Tag Archives: americana

327. The Lone Hero


                         A note before we start  ——

     Yesterday, someone searched on the sub-title of this blog (be not ashamed . . .) but my software doesn’t tell me who. For your information, unknown and curious person, I explained my relationship to this poem on the last day of 2015, and included a copy of the poem the same day.

     And now to our regularly scheduled business ——


In my youth, before Star Trek and Star Wars and computer generated effects, the typical movie hero was a cowboy, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

Even the word “beholden” seems old fashioned. Ancient. Outmoded — like the western hero himself. And to be fair, he never really existed. If you spend any time at all reading histories of the old west, you’ll find out that things were done by groups, not by lone heroes. When the Dalton gang tried to hold up two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas, it wasn’t a John Wayne figure standing tall in the street that stopped them. It was a dozen or so armed citizens that blew them out of the saddle from windows and doorways. Same story in Northfield, Minnesota when the James gang bit the dust.

I called them armed citizens. That sounds pretty good. Put them up on horses with Winchesters and send them as a posse after the bad guys. It still works — unless you are the one they are after. Call them vigilantes, and some people will start to feel uncomfortable, but not everyone. Call them a gang and people will start thinking about locking their doors.

Put them in white hoods. What do you think of them now?

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

The lone, self-sufficient individual or small family did exist. There were soddies on the Kansas prairie miles from the next settler. Or log cabins in the deep woods of Ohio and Indiana — back when Ohio and Indiana had deep woods. And there were the mountain men. You can’t get more independent than that — except that they moved across the prairie in companies, and only dispersed once they were in the mountains.

One thing is certain. The idea of the loner was always there.

I wrote my first book, a young adult novel called Spirit Deer, with the idea of the loner front and center. The young man Tim — he didn’t need a last name — got lost in the Sierras while deer hunting and found his way out without help despite innumerable trials and tribulations. You can still sell that kind of book (see Two Hands and a Knife), but they are becoming rare. Today’s YA novels seem to be about how to get along in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It better fits the world today’s youth live in. The — ask a friend, seek companionship, don’t rock the boat, politically correct, do no harm, love yourself, make no judgments, everything is morally right as long as you don’t hurt someone’s feelings — world.

Granted, there is much good in these “civilized” changes, but whatever happened to standing up on your hind feet and saying, “I don’t agree. That’s not for me.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion different from the crowd.

No wonder Trump won.

He’s as fake as Rooster Cogburn, but he represents something Americans have come to miss. The cowboy hero, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

There is one thing to remember though. When the smoke cleared and the sound of six guns faded at the end of that movie, half the town was dead in the street. That may work when you can leave the theatre and drive home to your secure suburban house. It doesn’t work so well when you have to pick up a shovel and go bury your dead.

The self-certain loner and the soft spoken conformer. As Kirk said to Spock, “The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

308. All I Really Need to Know

dscn4338All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from my Dogs

Please don’t throw rocks at me, but that kind of prissy, perfect, and pretentious tag line activates my gag reflex. Let me suggest a different, more realistic take on life.

Everything I need to know, I learned in the dairy barn.

I’m not talking about a modern milk factory, but a real, old fashioned 1950s kind of dairy. To find one today, you’d have to go to a third world country.

You’ve all seen milk and yoghurt ads showing perfectly clean, starkly black and white Holsteins standing knee deep in green, green grass. Erase that picture from your mind. It never happened.

Holstein calves come out of the womb clean, but from three days after birth they will never be black and white again. They are brown to the knees from the dust and dirt – and other things – that boil up when they walk. Their tails become a black club of matted cockle burs – and that other thing.

The grass in the ads looks so perfect because no creature is allowed to graze there before the ad is shot. Turn a herd of cattle out and in four days it will be matted, scarred, pockmarked with hoofprints, and covered with steaming piles of the fertilizer which completes the circle of life.

No complaints, you understand. A herd of cattle on a green meadow is beautiful, but the grass will be eaten down, and the ground itself will look like a billion angry golfers have been making divots. It will be nothing like pristine.

It all comes down, finally, to this. Cows produce three things. One is a clear, yellow, somewhat odorous liquid, which they produce in copious volumes. One is a brown to green semi-solid, and they produce mountains of this. One is the thick, white liquid that feeds the nation.

You can’t get the one you want, until you figure out how to handle the other two.

Just like life.

292. I’m back

dscn5448I’m back.

It’s been a weird month. Every two years my wife and I organize her guild’s quilt show. It’s a big deal and the amount of detail work is massive, but I won’t give any details. This is a blog about A Writing Life, not about the personal, private, non-writing life that sometimes jumps in with both feet. I did put in a photo of some of the quilts from the show as a teaser.

Things are progressing with Cyan, and I’ve been working hard to keep everything moving smoothly. One of the side effects of the excess of non-writing obligations is that I haven’t been able to work as unhurriedly on Cyan as I would prefer. I hate deadlines, and I am living in the middle of a snarl of them.

On January fifth I saw the first “rough” draft of Cyan’s cover. Excellent, exciting, and it looks like it will sell some books. That is of first importance. As much as we authors complain when covers are inaccurate, a naked female that sells books is always better than an accurate depiction that leaves books unsold.

By the way, this cover is not a naked female. It is a Cyl – and a rather well envisioned one at that – in a desert landscape looking up a the landing craft from the Darwin. It will all make sense when you read the book.

In the “rough” draft – which was slick, professional, and not rough at all – the Cyl was looking down toward stage left and there was no landing craft. On the more finished version I saw next, the Cyl had turned his head slightly left to look at the landing craft.

So what? So this was done by a skilled digital artist, using a high-end illustration program. You couldn’t turn the head of such a sophisticated image in a painting without starting from scratch. I know a little about this. I have been using graphics programs almost daily since the late eighties, making drawings of things I was about to build in the woodshop, drawing illustations for my science class, and designing dozens of oddball musical instruments and hundreds of quilts. I never had the opportunity to work with a really high-end program, nor had the time to spend on their leaning curve, but I recognize quality when I see it.

Even though the image looks finished, there are still a few tweaks coming, so EDGE is not letting me show you yet. As soon as I can, I will.

I have also been told that although Cyan will be an ebook, it will also be available in print-on-demand format. I’ll tell you more as things progress. It looks like the full release will be about the time of Westercon. For those of you in the eastern half of the US and the rest of the world, that is July fourth weekend.

So, I’m back, ready to pick up where I left off with a diverse mix of posts. Tomorrow we’ll look at the contributions of Gene Cernan, the astronaut who died two weeks ago.

271. Here Comes Santa Claus

This is the last of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read them in order.

Now we are on the verge of Christmas as we know it. Good old Santa Claus is about to take the stage. His midwife will be a group of stodgy old men who hated the rise of the common man, and longed for good old days that never were. Washington Irving was their leader, but a one-poem wonder named Clement Moore would be the one to change the world.

St. Nicholas and his companion delivered presents or coal to the children of Holland, but he never crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. The notion that he did is a common myth, reading subsequent events backward.

John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, played a role in establishing the Fourth of July and several other events as national holidays. He also brought St. Nicholas to the attention of America when he tried to make him the patron saint of New York City. In 1810, he published a broadside that showed a picture and accompanying poem with St. Nicholas delivering presents to children on St, Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book came along a decade later. Everyone knows that Rip van Winkle, from that book, fell asleep and woke to a different era. Not many people remember that he hated the new America he found upon waking. So did Washington Irving and his cohorts, who called themselves the Knickerbockers, and patterned themselves after the old Dutch burghers they imagined to have inhabited New Amsterdam — all based on Irving’s fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

In the Sketch Book, Irving portrayed Old Christmas in England as a joyful celebration between good masters and their servants. In Knickerbocker’s History, he related a dream which included:

. . . and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. . . .  And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

St. Nicholas, giver of presents to children, had won over a group of grumpy old men, but the rest of America did not know him yet. He was still confined to the Knickerbockers who, despite their fantasies, were of British heritage, not Dutch, and were High Church Episcopalians, not post-Puritan religious conservatives.

Clement Moore changed that, not overnight, but over about a decade. He was not the first poet of St. Nicholas. You will find the text of an earlier poem near the bottom of one of last year’s posts. If you check it out, you will agree that it would never have taken the world by storm.

If you read A Visit from St. Nicholas (which I have tacked onto the bottom of this post in case you don’t have it handy), you will see that almost the whole modern Santa is there, repackaged from the Knickerbocker mold, and made charming and familly friendly. It would be wrong to say Moore invented Santa, given St. Nick’s Dutch origins and his twenty year history with the other Knickerbockers, but it would be hard to imagine Santa conquering the world without Moore’s poem.

The only major thing missing is his red suit. We can thank Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola for that.

Could even so charming a poem have so changed the world by itself? It is doubtful. It is more reasonable to see it as a perfect summing up of forces already at work. Wassailing had turned to riot, tinged with felonious assault. Peasants wandering from door to door had become masses of overcrowded urban poor spilling wildly into the streets. A few tipsy peasants had, by sheer population growth, turned into a dangerous mob.

The middle class was rising. Respectability had become something to strive for. Falling from middle class respectablity had become something to fear. Children were no longer just a source of free labor, but were quickly becoming the center of the family. Clement Moore’s poem rode that wave of change into the hearts of America.

Bacchus was still God of the street, but Santa was becoming God of the hearthside. Frankly, I like it better that way.

Postscript: They do it differently in Shetland. I’ll tell you that story on December 26th.

A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA The Night Before Christmas)
by Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

photo by By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands (Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

270. Colonial Christmas

puritanchristmasbanThis is the second of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read yesterday’s post first.

The Battle for Christmas is not about the worldwide history of Christmas, but about American Christmas. The origin of the cult of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl, the black companion to Holland’s Sinterklass, Germanic Christmas trees and the rest are outside its view.

The Puritans of New England disliked Christmas. In fact, they outlawed it. The birth of Christ was of no particular interest to them. They were focused on his death and resurrection, and what that meant for sinners.

That was also the attitude of my childhood church. We had no Christmas services; if Sunday fell on Christmas, the sermon would begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, but would quickly turn our attention to his death and resurrection, with a full complement of fire and brimstone, and Hell to come for any who did not believe.

In point of fact, however, what the Puritans focused on was not their real problem with Christmas. They didn’t like it because it was a drunken party, with sex besides.

It comes back to leisure, full larders, and full kegs, and to the fact that the food and drink did not belong to the poor. It was the larders of the rich which were full. It was the poor who wanted some.

In agricultural times in Europe, it could be said that they wanted their share, because they had traditional rights to handouts during the season. There may have been a time when it was all respectful and friendly, as Washington Irving tried to portray it in Old Christmas (an excerpt from his Sketch Book), but the exchange was always tinged with threat, as in:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

This, of course is wassailing, but it reeked of uppity servants, harrassment of their masters, and a general overturning of authority. Which was part of the point.

In Puritan days in New England, nobody was celebrating the nativity. The Puritans were going about their work, soberly and solemnly, with no acknowledgement of the day. The lower orders, especially the sailors down by the harbor, were making merry. Very, very merry, and the Puritans didn’t like that. They made the celebration of Christmas against the law, and you never make a law unless someone is already doing what you want to forbid.

The Puritans didn’t last, but the raucous celebrations they hated did. Newer, more liberal churches began holding religoius services on Christmas day. That didn’t last long either, the first time around.

A good, old fashioned Christmas is what a lot of people think they want today, but the real old fashioned Christmas looked a lot like what we now do on New Year’s Eve.

It got worse. As society moved from an agricultural base to an industrial one, the distance between the classes increased. The upper classes were less inclined to provide the handouts that the lower class demanded. What had looked like harmless, low level intimidation — not unlike today’s trick-or-treaters — began to look like a social revolution, especially in New York City shortly after the founding of the United States.

The rich stayed home on Christmas and feasted with their friends. It was an adult celebration; children were not yet the center of Christmas. The poor took to the streets. Where else would they have to go? Their all night, loud, drunken partying brought fear to the respectable upper crust. Gentlemen spoke of riots when they referred to the raucous Christmas season celebrations by the poor.

Riot is actually not a bad description of the state of affairs.

These poor were the mob that sometimes worried the staid burghers who wrote the Consititution. They were good at killing the British during the Revolution, but they weren’t respectable. By the late 1820s, the backwoods unwashed would put Andrew Jackson into the White House, and change the future of America. Decades earlier, their urban counterparts were already making life rough for respectable rich folks in New York City and elsewhere.

These rampaging mobs frequently broke into respectable homes, harassed the homeowners, and demanded food and, especially, drink. Wassailing, yes, but carried to a new level. One old wassailing song said:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

These new urban mobs could not say that. the story continues tomorrow

269. Old European Christmas

DSCN1839In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge says, “Long past?”, and the ghost replies, “No, your past.” We’re going to turn that on its head. You already know about your childhood; you don’t need me for that. During the next three posts, we are going to travel several hundred years into the past and watch Christmas evolve into what we enjoy today.

Last night I watched a DVD of Santa and Pete, in which Saint Nicholas leaves Amsterdam to visit the New World. There he finds his red hat and coat, learns to come down chimneys, trades his horse for reindeer, and they learn to fly after drinking an old African potion. It’s a sweet movie, but it has nothing to do with reality.

Christmas has a real history, which is not as sweet, but is absolutely fascinating. Our guide for this will be an academic history of Christmas called The Battle for Christmas, written by Stephen Nissenbaum, which I first mentioned last year in A Christmas Booklist.

Some historians are dry as dust: others have a novelists touch and bring history to life. Nissenbaum is one of the latter. If you like Christmas and you like history, you can look forward to a good time with him if you seek out the book for yourself. Of course, he is a historian, so the book is dense.

*             *              *

I imagine that everyone knows that many of the traditions of Christmas, like holly and the yule log, are pagan in origin. It is also widely known that the date of Jesus birth is not found in the Bible. Put those two ideas together, and it is no surprise that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas in early New England. It’s all very logical, but it isn’t the whole reason – probably not even the major reason.

Puritans were little worried about Paganism itself. Odin and Balder did not enter into their thinking. Their world was strung between two poles – God on the right and the Devil on the left. They weren’t afraid of holly and evergreens, but they were afraid of disorder. And disorder was always waiting in the wings, locked into the agriultural cycle.

All across northern Europe, both before and after Christianity, fresh foods were available in spring and summer, and into autumn. Grains were planted in spring and harvested in fall. Some was kept to be ground into flour for winter bread. Some was preserved by fermentation to form a variety of beers. Cabbage was fermented into sauerkraut, which kept millions of German peasants alive through the winter.

In America, as late as the Revolution, apples were preserved as hard (fermented) cider which would store through the winter. Most of the excess grain grown anywhere west of the Appalacians went to market as the portable and storable product called whiskey. Alcohol may bring a tipsy smile, but it is also a food that does not spoil.

From peasants in the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution, the only leisure for the European lower classes was in winter, when farm work could not be done. Early in the winter, the season’s barley had become beer, the extra animals who could not be kept alive through the winter had been slaughtered, and the pantries were as full as they would ever be. It was time for a party.

*              *              *

When I first read The Battle for Christmas about ten years ago, finding this tie to seasonality was like meeting an old friend. I spent my youth tied to the Oklahoma-farmer version of agricultural seasonality, with planting times and harvest times, with putting up vegetables for the winter for the family and putting away grain and hay for winter feed for the animals. The season of cattle breeding was keyed to bring on late fall births, so there were new calves and new milk just in time to provide work and income during the winter when no grains were growing.

I had already based the entire Menhir series on a hero who grew up tied to the agricultural cycle in a land of peasants and lords, where drought and overpopulation made life a struggle for food. In such a place, early winter is a time of relative plenty and late winter is the starving time — a subject I will address here next month in an excerpt from those books.

*              *              *

So we have the onset of winter, enforced leisure, plenty of food and beer (at least for a while). The celebrations of this point in the year were raucous, with plenty of drunkenness and, no surprise, plenty of sex.

Along came Christianity — always the enemy of a good time — and tried to Christianize the hoilday by tying it to Jesus birth. It didn’t work. the story continues tomorrow

264. Last Christmas

DSCN1839Welcome to my favorite season.

Last Christmas, this blog was only a few months old, but I still enjoyed writing Christmas themed posts. I would have enjoyed it more if I had thought anyone was listening.

I could recycle, but that seems like cheating, and besides, I have new things to say. How about a compromise? Here are tags which will take you to six of last year’s posts, then tomorrow we will move on into the future.



62. A Christmas Booklist – plenty of Christmas reading.





63. ‘Twas the Season (post 1) – Christmas in Oklahoma during the fifties.  






  64. ‘Twas the Season (post 2) – Christmas in Oklahoma during the fifties.






66. Five by Dickens – Dickens wrote more than A Christmas Carol.



67. ‘Twas the Night . . .  – the story of The Night Before Christmas, extended  version.

Dec 25th




68. Nostalgia – some personal reflections on what Christmas means to me.