ‘thank you’ to.”

The truth is, I am as thankful today for the good things in my life as I was fifty-five years ago when I carried my Bible to school as a testimony to my faith. Now I direct that thanks to the people around me – most especially to my wife – with a little left over to send toward the (probably) empty sky.

50. Change of Venue

If you googled here to find out how to get your trial changed to another county, sorry about that. This is an entirely different subject.

In point of fact, this is the fiftieth post in A Writing Life, with about sixty posts in Serials on this same website. It is time to revisit some of the things I said in post number one.

Once upon a time I wanted to be a folk singer. It was 1966, and I was a college freshman. I bought a guitar and was getting pretty good when the Summer of Love hit, everybody formed psychedelic rock bands, and the coffee houses went the way of the dinosaur.

rolling sched...I had lost my venue. I wasn’t a Christian, so I couldn’t sing in church; I wasn’t a drunk, so I couldn’t sing in bars. And U-tube wasn’t even dreamed of.

When I started writing, the venue was clear. Books were published by publishers and sold in bookstores, or in bookstands, or by dumps in grocery stores. (Dumps are fold-up cardboard bookstands designed for temporary placement.) Literary agents facilitated the process. Later, agents became virtual guardians of the gates to publication.

There were always other routes to publication. I have a friend who wrote a cookbook for children and self-published. She still has a garage full of unsold books. Twenty years ago there were always stories of authors who had self-published and become rich and famous. Probably a few of them were true; probably for every success there were a thousand garages full of unsold books.

Publicity and distribution are the key issues, and the internet provides new venues for both. You can self-publish e-books, or go e-book with a traditional publishers, as with my novel Cyan coming out from Edge next year. In either case, it is up to the author to publicize his own books.

One could, for example, set up a website and offer free reads on a Serial blog, along with tidbits from forty years of A Writer’s Life. That might build readership for one’s novels.

It has worked so far – you’re here. Stay tuned to find out how it goes in the future.

49. The Green Ripper

220px-АК-47This post regarding “detective” Travis McGee was written for later inclusion, but events in Paris and Mali have made it too current to wait. As early as 1979, John D. MacDonald had something to say about the situation that engulfs us today.

Travis McGee’s day has come and gone. His Florida, so loved by his readers, has changed until he and Meyer would hardly recognize it. That’s appropriate, in a way, because John D. MacDonald wrote McGee with an elligaic air. McGee was always trying to hang onto a dying way of life, and he did it well for twenty years.

rolling sched...John D. MacDonald was an established writer when he began the series. He took a step that strikes me as extremely prudent; he wrote the first two books of the series before he signed a contract to continue. He wanted to be sure he wouldn’t eventually come to hate McGee.

McGee had a formula. He worked only occasionally, when money ran low; he was a recovery consultant. If you had something taken from you in a manner the law couldn’t touch, he would try to get it back. If he couldn’t, he got nothing; when he recovered something, he kept half. A high percentage, but he was always the last resort. Between jobs, he took his retirement in big chunks while he was young.

It was the greatest schtick any writer ever thought up.

The Green Ripper (a turn on the grim reaper) finds McGee ready to marry after seventeen books of assorted girlfriends, but his fiancee dies suddenly. When it develops that she was assassinated by a mysterious organization, McGee sets out to find and destroy them. An overly familiar setup, certainly, but it works here because it plays against the cool and aloof, somewhat diseangaged character that MacDonald had developed over most of the run of the series.

McGee succeeds in his quest; I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler alert before saying that. What makes this particular book notable is the manner in which it prophesies the future.

Meyer says to McGee, early in the book:

I live in two worlds, yours and the real world.  In your world the evil is small scale. It is one on one. I want to reach you before you start any kind of move that will break your heart on a larger scale than you can now conceive of.

But of course, McGee does begin the hunt and enlists in the Church of the Apocrypha – not foreign terrorists, but home grown crazies. He finds himself in training to carry out its mission. He relates a scenario from that training:

Two couples. Casual clothes. Each carried luggage. They walked close and lovingly, laughing and talking together, looking at each other, not at their surroundings. When the whistle blew, they would snatch at the luggage, yank it open, remove an automatic weapon, let the luggage fall to the ground, stand with their backs to each other, leaning against each other, almost, in a little deadly square formation, hold the weapons aiming out in four directions, and revolve slowly.

McGee succeeds. The Church of the Apocrypha is destroyed, violently. The story was grim for 1979; it is still grim today, but no longer surprising or unbelievable. In fact it sounds a lot like this month in Paris and Mali.

Sometimes being a prophet is a lousy job.

48. No Child Left Behind

bad mathFor twenty-seven years I did everything in my power to teach well. On the whole, I succeeded, because I was in a small school where I could do my job with minimal interference.

This is a letter sent to PBS in 2007. The seeming lack of timeliness is of no consequence, because the stupidities of the educational bureaucracy are a rare constant in an inconstant world.

I just watched your piece on No Child Left Behind, which quoted disaffected classroom teachers. Thank you; your coverage was dead on. The only failure was that, in their calm professionalism, your teachers understated the disaster that NCLB has visited on our schools.

You reported on the heavy reliance on multiple choice tests, but that is only the beginning of the story. Children are being taught, and tested on, material which is roughly one year beyond their ability to comprehend. Algebra is now being taught to all eighth graders. It used to be a ninth grade subject. As a result, not only are many eighth graders failing Algebra, they are also failing to get the previous eighth grade curriculum which would have prepared them for ninth grade Algebra.

This process has gone on throughout our schools. Instead of making what we teach more challenging, we have taken the same old subjects and pushed them downward, so that we are teaching children, from kindergarten to junior high school, materials that are basically beyond their comprehension. What they used to learn easily when they were developmentally ready, they now fail to learn because it is taught too soon.

A favorite phrase of NCLB supporters is that it has raised the bar. It hasn’t. The bar is the same, but the athletes are all shorter now.

We are told that all children must perform at grade level. Being at grade level means knowing what a typical child of a certain grade should know. If a child has a fifth grade level proficiency in math, it means that he knows as much math as the average fifth grader.

To say that all children must perform at grade level is to say that all children must be at or above average. When Garrison Keilor says that the children of Lake Woebegone are all above average, we know he is joking. NCLB says it with a straight face.

NCLB says that every year our children must learn more. What a contemptible lie. Every fifth grade class arriving in our classrooms knows exactly as little at the class before them, and faces exactly the same challenges during the year. If we are teaching our children correctly, they will learn what they need to learn, and what is natural for them to learn, during that year, at that age, and at that stage of their development. Then, next year, with a new group of students, we will do it all over again.

If we are doing our jobs correctly, our scores should not go up from year to year. They should stay the same, saying that once again this year we have done exactly as much as we should have, and that our children have learned exactly as much as they were able to learn.

NCLB began with a good idea, that we should make sure our second language, poor, and ethnic students don’t fall through the cracks. What it became is a massive bureaucracy of terror, completely divorced from reality.

This is nothing new. Twenty years ago the good idea that black students should have access to literature brought about Whole Language, an approach to teaching that gave us an entire generation who could not read. NCLB has taught an entire generation of students that they are failures, and has taught a generation of teachers that their job is to administer tests, follow orders, keep their mouths shut, and forget educating their students.

47. Working

DSCN5109I think I was eleven. I remember the incident with complete clarity, but not the date. I was sitting at the kitchen table; it was five in the afternoon and my dad was heading out to the dairy barn for the evening milking. As he passed my mother, he said, “I’m taking the boy with me,” and jerked his head at me. I got up and followed him out the door.

From that moment, I was a working man. I still am; retirement didn’t change anything. I’ll still be writing something, or building something, or fixing something while they’re nailing down the lid on my coffin.

This story isn’t about going back to cave life. We didn’t milk the cows by hand. There were mechanical milkers, two of them, which my dad shifted manually from cow to cow. That was exciting, because the cows were half wild and he never knew when one of them would try to kick his head off.

As each cow finished, my dad would pour the milk into a bucket, then move on to the next cow. It was my job to carry the milk into the next room and pour it into the strainer on top of a milk can – and not spill any on penalty of “the look”. Since the bucket weighted about half as much as I did, and the strainer was chin high, I got strong fast.

Work on the farm was very physical, not because we were poor, but because it was a long time ago and there weren’t many labor saving devices around. Before we got our first grain auger, I scooped tons of grain by hand. We counted it a major innovation when we switched from heavy steel scoops to light aluminum ones.

There were lazy times, too. At harvest, I drove the truck. That meant moving up next to the combine every fifteen minutes for offloading. Three minutes of driving followed by twelve minutes of waiting for the combine to go around the field again, repeated hour after hour for several weeks. I had a straw hat, a ice cooler of water, a truck seat to lounge on, and a  stack of library books. It was heaven.

We were frequently broke, but never poor. My dad never balanced a checkbook in his life. During bad years, we borrowed from the bank when we ran out of money; during good years, we paid them back. As long as the good years outnumbered the bad, it all worked out in the end.

I didn’t leave the farm to get away from work. I liked the work. I left the farm so I could find a job that would utilize my brain as well as my body. I planned to be a scientist; I ended up a writer and a teacher, but I never stopped working.

So what lessons did I learn from all this? Work is its own reward, and it had better be, because its likely to be all the reward you get. There is no relationship between work and money. You work hard and carefully because you are supposed to; it’s what a man does. It doesn’t assure success.

You can see how useful all this had been for a writer.

46. Three Men Gone (2)

Last post, I told you about a man of faith. The other two men on my list are different.

The first was a profane man. He smoked and drank and chewed tobacco, and his speech was punctuated with oaths. He was the owner and operator of the local gas station. That’s what we called it, although no one ever bought gasoline there. Every farmer had a 500 gallon tank at his farm. You filled your tractor there, filled the out-of-service milk cans you used to carry gasoline to the fields, and filled your pickup.

You went to the gas station to get a tire repaired or buy a fan belt from the hundreds hanging high on the walls. The station operator would retrieve one of them using a ten foot pole with a hook on the end, which he manipulated one handed.

You see, he only had one arm, and that was a bigger deal in the fifties than it is today.

If you are young, you may never have seen a tire removed from its rim. If you are under fifty, chances you have never seen it done without a pneumatic breaker. This station operator had only a tire vice, a heavy rubber-faced hammer, and two or three levers shaped like blunt, curved chisels. When a tire needed repair, it was the signal for the start of a violent ballet with all the farmers gathering around to watch. He would drive the tire away from the rim with a dozen powerful blows from his overdeveloped right arm, drop the hammer and insert a lever, haul it back and brace it against the center stem of the tire vice, grab the hammer and drive it deeper, grab the free end of the lever and haul it mightily sideways clear around the perimeter until the tire popped free of the rim so he could reach the tube inside. It was fast and loud as he did with one arm what the onlooking farmers could not have done with two.

Today, because of helicopters and advances in medicine, fewer soldiers die within the first hour of being wounded. As an unintended consequence, limbless persons have become common. Add to that the generation old shame for the way returning Viet Nam vets were sometimes treated, and you end up with a culture which embraces its amputees.

This was not true in the fifties. The station owner’s lost limb could have been a war wound. He was of the right age to have lost it in WWII, but I never knew. No one talked about things like that back then. And no one provided special hospitals, advanced prosthetics, or support groups. A man made it on his own, or he didn’t, with very little help.

I was impressed. I still am.


I never met the third man in this trio. His name was Nigger Eddie. I won’t clean that up. It would be as wrong as changing Injun Joe’s name to clean up Tom Sawyer.

There were no black people in my little town, but Nigger Eddie lived somewhere in the county. That was the name everybody called him by; I never knew his real one. We would see him driving down the main street, which was also a state highway, face forward in his pickup, never making eye contact. People would look up as he passed by and say, “There goes Nigger Eddie.” They never waved; he never looked up.

Nigger Eddie was respected by everybody because he kept to himself and never made trouble. He drove through our lives, but he was never a part of them. Apartheid was new in the fifties, even in South Africa, but my people fully understood its basic principles.

That’s all I know. Even as a child I wondered where he lived; was he married; did he have kids; what was that family’s life like? I will never know.

Within a decade, the civil rights movement opened my eyes and began to open the eyes of the nation. Here was a black man too old to reap the benefits of that change. I hope that his children and grandchildren did.