Friday, December 31, 2010

MMX: Walk Away

“MMX: Walk Away”

“He had slept, so perhaps this was some feverish nightmare, a dream-place where men killed and died for no reason he could see and each minute was spent in a starved, sightless silence, like animals far under the earth. Perhaps the moment of change had happened before then. Some other occasion when he fell asleep. Waking to the crimson sky of the drought. Waking to his new, hellish Memphis, ruined and gutted by a grief caused in the space of a day, an hour, a second. It seemed then that the world was a terrible, wounded place whose revolutions were driven by panic and madness more than love or reason. A directionless freefall toward something, maybe toward nothing. He no longer knew.  That night as he lay on the damp ground he wondered for the first time if there could ever be any return from this.” -- Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr. Shivers, Chapter 13, p.141-142, ¶5.


Burn the body to free the soul.
Bury the body to return to the soil.
Preserve the body to return to the world.
Display the body to return to the sky.
Sink the body to return to the sea.
Inhabit the body to experience time.


Last week the lunar eclipse fell on Winter Solstice. It won’t do that again ‘til 2094. That’s grandchildren’s time. Skies were clear; my youngest son and I saw Totality through bare tree branches. From darkness, light.

Yesterday afternoon, on a drive to stock up before a major storm might hit -- presuming they will prompts many such minor adventures -- I listened to the local classic rock station and it happened to play a quality list. “Levon”, “The Pretender”, and “Maybe I’m Amazed” -- song after song was a genuine classic, not merely a nostalgic gleam. Further, they were all serious in tone, with regret the most common theme. It seemed calculated to make someone my age look back in sadness at missed chances and sabotaged dreams. It also made me wonder how such young songwriters and performers had been so perceptive about what time would bring.

Surely music is better out from under corporate thumbs. It is probably that simple; those songs, primarily from the 1970s, were written by poets and artists who neither sold out nor came up through a mechanical Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building system. Today we see thugs like Simon Cowel drag music down to a financial and cynical story of promotion, exposure, and the crassest competition. To his ilk it’s a product for an industry to sell and exploit, nothing more. Expunged is artistry or individual expression that fails to serve the demographics research.

Sure, there remain real people making real music, but we don’t hear them much any longer, unless we attend local gigs all over the country, and who can afford that? We’re watching music go the way of poetry, into a state of near death in which its feeble pulse is maintained by a dedicated few who refuse to give it up. And even they write damned few of the old forms to any legitimate literary end.

Short fiction and probably soon novels, too, are also going the way of poetry. As fewer read short fiction, it becomes the new poetry, with anthologies and collections specialized and themed to appeal to prepared audiences. This has quite a few writers militating against it; Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones recently released Stories, a large anthology of just plain good stories, well-told and of no particular type. Great idea, superb fiction, and no one much outside the short story community noticed, despite a brief tagging of the bestseller list.

As for novels, they still sell, at least commercial novels sell, but genuinely quirky novels, never easy to place in the first place, are becoming impossible to find unless one can spot them disguised in genre costumes. Series, particularly movie tie-ins and franchise fiction, dominate; people want what’s familiar, not what’s new.

It is said a hack gives readers what they want while an artist gives them what they need. The former is focused on sales, the latter on artistic expression, and always the twain meet in commerce, where books are actually published, distributed, and sold.

We’re seeing this all change, however, with the advent, still small but growing, of digital reading platforms and digital fiction delivery systems. Suddenly the benefits of a publisher -- production of a competitive item and distribution through brick outlets and mortar shell flack advertising -- leap into each writer’s lap, or at least as far as his or her home computer.

A writer today can publish online, without benefit of copyeditor, literary editor, printer, packager, cover artist, designer, or any of the other hundreds of people who used to go into producing a physical book. Now, a writer can convert a manuscript to PDF and post it online, sell on one’s own web site, and accept the payments via PayPal. Advertising is limited by imagination only; go on Facebook or Twitter and chat up your new work, link the Amazon page for it to all your acquaintances’ web pages, and make a cool You Tube promotional video to get out the word. Soon self-publishing may be the main route for writing seeking readers.

We are returning to the days of individual, rather than corporate, imprints, when Caxton, Gutenberg, and Kelmscott were the only sources for what readers wanted. This makes it a free-for-all aspects of which troubadours would likely recognize. Strolling players, selling poems and satires by the line, peddling their stories by the telling, are about to begin wearing out their fingers instead of their feet. We’ll know them by their colorful camps as reliable word encourages like-minded writers to clump for mutual support and safety.

Soon we’ll go online and sift through fiction as we gradually fix upon our favorite sites so we can visit them more frequently and get the kind of writing we most want to read. The standard genre categories are likely to be used, but almost certainly local variants will imprint themselves upon styles and types. We’ll see the equivalent of generic rock become grunge or thrash metal, and we’ll see the basics such as Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror, Romance, and Erotica divide into coastal variants, perhaps, or city-specific tales, or new sub genres such as steampunk written expressly for left-handed blonde blue-eyed lesbian chefs who own rescue animals, or, more realistically, xtian right wing liberal-bashing science-hating revelation millennialism geared toward fat old white men afraid of shadows but addicted to the smell of money.

When the short story magazines began croaking in ever-increasing numbers, it was observed that one trend helping to kill them was specialization. Magazines had become so laser-beam focused on splinter audiences that any kind of miscellaneous fiction magazine simply struck too wide a stance. No one wanted to “wade through” stories they might not like just to find a few they might like well enough. Way safer to stick with publications entirely devoted to precisely what one likes: Overheated descriptions in purple prose of pale yellow pumpkins with stems curled with an Elvis-like panache, or kitten stories featuring only calicos with green eyes, snub noses, and curled, feathered tails.

Thing is, human beings are not as individual as they like to think, so the good news is, if you like something, chances are good others will too. With the gate keepers banished, the field is free to anyone who wants to run in and pitch a tent. By sheer luck others like you may well spot your flag and waddle over to hear your tales.

From darkness, light.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Charles Stross on Steampunk:

Yuki Onna’s retort:

Amberite's take:


My take: It strikes me that this is precisely where SF has been heading all along. SF, especially Hard SF, the stringent kind afraid to stray too far from the periodic table of science elementalism, craves control out of fear. “No rules?” its adherents thunder, outraged. To them, if it ain’t scientific, it’s just senseless meandering.

Talk about fearful old grannies: It has always been a truism that no one is more conservative than SF writers, especially the hard sf writers. Fred Pohl reminisced how they wrote centuries ahead of contemporary times but dressed, talked, and voted decades behind.

Well, what do such conservatives always want? Safety. They demand deballed kid-lit safeness in their storytelling; plain, by-the-Strunk & White writing; controlled imaginary worlds where their spavined notion of science prevails and where irrationality is a sin.

Many liked this kind of cringe fiction. It masqueraded as forward-thinking. It strutted out its futurists. It bragged about its prophecies and awarded its seers, its prognosticators, and its imagineers. It had all the earmarks of geeks and nerds huddling with hurt feelings in their world-haters clubhouse, agreeing fervently that they were the elite, and the rest mere mundanes.

Trouble was, not all the clubhouse members were engineers and scientists. Could non-elite drones write SF too?

The debate has raged behind the walls of the world for decades now, incorporating such concepts as the Golden Age, the New Wave, and Cyberpunk. Utopia, dystopia, and other topos imprinted themselves on SF’s collective memoryhole event horizon. FTL, ETI, and TNSTAAFL joined GAFIA, FAFIA, and the Moscow Mafia as terms of the trade.

And lo, along came Tor's conception of Steampunk as a genre.

You KNOW a movement's dead when some corporate schmuck company makes a market category out of it.


Tor publishing is currently working hard to make Steampunk not description but market category. To this end, Tor is pushing second-rate crap as the genuine article. This is true to form for corporate thinking but makes some upset. (Think Pat Boone singing Chuck Berry or other examples of Gresham’s Law where bad latecomers push out good innovators.) Of those upset by Tor’s strong-arm move to force good fiction out with bad, some factions object that romanticizing the Victorian Age is to glorify imperialism, monarchism, and oppression of underclasses.

