13 June 2014

How We Infuriated Two Generals and a Town Mayor

(For those wondering why my comments disappeared for a while this week, all I can say is that I was recovering from horrifying flash-backs brought on by Leigh’s kidney stone post. LOL)

Two weeks ago, I posted here asking what readers thought of mixing romance and mystery genres.

I wondered: When do the two genres make a good fit, why does this happen (or not), and how can a writer mix the two genres to best effect? I received many excellent comments, which I’ll talk about in my post on June 27th.

I’ve also thought a lot about those comments, as well as other ideas associated with genre mixing, and have formulated an idea I’d like to submit here. That, too, will have to wait until my next post, however, if you don’t want to read something seven pages long.

So, in the interest of brevity (he said, a bit deceptively), I will first tell you a humorous story that is very important to the idea I plan to submit for your comments on the 27th. It’s about how explosions create sine waves, and ways in which the amplitude of these sine waves may be manipulated—which probably sounds as entertaining as doing the laundry. But, please: bear with me. I think you’ll like this.

A Quick but Important Explanation 

Harmony and resonance are two terms most people probably identify with music. Being more comfortable with explosives than music, however—as my grade school band leader could undoubtedly attest!—I’m probably more inclined to think of harmony and resonance in relation to shockwaves created by the carefully synchronized detonations of properly located charges.

These shock waves, created when explosives are detonated, manifest themselves as sine waves that travel through those items targeted for demolition. In fact, according to explosive theory, they are largely the force that does the dirty work: tearing steel girders apart, punching holes through reinforced concrete, or throwing dirt high into the air while creating large holes in the ground.

They don’t just travel through the demolition target however. These explosion-created sine waves travel through the surrounding earth and air (or, in some cases, water), and can sometimes be felt miles away from the blast site, usually manifesting themselves as a rumbling roar and causing plates or windows to rattle, walls to crack, or glass to shatter. 

How I Learned to Play With Sine Waves 

Using sine waves to proper effect is an important part of explosives theory, of course, which I learned in the demolitions portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course.

Years after I graduated the Q Course, however, and was on an A-Team, we had a fellow from a civilian blasting company come out to share information about how he used explosives to break up rock at a nearby quarry. Around twenty of us (SF Demo Sgts.) went down to one of the demolition ranges at Ft. Bragg, where we met a nice young man. His boss had sent him down there, saying the young guy might learn something, too, if he kept his eyes and ears open while working with a bunch of SF guys. He proudly showed us the sausage charges and “nonel” ignition system he used, as well as his computer.

Then, we monkeyed around with them in a manner that really freaked this guy out, and got us in trouble.

What We Played With

The “sausage charges” he brought were well named. These low-order explosive charges really did look like oversize Jimmy Dean sausages—the kind that come stuffed in plastic tubes at the grocery store. Each tubular plastic-wrapped charge was probably about two feet long by four inches in diameter.

nonel fuse
The nonel fuse ignition system, which he commonly used to set off his charges, came with a blasting cap factory-installed on one end of each short fuse section. This fuse was tiny, compared to standard time fuse, probably about a sixteenth-inch in diameter and bright orange. It was also a bit stiffer than time fuse.

“Nonel” is considered an instantaneous non-electric firing system because that thin, orange plastic-tubed “fuse” carries a powder train designed to ignite at the rate of around 2000 meters per second. Thus, the person doing the blasting (called “the blaster”) connects a firing machine to one end of the nonel, then pulls a trigger, or pushes a button, which creates a spark that ignites the powder train. The flame shoots down the length of the fuse at around 2000 meters/second, finally shooting a brief spit of flame into the blasting cap at the far end and—BOOM!

Nonel is not really instantaneous, of course. It takes a little while—maybe half-a-second, or a second or two—from the time the blaster hits the button, to the instant of explosion, depending on distance from blaster to initial charge. But, nonel ignition is fast enough; it’s generally considered instantaneous.

Nonel clipped together for firing.
Nonel fuse is available in large rolls, so the blaster can get some ‘standoff distance’ before detonating his/her charges. As I mentioned earlier, however, it also comes in short sections. These sections can be rapidly and easily clipped together, and the ones we were using had 25-millisecond delays built into them.

The photo above, right, shows a short segment of nonel with a blasting cap at one end and the clip at the other. The photo at left shows multiple nonel fuses linked together.

How It’s Supposed to Work

Our visiting quarry blaster normally used his computer to create a model, which told him where to place his charges and how many milliseconds to delay each detonation by, in order to reduce the impact on people or structures in the local area.

By placing his charges where the computer told him to and using the computer-suggested time delay between detonations, he was able to cause the explosive sine wave created by one detonation to be cancelled out, when it collided with the sine wave created by the next detonation, and vice-versa.

You may recall, from my earlier posts about explosives, that ‘low order’ explosives may be thought of similarly to ‘low gear’ in a truck—they push and heave heavy things, like dirt and rock. This means their sine waves are very powerful. So, using distance and time-delay to cancel-out the sine waves created by these explosions strongly muted what, otherwise, would have been a series of long, deep sine wave vibrations created by low order explosives, from shaking up people in the surrounding areas or potentially damaging buildings hit by the deep sine wave’s rumbling THUMP!

Roots of an Idea

The first time we took the explosives down-range and set them off, we did it the way the guy suggested. We wanted to see how well the technique worked. And, it worked pretty well. In fact, the result was rather boring.

Each man set up two charges, for a total of around forty charges. Since the blaster had only brought a limited amount of ‘standoff’ nonel fuse along, that day, we used time fuse to detonate the initial charge, daisy chaining the rest of our charges with those nonel sections that incorporated the 25-millisecond delays.

Forty charges went off, each about 25-milliseconds apart. Nothing to write home about. There wasn’t even a satisfactory big THUMP! in the ground beneath our feet, because the charges had canceled out each other’s sine waves.

While walking down to plant those charges, however, a few of us, who’d been talking it over, asked the visiting quarry blaster if he thought adjusting the calculations for charge location and timing, in ‘thus and so’ manner might result in something a bit more exciting.

