October

Sunday, October 25—Here in Madison, we are seeing our first snow shower of the season.

It won’t stick.

A white film may coat the ground like manna tomorrow morning, but it will be gone in 24 hours—melted like manna by the sun, or else sublimated in the gray air of autumn. 

Brown leaves have descended from our maple and our neighbor’s walnuts, and small yellow ones from our black locust. Yet plenty of other leaves cling green on trees and bushes. Soon enough, they too shall be crispéd and sere, as Poe would prefer.

How can such frail fingers pluck so loud on the strings of my reverie? Launching this blog, I pledged to resist the charms of mere nostalgia. But October brings a flood of recall, in which I am swept up all too willingly. 

Rather than fight it, Dear Reader, I will share a bit with you.

McCutcheon of the Trib

Every October of my youth—indeed every fall from 1912 through 1992—the Chicago Tribune showcased “Injun Summer,” a cartoon drawing, with folksy narrative, by editorial artist John T. McCutcheon. Its two panels showed a boy and his grandfather watching a field of conical corn shocks transform into a tepee village, with smoke-shaped Indians doing a dance in the wispy gloaming. 

The old man, in his homey way, explains to the lad that the “sperrits” of “Injuns” now extinct return each year, moved by the autumn haze to haunt their former campgrounds. News readers, even in the darkest parts of the twentieth century, knew that Native Americans were not extinct, but despite that fact, “Injun Summer” became a hallowed tradition over a term of eighty years. 

For one thing, it was assumed by white Americans that the traditional Indian way of life was a thing of the past; that those Indians still alive had better act like typical Americans or be swept aside by history. For another, most Midwesterners—the Trib’s main audience—had such warm memories of autumn days that we were suckers for the romantic image of long-dead Indian ghosts dancing in the smoky haze of burning leaves.

Burning Leaves

I doubt it happens now in very many places—what with the Clean Air Act and all—but in days of yore we would rake dry leaves from our yards into the street and simply set a match to the piles. On a nice October day, whole neighborhoods would come out to chat amid the smoke. Kids ran to and fro, playing tag among the leafy pyres, as grown-ups with metal-tined rakes kept the conflagration confined. 

Folks in our neighborhood brought out foil-wrapped potatoes and baked them in the leaves.

We could do these things, Fair Reader, because there were half as many of us then as there are now. Such frolics would be ill-advised in the brave new world of now.

Autumn Edibles

Besides our annual festival of burning leaves, we went nutting. We competed with the squirrels. Dad drove us to a place he knew of in the country, where stood an acre or two of shagbark hickories in a park-like setting. We scooped nuts off the ground and tossed them into gunny sacks.

I was not partial to hickory nuts, or any other kind; but Mom, in particular, liked all varieties of nuts. Commonly, we and others left a bowl of unshelled nuts on a coffee table, an end table, or a bookcase-top—with nutcrackers and nutpicks handy to aid in their consumption.

A ballet nutcracker. Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash.

Just so you younger folks will know: Nutcrackers did not dress up in uniforms like palace guards. No; they were simple, functional devices in zinc-plated steel, similar to pliers. They were meant for cracking nuts, not for dancing ballets.

Besides nuts, we ate a lot of fresh apples in the fall and drank quite a bit of cider, which we got from your proverbial roadside stands. Often a glass jug of cider, and perhaps a pumpkin and some gourds, would come home as the byproduct of a simple drive in the country. 

In those days, we drove in the country a lot. Just for fun. 

A real nutcracker. Photo by 
Dirk Vorderstraße, licensed
under CC BY 2.0.

With gas at thirty cents a gallon, the Sunday drive was cheap entertainment. It was especially popular in the fall, when the colors were great. Most country roads were two-lane, with top speeds around 50 miles per hour. When you saw a roadside stand with cider and pumpkins, there was a fair chance you could pull off and stop before you had zoomed past it.

Today the country stands are bigger operations, destinations in themselves, at odd ends of county trunk roads. If somebody were to set up a small stand beside the main highway, it would be hard for drivers tunnel-visioning along at 75 mph to fight their way across three or four lanes of traffic and sample the wares.