This is all part of Doyle’s Holmes appeal, too, incidentally. Some of us are nostalgic for a version of the bad old days that never existed. It’s like the movie version of the Old West, fun if you know it's malarkey, dangerous if you're all hat and try to make it real like that goofy cowboy President we had awhile ago.

Any time a new flavor of fiction is made by corporate interests into a market category -- as opposed to genre, which arises naturally and unplanned -- it is likely moribund.

There is usually a prime example, quintessential and pivotal, seminal and famous. It sets the tone and parameters. What follows is response.

That is what we’re seeing now from Tor, response.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was probably the progenitor of Steampunk as a market category, having been a best-seller and a lightning rod for much discussion of literary theory at the time, circa 1990. Yes, there are older examples, dating back in fact to Wells and Verne and running through K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, James P. Blaylock’s Homonculus, and Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates, but The Difference Engine coalesced all the features of a market category’s prime exemplar.

This does not affect me, by the way. I write what ever it is I write, which I’ve chosen to call Ficta Mystica, having looked back over my life's work and spotting certain themes. I am instructed, though, and entertained, by the debate over Steampunk because the whole process smacks of typical corporate bubble-and-bust promotional capitalism paralleled by deadly serious literary chit-chat aimed ultimately at making writing better. Tant mieux.

In short, Tor’s ploy is a scam for selling more books, sure. Of course it is, why else does a publishing company exist? No shame there.

However, the debate surrounding this is asking a deeper question: Is this good for writing or even for -- gasp -- literature? Once again, it is argued, writing genre fiction is shown to be absurd if one’s goal is anything beyond serving corporate commercialism. Sad but true; art is subsumed by commerce. It may delight and fulfill one to to write genre fiction but all publishing the stuff serves is Big Publishing.

Quietly, a few writers produce solid, quirky, individual work in the unnoticed, and unexploited, shadows. That is where true advances arise.

And sometimes such advancements inadvertently achieve big sales and much attention. When that happens, market categories may be spawned. The last big one stemmed from the del Rey invention of the “trilogy” when an old professor’s outdated book, so big it had to be published in three fat volumes to be easily manageable, hit it big. That was called The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, and spawned what we now call the Epic Fantasy market category.

Will Steampunk be as big a boon to the corporate publishing coffers?

As one of those quiet writers in the shadows, it doesn’t much matter to me. Steampunk’s fun. It cannot be genuinely serious, for reasons covered very well elsewhere, though that needn’t matter to any reader or writer. If Steampunk floats your dirigible, go for it.

The rest is Steambunk.

Or Zombies. Or Sparkly Vampires. Or...

/// /// ///

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

War Talk on Election Night MMX

Nowhere to go, no place to be.

On the seventh episode of the superb BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO, a soldier turned gangster, whose Princeton education was interrupted by WW I service, goes to a VA hospital for his wounded leg. He meets a guy with half his face shot off, who had served as a sharpshooter. Leg is reading so face offers him a book his family sent. It is a Tom Swift novel.

“Don’t you want it?” leg asks.

Face says, “Can’t read fiction anymore.”

“How come?”

“It occurred to me, the basis of fiction is that people have a connection. They don’t.”

It is a strikingly cold existentialist statement. It puts one in mind of Hemingway. Not that Hemingway ever showed such naked cynicism, but it was there, just under his ironic tone.

Turns out face lost his eye and half his face just after shooting and killing a German soldier, whose own bullet got lucky and hit the sharpshooter’s rifle. Further, face can still shoot, as a later “return of favor” scene shows.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE is based on a chapter from a history of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It focuses on the Prohibition days when the Volstead Act allowed gangs to flourish. Hard, cynical, and greedy men made war for as much as each could grab from the others. As usual, the people suffered while being told how blessed, patriotic, and exceptional they are. They swallow it every time.

A generation later, the deep cynicism of returning WW II vets would move post WW I’s hard-boiled fiction into noir cinema, where lost men in a totally corrupt world tried to stick to a personal code of honor for no good reason they could articulate. It was a kind of formula for producing tough prose: Go to war, be shattered, see through the bullshit, and come back to write as bluntly as possible. No more decadent excess to keep minds off reality. Those guys wrote to kill or be killed.

This is why the fiction of the Lost Generation and that of the Forties Film Flatfoots resonate today. We are like them. In both cases the veil of lies was torn and we got a glimpse of how bad things are when scum prevail, as they do so very often, being prone to cheating and theft, thuggery and murder. They operate in a landscape where politics is gangsterism and the rest is up for grabs. See that clearly and the toys get put away so the tools of economic and cultural war can be handled more effectively.

Plain writing for clear communication stems from writers who have seen where pretty distractions and cringing escapism allow the scum to go -- straight into power -- and take us -- straight to hell. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Sleep with one eye open. We know the watchwords. Why lull ourselves with nonsense when reality is so hostile?

It has always been this way. Go back further and you’ll find Twain and Bierce favoring direct writing over flowery crap. Twain was a deserter from and Bierce a veteran of the Civil War, which created cynics as fast as it created widows and orphans. Go back further still and you’ll find more wars. There is always a war of one kind or another, thanks to the sociopaths always harrying us. We each have a war that shapes us.

My war was cultural and economic, in the 1970s, in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. Back then it was called coal country. Mountain hick gnomes with immigrant names and often accents, too, who dug the deep seams for steel in Pittsburgh, were scraping out a living in the most depressed region of the country. Then big steel moved overseas and the railroads were no longer needed. Everything dried up. Bruce Springsteen’s album THE RIVER summed it up so the nation could move on in good conscience, having shed a crocodile tear for us.

We who were stuck there were left strangely uncomforted.

An economic war against the people, waged by corporations with no national or human allegiance, devastated our lives. It destroyed my father and so many others. We learned then economics was a war, with weapons, killings, and deaths. Consequences of greed, short-term profit frenzy, and zero-sum cutthroat business-as-usual haunted our every moment. Poverty dogged us.

My scars run deep.

My writing tends to be terse.

Now that I and my family have once again voted the connection between war and how one writes makes sense to me. I write this as I watch the latest economic and cultural war again devastate the people for the benefit and amusement of the corporate rich and I only hope to stick to my code of honor, craft, and art. The connection now makes clear for me where my abiding anger comes from, as it builds toward fury at what the scum have done to us, and how I must use that tempered steel. I will write.

Write to kill or be killed.

Nothing less counts.

/// /// ///

Saturday, October 9, 2010

War World Discovery - An Alert

Just published by Pequod fine books: War World, Discovery -- the start of the series as it was meant to be. Includes a short story and a novella of mine, with more of my work in subsequent volumes. Collector's take note, this is a quality hardcover edition.

The War World Central web site,, was created to provide information about War World and the re-launching of the War World series by John F. Carr and Pequod Press. Learn the origins and history of War World and the CoDominium/Empire of Man.

Grab a Copy Today:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Decadence Lost

An article in THE GUARDIAN asked why this second Gilded Age has not spawned a flowering of decadent fiction to satirize its excesses. Certainly TV and film have done so but written fiction has not. People seem to cling to realism and naturalism. Can this be due to literalism infecting so wide a swath of society? Is it sub- or post-literacy giving us too few writers with sufficient verbal chops? High-verbal flourishes are crushed, mocked, and left for dead in genre fiction; this could be insecurity from pulp days prompting a purple prose backlash, and the innate hostility toward mainstream and literary fiction among the genre guardians and gatekeepers to force editors to expunge anything smacking of literary ambition or the fancy. Diversion rules, entertainment is allowed, but venture beyond genre basics into serious intent or layered idiom and wham, the boom will be lowered.

