Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dystopian History

Review: Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

In reading this novel, set aside political correctness and revulsion against intolerance for a moment, and think of this: Heinlein's assignment was to write a "Yellow Peril" novel to be published as a serial. He was expected to follow Astounding magazine editor John W. Campbell's outline.

Fighting Fu Manchu with a ray gun. That's what we might have had. Instead, RAH gave us this thrilling post-invasion novel about psychological warfare. Yes, Campbell's idea was ray guns and superior physics; Heinlein delivered marketing judo and the triumph of brains over—well, not brawn, but certainly superior force.

The setting is the Colorado mountains west of Denver, in an undefined period following a massive near-global conflict which America had never entered. No, not WWII; this novel was written in mid-1940, several months before Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and 18 months before Pearl Harbor. 

Asian allies won the fictional conflict; in this dystopian future, a union of Japanese bushido culture and Chinese bureaucracy and population swept India into the Pan-Asiatic sphere while the US studiously ignored them with a Non-Interference Act. India digested, it is now our turn, and the Pan-Asiatics have taken the country by force majeure

In Heinlein's deft way, these "historical" details come later, organically, from the action of the story. The novel actually commences with a Major Jeff "Whitey" Ardmore arriving at a secret lab in the Rockies to find only five men remaining in the lab following a mysterious accident. Ardmore and these five men form the core of an American resistance movement, American freedom fighters. The lab accident revealed a weapon that can be leveraged to overcome the entrenched invaders, but only by careful deployment. 

Can six men really bring an entire nation "back from the dead"? 

Can modern-day readers really enjoy such a racially-loaded novel?

In 1940s America, ethnic slurs were normal language, racial prejudice was commonplace (and still, for the most part, enshrined in law), and we were ourselves less than two years away from the interment of our own "Pan-Asiatic" citizens. Yet Heinlein still took this story concept based on racial differences, and moved it away from its lowest form. The slurs are confined to the Pan-Asiatic invaders; other common terms of the day are absent. (The mildest of these are still in use. Think "mick" or "cajun"...) In fact, there are no references to race, other than Pan-Asian and "American."

The cast of active characters includes the valiant Frank Mitsui, a Japanese-American whose family was destroyed, and whose own heritage places him under sentence of death from the invaders, as well as another man, Captain Downer, whose face is Asian, but whose genetics are not. Unnamed, but certainly present, are hundreds of thousands, even millions of others who might have fallen into those slur-labeled ethnic or racial categories before the invasion. Now racial distinctions other than Pan-Asian are ignored as unimportant. (So much so, as Tom Kratman points out in his Afterword, that we cannot even tell for certain the races of the original six men, nor that of other characters introduced in the tale.)

Heinlein also illustrates the explicit distinction between the terror tactics of the invaders and the methods used by the resistance. Kratman's afterword is helpful to align the reader's response to this thread of the story-line, which may be only unconsciously grasped—or missed entirely—in the midst of the novel's action.

My recommendation, therefore, is to read the whole novel, plus Intro and Afterword, as a dystopian alternate history, set perhaps in the mid-1950s (before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius), and not try to sanitize it any further than Heinlein has already done. If you keep that in mind, the story is thrilling, and the marketing science is spot-on even if the physics are outdated.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

Short And Tweet: History in 140 Characters

Review: Berlin 1945: The Final Days of Hitler's Third Reich by Philip Gibson

It is a sweet premise: if Twitter had existed during WWII, what might your feed look like as Berlin fell? If you expect hashtags and LOLs, you will be disappointed; these "tweets" sent by the movers and shakers (and their "social-media associates") in the Allied and Axis Powers are formal and complete with proper punctuation and spelling. If you hoped for a succinct presentation of attitudes and events, you will find a goldmine here.

As example, I'll share a juxtaposed pair of tweets that epitomizes revelations from the Twitter-stream that one might not acquire from reading a formal history. 

This pair lie adjacent in the feed from Friday, April 27, 1945, as the Goebbels family, Hitler, and Eva Braun share the safety of the Führerbunker:
Magda Goebbels @MGoebbels  The only bathtub in the bunker is in the Führer’s quarters, and he has so kindly offered it for the use of all our 6 children 
Adolf Hitler @AHitler  Early this morning, I ordered the flooding of the Berlin underground to slow the advancing Soviets

There are many of these "accidental" insights buried in the flow of comments. I also found it helpful to search Wikipedia (easy to do from my Kindle) for each of the named persons, reminding myself with the online descriptions of details that were not apparent from the Twitter feed. I could see this being one more useful tool for teaching history, fresh and easily understood.  

The story encompasses 20 days of the Fall of Berlin, beginning with the death of FDR, with quotes and paraphrases of quotes from historical figures (Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman, Stalin, and Churchill; Patton and Zhukov, Jodl, and Heinrici; Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels; Pravda, Reuters and the BBC). 

These are real quotes, the actual words of people who mostly died long before social media became a common communication mode. For his sources, Gibson appends an impressive list of references that begins with Shirer's massive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. That is a tome I have begun to read at least 8 times in my life, with little success in finishing it.

I guarantee, the Twitter version is more accessible.

Memorial Day Favorite: A Boy's Memory of WWII in the Pacific

Review: Baby of Bataan by Joseph Quitman Johnson

The WWII memoir of Joseph Quitman Johnson is both unique and commonplace. Joe was 14 years old when he enlisted, 15 when the American troops were fighting the retreat on Bataan. He spent his 16th birthday in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Corregidor, and his 18th birthday on a hellish prison ship en route to Japan. 

As a prisoner in Japan, he was put to work in a mine just outside Hiroshima, then transferred just before Japan's surrender to a second mine—near Nagasaki.

The war was over before Joe turned 21; his age, and his amazing memory (or fabulous evocation) of what happened to him and the other soldiers he encountered make his account memorable. In common with others from this war, he shares the stoic resolve and quiet accomplishment of soldiers who served in every theater of World War II.

