Thanks for your patience. You may recall that I was attempting to write one short story a week, as recommended by Ray Bradbury, and was posting those stories each Tuesday on this blog.
I was eight stories in, doing just fine. But a funny thing happened on the way to story number nine. I had major surgery to replace my left hip, and my brain was blitzed by opioid painkillers. The fuzz in my head made it impossible to start a new story.
Good news: The logjam has broken. I’ve got a good start on story nine, but it may take a few more days to complete. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it, and will add a hyperlink here to guide you to it. Then I’ll try to get back on the regular Tuesday schedule.
Even without all this wealth and fame, I would still be a writer.
Writing is a form of therapy for me. I have not always appreciated my blessings. I have cherished slights, nurtured grudges, and entertained low opinions of people, simply because I did not understand them. Harboring resentments against those close to us can become a life-long way to avoid developing a more mature and understanding attitude.
Sometimes, writing gives me an unexpected window into someone else’s world—an opportunity to get outside myself and see a larger picture.
A recent medical concern curtailed my writing for several days. When the ability to write returned, I penned this little memoir that showed my own father—a man I did not always appreciate—from a different perspective.
I thank God for the opportunity to discover my own story in writing.
Or start the presses. At any rate, do something with the presses.
This week I will miss the regular Tuesday unveiling of my latest short story for your comments and critique. You’ll see the story—I hope—on Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.
“So what’s such a Big Deal, New Favorite Writer, to interrupt the stream of new stories? You can’t just feed the chickadees and then leave off in the middle of a cold, dark winter, you know. We want our stories! Rumble, rumble rumble! Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny!”
I beg of you, Dear Readers, get hold of yourselves. Chill out. Keep your collective shirt on.
Though my historical novel, Freedom’s Purchase, has yet to secure a locked-in publication contract, it has come close more than once. I made the momentous decision, about two-and-a-half months ago, to decline a publishing contract that was offered, because I just didn’t feel the contract, and the business relationship which would develop around it, were a good fit.
Since then, I received another request for a full manuscript read. The publisher in question ultimately passed on my manuscript—but they gave it a chance and gave me some reasons for their pass. I set about improving it, moving from fourth major draft into fifth major draft.
Late last week I got another full manuscript request from an independent publisher. It looks like a good company to be published by, and their request was cordial and businesslike. But, yikes!—I was in the midst of the latest revision. With no time to spare in filling the publisher’s request, I had to rejigger page numbers and such, so my book would appear smooth and professional, even though it’s not yet fully revised. An editor is never pleased when she finishes Chapter 13 and immediately bumps into Chapter 15, with no Chapter 14 in between. I had to make sure there were no little oversights like that in the manuscript I sent.
The time spent responding to this new read request could not be spent working on this week’s story. That’s why I’m running behind.
The Silver Lining
I cannot predict whether the new publisher will like my book well enough to offer a contract. Only time will tell—probably a month or even two. But one thing that’s apparent is that my query materials, synopsis, etc., are becoming increasingly fine tuned. That’s why I’m getting read requests. Sooner or later, one will result in a published book.
The manuscript itself is one of the query materials. Publishers and agents want to see the first chapter or two, to help them decide whether they’d like to read further. My manuscript is stronger now than it’s ever been.
Meanwhile, I write these weekly short stories as a way to sharpen my narrative skills, which remain rudimentary. None of this comes easy. At least, not to me. I have to work at it.
Putting in the Time
Which brings up another topic: Time spent. Nothing writes itself. The only way to get it done is to sit in one’s chair and bang away on one’s keyboard. I believe my esteemed spouse thinks it foolhardy to spend as much time writing and revising as I do. And I’m positive it’s giving me a more sedentary lifestyle, which is not good. But you do have to put in the time. For me, it’s urgent that I do it now, before my literary impact becomes posthumous.
So I’ll put in the time to finish the first draft of the next story, which is about an old man and a little boy. You won’t want to miss it.
Once it’s posted, I may not have a chance to post another before Tuesday, January 13, when I am scheduled to have my hip replaced. If all goes well, that may slow me down for a few days.
But have no fear, Gentle Reader: I’ll be back. You can’t get rid of me.
When we first visited London, many years ago, we went to see the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The changing of the guard was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. A crowd was already there when we arrived at the enclosure where the ceremony was to take place.
Two or three London bobbies herded onlookers into a space at the end of the courtyard, behind a pavement stripe. We scored a place near the front, where we could see and hear everything.
There were a few other Yanks, but most of the audience was British. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist, and thus equally evident who is not.
One of the locals, a dumpy man in a tweed cap and horn-rimmed glasses, recommended himself to my attention, because he had become the focus of the bobby’s attention.
The copper, a lank young man, stared at the chap in the tweed cap. “Got to push it, now, don’t we, luv?”
The man stared back, mute.
“You’re over the line. Move it.” The officer fingered his baton.
The man jiggled one notch backward.
The bobby stepped forward and stood in the man’s face. He slitted his ice-blue eyes and dimmed his voice to a purr. “Now, that won’t cut it, ducky. You’re courting a summons.” He cast his eyes downward, toward the man’s feet.
I craned my neck to see down. Mister Tweedcap’s shoes cut semi-ovals out of the pavement line, extending half an inch over.
The man jigged backwards again, crowding a woman who stood without interval behind him. His shoe-tips now just touched the line.
The bobby gave him one more cold look, then turned away to walk down the front of the crowd. He stopped after a few steps and looked back.
The man in the tweed cap stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. Silent as ever.
Satisfied the man’s feet had not moved, the bobby turned away again to troop the crowd.
The new guards, red and blue by regiment, cantered in on proud black steeds. After a bit of clip-clop and folderol, the old guards—every bit as flashy—departed.
Meanwhile, the bobby had returned to our sector.
The crowd knew the moment the rite was over. They lapsed into a slouch that was palpable.
Mister Tweedcap stepped over the line and lit a cigarette.
The bobby flashed a grimace of a smile. “See you tomorrow, Mick. Same time, same station.”
“Righto, Kenny,” said the man, exhaling a puff of smoke. “Give my best to the missus.”
The copper nodded and moved off to protect some other part of the kingdom.
Had I been ordered by a cop to move back I would have said “Yes, sir” and removed myself to well behind the line, slacker that I am.
Our British cousin stood on his rights as an Englishman. He thereby reinforced a centuries-old framework of “English liberties”—the same liberties that would have given him, in a rural setting, the right to use long-established footpaths through farmers’ fields.
His grudging deference to the civil authorities, his insistence on toeing right up to the line, must not be sneezed at. English history is soaked in the blood, not to mention the tortured entrails and piked heads, of those who challenged authority. An Englishmen needs to know just how far he can go. The fellow in the tweed cap embodies the “village-Hampden who, with dauntless breast, / The little tyrant of his fields withstood.”
The strong have always ruled the weak.
At some time past, this hegemony gained the name of “government,” which derives ultimately from a Greek term that means to steer a ship. The idea of government was that ordinary folks needed to have their ship steered by experts, otherwise known as “the rightful authorities,” those in a position to exercise power.
The concept of “government,” with its accompanying whiff of political legitimacy, gave any tyrant the full justification for his particular tyranny.
Government employed a system of laws, at least since the time of Hammurabi, which applied to those governed but not, usually, to those who did the governing.
That is still largely the case. Some governments feign the hypothesis that laws apply equally to ruler and ruled. But the principle is carried into practice only when convenient.
Gradually, over millennia, societies have enshrined in tradition many customs that limit, in a practical way, the power of the ruler, of the ruler’s extended family, and of that corps of cronies and straphangers who constitute the ruling class.
Today we benefit from protective customs codified in Jewish, Greek, and Roman law; from feudal practices which arose in Europe during the days of the Holy Roman Empire; from the legal heritage of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and post-Norman rule of Great Britain; and from American practices that began in colonial times and gave birth to Constitutional safeguards of our common rights.
All these things form a web of customs, understandings, and institutions which guard our liberty.
But in the human soul there is a craving for primacy.
In every village board, every bowling league, and every garden club across the land lurks a self-appointed leader who would become Caligula or Saddam Hussein without giving it a second thought—were not he or she restrained by the many strands in our ancient web of governing traditions.
Democracy, freedom, and equality are not the natural condition of society. Dictatorship is no temporary aberration; it is the rule, absent that multifarious system of closely tended liberties on which we depend just as does our cousin in the tweed cap. Despotism exercised by the most cunning, brutal, and lucky is the default order of things. We should thank God for the long, painfully developed, chain of specific practices and understandings which hold would-be tyrants at bay.
Fairness, justice, and decency are merely warm, fuzzy concepts that hold no sway. Without the common residues of parliamentary procedure, contract law, and long-established precendent—all of them dreary and tedious things, to say the least—we would be at the mercy of mere thugs.
Whenever a nicely uniformed and duly constituted authority requires us to stand in a box, we—at the very least—ought to jam our caps down over our brows and bump our toes right up to the line.
Pacesetting nation-state seeks Chief Executive Officer to guide it through the next four years.
Employer is on geostrategic Short List—you would definitely recognize its name. This global power has gone through turbulence in recent years and looks to recapture a previous golden era, the cause and timing of which is disputed by major parties, but everybody agrees it was pre-COVID. Unification of diverse perspectives is a much-lauded priority.
Applicant must meet all wishes of all residents of this multifarious democratic republic, everywhere, all the time. Deep skillset in partisan politics is considered essential. The successful applicant will show no mercy to the opposition, despite significant downside risk of premature termination. Core competencies include appropriate distribution of credit (Ours) and blame (Theirs).
Required duties also, from time to time, include leadership of the Free World.
No applicant will be considered for this position who cannot show strong evidence of personal instability, preferably to the point of derangement.
Although cash salary is inconsequential, non-monetary benefits include a nice house, convenient transport options, multiple opportunities for family enrichment, and a testimonial library located near applicant’s chosen retirement venue.
Apply by Tuesday, November 3, to the United States of America, ATTN: The Electorate.
THIS IS DEFINITELY THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER HELD!!!!
You know—the election to determine whether our nation’s immediate future will be an Elysian idyll of prosperity, fairness, and brotherhood; or whether the bad guys will win and plunge the whole cosmos into an irrecoverable tailspin of poverty and totalitarian despair.
So we are told.
Do you believe that?
Do you believe those who disagree with you are evildoers, not to be trusted with the reins of government for a four-year period? And, so Bondvillainously effective that they will achieve their terrifying aims with one-hundred-percent efficiency once sworn into office?
Really? You really believe that?
If so, you might want to get out a bit and meet a few folks you don’t already know.
So many friends and neighbors have already sunk so deep in dystopian devotion to their wing—be it left or right—that riots and mayhem are expected to break forth, no matter who wins the election.
You and I, Kind Reader, need not compound this insanity.
We are permitted to take a deep breath.
Let us think, speak, and act like adult American citizens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The young man peered at me over his designer mask. “Do you have a cell phone?”
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.
(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?”
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.
Is the election going somewhere? Will the polls be closed?
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.
Once upon a weekend sunny, I was feeling . . . kinda funny . . .
As I cruised the stories sketched upon my laptop’s memory core.
While I noodled, idly hashing over plots, there came a crashing,
As of someone wildly thrashing—thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore.
“’Tis some chipmunk brash,” I muttered, “thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore—
Only this and nothing more.”And the steely, harsh, resounding echoes of the stovepipe’s pounding
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some chipmunk brash that’s greeting from inside my stovepipe’s bore—
some brash chipmunk with his greeting from within my stovepipe core;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Gentle Reader, I cannot keep this up indefinitely.
The part about fantastic terrors is true, though.
The space where I hatch my writerly triumphs is not heated by the furnace that serves the rest of the house. So in this otherwise pleasant room, we have a woodstove instead. Its black chimney rises four feet, turns horizontal to shoot through the outer wall, and zooms skyward again, rising another ten feet outdoors to disperse the smoke above the roof.
A frantic scrabble sounded forth from the two-foot horizontal run just inside the wall.
Something alive was inside the stovepipe and, from the sound of things, wanted out.
The stove and its pipe were cold, but I had plans to lay a fire there soon. That might smoke the occupant out—or else, gruesomely, cook it.
How had something gotten in there? Not through the stove: The firebox door was closed and in any case, we don’t have wildlife wandering through the sunroom. The outdoor chimney has a cap on top that ought to keep things out. It had failed in its duty.
I wanted this new tenant evicted. But how to dismantle a stovepipe, I do not begin to know; much less how to put it back together afterwards. I would need to call for professional assistance, at about eighty dollars an hour. As the late Chester A. Riley would have said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
I sat and pondered.
There came a great whump!, and from the edges of the loose-fitting firebox door rose a cloud of gray ash.
Time to relapse into verse. I’m sorry, Dear Reader, I can’t help myself.
Down the chimney a sparrow had come with a bound.
He was dressed all in feathers, from beak down to toes,
And stood amid soot which on all sides arose.
He spoke not a word but made straight for the light
With a flap and a flutter as he took his flight.
Fancy that—not a chipmunk at all.
A Small Bird
An English sparrow, or house sparrow. Male, to judge by his black bib.
One of the commonest, almost the least of birds. The kind that, in olden days, you could buy two for a farthing at the temple in Jerusalem.
He stood on a bed of fly ash and blinked as the light struck him when I opened the cast-iron door. Then he flew up and bounced off the ceiling.
He bolted for daylight and bounced off a window. He tried again and bounced off another window. His little brain clearly was be-twittered.
I went out through the wide-open door, hoping to set a good example. I came in and did it twice more, to make sure he got the idea. Then I stayed out, went around the corner, and looked in the end window from outside.
Left to his own devices, the winged warrior hopped across the tile floor, closing the distance to the open door, hop by hop, until he stood on its threshold. He hopped out, cautiously, to the low deck outside.
One more hop, testing the alfresco, and off he flew. None the worse for wear, I hope.
Just another day in the life of a literary lion.
The Preachy Part
Close encounters with God’s wild creatures always leave Your New Favorite Writer a bit breathless. I’m glad the little guy slipped his predicament with all feathers accounted for.
But on a deeper level, I stand in awe of the Creative Power that fashioned both a geezer like me and a striving sparrow, and put us together in one space for a few moments’ mutual instruction in the sketchy parameters of life.
In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George.
These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring.
Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.
Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way.
The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.
Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day.
No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.
Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime.
Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.
Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.
DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves.
LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.
These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.
What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.)
I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout.
In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.
Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone.
By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds.
The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.
Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.
If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.
Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe.