My Dad’s Hands

This image was made in the days when I had serious pretensions toward being a world famous photographer.  I always admired Ansel Adams, certainly, and Edward Weston.  But there was Philip Halsmann, too, who was one of the best portrait photographers ever.  Between him and Arnold Newman and Karsh, most of the really significant people of the 20th century were preserved in photographs that were as amazing as the people themselves.


Dad was a machinist then.  Eight hour days in stifling heat, wrestling steel and machinery.  He always made things.  That was what dad was all about, making things, often massive things.  I caught him one night, just after work, before his shower.  I did do a straight portrait, but then I thought, those hands…

About 1973, ’74.

Sound, Fire, and Solstice

Occasionally, you stumble on something beautiful, often by the grace of friends, and it needs sharing.   A little name-dropping here, but that can’t be helped.  Context is occasionally very important, and in this case the setting was essential.

Last night we went to a solstice celebration at Laurell Hamilton’s and Jon Green’s  house.  It was an R.S.V.P. affair and the invitation noted that “entertainment” would begin at 7:00 PM.  Laurell and Jon have a nice house, a good bit of grassy area for a yard.  A good bit.  They had erected a tent over a platform, with tables and chairs.  Food—good food—was catered.

It became clear that the “entertainment” was not coincidental.  Three women occupied a corner of the tent (big tent) with guitars, a keyboard, a few drums, a few Apple computers, microphones…

…and an undeniable presence.  Evening listening to them doing sound checks, you could tell something special was in the offing.

No more teasing.  Here’s the link to S.J. Tucker the main anchor of the trio, which was comprised of her and two women who formed a combo called GBMOJO—Ginger Doss and Bekah Kelso.

Basically, they do music in the pagan, earth goddess, eco strain.  I don’t care about that so much.  Lyrics, to my ear, are secondary to the sound, something I’ve gone on about before.  Music to me is a purely abstract art form and words more often than not just get in the way.  For me.  I’m weird, I know, but there it is.  This is not to say sometimes the words are absolutely essential, but only that the first and often only thing I listen to is the total sound.  The music.

And they make music.  Precise, highly trained, beautiful music.

But that is not all!  S.J. Tucker and her significant other, a gentleman named Kevin K’ Wiley, work together as something called Fire & Strings.  They firedance.  Twirling orbs of flame, dancing with fire, acrobatically risking scorchment…

When it got dark enough, they left the tent (I said the yard was big) and put on a show for us.  It was very hot, St. Louis hot, and they were working with flame.  An amazing performance.

Then back to the music.

Excellent evening, a wonderful way to welcome summer.  We bought two CDs and I will keep an eye peeled for Ms. Tucker’s shows.  So I’m doing some recommending here.  Take it and look them up and give your ears a treat.

Happy summer.

No Excuse

Generally speaking, I don’t like to criticize books.  Tim Powers told us at Clarion that a sale negates all criticism.  That may be more true with fiction (though I reserve the right to privately diss any book that’s badly done, regardless) but when it comes to nonfiction, I find it inexcusable.

I’ve been slogging—slogging, mind you—through a history of the rise of the Spanish Empire under Fernando and Isabel, the period during which the New World (?) was discovered by Europeans and Spain became the pre-eminent power on the global scene.  The book is called Rivers of Gold and it was penned by one Hugh Thomas, published in 2003.  I’m finding it virtually unreadable.

Partly this is a style issue.  The prose are flat, lifeless.  He makes the mistake of introducing casts of characters in one-paragraph lumps, as if the average reader is going to remember all these people, many of whom do not seem to matter in later parts of the narrative.  We are given chunks of delightful detail about some things (the make-up of Columbus’s crews on both the first and second voyage, which is very telling about the geopolitics of the day) and the rather revolutionary nature of Fernando’s and Isabel’s co-rule (for it was genuinely a partnership) and then little about other things (like the ultimate disposition of the Muslim populations after the fall of Granada and what happened to their libraries, which directly impacted the rest of Europe).

But these are small quibbles.  Thomas seems to have a bias toward Christianity, but he is clearly restraining himself throughout and attempting to be even-handed, and largely succeeds (sincere mourning for what became of the Jews).  He orders the events well, so that we see the relevance of Fernando and Isabel adhering to Law rather than acting as autocrats and their background and education as it affected their judgement concerning what Columbus found and what his enemies told them.

But the writing is…dull.

Obviously, there was a mixture of motives.  An economic purpose is certain.  The monarchs knew that, after the conquest of Granada, they would lose money in the short-term…It would be silly to neglect what might be another source of income.  Cabrero, Santangel, Pinelo, and other Genoese bankers would have taken up this position with the King and Queen.

A second motive was a desire to outmanoeuvre the King of Portugal…In the fifteenth century as in the twentieth, rulers allowed their imperial claims to be affected by what their neighbours were thinking.  (pg 87 & 88)

After three or four pages of that, I find myself falling asleep.  Perhaps that is an unfair criticism, perhaps others do not find such lines quite so soporific, but if one is to learn from a text one should be able to take it in without the brain shutting down from the drone of seeming indifference.

On the part of the editor if not the author, for heaven’s sake.  “…would have taken up this position…”?

There is material in this book which I would like to know.  I bought the book for a reason.  But I find that I must sit in uncomfortable positions in order to keep my attention focused, that if I recline or rest against soft pillows, Morpheus descends too soon for the experience to be valuable.

As a comparison, I’m reading another history, this one of the French and Indian Wars—called, appropriately enough The French and Indian War—by Walter R. Borneman.  Published in 2006, this is written with rigor, attention to detail, and a lively, engaging voice that took me zipping along the first 50 pages in short order, with a satisfying increase in my knowledge of the events leading up to and the beginnings of a very complicated period of history.

Edward Braddock—the soldier used to giving orders—arrived in Virginia and proceeded to do just that, managing in the process to alienate almost everyone he encountered.  Braddock immediately went to Williamsburg to confer with Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie and then summoned governors De Lancey of New York, Shirley of Massachussetts, Morris of Pennsylvania, and Sharpe of Maryland to meet with them at Alexandria.  Rather than ask the governors’ cooperation and assistance, Braddock demanded, indeed expected it.  That attitude didn’t go over very well with anyone.

“We have a general,” wrote William Shirley’s son, also named William, “most judiciously chosen for being disqualified for the service he is employed in almost every respect.”  Assigned to General Braddock as his secretary, the younger Shirley would have cause to feel Braddock’s inadequacy all too personally within a few weeks.

Perhaps I’m showing my bias, but I find that infinitely more fluid, insightful, and engaging than the Thomas.

But they are about such different periods, one might say!  Yes, they are, but the writers are not.

I suppose this is what makes one writer “better” than another, the ability to engage, to draw the reader in, to bring the subject to life.

I complain about this here because I’ve been working through a variety of history books of late in preparation for a new novel (a couple of new novels) and while I’ve encountered, as usual, a range of styles and varying levels of what might be called Accessibility, I find that across a spectrum of authors the ability to tell the story is what makes the book worth reading and what makes it readable.  This is not a side issue.

We complain all the time about students coming out of school with less than adequate knowledge, pitiful grasps on subjects, and ill-prepared for anything other than an almost assembly-line life as a career.  Many factors contribute to this.  But one, I recall vividly, though I did not quite realize it at the time, is the dudgeon paucity of style in school texts.  I have seen this complaint registered elsewhere, by people much more qualified than I am to assess such things.  School text books are more often than not chosen for their inoffensiveness rather than their ability to impart knowledge.  The duller, simpler, unemotional texts have a better chance of being purchased by school boards than books that engage their topics in lively—dare I say, relevant—manners.  As if a text which might elicit pleasure from a student cannot possibly be “suitable.”

Obviously, this sets a standard.

But such “liveliness” may forgo objectiveness for the sake of engagement!  The author may be interjecting biases for the sake of enlivening the story—and this is not a story, it is history!

To which I say, nonsense.  History damn well is a story.  And if you’re worried about objectivity, then read more than one book on a subject.  Viewpoint is essential, because history is not irrelevant to the present, it is essential.  The confusion with which so many face tomorrow is at least partly a consequence of their ignorance of what had gone before.

And if they can’t get through the turgidity of approved texts, no wonder the level of historical knowledge and perspective is so low.  It seems occasionally as if the purpose of school is to deaden the mind, reduce to average the inconvenient possibilities of a questioning public, to create a vapidity of general awareness.  (What it really is about is trying to move x-number of students as efficiently as possible through a system that is overburdened by oversight demands, paperwork, accountability assessments, and budget meetings, which take their collective toll on class time and the ability of a teacher to engage students meaningfully.  The negative consequences of all this are, sadly, little more than byproducts of an unspoken social assumption that very little of this stuff means anything against one’s ability to make money.)

