The Return of The Private: the Great American Spirit

One day soon, I hope that I’ll be earning enough from my writing to make it my full-time occupation. As of yesterday that was not the case; maybe tomorrow will bring better times. In the meantime, my partner and I make our living buying and selling the most lovely and useful things we can find in estate sales, garage sales and sometimes, even thrift shops. Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Especially when I come across a great old book.

Here’s a question for you: What is the difference, if any, between a Bibliophile and a Bookworm?

I think I learned to read on my own, before I learned the alphabet or read any of those Dick and Jane books (Actually Nelson’s West Indian Reader by J.O. Cutteridge). I remember getting up at dawn with my mother. She would make a pot of coffee and fix me a demitasse, hot, thick, and bittersweet and then, as she got busy in the kitchen, I’d run out to the front gate to collect the daily newspaper. Then it was on to the front porch to read it. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. What else do you do with a newspaper? And that how it was until the day my father got up earlier than usual and came out looking for his paper. He was shocked to find me reading it. I remember that he made a big fuss about it and after that things were not the same.

And then there was the old sideboard where my mother kept all the books she thought I was too young to read. The old girl’s reading habits are still a mystery to me. She had all these books, but she didn’t read them; she kept them locked away in the sideboard.

She never knew, and I never told her, that I had figured out a way into the sideboard. It was easy to slide out one of the top drawers and then to reach into the cabinet and undo the hook that held the left side door. Then a gentle tap was sufficient to pop the double doors open without a key to retract the bolt in the lock.

The first thing I’d notice was the smell. Maybe you know it – the musty, slightly sour smell of really old books. It wasn’t, in itself, an endearing scent but it was connected, in my imagination, with a universe of adventure and delight, with The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask.

So it was that at a very early age, I discovered Literature. And became a book something – bibliophile or bookworm, or maybe a little of both. One of the books I read then was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Perhaps that was the reason for my mother’s secrecy. She was a remarkable woman. I was born in 1948 so this had to be, maybe 1954 or 56. I wish I still had those books.

No matter, I find new old books all the time, these days, and often relive the secret pleasure of my childhood, heightened now by the presence of my youngest children, with whom I can share them.

My most recent find is a 1921 publication from The Macmillan Company, Modern Short-Stories edited by Margaret Ashmun, M.A.. The editor’s stated purpose was to provide access, for college students, to classic examples of the art in its modern form from Russia, France, England, America and Scandinavia.

Amazingly, or perhaps not-so-amazingly, you can find it on Amazon. There’s even a Kindle edition available for download at $0.99!

All the stories in the collection are classic examples of the form but there’s one that really resonated with especial poignancy – The Return of a Private by Hamlin Garland. The story begins with the end of the Civil War and the discharge of many blue-coated men who were left in the deep South to find their best way home. It’s the story of Edward Smith

“a man of terrible energy. He worked ‘nights and Sundays’ as the saying goes, to clear the farm of its brush and of its insatiate mortgage! In the midst of his Herculean struggle came the call for volunteers, and with the firm and unselfish devotion to his country … he threw down his scythe and grub-axe, turned his cattle loose, and became a blue-coated cog in a vast machine for killing men, and not thistles. While the millionaire sent his money to England for safe-keeping, this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm and went away to fight for an idea. It was foolish, but it was sublime for all that.”

Ed and his fellows walk home together, over several painful days, forcing their worn out, wounded bodies to stick to the trail. And at the end, for Edward Smith, are his wife, his children and his farm. His beloved dog, Spot, is dead, and the farm is

“weedy and encumbered, [and] a rascally renter had run away with his machinery, his children needed clothing, the years were coming upon him, he was sick and emaciated, but his heroic soul did not quail.”

Edward Smith was Garland’s lesson in what it means to be of the ninety-nine percent. Perhaps we are often unwise, even foolish, and some of us may sometimes behave in unthinking, even deplorable ways. Yet we share a dream, of freedom for all, and a good crop.

Garland’s soldier fought a war to end American slavery while the bone-spur-encumbered millionaires of the day stayed home and counted their money. That was the difference then, and it’s the difference now.

My farm is just a raised bed of tomatoes, beans and potatoes in my backyard but I’m hoping for a good crop all the same.

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Humpty Trumpty Built a Great Wall

Civil War

I think I see a strategy evolving in place as the White Right organizes to exacerbate the historic divisions in the country; fearful of what they see as their reduction to a minority, they intend to curtail the power of the Federal Government and revert to State rights as the basic organizational principle of the United States of America. Without a civil war to coerce its acceptance, this may not be possible.

Organize, Educate, Integrate

Those of us who are opposed must resolve to organize, educate and integrate. The power of the people, organized, gave us the Civil Rights Act in the face of the refusal of the state power to support it. We don’t need state power, we don’t need politicians, we don’t need leaders, we don’t need heroes. We need us, ordinary people like you and me, to get together and to work together and to resist forever.

They are doomed to fail.

Just look at Trump, failing all over the place as his policies backfire, one after the other.

Humpty-Trumpty and his wall are going to fall, for sure.


Organize; Educate; Integrate.

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West With The Night: a review

How do you select reading material? Me, I like to browse titles until I happen on something that catches my eye and attention; it’s especially fun to browse titles in thrift shops where I know I’m going to be paying pennies on the dollar for a new book. Yes, I understand that the writer is getting nothing from this sale, but these days I just don’t have the disposable income to support the starving writers of the world. They do have my sympathy, and more; I’m one of that motley crew, after all.

So it was that I happened to notice a clean looking paperback with an interesting title – West with the Night – by somebody named Beryl Markham. The cool green cover featured a head-shot of a Victorian looking woman wearing an old, leather flying helmet, WWII vintage.

Hmm. Interesting.

I picked up the interesting book and read the blurb on the back cover. And there it was. A blurb from Ernest Hemingway, describing Beryl Markham as one of the best writers he had ever read. That was it. I had to read this book. I know you want to read exactly what Hemingway wrote so here it is, in full.

From a letter to Maxwell Perkins:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, WEST WITH THE NIGHT? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true … I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway)

That kind of praise from Dude Doodley would be great; coming from Ernest Hemingway, well, you get it.

So I grabbed my copy of West with the Night for 75 cents plus tax and took it home with me. The book had been published in 1983 by North Point Press in San Francisco and sold then for $12.50.

It conveniently happened that my reading group was just then looking for some new material so all agreed to give Ms Markham a tryout, based on Hemingway’s flatulent (they thought) blurb. No one wanted to believe that some uncelebrated writer could be that good.

For those of you unfamiliar with my reading group, it comprises me and my three young’uns, Zachary (14) Zizi (12) and Grace (11). We read together every night, taking turns to read aloud. We talk about the books we read, remarking on what we like and dislike as we go on. We’ve been doing this for years.

West with the Night is a memoir that reads like fiction. I guess that’s why Hemingway put in that bit about the verification of the events in the book. One of the remarks from the reading group, I think it was Zizi who said it, but we all agreed, was that the ending was so poetic that it was hard to believe that life could actually happen like that.

It’s a simple story about a fairly interesting life – a young English girl grows up in Africa with her single parent father, learning to train racehorses and to live in the bush like a Murani warrior. A chance meeting with a colorful tinkerer introduces her to flying and when her father loses his farm and she is forced to make her own way in the world, she trains for and gets her pilot’s license and becomes a bush pilot in East Africa. Eventually she decides to leave Africa altogether and return to her roots in England. After an adventurous flight that doesn’t end particularly well, she returns to Africa, presumably to live, and maybe write, some more.

Beryl deserves every bit of the praise she got from Ernest. She writes beautifully, poetically, about Africa and Africans; Italians invading Ethiopia; about flying; about horses; about dogs; hunting; the weather, and anything else she cares to mention. Her style is dated, marked by long sentences, constructed with the beautiful architecture of Virginia Woolf; these days popular writing eschews long, slow sentences.

But this is a memoir?

Not really … it actually has a plot and is driven by a story with a beginning and an end. There’s not a lot about the life of Beryl Markham. We never hear anything about her dramatically absent mother. Beryl never falls in love, never betrays any attraction to a man or a woman. She’s celibate without ceremony; all her emotions are integral to the story. When she feels what she feels, it’s to move the story forward. Yet none of it feels contrived. If it’s a story, it’s a well written story.

Read this book to be entertained, to be pleasured, which is a rare thing in a book. It’s one of those that you don’t want to end.

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Can you identify this artifact?

I found this clay bottle many years ago, in a little thrift shop in Brooklyn, New York. Over the years I’ve tried to learn about its provenance but so far, I’ve not been able to find any information about it. It looks like an Aztec artifact. I think that the design elements on the back are Aztec and the face is vaguely pre-Columbian Mexican but I don’t know enough to say with any certainty.