“Oh, you wouldn't want to do that,” he said. “That might increase the amplitude of the sine wave instead of canceling it out.”

“Exactly!” we responded, smiling. At this point, we reached the location where we had to fan out and start planting our charges.

We couldn't ask him more questions on the way up the range to the bunker, before firing that first shot, however, because he wasn't with us. Evidently, he’d used nonel all his life, and never dealt with time fuse before.

When we ignited the time fuse, to set off the initial charge, his eyes went wide and he said, “What are you doing?”

“Igniting the time fuse.”

“While we’re still here? Standing beside the charges!?!”

“Well, we’ve got four and a half feet of time fuse. That’s enough to let us get back to the bunker.” 

“But … we aren’t leaving!”

“Right. We have to make sure the time fuse is burning, first. Then, we’ll remove the mechanical matches from the fuse, so we can reload them.”

“WHAT!?! The fuse is burning? NOW?

“Yeah, see how it’s melting here? That’s good. In just a minute we’ll be able to remove—”

But that guy was gone, buddy! He looked like a character on Scooby Doo, legs churning wildly as he smoked-it back up the hill to the bunker.

The rest of us followed at a leisurely pace, a few of us discussing our idea of increasing the sine wave’s amplitude. We figured the idea made sense, but we had to decide how to calculate for it.

How We Pissed-off A Lot of People

When something happens that changes the size of a sine wave, it’s called Amplitude Modulation. When the quarry blaster used his charges to cancel out his explosions’ sine waves, that was just another example of amplitude modulation. And the small group of us, who’d been discussing how to increase the amplitude of the sine wave, were really discussing just that—amplitude modulation.

By now, we’d formulated a few ideas about how to accomplish what we wanted. So, while standing in the bunker, waiting for the time fuse to burn down, we quizzed our visiting blaster about what he thought.

He professed not to know, saying there was no way to tell what the result would be. He even kept claiming he didn’t know what formulas his computer used to arrive at its conclusions. Naturally, a bunch of guys who walked around, on a daily basis, with umpteen charge formulas, relative effectiveness factors, and other arcane explosives details in their heads, found this claim a little suspect. Besides, he kept interspersing this claim with the statement: “You guys are scary. You’re really, REALLY scary!”

Unfortunately for this fellow, he’d chosen the wrong words.

His repeated “You’re scary” encouraged us to believe we were on the right path, so we continued with our discussion. And, other guys heard this repeated phrase and came over to find out what he was talking about. After all, they wanted to be scary too.

By the time our first set of charges had disappointingly gone off, everyone was discussing the idea. In the end, about fifteen of us decided to experiment with a rudimentary formula on the next shot, while the rest decided to just adhere to the original plan.

We ran our calcs, then took our charges (two per man, again) down-range and planted them. This time, our visiting blaster decided not to accompany us, staying at the bunker and trusting the sergeant in charge to connect his standoff line to the daisy-chained line segments.

With everyone back up in the bunker, the visiting blaster hooked up his blast machine and fired.

The charges of the first five guys—ten charges total—went off, cancelling each other’s sine waves.

Then, one by one, the next thirty charges went off …
… the sine waves building on each other as they went along.

Each time another charge went off, the blast got louder, deeper and more satisfying. Soon, though we wore earplugs, we had our hands over our ears, and the ground beneath our feet was dancing a nice jig. Finally, it all came to an end. The final shot was not visually exciting, but the roaring cacophony and deep thump in our feet were truly GLORIOUS!

Amid an extended round of whistles, yells and cat calls, I turned to look at the young quarry blaster. I can still see him in my mind’s eye: blonde hair sticking up on one side, where he’d yanked on it with his hand, face ashen, eyes wild. He looked as if he’d just survived a strafing run by an A-10.

I was still laughing when the field phone in the bunker went off. People were making a lot of excited noise, but the instant the sergeant in charge, who’d answered the phone, popped to rigid attention, all noise cut off abruptly. We knew what his behavior meant. It was Pavlovian, and we’d all responded in similar manner in the past. Every man in the bunker knew: somebody BIG was tearing into the sergeant on the phone.

In the sudden silence, we could hear the angry voice bellowing on the other end, but not what he was yelling. On his end, the sergeant just kept answering with things like: “Yes, Sir!” “Only twenty charges, sir!” “I’m sorry, sir. That wasn’t planned.” “No, sir. It wasn’t intentional.” “I understand, Sir!” “It won’t happen again, sir!” “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”  He concluded with the phrase: “Crystal, sir!”

After he hung up, the sergeant turned his back to us, asking: “So, I know most of it’s missing, because it just got royally chewed off, but . . . have I got ANY ass left?”

He explained that the caller had been the General commanding the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg. In other words, this was the guy who issued the commanding generals of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions, and several other major units, their marching orders. He had none-too-gently informed the sergeant that his staff was receiving reports concerning our little science experiment from across Ft. Bragg and the gate town of Fayetteville, as well as personal phone calls from the commander of Pope Air Force Base next door, and the Fayetteville mayor who was upset that shop owners were complaining of damaged merchandise.

To top it off, the 18th Airborne Corps Commander’s wife had called him directly, to complain of a house that rocked from the blasts and windows that had threatened to shatter—as well as an expensive antique China tea set that had been bounced around, and which she was currently inspecting for potential damage.

“Pray the tea set has no cracks,” said the sergeant. “The general said he’d call me back, if it was damaged.”

Thus, our little science experiment ended— at the direct orders of the 18th ABN Corps Commander.

Thankfully, the sergeant in charge never got a call about the tea set. But, I never forgot what I learned about amplitude modulation that day, and the way it can depend on location and timing.

And, that’s the take-away I want you to remember for my next post, on June 27th.

See ya’ then!

12 June 2014


by Janice Law

The first week in June, The Prisoner of the Riviera won a Lambda award for best gay mystery, a very pleasant surprise that has gotten me thinking about proper fictional subjects and about the way that what’s considered suitable is altered over time. Although any writer worth her salt believes implicitly– if not explicitly– in the Muse, that tricky little goddess is not immune to changes in opportunity or fashion.

I doubt very much that she would have offered me Francis Bacon as a good bet when I first started out in the 1970’s, even if the Anglo-Irish painter had been racking up the multi-million dollar sales that now benefit his heirs and fancy galleries. One only has to read Raymond Chandler, whom I otherwise much admire, to see how homophobic and bigoted his Philip Marlowe was. I suspect that Francis, breezy and witty and quite upfront about his recreations, would have been a tough sell.

My Muse, however, did have a wayward streak, and she initially suggested that my Anna Peters – one, I think, of the very first female working class sleuths– be a woman with children. Fortunately, she didn’t push that idea. Although commonplace today, in the late 70’s the world was no more ready for a woman investigator with children than Conan Doyle’s audience was for the Tale of the Giant Sumatra Rat. Anna emerged in print shorn of family and remained childless through nine adventures.

Times change. Certain topics are no longer off limits for women writers. Pat Barker has written gripping novels about World War One and the idea that nice women don’t write about sex has now been dead for at least a generation. During the same time, however, other divisions emerged. Older readers will still remember the uproar that The Confessions of Nat Turner aroused, because Styron was a white novelist writing about a black historical figure. Like attacks on male novelists like Norman Mailer who were seen as misogynistic, the controversy over The Confessions was an attempt by a marginalized group to control, or at least to influence, the way it was being depicted.

With the emergence of best selling authors from a variety of hitherto ignored groups, image control is perhaps a less pressing concern, but it does linger around the fringes of literary life. Who gets to draw the pictures? Who gets to present The Other, whatever that other might be, and how neatly can– or should– any society pigeonhole its writers?

These are questions properly for philosophers and political thinkers. The writer is a different beast altogether and should, I submit, properly stake as much territory as she can get away with. And create as diverse a set of characters as the Muse allows.

So why Francis? Why now?

One, practical concern: historical characters as detectives are currently popular. OK. Once in a while it is good to pay attention to fashion. Two, he started talking to me. Did I ignore him at first? You bet. Did I really want to research gay life in London after the Second World War? Not particularly. Was I enchanted with his work? Not really, although I thought– and still think– it very original and a quite brilliant example of a painter making even his weaknesses work for him. Did I find his sexual habits, not his orientation but his masochistic propensities, intriguing? I did not.

And yet, when you come right down to it, even a man as promiscuous as Bacon, even one as fond of drink and gambling and rough trade spent most of his time in less exotic pursuits. He worked hard and he was a strict critic of his own work. Alas that he destroyed much of his early work, for what survives is immensely interesting, and he slashed inadequate canvases both early and late. He lived with his old nanny and read the crime news to her when her sight started to go. And she, despite incipient blindness, went shop-lifting for them when they were broke.

He had friends, a number of them women, and patrons and artistic enemies. He made acquaintance with the notorious Kray Brothers and dabbled in an underground gambling venture and took holidays in the sun with his respectable lover.

In short, he was a man in full, a complicated human being, and as such he escapes the neat pigeonholes that society favors– and relies on. So, why Francis Bacon?

Why not?

11 June 2014

Treading Water

[I was of two minds whether to post this at all, since it's bound to piss people off on both side of the divide, but it's really more a piece about politics, than in itself political. You're welcome of course to take issue with me, but I'm not trying to tell you how to vote.]
The biggest mistake John Kerry made in his campaign for the presidency was not to slap down the Swift Boaters right away and call them out as liars. (Not that Kerry had any particular qualifications to be president, other than coveting the job since he was an underclassman at boarding school, but you could say the same about Mitt Romney.) The point is that the Swift Boat 'controversy' should never have gotten legs, but Kerry thought the story would dry up and blow away. He woefully underestimated the venom of his opponents, and the shelf life of a Big Lie.

We've been seeing a page out of a similar playbook, lately, and it's equal opportunity. Bush was roundly detested by the Left, and Obama is violently disliked by the Right. Not to rehash the rights and wrongs of going into Iraq, or the disputed failures or successes of affordable health care---I'm talking about three things that have recently dominated the news cycle: Benghazi, the VA scandal, and the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

I might as well be clear about my sympathies. Maybe all the facts really aren't in yet, but I think Benghazi is a Republican fever dream. Of course, the real target's Hillary Clinton, and Obama's just collateral damage. The questions raised are what Ambassador Stevens was doing there in the first place, without adequate security; why CIA apparently didn't put State in the loop, that they had contractors in Benghazi; and whether the attack was mounted as a planned terror operation, not a popular demonstration that got out of hand. There's also the issue of whether air support could have been scrambled in time, but that's a non-starter. The fleet commanders in the Med say it would have taken a good two hours to get their planes in position over the target area, and without ground observers to call in fire, you wouldn't know who you were dropping ordnance on. You can research this on your own, and look at the after-action reports. The plain fact is that it was a security failure. It's not a cheap shot, either, to point out that Congress cut the State Department's budget for protective services. In other words, there's enough blame to go around, but I think that game has been pretty well exhausted, and the only purpose of a select committee is to keep the story alive, and to try and make HRC the goat.

On the other hand, the VA scandal is all too real, and a shameful lapse. It may go back to the Bush administration, but it came out on Obama's watch, so he owns it. It's unfair that Eric Shinseki had to fall on his sword, but that's how it goes. Jack Kennedy reportedly said to his CIA director Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if this were Great Britain, and a parliamentary system, I'd have to resign. But it ain't, and your head has to roll. This is the hard fact of duty. We hang on princes' favors. Nor is Shinseki entirely blameless. The VA system is enormous. It serves eight million vets, at last count, and its budget numbers in the billions. Gen. Shinseki couldn't possibly be a hand's-on manager, but as they say in the military, you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. I have to say that my own experience with the VA health care system, here in New Mexico, at both the Santa Fe clinic and at the hospital in Albuquerque, has been first-class. I can't speak for other people, but I got timely treatment, I was respected, and there was remedial follow-up. The hospital food sucked, except for breakfast, and even then the coffee was terrible, but what do you expect?

Let's talk about Sgt, Bergdahl, though. This is the one that really gives me a cramp in my bowels. These are the facts as we know them. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009. He was held captive for almost five years, and for much of that time, there was no proof of life. In the end, we made a deal. Him for them. Was it honorable, or honest? We got him back. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former Afghanistan commander, has said that that's the point. You don't leave a guy behind on the field. (I doubt, too, if Stan McChrystal is much of an Obama fan. The guy fired him.) What else do we know? There's been some selectively-released information, some of it from unnamed DoD sources, muddying the waters.

The most damaging charge is that Bergdahl deserted his post. Then, when his unit sent out patrols to find him, it got guys killed. The train of thought, here, leads from dereliction of duty, meaning it was his own damn fault he got picked off by the guerrillas, to the suggestion that he didn't deserve to be rescued. It wasn't worth the cost, and Bergdahl's got blood on his hands. This is pernicious. The trending storyline seems to be that if you discredit Bergdahl, then everything that followed is the fruit of a poisoned tree. We should have written him off, and anybody who advocated a recovery effort was being careless with men's lives. WTF? No responsible commanding officer or platoon sergeant in the field would sign their name to this. It would damage morale and unit cohesion, for openers, and probably end up getting you court-martialed. You don't abandon your people. It's the first rule of war.

Then there's this whole other narrative. John McCain and Nancy Pelosi – strange bedfellows, they – complain that the oversight committes weren't put in the loop. I'm sorry, but no. That's utter baloney. Trading the guys from Gitmo, and these same five guys, by the way, has been part of the conversation since late 2011. And why is McCain stepping on his dick? He's on record as supporting a trade for Bergdahl the last two-and-a-half years, and all of a sudden he claims he never did. It beggars the imagination, spreading snake oil on troubled waters.

Last but not least, the mantra that We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists. Hello? This is more hooey. Even the Israeli government, who despise Hezbollah, sat down with them to cut a deal for IDF prisoners captured in Lebanon, and released hundreds of suspected terrorists in custody to get their soldiers back. And who in fact were we negotiating with? Not the Taliban leadership, but a subset, the Haqqani network, a CIA client during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and now deeply enmeshed with Pakistan's spook shop, ISI, the very same who admitted no knowledge of Osama bin Laden's safe house in Islamabad. We've been in bed with these dirtbags for years---"I'm shocked, shocked"---and turned a blind eye to both criminal activity, like the drug traffic, and support for terrorism (India suspects ISI involvement in the Mumbai attack, for example).

What are we supposed to make of this? I guess there might be some smoking gun to the Benghazi story, although I don't believe it myself. And for sure the VA health system mess is way beyond damage control, or maybe even repair. It's a complete management failure. But fitting Bergdahl for the noose is something else again. There must be enough ways to poke a stick in Obama's eye, people who think he usurped the presidency, and he's dangerous for America, or just in over his head---not that people of a different political persuasion didn't think the same of George Bush---and I don't why I'm surprised these people have no shame, but it sticks in my craw. It's humiliating. We deserve better. Years ago, during the Red Scare of the 1950's, and the rise of Joe McCarthy, my dad remarked to a friend of his that McCarthy represented the worst product of democracy. This being liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said, "Isn't it terrific that it's embarrassing a Republican president?"

Makes you wonder, really, about whose ox is being gored. I think we start with the political process, and what we actually hope to accomplish by it. Politics is the art of the possible, not scorched earth. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

10 June 2014

A Place In History

I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"

Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

09 June 2014

The Good Old Days

Jan Grape
Today is June 9, 2014. How did it get to be half a year so quickly. We just had Christmas last week, didn't we? No, that was Valen...no, my birthd...no, Mother's Day. Man time flies when you're having fun and even when you're not.
Never really thought I'd like to be a writer, particularly, but I always liked to write and always made perfect grades writing essays or stores for English classes. But I decided to be an X-ray technician when I was about 12. I started to X-ray School on Monday morning after I graduated from high school on Friday night.  I enjoyed my career of diagnostic x-ray and radiation therapy. But after kids were almost grown, I began writing mostly for myself. Eventually, I thought I'd write a book.

Guess I wrote about half of a novel before I realized I had no earthly idea how to write or complete a novel. My late husband, Elmer and I lived in Houston, think this was about 1980, and were fairly close to a library. So I got myself over there and checked out an armload of books to How To Write, mostly how to write a mystery. Oh, yes. Always knew it would be a mystery and it would be a female private eye book.

 The book was titled, April Anger and my main character was Jenny Gordon, P.I.
John D. MacDonald had books with color in the titles. This was just before Sue Grafton came out with "A is for Alibi." Someone else had numbers, don't remember who, but just thought months would be a good take. After I read Sue's Alibi and the "B is for Burglar" was on it's way, I still felt that months would be the way to go.

After studying the how-to books and following as many directions and tips as I could cram into my brain, I completed my first novel. This was written mostly in long-hand on a yellow legal size tablet, then transferred to print with my electric typewriter. If I'm not mistaken, I had managed to acquire an IBM Selectric.  Some of you may remember it had a print ball than danced around as you typed the words.

One of the Houston TV stations did a little news story about a writing conference held at Rice University. It was a two day event and I could stay at the University's Hotel college. The cost was something like $80. Right then I didn't have the extra money to attend. I was really upset but, I saved my money for a whole year and then registered for the Southwest Writing Conference. In the meantime I kept writing.

It was a great conference, featuring a number of editors and agents from New York. They held classes and gave great advice and the main thing you were networking. These editors and agents would pull your book or story from the slush pile once they got back to NY because they had met you in Houston.

I remember an agent from Avon paperback books telling us a story about going to conference after conference and aspiring writers asking for the secret to getting published. She said they wouldn't believe that you had to write well and write a different and intriguing story. We all nodded, more or less believing that it was true, that there had to be some magic formula or some magic answer to getting published.

Finally, she asked someone in our class to check to see if anyone was standing outside or around our door. Someone checked then she said, in a hushed voice, "I'm telling you all the secret. But you can't ever, ever let anyone know I told you because I'll get fired."

In a voice, barely above a whisper, she said, "When you sent your manuscript in to me, put the stamps on  upside down."  We laughed a bit and realized she'd been putting us on. "You'll never know how many envelopes full of manuscripts I got that year with upside down stamps on them." Of course, these were the days when you sent a full printed copy of your manuscript to an editor. But only after you sent a query letter and they responded yes, you may send your mss in to me.

At that time, there was another way, if you didn't have an agent to send your mss to an editor and that was to send it in cold 'over the transom'. In the very early days, an editor's room had a door with a small window that could be opened for air circulation. Supposedly someone could throw an mss over the transom into what was called a "slush pile." The slush pile continued but it came from the mail room and a pile of opened manuscripts were put on the editor's desk. Every so often the editor would go through that pile and for one reason or the other, interesting title or great first paragraph and
on this rarest of occasions the editor would find a manuscript they liked and would buy it. A few years after that an editor told me, she once had to buy a mss because it had too many coffee stains on it where she had placed her mug and she was too embarrassed to return it in that condition. Take that statement with a grain of salt. It could be true, I knew the editor fairly well and I could see her doing something like that.

I wound up attending the SW Writing Conference three years, they were held in August. An editor from Wichita Falls City Magazine greeted me and we discussed a short story I wanted to send to her.  In December, she called me and said she wanted to publish my story. In fact, it had already been published and she was sending me copies and a $100 check. I was thrilled to say the least. A couple of months later, another editor I had met published a humorous article in a little magazine that went out all over the country to be local businesses magazines. I got a check for $85 for that.  Neither of these were mysteries but they were publications. I was sure I was on my way.

Good thing I didn't quit my day job because I didn't sell anything else for five more years. I did have two mystery short stories published both in small subscription magazines. The first was in Detective Story Magazine and featured my private eye investigators, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn, titled "Kiss or Kill." In fact, the story was chosen for the cover. I looked in my bookcase and found a copy of the magazine and hope I'll be able to put them at the end of this article.

The second story was published in Dark Starr, "A Friend To Remember." Also found that one in my bookcase. And guess what I had forgotten the story so I had to reread it.  Both stories were published in 1989.

Those all really are some of my good old days as an aspiring writer.

08 June 2014

The Age of Stone Surgery

kidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stonekidney stone
Kidney stones give whole new meaning to writer’s block.

I recently experienced kidney stone surgery. I say this calmly, rationally, as if kidney stones weren't nature’s way of reducing all of us to the level of bawling babies incapacitated with pain.

Literature on the subject appears to have been written by sociopaths who’ve never experienced kidney stones. Take for example this sentence, “Some flank discomfort can be anticipated.” That’s like Germans telling the British during the London Blitz, “Expect a little noise and dust.”

You may have noticed roughly half the human race features external plumbing. Normally, I’m satisfied with this arrangement, but at times like these, not so much.

Now knowledgeable in three techniques, I recognized a need for a bit more depth of the subject matter. Following is my tutorial on the topic.

Kidney Stone Owner's Manual

A kidney stone forms as a crystal, the small ones the size of basketballs. Stones can have many shapes, all of them jagged. One might look like a claw from hell or another might resemble a spiked iron ball from days of yore. Note the wide variety at right.

This is not accidental. Let us step through the history of stone surgery, beginning with a prehistoric account.

Percutaneous Nephrostolithotomy

Ogg and his common-law wife, Uma, lived in the fruitful plains of nowhere important. Ogg had been a good provider, but recently, he’d experienced horrible, sharp pains in his lower back that felt like he’d been clobbered by a stegosaurus tail.

Sometimes the hurt grew so excruciating, he passed out, once with his chin in a patty of dinosaur dung. These painful episodes made Ogg very cranky, much to Uma’s annoyance.

He figured this was nature’s way of telling him to slow down. Ogg decided to turn his attention to the arts.

Uma was a delicate flower, relatively speaking with curvaceous 136~124~136 proportions. Ogg decided to honor his beloved by carving a life-size statue, which ironically weighed about the same as Uma with comparable warmth.

He took up his stone chisel and began chipping away where Uma said it made her butt look big. Abruptly, pain struck. Ogg writhed, saying “Ook-ah, ook-ah,” which roughly translated means “@$*#%€! Holy crap this hurts.”

Uma, who’d give birth to triplets, Gog, Magog, and Agog, didn’t have patience with Ogg’s whinging and whining. She rolled her eyes and muttered about men acting like babies.

But something inside Ogg shifted. Wracked with blinding pain in the throes of the seizure, he inadvertently chipped off a feature of his wife’s sculpture she much prized. Infuriated, she picked up Ogg’s granite club and bashed him solidly on the brow, which not only removed his mind from the pain, but toppled him backward onto his sharp stone chisel.
morning-star flail

Out popped a jagged, spiked sphere the size of a megalosaurus testicle. Such were often used as balls in caveman soccer, a very challenging game, especially while still attached to the megalosaurus.

“Oof,” said Ogg, with gratitude and relief. He picked up the spiked ball, hefted it, and muttered, “WTF?” which translates to “What the heck?”

Ogg instantly saw the possibilities and attached a chain to the stone ball and that to a heavy stick, creating the morning-star flail and inventing the phrase ‘my ball and chain.’ Now free of pain and armed with a dangerous weapon, he prowled the plains wiping out woolly mammoths and evangelizing the practice of neolithic stone chisel surgery, now part of urology health care plans everywhere.

Cylon jack-hammer
Electro-mechanical Hydraulic/Pneumatic Lithotripsy

The next advance in technology moved from stone chisel surgery to deploying a piston that could physically batter stones into smaller pieces the size of baseballs. In practice, a hairy man in a hardhat and full body armor passes a full-sized jackhammer up the urethra where he chips away while humming Sixteen Tons, entertaining the patient and staff. That’s “patient and staff” as opposed to the “patient’s staff,” which is unlikely to ever work again and forever be a source of agony.

Ultrasonic Shockwave Lithotripsy

Bible school students learn the rousing spiritual ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’ and the accompanying story, which is considerably more bloodthirsty in the details. (“Listen, Josh, are you sure He said wipe out every man, woman, child, bunny rabbit, puppy and kitten? And babies? And Achan’s family too? You joshing, man?”)