If I were a history teacher, here is what I would do.  I would find ten books on a given period and assign a different one to groups of three or four in the class.  Then we could all discuss what we learn from those texts over the course of a semester.  there would be a master template giving the principle elements of the period—names, dates, etc—but the classroom activity would be a controlled argument over differing viewpoints.

That’s ideal, of course.  It would be nice.  Unlikely to happen, though.

In lieu of that, I’d like to see a policy of adopting text books based on a community response to a given selection with one major criterion—no more dull books!  The school board should hand out copies to a number of citizens and let them decide which are the best written, most readable—most fun!  Because if there is one thing we have come to learn about education it is that if the students aren’t having some fun with the work, they won’t learn.

Hell, given the state of prose in some of these books, they can’t learn.  All they can do is fight to stay awake.


The book I’m working on is the second of a trilogy.  Back when I became seriously engrossed in science fiction—the second time, not the first; the first was at age 10 or 11, when everyone is supposed to fall headfirst into this wonderful amalgam of weirdness— in the late 70s, early 80s, there was a running joke in the field that for a bunch of science geeks, SF writers couldn’t count because we didn’t seem to know that there were only three books in a trilogy.  I think it was Piers Anthony who began getting joked about this way.

I never intended to write series.  I have a problem with most series work, even reading it.  I get bored with the same characters in x number of successive novels.  I have attempted from time to time to write a number of short stories with the same characters, but it has never gotten past two stories.  And when I originally constructed the Secantis Sequence it was with the idea that the books shared a common background but no common characters.

(It turned out that I did have one character that I intended to carry over, Sean Merrick.  There are in boxes three complete Sean Benjamin Merrick novels which will likely never see the light of day.  In a very minor way, minor, mind you, he is my Lazarus Long character.)

As time has advanced and I find myself trying to figure out how to write something that will both sell and stay in print, I am coming inexorably to the point of committing serious series.  Much as I like and usually prefer to have novels as stand-alones, especially as I get older, it is equally clear to me that Readers like consistency.  It’s a relationship thing.  You meet someone, you have dinner, take in a show, the conversation is really good, and later…well, readers have grown weary of one-book-stands, apparently, and like to settle down.  At least it’s not a monogamous desire.

So I have devised works of late that will go to sequels and/or series.

With the same characters.

Orleans should it ever be published will introduce everyone to Claire St. Griffe, who is what I have termed a voyant—one who can shift her consciousness into another’s mind.  I have a nifty skiffy rationale for this, it is not fantasy, but it is just barely SF.  This is an alternate history as well and I finished it a few years ago.  It has been seeking a publisher since.

Having gone recently (as reported here) to a conference concerning a central character to this trilogy, I decided upon the eve of the day job’s end to start working on book two.  Oculus is well under way.  The third volume will be called Orient and the working title for the whole project is The Oxun Trilogy.  Have fun looking that one up and wondering how it will tie in.  If I handle it right, it’ll be cool.

Now, I have it in mind to establish a premise wherein I could conceivably write more Claire St. Griffe novels if the need arises—like a publisher waving vast sums of money under my nose—at which point the newer books will comprise a different series.  Same character, different background.

Meantime, there is the historical I finished last year, The Spanish Bride.  Now I fully intend that this be a real honest-to-god series, with several novels, and I have the hubris to believe I could pull this off.  Main character is a man named Ulysses Granger who is a (secret) officer in the Continental Army.  After the Revolution is concluded, he moves to St. Louis to find out who murdered his best friend there three years earlier.

This book is also finished and looking for a publisher.  Should it sell, I have the outlines for the next two.  I could do ten novels in this series, there is certainly enough historical material at hand to do twenty.

I have just put a proposal together for another trilogy.  I don’t want to talk about that just now, though, so forgive me.

The Secantis Sequence?  Sure, I have outlines for two more.  I always did intend doing a direct sequel to Peace & Memory, a diptych so to speak.

What would all this do to the stand-alones I have in my files waiting to be written?

Don’t know.  It’s a problem I’d like to have just now, being committed to two trilogies and a possible long term series.  I have brief synopses for at least three stand-alone novels.

Right now, I have to admit, I could happily jettison any one or four of these plans for the one or two that get picked up and work.

As I said, I’m well into Oculus and having a ball with it.  I’m writing this just now as sort of a record of my state of mind.  Right now, career-wise, I am not where I want to be, but I’m doing the part I like to do.  I have a library full of books to read and the one I’m writing is about to require that I read at least two of them I haven’t yet touched for background.  Paris in the 1920s.  Hmmm, he hmms as he rubs his hands together.  Crazy stuff.  It is, you know, they were crazy people back then.

So I’m blathering.  It’s my blog, I get to blather.

Tomorrow I finish chapter seven.  Then, the world!  Bwahahaha!

(Clears throat to indicate abrupt self-consciousness.)

Anyway, have a good one, whatever it is.  More later.

Work In Progress

I’ve been unemployed now for just over two weeks.  Gotta say, Ilike it.  Not the lack of money (I am after all applying for unemployment compensation) but the fact that I’m not going in to a smelly day job five days a week.  The fact that I’ve got a few hours per day more to work on what I consider important.

And I have been.  We found out back in 1995 to 1997 that I could manage my time in a disciplined manner.  I wrote, or finished, three novels in those two years, as well as about twenty short stories that mostly sold.  Not all and not soon enough to keep me unemployed, hence for the last 12 years I’ve been toiling at a job I did not want and came eventually to loathe.  (Not, I hasten to add, the fault of the job.  I just didn’t want to be doin’ it, y’know?)

I do have this little problem of no income…

I know what I want to have happen, but the only thing I can currently do is to work at my craft and bide my time and, frankly, hope someone decides I’m worth taking a chance on.  It is indeed absurd that I have ten published novels under my belt and can’t currently get a contract.  Did I say absurd?  It is ridiculous.  It is the butt end of a cosmic joke for which the punchline is the heat death of justice, an irony so dense it is a short way till light cannot escape, a joyless black comedy filled with unfunny counterpunches to leave Mike Tyson baffled and depressed.

Yet I slog on.

It may turn out to be that I’m really not good enough, that what I do doesn’t hold up in some unfathomable way that keeps getting me passed over.

Nah.  The worst you could say is that I’m not “commercial” enough.  Don’t know what to do about that.  You write what’s on your mind and in your heart at the moment or you hang it up and go do journalism.

But I am writing like a fiend now.  Two weeks, I am on chapter six of Oculus, the sequel to Orleans (which damn well better sell now, as there will be two books in the series), and I have personal proof of the power of the unconsious—or the subconscious—or whatever it is, that which Damon Knight called “Fred” and refers to the pre-conscious machinations of the mind working on a problem absent one’s full attention or even awareness.  I’ve sort of experienced this before.  Anyway, I wrote a pretty long synopsis for this book about seven, eight months ago, and apparently the hindbrain has been working on it ever since.  Because when I opened the file, wrote CHAPTER ONE across the top of the first page, and began writing, well, it just went.  It’s going.  I haven’t had the usual hiccups yet.  Knock on polystyrene, perhaps I won’t.  I’m nearly 25,000 words into it, which will count as roughly one fifth of the completed novel.  In two weeks!

I am encouraged.  This may well work out.  Stay tuned.


I watched a family friend turn into a Nazi.

Back when I was a kid and didn’t know very much about the world or people or anything, really, except what was in front of me that I thought was cool or what was around me that hurt, my father owned a business.  A number of his customers became friends.  One in particular I remember because he was a Character.

Let’s call him Jonah.  That wasn’t his name, but he did get swallowed.

You read about these sorts of fellows, amiable, not well-educated folks with mischievous streaks.  Jonah was like a great big teddy bear.  He stood over six feet, spoke with what might be called a hillbilly drawl.  I don’t know what he did for a living, exactly.  At ten, eleven, twelve years old that didn’t seem important.  He was an avid hunter and that more or less formed the basis of his relationship with my dad.

Jonah was always quick with a joke.  He was the first man I ever met who could do sound effects:  bird calls, train whistles, animal sounds, machinery.  He had a gift for vocal acrobatics that brought to mind commedians on tv.  He could get me laughing uncontrollably.  I suppose a lot of his humor, while outrageous, could be considered dry because he had a marvelously unstereoptypic deadpan delivery.

Jonah came to our house regularly for a few years, mostly on the weekends.  He ate at our table, helped dad with projects occasionally.

He had a wife and a couple of kids.  The kids were way younger than me, so I didn’t really have much to do with them.  I remember his wife being very quiet.  I would say now that she was long-suffering, but I didn’t know what that meant then.  She was a rather pretty woman, a bit darker than Jonah with brown hair so dark it was almost black.  She wore glasses and tended to plumpness, what we used to call Pleasantly Plump.  They lived in a shotgun house with a big backyard.

Which Jonah needed.  He collected junk cars.  This is what made him rather stereotypic.  There were always three or four cars in various stages of deconstruction in his yard, various makes and models.  He’d find them.  Fifty dollars here, a hundred there.  He himself drove a vehicle that probably wouldn’t pass inspection today and he was always fixing on it.  He found these cars and would proceed to develop grand plans to cannibalize them and out of the three or four, sometimes five, heaps and he intended to build one magnificent vehicle that would run better than Detroit assembly-line best and last forever.  He would get energetic, tearing into them, and according to my dad he exhibited an almost instinctive ability to mix and match parts and actually do engineering on the fly.  He came up with some first-rate gizmos out of all this, and from time to time an actual vehicle would begin to take shape.

I can only assume he applied much the same philosophy to the rest of his life.  He owned one decent hunting rifle, which my dad managed to improve, but also owned several “clunkers” which he was always bringing in to my dad’s shop to fiddle with.

Jonah never seemed to finish anything.

I didn’t perceive this as a big deal then.  I always assumed as a kid that the adults I knew always lived pretty much the kind of life they wanted to.  Jonah wore off-the-shelf factory worker clothes all the time, some of them quite old, and big work boots.  He seemed always ready to dive into an engine or something else that required getting smeared with grease and oil, knuckles scraped, clothes dirty.

I liked him.

But he never finished anything.  My dad joked that if he would just save the money he spent on all those heaps he kept buying and trying to cannibalize, in short order he’d have enough to buy a pretty nice automobile.  That wasn’t Jonah’s way, though.  Maybe he thought he could do better.  He often complained about the way factory-made this or that was inferior.  He complained about the laziness of union laborers, especially the UAW.

But he didn’t complain much.

Until one day I heard him and my dad arguing.  I went into the living room and found that Jonah had brought over some pamphlets.  One of them, I remember, had ornate artwork on the cover and strident, bold lettering, declaring  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Dad was getting heated.  I recognized the trajectory.  He was genuinely miffed.  Jonah sat there, tapping one thick finger on the pamphlets, and kept repeating  “You need to read these, Hank.  There’s shit goin’ on we don’t know nothin’ about.”

“Bullshit,” was my dad’s curt response.  They saw me, Jonah gathered up his pamphlets, and the conversation took a different direction.  But dad remained disturbed.

There were a few more visits from Jonah.  I was not told to leave the room.  I sat and listened to a couple of the arguments.  I guess I was about 14 or 15 by then and had begun to do a lot of reading in history.  I knew about the Holocaust because of an incident in my seventh year of grade school, when something I said triggered my dad to shout and lecture and thrust books into my hand and instruct me to learn something about Hitler and what he did.  I frankly couldn’t get my head around it.  The numbers overwhelmed, ran beyond easy comprehension.  I’m not sure what I thought war was all about before then, but there was suddenly now an ugliness to WWII that unsettled me in a way I’d never experienced before.

So when I finally understood what he was saying and why my dad was so angry, it really shocked me.  I knew this man.  How could he believe this stuff?  We’d gone hunting together, he made me laugh, he always seemed so…so…

He was in the grip of becoming a Nazi.  I confess to being incapable at the time of grasping the full fury of the pathology that was in the process of overwhelming him, but it was clear to me that it was a disease.  Jonah was changing, distorting, growing warts and open sores on his personality.

My dad finally barred him from the house.  He was not welcome anymore.  I’d never seen that happen before.  But dad was emphatic.  “You’ve got a head full of shit, Jonah.  I don’t want that poison in my home.”

“I never thought the Jews owned you, Hank,” Jonah said.  That was the last thing he said.

A year or so later we learned that his wife had left him.  The house with the junkers was sold, the cars disappeared.  Some time after that I saw him outside a Steak’n’Shake handing out pamphlets, wearing a swastika armband.  I don’t think he recognized me.

I have no way of knowing all the components of Jonah’s life.  But what I did see, what I heard, what I knew about, eventually came to paint a picture for me of a man who never really got a handle on his own life.  This in no way made him unique.  I said he never finished anything.  All his plans came to nothing.  He would start on something, draw up the designs in his head, spin great dreams about how this would do this and that would happen.  He would work for a while.  And then do something else, the Great Scheme unfinished.  In memory I see now that he never had much money.  He didn’t save for a good car because he didn’t have the experience of saving, nothing to tell him that it would ever be worthwhile, that the only way to “get ahead” was to acquire success all in one big lump.  That’s how the fat cats do it.  The rich people.  Plodding, consistent work, day in and day out, didn’t lead there.  Whatever job or jobs he held, it must have been clear that he would never climb out of where he was through them.

Nothing unusual about that, many people find themselves in such ruts.  Sometimes it’s lack of education, other times it’s a character flaw, or perhaps they simply don’t have the level of intelligence needed to do better than they’ve ever done.  Sometimes they just don’t have the inclination.  They do what they can, they live their lives, they get by, and we assume they find a way to be all right with that, or at least make it acceptable.

A few blame someone for it.

Not even that is remarkable and sometimes it’s even true.  It’s possible for blame to be legitimately cast on a parent who makes life so miserable and difficult that a child’s schooling cannot overcome the deficits of environment.  Tough to do homework in a house with a loud drunk or an abuser or any number of other circumstances that destroys any kind of sense of safety and security.  True, people overcome this kind of situation all the time, but it’s much harder, and a little blame is reasonable.

But for some the blaming takes on the added component of persecution, like the universe is somehow against them.  If not the universe, then, maybe, well….Those People.

It is a pathology, hating.  Hating that looks to be fed.  Most people perhaps have hated in their lives, but hate is a fire that burns hot and fast and for the sane person it consumes itself and becomes something less volatile.  But some hating is like a fusion reactor, taking matter in and combining it with the stuff of the hate, and thereby establishing a feed line that provides fuel so it never burns out.  Like cancer that creates its own blood source to feed.

People who cannot accept that what may have gone wrong in their lives is their fault.  But more than that, it is not only not their fault, it is very much someone else’s fault, there are people who act against them.  What possible control can you exercise when hidden forces counter your efforts at every turn?  How can you succeed when the very ground upon which that success might be built is stolen by people who want to keep you from succeeding?  How can you be anything more when the world is permeated with those who take advantage of the strong to perpetuate their existence at our expense?

And suddenly the full flower of your own self-forgiveness opens.  Nothing is your fault.  It is Them.  Without Them, you could do great things, but They prevent you.  Why?  Because you and not One Of Them.  You’re different.

You’re not a Jew.

I watched this pathology overtake and destroy a man who I thought of as a friend.  He was a Good Guy. And then one day he decided being a Good Guy meant hating people he thought were plotting against all Good Guys.

And he was just smart enough to follow the trail laid down by those like him who survive on hate.

You can create systems that seem to explain things that actually don’t support fact or truth.  It’s done all the time.  Selecting details, combining them in enticing ways… just look at The DaVinci Code as an example.  The historical details the underlie that book’s premise are there.  The way Brown, and earlier the two men who wrote the “nonfiction” source, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, merely strung these details together in such a way as to point to a conclusion that…

Well, it is more or less the same process by which the centuries long litany of charges leveled against the Jewish people has been cobbled together to form what seems to be a consistent and damning chain of evidence of plots and secret societies.

Oh, and you need to leave certain details out to make sure only the parts that support your conclusion are presented.  Anything that might undermine the central argument, well, that needn’t be there.

People like Jonah are not equipped to do the research to find out the truth.  Not that they would anyway.  They seem to be predisposed to accept the conclusions of the haters.

It’s easier than actually fixing their own lives.

Here is the Washington Post story of the man who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum.   His name is James W. van Brunn and he is 88 years old.  Here is an article about his background.  He is one of those who has kept alive the nonsense allegations about Obama’s supposedly “questionable” birth certificate.

He is a full time hater.

Personally, I don’t believe it much matters what such people hate.  They hate.  It’s what drives them.  They center their lives on it, it gives them purpose, it forms something by which they can feel important.  It feeds.

Endlessly countering their lousy grasp of history, the errors in their statements, the false premises upon which they base their attacks is important only insofar as it offers those around them—and us—alternatives to simply accepting the fever dream confabulations of their imagined causes.  I doubt it will change them.

Years ago I read an interview with a man who was a former White Supremacist.  He left them not because he realized they were wrong about their history, that their arguments were tight-looped tautologies, that collectively they were destructive to anything good in the world.  No.  He left because his child was born handicapped and these people were all about racial “purity” and one day they came to him and told him it was time for  him to “do something” about his mutant.  It struck home then, with an icy precision, that this was not just an exercise in intellectual (or anti-intellectual) culture war, but personal, with personal consequences that were…unacceptable.

Yet he had joined them.  He had at some point decided to accept the Us or Them nonthink of the haters, because he could not see a way to live in the world without blaming everyone else for how he was.

Because ultimately, that’s where it begins.

Compassionate Fangs

Last week I received my DVD of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the new documentary about Harlan Ellison.  I’ve watched it a couple of times now, thoroughly enjoying it.  Neil Gaiman makes the observation in the film that Ellison has been engaged in a great big piece of performance art called “Harlan Ellison” and I think he’s spot on.  Harlan—he is one of the only writers who ever worked in the realm of fantastic literature to be known almost immediately by his first name—is very much part and parcel of his work.  You don’t get the one without the other.

Which is not to say the work doesn’t stand on its own.  It does, very much so.  No doubt there are many people who have read the occasional Ellison story and found it…well, however they found it.  Anything, I imagine, but trivial.  If they then go on to become fans of the stories, eventually they will become aware of the person, mainly by virtue of the extensive introductions Harlan writes to just about everything he does, secondarily by the stories told by those who know, or think they know, something about him, either through personal experience or by word of mouth.

He’s fascinating to watch.  Sometimes it’s like watching a tornado form.

Harlan was born in 1934, which makes him 75 now.  This seems incredible to me, sobering even.  He will always seem to me to be about 40, even though I have seen him now for years with white hair and other attributes of age.  The voice has gotten a bit rougher, but he’s just as sharp as ever.

I have been in his actual presence on two occasions.  In 1986 he showed up in Atlanta at the world SF convention that year and I have a couple of autographed books as a result.  He dominated a good part of one day for us.   The second time was in 1999 or so, at a small convention called ReaderCon in Massachussetts, where he was guest of honor.  On that occasion I had lunch with him and few others and that lunch remains memorable, because I got to see the man when he isn’t On.  That is, it was before the convention began and he was, so to speak, “off duty” and was more relaxed, less hyperbolic.  And it was a great pleasure.  It is easy to see why people are drawn to him.

He is something of a contradiction.  He is a fine writer.  Even if one doesn’t care for the subject matter or even finds his style abrasive, it is clear to anyone paying attention that this man can write.  He deserves to be read.  At the same time, he is a class A, high functioning extrovert, one able to extemporize brilliantly and fluently on a wide range of subjects, and exhibits all the traits writers by common apprehension are thought to lack.

He is also dramatically confrontational.

In many ways, he reminds me of my father, who is also a man who brooks no foolishness, suffered fools not at all, and generally always said what was on his mind.  Harlan seems to be less controlled so more of his mind gets said than many people can stand.

The weekend of Readercon way back when  gave me a chance to observe him working and I noticed that—also like my father—Harlan is a 110 percenter.  That is, he gives more than he really has to give, especially when he’s fulfilling an obligation, in this case the duties of the guest of honor.  I suspect he’s like that in his personal life, too, and it certainly shows in the work.  Which also means that when his efforts are in some way betrayed, his disillusionment is also great.  I’ve watched my father end friendships, lose deep interests, and walk away from whole careers because something soured it for him and because he had committed so much of himself there was no room to shrug off the slight and go on from there.   He engaged too deeply, more deeply than the person or object could return or could suspect, and when the break came there was no space for backing off and starting over.

In Harlan’s case—as, indeed, with my father—the work is and was paramount and would not have been done with as much passion and precision if they were otherwise.

As far as I’m concerned, Dreams With Sharp Teeth could have been another hour longer.  There are details, aspects of his life and his work, that I would have liked to hear more.  Harlan did not live the life of a writer—he lived the life writers are sometimes said to have lived, and a few did, but most are ill-suited to living.  Hemingway sailed boats, hunted lion, led men in war, boxed, took lovers, and did it all with the kind of gusto that fits someone a writer would write about, not the writer himself.

Harlan marched with King to Selma.

I am in no way suggesting he and Hemingway are the only ones to have done such things, certainly not, but they are among a handful who are known for those things as much as for the work.  That takes a lot of presence, a lot of person, a lot of spirit.

In a way, one could describe Harlan as a perfect storm.  The man matches the words, and the words are…

I defy you to read Jeffty Is Five or Shatterday or The Whimper of Whipped Dogs or All The Lies That Are My Life or The Executioner of the Malformed Children or I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream or Shattered Like A Glass Goblin and come away unmoved, unaffected, for that moment unchanged.   One Life Furnished In Early Poverty is an homage, a justification, an epitaph, and an elegy all rolled into something that also contains enormous glee and childish wonder.

Or go find his two volumes of television criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, books which were the objects of actual censorship (something that never happens in this country, of course) under Nixon.  Though they were written and published in the Sixties, the observations are fresh and if anything more relevant today.

One thing that I’ve always found interesting, and didn’t quite understand until I met the man and saw him before an audience, is that he is the only writer I know who consistently appears on the covers of his books.  Usually in marvelous illustrations by artists like Barclay Shaw or Leo and Diane Dillon, but consistently enough to be remarkable.  Once you see him and listen to him, you begin to understand.

Anyway, I recommend the film.  And if you haven’t read any of Harlan’s work, do so before you die.  He really should be up there with Pynchon and Mailer, Vidal and King, Burgess and Hemingway, and others.  In my mind, he is.  He’s that good.

Who I Am Is No One Else’s Business!

As this just happened, I thought I’d come right home and write about it.  I just had one of those customer service incidents that sends me over the moon.

I walked into a store to find something.  I was in a frame of mind to buy.  I found the something and asked the sales person “How much is that?”  Back at her desk, she sat down, I sat down, and I expected her to punch up the price on her computer and tell me.

Instead:  “What’s your name?”

“Private individual,” I replied, a bit nonplussed.

“I need a name for the quote,” she said.

“You have to have it?”


“Have a nice day.”

And I walked out.

Now, this was perhaps petty of me.  What, after all, is the big deal?  She needed to punch a name into her computer to open the dialogue box to ask for the price.


This is a persistent and infuriating condition in our present society that causes me no end of irritation because so few people think it is a problem that I end up looking like a weirdo because I choose not to hand out private information for free.

It has crept up on us.  Decades ago, when chain stores began compiling mailing lists by which they could send updates and sale notices to their client base.  Then they discovered they could sell those lists to other concerns for marketing.  Now we have a plague of telemarketers, junk mail, spam, and cold calls and a new social category with which to look askance at people who would prefer not to play.  Like me.

In itself, it is an innocent enough thing.  But it is offensive, and what offends me the most is my fellow citizens failing to see how it is offensive and how it on a deep level adds to our current crisis.

Look:  if telemarketing didn’t work, no one would do it.  A certain percentage of those unwanted calls actually hook somebody into buying something.  Direct mail campaigns have an expected positive return rate of two percent. That is considered normal response and constitutes grounds to continue the practice.  Economies of scale work that way.  So if only two to five percent of the public respond favorably to the intrusions of these uninvited pests, they have reason to persist.

I think it might be fair to say that people with money and education don’t respond  as readily as poorer, less educated folks who are always on the lookout for bargains—and often find bargains they don’t understand and probably end up costing them too much, like sub prime mortgages.

We are too free with our personal information.  Maybe you or you or you find nothing wrong with always giving out your phone number or your zip code or even your name and address when asked, in Pavlovian response to the ringing bell behind the counter, but what has happened is that we have made available a vast pool of data that makes it easy to be imposed upon and that has aided and abetted a consumer culture that has gotten out of hand.

And made those of us who choose not to participate in this look like some form of misanthropic libertarian goofballs.

How hard is this?  If I choose to buy from someone, then I have agreed to have a relationship, however tenuous, with them.  Unless I pay cash, they are entitled to know with whom they are dealing.  But if I’m not buying, they have no right to know who I am.  And I can’t know if I’m going to buy if I don’t know how much the object in question is.  Trying to establish the buying relationship in advance of MY decision to buy is…rude.

I have walked out of many stores when confronted with a request for personal information.  I’ve had a few shouting matches with managers over it.  In some instances, the unfortunate salesperson is as much a victim, because some software programs these days have as a necessary rerequisite for accessing the system the entry of all this data.  The corporation won’t even let the employee make the call whether it’s worth irritating someone over collecting all this information.

Concerns and worries over Big Brother have a certain validity, but it is largely unremarked that the foundation of such a system will not be imposed on us—rather we will hand the powers that be what they ask for because we can’t muster up enough sense of ourselves to say, consistently, “None of your damn business!”

There.  I feel better.  I needed to get that out.  This rant has been brought to you by  Consumer Culture LTD.

Hands Across the Water (water…)

Usually when I am contacted by, or have to contact, someone in India, they wish to sell me something or I am trying to get some kind of tech support that often doesn’t work.  This is the first time I’ve ever been contacted by someone in India who wishes to do me a service.

I received this email this morning:

Hi Mark,
I am Mohit from, we are an online book store in INDIA.We have your books on sale
It would be great if you could put our link on your website and blog , as it would facilitate the sales of your book in INDIA.

Yours sincerely,
Mohit kapoor

That’s nice.  First of June, first Monday of my new attempt at freedom, I thought, why not?  I may post the link on my sidebar.  For now, it’s kind of cool to see that I have a book on sale in India.