Here’s a link to a couple of photos of the item on Pinterest. Any information would be appreciated. Please help me solve the mystery.

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Reconciliation: Part 3


Theodore watched the SWAT team coming up the hallway; he had heard them stampeding up the stairwell, yelling as they came. As he opened his door to the hallway, he saw his supervisor getting off the elevator; drawn by the noise and the sight of an armed SWAT strike team charging through the hospital, several doors had opened and curious workers and patients clustered around them, watching.

He watched in amazement as the soldiers surrounded him. Now they were yelling at him, ordering him to kneel and surrender. His heart was pounding with panic. His head spun, his vision blurred to a flat image of fast moving figures, with guns. Two soldiers grabbed him by the arms and threw him to the ground. He manged to turn his face off to the side before his head banged on the tile floor. A headache exploded behind his eyes. He said nothing; did not cry out. What good would that have done? Somehow, they had found out about the book. It was inevitable; he had known that from the start. He wondered what had happened to the old man.

They took him away in handcuffs, with a crowd of people watching as they walked him through the hospital hallways and down the stairs, from his maintenance room on the third floor to the basement parking lot. They bundled him into a closed black vehicle; he noticed that without an audience, the soldiers were a lot gentler and more considerate. A soldier chained his ankles to large rings on the floor of the car.

They left Theodore sitting alone in a comfortable chair in a windowless waiting room that was much like any waiting room in any office. His chair faced a door that appeared to lead to an inner office. There were the usual drab paintings on the wall and chairs like Theodore’s stood empty around the room. There was a small table in one corner, on which sat a pile of magazines. A clock on the wall told the wrong time; after a while Theodore realized that it was dead. It felt like he had been waiting for several hours when finally a man entered. Under his white lab coat he wore a shirt and tie and in his hands he carried a clipboard and pencil. His hands were very clean, his nails carefully manicured. He approached Theodore and stood directly in front of him, uncomfortably close. Theodore wanted to reach out and push the man away but thought that his intentions might be misunderstood, construed as guilt and hostility, so he continued to sit, leaving the man in charge.

“Are you Theodore Malsch?”

“Yes, that’s my name. I’m Theodore Malsch. But who are you?”

“I’m the Investigator,” the man answered, leafing through documents on the clipboard. On hearing this, Theodore became alarmed and started to rise from his chair. The Investigator put a firm hand on Theodore’s shoulder to stop him. “Please remain seated. Why do you claim to be Theodore Malsch? Who are you actually?”

“What do you mean? I’m Theodore, that’s me. Theodore Malsch.”

“Where were you born? And please, look around you. Isn’t this a nice room? Aren’t you comfortable? There is no need for any more lies. The Quarterback has confirmed the Anomaly. Let us please have the necessary data so that we can perform the reconciliation. And you can be out of here.” He smiled reassuringly.

“Where are we anyway? And why am I here?” Theodore didn’t try to get out of the chair this time, but he slid to the edge of the seat. He wondered if getting angry would help his situation.

The Investigator looked at him with a wry smile. “That information is classified,” he said. “If I told you, then I’d have to kill you.”

“What? That’s crazy. I am Theodore Malsch. That’s my name. From ever.”

“What’s crazy is you trying to bluff your way out of this. You are not in the Q-base. You don’t exist. Where did you come from? That is the answer we require.”

“And it’s the answer you already have. I’m an American, a citizen of the Federal Territories. I was born right here, eleven September, twenty-one fifty.”

“I can’t reconcile that response with the Q-base. It is not a valid response,” the Investigator answered dryly.

Theodore took a deep breath and wished there was a window he could look out of right at this moment. But all he had were the paintings on the wall; one of them was attractive … in a somewhat frightening way. It was a perspective painting of a lighted hallway, executed in rich browns. Interesting, the way it drew his eyes, sucking him into its depths.

“Excuse me a moment,” said the Investigator. He turned, walked over to the opposing door and knocked once. Theodore saw a light go on behind the door and heard a heavy tread approaching. The door was opened a crack and the Investigator whispered something to whoever was there.

“Yes,” said the voice behind the door, shutting it firmly, with a loud click. The Investigator walked slowly back to again face Theodore.

“You were making travel plans. Why did you come here? Where are your accomplices?” he said.

