It Was Thirty Years Ago (Plus One)…

Not that I think anyone is especially interested in me as subject for biography, but once in a while I stumble on something that brings back a flood of memory and I feel compelled to say something about it.  Recently a friend of mine wrote in his blog about the Twenties being the most painful time of life, at least of his life, and it got me thinking.  All pain is relative and certain periods possess character, and characteristic pain.  The Twenties are painful insofar as most of us assume—and have it assumed on our behalf—that we know what we want, know how to get it, and, most importantly of all, that we know who we are.  I think it fair to say that few of us are astute enough at that time to know that who we are is something that changes constantly, and that who we are at Twenty is definitely not who we were (we hope) at Ten, or Twelve, or Fifteen.  By the time we’re over Twenty-One, we may assume that we have shed all the more awkward and embarrassing characteristics of our pre-Twenty-One self.  It’s an illusion, but a powerful one, and may have utility as a survival mechanism.

With that in mind, here’s a photograph of me from 1979.


Firstly, a disclaimer.  The original is black & white.  I’ve been having some fun with Photoshop lately and I couldn’t resist colorizing this a bit.  It’s not particularly good, but it is rather useful to me in certain ways.

You see here the image of a supremely confident and, what is more, happy young fellow.  I still have that camera.  The setting is of some local interest—that is the building that became Off Broadway, a night spot which I believe still exists (at least the building is there with that marquee) and is still open.  Not sure about the latter.  I’d become acquainted with the man who was doing the rehab.  There were big plans afoot for the place and he thought it would be a good idea to record the progress.  So I spent a few week ends in the shell during construction making images of the work being done.

Eventually, the plan was, we’d have a series of before-and-after images and I’d produce 16 X 20s for them to hang to show how the old, broken-down structure had been transformed into the delightful venue the patrons were then enjoying.  It was a good project and for a time I was having a great deal of fun doing it.

Then everything fell apart.

See, the key ingredient to all this was the person who shot this image.  The woman who, at the time, I was madly in love with and had made plans with.  Plans for the rest of our lives.  I was giddy with joy at the prospect.  It was through her I’d met these people and developed this project and she worked with me on it.  We were, at the time this image was made, having one hell of a good time.

By the forthcoming October it was all over.  Crashed and burned, and the demise was about as painful and brutal as could be imagined.

So in this sense, I can agree with my friend’s assessment that the Twenties were in some ways the most painful period of my life.

I’d attached myself to this woman in a fit of desperation.  I didn’t think it so at the time, of course, but the fact was I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life but a very sharp sense that whatever it might turn out to be what I’d been doing was a dead-end and I did not know how to get out of it.  I’d been pretty much alone, in terms of what is known as “meaningful relationships” since…

Well, forever.  I had had a steady girlfriend for only one not-quite-year-long period right after I got out of high school.  Before that, I staggered through adolescence always wanting, unable to figure out how to get, exactly that—a girlfriend.  Ignorance is not always bliss.  For a host of reasons, most of which I understand now but couldn’t figure out then, I drifted through my teen years oblivious to the rituals and subtleties of dating and all that.  I was one of those benighted, highly-intelligent idiots who just “didn’t get it.”  As I entered my Twenties, it appeared that this would continue to be the case.

So I seized an opportunity, attacked the situation with the kind of blunt force by which I did everything then, and tried to “break out” of the rut I saw myself in at the time—and it very nearly landed me in a marriage that, in hindsight, would have been disastrous.  I have since recognized that my thick-skulled obliviousness to the ins-and-outs of boy-girl fraternizing was a boon to my future.  I would likely have fallen into the “accepted norm” of such things and woken one day to find myself miserable in a completely different way.

So the pain of various periods of life quite often turn out to be excruciating learning curves we must ascend.  Obstacles overcome and so forth.  And really, no decade is consistently one thing.  The “painful” period of the Twenties, for me, only lasted till I was 25.  That’s when I met Donna and things took a decided turn for the optimistic.  The second half of that decade, for me, was hardly painful at all.  In fact, it was quite blissful.  Part of the benefit of the first half of that decade was that I could recognize the bliss while I was going through it.  I was able to appreciate what I was living through because of what had gone before and for that I am very grateful to all the crap I endured while trying, clumsily and obstinately, to shed the ignorance that very nearly became a cage.

