Tag Archives: memoir

617. Raiders Before the Ark

Ground penetrating radar used in survey archaeology.
I’m jealous; in 1967, we just walked and looked.

Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.

When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.

My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?

My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.

It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.

I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.

1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.

The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.

Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.

Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.

My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.

We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.

If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.

Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.

Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.

So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.

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616. Anthropology

If you took my advice and watched Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, you know now that the K. stands for Kroeber, after her father A. L. Kroeber, who was one of the important early anthropologists, and that her work was influenced by growing up in the atmosphere of Berkeley. My work has also been influenced by my study of anthropology, as I was ready to share in this post. I wrote it a few weeks before I saw the American Masters presentation. I moved my post down to shoehorn in my recommendation that you watch the TV show while it is still around. 

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I was seduced by novel writing in 1975 and that ended my five year study of anthropology, but there is more to it than that.

There were two things in anthropology that were driving me out before I wrote my first novel. One was cultural relativism, the philosophy that underlies the whole field. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. You’ll hear more about that in a future post.

The other thing was field work. I did field work in archaeology for two summers, and that was fun, but my specialization was South Asian social anthropology. That meant sitting in some village in India for a year asking questions about local relationships, and there was no way to avoid it. It’s an absolutely required rite of passage and doing it once isn’t enough. You have to do it again and again. It is the way anthropologists do their research.

It offended my sense of privacy. If anyone were to ask me the kind of questions anthropologists ask their subjects, I would tell them to take a long walk off a short pier. Needless to say, being the person doing the asking wouldn’t make it feel any better.

There is also a deep triviality to field work. It resembles lab research in other sciences in that way. The end result of scientific research is not trivial, but the day to day weighing, titrating, or looking at slides from a telescope or an electron microscopes is exceedingly tedious.

That would also be true of asking questions about who is related to whom in the village, and making out kinship charts so you can tell who is a parallel-cousin and who is a cross-cousin. No, I’m not going to tell you what those two phrases mean; it’s better you don’t even have to think about it.

Encountering anthropology in college is like eating at a good German restaurant. It is laid out on your plate, already prepared, and delicious. It is still the same in grad school until the day you reach the field. Then you have to butcher the hog and make the sausage. It’s no fun any more.

I love ethnologies, treatises explaining in detail how other cultures work. The variety of ways in which mankind has organized his work, his time, and his beliefs is both staggering and fascinating. I would have enjoyed writing them, but the research needed to reach that stage would have been more than I could have borne.

I use what I learned in anthropology every time I write a novel. Sometimes it’s only a little; sometimes it forms the backbone of the whole enterprise.

I also wrote a long article on the subject called How to Build a Culture. I presented it at Westercon 34 in Sacramento, and later archived it on this website. It it’s present form, I have divided it into eleven virtual chapters to make navigation easier. The internal links to reach individual chapters are at the top of the file.

If you want to see it, click here. I think you’ll like it. It’s still anthropology, but you don’t have to do the fieldwork.

614. Wind and Air

Over in Serial, starting tomorrow, there will be a short story that is technically a prequel to Firedrake and Scourge of Heaven, two novels set in the fantasy World of the Menhir. This short story, The Gods of Wind and Air, offers no insights into the novels. Instead, it exists to tell the story of a serf whose character and philosophy interest me, and to give me a chance to experiment with connecting poetry to prose in a manner new to me.

Short stories come to me rarely. The only other short story from the world of the menhir is set some years after the main action, and can be found in Backstory.

One of the reasons I am offering The Gods of Wind and Air now is that my life is temporarily full of chores. A tree I planted forty years ago has grown into a giant, and now has to be trimmed back one limb at a time, plus lots of watering of other trees and bushes during the long California summer, plus the fact that I am now writing full speed on Dreamsinger. In the next few weeks I may not be able to provide two posts a week, so I am giving you something to tide you over.

                   Now, about the story itself . . .

When Marquart and his little band first entered the Valley of the Menhir, the unseen narrator (me) said:

. . . the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.

It is about the only reference to the elder gods in that novel. Unfortunately, that line ended up on the cutting room floor.

The World of the Menhir has always been lousy with god. Most of them are more like Greek demi-gods than like world creators. They live on the ground, brawl and love and hate, and are fairly human except for having Powers. I find them more interesting than omnipotent beings.

First to arrive were the gods of Comai, who entered from another world and dominated the native humans. They were eventually ejected in a string of events too long to even précis. Then came a thousand years without gods.

The events that make up my novels and short stories begin when a new set of gods from yet another world enter the land of the menhir and take up residence, beginning the century long battle between the Damesept and the Remsept. A chunk of that story is found in Banner of the Hawk 1.