“I’ve done nothing wrong, have I? I just wanted to see …” Theodore stopped, realizing that he had opened the door to a line of questioning that he didn’t want, that he felt sure would end badly for him.

“Yes. See what?”

“The jungle. The Amazon.”


“I don’t know.” He spoke, heard himself and wondered if he should say more. “It’s just that … I wondered …”

“Yes. You wondered … ”

“Is it still there?”

“Is what still there?”

“You know, the Amazon. The jungle. I’ve never seen anything like that, so I wonder if … it could be.”

“Could be what?”

“Nothing. Just be. Like me.”

“Perhaps yes. Just like you indeed.”

“What do you mean, why are you talking to me like that?”

“You know why.”

“Okay, so I know why, maybe, so why don’t you just come right out and say it? What’s all this cat and mouse about?”

“Good. Finally you’re beginning to understand. Then why don’t you tell me about it.”

Theodore hesitated on the brink of the abyss. Then he leaped into the dark.

“It’s about the book, isn’t it?”

The Investigator cocked his head to one side and maintained an expressionless silence. Theodore waited.

“Excuse me,” said the Investigator, turning once more and walking to the office door. He knocked once, and as before, a light went on and a heavy tread approached the door. Again there was a whispered conversation that Theodore could not understand. Perhaps it was in another language, he thought. The Investigator returned to stand before him again.

“Why did you do it? Do you hate America? What have we done to you? Did you not find happiness here?”

“What? What are you talking about? I didn’t know it was contraband. What happiness are you talking about? I’m Theodore Malsch, a citizen of the Federal Territories. Why would I hate my country?”

“So that’s it then; you’re a smuggler. What did you bring here and who’s your supplier?”

“Listen, I’m not a smuggler. I work at the hospital. I bought a book from a man on the street. I didn’t know it was contraband.”

“What’s his name, your contact?”

“He’s not my contact. I don’t know him. He was just an old man in the street. I don’t know where he came from. I don’t know where he went. I paid him for a book; you know the title – Mother of God. That’s all. It was a book about the Amazon, about how it was back then, more than a hundred years ago. I wanted to see if it was still there.” Theodore began to sob softly.

“We don’t care about all that. We will find your old man, your contact, mister whatever your name is. Theodore Malsch, the real Theodore Malsch, was a hero of the Homeland. With the rest of his high school class, he enlisted during a time of engagement, when his Homeland had to be defended. He gave his life for the Homeland.”

“But,” said Theodore through his tears, “I didn’t go. It was ninth grade; they … we … were children. I saw … I couldn’t go.”

The Investigator was suddenly enraged, the fire flying to his eyes, his body tightening as he moved to within an inch of Theodore.

“Do not speak of these things. You have no right. We see what you did. Somehow you stole his identity, but you could not alter the record. Of course you couldn’t; the Quarterback is unbreakable. It is over. The Anomaly has been discovered. The record will be reconciled.”

The Investigator returned to the office door and knocked; as before, the light went on and the heavy tread could be heard, approaching slowly. The door opened, and whispered words were again exchanged. But this time the door stayed open as the Investigator returned to Theodore.

“Get up,” he said.

Theodore rose shakily.

“What happens now?” he asked, trying to stay calm but his hands were cold. He rubbed his palms together for some warmth.

“Nothing. Please go to the next station. Oh, and goodbye, Mister … Malsch?”

“Yes, goodbye.” Theodore turned to go, then stopped. “Wait,” he said, “Is it there? Is the jungle still there?”

The Investigator stopped but did not turn around. Over his shoulder he spoke his last words to Theodore Malsch.

“Of course,” he said.

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Story and Structure: A Webinar

Last Sunday, I spent a couple of useful hours participating in my first webinar. The event was hosted and moderated by Shelley Souza, who seems to be the editorial voice behind the website at In her invitation to the webinar, Shelley wrote the following:

One reason I want to offer this free webinar for fiction writers is because I have been listening to a series of conversations with Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and other highly successful television series shows). I rarely watch television, not having grown up with one, and I have no interest in writing for this medium. But her advice that story informs structure resonated with me. Not for the reason she stated–essentially that each genre has its own structure–but because understanding why story informs structure is paramount to writers who want the power of their voice to drive their work.

In a private message to me that she wrote in response to my admission that I hoped to garner advice that would make me a more efficient writer, she warned me that it was unlikely that she could help in that regard. Here’s some of what she wrote.