The only thing I wish now is that I’d had a chance to finish that photographic project…

Rand, Civil Rights, Rand

Rand Paul, senate hopeful for Kentucky, made a fool of himself with remarks about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and racism and affirmative action et cetera et cetera so on and so forth.  If Kentucky votes him into office, they get what they deserve.  There was a brief moment when I thought Ron Paul was worthy of some respect—he seemed willing to speak truth to power.  I found that I disagreed with him on specifics, but it is useful (and rare) to have someone doing the Emperor’s New Suit schtick.

However, anyone who names a child after an ideological demagogue has some serious problems with reality.  (To be clear, Rand, under the circumstances, can only refer to Ayn Rand, the patron non-saint of the Libertarian Movement.)*

Rand’s pronouncements about the rights of business owners to deny service to anyone they see fit is perfectly consistent with Randian philosophy and politics.  Basically, it says that the person whose name is on the title owns what the title describes outright and has, by dint of absolute moral dictate, dictatorial command over said property and ought to be allowed to do with it what they wish.  Without explanation to anyone and certainly without anyone else’s permission.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  I mean, you worked for it, you sweated, earned the means of acquisition, put your name and fortune on the line to own it, worked to make it do what you intended, you should therefore enjoy all rights and privileges in the say of what to do with it.  Your home, your rules.  There’s a feel-good quid pro quo to it that appeals to a basic sense of fairness, suggests a rough equivalence between work and risk and rights.

This is fundamental to Rand’s whole premise, that the creator, the mind behind creation, the one who brings something into existence is the one who has the only natural say in what that thing so created can and will do and who it shall serve.  For an avowed atheist, Rand had a very mythic, godlike attitude toward life.

And I suppose if you could somehow make the case that a single individual did indeed create something from whole cloth and by virtue of his or her singular efforts sustained it and drove it and made it successful, there might be a good and valid point to this view.

But is that ever the case?

Rand’s famous tome, Atlas Shrugged, makes the argument that the movers and shakers, the people who Do, are absolutely vital to the world.  Nothing would exist without them and if they should withdraw their talent and genius and effort, the world would come to a halt.  She makes the case for the Indispensible Man.  And in the novel (for those of you who have not read it), a man named John Galt, fed up with the growing People’s Movements around the world, which he sees as essentially parasitic, calls a strike of the truly important people.  He convinces the men and women who truly matter to leave the world, retire, disappear, and when they have all left, it seems no one can do what they did, and everything falls apart.  The final image shows them emerging from their high-tech hideaway to assume command as the true and rightful aristocracy of ability.

It is, in her narrative, a very small group.

Just for the sake of argument, let me state here that I have seen places where there is indeed a single person whose work and ability are so central to what that business does that if they left that business might very well fail.  I suppose one could draw from that the counter argument that a single individual could build a business from first principles and be the only one who could make it work.

But it doesn’t work that way in reality and this is where the Randians fall short in their formulation.

If it is a business, it cannot possibly come into existence in the kind of vacuum that Rand seems to describe.  It emerges from a community.  It exists because it fulfills a need in the community and it succeeds in direct relation to how well it serves that need and how much the community values its work.

This is not to say the individual is insignificant.  On the contrary, the individual is the one who recognizes, organizes, develops, and then taps into that need.  But once the concept is complete and the seed is planted, nothing further can happen without the community.

What do I mean by that?  In this country, the community has already provided—communications, infrastructure, raw material, financing, licensing, insurance, regulation that allows for growth, legal structure, security, and—most importantly of all—customers.  The individual cannot accomplish all that alone.  The individual takes advantage of all these things provided by the community in order to build the thing he or she has conceived.  Once built and open for business, the only thing the individual can do of an absolutist nature is shut it down.  Because the ongoing operation of that business is now a co-dependent symbiosis, not with individuals, but with the community.

And that is why a business owner doesn’t have the right of judgment to say who shall and who shall not be served—because once the doors are open, that business had joined with the community and become part of it.  If a member of that community comes in to be served, the business owner can only withhold service if that customer violates the greater community standard (no shirt no shoes no service, etc).  And when that action occurs it is not so much the individual expressing an opinion in isolation but the business owner reinforcing community standards that he or she accepted when joining the community as a business.  When you accept all the help provided by the community to enact your concept, you agree to those standards, and cannot arbitrarily dictate who you will or will not serve.

What is so damn difficult to understand?

We have a national heritage of the rugged individual which is based partly on reality but largely on a myth.  That myth is the cowboy, the mountain man, the single-minded industrialist.  The independent farmer.

The cowboy was a wage earner.  The cattleman for whom he worked depended on the markets and the price structure Back In The World to exist, and the money he derived from that interface is all that kept him “independent.”  The mountain men were in many instances businessmen who spent their off time in cities, spending what they’d earned.  The single-minded industrialist depended on the financial landscape provided by the community to become an industrialist.  The independent farmer was only ever independent insofar as he was not dependent on urban markets.

The other, less pleasant icons, like the gunslingers, were either maladjusted or parasites.   The settlers, who often get a bad rap in old westerns, came west and one of the first things they did was start a community, because they knew they couldn’t survive alone.

We have lionized these icons.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that until we try to hold them up as counterexamples to the very systems that they themselves were part of.  Then we run into problems.

Even as a teenager, breathlessly reading the 1000-page-plus epic of Atlas Shrugged, I thought there was something wrong with Rand’s premise—that somehow, all these supposedly indispensable people really were so unique as to constitute a separate species.  No one could take their place?  The only other people on the planet were social parasites and the hapless incompetents like poor Eddie Willers?  That was not my experience.

So while many may feel a tang of sympathy for the idea expressed by Rand Paul, that the private business owner should be free from the dictates of the community, it’s an idea based on an erroneous notion of how such things exist.  Business is not free from the community—it can’t be—it only exists because of the community.

And if that person standing there waiting to be served has different skin color, too bad—he or she is a part of the community that has granted you the ability to have a business for them to stand it.  You can’t throw them out without, by extension, throwing the whole community out.

But this is civil liberties 101.  Why should any of this have to be explained to someone who thinks he has the ability to serve in the Senate?

*Since writing this, I have learned that I am in error in assuming Rand is named for Ayn Rand.  His proper name is Randall.  Rather than doing the cowardly thing and simply changing what I wrote, though, I decided to leave it stand and add this little mea culpa.  Nevertheless, given the sentiments he expresses, I think the article as a whole is the best way to express my feelings.




We act as if we know what these labels mean.  Conservatives are traditionalists, fiscally opposed to anything that smacks of gambling, private, often religious, and pedantic on what they consider “appropriate” in either government or personal conduct.

Liberals, on the other hand, are often taken for progressive, willing to spend social capital to repair perceived problems, tolerant, agnostic if not atheist, and overly-concerned with a definition of justice that ought to be all-encompassing rather than what they perceive as sinecure for the privileged.

Well.  Over on Facebook I posted a brief quote (my own) to boil down the actual underlying distinctions.

Conservatives are those who don’t like what other people are doing, Liberals are those who don’t like what other people are doing to other people.

It was meant to be taken as humorous.  But I’m not being entirely flip here.  When you look at it, and try to define the common factor in much that passes for conservative posteuring—of any country, any background, anywhere—it always comes down to one group trying to stop another group from Doing Things We Don’t Approve.

I heard a news report this morning (on NPR—I unabashedly don’t pay attention to any other news source, I find them all utterly biased) from Pakistan about the university scene there, and one bit caught my attention—at a campus in Punjabi, conservative students who find men and women sitting too close together interfere and move them apart.  At a game of Truth or Dare, conservative students pulled participants out and beat them.

How does this apply here?  Well, here’s a clip from P.Z. Meyers’ Pharyngula to illustrate:
Rising Sun School in Maryland has the standard default take-it-for-granted attitude that Christianity is just fine — there’s the usual well-funded and usually teacher-promoted evangelical groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — and when one student tried to form a club for non-religious students…well, you can guess what happened. All their signs were torn down and destroyed, and the students were threatened by their peers. There were also letters to the editor of the local paper.

My daughter comes home today and informs me they have started a new club in Rising Sun High School. The club is known as NRS, which stands for Non Religious Society.

The members of this club have proceeded to hang posters along the halls of the school. When a student tore the posters down, because they offended him, he got suspended from school. Apparently the students are not allowed to touch these posters.

To say I was shocked is putting it mildly. My daughter does not hang posters of her Catholic religion throughout the school, and I expect the same type of respect from others. We cannot control what others think or their beliefs, nor do we want to. But I will not have this type of atrocity taking place without having my voice heard.

My daughter has my permission, if she sees these posters around school, to put up her own. I challenge the principal to say one thing about this. I guarantee you do not want a religious war taking place, as I have God on my side and you’ll lose.”

Perhaps no one was beaten, but I think the point is well-made.  To be fair, so-called Progressives have a history of barring certain speakers they disagree with from campuses and the like, but I don’t often see such in-your-face geurilla tactics from left-leaning groups in this country.  It happens, sure, but it also happens under an assumption that it’s not sanctioned.  But also, it happens usually as part of an effort on behalf of some other group than the liberal group doing the protesting.

When you get right down to it, conservatives as a group seem driven by a desire to constrain conduct with which they disapprove—personal conduct.  Perhaps this is a consequence of the way arguments are framed.  But I think not.  Conservatives, by definition, are concerned with preserving things they like about the way they live.  Hence all manner of social protest on the part of conservatives against things that will, they believe, change the way they live—climate change deniers are conservative, anti-abortion advocates are conservative, anti-tax groups are conservative, so-called Strict Interpretation constitutionalists are conservative.  And so on.

But are Liberals actually any different?  Liberals, it seems to me, become conservative once they have achieved their goals and suddenly find themselves in positions to defend the way things now are.  Consider:  free market advocates are now conservatives, but if you go back far enough you discover that this was a liberal idea.  At one time, the notion that all children have some right to a college education was a liberal idea, but now it has become an entrenched part of business in such a way that the whole educational apparatus is geared toward the degree as an essential element in the economy, so much so that challenges to the way teaching is done, to the idea that education ought to be fundamentally changed, are viewed as dangerously progressive.  At one time, the idea of organized religious groups becoming politically active was a way Left notion, but it is one that has come to exemplify conservative ideology.

Liberals tend to displace their personal defense to causes that may not, but could possibly, affect them.  They advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised (while conservatives often seem to consciously dismiss the disenfranchised as having nothing to do with them); they take up causes that are more philosophical in appearance; time and attention is given to people who do not have what the advocates have, namely political power, some economic security, or a voice in the community.  The more thoughtful Left thinkers seem to realize that but for the grace of good fortune they themselves could be living on the street at the mercy of unfriendly authorities, and so make arguments on behalf of those who already are there.  Conservatives seem to feel that those so benighted as to have fallen into such penury have only themselves to blame and dismiss the whole idea of fickle socio-economic shifts that could easily displace the currently secure.

I say “seems to be” a lot, because obviously on an individual level things get a lot more complicated.  It all resolves to which part of the whole one chooses to look at.

There are a couple of points at which both sides have it wrong.  For instance, in the matter of the disenfranchised—economically, politically, socially—conservatives seem to believe that one’s condition is one’s own responsibility and therefore nothing to do with those who have, according to their lights, already lived responsibly.  Therefore, so the thinking goes, “I have no responsibility for Those People.”  The liberal tends to believe the disenfranchised are inevitably disempowered due to the structure of social mechanisms, and their condition is therefore not their fault.  “Society has all the blame.”  Of course, this displaces personal responsibility on the part of the liberal to a kind of group thing.  The bottom line is, responsibility still gets shuffled from here to there and very little gets done in the way of solving the actual problems, which are combinations of the two views.

Another observation I’ve made in the past concerning our two major political parties ties in to this:  Republicans tend to see citizens as those who own property.  Democrats see anyone who lives here legally as a citizen.  Defense of corporate personhood is a Republican ideal, which support business, which is property.  A rough descriptor, but it plays out remarkably in local politics.  In Missouri, several years ago, the Motor Voter registration movement was strongly opposed by Republicans, supported by Democrats.  Can’t have people with no financial stake in the country voting, for goodness sake.

I find both sides often equally off-base.

But I find myself siding more often with liberals and the Left because of the apparent obsession conservatives exhibit over Other People’s behavior.  The example from Pakistan has direct equivalents here, and it always comes down to conservatives trying to deny expression to people whose preferences in life-style they abhor.  The entire gay marriage movement is opposed by conservatives.  Why?  What is it they think will actually happen if gays are permitted to marry?  I don’t buy the whole idea that they think it’s unnatural.  I think they dislike the idea of altering their invitation lists and trying to explain to their kids why Tommy and Bill are “getting hitched.”  It is this conservative activism that comes across in things like the Texas School Board’s changes to their base curriculum, altering history and science because they don’t like the way things are changing.  Conservatives don’t appear to really have a problem with contraception for themselves—else where are all the enormous right-wing families, with seven, eight, or nine kids?—they just don’t want Other People to use it to live in ways conservatives find unseemly.  Especially their kids.  The opposition to Evolution is preponderantly conservative because it requires a shift in attitude that seems to reduce the influence of religion and the whole notion of humanity as The Superior Species.   Climate change is aggressively denied by conservatives because if true it means they will have to change the way they live.

It amounts to a denial of reality.

On the other hand, liberals indulge equally in different sorts of denialism.  Anti-vaccine advocates, I think, are mostly progressives.  Certainly cultural relativists who are unwilling to make definitive statements about obvious boneheadedness and outright evil in other cultures  (female circumcision, purda, etc) are little better than head-in-the-sand do-nothings.  Nonsense causes, like homeopathy, herbalism, and the like tend to attract people of liberal bents.

But I think it’s useful to try to dig down deep to the foundational distinctions to see what is really going on.    The one thing that needs to change is the all-encompassing unwillingness, on the part of right and left, to say and listen to things that make us uncomfortable, or disagree with our cherished ideals.  You cannot know how to determine the real, the actual, and the relevant by confining your information to one channel that agrees with you all the time and censoring the other fellow who has a point to make.  We’ve been doing that for much too long and it has been responsible, as much as anything, for the unprecedented divides we see today.  Conservatives aggressively tear down posters while liberals passively refuse to permit a speaker to come, but both actions amount to the same self-imposed deafness.

We live in an absurd age, when you come right down to it, driven more by labels than any time before.

What You See

One of the challenges I’ve always confronted as a visual artist is the fact that the image I conceive in my mind rarely is matched by what I’ve been able to produce as an artifact.  Some photographs I’ve made I have been inordinately proud of.  The ones I’ve liked best are those that have emerged sans expectations.  I’ve “seen something” and made the image, only to discover later, in the lab, what it was I saw.  But by then, it’s changed, because memory plays fast and loose with reality, and the picture I ended up making was its own thing.

Disappointment usually followed when I preconceived something at the time the shutter snapped and later I just couldn’t get that perceived image out on paper.

I’ve been making my first forays in the digital realm and dipping my toe into Photoshop.  There is so much control one has through this program that it’s potentially narcotic.  One could become lost in the ability to change, alter, enhance, and distort endlessly.

Because I’ve done photography for as long as I have, I’m already putting the breaks on in terms of Out There exoticism.  But I’m finding the ability to bring an image more into line with what I originally conceived (or what I am imagining at the moment of manipulation) to be…wonderful.

For instance:


The original capture was a vertical shot.  I “saw” something in this otherwise ordinary stand of trees.  Cropped close, horizontal now, and manipulated for color saturation and contrast, I have something approaching that initial perception.  The ethereal rendering or what might be termed timelessness in the forest is a direct result of what I’ve been able to do in Photoshop.
This is very cool as far as I’m concerned.  This could be much fun.

Myself As Antique

We started cleaning the garage this weekend past.  Made a lot of headway.  We tackled boxes which we haven’t touched since we moved in, almost 19 years ago.  Time flies when you have other things to do.

This morning I continued.  There were a few boxes of assorted odds and ends that I needed to cull through.  In doing so, I found this photograph.mark-1977.JPG

Donna has only seen me without a beard once.  She didn’t like the effect, mainly because int he years during which I’d had a beard I somehow misplaced my chin.  Anyway.  This was back when I was a trim young fella on the make, as it were.

The historical context of this photograph is rich.  Firstly, it is the young me.  That’s about as interesting as that gets.  Secondly, the setting.  Shaw Camera Shop.  4468 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis.  It had been in business since the late Forties and it was, hands down, my favorite job.  I was the lab tech and later lab manager.  I worked there for 20 years, made fast friends (many of whom are gone) and played out some of the great dramas of my life partly within its confines.  It was a black & white custom lab and at its peak we were doing the printing for several color labs, most of the independent camera stores in St. Louis (of which almost none remain) and three of the local yearbook companies.  Lots of pictures.  This shot shows me behind the front counter, the film cabinet behind me.

Thirdly, the print itself is of modest historical interest.  It was shot on Kodak Instant Print film.  There was a time when Polaroid held the monopoly on that kind of technology.  You wanted to take pictures without bothering to send the film to a lab, you used Polaroid.  Kodak muscled in while Polaroid suspended production during a strike.  They—Polaroid—subcontracted the manufacturing to Kodak till the strike ended.  During that time, Kodak got a chance to really take Polaroid’s process apart and a year or so after Polaroid resumed production, Kodak announced a new product—instant print film.  They claimed it was all their own.  Polaroid sued.  And won.  So this print is an example of a short-lived phenomenon.  (It wasn’t very good—I’ve put some effort into making this one easier to look at and sharper, but there’s only so much you can do.)

Shaw Camera Shop is long gone.  The owners for whom I worked, who I loved like a second family, had problems—Earline had battled cancer for decades and finally lost and Gene just didn’t want to continue anymore.  I was just beginning my writing career and knew if I bought the business I’d have to give that up.  So Gene sold it to someone who was ill-suited to running it and he ruined it.

Today, the building houses an antique store, Gringo Jones.  Last year was the first time I’d set foot in the place since a few weeks after it closed up as a lab.  The new owners pretty much gutted the interior to suit their needs, but I could still walk unerringly through to where everything had been.  I doubt I’ll do that again, though.

Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise to find this.  I have other pictures of Shaw and myself from that time.  I didn’t, of course, realize just how much I liked that job until it was gone.  But the memories are still there.

Zelazny and the Perils of Reading at a Young Age

Recently I started reading Roger Zelazny’s  Amber series.  I’ve been hearing about this for decades, how great it is, and till now it’s one of the few things of Zelazny’s that I’ve resisted reading.

See, it’s pretty much fantasy, in form if not conceit.  I can see a way to describe the world he created here in quantum mechanical terms and render it SF, but frankly it’s a typical sword and sibling fantasy.  Genealogy and combat.

But it’s Zelazny, so while reading it one is having a good time.  He was always dependable that way, he was never dull.  This, however, is not his major work.

But it got me thinking about him again.

Roger Zelazny caused me, as a kid, to defend myself.

I attended a parochial school—Lutheran, to be exact.  This was a peculiar situation since my parents, at the time, were more or less Mormon.  The choice of Emmaus Lutheran School came about through a combination of idiotic districting restrictions in the public schools, which would have sent me to a school several miles away when there was one only five blocks away, and their general dissatisfaction with the public school system.  You see, I was a poor student.  They thought it was perhaps a disciplinary problem, one which the public schools, at that time, were by law not allowed to address.  Corporal punishment had been banned in the schools.  (Of course, this didn’t matter to some teachers: I had witnessed a student beaten and humiliated by a gym coach when I was in the first grade.)  They assumed—and I suppose this was true to some extent—that I was playing when I should have been paying attention and that my attention could be gotten by threat of spanking.

(The reality was less than and more than their surmise.  In truth—and I can only say this in hindsight—public school damaged my interest in learning.  My birthday is in October, roughly five to six weeks into the school year.  When my mother first tried to enroll me, I was only four years old.  They wouldn’t take me, despite the immanence of my turning five.  I had to wait a year.  When I turned six, they pulled me out of kindergarten and put me in first grade, “where I belonged”.  The first grade teacher expected me—and the half dozen others who suffered the same fate—to simply catch up, without any remedial tutoring.  Needless to say, this put me off the whole thing.  That and the fact that classes were boring combined to make me a rather bad student.)

In fact, I only ever received a spanking in school once, and that for something I didn’t do.  Nevertheless, the threat was there and if this contributed to my somewhat better performance, then so be it.  Personally, I don’t think so.  For one, my grades didn’t improve all that much.  For another, the class sizes were smaller and we did get more attention from the teachers.

Along with this, though, came religious instruction.

Somewhere between my entry into this school in third grade and graduation I became an insatiable reader, especially of science fiction.