Ah, but where are the one-off literary novels? Why is there not another would-be Wilde stalking London or NYC?

They may exist among the unpublished. Such work stays safely in drawers and trunks, although usually an inkling often glitters in the slurry of short story collections and anthologies toppling off the corporate fiction tipple. So far, precious few hints of a reflourishing decadent movement are sprouting in the gob pile.

Doing high-verbal writing or venturing into the purple is rare in part because Thackery won. Vanity Fair remains the essence of brilliant high-verbal gloss, while Oscar Wilde owned the rest of any claim on decadence. ‘Art for art’s sake’ gave way, as 10CC sang, to ‘money, for god’s sake’ as commerce forced everything individual into corporate molds. And since appealing to masses requires simplicity, complexity is jettisoned to make wallets, and brains, roomier. And since nature abhors vacuum, in rushes a tsunami of cartoonish product.

Extruded plastic plots and vacuum molded characters compete in the grand parade of lifeless packing Peter Gabriel and Genesis warned about. Gray flannel fiction results and the novel is, as usual, dead or thrashing on a low-battery life support system.

Pictionary now comes as a card game needing no drawing. May well be fun, sure, but is drawing a clue such a burden? Merchandising demands it, though; otherwise you’d need only a pad and pencil to play and what would they sell?

Apply the same logic to fiction. If corporate does not control the product, they cannot control its merchandising and sales.

Then there is the stress of being pressured. Feeling rushed and impatient could be another reason no one bothers with decadent, lush prose and layered irony. Decadence requires indirect, lazy, and self-indulgent meandering, digression, and ornamentation. People today want it now, they want it blunt, they want it boiled down to bullet statements and talking points. Get to the point, they demand, already glazing over, their flooded minds churning over a hundred other things insisting on attention, decision, and action.

Conversation has died for the same reason. No one wants to take the time to talk things out anymore, except for endless, pointless meetings that ensure productivity is kept to a snail’s pace so no one gains a march on the well-ensconced CEOs.

But wait, someone cries. Neal Stephenson and China Mieville both write a Baroque, even Rococo style. An analysis reveals not decadence, though, but details layered on basics for the sake of appearing dense, important, and intellectually weighty. Decadence requires a light touch, and this is Germanically heavy, even burdened, a technique used as a ploy. Worked, too. Briefly.

In such ploys there is so much thus crowded out that is never addressed, from basics such as characterization to more subtle aspects, such as allegory, human feeling, or the aforementioned irony. Such higher level curlicues are important if fiction is to go beyond the fifth story toward skyscraping pinnacles.

Most popular fiction is published at a fourth-to-sixth grade reading level, as determined by complexity of vocabulary and sentence structure by such indexes as Flesch and Gunning-Fog. Most is written consciously to that level. Keep It Simple, Stupid, is less advice than description these days. Lowest Common Denominator is the way to gain a wide stance in the Bell Curve of American readership. Hollywood routinely dumbs down its remakes from subtle, sophisticated imports, pandering to a perception that Americans are too stupid to deal with such complications as, say, subtitles or characters with ambiguous identity. Hand-holding is necessary as audiences cross that dangerous street from real lives constrained and controlled by corporations and thuggish governments, into the cartoonish, simplistic, and patronizing world of Hollywood dream factory extrusions.

Make the product bland and sweet and salty and never too spicy except for the macho asshole niche market. Keep things middle of the road, non-threatening, and “family safe”. Make sure you get an R rating, though, because otherwise you get only Disney audiences, and we know how sticky they can be.

Current fiction, perhaps due to short attention spans, tends to deal with each story point as it arises, in sequence, rather than waiting for later resolution. This makes for neatness, perhaps, but is untrue to life. Next time you’re writing, try to remember to leave resolution of at least a few major story points for the end. Yes, a few readers might accuse you of being fancy or tricking them, but most will appreciate the delayed gratification and perhaps even admire your plotting.

Decadence can make a comeback. There is so much to satirize, so much excess to be disgusted by, and so much idiocy passing as normal these days it may in fact be almost inevitable. One novel and story at a time a new insouciance must develop about conforming to the corporate publishing list of acceptable elements and aspects. One novel and story at a time writers must strike out into electronic publishing seeking to do new things for a new audience, one not delivered to them by publishing’s marketing but a readership built up the old way, one set of eyes at a time among people who like what’s being written.

If you write it, they will read. Let your inner demons have full rein. Write from the deepest, most personal, and unruly core of your being. Produce any kind of fiction you really want, the kind you’ve always dreamed of but never dared put in fixed form. Show it around online and start a new rebellion against the new Gilded Age. Decadence lost can be found again; it never went anywhere but inside each of us, in our Wilde-est dreams.

Set them free.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Demon Dream

My wife and I were at some sort of art class, standing at big tables in a big room, many people bustling about or working at their projects. We had to make a false shirt front, a dicky, out of paper, and cut a few button holes and sew around them. We weren't sure why.

We came up with something, a kind of red sash false shirt front with a small crest of arms or badge of some sort lower down -- I remember thinking it would not be visible if I wore my jacket buttoned over it -- but it had only one button hole. A teacher said it had to have three and took scissors and stabbed our work, piercing it and going down into the table's wood. Noticing the teacher had once been a member of Monty Python, perhaps Michael Palin or Eric Idle but serious now, I remarked, "Yeah, the heck with the table, damned wood, growing all over the place."

There was no reaction to this mockery and we were told to get to work. I was quickly frustrated trying to sew around a button hole by hand, to reinforce it. I remember it kept resembling an eyeball and I was sewing around the lids, not to shut the eye, but to surround it with reinforcement so it wouldn't rip further when it opened. Failing at this, I was shooed away by some older women, who took over the sewing, and instead given a task.

I was to take to take a child of about 8 or 10 to fetch something in his apartment in the building across the street. The child was swarthy to the point of being burnished, and I was wary of him, but agreed to go along because the kid seemed to be okay with me. I got the impression he was somewhat hard to handle, maybe a trouble maker, but it seemed I was able to keep him generally reigned in.

We crossed a cobbled street, on a warm day, bright sun at the top of the buildings but us in shadow. I got the impression we were in Italy, probably Rome but not necessarily.

We entered an older but nice apartment building and climbed stairs. The lobby was old marble flooring and the stairs were mahogany and some creaked, but it was sturdy. The railings and corner pieces were carved nicely, again obviously old but still sturdy and serviceable.

At the third floor we paused and I unlocked the door with the key I'd been given, and in the boy scampered. I followed more slowly, wary of the place. It was big, with many rooms and halls, and the air was warm but not really stuffy. No scents of mildew or other older apartment smells. The boy proved to be demonic, making eerie statements far too creepy and mature for his age. He first alarmed, then scared me, and I remember humoring him to stay on his good side, not wanting to upset or anger him.

As we looked for what ever it was, he kept showing me things, like toys or various items in the apartment. All unsettled or alarmed me. Some gave me the willies, others dizzied me, and some just plain revolted me. The boy himself was matter-of-fact about most of the things. "We have one of these," or "look at this," or even, "how do you like my...?" I remember catching glimpses of a demon inside him; every now and then, for an instant, I spotted a kind of dark blur, or overlaid image, and his eyes and smile were terrifying. It was as if the demon in him was taunting me, knowingly drawing me deeper into some kind of trap.

He kept looking for something, and saying he had to get something, and I pretended to help him look while being nervous about entering the apartment deeper. Finally I'd had enough and tried to leave, only to discover the hallways were like a maze. I paused, calmed myself, and got my bearings, then tried again, and finally found the door.

It was closed and locked. I tried the key, and it did not work. I was locked in, and sensed with low key panic something coming up behind me.

It was the boy.

I cringed, wondering if he would grow claws or fangs and pounce, but he simply walked up and said, "Okay, we can go back now," and the key worked this time when I tried it. As I stepped out of the apartment he slipped past me and scampered down the stairs, while behind me all the lights and appliances and so on switched on and off rapidly, over and over, and things in the apartment moved as if in an ecstasy of dark delight.