I saw that you’re looking for a strategic approach to making yourself a more efficient writer. This webinar will not give you that. It is not what I am interested in helping writers with–there are plenty of other writers and teachers who are already working on this. In many ways the work I do is the antithesis of that, because I don’t believe it’s helping to make writers write with originality and strength. So you may not wish to attend. If, however, you still do, here is an earlier email I sent to writers who had already signed up.

I was impressed with her honesty but, beyond that, I’m not the sort to be put off by a different approach, by someone else’s idea of how a thing ought to be done. In any case, I’ve not had much schooling in Creative Writing so the whole theoretical formulation of Aristotle’s Poetics is no more than a dim candle in the glare of Literature. I mean, I’m open to ideas here.

I don’t write with any structure in my head. There are characters, there’s a story, and there’s a place where things happen. Behind everything is my philosophy, loosely defined as the sum of the decisions I have made about how I want to live my life, broadly speaking.

It turned out quite well for me. Shelley talked a bit, outlining her ideas in conversations with each of the participants of the webinar; a one-on-one session with each that was conducted openly. She also set up two short writing exercises, the first at the start of the webinar and the other after she had explained what she was advocating – her approach to the way story informs structure.

The short version, as I understood it, was that the important thing is the unique voice that is the natural possession of every writer; writing ought to begin with that voice, with its free expression which, if allowed, will produce a structure that is a natural fit for the story. In a strange way, she reminded me a bit of Bruce Lee, and his ideas about the role of Tradition in martial arts.

I will not attempt here to explicate Shelley’s ideas. Instead I will suggest that you visit her website at and form your own understanding. I will only add that I found them interesting and useful in my own writing.

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Reconciliation: Part Two

As promised, here’s the second installment of the short story.

Reconciliation: Part 2

For a while, he was content with those feelings but soon the urge to get up and go began to burn fiercely in his heart. Theodore had never previously felt the need to go anywhere but the world he encountered in the book had put wonder in his dry heart. He found himself dreaming of the wild, of places teeming with life that he had never encountered, had never even suspected might exist. Did they exist, still? He wondered, and doubted. Surely he would have heard of a place like that, if it were real. How could he not have known? How? What else did he not know?

First, he would need a passport and to get that he needed a letter from his employer, a character reference, putting in writing the humdrum of his daily existence. On time and regular was the key. That was easy. People at work were curious about where he wanted to go, and why, but he lied copiously about that, claiming to be still undecided and offering the standard tourist destinations in a popular cruise package as options he was considering. Everyone had an opinion; everyone had advice.

“Off-world, that’s where I would go,” said his shift-supervisor as she approved his Request for Documents.

“Yeah? I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for that. I’d be too scared.” Theodore looked at her and smiled his trademark self-deprecating smile.

“Well, think about it. You only live once, you know.”

It was in the High School records that his claim to citizenship in America was warehoused, so on his day off, Theodore rode the bullet train to the school and presented his employment documents to the guards at the front gate.

“Go straight in through the door on the right, and keep right all the way to the end. Can’t miss it,” said the burly guard with the big gun across his chest.

Theodore didn’t need any instructions. He remembered, and nothing had changed in the years since his graduation. That had not been much of an event, with all his friends gone. In fact, he had been the only one from his class to graduate. He had half expected that the teachers would have been impressed, but they all looked bored as they pronounced the platitudinous clichés and showed him the door. It had been disappointing, a bit, and he had left that afternoon feeling guilty about something. They told him that his diploma would be in the mail, but it never came. That never bothered him as he was already working at the hospital as an engineering intern and his supervisor was very much aware of his situation at his high school. Upon graduation he was automatically transferred to the regular staff and placed on the payroll. The paperwork was expected to follow; nobody noticed when it never came.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t find anything for you. I’ve got you up to the Ninth Grade, then it looks like you were shipped out with your class.” The young woman behind the barred window looked very concerned. “Why didn’t you ship with the rest of your class?”

“Simple. No mystery. They went military, I stayed.”

“Well, no. I’m sorry, but that’s not what the records say. You were shipped with them. The entire class record was transferred to the military. And you should have gone with them.”

“But that can’t be right. I stayed right here and graduated from the Twelfth Grade.”

“Well, I just can’t find the paperwork. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to go to your military unit.”

“But I don’t have a military unit. What are you talking about?”

“Maybe you should have. Anyway, that’s where your records must be. They’re not here, I can tell you that. I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Melanie watched him go, sadly. He seemed like such a nice young man. She really hated it that she would have to submit an incident report about his application, but it was required in cases like these. His records would require reconciliation. She sighed.

Melanie’s report arrived in the Investigator’s in-box the morning following Theodore’s request at his high school. Because it involved a possible Anomaly, he sent it over to QB Processing for analysis. Since Corporate had commissioned the computer they all called ‘The Quarterback’, there was no processing backlog, so he expected to see the full report on his desk that afternoon. He hated Anomalies; they always demanded special treatment, and more effort from him. Always left him with a bad feeling too, truth be told. But the records had to be reconciled; that was all that mattered. This was definitely an Anomaly, with no records anywhere, except at the Hospital, where the subject had been placed on the payroll five years ago, and where he had worked quietly ever since. How was that possible?

He arrived at work the next morning determined to find the answer. Theodore’s Anomaly was the first thing he tackled that day. It was the most glaring Anomaly he had ever seen, one with no records anywhere, except the isolated payroll files from the Hospital where the subject worked. This didn’t make any sense. He enumerated the possibilities in his mind. Someone in the school had helped him, planting false papers to see him through the system, and removing them once he was in, out of fear that the documents might be traceable to their source. Or he had exploited a breach in the Hospital security to get into the system, faking the whole high school student thing and ending up on the payroll, sans documents. But why risk everything with a passport application now? Where did he have to be so urgently that he would place himself under the Department’s scrutiny? The Investigator reached for the phone on his desk.

“I have an Anomaly and I need a pick-up,” he said to the young woman on the other end. He always thought of the voice as young and female but today it was thin and bored and the business was completed quickly.

“You have an address?” asked the voice.

“Workplace, Atlantis Mercy Hospital.”


“Asap. I need this one now. There’s an open door out there that must be locked, and this one is the key.”


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Part One

It’s been a while since my last post and a lot has happened in the interval. I spent some time reviewing what I’ve learned about writing since I started this blog, looking at what I’ve done, reading about writing, even taking an online course on Creative Writing. I ended up feeling good about what I’ve achieved but at the same time, recognizing that there was a lot lacking in what I wrote. It was time to begin again. Here’s a story that I wrote a couple of years ago; I’ve revised it, applying my new skill set, and I’d like to get some reactions to this version of the story. It’s a little over four thousand words, a little long for a blog post, so I’ll serialize it, publishing it here in three parts. It’s called Reconciliation. Here’s the first part. Please let me know what you think of Theodore Malsch and the world he inhabits.




For three days now, Theodore Malsch had been watching the ragged old man. He was always there, on the same corner, hugging a small cup of something hot, the pockets of his old brown coat bulging suggestively with some kind of contraband. He never spoke, but it was clear from the way he would look at Theodore that a conversation between them was imminent, wanting only the merest gesture of acknowledgment from Theodore to begin. And for three days, Theodore had not made that gesture. This was only natural, because Theodore was a sensible young man, and he understood that contraband was dangerous and unsanitary. As was the ragged old man. But the bulges in those worn pockets were intriguing. As was the old man’s silence.

Today, Theodore was admitting to himself that he had been thinking about the situation from the very first day. At work, as he went through the motions of cleaning the machines, sanitizing them and setting them up with freshly autoclaved accessories, he thought about the bulges, imagining that they held fantastic drugs that would take him to pleasure palaces where he could be king for a while; or perhaps the old man had a supply of those QB emulators that everyone had heard about and spoken about but that no one had actually seen. He’d love to get one of those. Course, it wouldn’t be the same as the real QB; he knew that you couldn’t run a Quantum Bit processor without a nuclear power supply. That’s why only the Corporations had them. But the emulators were rumored to be almost as good. At least a thousand times more powerful than anything you were allowed to buy.

The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that the man had somehow obtained some QB emulators and was discreetly offering them for sale. Why else would he present himself so silently on the corner, and what else could he be selling? It had to be that. And today was the last day that Theodore would meet the old man on the corner. Tomorrow his shift would change and this once in a lifetime opportunity would be lost forever. In truth, he admitted to himself, he did not know for sure that the man was selling QB emulators, but what the hell, whatever it was, it had to be something good.

All his twenty-three years, Theodore Malsch had avoided dangerous situations and actions. In high school, he had watched his friends fall for the military recruiter’s promises of high good times; seduced by the imagined high of victory in noble defense of nation; the experience of camaraderie as part of an invincible army and the pleasures of the spoils of war for the conquering heroes, they abandoned High School in the ninth grade and disappeared into the Service. But kill and be killed held no appeal for Theodore. He had stayed in school, and graduated into his job at the hospital. His work there was not unimportant; the machines he maintained were a vital part of the emergency care given to the sick and wounded people dragged in from the developments
. Not infrequently, he would be caught up in the routine drama of the ER. In those moments Theodore would feel important but they were admittedly rare and while he understood that it was unrealistic to expect more, he remained, in the end, deeply unsatisfied.

So it was that Theodore Malsch had decided that he simply had to know what was contained in those bulging coat pockets. It seemed to him now that fate had sent him an opportunity and that the time had come to take a chance.

He had been apprehensive about the acquisition; never having dealt with contraband before he felt exposed and vulnerable, watched by a million eyes. In the final moments before contact was made, before the irrevocable step was taken, it occurred to him that the old man might be a watcher, a trap, there to ferret out resisters, the quiet outlaws who were the greatest threat to public order and the survival of the Homeland. Acquiring contraband was a crime and would cast him into that class of pariahs he had always looked at with fear and, yes, loathing. Yet here he was, gut churning, body tingling, every sense heightened, about to take the step that would launch him into the unknown.

The man was there, as usual, in his customary place, clutching his cup of hot liquid. Before each sip, he would blow gently into the cup, raising a small mist of steam from the brew. His eyes met Theodore’s over the rim of the steamy cup and there was, clearly, a question in them. Theodore’s heart raced as he nodded to the man, a thing he had never done before. He hoped that the old man would recognize this. He slowed his pace, waiting for a response; he drew level and stopped. Now he was committed to the act of lawbreaking and ready for anything. He pointed to the old man’s bulging pockets.

“How,” he began hoarsely, overcome with some emotion he had never felt before. He wondered if he was afraid. He cleared his throat and started again. “How much?”


“How much?” he said, jabbing fiercely with a pointing finger at the obvious bulges in the man’s pockets.

“Dunno. You want one?”

“Yes,” impatient, his hands signaling nervousness with small waving movements, suggesting haste.

The man frowned, thoughtful. “Okay, five satoshi.”

“Okay. Here, give me your code.” He took out his quandroid and made the transfer. The old man removed one of the bulges from his coat and handed it to him.

“Enjoy.” He turned sharply and was gone before Theodore could reply.

Clever, he thought, reading the book’s title to himself.

Interesting title – Mother of God – by someone named Paul Rosolie. Well at least somebody had a sense of humor here.The chip must be concealed in this book. The book was sealed in a thin plastic film, probably to protect it from the rigors of the man’s marketing methods. He stuck tit into his pocket where it created a comfortable bulge. It could stay there until he got home. Then he’d unwrap his QB emulator and get something going. It was gonna’ be epic.

Theodore knew how to lose himself in his work, usually; he had learned to push his feelings into the back of his brain while he worked. Today was different. Excitement permeated him, spilling over into the humdrum workday routine, energizing everything he touched, touching everyone he met. People noticed.

“Calm down,” he said to himself in an excited whisper.

That’s how it was, for the whole day, and towards the end he could barely contain himself. He forced himself to behave as was expected, to stay calm and perform. He tried to look as bored as he usually was but he didn’t make a good job of it. The ward nurses noticed, and smiled at him.

“Okay Theo, who is she?”

He smiled back, kept his mouth shut. This was way better than any she, he thought.

Home, he popped dinner into the microwave, grabbed a knife from the rack and sliced open the thin plastic that protected the book. Hands shaking, he opened it. He figured the QB chip had to be in some kind of cutout, maybe inside the pages, or even in one of the covers. The inside flap of the dust jacket blurbed about the Amazon Rain Forest, the last truly wild place on the planet. He held the book covers open and flipped the pages rapidly with his thumb, looking for a cut-out. Nothing.

Mother of God, yeah. What the …? Where’s my chip? Oh yeah, the cover, hidden in the cover I’ll bet.

The front, nothing, the back, more of the same. The book? This is the contraband? Well why not? He had always heard that there were many books that were contraband. He had never wanted to read any of them; no one he knew ever read anything, much, on their own but he had heard the underground murmurs.

