Category Archives: A Writing Life

678. Taking a Break

I’m going to take a break

Yesterday, here in California, the Governor requested that all people over 65 self-isolate. That makes sense to me, and I passed that milestone seven years ago, so my wife and I are going to hunker down and become temporary hermits. That isn’t too much of a hardship since we live in the country and keep a well stocked larder anyway.

This change shouldn’t bother my blog, but it does. I’m not worried for my wife and myself, but worrying about the rest of the country and the world beyond weighs on me. It has also been getting harder lately to come up with new things to say, especially on subjects that don’t call for hours of research for a post that will be read in three minutes. This is post 678, after all.

So I am going to take a break. I have other things on my mind and I’m sure you do too.

I’ll be back. Whether in two weeks or two months, I can’t say. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on my novels, keep my wife company, and keep thinking about all the good people out there beyond my driveway.

Take care, folks. Stay safe.

677. A Perfect Book

This is a photo of my  copy. The front blurb, which is too small to read, says, “He was a rip-roaring rebel . . .  the Army be damned!”  However the narrator was nothing like a rebel and the Army appears nowhere in this book. So much for truth in advertising.

Let me tell you about a perfect book — not some abstract idea of perfection, but a very specific book called Last Scout by Wade Everett, which is the pseudonym used by two western writers, Will Cook and Giles A. Lutz, for the books they wrote together.

What makes Last Scout perfect, for me, is the way in which it weaves together four strands into one seamless cable. It is a mystery, a western, a story of family, and a story of a boy growing into manhood. Each of those strands gets roughly equal treatment.

It was never much of a success (see below) possibly because of this balance. If you love westerns, there is probably too much family stuff interrupting the action. A mystery lover would wonder why Wild Bill Hickok keeps showing up, and a family story reader might wish Page, the young narrator, wouldn’t get into so many fist fights and shoot-outs.

I like it all, but especially the pacing.

Chapter one: Deadwood, during the height of the gold rush. Page, our narrator, meets his grandpa for the first time. He has been languishing in an old folks home. Page meets him at the stage where his gramps greets him by throwing him repeatedly to the ground. He isn’t mad; he’s just an ornery old mountain man testing out the young-un. Page takes him back to his mother who is not happy that the old coot is coming home.

Page leaves to dodge the fireworks between the two and goes to see his dad, who is running one of the mines which have been losing money to stage hold-ups. His dad explains that his mother is half-Indian, born of one of the old man’s many wives. She was raised white in a school for girls until the old man took her back to the blanket where she had to learn to live as an Indian. That is where Page’s dad found her and married her.  She loves the old man, but she has never forgiven him for taking her out of the white world when she was a girl. All this has given her an exaggerated need for respectability.

Page borrows his dad’s shotgun and heads out to shoot some birds for supper, wild game to make his grandpa feel more at home. There he meets Buckley, manager of the stage line which is being overwhelmed by hold-ups. They hunt together, but Buckley is unskilled and Page is a wizard with a shotgun. At the end of the day, Buckley sets up a test. He hangs a batch of sacks of flour in trees a few miles out of town, and challenges Page to hit them from a moving stage. Jim Bell, the marshall, and Hickok hear about it and tag along. It is a wild ride, but Page pots every target, and Buckley offers him a job guarding the stage as Bell and Hickok look on. Of course he says yes. And of course that causes a row when he gets home, but he has given his word, so he keeps the job.

That’s chapter one of fifteen and already everything that will follow is rolling down the track at high speed. Hold onto you cowboy hat.

In a later chapter, Marshall Bell’s mother and Buckley’s sister come into town on one of the stages Page is guarding. Now the dynamics of three three families are play, which becomes more important when Page determines that the head of the robbers is a man from one of the three families. After he decides he can’t trust Bell, and since he it the primary target the robbers are shooting at, Page feels he has to unravel the mystery himself.

Page and his grandfather become uneasy partners, but Page can’t quite trust the old mountain man not to just shoot his suspects.

Eventually the robbers get caught, the family tensions sort themselves out, the mystery man in the background is outed, Page grows up, and there is plenty of manly fist and gun play along the way.