Scooting forward, I slammed the door and hurried down the stairs with the feeling I'd narrowly escaped something. I followed the boy, who waited for me down in the lobby, where the light came through opaque white windows to give things a kind of aquarium glow. His eyes watching me come down the staircase looked huge and ancient.

We went out into the sunshine and warmth, crossed the cobbles, and I awoke feeling as if I'd dodged a demon of some kind. Am I haunted? Am I under demonic attack? Am I ridiculous to ask such questions?

Am I ever really awake?

/// /// ///

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dream Poem

I awoke with a poem.

Interestingly, in my dream, I found myself an adult visiting a school, and a teacher I knew, and she actually helped focus the poem as I worked on it with chalk on a playground. "Make these active verbs," she told me about the second and fourth lines. It opened the poem, I realized, and thanked her. She continued prowling the playground, supervising kids.

Later I approached the school, following her. When she disappeared around a corner I thought she'd jumped in through a window and lifted a curtain, surprising another teacher. "Sorry," I said, and went into the school to find the teacher again. Once inside I got lost in a maze of corridors and classrooms.

In one of the classrooms, though, I encountered my cousins, and the smallest one was standing there in a red dress, looking ill. I knelt down to ask her what was wrong and she said, "A thousand bones in my arms and legs hurt."

Standing, I told her mother, my aunt, that a thousand bones in her arms and legs hurt, which we both found cute and also distressing, so we tried to take her to see the school nurse.

Then I was somehow with my Aunt & Uncle not in Germany, as I once had been in real life, but in Africa, walking in a nice residential area. We were coming up a hill when we spotted a huge male lion strutting arrogantly along a sidewalk up ahead. We scrambled and I saw my relatives had gone up stairs and were being allowed into someone's house as refuge from the lion.

I tried to join them but I was separated when the huge lion wandering through residential streets came near. I scrambled and found a house where a woman was waving me inside quickly, where I ducked. There I was given broth and told the best way to avoid lions was to stand still. Then I left to find my relatives.

I ended up on the edge of town and being chased out into the bush, where I dashed through a section of trees and found myself on a veldt with lions and so on.

I got past that and fell afoul of mercenaries, who forced me to shoot, using an old rifle and one bullet, a springbok, which I did, and the I was given another single bullet and told to shoot a guy, which I did not want to do. As I hesitated, and they grew angrier...
A small herd of elephants came charging through. I was able to escape notice by pressing myself into a mud mound beside the road. Carrying the rifle, I went to a hut, where I found no help, then made my way across another field to a hill, muddy as hell. I began climbing.

There I encountered my uncle, who handed me a bowl of tar like the one he carried. We walked along atop the mud on plywood, onto which we threw chunks of tar at random, on any bare spot we wanted. "This is how roads get made here," he told me, and I asked where we were going. "We're two hours from Paris, here," he said, and I laughed.

He then said, as we climbed a steep, muddy hill, "look behind you." When I did, I saw a huge jet seemingly suspended at about our height and coming right at us. It passed overhead with only a few feet to spare, and then I reached the top of the hill, and my uncle was gone, but I saw a smaller plane, twin engine, coming in. It barely made it but managed to land.

I spotted my uncle in a crowd trying to get onto the plane, waving for me to hurry.
We both got on and the pilot said, "Hang on, folks, and welcome to the wildest ride in Africa." He then taxied an overloaded plane off the runway and began gathering speed going down the steep hill we'd climbed.

Then he skewed sideways in the thick mud, still gaining speed, and I figured that was it, we're crashing. But somehow he manhandled it into the air at the last moment, and off we flew, for the roughest, most upsetting flight ever. We landed in a skid at a bigger airport and I was saved; my uncle and I flew to Paris.

And through all that I retained my poem.


The poem:

"Ginger Girl's World"

Spring and summer
Open windows.
Fall and Winter
Close them.
The moth craves
Fire’s magic
Inside or outside,
Consistently ardent,
Always free.

/// /// ///

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Haunted Thoughts

I come from a haunted place. I was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where truckers still spot extinct Logan Indians in green prowling the edges of woods as early morning mists rise and fade. I was raised in Munster, Pennsylvania, where there are ghosts roaming the glens, dirt roads, and farmhouses, from the famous White Lady of the Elmhurst Estate to the lesser known that haunt houses less grand, places less storied.

Elmhurst, a Tudor mansion built by coal- and railroad-tycoon William Thaw’s wild son Harry K. Thaw, hosts both ghosts in the 20 room house and legends of a white lady drivers on nearby route 22 occasionally pick up. She asks to be taken home, directs drivers off the highway, over a railroad bump, and along a long dirt road that leads to Elmhurst, but mysteriously vanishes just as the car pulls up.

She’s supposed to be Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw’s mistress over whom he murdered architect Stanton White in the rooftop restaurant at Madison Square Gardens, as memorialized in E. L. Doctorow’s book Ragtime, and the subsequent movie. Nesbit, a Gibson Girl, was known as The Girl On the Red Velvet Swing, and why she’d choose to haunt Elmhurst is unknown. Most likely the ghosts have nothing to do with more famous names.

I stopped by at Elmhurst once and talked to the then-owners about ghosts. They said that, aside from shadows and lights in the windows at times the only thing they’d seen was a misty figure standing down by the barn. They’d seen this several times, usually from the porch, and neither footprints in snow or mud or any other sign that anyone had been there ever showed up when they investigated.

We walked down toward the barn along a dirt path made up of two ruts created by truck tires. It was a warm summer day toward evening and as we walked and talked the light began to fail.

I got a distinct feeling I should not continue toward the barn. It wasn’t fear, just a sense of warning.

Deciding to turn around, we headed up toward the house again and as we did I glanced at an upstairs window in time to see someone gazing down at us. I pointed this out and the curtain twitched and the figure was gone.
“That’s what we see,” the owner said, smiling, assuring me there was no one in the house.

If you want a glimpse of the Elmhurst estate and a nice write-up, check:


So yes, I’ve seen ghosts. Yes, I can sense presences sometimes. Yes, I can be sensitive to place, so much so that I have broken leases to get away.

What ghosts are, I have no idea, but I know they differ from hallucinations. As Kingsley Amis pointed out in his ghostly novel, The Green Man, you can induce hallucination with drugs, but not the same one in groups, and not the same one over decades or centuries.

Some swear ghosts are spirits. Ghosts certainly often look like people known to be dead; a link seems sensible until we ask why only some people, or why an action is repeated mindlessly.

Ghosts do not seem alive. They seem more an echo of a past life. The video tape comparison makes sense.

Some in fact call ghosts recordings. The theory that places might take impressions from strong emotion only seems persuasive until you ask what place is, or why one place differs from another in any objective way.

Ghosts ignore such questions and don’t often interact with people. They tend to repeat one brief set of actions, such as descending a staircase, walking along a road, or pacing a castle’s ramparts. As we’ve seen, though, some are livelier, such as a White Lady who wants a ride home, only to melt away.

Very few, in fact, make a sound, Marley’s chain-rattling and moaning to one side.

There are more complicated hauntings, though.

When my cousin first married she visited my paternal grandparents in haunted Munster, Pennsylvania. This is a tiny hamlet only a mile or so from the Elmhurst Estate, by the way.

That night, as she slept restfully beside him in a bed in my great-grandmother’s old room, her husband was tormented by pokes, prods, and blanket-snatchings. He heard hateful whispers next to his ear, too. By early morning he’d had enough and insisted they leave just after dawn, refusing even an offer of breakfast.

This house, several years earlier, was the setting of a sighting by my sister and me. We were children, she about 8, I about 10. It was the Fourth of July, afternoon. A family picnic had the lawn filled with relatives but the house was empty. My mother, wanting to buy something from a relative, asked my sister to fetch her purse. Being competitive, I tagged along.

