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Different Path, Different Times, Same Old Hell

In a couple of weeks or so we’re releasing the first novel I published. It’s about the counterintelligence war in Vietnam. Today not many people are even aware that battle was fought, much less the constancy and intensity of it. That underscores the fact that the Vietnam war is as misunderstood today as it was then. I’m convinced that historians of the future will look at the swamp that is our present-day state of the nation and trace it directly back to that debacle. The book, TARGETS, is a microcosm of the times and the actions of those caught up in them. I haven’t changed a word of it for this new release. It wouldn’t be fair to me, much less to the reader. I want people to read the book in order to know the thoughts of the participants of that time. For anyone who lived through all that worldwide tumult, our perception of everything, including ourselves, was forever changed. I hear constantly that America lost its innocence in WWI. Similarly, I’m told America became a world power in WWII. I believe the Vietnam War stripped America of its sense of community. The novel explores how the characters change, just as the culture that produced them was changing. We seem to have shifted from a nation of individuals proud of our ability to work together into a nation of factions determined to rule. In that sense, TARGETS may present a clearer image of the war and the times than would a novel of firefights and massed troop engagements. The thoughts of a man advancing through hostile fire do not linger long on (nor do they probe deeply into) mankind’s role in the universe. Stalking another human being, on the other hand, provides one far too much free time to consider not only that man’s dreams, but one’s own.

Essentially, that’s the goal of the work, an examination of how professionals and amateurs, Americans and Vietnamese, responded to the cauldron of the Vietnam experience. In reviewing it for this release I was surprised and excited to recognize several themes paralleling today’s political upheaval. The decisions made by our most recent leaders are almost perfect replications of the stupidity that created the Vietnam war and led to our eventual loss there. Perhaps someone will read the book, recognize that rather nasty coincidence, and do something about it. That’d be nice.

 

Around Here It’s Always Your Turn

I read a couple of columns recently that jarred me. I’m not always in accord with all she says, but I’ve found her to be a rational progressive. She’s the sort of person about whom one can always say “Her heart’s in the right place,” even when one feels her mind may have skipped out for a bit. On this occasion she extolled the wonders of modern China. It reminded me of another writer, Lincoln Steffens, who wrote similarly about the Soviet Union. His most famous quote is “I have seen the future, and it works.” I thought about Mr. Steffens’ bright-eyed myopia, and wondered if the China columnist ever read any history. Just as no one can deny China’s accomplishments. no thinking person can look at them and not wonder at the tyranny responsible for it. All that accomplishment came from the sweat and blood of people with no voice in any election, no right to assemble, no right to protest working conditions and near-universal corruption, and God help the man who tries to exercise free speech – assuming that  man has government permission to believe in God. The column glowed with reference to China’s high-speed trains. Airports were orderly; the restrooms were clean. I lament America’s rush to third-world status when it comes to our denial of the fact we have an infrastructure that crumbles a bit more every day. My contempt for our own politicians is already beyond measure, yet they manage to increasingly disgust me in ever-new ways. But is the lockstep mass we call China any sort of role model?

Actually, that question is the heart of my disappointment about the newspaper column. I’m not worried about China. It’s huge and belligerent and malevolent; it’ll cause massive agony before its own excesses bring it down. That’s how it went for Mr. Steffens’ glorious empire. It’ll happen again. My concern is that we’ll forget who we are. We’ve appointed ourselves as the doctor to the world, here to cure everyone’s problems. In the meantime, we’ve seen our own middle class – which was the crown of America’s achievement – ground to dust. We elect fools who’re so intellectually stunted they can’t spell USA, much less care about it. On top of that, they’re lap pets for the creepiest oligarchs since Rome went aground. The working stiff who goes to work, does his best, raises a family, has no more chance today than a buffalo did before Teddy Roosevelt came along. The really ironic thing about that is, yeah, Roosevelt saved the buffalo; he also broke the trusts that were bent on turning the American working man into a cipher like today’s average Chinese. So it bothers me when someone even hints that a tyranny has lessons for us. We’re a nation in trouble. If we’re going to deal with it properly, we ought to look at ourselves and figure out how we skidded into the ditch while we were riding off into our future. We need to work on America’s problems. Let the rest of the world work on theirs. We don’t need any Maos or Stalins or Cromwells. We need us, plain old us – voters, volunteers, contributors, neighbors. I believe “Americans” is the word I’m looking for here. Don’t tell me immigrants are destroying America. We’re all immigrants. The new guys didn’t come here to package up your job and ship it overseas. The guy – or woman – you voted for set that up. Don’t tell me Republicans are stupid. Don’t tell me Democrats are stupid. Just get off your whiny butt and help someone make things better. You’re not going to change the world, but instead of moaning about setting suns and such, you can certainly ask yourself at the end of a day “Did I take a minute to live outside myself today?” and, if you don’t have a good answer, try harder tomorrow.

Discovering The Unexpected

I just got back from a trip deep into Baja California. Like most North Americans who visit there, I’d seen Tijuana and on down to Ensenada, which is on the order of visiting El Paso and thinking you’ve seen Texas. This time I flew to a town called Loretto. It’s on the east coast of the peninsula and it took me back to the Mexican communities I remembered from seventy years ago. Forget the new cars, the (semi) supermarket, and the occasional phone addict wandering the streets. There was the imposing church looming over the clean-swept, tree-shaded square with its the bandstand. The old hotel to one side featured antique door timbers thick enough to reject cannonballs and walls that looked older than the western mountains. The shops were a revelation. You want souvenirs and trinkets? You can find them. But the people of Loretto don’t seem even faintly interested in turning over their economy to the tourists. Friendliness comes first – the need to make a peso is never forgotten, but it has its place. We left Loretto that same afternoon to drive north a hundred miles (on a well-maintained highway) to my cousin’s beach house. When you read about “starkly beautiful,” the phrase was invented to describe Baja California. The house is located in an area that was once a stomping ground for Hollywood stars. The luxurious hotels they frequented are deserted now, like derelict elite who’ve seen their popularity turn to dismissal. The new development – in economic terms – is a trickle of travelers who want sun, sand, clear, clean water, peace and quiet. There are dozens of wonderfully comfortable houses in the area, built by people from all over the world, who need a place to get away from crowds. They bring their own electricity (it’s a desert; solar does a lot of the heavy lifting, generators the rest), consume bottled water by the cubic yard, and provide their own entertainment. That’ll change, unfortunately, although Baja’s a far larger hunk of real estate than most of us gringos realize; it’ll take a while to mess it up properly. For now, however – and for me, in particular – I’m glad to have seen it as it is. My hat’s off to those turistas who treat the place with such grace and consideration and especially to the people of the land, who welcome them with such openness and warmth.

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The Good News Is…

Thanks to granddaughter Caitlin, the old dog’s showing off his new trick. She’s brought out my novel Light The Hidden Things on real paper and ink.

If the truth be told, however, she’s the one who put the show on the road. Of course I’m proud of my work. That’s not the issue. I’ve been pecking away at this writing thing a long time. She simply stepped up a while back and said we should start publishing my stuff electronically. No grandpa should ever tell a granddaughter she’s wildcat crazy, so I didn’t. On the other hand, I’ve known her longer than she cares for me to yammer about, so I know she’s as smart as she is good-looking. If I told her she was loony I’d end up eating the words. I was also quite aware she knew as much about independent publishing as she knew about underwater welding. So she turned the Moondark Saga into ebooks that keep growing in popularity. Then she moved Light The Hidden Things into the game, got good reviews, pushed it hard. Now the paperback version. Sure, I hope it sells well enough for her to feel all her hard work and self-education and determination is validated. But if it doesn’t – if it’s a dead flop – all of us who’ve watched her will feel her effort’s more than validated. It’s prideful work. And the rest of us are proud.

I should also note that I’m particularly pleased that Light The Hidden Things is her choice for a first foray into print publishing. It’s the most purposeful thing I’ve ever written and it’s aimed at women. Specifically, the women who guide the men who’ve been taken down by Post Traumatic Stress. My experience of the affliction is limited and anecdotal, but one thing I’m sure of is this:
A professional can work marvels for any of those men, but the ones who have a wife, a lover, what-have-you beside them are the ones who are going to experience the fastest, most complete recovery. It’s something interior that women have in abundance and men don’t even really comprehend. (If that’s chauvanistic, call a cop.) Just as PTSD wounds a man’s self – a place far deeper than any weapon can penetrate – so the healing power of a woman’s love can reach that place. So, of course, it’s a love story. I hope it’s more. I hope it opens eyes. I hope it brings renewal. I hope it creates and buttresses resolve. I hope it lights the hidden things.

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Homers

We lived in a lot of places when I was a kid. The Depression was heavy on everyone’s back and men like my father went wherever there was a chance to earn some money. Sometimes I stayed somewhere else while my father and mother scuffled around looking for a place to live and work. When things got better and he had steady work he also got promotions – and that meant we moved some more. All that came home to me this Sunday when I went up to the local Strawberry Festival to see what was going on. Our middle son, Conn, joined me. I had the dog Terrible along on her leash and at one point we stopped at the town center park to watch a lion dance and do some professional level people-watching. (Writers are inveterate observers. Non-writers ignore this at their peril.) A young woman passing by stopped to get acquainted with the dog. She had on a t-shirt that said Woodland Park Zoo and a couple of stickers from the same place. I mentioned I’d volunteered there years ago. We talked zoo stuff and then she mentioned she’d worked at the Pacific Science Center prior to her present job. That’s where Conn and his wife worked for several years. Now Conn and the lady (Heather Teagarden – as we’d learned by this time) talked jobs and mutual friends, plus the fact that Conn’s son works there presently.

That sort of constancy is so alien to my own growing up it dizzies me. I hear my grandchildren – all adults now – talk about friends from elementary school. I can remember the names of the towns where I went to school. That’s pretty much it. Conn’s wife, Betsy, still visits with ladies she knew as a grade-schooler. The point I’m making is that, as a family, we’ve found our balance early on and hung onto it. As individuals. No one went to classes on How To Be Family. It worked out, that’s all. I don’t regret the way things got fragmented when I was a kid. Those were the times. People did their best and sometimes the odds were just wrong. Still, when I see the stability and love that abounds around the old man today, I sometimes wish things could have been different. But if they had been, maybe I wouldn’t realize how lucky I am.

Back Yard Report

We’re pretty heavily into summer in these parts. Trouble is, our June’s as fickle as your favorite memory of your favorite high school tramp. (Speaking of which, the name Harriet can still rattle my brain like a rock in a boxcar and that was a long, long time ago.) However – June. We crowded up to 90 yesterday. Next week we anticipate some days that’ll have to stretch to make the mid 60s. In the rain. Fickle. The bright spot is the birds.

(…spots are the birds? Feel free to resort to small arms to resolve your issues. Blame any bloodshed on in the election year.)

I’m a determined bird watcher. What’s not to like? How else can you scam people into believing you’re a semi-scientist and an ecology prince while you sit on your butt and look intense? We could mention writing, but I’m talking to people who understand things, right? Right. Anyhow, I’m onto an interesting development among our avian friends. (Us birdwatchers like to say “avian friends” every so often so folks don’t forget we’re really bright.) I’ve been loading a handful of hummingbird feeders at this place for decades. I can’t get enough of the quarrelsome, staggeringly beautiful, little devils. Our most common species is the splendid Anna’s. I’m so glad they’re not Harriets. Never mind; I digress. What’s interesting is that in the past two years, the Townsend’s warblers that sift through here spring and fall have learned to take advantage of the high-energy sugar water. So have two varieties of chickadee and towhees. I think that’s a pretty intriguing example of adaptation, not to mention learning by the second wave of the feeders who mimic the early adventurers. On a more exasperating note, I’m seeing similar changing habits affecting my cherry trees. I long ago abandoned any hope of harvest time. It used to be crows, jays, robins, and squirrels stripped my trees. This year – for the first time – I’m also seeing finches, towhees, and even juncos gorge on the fruit.

Anyone will tell you I’m universally admired for my uncomplaining equanimity in the face of hardship and abuse. Nevertheless, the phrase “eating crow” is taking on a new, sinister, luster.

Noises From The Cutting Edge

The only thing about this blog business is I always feel like I’m shouting into the wind. It’s not that I don’t know I’m talking to a small number of people; that’s not the issue. In the first place, I don’t treasure my chatter all that highly. In the second place, I give you my friend Ku Yuo Liang’s line: An Irishman will strike up a conversation with the empty bar stool next to him. The utter falsity of the proposition is apparent, of course. We do not drink alone. Nevertheless, there’s a dead-on perception that “conversation” implies a second party. This blogging thing carries no guarantee of such an inflated number.

On the other hand, writing stuff down gives the author a chance to sound off. Us sinners – and them as has been sinned agin – get to stand up. Testify. It’s good for the young, good for the old, good for them as has a soul. And maybe – just maybe – putting the thought out there reaches someone who says, “Yeah; me, too.” Who knows? With a sufficiently persuasive argument, the empty bar stool may join in. (For those of you who think that observation too fanciful to contemplate, I give you the present presidential race.)