The first chapter is a brief picture of Joe as a young boy, giving us a glimpse of why this young man might dare to enlist—before Pearl Harbor—at the tender age of 14. After all, a child of 12 who can hop a freight car to set off in search of his father might certainly become, a scant two years later, that daring teenager.

Joe makes several close friends, Army buddies, first in the Fort MacArthur mustering station in California, and then on board the troop ship that will carry him to Manila. Ray Rico and Dale Snyder come alive for us; we understand why Joe is drawn to these men, and why he is devastated by their deaths at the hands of the Japanese.

Johnson has a wonderful descriptive style that brings us into his adventure. In the telling, his own reactions have certainly been filtered through the memories of the adult, but Joe retains enough of the awkward teen to allow us to sense his bafflement at the suicide of Dewey Holzclaw, or the unearned enmity of Sergeant Dempsey.

The minor characters are also finely drawn. Felicia, the young girl Joe meets at Tang's (a Manila whorehouse), and whom he rescues by paying for her stay at a convent school once he realizes she is pregnant. Frisco Smith, the Manila taxi driver and restauranteur, who helps Joe shepherd the nuns and their charges out of Manila in advance of the Japanese. Big Rotunda, the evocatively-named madam of Tang's house. Pierce Manners, the bugler who "wills" his bugle to Joe when he is rotated home. Red Small, the tattooed man, whose neck reads "Cut on the Dotted Line."

Then there are the Japanese, whom Joe reveals to us in the same deft way. "Cherry Blossom" Watanbe, for whom Joe is a reminder of his own son, saves Joe's life in the first Japanese prison camp by sharing his food with the gaunt young man. Tanaka, a guard at the same camp, teaches Joe some Japanese in exchange for learning the words to "My Blue Heaven." "Babe Ruth," a burly Japanese sailor, chooses Joe and five others from the hold of the prison ship Enouku Maru to stoke the engines.

Joe Johnson earned the nickname "Cockroach" for the way he had of surviving adversity. He spent years in Japanese labor camps, first on Bataan and Corregidor, then in Manila, and finally in Japan itself, working underground in mines that were considered too dangerous for the Japanese miners. He escaped dysentery and malaria, survived starvation, beatings and imprisonment in the torturous eiso, a tiny isolation box that allowed him to neither sit nor stand.

In the end, nothing the U.S. Army nor the Japanese did would suppress his spirits entirely. We like Joe Johnson. He's a good guy.

Excessive indentation and an abundance of widows and orphans delayed my getting into this story—but once I got past the sub-standard typography, Joe's story caught me. Genuine, evocative, tragic and uplifting in turns, Baby of Bataan will provide solid enjoyment for any reader.

Illuminating Unintended Consequences

Review: The Light That Never Was by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

This novel is a complex story simply told. The artists of planet Donov are all human with one exception (a swamp slug), and they're all hacks nowadays (except the aforementioned slug). Although the classic views are still there, and the incredible light of Donov that once inspired master artists, the scenes are appreciated now only by tourists, and those who paint souvenirs to sell to them. 

But there's a change sweeping the human-settled universe. On world after world, people who had lived in harmony with animaloid sentients suddenly rise up in riots and massacre their non-humanoid neighbors. 

This wave of change sweeps over Donov without effect, for Donov has no sentient animaloids—that is, until Jaward Jorno comes home. Jorno is an incredibly wealthy local who arrives, ready to put his family's large estate to use as a refugee camp for the brilliant mesz, natives of Mestil. And while refugees are not allowed on this world, Jorno learns of a loophole in Donov law that says artists may stay for as long as they like. So 3,000 alien animaloid refugees become artists.

Now that there are animaloids on Donov, will the wave of riots touch this planet as well? Fighting this trend is the World Manager Ian Korak and his lovely grand-daughter Eritha, Korak's First Secretary Neal Wargen (who is secretly the head of the Secret Police, and not so secretly in love with Eritha Korak), and Arnen Brand, who provides a home for the slug and sells its artwork to finance a little refugee work of his own.

Biggle uses the concepts of art well in his work. This novel explores the urge to create, the pain of knowing one's work to be second-rate, the difference between creating art and "putting paint on canvas", and the role of the art critic. 

The artistic topics are background, however, to the detail of this particular painting. One of the characters is a tragically flawed personality, acting in ways that have doomed dozens of worlds. Minor accents illustrate the spiteful sterility of bigotry and the liberating effects of tolerance. But the major theme of this artwork is even more sweeping: 
Is it enough to do Good Works? Or must one actually accomplish good?

There are books that are worth rereading, whose stories remain fresh. Like a great painting, they reward the viewer each time they are approached. Biggle's novel is a Goya, at least. Perhaps even a Hieronymus Bosch.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Rescued (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Depression is a real thing. I've had one battle with it, and never understood until I did how hopeless it can make the entire world appear. I was fortunate; my depression was simple and temporary. It passed by itself. 

But I was changed by its passage. Afterward, I was never quite as sure of my abilities. 

I had lost that innocent confidence we all possess until we encounter something that rubs our noses in powerlessness. 

Some who are depressed can relieve the symptoms by literally moving past them; they begin running or swimming or walking, and their bodies supply the mood-lifters they need. Others require chemical intervention to return to the forward pace of their lives. 

For the fortunate few like me, the trigger that blasts away the fog is a single uplifting experience, as simple as an unexpected smile from a loved one—even from a stranger. Without realizing why, the corners of the mouth rise in response, and so does the heart. The grey goes away.

I had written a short poem following my single bout with the grey monster, and it needed only a few additional words to qualify for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

May 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that changes with a smile. It can be a character, tone, setting or any creative use of smile. You can go deep and consider motive and influence, or you can light up the world with a brilliant flash (of teeth as well as fiction). And smile, because your writing matters and is not hostage to your level, experience or circumstances.