In fact, we raced. We slammed into the house, through the porch, through the kitchen, and stopped shoulder-to-shoulder in the dining room doorway. I’m not sure what stopped us but that is where the oddness began.

When we heard the stairs behind the wall across the room creaking, as they always did, we waited to see who was coming down.

An old women, perhaps in her 70s, heavyset, with grey hair in a bun and wearing the kind of floral dress my great-grandmother -- who was out on the lawn -- wore, came down into the doorway framing the bottom landing. She looked up as she turned toward us to enter the dining room, smiled at us in a calm, reassuring way, with much kindness, and in no more than three seconds faded first to a mist and then away.

My sister and I continued behaving uncharacteristically. We looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, then crossed the dining room. We walked past the bottom landing where she’d vanished and we entered the living room to fetch my mother’s purse, all without a qualm.

Neither of us said a word about what we’d seen until much later, in the evening, as we were driving home to bed. We never really talked it over until days later. We’d both seen it and neither of us had any kind of fear. Our surprise was even muted.

Note that in this sighting there was, or seems to have been, at least minimal interaction; the ghost looked up, saw us, and smiled at us. Or so we interpreted it.

Now, it’s possible we only thought she saw us, but the feeling of warmth and kindness, almost of affection, convinced us otherwise. She saw and liked us.

In either case, we looked into a few things over the years after that glimpse. My great-grandparents had built that house and no one had ever died in it. For many years it served as a restaurant; it stands on what is now Old Route 22 at the top of Munster Hill, beside the old truck garage my great-uncle Art ran.
They’d had a nice dual business back in the days of broken truck drive-chains and overheated engines.

No structure and no known grave ever stood on that property prior to the house and garage. It is, as mentioned, close to Elmhurst Estate, which was built in the robber baron era when the rich wanted places with fresh air where they could escape from city pollution. Back then Pittsburgh, PA was known by Andrew Carnegie’s famous phrase: Hell with a lid on.

So where do the ghosts along that killer old Route 22 come from? Crash victims?

My grandparents’ house on Munster Hill offered another haunting; it chased my grandfather out a year or so after my grandmother died. He fled, selling the house at a loss to a neighbor, who had changed my great-uncle’s garage into M & M furniture, an antique and junk shop supplied by estate sales. Last I heard, the house is used as overflow storage for excess furniture.

My grandfather told me he’d been hounded from the house by my great-grandmother’s ghost, upset, he thought, because he’d failed to protect my grandmother from death. He said she poked, prodded, and pestered him, yanking at blankets and hissing angrily at him night after night. She followed him around the house and wanted him gone, he said.

I suspect he mistook the ghost my sister and I saw for my great-grandmother. They looked very similar, but we’d seen the ghost while my great-grandmother sat outside alive and well.

In the years since, I’ve heard that another cousin, one who lives in Cresson, one town and only five miles or so from the house, has been visiting and talking to the ghost on lonely nights. Yes, my family’s like that. How she gets in, knew about the ghost, or what she says I don’t yet know, having fallen out-of-touch with her branch of the family due to deaths and world travel courtesy of the military. I’ve got inquiries in via other cousins and hope one day to learn more.

Hoping one day to learn more is where parapsychology, or ghost hunting, has stood from the beginning. It’s where we all stand as we think about the shadowy corners of life. Hailing from a haunted place puts me perhaps more at ease standing here, even if no better informed. I can’t wait to find out more.

/// /// ///

Friday, August 6, 2010

How the Hypocrites Live

This is excellent, and shows how bizarre, absurd, and out-dated religion is. Rooted in superstition and all about control, it's junk we really can't afford to be carrying around as we scramble to survive.


An engineering professor is treating her husband, a loan officer, to dinner for finally giving in to her pleas to shave off the scraggly beard he grew on vacation. His favorite restaurant is a casual place where they both feel comfortable in slacks and cotton/polyester-blend golf shirts. But, as always, she wears the gold and pearl pendant he gave her the day her divorce decree was final.

They're laughing over their menus because they know he always ends up diving into a giant plate of ribs but she won't be talked into anything more fattening than shrimp.

Quiz: How many biblical prohibitions are they violating?

Well, wives are supposed to be 'submissive' to their husbands (I Peter 3:1).
And all women are forbidden to teach men (I Timothy 2:12),
wear gold or pearls (I Timothy 2:9)
or dress in clothing that 'pertains to a man' (Deuteronomy 22:5).
Shellfish and pork are definitely out (Leviticus 11:7, 10)
as are usury (Deuteronomy 23:19),
shaving (Leviticus 19:27)
and clothes of more than one fabric (Leviticus 19:19).
And since the Bible rarely recognizes divorce, they're committing adultery, which carries the rather harsh penalty of death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:22).

So why are they having such a good time?

Probably because they wouldn't think of worrying about rules that seem absurd, anachronistic or - at best - unrealistic. Yet this same modern-day couple could easily be among the millions of Americans who never hesitate to lean on the Bible to justify their own anti-gay attitudes.

-~Deb Price

A Great Moment for Writers

(the following was sparked by a discussion with writer Valerie Douglas)

It's very rare to promote learning over, or at least on par with athletics, yes. Papa Joe's old school, and also just plain old.

The notion that "men don't read novels" has been circulating in publishing for some time and I find it both ridiculous, given my experience and acquaintanceship, and also somewhat typical of the long series of self-defeating stances publishing has adopted over the decades. This is why I'm not at all freaked that soon Big Publishing will either change drastically or end entirely, as post-paper or digital publishing, and the independence and power this hands the writer, kicks in, as it already has, given that electronic sales have now outstripped hard-copy sales.

Seize the day, writers. At last you will not be held hostage by editorial gatekeepers, overhead costs of printing, or access to distribution. At last you'll be able to sell directly to the reader.

Of course, with freedom comes responsibility. You'll now have to make sure your work is professionally copyedited, edited, and laid out. You'll have to ensure it's up to scratch. You'll have to do all the scutwork of legal vetting and release forms and permissions. You'll have to come up with attractive covers, and any illustrations or charts you may want to include. And you'll then have to advertise, and not only create but maintain an audience, which requires your participation with them.

In short, the burden for making a professional product, and for being a professional presence in the marketplace, falls now on you, but the payoff is, no more being nickel-and-dimed, no more being cheated, and no more being misunderstood by promotional departments, etc.

Grab the chance while it's here, it's a unique moment in history. Wake up to it.

(for Gene's next motivational speech, please stay tuned...)

America's Story, A Tragic Debacle

America was not always an anti-intellectual torture-addicted war-mongering bully. Scholar-athlete used to be the American ideal, even into the 1950s. A can-do attitude and astronaut-level boldness combined with innovation, productivity, and a manufacturing base the envy of the world.

Then came the core right wingers who have skewed our society toward anti-intellectualism and all the other low-end qualities that have been nascent in America all along, but kept in check by accomplishment, achievement, and progress. With roots in the Aristos of yore, and the Whigs, terrified of the masses and effete in their certainty of entitlement, these money minions in the 1930s founded the Federal Reserve System and fought FDR, who they called a traitor to their class.

These envious, fearful little losers plotted ways to steal all the wealth and power for themselves, and shape USA into Morloch land, with themselves as Eloi. (See both H. G. Wells in The Time Machine and modern Mexico for examples.) In short, the in-bred, (and in-bread; ever seen one go hungry?), elitists and their wanna-be lackeys formed a cabal. (cool narrative touch, eh?) And it gradually took control of ever-larger and more important aspects of our society and culture, until in the late Sixties they were powerful enough to crush the Flower Power movement that might have curbed the War Pigs and Profiteers.

And from Nixon's basement they, the C-student flunkies and resentful little mama's boys and hateful repressed gays and open sadists and other Dicks Like Cheney, slithered, sociopathically to subvert, undermine, and detroy anything benefitting We the People, in order to steal the greater good for their Top Percent Rich corporate masters.