What makes all this perfect is the way things move from scene to scene. In a normal novel of this type, an action scene is often followed by some extraneous business, such as a pony ride from one town to another through memorable scenery. This gives the reader time to catch his breath. In Last Scout, a scene of family life moves to a scene of sharp action and then to a scene where Page learns a lesson in maturity. Nothing is wasted; nothing is extraneous.

If I have any complaint, it is that Page is too competent for his age. He makes too few embarrassing mistakes on his way to manhood.

All this takes place in about 42,000 pretty short words. An author today would need a series of four long books to give us this much story.

============

It’s hard to find the publishing history of a minor work, so this is all I know. Last Scout was published in paperback in 1960 by Ballantine. I bought my copy used, probably in the seventies or eighties, and I haven’t seen another copy since. Apparently it was reprinted in 1997 in a Large Print Hardcover edition, credited only to Will Cook. As I write, Amazon has only two copies of the hardback and one of the paperback, all used, and your local used book store is likely to have none..

676. Cat A Strophic Fiction

One of my many friends.

I got a long and thoughtful reply to 668. Century Ships from a person (human name not given) whose website is dedicated to cats. I went there, as I always go at least once to the sites of people who like my posts.

Lots of SF people tend to be cat people. Heinlein famously loved cats and wrote about them. Two internet friends who found me through this blog, one a writer of fantasy and one a reviewer of old SF and other schlock, are both cat people. Me, too.

That is the tenuous connection between science fiction and this trip down memory lane.

In the late seventies, I was writing full time and my wife was working at an art and frame gallery. Leaving work one evening, she saw a cardboard box sitting in front of a pet store two doors down. The store was already closed, and she couldn’t walk away without looking. Inside were two abandoned kittens, only hours old. She knew they wouldn’t last the night.

Half an hour later she came in the front door of our house carrying the box and said, “Guess what I found.”

We raised them, cleaned their eyes, cleaned their other ends, burped them, and fed them multiple times a day. They slept in a box next to our bed so we could hear when they were hungry — frequently, as it turned out.

Big Buddy — the internet name of the SF fan who wrote about century ships — posted a study that “explained” why cats bond with us and see us as parents. As if that needed confirmation. (He didn’t think so either. He was making light of the study.) Cats, dogs, and people are herd animals. They naturally live in family groups, so of course they bond.

Bonding goes both ways, as if you didn’t already know that.

My wife suggested we raise the kittens just until they were old enough to give away. Right! They were with us seventeen years.

One was a gray tabby. I was looking into his kitten-blue eyes early on when Don McLean came on the radio singing about how the swirling clouds reflected in Vincent (van Gogh)’s eyes of china blue. China Blue became his name. His orange sister had a one inch tail, so she became Spike, and later Spikey.

It is a testimony to what cats do to us that we talk to them. China Blue was in my lap once, getting petted while I took a break from writing. Music was always playing in the background any time I was at the typewriter. A girl folk singer’s voice caught China’s ear and he looked around for her. I told him, “Don’t worry, buddy. That’s just the way people purr.”

“Sanity” and “cat” are rarely used in the same sentence.

I put a pillow on my desk and they took turns sleeping there, although China often preferred to drape himself around my shoulders while I wrote.

Good times.

The picture at the top is one of my many subsequent friends, resting in his favorite wheelbarrow. I have plenty of pictures of Spike and China, but they aren’t digital.

675. Extra, Extra

Yesterday this blog reached 10,000 hits.

I’ve never been quite sure what that means, since I have had days that have more likes than hits, and it doesn’t seem to include all of the followers who are supposedly notified of each post. I assume it leaves out all the spam the filter has intercepted. I also don’t know how it counts someone who finds my site, then wanders around from post to post upon arrival.

However it happens, I’m glad to see it. Thanks, everybody.

674. The Voice of a Scholar

This will be short, an excerpt from The Cost of Empire, set in the year 188-, in an alternate universe. It refers in part to what was published in Old Lascar.
Sometimes a writer drops a clue to his personal philosophy into conversations between his characters. Take this as a hint from a guy who could never get enough of learning.

Very little in an ordinary dirigible is asymmetrical, but the King Class had been designed to carry bombs or troops, and only given diplomatic quarters as an afterthought. As a consequence, in making room for the dining hall and the staterooms there had originally been no place for the passengers to gather and watch the view below. A second design had pulled the passageway from the center to the port side, lined the outboard wall with windows, and lined the inboard wall with benches. It had been unpopular while crossing the Arabian Sea, but now interesting scenery was back and so were the lounging passengers.

