I finished The Spanish Bride yesterday.  Two marathon sessions, Saturday and Sunday, got me through the last four chapters.  The last two ended up needing major reconstruction.  About a week or two ago I realized I needed one more plot thread, which required me to bounce back and forth throughout the body of the novel to insert the necessary connective tissue.

But it’s done.  Donna will go through it once more for nits to pick, but that should only take a week or two, then the last pass to straighten out typoes and such, and off it goes to my agent.

Normally in the aftermath of a novel I go through a bout of major house cleaning.  It needs it, to be sure, as I haven’t actually finished writing a novel now for almost four years.  I’ve gone from one to the next to the next to this one in a constant stream of wordcraft, with barely a break between.

I have, therefore, four novel projects now ready.  My agent has three of them.

First, for anyone wondering, there is a new Secantis novel.  It’s called Ghost Transit and it is complete and it is in the hands of an editor.  Should he take it, I have hopes it will be as part of a two or three-book deal and I have two more Secantis novels in the planning stages.  (I had every intention of writing a follow-up to Peace & Memory, which would have been the only direct sequel to any of the books, but the whole MeishaMerlin implosion scotched that idea.  I’d still like to do it.)

Secondly, there is a big walloping alternate history called Orleans, which is the first book of a planned trilogy.  It is set in the 1920s, in French America—one premise being that Napoleon kept Louisiana.  There are many cool things in this book and I very much wish to see it published and get the chance to do the next two books.

Thirdly, there is a space opera completely independent of the Secantis Sequence called Under Athena’s Eye, which was begun at the request of an editor, but did not pass muster.  However, I did more than a hundred pages of it and I liked the premise, so I intend to finish it.  This is the only project that is making the rounds incomplete.  A hundred pages and the outline.  It would be a stand-alone, but you never know how the unconscious works, it’s possible to do sequels to damn near anything.

Now we have The Spanish Bride, which is pretty much straight historical.  Ostensibly, there is a murder mystery in it, though honestly I’m not sure how much of a mystery it actually is, but there it is.  Something of a thriller.  I’m hoping it attracts enough interest that it becomes a series.  I have at least two more books planned in some detail and a concept that would see it through perhaps ten books.  It begins in 1780 and I decided that if I do a series it would go to 1821—Missouri statehood.  In that timeframe, there are numerous historical characters I can use, including Daniel Boone, Manuel Lisa, Aaron Burr, James Wilkenson.  I don’t even have to leave it set in St. Louis—in fact, the third book will largely take place in Pittsburgh.

There are a few other projects I’d like to do, but I’ve decided to stop here for now.  I need a sale.  I need a contract.  I need to know which direction I’ll be going next.  It would be nice to believe I can do all these projects, and in fact I probably can, but I had best not add any new ones to the list.

This is a strange feeling for me.  I won’t be starting a new novel after this until I hear something positive about the others.  In a way, this may be detrimental, but right at the moment I must confess to being thoroughly exhausted.  There are other aspects to my life that need tending to—not least of which is trying to find a new job, with better income than I now have, because I must be realistic about my prospects.  It is conceivable that I can strong-arm my career to the place I want it, but I thought that was going to happen five years ago and everything basically fell apart.

The simple fact is, I’m discouraged.  I’ve completed this novel by dint of sheer will power and stubbornness, practicing a kind of Zen self-obfuscation, ignoring the little demon on my shoulder telling me it’s pointless.  Being too much a realist can be detrimental to a creative process.  But this is the thing I wish to do.  I am satisfied at this point that the four projects previously outlined are good enough to accomplish this, that starting a fifth one right now would do little to advance my situation.

Now, before I get all moribund and morose, let me say that all of this is conditional.  I’ve quit before and it never took.  I’m not quitting now, I’m just taking a strategic break in order to assess my prospects and take care of some other much needed details.

Like cleaning my office and my house.  Like finding a more immediate source of better income.  Like dealing with the Missouri Center for the Book, which is doing fairly well at the moment.

But mainly I need to put my life in order and get happy.  I can’t say I’m particularly happy right now.  I’m not miserable, but I’ve fallen into the trap of using temporary distractions in lieu of real living.  This is part of the novel-writing process, it’s nothing new.  But usually I finish the damn book and go do something else.  As I said, I haven’t finished writing novels now for four years.

But right now I’m sitting here composing this instead of beginning the chores.  They’ll keep.  This feels more important just now.

One project looming, which may turn out to be nothing, is a short story collection from a new local small press.  I met the owner/editor a month or so ago and she is enthusiastic.  She knew my name and we talked about the possibility of a project, so I’m going to look into it.  I have a few short stories that probably fall outside the scope of the main body of my work, so it would be interesting to do something like this.  A couple of the stories would be new, previously unpublished.  We’ll see.

I’m more than a little ambivalent about the future just now.  It’ll pass.  This is just me being brain-fried from this extended period of work.  Give me a few weeks and other things to do and I’ll get back in shape.

Since about 1982, though, being a writer is about the only ambition I’ve had beyond being a good companion to Donna.  I’ve put so much into it that I can’t really see anything else.  Hence the career counselor I’ve been seeing.  Publishing is fickle.  Even if I get a new publisher, there is no guarantee that things won’t turn out the same way again.  I need something else.  But it’s hard to even consider it.  I’ll get The Spanish Bride into shape, send it off, and wait.  Maybe I won’t have to do anything else.

I’d really like people to see all this work, though.  I’m very proud of it and it won’t do any one any good sitting in a drawer (or a hard drive) unpublished.


We came back from New Mexico last Thursday.  The plane was slightly late getting off the ground, but we were only fifteen minutes’ behind upon landing.  It was one of the more pleasant plane trips I’ve had—as uneventful as one could hope for.  My sprained ankle is almost healed, but it wasn’t when we flew out, and the cramped space between seat rows meant I had to keep my feet rigid for almost two hours, which played havoc with my ankle.  On the return flight I managed to get a seat in the emergency exit row, which is more spacious, so I could stretch my legs.  Helped a lot.  I still can’t walk normally down steps, but I’m not hobbling anymore.  I even went to the gym yesterday.

The week before leaving for vacation, we had a foot of snow on the ground.  Walking the dog, I slipped. This time, it caused damage—a seriously twisted left ankle.  Damn thing swelled up to twice its normal size, I couldn’t bend it, I really did think (briefly) I’d broken it.  But it’s healing fast.  The bad luck really annoyed me.  I joked that I would be pretty much healed by the time our vacation was over.  Actually, I was doing fine during the trip.

We stayed in a casita (little house) on the south end of Madrid, NM.  Madrid is a strip of town along highway 14, just south of Santa Fe, speed limit 20 mph all the way through.  The speed limit is not a tourist trap.  Many dogs wander loose around the town, as do the locals.  They’re good dogs, every one of them friendly and used to a lot of strangers, but the road curves and it would be easy to hit one.  Or three.  It would be easy to hit one of the locals, too, colorful as they are.  Madrid has a cinematic claim to fame—it is featured in the recent film Wild Hogs, with John Travolta, Tim Allen, etc., and the town has embraced it in the form of t-shirts and coffee mugs and fading posters.  I’ve never seen the film.  From what I gather, the inhabitants are ambivalent, except for the increase in tourism it brought, and Madrid is one of those places that needs tourists.  The main strip is almost entirely galleries and craft shops.  There is actually some fine art to be found here, stuff I would actually spend coin on.

It’s surrounded by New Mexico hinterland—ranches, mainly, flat land that gives way to hilly land that is confined by low mountains.  Beautiful.  Our friend Terry lives on a place called the Horse Shelter, which has a web site.  I’ve known Terry for more than 30 years and have watched her drift from one profession to another, each one done with a care and professionalism I admire, none of which held her for a variety of reasons, until now, far from where she began, she has decided to work with horses for the rest of her life.  She seems to do it well—the animals like her.

This is our second trip to New Mexico.  I remarked the last time that I thought I understood why so many science fiction writers seemed to live there—the place looks like Mars in places.  But this time, we drove southeast, to Roswell, through Lincoln County, which is wholly not Mars-like.  Then we headed north toward Taos and, in a completely different way, it also is not Martian.

We didn’t get to Taos.  Heading up 285, well north of Abuqiuy, we encounter department of transportation trucks blocking the highway.  Six feet of snow above us.  We had to turn back.  We never made it to Taos, but the drive was still wonderful.

I am still, despite my antipathy, a photographer.  If I get a few good images from a trip, I feel it was a success.  Because of my ankle, hiking in the wilderness was pretty much out of the question, but I still shot a lot of film, and there are places in New Mexico that ridiculously photogenic.  I may post a few new pieces in the Art section, where you can see other shots from our first New Mexico trip.

The chief problem with this vacation is the chief problem of all vacations—too short.  To do all we hoped to do, at least three more days would have been required.  And then, of course, we would find other things to tack on that we’d have to do.  All of which ends up giving a reason to go back again.

But for now, here I am, on a Monday.  I have another chapter to rewrite, another book to read for review, and I have to go in to my day job.  Donna has already left for work (she threatened to go in over this past weekend, but decided not to) and I have to get dressed to walk the dog.  There is no snow on the ground now, so I won’t slip on ice and injure something else.  But the mornings seem so short anymore.

It really is time to write that bestseller and get on with another vacation.

The Fall of Elliot Spitzer

I have no sympathy. I can’t help it, but powerful people who behave this way strike me as the essence of…

Spitzer wired the call girl service the money. Granted, he set up a relatively elaborate blind to hide the transaction (it was his own money, not the state’s), primarily from his wife, but the fact is he established the monitoring protocols in the banking system in New York to catch exactly this kind of covert transfer. In other words, he made sure the system could catch him.

The first question that came to my mind was: why didn’t he use cash?

The second question—

Well, the second question is such a cliche it almost doesn’t bear asking, but: what he hell was he thinking?

Not thinking. Acting. Reacting. Making an assumption. I’ve already heard the term “self destructive” applied, and it would indeed seem the case. He was instrumental in breaking up a prominent prostitution ring as a prosecutor, he’d gone on record about the destructiveness of prostitution to families and to society, he had made a Big Deal about ethics in all his campaigns.

For the record, while I certainly agree that prostitution can be destructive, I do not agree that it is necessarily so. Like other things, it depends on context, and in the context of a society that criminalizes it, thereby making sex workers vulnerable to all sorts of criminal control elements, yes it is very destructive. But not in and of itself as an idea. There have been times and places where it was not so, and even in this country (Nevada) we can see instances where it is the avenue to financial independence for women and men (yes, men—we forget in the salaciousness of scandal that there are male prostitutes, both straight and gay, that women from time to time have been known to pay for sex they can’t get “at home”). Like any other industry, there are levels, and like any otehr industry in history where social controls did not exist, there are abuses. Keeping it illegal means normative protections and access to all the safeguards that, say, construction workers take for granted do not and cannot apply.

However. In Spitzer’s case he created his own disaster by loudly proclaiming his support for keeping prostitution illegal and then acting on that stance. Add to that the banking practices for which he was also responsible, and I find I have no sympathy for him. He acted foolishly.

Clinton did not run on an extreme family values platform. It was there, he gave it lip service, but it was never a centerpiece of any of his campaigns. One may question his judgment in the case of Monica, but the lying to Congress was far worse than his little breech of conduct in an anteroom of the Oval Office.

People at that level should know better. To be crude, they have staff who can handle that sort of thing. (Let’s be honest—even CEOs, presidents of corporations, and so forth hire “handlers” who do everything from scheduling high powered meetings to getting the cleaning done. Arranging trysts—and making sure they stay off the radar– would simply be one of their functions, and a governor, much less a president, should have two or three people like this.)

As to why he did it…do we really need to ask that? Come on. Sex and its convolutions is one of those areas wherein we turn a blind eye as if a part of our brain had been excised and we can’t bear to think about it.

What follows is R rated. You’ve been warned.

You’re married. You have 90% of a good relationship with your spouse. But you like this one thing in bed, really like it, the way wine connosieurs like a rare Bordeaux—and for whatever reason your spouse just won’t do it. The question is, do you just shut that desire off and go to your grave never having it? Or do you step outside to have your Bordeaux?

We all have choices, sure, but the nature of that one seems draconian. You might say to the connosieur “You’ve become an alcoholic, you may not drink at all,” and that would be valid. But to say “I don’t like Bordeaux, at least not that vintage, so you can’t have it either as long as you’re with me…” That’s not the same.

How one chooses to handle this problem is also another matter. I’m all for open discussion. Sneaking around behind your spouse’s back is a major Do Not Do for me. But one ought to be able to talk about this. (Personally, I have always been of the opinion that the Clinton’s have an arrangement like this, going all the way back to Bill’s days as governor of Arkansas. I think what incensed Hilary was that Bill picked that partner under those conditions, and then lied about it. After all, he had handlers…)

But my lack of sympathy for Spitzer has nothing to do with the sex. It is the two-faced way he has conducted his public policy life. Obviously, he thought the rules he advocated for everyone else ought not to apply to him.

Or, more perversely and I think not at all uncommon, he wanted to rid the landscape of any and all opportunity in order to keep temptation away from himself—that he knew on some level that he couldn’t say no, so the only way to protect his integrity would be to banish the object of his desire.

But that meant banishing it for everyone else as well. So to serve the interests of his own inability to manage an appetite, everyone had to pay the price.

Just as they kind of are now.

He rendered himself ineffective as a governor in this. Because of the illegal nature of prostitution, because of that he opened himself up to blackmail. The only way out of that trap would be to declare that he didn’t care and that he believed prostitution ought not be a crime in any event.

But he’d already closed that avenue of argument.

No sympathy at all.


Evolution & Morality III

[Last of the trio. After this, I promise, something brand new. Enjoy.]

Here is the link to the district court ruling in the Dover, PA trial about so-called Intelligent Design. It is worth reading in full. Basically, the judge threw out the claim by the defendants, that evolution is “merely a theory” and that Intelligent Design is somehow legitimate science.

This, of course, settles nothing in the long run. The true believers who pulled this stunt to begin with will not be persuaded, nor will they long shut up. That’s fine, that’s their prerogative, and it’s as should be in this country. My hope is that this will not be the last shot fired in defense of science and reason, against irrationalism and spiritual chicanery.

The critics of Judge Jones’ decision have come out screaming that he has overstepped his authority. He has written a pretty scathing and detailed decision. I can certainly see that he has hopes it will be used in other districts, as a means to settle this—at least legally—where and when it crops up. I personally see his response as fairly restrained, considering the clear frustration behind it. He has invoked the ground state complaint of the conservative—it has been a waste of tax payer money.

The profoundest irony, politically, is that Jones is a George W. Bush appointee. The right-wing Jesus faction of the Republican Party must be seized with apoplexy at this. One of their own—one anointed by their own prophet-in-power—has turned on them, delivering a rational verdict.

The point that is still lost on many people, I’m sure, is that what Jones said, and what was demonstrated in the trial, is that Intelligent Design simply is not science. I am not at all surprised at this misunderstanding, because people have such a poor understanding in general of what science is, be they fundamentalists who reject it on doctrinal grounds or just an average citizen who hated the subject in high school because it ran afoul of blithely partying one’s way through curricula. But it is at the core of the kind of civilization we have and it is at the core of the kind of philosophy by which we have dragged ourselves out of the past.

Science concerns itself with the testable. If you can’t put it on a table, dissect it, measure it, compare it physically to something else, and make both positive and negative statements about it with which to demonstrate its properties, then it is not a subject with which science is concerned. That leaves religious concerns out. Period.

Now, the one disturbing aspect of the trial, personally, was the way the witnesses for the plaintiffs took pains to say that there is no conflict between science and religion. There clearly is. Those striving to shove Intelligent Design into the classroom make it so. Their assertion—those driving the heart of this movement—is that if you believe in god, you cannot accept science.

I know, I know, they’re only talking about evolution, not all of science. But in fact, they are talking about science in general. They admitted in Dover that unless the definition of science is changed, Intelligent Design won’t hold up. But just changing the definition of science over one thing doesn’t mean you haven’t simply changed it—for everything. I doubt most of them have thought about this, but really science is their enemy, and for a very simple reason—the habit of critical analysis engendered by the disciplined application of science subverts the capacity of the bull shit artist to sway people to believe in garbage. In other words, it’s a cure for gullibility, and frankly the embrace of fundamentalist religious doctrine requires a certain level of gullibility. That fish is big, man, and swallowing it takes a lot of lubrication and a large mouth with very little discrimination behind it. For fundamentalism to succeed in its aims, people must be kept from developing critical thinking.

I disagree with those who seek to appease the religious by stating that religion and science can exist in harmony. This is not quite the same thing as saying science and religion can exist simultaneously. Harmony implies an almost symbiotic relationship and I do not see that as viable. I am one with Richard Dawkins, who stated that the problem with religion is that it makes “existence claims”—it states that such and such IS and this and that HAPPENED, very materially and very solidly, which puts it in the realm of study and scientific analysis. Religion, in other words, offers alternative explanations about how the universe works, and that puts it in conflict with science, which also offers explanations of how the universe works. And, of course, they are different explanations.

Whenever someone says to me that I must accept something on faith, without any hope of proof, I put one hand on my wallet and smile politely. That’s crap. I must, to be extreme about it, accept nothing. There are many things of which I am ignorant—that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they may exist. There are also many things I accept as real for which I have no direct evidence, but my acceptance is always provisional. If it turns out that the Taj Mahal, in spite of thousands of images and personal testimonials, were shown not to exist, my world wouldn’t stop. I would find it curious and perhaps a little disturbing because of the mass delusion and fraud that had gone on for centuries, but I would not suffer a crisis of profound spiritual estrangement because the world turned out not to be as I had always thought it was. (An extreme example, I admit, but some things require extreme examples.)

All that said, I do not accept the flip side of the public debate, that there is no god and that we would all be better off without religion. I do think we’d be better off without extremism, of which fundamentalism in religion is a form. We’re seeing the consequence of the intractable nature of extremism now, with suicide bombers thinking they’ll go straight to paradise because they die killing people they don’t like. We see it in the willingness of self-proclaimed “christians” to subvert truth in order to win a debate, who have accepted that winning is all that counts. We see it in the intransigence of custom, the intolerance of accepted ideology, the ready brutality of genocide. But not all religion is extremist, and history shows that all too often the generosity of spirit engendered by a religious viewpoint has been the only thing standing between what is right and desolation. Too often, religion has been the only repository of moral instruction for the vast majority of humans on the planet. It must not be dismissed lightly by anyone, nor should it be mistaken for that which it is not. Therein lies the problem.

I think a lot of people, at least in the West, probably in many other places (but I don’t know, so I won’t claim with anywhere near the same conviction on their behalf), manage on an almost instinctive level to parse the difference between materialism and spiritualism, and keep them separate where they would interfere with each other. The old dictum “god helps those who help themselves” holds. You have to manage your life, make choices and decisions, act on conviction. Reliance on the lessons taught through religion helps. I am an atheist, but I admit that my basic moral education came through the Lutheran Church. There is no Church of Atheism, as such. It’s an oxymoron. The closest thing we have to something like that would be in Philosophy courses in university and college. For me, my present moral condition was reached through religion—religion as a phase through which I passed—rather than by any path outside of it. There’s nothing odd about this—we all pass through stages of maturity in which different levels of discourse hold sway. We believe in Santa Claus until a certain age, when we “know better” but recognize the utility in the fiction. We have heroes who must not be less than wonderful, until we grow up a little more and learn that they, too, are human, with faults. Thus, for me, religious teachings were “true” until the point at which I recognized the essential truths couched within the stories, and relegated the stories to the shelf along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Lone Ranger.

See, I write fiction, and I understand something about it which I think most people accept intuitively without consciously recognizing it. Fiction was condemned a couple of centuries ago as somehow immoral, because it is lying. Fiction is “not true” in the way that history or science or what happened last week at Aunt Milly’s is true. Fiction is something made up. A lie.

But that confuses fact with truth, something with which even philosophers have had to contend for a long time. The two are connected, but they aren’t the same thing. Because there are two questions about any event—what happened (fact) and what does it mean (truth). You can tell the truth without there necessarily being anything “factual” to compare it to. Yeshua knew this, hence he told parables—stories. He probably made them up, tailored them to the moment. Were they lies? Of course not. They are a third category of conditional statement. The three conditions would be That Which Is, That Which Is Not, and That Which Is True. Telling the truth about something…well, good writers do it all the time. They tell the truth about the human condition. They give lessons. They make connections with the way we feel and think and how the world is. We do this thing which has nothing to do with lying, because we aren’t trying to establish what Is or Is Not in the sense of facts presented in a court.

Science concerns itself with the first two categories. Religion traditionally deals with the third.

It’s philosophy. And it’s fluid, which is what makes it so difficult for fundamentalists, because they want their truth absolute and unchanging. But they can’t really have that and have it be Truth. Because the nature of Truth is its adaptability and its capacity to interpret. Truth deals with Meaning, and Meaning is a living thing. If you nail it to a tree so it doesn’t move, you kill it, and Meaning is lost.

You can arrive at the Truth of facts, by connecting meaning to What Is. You can’t really attach meaning to What Is Not, and hence there is no truth where there is nothing. Of course, that’s provisional. And frustrating.

But Meaning itself can be a fact. How we behave and why. How we see the universe and why. To arrive at Meaning is a journey, and we must not discard tools lightly.

So while I proclaim myself an atheist, I do not dismiss religion as an encumbrance. I would actually pity the world if religion disappeared. It is all too often the only bulwark against the unrefined, brutish impulses of human beings, especially humans in large groups. Religion is a force for good in the world.

But it’s not science.

The so-called mainstream religions have reconciled—sometimes uncomfortably—with science. Even the Catholic Church has finally conceded that Galileo was right (something they knew all along, but there was a question of Authority to deal with). There’s not much problem with them. It’s these fundamentalist groups—of which we’ve never been rid, nor probably ever will be—who are causing a lot of the problem, and will continue to, because they cannot figure out the difference between Truth and Fact. I would go so far as to say it is a certain lack of sophistication. But it must not be allowed to dominate public discourse at the level of policy. We must talk about it, certainly, but it must be labeled for what it is—extremism. The most damaging aspect of extremism is its intensely distorting effect on all other discourse.

So I applaud Judge Jones’ decision and I think his decision ought to be read and used. But I caution those who think they’ve won something to be very careful about what it is they think they’ve won, and to draw back from extremist positions.