Here we stand, then, oppressed by rednecks, rubes, and teabaggers, hammered by hatred from the fearful bigots and the deep-rooted old white racists, and harangued by religious fanatics to whom extremism is but prelude for their Taliban-modeled Amerika. The 19% who should be inmates are running the asylum, and the rest of us gape and drool and do nothing as the place burns down around us.

How will the story end? Up to you, this is a do-it-yourself narrative.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Voting Machines Story

My one time inside The Old Weird Harold, on a tour with my eldest son Scott, we were ushered into a room and spoken at by "a real reporter" and, at the end, asked if we had any questions "about current news items or topics".

At the time, replacing paper ballots with electronic voting machines was a big topic of discussion, and I raised my hand and asked, "What do you think about replacing paper ballots with voting machines?"

You would have thought I had accused him of sucking the Pope's cock during high mass. It was incredible. The guy became livid instantly, and called me a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist and so on. He raved, literally. And during the rant he let slip the fact that he KNEW FOR SURE the machines were ABSOLUTELY TRUSTWORTHY because he'd reported on them extensively AND, it just so happened, his brother-in-law and others in his family owned a company that MADE them...

Well, I stood then and calmly said, "You said you reported extensively on the machines, but just said you were related to someone who makes them; isn't that a conflict of interest?"

He glared at me, opened his mouth, shut it, then strode out of the room, leaving everyone in the group floored.

And of course they all then shot ME dirty looks for "ruining" their tour and for being such a crazy liberal trouble-maker... As they stood and wandered from the room, some muttered what a jackass I was, and yet, all I'd done is ask a question and a sensible follow up question.

I was astounded, still am. I'm also now more cynical about how people prefer conformity and orthodoxy to facts, truth, or even to probing for such things. Better not to make waves, better not to rock the boat, than to find out useful, important, and interesting facts, is how they live. They being society, the collective group. The hive mind, the herd, call it what you are taught to call it, what's familiar to you. Better that way. Won't upset you if you reduce it to cliché.

They want answers, regardless if they're lies, and detest questions, regardless if they're revealing, insightful, or trenchant.

Later, I laughed about it, and said, "You know, it fucking figures. I can't even ask ONE innocent question without being buzz-sawed by the right."

The right, meaning the approved, the sanctioned, and the allowed.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hooked For Life

There are many reasons why people write, and why they might quit.

My parents are dead, for instance.  I'm evidently not writing to prove anything to them.

I discovered writing out of a love of stories, and a realization one day that hey, omg, I can write them too!  holy shit!

I was 7.  It was in summer, between first & second grade, at 402 W. Triumph Street, Ebensburg, PA, at the bottom of the hills the town was built on, down by the railroad tracks. I sat on the green couch by the east window in the living room in a striped tee shirt, jeans, and black Keds. My hair was pretty well buzz cut.

I wrote a story, The Big Fish, in a Tom Brown's Notebook, in pencil, using my knees as a clipboard. The story was about an imaginary adventure I and three friends had. Along with Scott Coons, my best friend, there was Marvin Hudson, who did a hilarious spazz creature at the Lyons Pool in Cresson, where I learned to swim when the teenaged bullies threw us in and told us we'd drown if we didn't learn fast, and Craig Weaver, who tried to act grown up all the time, much to our puzzlement. Craig had walked up to me first day of first grade, when I was terrified, and had punched me in the stomach. Then he said, "Now you punch me and we'll be friends." He was as good as his word, despite the bizarre logarithms by which he operated.

My story was about us going fishing together, of course, and about how we caught a fish too big to get into the boat. Our line breaks and the fish gets away. We are disappointed but also think it was cool how close we came, until Craig starts practicing the story he intends to tell about it. He plans to lie and say it was bigger than the boat. Scott and Marvin and I don't like this. So we tell him to shut up.

It was a great story, to me. Seemed both realistic and compelling, with elements of fantasy, even myth. It even included profanity; Craig had said, "Shit," at one point, something he really would have done.

I was so thrilled at the freedom, and the realization that I could make those pictures in my head come to life, that I ran to show my mother. I read it to her, "shit" and all, and she liked it. "But what can I do with it now?" I wondered. Even then, just writing it didn't seem enough somehow.

And she said, "Well, maybe you can get it published sometime." And I realized, with naive amazement, that the stories in all those books I loved so much had been written by people like me, and that is how they got into the books.

I was hooked for life.

/// /// ///

Order and Chaos In Genre

Genre fiction relies on order and chaos in many ways to define itself.

All mystery is about restoring order after chaos. Any variation of that moves away from the form to the point of failing the audience.

Horror often moves from order toward or into chaos. Schlock and camp horror even celebrates the chaos.

SF is about lecturing each other in detail how imaginary order works.

Fantasy is about escaping strict order to imaginary realms where emotional and mental elbow room can be found. Taken to extremes, fantasy has so much mental room that it becomes inadvertently chaotic.

A hero ventures forth from order to fight threats to that order, usually monsters. To do this the hero will die, be reborn, vanquish the threat, and thus redeem or save the order he can never then return to. He becomes an outsider as a sacrifice to the order he defends. A hero does all this selflessly and often reluctantly.

A villain threatens order, or undermines it for his own ends.

Genre fiction succeeds or fails to the extent a given story varies from established pattern. Fulfilling a pattern in a clever way earns accolades, thwarting a pattern, even in a clever way, risks audience rejection. Maintaining a pattern's order helps a story succeed in genre terms.

Order and chaos also apply to tone. The more orderly narrative, the more a genre audience likes it. Add any level of chaos and genre readers will either be confused by it and put it down as amateurish, or see it as literary and reject it bitterly.

Too much narrative chaos strikes genre audience as abstraction, which makes a genre reader feel as if something is being put past them, and this riles anger and resentment.

However, if you can make order look chaotic on the surface, and manage not to lose the order required to fulfill a given genre, it is possible, rarely, to prevail as "brilliant" or "a genius". Examples of this are Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and the Zen influenced mysteries of Janwillem van der Wetering.

Strict attention to order and chaos defines genre and helps a story fulfill expectations and thus succeed in the market.

/// /// ///

Monday, July 26, 2010

Drama, Melodrama, and Soaps

Good drama is based on interconnections, which is another word for relationships.

Soap Operas draw them with big fat crayons and oversized Sharpies in neon colors.  This is the reason we can all get hooked into them but also feel at least a mild contempt for them, if not outright allergic detestation; they're blatantly manipulative of our vulnerability to relationship shifts.

It borders on cheating; in the worst of them it IS cheating.  It parallels taking a sledgehammer to a kitten or feeding a puppy into a meat grinder.  It is guaranteed to make us react, and everyone knows it's a cheap shot.  

This is melodrama, the cartoon of the dramatic world. Actual drama is more refined in many ways.

More refined drama addresses both more serious relationship subtleties and deeper emotional scars. It also factors in ethical considerations and other real world expansions of personal problems.

The best drama enhances real life. It shows recognized individuals, not types, engaged in situations we can relate to, doing things to cope we have all done in one way or another, and it also reveals the complexities and subtle shadings involved in the process of living life with others.

Next time you write a story, figure out if it's melodrama or drama and adjust accordingly. It will strengthen your fiction no end to be aware of these things.

Monday, June 14, 2010

To Congressman Lee Terry Regarding DADT

Dear Mr. Lee Terry,

As one of your constituents from Bellevue, I'm writing this to let you know how let down I am about you standing against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

How can you oppose treating all human beings the same? How can you set aside categories for less-than-equal treatment? You are a privileged rich white man in a control position, so you're not affected by such unfairness, but huge numbers of people are, every day. Why perpetuate unfairness, prejudice, and bigotry?

What do you fear about GLBT folks? Do NOT try to tell anyone they fight or die differently for their country, nor that they adversely affect morale. Such nonsense has been disproven from the Spartans' stand at Thermopylae on down to now.

Do you, as a privileged rich white male, have to hide any parts of yourself in order legally to do your job? Are there aspects of Lee Terry that others' would shame you with, were they to find out? Or do you live free, unafraid, and dignified by personal liberty in an open society?

Why can't everyone? Why can't ALL American citizens? How can you possibly justify a Separate, Unequal set of rules for certain categories of American Citizens?

Please use the brains that must exist behind your charisma and glibness to re-think this important, pivotal matter and support complete equality under a Rule of Law for the GLBT among us. You have a chance with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other bills.

Instead of towing an out-dated, fearful line of prejudice, think your way clear to supporting ALL your constituents and ALL American citizens.

Thank you for your attention.

Oh, and a thought: Please spare us both a franked letter merely expressing the party line. I've seen it so many times it haunts my bathroom hours. Use the franking privileges to support Freedom, Liberty, and Equality for ALL.


Gene Stewart
1710 Dianne Avenue
Bellevue, NE 68005

Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing Late At Night, Questions Arise

Is writing communication,
the marking of territory,
or merely jabber to stave off loneliness
in this closed cranial cavern?

When words leap the gap we call time,
voices of people long dead speak again.
Is what they say more than
a waving hello between islands,
so we know we are sharing
experiences common to us all?

When we read, do other members
of our lonely species link through us
to each other, across a spectrum of
writers, writing, words, and voices?

Does writing bind the literate
into a greater experience of an
unknowable, isolated, yet somehow
elevated status of being?

Are each of us, those who
call themselves writers
because we write words
into sentences, stories, and songs,
seeking communion with
others like us from all times,
past, present, and future?

Write it once and it is always.
Read it once and it is yours.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cogent Points On Christianity by Christopher Hitchens

Let’s say the consensus is that our species, we, being the higher primates, homo sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Richard Dawkins thinks perhaps a quarter of a million, but I’ll take a hundred thousand.

In order to be Christian, you have to believe that, for 98,000 years our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25, dying of bad teeth, famine, struggle, vicious war, suffering, misery... all of that for 98,000 years, heaven watching with complete indifference and then 2000 years ago thinks, “That’s enough of that, it’s time to intervene. The best way to do this would be to condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate part of the Middle East. Let’s not appear to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization; let’s go to the desert and have another revelation...”

This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.

Why am I glad this is the case, to get to the point of the wrongness in the other sense of Christianity?

It’s because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral.

The central one is the most immoral of all, that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating -- in fact, originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert.

I can pay your debt, if I love you. I can serve your term in prison, if I love you very much. I can volunteer to do that. I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption.

There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It’s just a part of wish thinking, and I don’t think wish thinking is good for people, either.

It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all, the word love, by making love compulsory, by saying you must love. You must love your neighbor as yourself, something you can’t actually do, but you’ll always fall short, so you can always be found guilty.

By saying you must love someone who you also must fear, that is to say, a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid, but you must love him, too; if you fail in this duty, you’re again a wretched sinner -- this is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy.

And that brings me to the final objection, which is that this is a totalitarian system. If there was a god who could do all these things and demand these things of us, and who is eternal and unchanging, we would be living under a dictatorship from which there is no appeal, and one that could never change, and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought crime and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that are condemned in advance to be taking.

I could say more, but it’s an excellent thing that there’s absolutely no reason for any of it to be true.

--Christopher Hitchens, speaking off the cuff

Friday, May 28, 2010

True Violent Crime R Us

Violent crime, all the time.

Do we as a species have something wrong, or is it that violence should be accepted as natural? Maybe, like childhood, our aversion to violence is an artifact of our society. We make it worse by repressing a natural urge.

Oh, but then war becomes therapy, or at least a necessary venting, an outlet for roiling urges we can’t contain.

That would suck.

Might also be true; it rings true. There is surely an urge to kill and destroy in us. It is surely irresistible. As a species, we end up self-destructive every time we try to do anything.

We generally consider it allowable or at least constructive to sublimate our dark urges into art. It might even be the one thing keeping us from complete suicide. Species suicide is strange to contemplate but so many species have boiled off into extinction that, for all we know, it’s a common event. One almost thinks this could be a blessing if it would stop all the suffering we cause each other and the world, all the destruction.

Then we reconsider, or forget, and in forgetting neglect to take any positive steps to eliminate or even mitigate our own ferocity.

Humanity is a true crime.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I Want Is Simple

I want such illegal, unlegal, and extra-legal crap stopped right now.

I want fascism crushed.

I want sociopaths to be isolated from society permanently.

I want corporatism crushed. I want a well-regulated, sane free market system based on rational and responsible behavior enforced by real inspections with clout behind them.

A return to the Rule of Law.

The elimination of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T.A.C.T. and RICO laws and other fascist instruments of tyranny and debasement.

I want votes to count on a one-for-one basis, meaning we must rid ourselves of the ridiculous College of Cardinals, oh, I mean the Electoral College.

I want to see the USA become a Constitutional parliamentary democracy with as many political parties as can qualify by votes participating, not this fake two party divide-and-conquer Punch & Judy Show we have now.

I want very simple, direct, concrete changes for the better, such as shrugging off Big Energy and going for tessellated, multi-grid green energy sources operated at local levels.

I want to see government of, by, and for the people, not corporations, which should NOT be considered living entities, nor be granted the rights of same in perpetuity.

I want an end to pollution, to tolerating pollution, and to ignoring pollution for profit's sake; it is not profitable to make money while destroying our habitat. Make companies responsible for doing it cleanly, or not at all. Period.

I want to see us relax our war mongering into a defensive posture in case anyone figures out how to wade armies across either pond to attack us; otherwise, end Empire now.

I want universal single payer health care for ALL US citizens, period. Free universal health care paid for by the taxes and other revenues freed up by dumping the Military-Industrial Complex, which right now spends more of our money than all else combined.

I want an end to the Cult of Secrecy and transparent government doing what government is supposed to do, promote the general welfare and provide for the common good.


Oh, and I want a sandwich, it's lunch time. Which reminds me: No more GMO or High Fructose Corn Syrup-infused crap should be allowed to be called, or sold as, food. We need to return to real food, a wide variety of local foods grown locally, and a huge variety of other foods shipped seasonally, all organic, all tasty, healthy, and sustainable.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Unburnable Books

Well, the iPad has come and it has not killed off Kindle. Far from it, and for a simple reason: Each occupies a separate niche. The Kindle features electronic paper made to read with the same ease as ink on paper. It does not carry the eyestrain of reading a lot of words on a glowing screen.

The iPad offers a screen, so it’s excellent for surfing the web, email, texting, and other computer activities. And all those apps make it amazingly fun and versatile, too. Anyone with an iPod Touch knows how addictive and even indispensable they quickly become; an iPad is an iPod Touch writ large.

A Kindle, on the other hand, is meant to snuggle in with for a long stint of reading. It’s not about those other flashier entertainments and distractions. It delivers words for reading, and it does this remarkably well. With added features, such as on board dictionary, the ability to search for words and phrases throughout the text, note taking, and archiving, it makes reading potentially more rewarding, or at least handier.

How many of us actually put a book down, get up, grab a dictionary, look up an unfamiliar word, say, “Hmph, how about that?”, put the dictionary back, return to our reading chair, pick up our book, find the page we were on, and keep reading? More likely we’ll make a mental note to look up an unfamiliar word while guessing at it from context, then forget about it, or frustrate ourselves later trying to remember how to spell it or find the exact spot it occurred. They’re never where we thought they were, either, as if they slip and slide around to evade us.

Reading on a Kindle, if you encounter one of those odd words -- and of course there are precious few among such brilliant readers as us -- you can immediately find out what it means, in the dictionary of your choice, and continue reading, all without disturbing yourself. With a few flicks of finger or thumb, the press of a couple buttons, and some lip-reading as you sound out the grotesque diphthongs involved, or worm through the etymology, you’re free to keep reading, this time knowing what is being talked about.

A Kindle allows a reader to carry up to 3600 books in a slender, light, and comfortable-to-use unit about the size of a clipboard. If you read a book a day, that’s about a decade’s worth right there. Do the math. And imagine the clutter you won’t have.

Remember when CDs began fading in favor of MP3 and other digital download formats? Kids wonder why their parents own all those silver disks or bother with trying to store and find them. That’s books now, too.

A single battery charge for Kindle, which takes under 4 hours, lasts up to two weeks. It operates on a G3 network, too, so you can download more reading material, or browse the Kindle store at Amazon, pretty much where ever you might be. You can also receive updates of your favorite periodicals, too, no matter where you roam. In many instances you can also start reading books on Kindle before they’re available in the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores.

Oh, and yes, some books are free downloads, and others, especially classics, come a remarkable bargains, such as the complete works of Charles Dickens, over 200 works, for under five dollars. Yes, they’re in public domain and available free at various sites online, but a token payment for formatting is not too much to pay for such convenience.

Please note, you can read or listen to books downloaded onto iPod Touch or iPhone, or other phones, these days, too. Someone I know uses low contrast at night to read on an iPhone, and reports no trouble. This is fine, but the topic here is digital readers, electronic paper, designed so that you’re not squinting into the glare of a backlit screen.

Not being familiar with all platforms, I will not debate the merits of Kindle versus Sony Reader or Nook. I will say any electronic paper book reader is probably better than being left behind as the world of books goes digital. Adjust now and save time later.

That this will affect publishers goes without saying. Suddenly writers wonder what publishers can offer that they can’t either do for themselves or do without. Copyediting can be accomplished by sufficiently determined groups of friends and supporters. Layout and format can be done on any desktop computer. Printing, binding, storing, shipping, and distribution, as well as wheedling shelf space at retail level, all becomes obviated by using electrons instead of atoms. Advertising, which, face it, publishers do only for planned Best Sellers, and then mostly grudgingly, ineffectually, and in the lamest, most decrepit ways possible, can be accomplished by viral buzz and various online social networking campaigns. Word of mouth was always the best way to sell a book anyway, and these days it’s possible for a Tweet or Face Book status update to reach millions within a few minutes.

What’s left? Royalties?

Kindle reportedly offers 70% royalty if a writer puts a book into PDF or other Kindle-friendly format and sells it directly through them. At that rate, no publisher can compete, and has nothing much to offer anyhow.

Oh, sure, you can still deal with publishers for the hard copy editions you may want to sell, but that suddenly looks like the second tier consideration, as far as making money and a splash is concerned. Agents take note; you need to calibrate your sales pitch accordingly.

It is not there yet, of course. Considerably more hard copy than electronic books sell, but it is changing fast, and it won’t be long until the headlines trumpet e-books as dominant. It will be for good reasons.

Kindle and Sony Reader are the leaders right now. Who knows what might come along to dazzle readers? Until we find out, Kindle and Sony Reader are the best bets, and they are well worth a look.

Can you OCD types carry a few thousand books every time you leave the house? Now, yes you can. Easily.

Oh, and fascists please note: These new kinds of books are unburnable.

Give an electronic reader a try soon.

What have you got to lose but the need to find more shelf space?

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Our Words In a Clear Sky

“Words are the birds that break cover and show your enemy where you’re hiding.”
--Mike Carey, The Devil You Know, page 51, ¶2.


Writers know this.

Readers sense it. Glimpses and sometimes whole torrents of truth keeps them reading. Addictive as gossip, sweet as revenge, the soul writers spill in their words comes alive each time a sensitive reader spots it. Sporadic immortality is better than none.

Who is the enemy?

Anyone wishing harm to the writer. Anyone wishing to use words against freedom or truth. Anyone seeking to ignore, distort, or destroy truth. Liars. Undemanding, indifferent, and indiscriminate readers. Marketers, advertisers, and politicians. Lawyers. Lazy librarians who categorize carelessly. Critics. Editors. Publishers. Profiteers.

There are so many enemies it’s a wonder words are tools of choice for so many. Except that’s all we’ve got. Words, to brick out the changes each day and year and century brings. Words, to record ourselves for our children’s children’s children. Words, to chip at time’s implacable stomp.

Words to leave a mark.

Grooves in stone.

Worm trails.

Hollow places where once we curled, quivering.

Where once we stood proud.

Where once we lived.

Words are all of life that might stick.

Choose your words well. Remember, they’re going to let your enemies know where you’re hiding, and where and how you hid. Words signal not surrender but defiance.

Words are strength when used well.

May at least some of your words fly free to reach an untroubled sky. A clear sky on some future day of bright calm, not an enemy in sight.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Making Marks

Storytellers speak, journalists type, and academics agonize and struggle to justify every word. All wrestle with personal demons, distractions, and defeats. A writer’s approach, as informed by attitude and artistic adjustments, seems shaped by training and experience.

Reporters learn form first, then learn how to fill it in efficiently. Fiction writers tend to learn form last, if at all. This is an interesting contrast revealing emphasis. What is important to each kind of writer, and reader? In reporting, facts are paramount. In fiction, a range of considerations apply, from character and plot to theme and meaning, from social milieu to social commentary, from atmosphere to voice and tone.

If reporting is like taking photographs, fiction writing is more like drawing freehand.

Smarter artists sketch from life. They use models, even set up tableaux, or work from photographs and reference trips. They introduce as much that’s real as possible. In this way they can get on with the job at hand and not have to waste time researching how shadows fall on such a complex figure, or which position a limb might be in after a fall. They have what they need before them, having assembled their materials beforehand as they work toward a known goal.

Other artists work in other ways.

Some simply put pencil to paper and make it up, letting lines and shadings flow straight from imagination onto paper.

Some shape squiggles and doodles into what ever their eye discerns emerging from the chaos.

Some capture the outlines and fill in details only as needed, even as others block in general shapes and rely on impression more than texture or nuance.

Then there are the adventurous who explore other mediums, from pastels and colored pencils to acrylics, oils, and even collage or modeling clay.

The important thing is making marks. Cartoons or words, put then on paper. That gives you something to work with, raw material with which to fashion a work of art that might just please others and, if you’re really lucky, last the ages.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Ploughshares War

“If they pounded their swords into ploughshares, they’d just pick up the plow blades and hit you with them.” -- John Shirley in conversation.


Most news reports said something close to this: “Vice President Joe Biden was sandbagged by Israel’s hard-right, proving once again Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is not interested in seriously addressing the Palestinian problem except through genocide.”


To sandbag means to hinder progress, as if by tying bags full of sand onto someone’s legs.

Obstructionism, in short. Endless talk of no substance toward no end, intended to stave off action.

This is the same strategy the Republican party has chosen toward President Barak Obama, both as a person and as a President. Block any and all proposals he may make, even if he takes them verbatim from GOP proposals. Threaten to filibuster if anything nears a vote. Lie shamelessly and without cessation. Sacrifice anything and everything as long as it frustrates Obama or his policies. Nothing is out-of-bounds or off-limits, nothing is held back. It is all-or-nothing culture war.


A general lack of substance to counter the Democrat’s proposals leads to such a strategy.

Same as Israel. Can anyone in all conscience defend genocide? Can anyone in all conscience defend profit over people? Untenable positions lead to extreme coverups.

All the craziness we’ve seen on both fronts is nothing but a smokescreen with which guilty parties hope to mask their indefensible crimes.

Won’t and doesn’t work.

But having Ploughshares Wars is the humanoid primate’s way. Weapons don’t matter, only aggression.

Rather than swords to ploughshares we need to find a way to change ourselves toward peace, light, and love. Remember that trio? Can you think of it without cringing or sneering or mocking or laughing aloud?

If you can’t, the Republican and Likud parties will welcome you with open arms. And hidden blades.

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