Halloween

We celebrated Halloween as children do today, by dressing up in costumes and going down the street to extort candy from the neighbors. Today, small children go under parental escort. Only teenagers go on their own, and then always in groups. You never know who might be lurking. 

In our childhood, parents did not go along. Only kids went, usually in fair-sized groups. There might be children as old as twelve or as young as four in a group. A child too young for attachment to such a group was not yet old enough for trick-or-treating. And groups of kids straggling about the neighborhood on Halloween night were ostensibly safe. After all, what could happen?

Besides trick-or-treating, Halloween parties were sometimes arranged at schools, churches, or private homes. As best I can recall, what one did at such a party was bobbing for apples. If you’ve never bobbed for apples, Gentle Reader, then you have missed the fun of sticking your face in a tub of cold water, rooting about aimlessly for an eternity of minutes, likely damaging one or more of your possibly still-emerging teeth, and being laughed at because you were unable to sequester a single globéd fruit.

Thanksgiving

Less than a month after Halloween comes Thanksgiving. Our modern American holiday is a mashup of traditional harvest festivals such as the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 and a national need, felt strongly during the Civil War, to thank God for his blessings. When the Pilgrims held their feast with Massasoit and his braves in 1621, it was just a party to celebrate the fruits of the harvest. Had they considered it a time of special thanksgiving, they would have fasted and prayed for three days instead. Our Reformed forebears were gravely attentive to the task of thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925, National Museum of Women in the Arts. Public Domain.

We modern Americans say “Thank You” best by eating vast quantities of food and falling asleep. When I was young, a new fillip had just been added to that program: You ate, settled down in the living room, and took your nap in front of a televised football game. 

Ollie Matson, 1959,
when he played for the Rams.
Public Domain.

I remember watching, with Dad and Grandpa and various uncles, as Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals made an amazing touchdown run that none of us could actually see, on account of snow. Not meteorological snow at Soldier Field, but electronic snow on the television screen. And a vertical roll so persistent that Uncle Richard stood behind the set tweaking the vertical hold knob throughout the game. They don’t make TVs like that anymore.

(Upon checking the Internet, I find that the Chicago Cardinals did not play a Thanksgiving Day game with Ollie Matson in the lineup in any year of my childhood; so I must be remembering a non-Thanksgiving Day game. But you get the idea.)

Winter Wonderland

Woollybear caterpillar.
Photo by Micha L. Rieser,
used by blanket permission.

We have arrived back at the subject of snow. Soon all this fall frivolity will be done, and we’ll be clamped in the grim vise of winter. It’s hard to wax nostalgic when you’re up to your schnozzola in peaceful, downy-white, hexacrystalline flakes. They’re so tiny—how could they possibly amount to anything?

My friends among the woollybear caterpillars inform me, and my own 75 years of finely-honed instincts confirm, that this will be a humdinger of a winter. It will both hum and ding.

Button up your overcoat.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Dire Flirtation

Dear Reader: Last week, Your New Favorite Writer had a close encounter with Fame and Fortune.

Don’t worry, I escaped.

Here’s how it happened.

Novel Quest

In 2016, I began to write a book, a fictional saga of Norwegian immigrants farming the Illinois prairie just before, and during, the Civil War. Two years later—after I had written “The End” at the bottom; had sought and received input from a squad of beta readers; had revised and polished my way through innumerable drafts—I titled it Freedom’s Purchase and set out to get it published.

If writing a novel is hard, it’s harder yet to get it published by a traditional contract. By that I mean an agreement where the publisher pays the author, not vice-versa.

You need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to one of the “Big Five” or their many subsidiary imprints. These publishers seldom, if ever, consider a manuscript from an unrepresented writer.

Yet it’s very difficult to get an agent. There are thousands of literary agents, but there are millions of new writers. 

Independent Publishers

After querying dozens of agents, a process in which I am still engaged, I chose to focus more attention on independent publishers. These are the smaller presses—often regional or specialized—that are neither the Big Five nor their wholly-owned offshoots. 

Most independent publishers will accept a query directly from a writer without an agent. Though smaller than the Big Five, they are perfectly fine, capable publishing businesses that print and sell thousands of books every year. In aggregate, millions of books.

Lots of books. Photo by Hans-Jürgen Weinhardt on Unsplash.