So there was a column in the Seattle Times recently that caught my attention. (Full disclosure: I read the editorial pages daily and diligently. Where else can one find journalism’s erudition and stupidity so explicit and so tightly encapsulated for examination?) Among the many phrases I found startling was this: “There is no meaningful distinction between saying ‘abortion is wrong’ and ‘I don’t like abortion.'”

Take that, democracy. Take that, you lying creeps who pretend to accept the will of the people, yet harbor disagreement. No matter how hard you pretend to accept that will, you’re a liar and the really intelligent people know it. If you have any reservations about the course chosen by the national majority, there’s no meaningful distinction between your reservation and mutiny. The writer is making it clear that neither “wrong” and “don’t like” are permitted True Believers. To the True Believers, no matter how actively you accept their premise, if you disagree with it in any degree, you cannot and will not be afforded complete acceptance. You are now and forever a likely apostate. You will be watched accordingly.

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Marine. I’ve gone places and done things I thought were ill-advised, but my country said Go and Do and I went and I did. Some find that contemptible. My only answer – in all its pride – is that I served at the pleasure of the American government, an elected government. That’s not a shield. I could have walked away at any minute, no penalty and no regret. But I believe in that elected government. And I doubted its choices constantly. But when you tell me that my government and my people can’t make a distinction between “my personal vision” and “the needs of the country” (as stated by that elected government) and that such a distinction isn’t meaningful, makes all the difficulties of armed service empty.

My comrades and I served without stint but frequently with questions. I will not accept that my efforts – or those of my contemporaries – were debilitated by that. I scorn the writer’s position that we are less than he because we weren’t sufficiently indoctrinated to unquestioningly do our job to his moral satisfaction. The soul of America is dedicated to honest debate and full acceptance of the rule of the majority. When we fail at that, we fail as Americans. It happens when we sign on with those who insist we can’t disagree and simultaneously work together.

New Ink!

It’s been an interesting couple of days around here. Granddaughter Cait showed up with the first copy of LIGHT THE HIDDEN THINGS from Raven’s Call Press. It’s always exciting to hold a new book. As much as I admire the ebooks, I’m still a big fan of real ink on real paper. One of the best things about a conventional (if you will) book is the cover. I think Cait and the young woman who put ours together sent it out of the park. Like any author, I work hard to produce the best work I can. It only stands to reason I want it presented to the reader in the best possible light. I think they pulled it off. We’ll have a better idea of that come publishing date, which we expect will be around the end of May. (I have to laugh at that “end of May” thing. On the  carnival lot they spoke of “first of May-ers.” Those were the people who turned up for jobs when the shows hit the road for the season. Some folks would be surprised by the number of similarities between being a carny and a writer. Others wouldn’t.) Anyhow, the cover – and the entire book – are just about ready for the public. It’s an important realization for any writer. We like to think our theme, presented either in electrons or ink, has significance to those who read our pages. No matter how deeply you feel about that theme, however, our first responsibility is to engage the reader. Not necessarily entertain. We’re not show biz. But the story has to pull the reader into the world we’re creating. Sometimes we kid ourselves that the message is so important it’ll carry a weak story. The exact opposite is true; if you want people to hear your song, sing loud and sing well. You can’t kid the public. Story is what we do, or else we fail. There’s no middle ground.

So it’s time for an adventure, something new. I know other writers have experienced the same thing. For that matter, every time we type 1 on that first page, we’re off in a current that started somewhere back yonder and is already racing us downstream to a place we’re not absolutely certain is there. It’s a grand challenge. This book is particularly so for me. I can say without any hint of defensiveness that it’s women’s fiction. Never tried that before. I only did it this time because I think women undervalue themselves in the matter of PTSD. It’s an affliction that owes much of its present attention to our present military commitments. Unfortunately, one can suffer the same issues as a result of financial disruption or family dysfunction or natural disaster. I see the one unifying factor that soothes the pain is the ability of so many women to literally sense the needs of the afflicted. The professionals who tend to our interior damage are magnificent. But my own observations tell me that a man who’s troubled by PTSD has a much better chance of complete rehabilitation if he has access to both. Personally, I’m pretty much convinced that any man lucky enough to have a woman beside him who loves him is already on his way to recovery. I can’t understand it. We don’t articulate our deepest needs with any ability at all, much less skill. Women don’t care. They translate. At best, they simply understand. Whether or not LIGHT THE HIDDEN THINGS establishes the message in the proper story form is what the readership will tell us.

One quick point here. I’ve consistently referred to men in relation to PTSD victimization. That’s because I don’t have enough experience of women suffering the problem to address it with any authority whatsoever. There’s no question they do and there’s no question in my mind that they help each other as effectively as they help their men. Nor do I doubt that many men are as competent as women, when that relationship is the reverse of what I’ve presented in the book. What I’ve done is try to live up to my responsibilities as a story-teller. I’m not in the textbook business, and I’m certainly not messing around with any us-vs.-them war of the sexes hooraw. Being a writer’s crazy enough to suit my needs, thank you.

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It Must Be Magic, ‘Cause Logic Don’t Shake Like That

I’ve been watching the Annual Brain Lint Festival, frequently referred to as the NFL Draft. For those of you drowning in ennui – or even faintly dampened by ennui – it’s an event not to be missed. The world hasn’t seen this kind of show since the Alchemist’s Guild threw in the towel on the old lead-to-gold gig. And we get it every year. We’ve even got two channels dedicated to the high priests of pomposity so we don’t have to worry about losing a single atom of the hot air so freely expended at the competing semi-circular desks. (You know you’re tuned in to IMPORTANT STUFF as soon as you see everyone strategically placed for primo camera angles.) And why are these guys wallowing in high winds and high salaries? Because they know and understand the arcane mystery of what we’re all watching. They have all the secret scoop on the instant millionaires parading up to the dais. Now, I’m a student of the game. I treasure my hours of watching. Nor do I see anything unsavory in the draft. You can honk about marketing human flesh until you run out of air – the plain fact is, the youngsters engaged in this deal are realizing a dream, and I’m happy for them. What tickles me silly, however, is watching the bozos at the curvy desks staring into the camera and explaining to me why Player X is a guaranteed winner and Player Y is a guaranteed winner, too, but maybe later. Or something. Anyone who’s willing to take a look at the team rosters a couple of years hence will discover that our authorities don’t have any more idea what they’re talking about than a like number of Congressmen. Every year we get the same ooohs and aawws about “this year’s group of quarterbacks” or “collection of offensive linemen.” We get their names. We get their arm length. We’re told “he’ll hit you.” Come on, these are football players; you expected rock, scissors, paper? The point is, I promise you, ask the same pundits about their gush three years from now, and you’ll hear a lot more ummm than oooh. Don’t kid yourself that the coaches and general managers are any better at the game, either. After all, these are the lads who bet the farm on these kids. Just run down that same roster and look how many undrafted free agents or low number draftees are carrying the team, filling slots vacated by hotshot high draft choices. However, there’s a bright side to all of this for us viewers and spectators. Just think – any of those experts could have chosen another career path. Wouldn’t it be exciting, considering so many of their professional judgments, if they’d elected to be airline pilots?

What If You Hollered Help! and Everyone Laughed?

I got a FB post today that rattled my cage like few others. In all truth, I don’t exactly thrill over what someone had for lunch, but it’s just conversation, right? It’s not all going to be world peace or curing nasty diseases. But the post that busted me is about a high school kid who got expelled and lost a college scholarship over posting what was apparently a long string of racist, sexist trash on Twitter. In the first place, the whole concept of Twitter stops me dead. A hundred and forty characters? I say Good Morning and I’m over quota. Forget it. What makes me sick, however, is that no one ever got to the kid and politely pointed out to him that he’s an idiot. Right – so he’s a teener and idiocy’s part of the game. Hatred’s not. Discrimination’s not. When you shout out racist and hateful trash to the entire world on some electronic megaphone, you’re in the big leagues with the other uglies. No one belongs there; it’s certainly no place for potential university students. A lot of people will squall about withdrawing a scholarship as excessive. Maybe so. If you believe that, maybe you’re the one to have him live with you while you wean him off his present menu. That bears thinking about; we all want kids like that straightened out. We just don’t want to be too close to them while it’s happening. So think about his social environment. If no one squared him away, it’s inescapable that many – if not most – of the people around him not only obviously tolerated his behavior, but agreed with it. He didn’t live in a vacuum and he was blatant in his contempt for the people he maligned. There will be those who defend him and go on about how he’s a product of a bad environment. I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. What troubles me more is that quite likely an even larger number are likely to declare him the victim in this situation. I can argue with that. If anything, he’s his own victim. Hatred and discrimination are choices. Personally, I hope the kid gets a chance to prove he’s not a simple hater. I’m not convinced he wants it.