The Israelites marched seven times around the walls, shouted and sang like Yoko Ono, blew their ram’s horn trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down. In urology terms, this is called extra-corporeal shock wave lithotripsy.

That’s how ultrasonic works: You make lots of noise until its volume and frequency crumbles the hard stuff inside your kidney or the building next door. In theory. Some stones it doesn’t work on and it can sure as hell leave your insides bruised and littered like the arena of a demolition derby.

Flexible Pyeloscopy Surgery

Sometime during the Middle Ages, Spanish Inquisitors stumbled upon non-invasive (so to speak) techniques where stones could be tackled by traveling up the ureter. The invention is credited to Bernardo Extirpator XXVIII, a hard-of-hearing and none-too-bright torturer, immortalized by the famous words of his cringing boss as Torquemada lost his cookies. “Pie-hole! Sweet Jesus in Heaven, I said pie-hole!”

One of the conventional techniques has traditionally been ureteroscopy. The procedure is commonly called ‘basketing’ in which doctors playfully insert into the urethra a xistera, similar to the racquet used to serve 180mph pelota balls in the game of jai alai, except the medical device is about the size of an ordinary laundry basket. This doesn’t give the procedure its name, but afterwards the screaming patient is carried out in a basket.

Rigid Ureteroscopic Lasering

BSG © Garry King 2004
Basket extraction fell out of favor with the advent of Star Wars technology. A ureteroscope, a long, thin peeping device the size of a 37-inch television is sent up the ureter to determine where the stones set up camp. Once located, surgeons call in the big gun, a holmium laser-blasting weapon affectionately called Battlestar Galactica. It vaporizes the stone and the rest of a patient’s resolve not to scream like a 3-year-old.

Note ureteroscopic lasering is not the same as ureteroscopic tasering, invented by Bubba Joe Hadcock when he sat on his newly acquired stun gun. It was subsequently discovered, thanks to his invention, Bubba Joe didn’t have nor ever will have kidney stones. Nor kidneys for that matter. A simple solution to a complex problem.

Clonal Lithography

In its simplest form, the patient’s body is amputated to stop the pain and a replacement grown. Medical technicians cryogenically freeze a patient whilst a clone is fabricated. Conversely for advance planners, a clone may be prepared beforehand and itself cryogenically preserved.

In an in-patient, minimally invasive procedure, the encephalon is transferred in toto to the brain-case of the new host. Patients have been known to immediately resume texting, shopping, complaining about The View, and other normal activities.

The Stent

“Out-patient,” I thought they said but it was “Out-of-your-freaking-mind-patient,” talking about the stent removal. See, at the time of stone removal, they put in a piece of tubing like 3-inch industrial wiring conduit. In the wretched days after blasting the kidney stone, a stent allows pieces to pass through. Sometimes medics issue patients strainers in case the spleen or forgotten medical instruments fall out.

So Dr. Steven Brooks and Nurse Wendy corner me in a room where I hold them at bay with an impromptu lion-tamer chair. It's a swivel chair with spastic casters that would make any self-respecting lion roar with laughter, but my crazed appearance gives them pause.

Dr. Steven Brooks and Nurse Wendy tell me 99% of tough, be-all-you-can-be men opt for out-patient removal of the stent and only a wussy 1% choose being knocked out for hospital removal. Psychology is at work here: As the army knows full well, at the root of male bravery is fear, fear of showing fear. Otherwise, 99% would sensibly choose to be knocked out and wake up the following month fully healed.
automotive parts retrieval tool

So I say okay and put down my improvised lion-tamer chair with its twitching casters. I eye a previously laid-out, sadistic device that looks like an automotive parts retrieval tool, a flexible shaft with a spring loaded handle at one end and a three-prong claw at the other. Silly me, I look at this thing and naïvely wonder how it will slide up.

I say naïvely, because I didn’t realize they would insert yet a terrifyingly larger tube sized to accommodate not merely our automotive parts extractor but a full-grown ferret. I look at the diameters and realize someone hasn’t done the math. A shop vac hose can’t possibly fit up an opening the size of a soda straw, and if it could, no one would ever again sip from that straw.

@$*#%€! Holy mother of …!

Afterwards, I asked them to just let me lie there a couple of weeks to recuperate as I write these last few words and my will and testament. I hope this technical dissertation helps my fellow layman and laywoman. Meanwhile, my bladder’s shrunk to the size of a pea… Whoops! Wrong word. Gotta go!

07 June 2014

Where Will YOU Go Tomorrow?

One of the biggest things I get kidded about since I retired is how much I now enjoy staying at home. After a career at IBM and a four-year stint in the Air Force I've done more than my share of traveling (I still have enough Frequent Flyer miles in my account to circle the world a dozen times), and now, much to the dismay of my far-flung family members and the disbelief of my globetrotting friends, I am perfectly content to spend most of my time inside the bounds of my own zip code. I do attend the occasional Bouchercon and required booksignings and non-negotiable events like weddings and funerals, but--with the exception of those journeys and trips to visit my mother and our annual trek to see our oldest son and his family Up North--the only doors I darken are usually those in our own home.

Part of that is because I'm just tired of traveling. Airports are even more of a hassle than they used to be, I'm too tall to be comfortable in most plane seats and car seats, and with age I have become less tolerant of any disruption to my daily routine. Besides, I can go anywhere I want to go, anytime I want to go there, via books and movies--without having to put down my bowl of ice cream or change into more presentable attire.

I will admit this line of thinking is a little extreme, but I do sincerely enjoy kicking back in my recliner and losing myself in a mystery novel or an adventure movie. Or, for that matter, any other kind of novel or movie.

Ground control to Major Tom . . .

Over the past couple of months, my cinematic "trips" include Saving Mr. Banks, Catching Fire, Nebraska, Into the WhiteDallas Buyers ClubSands of the KalahariThe Book ThiefKiller JoeAll Is Lost, Mountains of the MoonCaptain Phillips, the second seasons of Longmire and House of CardsThe MistThe Narrow MarginOdd Thomas, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (adapted from the Thurber short story). These I enjoyed; others were less than thrilling. One of the strangest things to happen lately was that a film I thought I would love (Monuments Men) was a disappointment, while one that I thought I would hate (Walter Mitty) was delightful in every way. I mean, George Clooney was in a ho-hum movie and Ben Stiller was in a good one? Hey, nobody was more surprised than I was.

On the novel side of the playground, I have recently read and enjoyed Sycamore Row (John Grisham), The Quest (Nelson DeMille), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Bull River (Robert Knott), The Abominable (Dan Simmons), Lost Echoes (Joe Lansdale), Doctor Sleep (Stephen King), Never Go Back (Lee Child), and all three books in the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). I'm currently reading Missing You (Harlan Coben), and my yet-to-be-read stockpile includes The Maze Runner (James Dashner), Fate Is the Hunter (Ernest K. Gann), Mr. Mercedes (Stephen King), Feast Day of Fools (James Lee Burke), and The Last Kind Words Saloon (Larry McMurtry).

Kinsmen and Klansmen

I'm pleased to report that the novel I've read most recently--Greg Iles's Natchez Burning--and the novel I plan to read next--Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which just won the Pulitzer Prize--were both written by authors from my home state of Mississippi. In fact, I consider Iles and Tartt to be two of the very best writers today, here or anyplace else. As I said, I've not yet started on Goldfinch, but I'll tell you, Natchez Burning was as suspenseful and well-written and satisfying as anything I've read in a long time. Members of the Ku Klux Klan are always ultravillainous, and in that book Iles serves up mystery and violence and justice in heaping helpings; Stephen King says, in a cover blurb, "Only a southern man could have written this book, and thank God Greg Iles was there to do the job." Speaking of traveling, that novel didn't require me to go far, even in literary miles: Natchez is less than two hours away. (As for The Goldfinch and the skyrocketing success of Donna Tartt, I'm seriously thinking about changing my last name to Floydd.)

Another intriguing point about Iles's and Tartt's two novels is that they are vastly different in terms of both style and subject matter. Natchez Burning, a fast read even at 800 pages, features nonstop action and packs the surprising consequences of a forty-year-old murder case into a time period of only a couple of days, while The Goldfinch is (said to be) literary to its core, an elegantly written and epic meaning-of-life story of love, sorrow, and obsession in the art world. Opposite poles. But one of the best things about the fascinating universe of writing and publishing, I think, is that both kinds of books and both kinds of authors can excel and succeed. Another is that the same reader can sometimes equally savor, or at least equally appreciate, commercial/popular/genre fiction as well as literary/depressing/mainstream fiction.

A French connection

A quick story. A little over a month ago, our second son was here at our house one night and mentioned that he and our daughter-in-law were planning to go to Paris for ten days, and asked if we'd keep their two kids (ages six and four) while they were gone. We happily agreed--extra time with grandchildren is something we love--and before he left to go home that night he noticed a novel I was currently reading, lying on our breakfast-room table. It was (coincidentally) Paris, by Edward Rutherford. We then talked a little about things I'd already learned from the book--facts about Notre Dame, Montmartre, the Louvre, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, etc.--and I offered to let him borrow it, to read and then take with him on their trip. He did, and said afterward that it added greatly to the experience of seeing the city. I know that my having read it made it more fun for me to watch the photos and movies they e-mailed to us during their time there, and the ones they showed us after returning home. It was as though I had made the trip also. 

A question to my fellow "travelers"

I'll close by asking you this: what novels have you read and enjoyed lately, and what's in your to-be-read stack or your Amazon wish list? And while we're on the subject, what recently-watched movies did you like, and what are some you might be looking forward to, either in your local theatre or in your Netflix queue? I'm always eager to find out about new destinations.

I also continue to make journeys to faraway places in the stories I'm writing. Most are set in locations I've visited in the past, but some are those that are just interesting to me, and that I've come to know better via books about them (and Google Maps).

For readers and writers, a person's imagination (like Walter Mitty's) can be an effective means of conveyance.

Who cares about the price of gas and airfare?

06 June 2014

Assets and....

The underworld has its own food chain. Just like in nature, there are prey and there are predators. Prey can generally be considered as those having something the predator wants, plus this same prey appears to be weaker than the predator. Even amongst the predators there exists a hierarchy, with some being stronger than others. And, those that consider themselves to be predators are sometimes surprised to find their intended prey may have their own thoughts about who gets to survive. In any confrontation, victory usually goes to the stronger or more cunning competitor.

In this world of crime of crime and betrayal, both criminals and spies go after whatever is valuable to them. Criminals usually hunger after money or items of monetary value, while the spy, for his part, seeks a way to acquire specific information or secrets. The wild card in this game is a shadowy figure known as the informant, a minor predator in his own right.

To law enforcement and spies, the informant becomes an asset in their methods of targeting an individual or even an entire group. The informant is their way in, their connection or means to acquire that target. Because the individual or group tends to see the informant as one of their own, they trust him or her to some degree and the way is soon cleared for information and evidence to flow towards the assets's Handler and whatever agency the Handler works for.

Later ostracized and disclaimed by those he betrayed, and never trusted a hundred percent by those he works for, it is easy to wonder why anyone would become an informant. Turns out, everyone has his own reasons for flipping. here's a few which have come up over time, sometimes used in conjunction with various other reasons:

     ~of being charged with a crime (aka "working off a beef")
     ~of other criminal associates
     ~of being thought an informant (this sounds contradictory, but oddly enough they figure since they are
        already accused of this activity, they may as well really do it) * * * [see story at end]

Revenge or jealousy
     ~even family members, to include spouses, have turned on each other over petty disputes

     ~in it for the money, these are usually the most controllable

     ~looking for positive feedback they never got as a kid

     ~wants to be a cop (or spy), but can't or hasn't made the grade

James Bond Syndrome
     ~they fantasize and often exaggerate their knowledge of criminals or their own value to agency
     ~may set up to parallel their favorite movie or book scene
     ~ these are dangerous to their Handler and to themselves

     ~may be trying to discover the identity of undercover agents or other informants
     ~may be trying to find out agency's targets, methods and how their equipment works
     ~may be trying to eliminate their competition
     ~ are sometimes sent by their organization to infiltrate your organization
     ~to spread disinformation

     ~for past crimes, but this is seldom their only motivation for cooperating

Regardless of the reason(s) stated by an informant, a Handler should never completely trust that individual. The informant may have a hidden agenda, or he may later run into a tempting or coercive situation down the road, in which case he starts doing things the Handler knows nothing about until it's too late. That's when things go wrong and your asset becomes a liability.

Next time, we'll take a look at Handlers, rules and procedures, and how things can go bad in a heartbeat, even if the Handler did everything right. See ya on Fortnight Friday.

* * *  It was early summer and four of us agents were headed back to the office in my gov't vehicle. The windows were down for comfort and fresh air. In the backseat, between two agents sat a handcuffed gentleman of the streets whom we had just arrested. Let's say his street name was Bright Lights. For the previous fifteen minutes, we had been trying to convince Mr. Lights to flip over to our side. He claimed he couldn't do that because it would hurt his reputation on the streets. We finally gave up on the idea.

And then as we were passing a night club where several criminal lounged out front on a sidewalk in this tough part of the city, I suddenly slammed on the brakes. Our tires screeched loudly. All the lounging criminals turned in our direction to see what was happening. I then pointed my finger out the window in their general direction and screamed, "Is that him?"

Unprepared for the sudden stop, Lights was thrown forward in the back seat. Out of instant curiosity, he looked out of the rear passenger window to see what I was pointing at. He then quickly ducked back in the seat, realizing that all those gangsters standing in front of the night club had seen his face and probably recognized him. As I drove on, Lights decided that he may as well become an informant now to work off his beef, because everyone would already think he was one. His street rep wouldn't suffer any the worse.

Lights turned out to be a pretty good asset.

05 June 2014

A Matter of Belief

There's been a lot of talk on-line about a movie called "God's Not Dead" in which an evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a declaration saying "God is Dead" to pass his class.  (Of course the Christian hero doesn't and wins the day.)  Well, contrary to certain ultra-fundamentalist myths, that doesn't happen.  No professor requires anyone to sign anything against their personal beliefs.  But we do often require them to learn things that don't necessarily agree with their beliefs and therein hangs a tale.
When I was teaching World and Asian history at university, I honestly developed a resentment towards certain types of the home-schooled.  There was the guy who, when I started talking about Charles Darwin, put down his pencil and refused to take a single note.  He didn't care that I wasn't teaching science but history. He didn't care that Social Darwinism was a major part of racism, militarism and WWI.  He wasn't going to learn about Darwin.  Period. Full-stop.

There was another who, when I asked for the connection between the Mexican Revolution and Karl Marx, wrote "Communism is a failed ideology".  (By the way, the correct answer is that Mexico claims that its revolution was the first Communist revolution, which it is.)  He wrote this for EVERY question about Communism, and I gave him a zero every time.  Communism was a huge problem for a number of people, by the way.  They just didn't want to have to learn about it, since, after all, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Empire was destroyed, and Communism was dead.  (I'd remind them about China, and sometimes there would be a moment of silence followed by a long sigh as most of them picked their pencils back up.  But not all...)

There was always one person who, when I was teaching about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, etc., had to explain to the class how Christianity was the only true religion.  Sometimes they would demand to know my beliefs, and I would say "I'm here to teach history, not proselytize", but they wouldn't get the hint. In fact, they usually decided that I must be an atheist, since I didn't let them preach to the class.  That or I was a Roman Catholic, and if you can see the logic to that, please explain it to me.

The connecting thread here is that these people all thought that learning ABOUT something was the same as believing IN it.  They really felt that if they learned about a political alternative, like socialism or communism, or a religious alternative, like Buddhism or Islam, they were (1) accepting it, (2) approving it, (3) in danger of becoming it.  Even though they had no problem hosing up all the info they could get about Nazis or serial killers.  Sometimes  they could take it if it was far enough in the past - I could talk paganism till the cows came home, and discuss Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although they did get a little nervous when I'd point out the points in Platonism and Stoicism that had been adopted by early Christianity...

But, as I said, I developed a resentment.  I got so sick of trying to teach them that learning about something outside their comfort zone was not me trying to convert them, but was quite simply trying to get them to understand how the world got the way it is, today.  I had to teach them how to learn fearlessly.  And in the process, I realized how much the concept of learning about something = believing in something is a wonderful tool to control people. I don't know what these students were being taught at home, but I do know that if you scare people so they won't learn, you can tell them almost anything.  You have gotten them to put bars on their own minds, which only makes it harder to ever get them off.

Orwell got these statements straight from Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract".  But you'd have to have taken notes in my class to know it.

04 June 2014

The Harshest Critics

by Robert Lopresti

Even writers with a home on the range occasionally hear a discouraging word.  Besides the rejection slips and the bad reviews (if you are lucky enough to get reviewed) there are the kind and smiling souls who ask "Do you write under your own name (because I have never heard of you)?"

There may be some comfort in knowing that even the giants occasionally drink from the sour end of the punch bowl.  Here are a few genuine comments about the works of major authors, remarks which somehow never wound up as blurbs on their books.  I will list the names of the critics in the comments.

"Fit only for incineration."

Star Trap

"As a plot, it's absolutely hopeless."

"A piece of tripe."
Double Indemnity
Lost Gallows

"Pretty poor stuff."

"No action, no likable characters, no anything."
high window
X esquire

"An appallingly bad book."

"That rotten book."
big four
spy who loved me

"The experiment has obviously gone very much awry."

"I don't like any part
of the Goddam thing."
Lame Canary
retreat from oblivion

"It was nothing, and the same applies to most of the sixteen others since then."

"Just a naked grab for money"

Grisham Firm
filmi filmi inspector ghote

"Too Crude."

"This one doesn't satisfy me by a long shot."
galton case

"A terrible book."

"Terribly bad."

detling murders