If such a publisher could be found, one astute enough to recognize the quality of Freedom’s Purchase, it might be exactly the right match.

A Full Manuscript Request

In querying a publisher, one must follow that publisher’s submission guidelines precisely. They will want some combination of (1) a brief query letter, (2) a one-page plot synopsis, (3) an author biography, and (4) a small sample of the actual text, usually the first chapter or two.

Every author hopes that a publisher will respond by asking to read the whole book. A full manuscript request means your book is under serious consideration. They would not waste time reading it unless something about your initial submission hinted at a successful collaboration. Right?

Last April, I received this email from a small publishing house in the Mid-South:

Your query for Freedom’s Purchase interests us, and we would like to see more. Please send the full manuscript as a Word document, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Music to my ears! 

I sent the full manuscript and settled down to wait for “as soon as possible” to arrive.

The Long Wait

Patient waiting is not all that easy. But as faithful readers know, I’ve got a blog to post every week. And I keep busy writing my second novel. Not to mention living the mandatory life of a Literary Lion

A literary lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

So I found ways to pass the time. Nevertheless, my patience had gone threadbare by the time I received this message in early July:

Freedom’s Purchase showcases an interesting plot along with a realistic presentation of life in America during the 1800s. The characters are intriguing and readers can become invested in them. There are several weaknesses, some of which render the novel unpublishable.

“Unpublishable.” Oh, no! 

However, at the top they had said:

Thank you for sending Freedom’s Purchase for consideration. We would like to see it again after the suggestions below have been addressed.

To sum up: My novel was unpublishable, but they’d like to see it again. 

I took this as a strong buying signal. However, “the suggestions below” were terse and incoherent to the point of being bizarre. 

“They’re toying with me,” I thought. So I wrote back, asking ever so tactfully for clearer instructions.

Editorial Notes

Two weeks later, the publisher sent clarifying comments. Even these were terse and slightly mystifying. But they were just specific enough that I could infer some clues on how to proceed.

After a week of marathon revising, I sent the new, improved manuscript on July 22. I included a cover email cataloging the changes, just to make sure they noticed.

The Long Wait, Part II

My re-submission must have gone to the back of the queue again. 

I wrote more blog posts, added chapters to my new novel, and did all the standard Literary Lion activities—such as chewing my fingernails down to the quick.

Two weeks in, I asked how the review of my new manuscript was coming.  

The original reader is still reviewing the updated manuscript. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Okay. Sit down and shut up, Larry.

Six more weeks passed.

The Contract Offer

On September 23, the publisher sent this:

We would be happy to extend the offer to publish . . . . If you wish to move forward please send the contract back with everything filled in except the signatures. We will send the document for signatures via DocuSign. When sending the file back to us it must be all pages in one file (no individual pages) and can be scanned or emailed or it can be faxed to (XXX) XXX-XXXX. We look forward to your reply.

Oh the joy in my heart, Gracious Reader, at the words, “We would be happy to extend the offer to publish.” On that basis alone, my wife and I went out for a nice celebratory feast.

Now that the publisher had taken five months considering my manuscript, they seemed ready and eager for me to send back the signed contract right away. 

I wrote back very cordially, reserving a few days to consider the six or seven pages of single-spaced boilerplate they had sent for my signature. 

The Fine Print

Aside from the perishing hope of a lieutenant colonel to don the silver eagles of a “full bird” before retirement, there may be no desperation more desperate than that of an unpublished author to become a published author. It is fully abject. 

One would do almost anything to be published. Therefore, caution is advised. 

Authors’ Guild logo

What one really needs is the advice of a literary attorney, but their services are expensive. However, the Authors’ Guild gives its members a free contract review by experienced literary lawyers. One of the perks of membership. Immediately I joined the Authors’ Guild and sent in the proposed contract for review.

On the second business day, I got a detailed reply, covering each section of the contract, singling out many paragraphs and sentences for particular attention. 

The contract on offer was substandard in many ways. But I felt if the publisher would give way on a few essential points, I could live with the rest. Especially if they seemed to be okay people to work with. 

I compiled a list of questions about the contract, and a separate list of questions about the publisher’s business practices. I then proposed a Zoom call to explore all these questions. The publisher asked me to send the questions so they could prepare their response. I did so.

