Tag Archives: memoir

667. My India

I am frequently blown away by what I am doing here. I came to the internet late, and the magic of it has not worn off. I know that most of you reading this don’t remember a world without the World Wide Web. Even the phrase has fallen out of use, if not out of memory, and has become a basically meaningless www at the start of urls.

Not me. I grew up in a house without a telephone, without plumbing, and didn’t have a flush toilet until I was seven. Still, I have had decades to get used to the changes so I am as blasé as anyone about most of them, but one thing still knocks me out.

Here is an example: On January 6th, I had visitors to this site from nine countries; Canada, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. More than half of those visitors were from India.

That isn’t a typical day. There is no such thing as a typical day, actually. However, if I were to tally all my days, the US would come in first in number of readers and India would come in second.

I would never have anticipated that when I began this blog, but there is some logic to it. To start with, India is a big country, second in the world by population, with five times as many people as the US. China is bigger, but I get few hits from China. There is a reason for that too, beyond politics.

Although the official language of India is Hindi, English is widely used. That is a legacy of hundreds of years of British domination. When India achieved independence in 1947, there were dozens of major languages. If any one had achieved dominance, it would have given its speakers a major political advantage, so English became a “subsidiary official language”. There are vast number of English speakers in India, and a lot of them are on the internet. Of those whose sites I’ve seen, many are in one of the Indian languages plus English.

I get a kick out of all the hits I get from distant countries, but India is special. I have had a relationship with India since 1968. When I switched from Biology to Anthropology at the start of my Sophomore year in college I had just taken Introduction to India and had already found my area of specialization. During the last three years at MSU I was a member of the Indian studies group, researched overseas Indian colonization, and took a year of Hindi (of which I remember little, all these years later). I made friends among Indian students studying at MSU and among returned Peace Corps volunteers.

My wife and I signed up for and were accepted to the Peace Corps for assignment in India, but lost out when the deferment was cancelled. Then I spent four years in the Navy, before entering the University of Chicago for a masters degree. Again India was my area specialization, and my thesis was on Indian village economics.

All of that makes me an expert, right? Not on your life it doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. I once took a graduate level class in Indian history. The first day we were asked about our backgrounds. One young Indian woman said that she was only auditing the class. She was in America with her husband who was a student in another department, and she was just coming by to fill in a few details that she might have missed in her high school history class.

I was in my late twenties with a B.S., enrolled in a top graduate school, and right out of high school she knew ten times more about India than I ever would.

It’s enough to keep you humble.

When I started writing, I put that knowledge to use. My second published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying takes place in a post nuclear war, post flood world where India is the only remaining modern technical civilization. My main character was an American scientist who had moved there because North America was so backward after being heavily nuked. Because of his research, he becomes embroiled in the rising conflict between India and a pan-Muslim neighbor.

A major sub-plot in Cyan concerns parallel colonization efforts by Indian and North American groups.

The Cost of Empire is primarily built around actual Indian history, somewhat modified since it is taking place in an alternate universe. The various durbars in which Britain announced its imperial claims on India are collapsed into one, watched over by a fleet of dirigibles flown there to overawe the Indians who are agitating for independence. David James, the main character, learns from overseas Indians in Trinidad and later in India itself that maybe his country shouldn’t be ruling the whole world after all.

I you are a writer, you use what you know.

665. The Devil’s Stars

From an album by the sixties folk band Pentangle.

Fundamentalist Christians are not only uncomfortable in the presence of the number 666, they aren’t fond of a five pointed star inside a circle either. I found this out the hard way.

I was teaching a unit on Drawing Through Mathematics back when I was a middle school teacher. The technique consisted of using two concentric circles, with dots marked off mathematically, and connecting the dots between the circles with straight lines. Then the circles and dots were to be erased.

In this manner you can make stars with any number of points and control whether they are fat or skinny. I’ll show you how at the bottom of this post. In one session of my class we had already made six and seven pointed stars without any problem, but when we did five pointed stars I unintentionally caused an explosion. One student completed his star, then suddenly sat back, face white with fear, and threw it across the table shouting, “I’ve made a Devil’s star!”

I took me completely by surprise. I would never had let the number 666 creep into class. In fact, when I made up my own math worksheets, I always made sure no answer would be 666. It wasn’t fear of the school board. It was just that every kid has a right to his own beliefs, whether they make sense to me or not, and I saw no reason to make them uncomfortable.

I also knew that a five pointed star inside a circle, particularly if inverted, was a devil or witch sign during the middle ages. I just didn’t know that piece of knowledge was current in my community. I should have, since you see it in so many horror movies, but I don’t watch horror movies and I try to ignore their adds on TV. Besides I didn’t think of what we were doing as putting stars into circles, but using circles (and then erasing them) to make stars.

I explained all that to the frightened student, also invoking the fact that the symbol for the Army Air Force in WWII was a circle containing a five pointed star, and that the US government was certainly not an instrument of the devil. It took a long time to calm him down and he was still shaken when he left classroom.

I felt terrible. Probably every student I’ve ever taught felt differently about religion than I do, so I’ve always worked hard not to put any one of them on the defensive, but this incident had caught me by surprise.

It’s hard to anticipate every possibility.

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During the first two or three years of this blog I sometimes offered classroom insights, but I only have a few left that could interest any of my present readers. This might be one. Teach it to your kids, if you have any, and let them impress their teachers. Just stay away from five pointed stars if you are a fundamentalist Christian. Or embrace them if you are a Wiccan.

A three pointed star is rare except for the Mercedes Benz badge. A two pointed star is really just a skinny diamond. A one pointed star can’t exist. Any number of points, other than one, can be drawn by this method with complete control of how skinny or fat the star will be.

Draw a circle the size you want your star to be. Draw a second circle on the same center point inside the first circle. The smaller the inner circle is (compared to the outer), the skinnier the star points will be, and vice versa.

Decide how many points you want on your star. Divide that number into 360. That is the number of degrees each point will take. Divide that number in half. That is the offset.

Example for an eight pointed star —
360 divided by 8 allows 45 degrees for each point, with a 22.5 degree offset.

Draw a line from the center through both circles. Starting on the point where the line crosses the outer circle, draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the outer circle.

Where the line crosses the inner circle, offset a dot by 22.5 degrees, then draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the inner circle.

Connect the dots. Voilà. Then erase the construction lines. I still use the method when designing quilt blocks.

664. Whose Number is This Anyway?

Post number 666 is coming soon, and there is no way I can ignore it. It stirs things up, three posts worth in fact, so I have to start talking about it today.

Perhaps I should explain the number 666, because many people who read this blog do not live in overwhelmingly Christian countries.

666 is a number that appears in the Christian Bible, in the Revelation, which is its last book. Revelation purports to be prophesy of the last days and the end of the world. Serious Christians spend a lot of time thinking about that and not so serious Christians are fully aware of it. Smart ass kids joke about it; serious kids get freaked out by it. Writers of fantasy use it for inspiration, atmosphere, and images. If you take the time to read Revelation (get the King James version for the full smell of brimstone) you will find that it makes Stephen King sound like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The heavy metal band Iron Maiden rode to fame on it. Nobody ignores it.

Just to make my own position clear, I used to be a Christian and now I’m not. I have a tenuous relations with Christianity since almost all my friends are Christian, many deeply so, and I would not want to offend them. Still . . .

Here is the quotation in question, from Revelation 13:16-18, King James Version:

[16] And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

[17] And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

[18] Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

The beast carried the number 666 in his forehead and all his followers were required to do the same. This quotation is just about the number itself. The rest of the chapter is about the beast, and it is terrifying.

The Revelation’s picture of the last days was deeply disturbing to a twelve year old kid sitting in the back pew of a small Baptist Church, deep in Oklahoma, well into the night service, surrounded by the moist heat of August, with darkness outside and the sweat-soaked preacher thundering from the pulpit as his hour of hellfire preaching reached its crescendo. And it wasn’t an isolated sermon. My church served up hellfire three times a week, and the Revelation was the text for the feast several times a month.

It still gives me a chill, and it makes me understand the almost superstitious revulsion many people have for the number 666.