David had begun to spend his off hours there, answering the passenger’s questions and enjoying the scenery himself.

The fleet of eight had followed the coast down to Mangalore, circled the city without landing, and headed inland following the Netravathi River. Normally, Harry could have jumped the Western Ghats, but with an overload of passengers, cooks, servants, fancy food, and the added mass of the walls and fixtures of the passenger’s quarters, the ship’s altitude capability was considerably reduced.

This morning, Kalinath was seated on one of the benches, with his bodyguard sitting stiffly beside him. There was no place for Singh to stand and it clearly made him nervous. He looked on suspiciously as David approached, put palms together, and said, “Namaskar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Namaskar, Mr. James. Sit.” He gestured to the place beside him, and David took it. “How is it that you know to say namaskar, instead of namaste?”

“You are from Bengal, are you not?”

“I am. Have you been to India before?”

“No. I learned the difference from an old man in London, a displaced lascar.”

“A servant?”

“No, just an old man. He sat every day in the sun on the street near where I was living while they were building the Harry. I talked to him occasionally. He taught me the difference.”

“I don’t know many Englishmen, Mr. James, who talk to old men on the street whom they do not know.”

David shrugged. “I don’t normally, either, but I knew I was going to India and I wanted more than I could read in the newspapers. This old man was clearly a Sikh, and he seemed so calm and — I suppose the word is dignified — that he seemed like someone worth knowing.”

Kalinath only nodded, and chose not to pursue the subject. The river below was brown and slow. The countryside was green and heavy with trees. The air moving through the dirigible was still warm, even at a thousand feet of altitude, and carried a trace of the smell of vegetation. As they talked and the dirigible moved inland, there was a rapid change from coastal plain to foothills and forest gave way to plantation. David asked, and was told that these were crops of tea. Kalinath knew tea, and gave a brief description of its cultivation.

“You see, Mr James, even though I am a son of scholars and a man of the cities, when I knew that I would need to go to England to plead the case for my homeland’s freedom, I had to become an expert on many things. One cannot champion a land he does not know intimately. You understand, I know.”

“Not personally.”

“Come, Mr. James, one scholar knows another when they meet.”

“I’m no scholar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Is there anything about the construction and management of this craft that you do not know?”

“No, but that’s my job.”

“And you asked an old man about India, and the proper form of address.”

David shook his head and said, “I just wanted to know.”

“I just wanted to know,” Kalinath repeated. “That, Sir, is the voice of a scholar.”

673. Constitution

As I write this, the Senate is about to begin questioning both sides in the impeachment of Donald Trump. Presumably by the time you read this, the issue will have been decided.

Both sides have sworn their allegiance to the Constitution, claim to be dedicated to preserving it, and claim that the other side will destroy it.

It’s actually kind of hard to destroy our Constitution, but it is changeable. Soon after it was passed — and its passage was based on the assumption that this would happen — ten amendments were added which changed the Constitution immensely.

Today, when people avow their loyalty to the Constitution, they are usually referring to those ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which were not part of the original constitution at all. They also say:

. . . one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That is from the flag salute, not the Constitution, and during the first decades of the Republic several groups from several different parts of the country, north as well as south, attempted to prove that it was divisible. reversible, or could be ignored.

Eventually the South did secede, and was brought back by armed force, making our country in fact indivisible, whether or not that had been the intent of the founders. It also resulted in the removal of a sizable chunk of the constitution.

What chunk? This one:

Article One Section Three — Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Article One Section Nine — The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

Article Four Section Three — No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service of Labour, but shall be delivered up

Translating those into ordinary language:

Article One Section Three — There are free people, indentured servants, Indians, and slaves. Free people and indentured servants count as one whole person, Indians don’t count, and slaves count as three-fifths of a person, when determining taxes and representation.

Article One Section Nine — The importation of slaves cannot be stopped until 1808.

Article Four Section Three — Slaves escaping to free states have to be sent back.

It is hard to imagine anyone, even the most rabid white nationalist, wanting those pieces of the Constitution back. However,  it is very easy to forget that they were there in the first place.

Freedom of speech and religion, freedom of the press, freedom for all Americans to vote, even women, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a trial by jury — none of these were provided by the original Constitution.

The point? There are two, actually, both of which deserve reiteration.

Our Constitution has changed tremendously since it’s ratification. No one alive today would even consider living under the Constitution in its original form. Even the people who ratified it felt that way. They demanded, as the price of ratification, that a Bill of Rights be immediately added.

When people say, “I support the Constitution,” and we think they are lying, they may not be. We carry in their minds many different interpretations of what “Constitution” means. And we will probably keep on arguing about those interpretations for another two hundred years.

672. Strong As a Woman

No one would doubt that Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan were strong women,
but so are tens of thousands of unknowns. One of these was my friend.

I’ve been writing forever, and I taught middle school for twenty-seven years, which sometimes felt like forever. I came in as an intern, which put me into a veteran teacher’s classroom for a time before moving to my own. The teacher I was under was wonderful, but tough.

Twenty or so years later I spoke at her retirement ceremony. I’ll leave her name out of this, since she deserves her privacy. That’s why there are so many “shes” and no proper nouns in what comes below.

These are the notes for that speech. I found them today and they made me smile.

She took no crap, and I took no crap, so we were something of a matched pair. When I started to read this at the ceremony, she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Is this a roast? I don’t want a roast.”

It isn’t a roast, it’s an homage.

======================

I think it is fair to say that *** has a forceful personality. I can’t think of a time when I was in a room with her that everyone there was not aware of her presence. She makes an impression.

Over the years there have been a number of people who have changed their attitudes because she brought, shall we say, compelling arguments to the table.

She generally knows what she thinks, knows what she wants, and isn’t shy about saying so.

She doesn’t mind standing up for herself. Everyone who has ever met her knows that. But if you listen during those endless discussions we all get into in the teacher’s lounge, you will notice that she stands up for more than just herself. She respect herself and demands respect from others, but she also demands respect for teachers in general.

I can’t remember how many times I have heard her say to other teachers or aides, “Don’t take that. Don’t put up with that. You deserve to be treated better than that.”

I’ve also heard her say, “You’re really stupid if you do that. That will get you into big trouble, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.”

You always know where you stand with her.

*           *           *

She has been at our school long enough to become an institution —- longer, in fact, than anyone else except for the real old fogies like me. It is easy to forget that she spent most of her career at the elementary school. That is where I met her.

I was an intern, on my first day, when I was placed with her. She is actually a few months younger than I am, but she had been teaching seven years while I was off becoming a starving writer. She was mongo pregnant and I was to replace her while she was on maternity leave.

I had a few precious weeks with her before she went off to have her son, and even after she was gone I had the benefit of working in a classroom environment which she had crafted. In her absence I did things her way, and her way worked.

Most people who think they know her, don’t really. You can’t really know a teacher unless you have been in her classroom and watched her teach.

After she returned from leave, we continued to work together for a few months before I took over a different class part way through my internship. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in her classroom whenever I had the chance. Each of us has come to use the other as a sounding board. Those of you who have never team taught have missed something. You can learn a great deal about your partner, and about teaching, when you team up.

When she is teaching, she is the center of attention, but she is not the center of the lesson. This is a subtle and crucial distinction, and one that a person who has only see her lambasting the latest educational stupidity would miss. When she is teaching, she demands, controls, dramatizes, cajoles, exhorts, and forces student’s attention onto the matter at hand. She is the focus of what is going on, but what is going on is not about her. It is not a way to glorify herself, but a way to force her students to confront the tragedy of Anne Frank, or the importance of knowing their own family heritage, or the despair of the Wreck of the Hesperus.

A few years ago it became politically correct to say, “Be the scribe on the side, not the sage on the stage.” What contemptible crap! If you aren’t the smartest person in the room, why are they paying you? It is our job to be tough, organized, enthused, and relentless in bringing our knowledge to our students. But we must be the lens through which the students see, not the actual thing that they see.

I would have figured this out on my own, but I didn’t have to. It was all laid out for me the first day I walked into her classroom.

======================

So I found these notes and wrote them into the computer. As I did, I had to consider the changes that have come about in these last few years.

My friend and I both knew that if I said something loud and contrary about the endless brown rain coming down from the state board of education, I would be seen as forceful. If she said the same thing (and she did), she would be a bitch. She never let that stop her.

If she has seen a glass ceiling, she would have taken an axe to it.