Even before the Comanyi arrived, there were home-grown gods like the Weathermistress. The serfs and free foresters still worship them, as well as the Flower of the Waning Day, a trio of Comanyi who helped humans drive out their brother-gods.

Not Pellan, though. He is mad at all the gods, and that is where our story begins — tomorrow in Serial.

Incidentally, if the title sounds familiar, stories called The blank of blank and blank are everywhere. I think they all stem from the classic title The Queen of Air and Darkness which was first a novel by T. H. White, then a novella by Poul Anderson, and recently another novel by Cassandra Clare. It is a title rhythm that sticks in the mind.

Also incidentally, the logo presented at the top of all these posts is a runeboard, which is a means of divination used throughout the World of the Menhir. It doesn’t appear in this short story, but it was the only piece of world-of-the-menhir artwork I had available to me.

Enjoy.

611. Living Through History

I never worked for NASA. I have no actual connection with the space program, but I love it. These days, everybody is talking about the moon landing, but I’m not going to post about it directly. There is no need. I’m no expert, but every real expert left alive will be on your TV.

My connection is personal, and I first wrote about it when this website was new, in October of 2015. I don’t normally like to repeat old posts, but I can’t say it any better.

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It was pledge week at PBS. They ran the biography of Neil Armstrong for the upteenth time. My wife and I watched it for about the third time, and when it was over, she said, “That was my childhood.”

I knew exactly what she meant. She and I were soul mates long before we met. Pardon the corn, but it’s true. She grew up in Michigan and I grew up in Oklahoma; we met in college. But when we were children, we were both science nuts long before Sputnik. We both repeatedly checked out Vinson Brown’s How to Make a Home Nature Museum and followed the instructions. We both checked out books on how to grind the lens on your own reflecting telescope, but neither of us made one because we didn’t have the money to buy the glass blanks.

On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited their first satellite. I was in fifth grade when the teacher went up to the front of the room and wrote Sputnik on the board. She said it meant Earth-moon in Russian. It didn’t, but we knew almost nothing about the Russians then. A few days later, she wheeled a cart into the room. It had beakers beneath, a tiny sink, and a hand pump. Oklahoma schools had instituted science as a middle school and elementary subject for the first time.

I kept track of every satellite we launched and every rocket that blew up on the pad. There were a lot of them. When the Russians launched Muttnik (the nickname was American) I was fascinated to see a living creature in space. All my schoolmates said only the stinking Russians would send a dog up there to die.

I watched the Mercury astronauts first press conference and quickly got to know them all. I was thrilled when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Everybody wrung their hands because a Russians got there first, but I didn’t care. We were in space — and we meant people, not Americans.

I watched Shepard’s and Grissom’s launches, and cheered when Grissom didn’t go down with his capsule. In Michigan, my future wife was collecting every magazine that covered the Mercury program.

I was at school while John Glenn was in orbit, so I missed something monumental in our family history. My father, who thought the space program was a waste of money, got off his tractor and came in to watch the televised coverage. He later said, “I just couldn’t work until we got that old boy back safe.”

The rest of Mercury, Gemini, the beginnings of Apollo — I followed every mission.

I had discovered ecology, at a time when nobody knew what the word meant. I spent my junior year building an Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness for the regional science fair. It was complicated, cutting edge, and more than I could actually complete by fair day. I won’t bore you with the details, but it helped get me a Fleming Fellowship the following summer. That gave me a chance to work with real scientists and to see some of the world beyond my tiny town. Those were the people who suggested I should apply to Michigan State.

At MSU the Biology department cared nothing about ecology. I was a few years too early; if you didn’t need an electron microscope to see something, it wasn’t interesting — to them. The closest thing to behavioral biology was Anthropology, and that is where I ended up. And where I found my wife.

We married in 1969 and took off for a long drive around the US, visiting relatives and national parks. We got back to to East Lansing in mid-July, following Apollo 11 on the car radio. On July 20 went went in to the student lounge of her old dorm and sat with dozens of college students watching a grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon.

You should have been there.

606. We Learn

University of Chicago

In the review of Louis L’amour’s memoir, a lot was said about self education, but that should not obscure the usefulness of college.

If you cut classes, sleep through classes, read digested notes instead of the textbook, and write merely adequate papers (or buy them), you can get all the way to graduation without learning anything. It takes some effort, but people do it every day.

On the other hand, if you recognize that your education is your responsibility, college will at least provide you with a reading list. And while you are in the stacks there is no telling what kind of other amazing additional things you will find to read.

Also, a few of the professors, at least, will have something worth listening to. I have had brilliant professors and professors who were dolts. You just have to deal with it.

There are grad students (I’ve met some) who were plowing their way toward a Ph.D. on pure inertia. Something got them started down that path and they didn’t have the imagination or courage to make a change. They can make it all the way to professorship with the help of other misfits from the last generation.

It’s pretty much like the rest of life.

I left a town in Oklahoma, population 121, and arrived at Michigan State University in 1966. That year the campus had about 48,000 students. I loved it. I could walk down the street without everybody knowing me, and reporting back everything I did. (Sigh of relief!)

I started in biology, switched to anthropology, and concentrated on the cultures of South Asia. Just before graduation my draft number came up, so my diploma was immediately followed by four years in the Navy.

A word of advice: if you have a degree in engineering, they make you an officer. If you have a degree in anthropology, they make you an enlisted man. Oh well.

I next attended the University of Chicago, where I got an MA studying the interface between South Asian village economics and native theories of ritual purity. Title: Jajmani, an alternative conceptualization.

Obscure? You’d better believe it. Obscurity does not make a thing useless, but it does make it hard to talk to your friends about it.

Then I got blindsided by novel writing, but I’ve talked about that enough in the past.

The University of Chicago is a premier school. California State College, Stanislaus, which I attended a few years later, was known only to locals. The profs at Chicago were probably better scholars, but not better teachers. I got a good education both places.

CSCS is now CSUS. It was upgraded to a University a few years after I left. While I was there, I studied History, and received a second BA and second MA. Why a second set of degrees is a long story, to be told another time.

My thesis was “The Crisis in American Shipping and Shipbuilding: 1865 to 1918” That was an era of arguments about the role of tariffs and subsidies, with much testimony before Congress in which every competing party misrepresented the facts. Same old, same old. Teflon Don would have felt right at home.

To finish this quasi curriculum vitae, I went back to the University of the Pacific a few years later to get a teaching credential. It only required a few courses with all I already had on board. Everything I had done until then was from love of learning. I went to UOP purely to get a job so I could continue eating.

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Everything I learned, everywhere I went, was useful to me as a teacher and as a writer. Over the next few months, I plan to pass on Reader’s Digest versions of some of it that might help you in your writing.

(Yes, I know most of the people reading this are or want to be writers, and more power to you.)

605. My Life as a Beaver

First I thought, this is too much about me. Then I thought, it’s a blog, stupid, go for it.

I am not a hoarder. Hoarders buy and store things they don’t need. I’m a beaver. I build things, and they accumulate. The tools also accumulate. Also the raw material for the next project, and there is always a next project.

Normally I keep my home life out of this blog, but I have to admit that my wife is also a beaver. It’s a good thing, really, or we couldn’t have had all these happy years together.

I always wanted to be a craftsman, but I grew up as a farmer’s son instead. Farming is a make-do profession. If a nail will do the job, don’t use a screw, and certainly don’t cut a mortise and tenon. We built a few barns when I was home, but the test of a barn isn’t how well it is built. If It doesn’t leak or fall down, it’s good enough. But it wasn’t good enough for me.

I took a semester of shop in high school, where I built a mahogany gun case for an aunt and a maple book case for a family friend. It was quite satisfying, but I needed all the rest of my time to prepare for college.

Once in college, I started a classical guitar, working where and when I could find space. I didn’t have the skills to do it right, but attempting it taught me skills I still use today. It sits, half completed in a closet; maybe someday I’ll complete it. Every successful craftsman has a few failures along the way, which is all right if he learns from them. Some years later I completed a dulcimer and later still the expanded range guitar shown here. I have a few more instruments in pieces waiting their turn.

That seems to be a pattern. I’ve finished quite a few novels, but I have at least as many more in pieces, waiting their turn.

Over the years I’ve built bookcases, tables, workbenches, cupboards, a bed, a couple of sheds, and all the other wood-based things a person on a teacher’s salary or a writer’s non-salary can’t afford to buy. I’ve also built for fun — fancy canoe paddles as family gifts, a cold-molded rowboat for the frustrated sailor that lives inside me, and other things too numerous to mention — or even remember.

Beavers gotta build stuff.

My wife lends a hand sometimes, and sometimes we build projects as a team. We spent a year of spare minutes building an arch to commemorate our (redacted) wedding anniversary. Her father and mother were both craftsmen, and she learned well before I ever met her.

Sometime in the eighties, we discovered quilting, and that’s something we do as a team. We design and build both together and individually. Over quite a few years, we designed better than a hundred quilts, most of which were built by a charity group in her guild to be donated. We built the three shown here ourselves; the designs are one each of hers, mine, and ours.

Beavers gotta design stuff.

The image at the head of the post is another project of ours. We built portable stands that carry 24 of these mini-quilts, and provide them for display in rest homes. We designed and built the stands; the mini-quilts come from guild members, including us.

In 2015 I decided my scheduled novel Cyan needed some support so I started this blog. A thousand plus posts later, I’m still at it.

Beavers gotta keep busy. Life can be boring if you’re standing still.

603. Small Gods, Big Result

Small Gods, Big Result
also known as
Full-Fledged Characters, Where Are You?

I have a colleague, JM Williams, who is a great fan of Terry Pratchett. On his suggestion, I checked one of his novels out of the library, read five pages, and tossed it.  Yech.

A month or so later I mentioned the fact to him. He suggested that I might prefer to start on a different novel, and suggested Small Gods.

I was hooked by page two. The scene, or was it an allegory, of the eagle and the tortoise was wonderful, and I was ready to believe that Terry Pratchett might be all JM said he was.

By page 38, I wasn’t so sure again, and I found myself trying to analyze exactly what was missing — for me — in the novel. I do that a lot. If you write, I’m sure you know what I mean.

Roughly by page 200, I was back on board again.

I had came to a conclusion, and since it bears on writing in general, I’m going to expound. As with the responses I got from 601. Home Court Advantage, feel free to disagree.

At page 38 of Small Gods, there was no character I liked well enough to care if he lived or died. Still, interesting  things were happening and I wanted to know how they were going to come out. That is a positive mark for a writer who knows what he is doing, but it isn’t really enough.

By about page 200, I wanted Om to make it and I really wanted Brutha to make it. From that time on, I had a vested interest that kept me going with enthusiasm. If I read another Pratchett (and I probably will) that enthusiasm will be there from the start, now that I trust the author.

I had needed characters I could care about.

This is not the same as full-fledged characters. There is no such thing. Robert Caro just wrote a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I’m sure he didn’t tell everything there was to tell. I read both parts of Patterson‘s bio of Heinlein and I still have questions.

If biographers who spend massive chunks of years don’t get it all, how can a fiction writer expect to have a “full-fledged” character. What does the phrase mean, anyway?

Om, Brutha, Vorbis, Simony, Urn, and Didactylos are all characters in Small Gods who are well thought out, powerful, and exactly sufficient to the task at hand. Not one of them is a “full-fledged” character, but they are each fledged exactly enough.

If you want to write full-fledged characters, maybe you should give up novels and write LITERATURE instead. (If WordPress allowed multiple fonts in one post, I would put LITERATURE in all curlicues.) Then you can out-Joyce Joyce if you want to, and still have readers.

They will have to read. There is a paper due next week, called for by the professor at the front of the room. He wants company in the misery of having been forced to read LITERATURE in order to get his degree.

In point of fact, there are powerful characters in literature and in genre fiction as well. The difference is in the expectations and tolerance of the reader. Powerful does not mean turning a microscope on his backstory and telling every detail.

Ursula LeGuin told us that science fiction is too small for Mrs. Brown, meaning there weren’t enough full-fledged characters. I listened. I respect LeGuin too much to ignore her, but after decades of considering her argument, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

I could (over)state in response, science fiction isn’t too small for Mrs. Brown; Mrs. Brown is too dull for science fiction.

Fiction, however humble or pretentious, is too small to contain any actual living human being. That isn’t what fiction is all about. Writers of fiction give a précis, a starting point, a few brief actions and emotions, and the reader fills in the rest. The reader draws on a full life of looking at other people, and at him or herself.

The real issue between literature and genre fiction is how many (and how dull) are the details the reader will tolerate.

Take Spenser (the detective, not the poet) for example. He has been around for almost fifty novels and, like Bond, has outlived his creator. After all this time we know a bit about him — actually, we may know all there is to know about him, and it isn’t much. Except for the interminable descriptions of food, all the details provided about him also move each story forward.

Recently I have worn out Spenser, Nero Wolfe and Archie, Judge Dee, Bony, Travis McGee and a dozen others, and have started Anne Cleves’s Shetland series. In my first attempt, I am having to get used to masses of detail about the lives of very ordinary people. I like it, but it is hard sledding; if I hadn’t visited Shetland and enjoyed the place, it would be even harder.

Cleves is a fine writer. My problem is a matter of expectations. Any detective writer in the list above would have finished Cleves’s novel in half as many pages, and the details left out would be the dull ones.

I like what I’m reading, really I do, but anything with this much detail about ordinary life has to be LITERATURE.

There will be more to say about all this on Monday.

HOLD IT – – – STOP THE PRESSES.

Something just came up as I was putting this to bed to wait for the 19th of June. It’s peripheral, but it struck me funny enough to put in a mini-post tomorrow. I will still say more about the main subject on Monday.