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Thinking about all this brought up a fairly frivolous question — since phone codes are three digit, is there an area code 666? Apparently not, although my authority is the internet, so let’s treat this as hearsay. Apparently the number 666 is “currently not assigned” which means that it is one of those area code numbers reserved for growth. It also means that it could be assigned at any time. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

My wandering through the internet in search of more bits about 666 revealed a lot of facts which may not be so factual. It is said that area code 666 was once assigned to an area in Louisiana and that local Christians petitioned successfully to have it changed. It sounds like something that could have happened, but stories that good are often invented.

There was one Q&A which I can’t resist repeating.

In what state is area code 666 located? Hellsavania.

That’s enough for one post about the infamous number, but the issues have barely been touched on. There’s more. Stand by.

663. Delayed Youth

Last week I mentioned that I was not allowed to have non-Disney comic books as a child. There were two small exceptions. When we moved onto a new farm when I was seven, someone had left a Blackhawk comic behind. I hid it and read it in secret until the ink wore off (metaphorically).

Every week my Dad and I went in for haircuts — a flattop for me, not by choice. While my Dad had his haircut, I read Spiderman from one of the comic books that was always there hidden under Outdoor Life and the Progressive Farmer. He never caught on.

Here’s a hint. If you want your kid to want something, make sure he can’t have it.

There were a lot of words I couldn’t say growing up. All the usual cuss words, of course, but also Chevy (we were a Ford family), Allis Chalmers (we were a John Deere family), or Democrat (we were a Republican family).

Here’s another hint. If you want your kid to be a rebel, don’t ask him what he thinks, just tell him what to think.

When I finally got away from home, one of my college roommates was a folk singer. He had an extra guitar which I borrowed. While I was learning to play it that first year, I was also accumulating records by people like Baez (Deportees), Paxton (The Ballad of Spiro Agnew), and Ochs (I Ain’t Marching Anymore), and starting to pay attention to that war in Viet Nam that I would be expected wage when I got out of college.

Hint number three, if you want to grow a liberal, force him to be a conservative as he grows up. The threat of the draft doesn’t hurt either as a way of liberalizing a farm boy.

My other roommate gave me a couple of gifts, besides just being nice guy. He introduced me to the Lensman series (Doc Smith, aka E. E. Smith, Ph. D.) and to paperback science fiction in general.

In one sense, my childhood was lucky. I read science fiction from the beginning and my parents never caught on that Stranger in a Strange Land was probably more dangerous to a child’s sexual morality than Spiderman was.

It was the covers. Old books from an old library in the fifties meant that the covers on science fiction novels were plain tan cloth with no pictures. There were no bookstores anywhere near, so my parents never saw those wonderful paperback covers with all those wonderful half-nekked women. If they had, I would have been restricted to Mitchner and Costain.

The other thing my college roommate introduced me to was Marvel comics. Not counting an occasional Spiderman in the barber shop, I had never seen Marvels, and it didn’t take long to get hooked. I had my youthful dalliance with Marvel about ten years later than I should have.

Pretty soon I was reading them all. There were so many crossovers that you couldn’t skip one you didn’t care much for, for fear that it would mess up your enjoyment of one of your favorites. Those Marvel people were marketing geniuses.

I had my Marvel decade during the wrong decade of my life. Eventually, I had to quit cold turkey. By that time I was writing full time, Jandrax was out, A Fond Farewell to Dying was on the way, and I  wasn’t making enough money to support my habit.

So I quit. All at once. Quitting cigarettes would have been less painful.

Does anyone want to buy a collection, much thumbed and totally not mint, of every Marvel comic, one copy of each, from 1967 to 1977? Never mind, I might re-read them someday. After all, I re-read everything else.

661. J. G. Ballard’s Coral D

J. G. Ballard and The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D

New Age, New Wave, New Deal — the names never seem to hold up more than a few years. When the New Wave in science fiction became an old wave, it kept its name. That’s too bad, really, because it makes a genuine change in science fiction seem a little silly. Art Noveau suffers from the same illogic, but since the phrase is French, no one notices.

I was there when the New Wave happened but I won’t try to define the movement. It can’t really be done, although Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone will. It was an exceedingly amorphous movement, full of wonderful writing and unbearable crap — pretty much like most movements.

For me as a reader, long before I became a writer, the New Wave just meant that there were wonderful stories available from Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and J. G. Ballard. And in the weird department, Ballard made Ellison and Zelazny look like insurance salesmen.

I’m going to try to untangle Ballard’s The CloudSculptors of Coral D down a few paragraphs, but first let me tell you a couple of things.

I bought Ballard’s complete short stories when it became available, probably ten years ago, but I hadn’t read a single story from it until recently. I remember his work with awe and wonder, but that doesn’t mean memories of joy. His stories crawl around like worms in my subconscious, so I didn’t read them again, even though I normally re-read everything.

I was thinking about those stories one day in 2017, especially the one called Deep End which is steeped in hopelessness about the human condition. A short story popped out of my head and fell onto paper. Since Ballard inspired it, it is grim. If you are interested in a dip into the black pool, click here.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself being challenged by Joachim Boaz. He recently reviewed Thirteen to Centaurus by Ballard. It’s one of Ballard’s works that I had not read, so I decided to do so before I read Boaz’s review.

But before starting that, I decided to re-read something I remembered fondly (but faintly) in order to repair some of the trauma induced by Deep End.

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I normally avoid spoilers, but not this time. I could lay out the events of The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D completely, and it would be like a skeleton compared to a man. The plot is nothing. The words are everything.

Here is what happens. Four men come together in a strange landscape, clearly one which remains after a cataclysm. One is a pilot with a broken leg, one is a dwarf, one is an artist, one is a playboy. Together they become purveyors of a transitory performance art. They sculpt statues out of clouds, flying in gliders, and carving with silver iodide.

Every one of these men is a cripple in one sense or another. The pilot with his broken leg, through whose eyes we see events, is the least crippled of them.

Enter Leonora Chanel, heiress, flawed beauty, and murderess. She surrounds herself with portraits of herself, and she is the most crippled of them all. She hires the men to sculpt her face in the sky, but at another location. When they arrive, the main character says to her . . .

Clouds . . . those are tigers, tigers with wings. We are manicurists of the air, not dragon-tamers.

. . . and we immediately know that not all of the sculptors will survive.

I will leave the rest of the how and why unreported in case you read the story. What we have here is a group of damaged men, in a damaged world, under the spell of a powerful la belle dame sans merci. It could be Burma after WWII, or any of a hundred other places, in any of a dozen movies or novels out of the fifties.

What makes it science fiction, and moving, is not the plot but the descriptions. And what makes the descriptions memorable is as much what is left out as what is said.

Vermillion sands. Towers of coral rising up from the shattered bed of a dead sea. Sonic statues which wail eerily at just the right moment. Gliders, “brilliant painted toys, revolving like lazing birds above Coral D”. Leonora’s jeweled eyes, a phrase repeated almost too often before we find out what it actually means. “Memories, caravels without sails, crossing the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes.” The dwarf, “with a child’s overlit eyes”.

It is all clearly an allegory, but Ballard gives us very few clues as to what it is an allegory of. One character says, “We had entered an inflamed landscape,” and that is a good short description of Coral D and of Ballard as a writer.

The people, actions, and motives are as surreal as the landscape. It seems like a cop-out to say this, but Coral D, like most of Ballard, has to be read. It can’t be conveyed. And when you finish reading, you may still feel frustrated and confused.

But you won’t forget it.

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Now, from the sublime to the absurd.

When I was ten years old, while other kids were reading Spiderman, I was reading Scrooge McDuck. My hyper-religious parents would not allow non-Disney comic books in the house.

In one episode, Scrooge had another get-rich(er) scheme. He outfitted biplanes with bulldozer blades, flew around herding clouds into cubical shapes over farmers’ fields, and seeded them with silver iodide — all for profit. I don’t remember too much more detail, and I have been unable to find a copy anywhere, but I do remember one picture of the rain falling to the exact middle of a wooden fence, since Scrooge McDuck would not let one drop of his rain fall on a field which had not been paid for.

You would have a hard time finding two works more superficially similar and essentially different than McDuck and Coral D. It boggles the mind. Did Ballard read McDuck in his youth and get a picture lodged in his subconscious? Or was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Scrooge McDuck, secretly a fan of weird science fiction?

Either alternative is too strange to contemplate.

652. Hymns vs. Carols

A note at the start: this may seem to be about religion, but it is also about the manner in which a writer presents his ideas.

During the last two days (November 10 and 11 in this time warp called writing posts ahead of time) I have reread Like Clockwork, putting on a final polish. I find that I have to give a finished piece a few months to lie fallow before I can see things like they when I meant to write the, or a perfectly fine sentence which leads the reader’s understanding in the wrong direction because it doesn’t match the lead-in from a previous sentence.

Songs, particularly their lyrics, play a late but vital role in the novel Like Clockwork, and polishing the parts of the book where Balfour teaches Eve to sing took me back to an earlier time in my life.

The first music I remember was in church, which was probably different from the church, synagogue, temple, ashram, or gurdwara you attended. It was the (town deleted) Southern Baptist Church, a white clapboard building that housed about fifty people each Sunday during the decade of the fifties. My father was song leader, although he couldn’t read a note of music, my mother played the piano, and everybody sang. Not well, mostly, but vigorously. That’s where I learned to sing without apologizing for my five note range.

We were fundamentalists, believing that God was all powerful, all knowing, and willing to forgive, but only if you accepted him as your personal savior. Otherwise, you would burn in Hell forever. I believed that myself at the time.

The hymns we sang echoed the sermons, particularly this one:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains

This isn’t like the kind of fancy, up-town hymns most Christians were singing, but it suited our congregation. No one questioned the lyrics. Well, I did, but I never said so out loud. Even if you accept the underlying theology, this is a harsh way to present it.

There was also a sub-category of hymns called invitationals, which were the backbone of the service. At the end of the sermon, without exception, the last hymn sung was a call to repentance. It went on verse after verse in hopes that some sinner would come down to give himself to Jesus.

I know how often I speak tongue-in-cheek, but that’s not what I’m doing now. I myself went down when I was twelve years old, convinced that I would be Hell-bound if I did not. Loss of belief came a few years later, but the sound of those sweet invitationals still lives in my memory.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

There’s that blood again, but you shouldn’t make too much of it. The sacrifice of a God or a parent for their children is hardwired into human DNA, from Jesus to Bambi’s mother. The presentation makes the difference, including the melody and the place. That “fountain filled with blood” never set well with me; today it makes me cringe and it makes me angry. But “just as I am” still rings in my memory as a sweet call to come to a God who would accept you, no matter what you had done.

Writers, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Sometimes, however, it is what you say. There was only one hymn out of the hundreds I knew, In the Garden, that always spoke sweetly. I featured it late in Like Clockwork. Eve tweaks it a bit, but I was too young when I sang it to have that much nerve. It will show up in the next post.

Although I didn’t know it when I was a child, this hymn is supposed to be the thoughts of Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. I like it better as anybody, in any garden. The second verse says:

He speaks, and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

The sacrifice is always there, but you don’t always have to talk about it. People know.

Every Christmas we sang carols, which were that oxymoron, happy hymns. That was the only time we were singing the same thing more PC Christians were singing, and I loved them most of all.

If you are a Christian, you can look toward the manger, or you can look toward the cross. We looked toward the cross, but if I were still a Christian today, I would be kneeling before the Baby Jesus.

I suspect that all religions contain both those aspects. If you look past jihadis to the precepts of Islam, you will find a vast fund of good will. If you look at the history of “peaceful” Buddhism, you will find a war fought between followers of the Amida Buddha and the Buddha of the Pure Land. Everybody, everywhere, has the same choice to make.

In our Church, the sermon on the Sunday closest to Christmas started out with the Babe in the manger but quickly morphed into hellfire. The preacher never forgot that his primary duty was scaring the Hell out of sinners — or scaring sinners out of Hell.

That’s legitimate, but personally, I reject it.

There will be more on this in Eve Learns to Sing, on Wednesday.

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

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Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.