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Symphony 127

Bill said, “It could happen that way. We aren’t the police.  We aren’t God. All we can do is what the law lets us do.”

“These kids are our responsibility!”

“Only in a limited sense. When they leave the playground, when they reach their homes, they aren’t ours any more.”

Neil thought, “Like Hell!” He had told Lisa he would make it right. He could not betray her. He could not let her go back into that house. She had been reaching out to him all year with her stories. He had coaxed her on, had led her to trust him, promising to make things right. He could not step back now, no matter what the law had to say.

We teach them love, and trust, and caring, and fair play. We are giving them poor armor for the real world of pain and rejection and betrayal.

The phone rang.

Bill reached for it, hesitated, then picked it up. He listened, winced, and said, “Yes, Mrs. Cobb. She is here. She missed the bus. I didn’t call you because I just found out.”

There was a pause, then he continued, “You don’t need to come in. I’m heading home in a few minutes. I will be glad to drop her off.” A longer pause. “No, it’s no problem. It’s not out of the way.” 

It was a wasted effort. Bill finally said, “All right, Mrs. Cobb. She will be here.” He hung up and told Neil, “She didn’t buy it. I wouldn’t have answered the phone, but it might have been Child Protective Services.”

“Now what?” 

“Now we hope they call before Mrs. Cobb gets here. Let’s go see what Carmen found out.”

In the outer office, Evelyn was putting on her coat.  Bill told her he needed her to stay on to wait for a call. They walked to the quad, knocked on Carmen’s door, and waited. Eventually, she came to open it. Lisa sat slumped in a chair with her back to the door. Carmen whispered, “Can you come back later?”

In a few words, Bill outlined the situation and asked, “Do you have enough to tell us what to do next?”

“Yes. Shoot the bastard if you have to, but don’t let Lisa go back to him.”

“Did he rape her?”

“Not yet, but if she goes home tonight, he probably will. He has been coaxing her for a month, first behind her mothers back and then openly. The mother won’t do anything. According to Lisa, he beats her mother, so maybe she is scared of him. Or maybe she is scared of losing him. I don’t know. Last night, the boyfriend waited until the mother was asleep on some sleeping pills he gave her, and then dragged Lisa into her own bedroom. She waited until he pulled his pants down and then ran while he was too tangled up to chase her. She spent the night at a friend’s house.”

“Whose?”

“She didn’t tell me, and I don’t intend to ask.”

Carmen shut the door and went back to Lisa. Neil and Bill walked back to the office, and Bill sent Evelyn home. No call had come in yet from Child Protective Services. Neil cursed them. Bill pointed out that they had a limited staff. It was just bad luck that they had needed someone five minutes after work on a Friday night. As they were arguing, the phone rang. Bill scooped it up eagerly, listened, scowled, said, “Thank you,” and hung up. He said, “The duty worker is on her way. That was the switchboard with the message. I wish she had called directly so I could have talked to her!” more Monday

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481. Asimov’s Good Life

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.
                         Asimov, from It’s Been a Good Life, p. 157

When I was new to reading science fiction in the early sixties, Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov were everybody’s big three. Bradbury was in the next rank, but not for me. I found him unreadable. Andre Norton was still out in the cold for most people, but she, Clarke, and Heinlein were my personal big three. Asimov didn’t make the cut. I read a few of his novels, didn’t like them, and moved on.

Recently I ran across his summary autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov. It reminded me that I knew very little about the man, so I took it home.

Asimov has three full autobiographies, and a list of publications that goes on for eighteen closely packed pages. After his death, Janet Asimov published autobigaphical excerpts under the title It’s Been a Good Life. At 238 sprightly pages, 98 percent by Asimov himself, it was just right for someone who wanted to be fair to an author who is an acknowledged master.

Searching my memory and his bibliography, I found that I had read four of his novels: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, The Stars Like Dust, and a couple of his early robot novels, each only a few years after they were published. I thought the first two were just adequate and the robot novels were dull. By the time I got to Foundation, I decided to skip it, along with anything else he might write. My local county library was full of science fiction I enjoyed, so why bother with Asimov.

It occurs to me now that might have been an error.

Asimov says (p. 143) The 1950’s [were] the decade of my greatest science-fiction triumphs, [but as] the 1950’s ended, I [ended] most of my involvement with the field. (see below)

From 1960 onward, Asimov wrote everything on every subject. It seemed to me that he had written every third book in the library. I dived into one or another from time to time doing research for my own writing. They were accurate, easy to read, and cursory, which is exactly what they were supposed to be.

When the novel The Gods Themselves came out in 1972 it was his first SF novel in fourteen years. (Not counting one novelization of a movie.) He had gone from SF novels, to non-fiction, then back to SF novels as a more mature writer. That was a biographical arc I couldn’t appreciate when I was first reading him as a teenager, for the simple reason that it had not happened yet. When it did, I had already lost interest. Not trying his new works, given his reputation, was certainly my mistake

By the eighties he was writing SF novels and winning awards once again. In 1989, he wrote Nemesis. He said this about it, “My protagonist was a teenaged girl and I also had two strong adult women characters. I placed considerably more emotion in the novel than was customary for me.” That sounds more my style, since lack of emotion was my complaint about his early work. I think I’ll check it out.

One last note for writers and would-be writers: This book is a treasure trove. I agree with pretty much everything he says about writing, but go read it from a man with far more credentials than I have.

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The brackets in the quotation are from Janet Asimov. She uses them to give context and continuity to excerpts which would otherwise be unintelligible. It is competently and smoothly done.

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Full disclosure time: After completing this post, I obtained a copy and read the first few pages of Nemesis. Sorry, I still don’t like Asimov’s writing style, but that’s all right. Not everybody likes Shakespeare, either.

Symphony 126

Confrontation

Neil had a sudden vision of Jesse Herrera. He thought, “While I was wasting time on that worthless little son-of-a-bitch, this was happening.” But that was not fair. He had done all he could for Lisa. He had heard her cry for help and had made himself available to her. There was nothing else he could have done until she told her story.

He put Jesse and his anger out of his mind. This was not the time for self-indulgence. Neither anger, nor disgust, nor embarrassment, nor worry for his future had any place in this moment. Now, he could think of no one but Lisa.

First, touch her. Tell her in body language that she has not become strange and foul and soiled by what someone else has done to her. He took both her hands in his and murmured, “Honey, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. We’ll make it right, I promise.”

How? How will I make it right? 

He needed help. If ever there was a time in his life not to be stubborn about getting help, it was now. He pushed back the curtains that he had drawn to give privacy to his room during the sex education session, and looked across to the quad. Carmen was still moving about in her room. He said to Lisa, “Do you think you could talk to Ms. de la Vega as well as to me, since Ms. Kelly isn’t here?”

She could. Neil put his hand around her shoulder. She was trembling. He led her out the door and across into Carmen’s room. Carmen looked up, saw the distress in Lisa’s face, and opened her arms. Lisa pushed off of Neil and ran to her. Carmen went to her knees to hold her closer and looked questioningly over Lisa’s shoulder at Neil. He explained the situation.

Carmen put her face beside Lisa’s streaming face and rocked her gently. Without looking up, she whispered, “Get out. Go to Bill. Tell him what happened and leave this to me.”

Neil stopped only long enough to lock the door on his way out. He found Bill Campbell putting computer readouts into a briefcase in preparation for going home. He explained everything he knew.

Bill sat drumming his fingers on the desk top like a man who wanted to say, “Are you sure?” But he didn’t. He dialed a number and waited, then spoke into the receiver, “Child Protrective Services, please.” There was a long pause while he listened, then he snapped, “Well someone had better be on duty!”  After another pause, he said, “Take this message. We have a female child who is apparently in grave danger of a step-father rape. The step-father is still in the family. We just found out about it. We haven’t contacted the mother and we haven’t been able to verify the incident. We need the duty worker as soon as she gets home.” Then he gave his name and phone number and hung up.

“Switchboard,” Bill said. “The duty person is in transit. We just missed her by five minutes. When she gets home, she will call in and the switchboard will relay the message. But she may stop for groceries and who knows what. It might be an hour or more.”

“What do we do now?”

“That is a good question. The bus should be home by now, so we can expect a call from the mother. I don’t want to talk to Mrs. Cobb until the case worker is here, but I can’t lie to her to stall her off.”

“What can CPS do?”

“That all depends on whether or not they believe Lisa.”

“What do you mean?”

“Children do lie, and they have to consider that”

“Do you mean that we might not be able to help her? After she came to us — trusted us!” more tomorrow

Symphony 125

Neil gathered up the papers with questions that lay scattered around the floor. He sighed as he tossed the terse, misspelled queries into the wastebasket.

There was a soft knock at his door. He looked up to see Lisa Cobb standing with one hand on the doorframe and a face full of worry. He forced a smile and said, “Did you miss the bus?”

She nodded and said, “Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

“I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”

“I don’t understand.”

She came in and stood before him, holding her underlip between her teeth to keep from crying. As soon as Neil recognized the depths of her distress, he seated her and sat beside her. Her hands twitched on the desk top and he reached out to take them in his. A single tear streaked her face.

Lisa said, “When you were in trouble last month and had to go to the school board, Mama told me it was because you stayed after school with some girl, and she said you did things to her. I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me.”

Neil considered the depths of experience that must be behind her to think such thoughts at her age. He said, “Let me worry about that. What is on your mind? It’s more than missing the bus.”

She sobbed, “I missed the bus deliberately to talk to you. I mean, to talk to somebody. I was going to talk to Ms. Kelly, but she left. I ran after her, but she didn’t hear me and she just drove away.” 

Lisa was shaking like a leaf. Neil reached out to her, then drew back his hand. She saw the aborted motion and turned her head away. She started to get up to go.

Silently, he cursed himself. Let them fire me, dammit, he thought. What good am I to myself or these children if I am afraid to reach out to them.

He caught Lisa as she rose to go and pulled her back into the seat beside him. All the dams burst and she sobbed herself out against his chest. The minutes crept by. Despite his best intentions, Neil’s eyes roved around the room as he prayed that no one would come in until she was calm enough to sit up. He hated the thoughts, but he had learned self-preservation the hard way.

Finally the sobs died away. Lisa pushed off from him, went to the sink, and washed her face. He left her alone until she had finished, then said, “Come over here and tell me about it.”

She crossed to the chair near him and collapsed in exhaustion. Her tears and his comforting had forged a new bond between them. Now she could speak. “You and Ms. Kelly said that if anyone ever tried to touch us anywhere or any way we didn’t like, that we didn’t have to let them?”

“That’s right. You have a right to privacy with your own body.” There was a cold knot in his stomach as he thought, Here it comes. All of her hints have been leading to this.

“And you said that if that ever happened, we should let somebody we trusted know about it?”

Neil asked gently, “Who is it and what is he doing?”

Sobs wracked her again. It was all she could do to get it out a sound. She stammered, “My mother’s boyfriend is trying to make me go to bed with him.” more tomorrow

480. Mairi at Culloden

272 years ago today, the last battle took place on British soil. Followers of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) met British forces under the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden moor. Like all battles, it was a confusing, bloody mess, but it had the virtue of being decisive. The reprisals which followed brought highland culture largely to an end.

The mists of nostalgia roll over the Battle of Culloden, casting it in a romantic light as the last day of Scottish independence from the English. Sorry, but it was nothing like that. There were Scots on both sides of the fight. The “champion of the Scots” was the grandson of a deposed British king, born in Rome and raised in France, now fighting to regain his grandfather’s throne in London. The highlanders who followed him were despised by the lowland Scots who fought on Cumberland’s side — but the lowlanders’ descendants now claim clan membership and wear kilts — even though kilts hadn’t been invented yet in 1756.

I would have sworn that I would never write about Culloden, until I saw a brief note in an article about the history of oats in Scotland which described the actions of a Scotswoman who sat down beside the road leading from Culloden and cooked oat cakes for the soldiers, knowing they would need food to survive. Her simple and humane reaction to the conflict moved me to write this poem.

Mairi sat down by the side of the road

The night was filled with the sound of men
And the moan of wind in the heather,
As Mairi’s kinsmen went south toward the field,
That Charlie had set for the meeting.

Three sons of Mairi came out of her hut
And kissed her cheek as they left her
With Ross the youngest trailing along
To see what the battle would bring.

Mairi took oats from the pantry shelf,
There was not enough to please her,
So she dragged in a sack from the loft of the ben,
Took peats, and salt, and her griddle.

Then Mairi went down to the side of the road,
Built a peat fire and kneaded the grain,
Heated her griddle and cooked fat cakes,
To stack for the coming of day.

“They will come,” she said, “in the morning,
And all through the rest of the day,
Strutting proud or running scared,
Theyʼll be hungry either way.”

The oat cakes sizzled; the smell was fine;
She flipped them and stacked them and listened
To the musket fire from Cumberlandʼs men
And the deeper roar of his cannons.

The cries that went up as the claymores flashed
Were too distant for Mairi to hear,
But Ross would come back from where he watched
To tell how the Scotsmen had fared.

Then a sudden wind, and the fire flared up,
She shivered as pain rushed through her.
Three quick shocks in her empty womb,
And her heart in her breast went numb.

Her hands dug deeper into the oats,
And flew at the task of the kneading,
The stack of bannocks at her side grew tall
For she knew now that they would be needed.

Then Ross came running from the battlefield
He could only come out with a groan.
But Mairi knew without any words
That his brothers would not return.

******

The first man she saw was limping hard
With his leg bound up in a rag.
A highland face, with matted red hair,
He was lean as an iron bar.

A hungry man with a strangerʼs face;
Mairi gestured to the cakes.
He picked one up, took a bite, and sighed.
“God Bless you,” he said, and moved on.

The second man was a stranger, too,
He said, “Mother, it was awful.”
“Eat,” she said, “and move along,
I’ll pray that you find safety.”

The third was young, more a boy than a man,
With face flat and eyes that were dry.
Half held up by a second youth
Who coughed along along at his side.

“Take cakes and eat,” Mairi started to say.
But the coughing youth shook his head.
“I thank you, Mother, but let them go
To living men instead.

My friendʼs bled dry; thereʼs a ball in my lung;
Weʼre as dead as the ones behind.
Just show us a hidden place to crawl in,
And a quiet place to die.”

Mairi worked on, with a clenched up heart
While Ross fed peats to the fire,
Saving the lives of the fleeing men,
For hungry men soon tire.

All through the morning and the afternoon,
Those who lived to flee streamed by them,
Mairi rolled dough in her aged hands
As she mourned for the dead and the living.

For even these battered and tattered men,
Who would leave the field still living
Had lost more than battle, kinsmen, and sons.
A whole way of life had died with them.

And Mairi knew, with foresight clear,
That the winners would fare no better.
That the losers had lost, and the winners would lose,
All except for the rich and the English.

Then the last cake was gone, and Ross was gone,
Sent on with the last survivor.
Up past the river and into the hills.
To hide for a while in the heather.

Down the road she saw them, a mile away,
The Redcoats at last were coming,
Marching proud with bloody swords.
                Mairi stood up and put out the fire.

Symphony 124

Ninety percent of the girls had watched the film calmly for knowledge, but only ten percent of the boys did. They had all come in to prove how much they knew already. As a consequence, they learned very little.

Their questions were different. They did not care about babies except to ask about defects and oddities. Their concern was the sexual act itself. If the questions had not been anonymous, probably none of them would have been able to ask anything. Preserving their image would have killed the whole experience.

They wanted to know:

“What is a hard-on?”

“What is masturbation?”

“Does it make you go blind?”

“Does it feel good?”

“Do girls masturbate?”

“What is a wet dream?”

“Does everybody have them?”

“What is a dick?”

“What is a cock?”

“What is a peter?”

“What is a boner?”‘

“What is an erection?”

“How can you keep from having them in public?”

Neil did his best to answer each question as simply and calmly as he could. Half of the questions were simply an attempt to bring their slang language into line with the new information the film had presented.

“How big is a penis?” Neil held his hands about six inches apart.

“Is everybody’s the same size?” 

“It depends on the situation. It varies a lot even for one person, from one erection to the next.”

“Do women like big ones better?”

Neil thought, How the hell should I know? and passed the question to Fiona. She fielded it gracefully and turned it around, pointing out that women weren’t as much interested in size as they were in tenderness and love. 

The boys didn’t even bother to listen to that answer.

By the time the boys left, running out into the playground to find some sixth grade girl to embarrass, Neil was exhausted and depressed. He and Fiona looked at each other and she said, “What a disaster.”

“Is it always like that?”

“It has never been like that before. The girls, yes; they were just the same as always, but the boys were terrible. You must be a bad influence.”

Neil invoked a four letter word he seldom used, and added, “Don’t even joke about that.”

“You know what I think? I think they have probably been like this every year and I just never got the chance to see how they acted because Tom or Glen always took this section alone.”

“It wasn’t that they were interested in intercourse,” Neil said, thinking aloud while he tried to make sense of it. “They weren’t; not really. I’ll bet you every one of them is a virgin.”

“You would have a hard time convincing me of that any more, even at their age.”

“It was all posture; all gesture; all trying to keep their places in the pecking order.”

“Pecker order, you mean!”

“That’s too close to reality to even make a good pun.” Neil gave up trying to put his feelings into words. He could only ask himself if he had been like that at eleven years old; he must have been.

Once again he faced the cruelty, the vanity, and the ignorance of the macho image. How did a boy go from that to become a real man, and why did so many veer aside from the harder path to become predatory womanizers, wife beaters, rapists, and child molesters? And what could he do to help them along the right path?

Fiona bid him good-bye and left. He gathered up the papers that lay scattered around the floor. It would not do for their questions to be found and circulated around the playground as a source of dirty fun. more tomorrow

Symphony 123

When it was over, Fiona said, “I will take any questions, or you can direct your questions to Mr. McCrae. Also, just in case anyone is too shy to ask their questions out loud, you can write your questions on these pieces of paper and hand them in anonymously.”

It got very quiet in the room. For the first time since the film began, the girls began looking sideways at Neil. He would have given a hundred dollars to be someplace else, but if he let himself look embarrassed, the girls would surely be, so he kept his face expressionless. It was a major struggle.

No girl spoke, but several were writing questions on paper. Before the matter had gone past bearing, the first written questions began to come in. As soon as Fiona began answering them, the tension eased.

The questions were mostly about menstruation and period hygiene. Fiona answered fully and without hesitation. That put them at ease, and other questions began to flow in. Soon they were coming faster than she could answer them. Most were written, but a few were beginning to ask questions out loud. They wanted to know where twins came from. Fiona tossed that one to Neil to bring him into the conversation, then took the next one on nursing babies.

They were a little interested in menstruation, and very interested in babies — particularly in twins and birth defects and whether brothers and sisters would have two headed babies if they got married — but they had few questions about the sexual act itself. That was the present level of their maturity.

One girl asked a question about getting pregnant, and Fiona used it as a springboard. It was apparent to Neil that she had been waiting for that particular question to surface. Fiona explained clearly that if a girl had had her first period, and she had sex with a boy, she could get pregnant.

“Even if you just do it once?”

Lisa Cobb asked the question, but you could see from the incredulity in their eyes that they were all thinking the same thing. Yes, Fiona assured them, one time was all it took. Neil chimed in to reinforce her statement.

“But that’s not fair!” Tanya Michelson said.

Fiona went with that sentiment, emphasizing the need for caution because life wasn’t fair.

There weren’t many questions directed toward Neil, although Fiona handed him enough of the general ones to make it look like he was participating fully. It really did not matter. When the girls went home, they would have have seen a man and woman working together and discussing sexual matters freely and without embarrassment. If that was all they got out of his presence, it was worthwhile.

Fiona got another question she had been waiting for. Lupe Ochoa asked what contraception was and Fiona answered in detail, telling what worked and what didn’t — emphasizing that the rhythm method didn’t — and how it was used. If Fiona had taught those things directly, she might have been in trouble, but since she was only answering a question . . .

Eventually they ran out of time. The girls had already run out of questions and were asking the same ones over and over. Fiona took the girls out into the playground while Neil rounded up the boys and herded them into the room. 

# # #

When Fiona returned, they started the video again. The boys reacted differently to everything. Their stance as they entered the room, and as they watched the film was different. Where ninety percent of the girls had watched calmly for knowledge, only ten percent of the boys did. more Monday