I send this thought out into the world, with my smile attached, and my hope: May it find anyone who is frozen, weary, defeated, or depressed, and may it be the required rescue.



Grey is the sky and grey my heart,
Frozen, for all I might do.
Long road.
I cannot find a way to start
or stop, or yet continue.

Lost in a maze of 'must' and 'shall,'
I have no true desire.
Weary road.
Grey is my life and dim, and all
The art that I might aspire

Is shades of grey and strains of lust.
Twisted and incomplete.
Endless road.
It tastes of mold, is sad with dust.
I trudge with sour defeat,

To find at the end of a dreary mile
Sunrise and hope, and your sweet smile.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dystopia in Real Life

Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

The full title of this book is meatier than its shorthand version: Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy. The title, plus the cover illustration on the HMH trade paperback edition, offers exactly the bait to draw a young boy into a reading adventure.

Alas if our young reader (as this older one did) should miss the clue in that title; Jacky is a girl. A plague orphan masquerading as a boy to be safe on the mean streets of London in the 1790s, Jacky has learned how to cope on her own. Joining a street gang, she has learned to fight to keep herself and her comrades safe and fed.

For youngsters like her, the life of a ship's boy presents a shining promise. Imagine being fed each day, having a place to sleep out of the weather. Imagine not having to fight rival gangs for your right to exist. As for the dangers, well, Jacky is philosophical:
It's just as dead you get from starvation, muggin', or bein' stepped on by a horse, as you get from drownin'. which is, of course, the seagoin' option. And I hears they'll feed us, even. ... [Besides,] a girl what's born for hangin' ain't likely to be drowned.
At first the pleasures of her new position far outweigh the duties. Jacky is astounded to be served meat at her meals, and isn't worried about weevils in the biscuits. She sleeps soundly in unaccustomed peace, and is allowed to replace her brother's cast-off trousers with a hand-made uniform, so long as she makes it herself.

The dangers Jacky finds on board are nothing she can expect from life in London's streets: sadistic sailors and pederasts, strict preachers and officers, and a growing attraction to one of the other ship's boys are the least of her worries. Hot-cannon battles with pirates and the careful choice of where to have a tattoo and how to handle a visit to a brothel loom larger for Jacky and her mates. They take a young boy's perspective on all these perplexities, even religion:
"No, Jesus ain't the King of Heaven," counters Davy. "His dad's the King of Heaven and there'd surely be hell to pay if Jesus come to dinner all covered wi' tattoos, 'specially with 'I loves you, Mary Magdalen' all over His Sainted Belly."

I first read Bloody Jack after reading the trilogy The Hunger Games and the first book of another dystopian trilogy, Divergent. It struck me then that Jacky was just as valorous, struggling every bit as hard against a world that did not welcome her, and as much—or more—challenged by her unorthodox nature as either Katniss Everdeen or Dauntless Tris. Yet the worlds Jacky inhabits are real. Her history is fiction, but only in its details; the broader picture Meyer paints reveals a true image of life in 1790s London, work on board a merchant vessel, and the struggles of those who live in the British Colonies of the time.

At the end, Jacky's sex has little to do with her courage, or her adventures. Young male readers can squint one eye and look past it to see the rollicking adventure it is.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hoarding Beauty

Review: The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

It would be easy to think of this as a crime novel; after all, the initial scenes are set in the interview room of an FBI building. The language at first is of crime and criminals. Identity. Victims. Perpetrator. Evidence. We are given few clues about the interviewee's status in the "case" that is gradually being revealed through her testimony.

The young woman on the other side of the table is coy and sullen by turns with the lead interviewer, Victor Hannoverian, and outspokenly hostile to his partner, Brandon Eddison. She has no formal ID, and the men only know her name as "Maya" because that's all she will tell them. 

Further frustrating both FBI agents, and infuriating the mercurial Eddison, she will not answer any questions with a direct answer. Instead, she shares stories of her life in the Butterfly Garden.

What unfolds from these tales, as delicately as the wings of a butterfly, is a picture of community, of a family of women in a garden. We learn of Maya's strength, and the virtues and flaws of the other women in the garden through her narrative. Victor needs all his patience (developed from dealing with teenage daughters) to cope with Maya and his partner alike, as he struggles to get a clear picture of all that happened in the garden. 

Maya herself seems unable to break free from her experience in that garden, unless she can drag her story from its cocoon and reveal it in her own way. As she does, we see that hero, victim, rescuer and perpetrator can be fluid categories. Crime is merely the bare skin this novel wears. Like tattoo ink underneath that skin is love both profane and sacred: the gluttonous acquisition of beauty for its own sake, and the open love of one's family in spite of faults and abilities.

I can share no more without spoilers. I only share this much to convince you that it is worth reading past the pain and horror: there is a victory (of sorts) before the end.

Liner Note

For a slightly different take on the "stealing beauty" concept of The Butterly Garden, check out the 1981 movie with Bruce Dern and Maud Adams, Tattoo

Monday, May 23, 2016

Comfort In Their Limbs

Review: The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

In the emotional life of the autistic child, there is no ambivalence. If young March Wong's mother is baffled, and child-services agents appalled by his insistence on tree-climbing, he himself has no doubts. A climb in each of his home's trees every morning is as essential to March's preparation for school as putting on his shoes or washing his face. Perhaps more essential.

March certainly feels more kinship with the trees he climbs and studies than with the people in his life. He can read the bark and see a climbing path more easily than he can figure out motivations and desires of his mother, teachers, and fellow students.

Or, as March himself confides,
Trees do not require you to make certain sounds to be understood. They are simply present and ready for you to climb at any time. Trees are easier.

March Wang's depth of knowledge about the trees he loves is impressive. His dream is to climb a true Ponderosa Pine, a tree which is disappearing from the forests of the Northwest. So when he climbs a neighbor's Red Cedar and spies an even loftier tree in the distance, he breaks his mother's rule about spending too much time in any one tree. He spends over two hours in the cedar, dreaming about climbing that distant tree.

The story is told entirely in March Wong's voice; he tells us the neighbor with the Red Cedar, Mr. Clayton, has informed him that the tree he spotted is called "The Eagle Tree" because it had a pair of eagles nesting in it in a previous season. He explains, March-fashion, how his "Uncle Mike" takes him to see the Eagle Tree close up, and chokes up at the sight of old-growth forests surrounding it:
“The people protesting to save these woods are right—these trees are almost untouched.” His voice was different somehow. It was exactly the sound in his voice that I heard at the funeral of my great-uncle.

When March finds out that the Eagle Tree is not only an out-of-range Ponderosa Pine, but also may be sold to a development company, he is stirred to extraordinary measures to save it. He must connect emotionally with his mother and Uncle Mike, Mr. Clayton, his school-mates, and the whole community, to share with them his knowledge of and emotional response to trees.

This is a fascinating novel with many levels to enjoy: an autistic boy's world-view; the bafflement of adults trying to deal with autism in their children; the science of trees and forests and their ecology. At its center and root is the courage of March Wong, who relies on knowledge and ignores pain to find the one sure comfort in his life: climbing trees. He is marvelous, and his story is no less so. March tells it:
The majority of who I really am is buried underneath the surface, and no one sees it.

But thanks to Ned Hayes, we do, March. We truly do.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thorn and Rose (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge and New Cat #3)

Squirrels and Oaks go together—and Cats, not so much!
Our new cat Sherbet is fascinated with the life in the heritage oak tree outside the window of her staging room. We have set her up with a "kitty TV," a window opened a tiny crack to allow the full outdoor sensorium to enter, with a wide, cushioned ledge at the level of the sash for her to perch on. She spends hours there, watching the birds and squirrels intently.

Remember, this is the new cat that "needs" to be outdoors—yet she is perfectly content with her window on the world. Two days ago, my spouse was doing some gardening on the hillside below her room. She watched every move. The hard metallic chirps of the California towhees sound just like one of her toys. She watches, alert, as the birds flit from the deck to an over-hanging branch, then she will go and drub the toy, which she can reach.

The first day in her new house, she was terrified of the sound the squirrels made as they jumped from the over-hanging oak limbs to the roof over her head.

It wasn't until she began "following" the distinctive sound of their walk, jumping up to the "TV" window just in time to see them leap across to the tree-trunk, that her tension began to ease. For Sherbet, the squirrels and towhees became part of her new environment, just like my spouse and me, her new toys, and the scents of our other cats.

Charli Mills has been promising (or threatening) a "squirrel prompt" for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, and this week, she made good:

May 18, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a squirrel. It can be about a squirrel, for a squirrel or by a squirrel. Think nutty, naturalistic, dinner or ironic. Go where the prompt leads and don’t forget to twirl with imagination.

Squirrels running across the roof used to wake my late father-in-law, Ben, whose bedroom now serves as our guest room-slash-cat staging room. It was Ben who described the squirrel's walk with a line from an early-1900s child's chant: "The squirrel runs lipperty-lipperty-lip." I borrowed his experience to describe the elderly Rose in my flash fiction, and her similar problem with the squirrels.


Thorn and Rose

Rose tsked in irritation as the squirrel-tail flirted against her window. 

He skittered along the eave over her window, with the "lipperty-lip" footsteps that identified his kind—vision wasn't sharp anymore, but nothing was wrong with her hearing. Rose tsked again, and that thorn-in-her-side squirrel chittered back. His fluffy tail metronomed as he gathered himself to launch across to the adjacent oak.

Rose spotted the target of his squirrel-talk: a female. Frisking squirrels in spring promised a new generation of Thorns to wake her. 

Sighing, Rose curled her tail over her pink nose, and sank back into her morning catnap.

Space Opera Redux

Brief Review: The Counterfeit Captain by Henry Vogel

Captain Nancy Martin expects a lonely death, passing out as her battle-damaged starfighter bleeds the last of its air.

From the first words of its description, this novel's posting on Kindle Scout captured me. After I purchased it, and began to read, I was not disappointed. This is an honest-to-goodness old-school space opera, complete with a Clarke-ian kilometers-long colony ship, Dalek-like evil robots driven by a scheming AI, space pirates and mutineers, enslaved children, primitive cargo-cult villages of humans who think their Ship is the world, and a running battle fought with lasers, blasters and bow-and-arrow through dark passages lined with blinking lights and shadowy machines. There's even a strong modern woman/strong primitive man romance, with a tasteful off-screen consummation.

Hard to imagine that all those elements can come together into an elegant and focused science fiction story, but in a little over 200 pages, it does. Furthermore, it feels fresh and exciting even while it rings all those well-known bells. I enjoyed it from word one, and closed the book on the ending thinking, I wish there was a promise of a sequel.

 Unfortunately, The End... Or Is It? might be the only trope missing from the novel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Love and the Rest of the World Entire

Review: Odd Adventures with your Other Father by Norman Prentiss

In this layered collection of tales, Celia begins with a question: "What are your parents like?" Instead of a direct answer, she shares some of the stories her living father, Shawn, told her about a post-college road trip with his now-deceased life-partner, Jack. These shared tales are wound through Celia's own search for a deeper connection to her family.

Throughout the stories, Celia's and Shawn's, the reader can feel the duality of her relationship with both fathers; she has enormous pride in their love for each other, and yet she yearns for a "normal" family life.

This duality runs deeper in the narrative as well. Each adventure from her parents' youth—their honeymoon trip, as it were—can be read as an allegory of living in a world that is more hostile than it is accepting, or even simply indifferent, to a homosexual couple.

In one twist, for example, Jack finds himself cast in the role of the straight man who wanders unknowing into a gay bar, and is forced to confront his own ambivalent reactions to the behaviors he observes. In another, the two young men casually insult those around them, and must face the consequences when their hurtful conversation is overheard.

Concentrated rather than short, this is a quick read that packs a mighty wallop. And while I might have enjoyed more tales of the "odd adventures," Prentiss has included precisely as many as he needed to power a complex novel about travelling on the fringes where love and family meet the rest of the world—and surviving them heart-whole.

Liner Notes:

I nominated this novel in Kindle Scout and it was accepted for publication, so I received a free copy.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Unloading the Toe (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Mining coal below a highwall. via Kentucky Coal Education
In any industry, there is a body of knowledge (and often a jargon as well) that serves to separate those who know whereof they speak from the clueless. 

Much of what I learned in my Mining Geology classes at Mines was how to avoid exhibiting a lack of such bona fidesThe most-memorable story was of a civil engineer, already in-country, whose American employer re-purposed him as a mining engineer and sent him to solve a problem at a bench-mining operation. The mine removed overburden to expose a coal seam, which they then mined from a contour bench below a steeply-sloped highwall.

Mining Methods, via The National Academies Press
It seems they had a very tight profitability margin, which was being eroded by loss of equipment and access due to landslides. The steep slope above the contour bench kept slipping down into the mining area, blocking the seam and damaging men and machines below the highwall.

The brash civil engineer barely listened to the explanation at the site before he told the men working there that the answer was simple: "Just load the toe of the slope!" (Pile material at the base of the highwall to reduce its slope.) He was certain this would resolve the landslide problems.

It would have, too. Except that wasn't the problem they were trying to solve. They needed access to the coal seam at the base of the highwall. The civil engineer was sent back to building roads, and the company brought in a real mining engineer to fix the issue. (The solution involved removing just enough of the overburden above the bench to reduce the slope of the highwall.)

Erosion—in its most continuous form, mass wasting—is an ongoing issue that engineers of all stripes are trying to solve. But it isn't only engineers who are challenged when the earth moves downhill, as you can see in my response to Charli Mills' prompt this week for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

May 11, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story, using the power of erosion. It can be natural, cultural or something different. Is the force personified or does it add to the overall tone? You can use the word in its variations, or avoid the word and write its action.

Erosion can be subtle or drastic. And often, our initial response is not the whole solution.


Unloading the Toe

I realize I am lucky as I breathe dust. Only the edge of the landslide still raveling downhill had caught me.

My rucksack is just under the rubble. A quick tug on an exposed strap frees both it and a large rock. The rock goes bounding down the slope, triggering mini-slides in its wake. I slap the ruck to lose most of the dirt, and swing it onto my back.

Several steps down the trail, I remember I had my car keys in my hand, ready to use. Now they are somewhere under the tumbled earth.

Time to dig.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Noticing Behavior Triggers (New Cat #2)

Cat bites are not really this cute. via Kawaii
Job one for us this week is to start learning the trigger cues for our new cat, Sherbet. 

We were informed when we adopted her that she is a biting cat; she gets over-stimulated and Wham! Here come the teeth. (We saw a little of this behavior with Eva, one of the shelter staff, during our introduction.) The kitty wears an orange collar, which shelter staff use to signal volunteers that a cat bites. We were early adopters of the Kitty Convict initiative. Indoor kitties, our cats all have worn orange collars. So we found it ironic that Sherbet was returned from a previous adoption because she wouldn't stay indoors, yet still wound up in an orange collar anyway!

At our house, we had the back room, a guest room-slash-lumber room, set up for our new kitty. This room has served to stage cat introductions before. Years ago, when we brought home a shelter cat with three legs into an existing two-cat household, Pounce stayed for a week in this back area, gradually getting used to the smells of the other cats.

The door of the room has a good inch of clearance, as well, so cats can play patty-cake on either side of a solid barrier before meeting face-to-face. But that's for the future. Today, the crucial factor is the presence of a futon-bed sofa and two papa-san chairs, a cat tower, floor-to-ceiling windows, and lots of play area and spooky shadows to explore.

We sit on the sofa or one of the chairs, reading (or in the case of my spouse, doing needlepoint), and let her explore around us. The plan is to allow her to do "self-petting" only, stropping under hands or against shins, until she is a bit more comfortable. Even so, she was in the room only 2 hours before I received a bite.

It's obviously a warning nip: it barely breaks the skin. I wasn't petting her, but I was reaching down to pick something up from the floor. 

This morning, playing with Sherbet in the crepuscular light cats prefer for hunts, she eventually tires enough to recline on the sofa next to me, purring steadily as I read my Kindle. Encouraged, I lay my hand, palm down, on the sofa near her head. I get a quick warning lip-nip (no teeth), and she's on the floor, tail twitching.

She pounces on a shoelace cat-toy coiled there, claws at it and chews for a bit, then strolls back to strop against my shin. I get the message.

Sherbet has a thing about hands. In fact, I deduce it is fingers that set her off; a fist next to her face is an invitation to rub her chin and jowls. But uncoil even a pinky from the fist, and her tail begins twitching again.

Next up: A stroll outside? For an outdoor kitty to be safe in our wild-adjacent neighborhood, she needs an escort. And a harness.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How to Derail Your Life (New Cat #1)

Sisu on the stair-rail in 2014
The sadness of losing a cat companion—our Sisu was put to sleep following sudden renal failure on Saturday, May 7th—has only one cure. It's not a replacement cat, either, but an entirely new, different challenge of cat rescue.

We called Sisu our "sofa cushion kitty." Long before he reached cat maturity, he wanted to sleep more than any other cat we've had, preferably somewhere near us. My spouse's lap was his favorite, but absent that preferred site, he would drape himself across the back of the sofa behind me, stretch out a long foreleg, and rest one paw delicately against my neck. His illness came on lightning-fast, and by the time I realized it, he was gone.

Of our trio of aging cats, this left only Pounce, our three-legged, formerly-feral cat. While she mostly ignored "the boys" when they were living, as they vanished she was obviously missing them. When Nimitz died last year, she called through the house for him for several days, and hissed at Sisu whenever he answered. She was looking for Nimitz. This last week, Pounce has been "grieving" in a similar way for Sisu. I know she doesn't quite know what is missing, but she does know something in her world has changed. And cats hate change!

After several days of Pounce's increasing neediness, we began to discuss a new cat. What did we want? We only knew what we did not want: neither a kitten, nor an older cat that would be leaving us too soon.

Sherbet has white mask and legs.
Yesterday, we made the rounds of the cat shelters. At the Sonoma Humane Society, we found a match: "Honey Girl" is a 2-year-old female who had already been returned to the shelter by a previous adopter. 

We knew she would be a challenge, and very different from our sedate cushion-kitty. She "needs" to be outside; our area has predators, including mountain lions, that make it very dangerous for outdoor cats. She needs lots of stimulation and "enhancement." This we can provide with a large house that she will have the run of, with lots of vertical spaces to climb and explore.

And she bites.

Yes, we took on a second kitty with over-stimulation issues. Pounce's feral behaviors have finally (mostly) disappeared, perhaps because we have learned her body language, figured out the clues that over-stimulation is imminent. I hope this new kitty, renamed "Sherbet" (or as my spouse calls her, soar-BEY), becomes more transparent to us over time, as we get to know her, and she settles in with us.

Liner Notes:

Yes, it is not "Sherbert"—that is a misspelling of the word. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Grim, Dirty, Corrupt, and Real

Brief Review: TV Series The Wire starring Dominic West, Sonja Sohn and Lance Reddick

One of the wonders of cable and webcast TV viewing is that occasionally, you can stumble into an entire amazing series you missed when it was originally broadcast. For me, this was The Wire, a series from 2002-2008, set in ghetto-and-dockyard Baltimore. After it was recommended during a recent "Watchathon" by multiple writers whom I trust, I began with Episode 1, Season 1, and watched it in its entirety over the course of a couple of weeks. In this environment, the story proved to be complex, well-written, with interesting characters who developed over the seasons into people I cared about, at least enough to curse at!

As the name might imply, the plot gimmick is telephone surveillance, run by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) against the drug trade. Each season focuses on a new investigation, and explores it with a slightly different kind of wire. The series' continuing characters (both in BPD and on the streets) are, with just a few exceptions, criminal, dishonest, or corrupt—or all of the above!

The starring character, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), is no exception: a self-destructive alcoholic locked in an adversarial relationship with his employer, Baltimore PD, he finds new focus with the initiation of a clever wire-tap equivalent as a task force of losers is assembled to investigate the street-corner drug trade in Baltimore's project housing. Over the course of 13 episodes in Season 1, the wire-tap crew comes together as an effective force arrayed against a criminal organization headed by Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).

In this crowd of conniving police and murderous criminals, the few incorrupt individuals shine. Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is a competent cop side-lined by her gender and sexuality. Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) was shunted into a position as evidence clerk when he took a principled position against a superior 13 years before. Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) struggles to work within his framework as the department supervisor, but his effort is hamstrung from the beginning by department politics, budget limitations, and the misfit crew assigned to him. 

There are lots of questionable cops as well. Just to name a few, Det. Hauck (Domenick Lombardozzi) comes across as a bigoted thug. He and his partner, Det. Carver (Seth Gilliam), a wise-cracking sneak, are always looking for a way to skim. Under-reported drug money, bribes, theft of evidence property, and a few other scams send a trickle of graft to their pockets. Among the other losers detailed to the investigation unit is the clueless Det. "Prez" Pryzbylewski, son-in-law of the district commander, who manages to shoot a wall while showing off his "hair-trigger" personal sidearm in the first episodes. 

My short comments cannot possibly show all the ways the criminal Baltimore ghetto, the corrupt Baltimore political machine, and the crooked cops interact to undo any honest efforts to straighten out the mess. In each season, my initial response is glee at the clever twist on surveillance that promises to bring down the drug conspiracy. This segues into suspense as the venality of everyone, both sides against the middle, brings the investigation to naught. The final feeling is always frustration, as I realize the mirror that is held by The Wire reflects anti-crime activities everywhere, not just Baltimore.

I'll add only one thing. If you have the opportunity, hold your nose and brave the vile language. The Wire is worth wading in the muck, fighting the frustration, and rueing the political shenanigans. It's an action thriller that horrifies because it cuts a little too close to the bone, a little too close to home.

A Dragon Sleeps in Our Genes

Review: Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

In evolutionary debate, the question of Intelligent Design is a hot button; if life-forms are evolving to a particular design, one must presuppose a designer.

We also need a mechanism to communicate the design, one that matches observed phenomena better than Darwinian selection, and can carry design instructions forward through generations of forms that do not express it. 
For example, if a design is responsible for an air-breather's lungs, there must be some way for a genetic instruction for lungs to reside in the gill-breathing precursor—and that instruction must stay unexpressed through aeons of gill-breathers.

Greg Bear has proposed such a mechanism in Darwin's Radio. Biologist Kyle Lang is investigating the possibility that an ancient disease may be coiled "like a sleeping dragon" in the remnants of endogenous retroviruses, the so-called "junk DNA" in the human genome. As her research begins to bear fruit, a pandemic is growing. If she does not act, soon there may not be any humans left to use the knowledge she has gained.

Bear has taken a fact: the existence of gene "phages" that lie unexpressed in the genetic code until environmental stress causes them to express, and which can lie dormant for generations until they find the right conditions to express. From that fact, Bear has taken a giant "what if" leap: What if a similar DNA sequence lies unexpressed in human DNA, waiting to drive all of us in the next evolutionary step forward?

Even though there is a potential mechanism for communicating a genetic design forward through time, unaddressed in this novel or its sequel Darwin's Children is the question of Intelligent Design itself. In fact, the second book seems to imply the opposite, that the "radio" which is telegraphing messages forward is merely genetic selection at the level of the individual gene. 

So although the books are thrilling, and chock-full of information about human DNA research skillfully used to drive the story, for me, there is that nagging question still waiting to be asked.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rearranging Lifestyles and Bodyfat

Review: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding (and the movie with Renée Zellweger)

No one can claim that Bridget Jones lacks focus. In her diary, she is totally focused on three things: Keeping Mark Darcy, Losing Weight, and Giving Good Advice. But even with that with all that focus, things seem to go awry on her.

For one thing, it's hard to be receptive to a good snuggle while you're trying to hide the fact that you're wearing "really scary underpants." Bridget's undergarment 
struggles, begun in the first Diary (Daniel Cleaver was strangely aroused by her "giant" beige knickers), continue as she conceals her tummy bulge with corsetry.

Cannot help but wonder if was free to rearrange own fat according to choice, would I still wish to reduce amount? Think would have huge big breasts and hips and tiny waist...

The movie substitutes a near-triumph in Trivial Pursuit by Bridget at Mark's swanky Law Dinner party for her hilarious précis of Labour vs. Tory politics in the book. (Perhaps the movie producers thought the political discussion would be inaccessibleor worse, not funnyto US audiences.) Either way, Bridget's careening, almost-there headlong style is always capped by the final humiliating "oops!" ending, faithfully recorded in her diary under the daily record of weight, cigarettes smoked, and lies told about her diet and smoking.

Despite her obsessive focus on her Relationship With Mark Darcy, Bridget has time to obsess about other people's relationship issues, too. Her mother is off again, this time to Kenya, and Bridget believes her father's "stiff upper lip" reaction is hiding a broken heart. Her buddy Jude is starting to worry about her biological clock, but not enough to want the baby-belly and cabbage-bra issues of Magda, their "Smug Married" friend. And Sharon, or "Shaz," has abandoned her feminism for a troubling proclivity to watch soccer with the boys.

Bridget is battling work relationship issues, too. Her boss gives her assignments ("locate two Middle-England voters who are pro") and waits for her to screw them up. Meanwhile, he will put her on camera only in situations where she can display her complete incompetence (and her undergarments). Mark's office has him paired with Rebecca, who obviously has designs on him. (For some reason, the movie invents a whole other character to be the "jellyfish," whose every encounter with Bridget results in her delivering multiple verbal stings; "Bridge, how's it going with Mark? You must be really pleased to get a boyfriend at last.")

In an effort to escape the snarled cares of her life, Bridget agrees to visit Thailand with Shaz, "and NO MEN!" In fact, she gets her wish, as she winds up in a Thai women's prison. Fortunately Bridget's blithe take on life, and her thorough grounding in the religion of self-help (and Mark Darcy) come to her rescue.

Despite the substitutions and amendments noted above, the movie captures the breezy voice of Bridget Jones' diary entries perfectly. Casting is wonderfully apt; Colin Firth as Mark Darcy is especially appropriate, considering Bridget's and her girlfriends' sovereign remedy for the blues is a viewing of Pride and Prejudice starring Firth as Jane Austen's mannered hero Lord Darcy. Excellent reprises by Gemma Jones as Bridget's Mom, and Jim Broadbent as her Dad also shine. Hugh Grant shows up to reveal Daniel Cleaver's middle-aged angst, and to let Mark Darcy settle his hash.

In the end, though, it is Bridget Jones herself, with Renée Zellweger plumping up for the role again, who carries the story. You just have to love a woman who can look at herself honestly in the mirror, and still proclaim,
"I truly believe that happiness is possible... even when you're thirty-three and have a bottom the size of two bowling balls."

Before Flash Fiction, There Was Feghoot

Review: The Compleat Feghoot by Reginald Bretnor (writing as Grendel Briarton)

Have you heard the one about the guy who planted kitchen herbs in his creek to make it run uphill, because "dill waters run steep"? 

No? How about the news headline announcing the court's judgement re: a thief who had waited out the statute of limitations period for his crime in a time bubble: "A niche in time saves Stein." 

Or a vulture carrying two dead raccoons, turned away by the stewardess as he goes to board the plane, because "only one carrion is permitted per passenger."

These are classic "Feghoots," a genre of super-short (science-)fiction story—today we would call it flash fictionthat usually featured space-and-time traveler Ferdinand Feghoot, and always ended with a terrible pun. They appeared in many of the early science fiction magazines. Reading the name of the main character, Feghoot, was enough to provoke an anticipatory groan for the pun we knew was coming.

Most of these stories were written by Reginald Bretnor under his anagrammatic pseudonym, but the ideas for them were often suggested by other sci-fi writers of the time. Isaac Asimov wrote one on his own (the "niche in time" cited above). Thomas Pynchon included a Feghoot-less incident in Gravity's Rainbow. It ended with "For DeMille, young fur-henchmen can't be rowing!" (Forty million Frenchmen can't be wrong.)

Have a good groan today: read a Feghoot and celebrate the endless ways we twist clever words to make a story come out "right."

Liner Notes:

  • There are several Feghoots included in the The First Reginald Bretnor Megapack if you cannot find The Compleat Feghoot in your second-hand bookstore.
  • The Second Reginald Bretnor Megapack not only includes another Feghoot, but also the Papa Schimmelhorn stories and the classic Gnurrs Come From the Voodvork Out.
  • My own copy of The Compleat Feghoot resides in the john, where it is available to enliven those "idle moments."

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Surveying Skeeters (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

For most of us, disasters are rarities. Rather, we build our positive or negative memories upon mounds of tiny successes or clouds of nagging defeats. We go camping, and take home a bright image of a tasty fish caught and grilled for supper, or we recall only the battle to defend our ankles from the bite of ticks and chiggers.

I recall one spring, when we were searching for an appropriate place to hold a human-powered vehicle speed challenge in the Western Rockies. Our two-man team went out to survey roads in Colorado. We were hunting a paved surface with a specific slope (0.66%), 200 meters for the timed stretch, with a gentle catenary curve leading down to it, and as few bumps as possible. How hard could it be, after all?

It would have been a pleasant outing, with wonderful scenery, and purposeful work to survey our candidate roadsexcept for the biting insects. Deer flies, gnats, and the never-sufficiently-to-be-damned mosquitoes were out in force, and I was the best buffet they had available. 

In the prompt this week for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, Charli Mills asks us to include insects in a story. Yet these pests need no invitation; they show up for dinner, and, if we let them, ruin the party!

May 4, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include insects in a story. Periwinkles, bees laden with pollen, ants building hills. What can insects add to a story? Do they foreshadow, set a tone, provide a scientific point of interest or a mystical element? Let you inner periwinkles fly!

In the end, if you are wondering, we did find a downhill run that met our parameters, and the four-cyclist engine powered their Pininfarina-designed vehicle to just short of a record. Nowadays, these runs are made in Nevada. I fortunately have no idea what pests wait for surveyors in that dry environment!


Surveying Skeeters

A spring somewhere uphill feeds a soggy ditch paralleling the road. Every road we've surveyed seems to have its own mosquito bog. I squint downhill through the transit to the rod my partner holds, and, jotting the numbers, spot the blood-sucker on my hand. 

Whap! My notebook serves a second function as a skeeter-swat. I turn the transit to the back-line and spot the previously-sited stake. Wiping my sweaty forehead, I dislodge a team of gnats. My hand comes away adorned with another mosquito.

That night, doing calculations from my surveyor's notes, I find more dead mosquitoes than numbers.

Real Torture, Deprivation, and Life Triumphant

Review: The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz

In 1939, 25-year-old Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia following a torture-induced “confession” in Moscow. In 1956, he was living peacefully in England with his English wife. The years between are detailed in The Long Walk, the classic tale of Rawicz’ trek with seven others to freedom.

Rawicz tells his story from the calm, relaxed vantage of a decade’s separation from the events. If anything, this detached approach lends additional power to the tale. He spends less than a chapter detailing his torture at the hands of the NKVD “specialists” in Kharkov prison, almost passively detailing his weeks-long confinement in a upright-coffin-sized kishka cell standing in his own bodily wastes, his racking and the burning of his hands with hot tar, the systematic beatings and subtler tortures. Rawicz can even praise the kishka of Lublyanka prison where he is incarcerated during his show trial, because “…this kishka was clean, and the periods I was forced to spend in it were much shorter.”

Sentenced to serve in a labor camp in Siberia, Rawicz must first get there from Moscow. This trip takes him 3000 miles by train across wintry Russia, still barefoot in the button-less cotton blouse and belt-less pants which he wore in the Kharkov. He reports the death of numerous prisoners in his cattle-car, whose bodies were dumped alongside the track after being stripped of their prison garb. “Father Stalin only loaned the poor bastard his clothes for the duration of his stay in the USSR…”

When the caravan reached the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the men were chained by twos to the end of a dozen trucks, and marched to their camp. Although they were issued warmer clothes and rubber boots, 10 to 15 percent of the prisoners died on that final march.

At Camp 303, Rawicz decides to escape. He is aided in this plan by the bored wife of the Soviet commandant, who asks only that he wait until her husband is away and the camp is nominally under the command of the political officer. Rawicz chooses six other prisoners—one of whom, they discover to their surprise, is an American mining engineer who was arrested after a year’s work on the Moscow subway tunnels. “Mr. Smith” is strangely fluent in Russian, and may in fact be a spy, but the other five men are Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian prisoners. They collect supplies of dried bread, steal deer, sable and rabbit skins from the guards, and manage to create warmer clothing, shoes and other tools for survival before leaving the camp in mid-April, 1941.

The seven men, and an escaped Polish teen, Kristina, whom they meet on the east side of the half-frozen Lena River, had before them a daunting trek. They would need to walk more than 3000 miles south through Siberia’s spring blizzards and icy rivers, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Himalayas, in order to “surrender” to a British lieutenant in southern Nepal. Along the way, Rawicz lists their changing numbers almost diffidently in chapter titles: “Seven Cross the Lena River”, “Eight Enter Mongolia”, “Six Enter Tibet”, “Five By-Pass Lhasa.”

Concealed within this off-hand report of group size is nine months of gruelling travel, including nearly sixty days of suffering in the Gobi Desert. “We sweated it out for about three hours in throbbing discomfort, mouths open, gasping in the warm desert air over enlarged, dust-covered tongues.” And, “After a while he closed his eyes and I thought he had gone, but he was still breathing quietly… There was no spasm, no tremor, no outward sign to show that life had departed the body.” And, “The heat enveloped us, sucking the moisture from our bodies, putting ankle-irons of lethargy about our legs.”

This is no calm, beautiful serenity that surrounds the travelers, but a rasping deprivation they fight with every ounce of their strength. Rawicz and three of his companions would live through this self-imposed torment to reach India and freedom. Throughout their trip, all eight of the escaped prisoners fought grimly to stay alive. Why, during a period of history when millions were dying in a second World War and a dire Holocaust, would we celebrate the triumph of four souls over death?

Today, when the “right to die” is viciously debated in our forums, and moral outrage over "torture" is extended to discomforts that pale in comparison, The Long Walk is a refreshing celebration of the will to live. Whether you read it as a moral fable or a true account of escape from Siberia, its focus on life is a useful contrast to the discussions of the day.
I hope The Long Walk will remain as a memorial to all those who live and die for freedom, and for all those who for many reasons could not speak for themselves. I had to tell my story as a warning to the living, and as a moral judgment for the greater good.  Slavomir Rawicz, 1993 Introduction to The Long Walk