Reading alone would have made me odd.  But, like all misfits, my peculiarities came in multiples.  I was a bit puny, always had been, and abhorred pain, which made me an easy target for bullies.  In time I was the brunt of most class jokes.  In fifth grade I needed glasses.  Not only were they black horn-rims, they were bifocals.  To make matters worse, I didn’t like—or understand—cars, sports, or rock’n’roll.  Socially, I was a cipher.  Today you’d say nerd.  (No pocket protector, though; never had one of those.)  But on top of all that, I read.  All the time, whenever I could.  At recess I’d sneak upstairs to a spot on the stage I’d found where no one could find me, and read.  I never was found, even though teachers were looking for me, too.

Needless to say, I got teased about the reading.

My best friend sat in front of me in seventh grade.  Greg was very tall for his age and was one of the two boys in the school that no one ever challenged.  We’re still friends.  I tried to get him to read some of my books, but none of them really interested him.  He never questioned my reading, though, until one day his curiosity overwhelmed him.

I just happened to be reading Lord of Light at the moment Greg chose to turn around and ask  “Why do you read so much?”

I just looked at him.  I have no idea what went through my mind, but I can make some good guesses.  The thing to say—the truth, which, as good christians, we were taught was next to God—would have been “Because I like it.  It’s fun.”  But this was demonstrably Not True, since very few others of my peers thought it was fun.  Reading was hard, like homework.  Why would you do it if you didn’t have to?  Besides, another good christian virtue was to avoid things that had no other function than pleasure.  We did a lot of things because they were “just” fun, but we knew better than to admit to them.  It was okay to have fun as long as some other, more salient purpose was simultaneously fulfilled.  So I said “Well, I learn things.”

Greg looked skeptical.  “Like what?  I mean, what are you learning from—what is that?  Lord of Light?”

“Uh…”  I gazed at the cover of the book, an Avon edition with a black cover and a neat little illustration that looked semi-Indian.  What was I learning from it?  I grabbed at something.  “Well, I’m learning about the Hindu religion.”

Greg laughed and snorted derisively.  He snatched the book from my hand and studied it.  “This is science fiction.  Why would you be learning about Hindus in this?”

I was running out of things to say.  I reached for the book and he held it annoyingly out of reach.  He started reading the cover blurb out loud, laughing, mispronouncing words.

Attracting attention.

Mr. Obermann, our teacher—and the school principal—suddenly snatched it from Greg’s hand.  Mr. Obermann looked about ninety, but in a George C. Scott kind of robust way.  He glared at us for a few seconds and returned to his desk.

I watched him for a time—it was supposed to be a study period—and saw him looking the book over.  He frowned deeply and looked at me.  Then he called me to the front of the class.

“What is this?” he asked, tapping the book.

“A novel.”

“What about?”

Not again.  I have since learned that many very good books, when reduced to paragraph long descriptions, sound ridiculous, but I didn’t quite understand this then.  I tried to explain.  He cut me off, opened a desk drawer, and dropped it in.

He did not return it to me at the end of the day.  When I asked him about it he said something about material I had no business reading.

So I told my parents about it.

My mother took the time to come to school the next day.  She insisted I sit in on her meeting with Mr. Obermann.  She wanted to know why I had not had my book returned and he started explaining about the unsuitability of the subject matter and so on.  Mom interrupted.

“You’re telling me you don’t want him learning anything about other religions?”

“This is a Lutheran school.  That’s what we teach here.”

“I see.  Do you also teach intolerance?”

Mr. Obermann reddened.  “Mrs. Tiedemann—”

“I’ll thank you not to censor my son’s reading.  If he can’t handle it, he won’t read it.”

I was sent back to class then, so I don’t know what else transpired.  My book was returned with an admonition not to bring it to school anymore.

Given how uncomfortable Mr. Obermann became, I made a practice over the next several months of bringing other, hopefully radical books to class.  And reading them.  In retrospect I suppose my parents were right.  I needed a strict, disciplinary environment in which to improve my learning skills.  Thanks to Zelazny, I learned an important lesson.  It took me years to realize exactly what it was, but the seed was planted there.

If someone tries to make you defend what you read—or that you read—remember that slogan from Harley-Davidson:  If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.  Just give them a book and tell them to try it out.