Tag Archives: memoir

676. Cat A Strophic Fiction

One of my many friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good times.

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

672. Strong As a Woman

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t a roast, it’s an homage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You always know where you stand with her.

*           *           *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

*         *         *

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.

*        *        *

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.