About a week later, the publisher replied, in writing. The terse remarks I now recognized as characteristic. But they were more than brief; they were dismissive. The message was: We want your book. Shut up and be happy.

Declination

It is hard to turn down any offer to publish your first book. But I’m glad I did so. 

The last laugh is mine, because this publisher helped me improve my book. The process also helped me polish my query letter, synopsis, and biography. The product I am selling just got better, and some other publisher will make a better offer. 

It’s a big world. I’ll find the right publisher for Freedom’s Purchase if I just keep at it.

My apologies, Dear Reader, for making you wait longer to read Freedom’s Purchase, but I promise you—when published, it will have been worth the wait.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Not My Type

Christine DeSmet, guest blogging recently at the Blackbird Writers’ website, raised the topic of typing.

Not keyboarding. Typing.

Touch Typing

Way back in the twentieth century, every high school taught “touch typing,” with  students achieving speeds of sixty words or more per minute, error-free, on manual typewriters. Nearly all typing students were young women, because typing was a secretarial skill. 

Women’s typing class, National Youth Administration, Illinois 1937. Public Domain.

The crewcut lads who hung around the malt shop after school, you see, would become executives and have secretaries to do their typing; the girls would be those secretaries.

Yes, Dear Reader, of course we understand that not all boys became executives. But those who did not would become farmers or mechanics or shopkeepers and would have no need for typing. Only large businesses and government departments could possibly need their writing to look like printing. Ordinary folks could, and mostly did, get by with cursive scrawls in pen or pencil, as long as the numerals were legible.

Today, all children, male and female, learn “keyboard skills” at a young age. The process by which they learn these skills is a mystery, but it seems to involve thumbs and cell phones.

Manual Typewriters

When I was growing up—and even when Christine DeSmet, who is much younger, was growing up—there was no word-processing. There was no spell-check.

Nothing was virtual. Everything was real. Every tap on a key was answered by the whack of a steel typebar planting its face in an inked ribbon to strike a letter onto the paper beyond. 

If you made a typographic error you had to manually remove it from the paper by one of three or four clever methods—none of them quite satisfactory. Important documents had to be perfect ab initio: one errant keystroke and you started over from the top.

The mere act of typing strengthened your fingers, because you needed to hit the keys with strong and uniform force. 

As a young man, I did not take a touch typing course in high school. Fortunately for me, my mother taught me the rudiments on our old Underwood machine. Thus I gained skill enough to type term papers in college, where, by the early 1960s, typed papers had become the required standard. 

Military Typing

Later, the United States Air Force improved me. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Mandarin Chinese; then on to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio eavesdropping techniques. The Air Force gave me a class to bring my typing speed from about 20 WPM up to 35. This standard achieved, they sent me out into the world of international espionage. 

Chinese MiG-17 fighter. Photo by Rob Schleiffert, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

From a windowless compound surrounded by tea fields on a Taiwan mountaintop, we listened in on Chinese Air Force pilots and controllers across the straits. We made sketchy intercept notes in real time but went back later, listened to our tapes, and transcribed all that traffic in verbatim English translations, banging away on manual typewriters. The clunky old Royal of those days, purchased in thousands by Uncle Sam, was a nearly indestructible machine. I ought to know; I tried hard.

The transcripts we made of Chinese military air traffic ultimately went into a huge, room-occupying computer at the National Security Agency in Maryland. How they got there I never learned. But at some point, they must have been manually re-keyed for electronic entry into the Big Daddy Computer. 

Therefore, our typing did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, you just struck over it. As long as the person typing the traffic into the computer could make out what you had meant to type, it was good enough.

I still type about 35 words per minute. I still make lots of mistakes, but on a modern laptop it’s not that big a deal. Corrections are easy. 

Kids today have no idea.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Faster Than a Lobster Quadrille

The young man peered at me over his designer mask. “Do you have a cell phone?”

“No.”

He stared. His brow wrinkled. “Uh . . . wait here.” He ducked back inside. 

There was a sign on the door that warned: 

“NO ENTRY. Call On Cell Phone.

Staff Will Meet You In Parking Lot.”

You’d think they were dealing crystal meth.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Gentle Reader: I do have a cell phone. 

(But I don’t use it. 

Photo by Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash.

(It’s an old clamshell on a $13-a-month plan. It lives in my car, awaiting that moment when I may drive into a snow bank and need help getting out. But who, in the meantime, needs to know of its existence?)

The door opened and the young man re-emerged. “They’ll be with you in a minute.” 

He edged by me and darted down the walk to where a better-trained customer stood, cell phone in hand, hoisting with the other hand a small cage which held a lop-eared rabbit.

Did I feel no guilt, you ask, gumming up the procedures of a nice veterinary clinic?

GUILT? Ha! You may as well ask a wolverine about origami.

Turns out, once they discover one’s masked presence standing at their door—even without a cell phone call—they will eventually bring out the allergy pills one pre-ordered for one’s itchy American Staffordshire terrier mix. 

In the present COVID-19 public health emergency, who could have predicted the emergence of common sense?

#

Milo Bung shook his head when I told him the story. “You go to a lot of trouble to avoid using your cell phone.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

My old classmate glared like a bright young assistant district attorney cross-examining a defendant. “What have you got against cell phones?” 

“What has a cell phone ever done for me?”

Milo scratched his head. “How would I know?”

“Exactly.”

A new idea lit up his face. “What if you want to take a picture?”

“I would use my Nikon. But I’ve already made enough photographs for one lifetime.”

“Is that a fact,” said Milo. He looked askance. “You’ve given up photography altogether?”

“I remember the best moments of all my vacations. The images stored in my brain are better than mere photos. They have more je ne sais quoi.”

In any case, I thought but did not say, when my brain loses the memories, the pictures won’t help either.

Milo rapped his knuckles on the bar. “You’re a hard case, amigo.”

“Besides,” I astutely pointed out, “I like to deal with people in the flesh.”

“Isn’t that sort of old school?”

“That’s me all over.”

#

I was not always thus. It takes decades of study to become an old crank.

Gradually, if you’re a sentient being, you apprehend that in today’s world, the sense of community that underpins mental health has been eroded. In this desert of commonality and fellow-feeling, any face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, encounter, even with a stranger, can be salutary.

#

Years ago, a fellow yahoo on a Road Scholar trip—a man named Larry, by sheer coincidence—tried to browbeat me into needing a GPS navigating device.

“What!” he exclaimed. “You don’t have a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE*? How can you not have one? You can get one for under a hundred dollars.” 

“Or I could not get one,” I pointed out, “and keep my hundred dollars.” 

“No, seriously. You can’t afford to be without it.”

“So far, I’m doing fine.”

“But it’s so cheap, you’ve got to have one.”

I could have explained that 99 percent of my trips are to places I know how to get to; that I can, and do, look up the other one percent in advance; and that if, despite that preparation, I should get lost, I can always stop and ask someone. But no logic would have convinced Larry that my lack of a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE* was okay.

His real problem was that my zoom lens was longer than his. Given that circumstance, his only play was to beat me over the head with his GPS device.

#

I am no Luddite, I tell myself, but simply a man who values the personal touch. 

Why should I ring up my own merchandise at Home Depot when a real pro is on duty one lane over? A person who, by the way, would like to keep her job. 

Sure, I could knuckle under to the ruling paradigm, but I would feel like I was abandoning The Little Guy. If I have to stand in line a few extra minutes, so what? Where else do I have to be?

Our pet spa has the same “call up on the cell phone” routine that the vet’s office does. But rather than lose an eighty-dollar grooming job, they’ll eventually notice me and my shaggy spaniel as we wait in the parking lot.

Some inchoate power out there always wants me to do things in a new way. But, Lord help me, I like the old way. 

They want me to vote early this year—either by mailing in my ballot or by handing it to a designated early-ballot collector sitting under a sign in a public park. All well and good.

But, why? 

Is the election going somewhere? Will the polls be closed?

No. 

My plan is to show up, masked, on election day, at the polling place where I am registered, holding my photographic ID in hand. I trust they’ll let me vote—even though they won’t be able to see that my face matches the photo on the ID—and they’ll count my vote. 

So what’s the problem?

#

Tout le monde, Dear Reader, is NOT rushing off to some Brave New World so fast an old geezer can’t keep up—impressions to the contrary notwithstanding.

You might mention that to Milo Bung when you see him.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer