Tag Archives: americana

443. Booklist Reboot

On December 15, 2015 I posted this list of Christmas books. 

Here is the annotated booklist I promised you yesterday. You could also Google Christmas or old Christmas, or search either of those subjects on Amazon. I suggest you do. This is not a best list because there are too many books on Christmas for anyone to have read them all. This is simply a list of what I’ve discovered over the years, minus the clinkers. Some of these are easy to find, others will lead you through the back stacks of used bookstores, but there’s no harm in that.

A Christmas Carol by Dickens has to head any list. He also wrote many other Christmas works and gets his own post next Wednesday, the 23rd.

Washington Irving had a powerful influence on Christmas, which is largely forgotten today. Among his followers was Clement Moore of Night Before Christmas fame. They also get their own post, on Christmas Eve.

The rest of this list is in order from decorator froth to historical complexity.

Go to any bookstore and you will find dozens of Christmas cookbooks and books on Christmas decor, sometimes with historical tidbits. You’re on you own here, with one exception. The Spirit of Christmas series by Leisure Arts is classy, has been around since about 1990, and fills up ten pages of Amazon with choices.

Christmas in Colonial and Early America, 1975, by World Book, is an early, sepia toned version of this kind of book with a little more meat in it’s history.

For almost two decades, Ace Collins has been writing books titled Stories Behind . . . , beginning with Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas. The title tells the tale; the individual stories are interesting and heart felt.

The Curious World of Christmas is lightweight and breezy, a book of short entries which can be digested one little bite at a time.

The only recent Christmas book I can’t recommend is Nicholas, by Jeremy Seal. I found it dark and tedious, and couldn’t get past page 42, but if you want a detailed look at how St. Nicholas became Santa, it’s the only work I know completely devoted to that subject.

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford and Inventing Scrooge by Carlo De Vito each tell the story of the genesis of Charles Dickens’ most famous story. As a writer and a lover of Christmas, I couldn’t choose between them. Read the one that is easier for you to find. Then read the other one next Christmas.

A Mark Twain Christmas has been sitting on my next shelf for a couple of weeks. I will give it a tentative approval based on a thumb-through, and the fact that it is also by Carlo De Vito.

A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems by Charlton and Gilson has works by every famous author you’ve ever heard of, from St. Matthew through The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

Ruth Kainen’s America’s Christmas Heritage contains well written regional histories of Christmas at a level of detail that is satisfying without being overwhelming.

John Matthews’ The Winter Solstice has a look similar to the decorator/cookbook works above, but with a unique twist. It concentrates on the Roman, Celtic, and Germanic contribution to Christmas. It feels like the Middle Ages, without falling into the trap of New Age Gaia worship.

Christmas Customs and Traditions by Clement Miles is a Dover reprint of a 1912 work. It is an old fashioned history of the evolution of Christmas from Roman times to what was then the present.

Christmas in America by Penne Restad is a scholarly telling of the history of American Christmas. 172 pages of text, 36 pages of notes. You get the picture; a book for the overeducated Christmas nerd, but it is still a good read.

The remaining “recommendations” are probably over the top.

I have in front of me Christmas in Early New England, 1620-1820: Puritanism, Popular Culture, and the Printed Word by Stephen Nissenbaum, published by the American Antiquarian Society. I have already confessed to having two masters degrees, one in Social Science and one in History. This is the kind of thing I used to read for a living. I still read them, but only if they are on a subject that really interests me. Nissenbaum taught at Amhurst; you will find his original research referenced in many of the less scholarly books above. His book The Battle for Christmas was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but a scholarly work of 400 pages is not something to take on casually. I confess to not owning it; I read it on interlibrary loan years ago. If, however, you are a Christmas nerd and a history buff, it is available in paperback. Go for it; what have you got to lose?


BY THE FOLLOWING YEAR I had purchased and re-read Nissenbaum, and wrote three posts summarizing The Battle for Christmas. If, like me, you are a complete Christmas nerd, click here to read them.


440. Pearl Harbor Day is Tomorrow

Pearl Harbor Day is tomorrow and for the third time, I am not going to write about it directly.

In 2015, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss the decision to go to war in Iraq.

In 2016, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss Japanese Internment.

In 2017, I am even less able to salute and shout hallelujah than I was on the last two times Pearl Harbor Day rolled around. Things are even worse than they were then.

Do I think we were shouldn’t have retaliated to the Pearl Harbor attack? Don’t be absurd.

Do I support disarmament? I wish I could, but it would be national suicide.

Am I a veteran? Yes; and I would love to be the last veteran.

Am I a pacifist? Don’t I wish. I would love to live long enough to be able to say yes to that, but I won’t. Neither will you, and you are younger than I am.

There are times when we have to fight and Pearl Harbor signaled one of those times, but our national default setting should not be attack. We should fight rarely, and only when necessary. For many years now, we have been doing a terrible job of deciding when to fight, so I find it hard to wave the flag. Someone might think that means I’m ready to start shooting.

Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. It is also the forty-fifth anniversary of the last manned moon launch. I think I’ll write about that.

429. Scales, digital and ridiculous

Ah, the good old days. They really sucked.

Even the phrase sucked falls into that category. I know that most of those who read this will not remember, but there was a time when nobody said sucked. It ranked up there with the “F” word. I remember when it arrived on the scene in my middle school students’ vocabularies, how it was an issue for a short time, and how two years later teachers were saying it. That’s what happens when a perfectly good forbidden word becomes common; it loses its flavor.


I have a great respect for Science Olympiad, but I never liked coaching, so I always volunteered to judge events instead. I enjoyed taking on new events that needed to be shepherded through their first year of implementation, and that led me to build a lot of gadgets to use in judging the contestants’ gadgets.

The people who think up new events in Science Olympiad often show an Olympian detachment (pun intended) from reality. Case in point — and forgive me if my numbers are off, I’m writing from memory — in two events students had to build light structures and test them to destruction. First it was a bridge, and a few years later, a tower. The lightest bridge or tower that held the most weight before failing won the event. There was a formula for weight vs. load, and specifications for what constituted failure.

The students applied the weight by pouring sand into a suspended bucket and there was a set maximum. If the structure held the maximum, the lightest structure won. If the structure failed, the weight vs. load formula was invoked. All in all, it was a well thought out event.

Except for one thing. The load was in pounds — up to ten, as I remember — and the weight of the structure was in grams. Let’s do the conversion.

1 pound equals 16 ounces
1 ounce equals 28.35 grams
Therefore, 10 pounds equals 4536 grams
And 9 pounds equals 4082.4 grams
That is a difference of 453.6 grams

Did I lose you? Just look at the cartoon at the top for a moment, regain your equilibrium, and come back to me. There is no final exam on this. This is just memoir about how much fun teaching science can be on a small budget.

To measure mass in grams, you could use a triple beam balance available in any science class. To measure ten pounds, you have your bathroom scale. But wait a minute, that ten pound maximum-weight bucket of sand has to be measured in grams! How do you do that?

You do it with levers, using the gizmo pictured at the top of the page. I actually built it, and used it all the years I was associated with that event. The lever makes the scale read about 160 pounds when there are 10 pounds in the bucket. That spreads out the difference between two similar weights. The box the adult is staring at is my old Mac SE, with a preprogrammed formula in a database. The formula is:

Scale reading in pounds after the sand has been added (times) conversion factor to grams (minus) weight of bucket in grams ——- all this fed into the formula for comparing load in grams to weight of the bridge or tower in grams, a formula provided by Science Olympiad.

At the event, all I had to do was watch the contestant, and stop her/him at the moment the structure failed. He/she was only given ten pounds of sand to work with, so overfilling could not happen. I typed in the reading from the bathroom scale and the computer gave me the score — after I had built and tested the device, programmed the database, and provided ten pounds of sand, calculated to the nearest gram on the same device.

Fun? Of course it was fun. I volunteered to do this, remember?

Was it accurate? No and yes. No, there was too much friction for the gram readings to be accurate, but the friction was the same for every trial, so yes, the ranking of the contestants was completely reliable.

About three years after Science Olympiad retired the event, digital scales which would measure that much sand to the nearest gram became available for under five bucks at every-guy’s-public-man-cave, Harbor Freight. Thank goodness it didn’t come earlier and ruin my fun.

427. A Grave Story

The paragraph below comes from Symphony in a Minor Key. Neil McCrae has read a ghost story at Halloween, timing it to end just as the bell rings in his sixth grade class.

Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence.  There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

Since the novel is based on my teaching career, it will surprise no one that Neil and I share a few characteristics. Keeping theatricality on a tight leash is one of them. Telling ghost stories on Halloween is another. This is one of those stories, based loosely on a joke I read in Boy’s Life back in the fifties.

Of course it’s a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.


I had two brothers as students. I had one in my class one year, and his younger brother the next. They were always hanging out together. Some brothers get along; come don’t. These two were great friends.

They were outdoors types. The liked to fish and hunt. Their dad would take them canoeing, and sometimes the three of them would camp out together.

The year I’m thinking about, the last year I knew them, their dad had been really busy all fall, so they were on their own. They decided to go off together in the canoe, and go camping along the river.

I didn’t mention, did I, that the Tuolumne River runs along about a mile from the school where I taught? Or that the regional cemetery is right along the river? Of course, the students I told this story to, already knew that.

Since it’s a true story, I have to keep the details straight.

This particular fall had been rainy, and both brothers were involved in soccer, so they kept putting off their canoeing and camping trip. September came and went, and then October, and by the time November was just around the corner, they were getting pretty desperate to go. That’s probably why they decided to go on the last Friday night in October.

I probably wouldn’t have gone, myself, because it was Halloween, but these two had a habit of daring each other, and that often got them into trouble. So they went. They put in the river at Fox Grove and intended to sleep somewhere about five miles west, then paddle on down to Legion Park the next morning. Their mom was going to pick them up there. Too bad she never got the chance.

Everything went along fine for the first hour. They got a late start, but that didn’t matter since they could camp anywhere. It’s pretty wild down along the river. They got past the rapids under the bridge. They were pretty tame rapids. Things went well for the first few miles, but then fog began to form. That was fun at first.

Did I mention it was Halloween?

The fog hung in the old trees along the river bank, but they could still slip along below it. At first. Then it got dark, all the sooner because the fog was cutting off the moonlight.

Did I mention there was a full moon? That was part of the reason they went that night, because they thought they would be able to see by it’s light. They hadn’t figured on the fog. Pretty soon they couldn’t see anything. They got on down the river for a while by instinct. If you’ve been on the water enough, you get a feel for currents, and anyway, you can’t get lost on a river. It only goes one direction.

Still, it started to get dangerous, not to mention creepy, so they pulled up on a mud bank to think things over. They also had been drinking two liter Pepsi’s, if you know what I mean. They had to take care of that little chore, and they did, but while they were looking for a bush apiece, they got separated. They could hear each other clearly, but the river banks threw back such echoes that they couldn’t find each other. And then they couldn’t find the canoe. Finally, Joe – that was the younger brother – found a path up and shouted to Tom – that was the older brother – that they should climb out of the river bottom and meet on the flat land up topside. Tom shouted back to go ahead, so Joe went up.

That might not have been the best idea they ever had. They had made it further down the river than either one realized, and when Joe got to the top, he found himself in the cemetery.

Now Joe wasn’t particularly spooky. Camp fire stories of ghosts just bored him. But this was a real cemetery, and the fog in the trees looked like Spanish moss hanging down – you know, like in the stories of the bayous. He didn’t like it. He hollered for Tom, but got no answer. Then the fog thickened and the moon, which had been mostly obscured, disappeared completely. He found that he couldn’t see anything, so he put his hands out to feel, and found himself moving along, guiding himself by the tops of tombstones. He didn’t like that much either, but what are you going to do?

Tom, meanwhile, thought he had found a trail up, but it only led him into a bramble of raspberry bushes. It took him ten minutes to work his way through them and by the time he made it up to the top, his clothes were in tatters and he had blood all over his hands from fighting the thorns. He staggered out on top, panting with the effort, and found himself in the cemetery, too.

I know all this because I was one of the ones who went looking for them then next day, after someone had found their abandoned canoe. It was easy enough to track them, first by river mud footprints, then prints in the soft soil. We knew which was which because Tom’s shoes were much bigger, and besides, there were all those drops of blood.

What neither boy knew was that there was a funeral scheduled for that Saturday. The groundskeepers had dug the grave, and it was standing open. Tom found it first.

Of course, it was pitch dark, so he found it by falling in. The groundskeepers had done a good job. It was seven feet deep, with straight-up sides, three feet wide and seven feet long and completely impossible for Tom to get out of. And did he try! He leaped. He scrambled. You could see the next day where he had dug his fingers into the sides of the grave, with no success. I’m sure he shouted, but no one could hear him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cussed a little.

Eventually, he exhausted himself and sank to the ground, curled up in a ball, and decided to wait for morning. He was half asleep when Joe found the grave the same way Tom had.

Joe fell in, and the sound of a body falling into the grave with him sent Tom to his feet. He slammed himself back against the side of the grave, wanting to scream, but no sound came out. It never occurred to him that it might be Joe, but every other monster from every movie he had ever watched went running through his head. He squeezed back into a corner of the grave in abject fear, while Joe picked himself up, turned, and began leaping and scrabbling at the wall of the grave.

About that time, just enough moonlight came down into the grave that Tom could recognize his brother. Joe slid back to the bottom of the grave for the third or fourth time as Tom reached out his bloody hand, with tattered sleeves hanging down, and touched his brother’s shoulder. His voice was hoarse from fright as he said, “You’ll never make it out of this grave.”

But Joe did. He screamed and gave such a leap that he outdid himself, caught his fingertips on the lip of the grave, scrambled like a madman, and was gone.

Tom was still there when we found him the next morning. I won’t say he was all right. I don’t think he was ever all right again. But he was there.

Joe was never found. They dragged the river. Friends, neighbors, and strangers turned out in the search, but it was useless.

Tom and his family moved away soon after, but I get Christmas cards from his mother every year. She tells me what Tom has been doing, but she never mentions Joe.

Me either. Except every year about this time I feel the need to tell his story. Just a cautionary tale, you understand. Nothing to do with me, whatsoever.

I wouldn’t lie to you.

398. Summing Up Spirit Deer

Today Spirit Deer ends with a short post. Tim is home and all is well.

Here’s a short summing up for those who missed the start. Spirit Deer has appeared in two major forms. It was first a book for adults, with a thirty-something Tim Carson, who had a wife, a job, friends, and included various events which have since been excised. It was a carefully chosen story that offered me no research difficulties. The entire purpose of the original Spirit Deer was to see if I could write day after day until a novel length manuscript emerged. I could. It did. And I never stopped writing.

Years later I pared it back to its core story and recast it as a juvenile, which is what I have presented here.

Writing Spirit Deer was so enjoyable that I did not reapply for a Ph.D. program in Anthropology, as I had intended. Also, in full disclosure, I had come to the realization that, although Anthropology as an intellectual endeavor fascinated me, the idea of sitting in an Indian (South Asian, not Native American) village and taking down daily gossip as field work did not appeal. Not even a little bit.

So I kept writing, had some success, had a long dry spell for sales during which I still kept on writing, and now my new book Cyan is available. On the basis of that publication, I just came back from Westercon where I served on panels, met a batch of young authors, and was struck by the kernel of a new steampunk novel that I am working on as you read this. My second published novel was set in India, and made use of all those years studying Anthropology. My next one is built around an obscure event in the history of British India, turned inside out and backwards in an alternate steampunk universe.

Its been a good ride, and a rough ride, but I wouldn’t have had it it any other way.

Spirit Deer 40

Chapter 15

Well fed now, with his ankle all but healed, Tim snowshoed down the mountainside to the Tate, and upstream to the highway bridge. It took most of two days, but he had learned to build shelters quickly. With meat and a fire, and wrapped in a half cured bearskin, it did not take much to make Tim comfortable enough to sleep at night.

When Tim reached the road, it was still choked with snow, so he walked the last few miles into the village. It was afternoon of the fourteenth day of his absence when he headed down his own street looking like something out of another age. He wore ragged jeans and an enormous, shaggy bear skin, and moved confidently on snowshoes, dragging a rough toboggan of saplings piled high with greasy, frozen bear meat.

His father’s rig was sitting in the front yard. A feeling of guilt for the trouble he had caused took the edge off his homecoming, but only for a moment. He left his toboggan in the yard and stepped up onto the porch. He knocked.

His mother looked smaller, older, and more precious when she opened the door. She stood for a moment, frozen by the shock of his reappearance. Then she gathered Tim into his arms. Over her shoulder, he saw his father coming into the living room. The smile that split his father’s face was worth the whole ordeal Tim had gone through. In three strides his father crossed the floor and caught them both up in his embrace, and Tim was truly home at last. finis

Spirit Deer 39

With a growl that shook the forest, the black bear wheeled; the spear shaft quivered in his side. He charged. Tim cast his second spear at the bear’s open mouth, but missed. The obsidian point flew high and cleaved a gash through the animal’s already mutilated nose and up between his eyes, glancing off his heavy skull. The bear screamed and reared up, pawing at his face. Tim lunged forward, grabbed the shaft of the first spear, and plunged it deeper. A mighty paw caught him and tossed him aside.

Tim staggered to his feet. Blood rushed into his eyes, but he wiped it away. The bear, too, was blinded by blood. Moving unsteadily, Tim recovered his second spear. He circled the thrashing bear, found his atlatl, and took a stand near the club. The bear was dying, but he was still deadly. Blinded by blood, he turned his shaggy head from side to side to listen.

“Here, Bear,” Tim whispered. The bear jerked his head toward the sound, then rose on his hind legs, turning his head to catch the slightest noise.

“Here!” Tim screamed and hurled his spear. It pierced the bear’s belly once again. Dropping to all fours, the bear charged. The spear shafts burrowed twin furrows in the snow. It was a blind charge, and Tim stepped to one side bringing up his club. He swung it as he would have swung an axe in his father’s woodpile, overhead and down with all the power of his chest and arms, directly onto the bear’s skull. The bear dropped, plowing up the snow as it skidded to a halt, twitched, and lay still.

* * *

The crippled deer stood proud and defiant on his island of traction. Tim faced him with a spear in his hand. The deer’s hard brown eyes never wavered and his antlered head was lowered to fight to the last. But it would be no contest, for Tim could kill from where he stood.

Tim had followed his deer a long way. Both of them had been cripples, and now both were nearly well. Tim had been alone and helpless. Slowly, bit by painful bit, he had gained the tools of survival. Now he stood with the deer’s life in his hands.

And now he no longer needed to kill it.

The deer’s flinty eyes never changed as Tim laid aside his spears and removed his snowshoes. Moving carefully with his club raised, Tim fenced with the deer until he had tangled the club in its antlers. When the deer threw up his head to rip the club from Tim’s hand, Tim did not resist. Instead he lunged forward and threw his shoulder against the deer’s side, reaching under its belly to grasp his opposite foreleg, and tossed him into the snow. Tim rolled on over the deer’s back to avoid his flashing rear hooves and caught him by the antlers.

Throwing his weight backward, he dragged the struggling deer off the mud bar onto the smooth ice, then dragged him to shore. Tim stepped back as the deer plunged to his feet and bounded away. When the deer reached the edge of the timber, he turned for a moment and looked back.

Tim raised his hand to the deer. “Good luck,” he said.

The deer disappeared into the forest, and Tim turned back to the carcass of the bear. last post tomorrow