He opened the book. This thing was from the 21st Century. That was a long time ago. He sat down and began to read; once started, there was no stopping, no sleeping that night, not until his eyes were exhausted and his brain filled with images of a place beyond imagining. He slept, and dreamt.

He woke late the next morning, but today was shift change day so it didn’t matter. He wasn’t due at the hospital until 8 pm. The Mother of God lay with him in the bed so he rolled over and once again immersed himself in her wonders. He read some more, allowing the words to take over his consciousness, to seep into his senses. He lay down on the river bank and slid his body into the cool water. He dreamt, waking hours later, refreshed.

And now a strange thing began to happen to Theodore Malsch. The book had ensnared him. It had coiled around him like one of its anacondas, its power enormous and irresistible. In its pages he found something new and vibrant, a life he had not even dared to wish for, or dream of. The first day he had read the book in its entirety, from cover to cover. And in the days since, he had read it over and over, consuming it, and with each reading falling deeper and deeper under its exotic enchantment.


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Breaking Eggs

Every schoolboy knows that good writers seldom use clichés. The word is commonly defined as ‘a word or phrase that is overused, unoriginal or boring’ but it’s important to recognize that, while most writers try their best to be original, fresh and entertaining, if you’re writing to advance a particular idea, or a point of view, and you need to obscure some of the unpalatable consequences of the idea you’re promoting, clichés can be useful. Consider, for example, the idea that ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’.

Nothing original there, nothing clever. A cliché, if there ever was one. Yet it’s undeniably true. It is, in fact, impossible to make an omelette without breaking eggs and in its obvious truth lies its power.

Say I’m making a speech in defense of Trump’s nomination of veteran spy Gina Haskell to take over the leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  And say some Democratic Party politician speaks out against her appointment on the grounds that she was implicated in the now-discredited-at-least-publicly torture of prisoners at ‘black sites’. I might well answer with a cryptic “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”, implying that while Haskell might have done some bad things (breaking some eggs), her intentions were honorable (making an omelette). I’d rely on the vaguely comfortable familiarity that people have with the cliché to allow most people to believe that I had somehow made a convincing argument in her favor.

That’s the power of a cliché. Because we’re used to hearing it, and already accept it as truth, we fail to notice that it’s hardly relevant to the matter under consideration. We swallow the implied argument about the integrity of the nominee and are easily able to invest her candidacy with the truth value of the cliché. But that’s a false equivalence; there’s no moral imperative related to the consumption of eggs. In spite of the views of the ultra-vegetarian minority, most of us happily include omelettes in our diets. Additionally, and most importantly, there’s no law against breaking eggs and no logic decrying the uselessness of egg-breaking.

I’m currently reading an interesting book by Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. I think that the central idea of the book is that our lives are controlled by our feelings, not by our rational minds; that we make decisions based on how we feel about things and that what we think only comes after we’ve decided what we’re going to do, serving to justify the decisions we’ve already made, for no good reason. If Damasio is correct, this explains why clichés so perfectly conceal false and disingenuous arguments. This type of rhetoric actually appeals to our feelings while appearing to invoke intellectual examination. We’re naturally comfortable with this kind of analysis.

And that’s the other thing that our reliance on clichés does —  it immures and forcibly immunizes us against us painful thoughts and, with tragic irony, those feelings that would require us to make difficult decisions and take difficult actions. Again, this is a function of the inherent vagueness of the cliché. I mean, really, what does every schoolboy (or schoolgirl?) know?

Perhaps that school shootings have themselves become cliché?

And ever since the Parkland Shootings became the terrible thing that happened yesterday, I’ve been bothered by my own numbness to the horror of the business. A nineteen year old, driven insane by the circumstances of his life, armed himself with weapons of war and murdered people. Lots of people. Children, lots of children. I heard a father of one of the murdered children tearfully demand that I, and all the people like me who are finding it difficult to understand what he was experiencing, take the time to make ourselves feel and understand what parents like him are facing.

And he went on to suggest that once we manage that difficult task, he had another for us. He wanted us to do something, something more than offering our prayers and sympathy.

God help us if we don’t.

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Word Power : Resilience

William Safire was a conservative speechwriter who served both Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon; it was Safire who coined the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism‘ phrase that worked so well for Agnew. For many years, Safire wrote a column titled On Language* for the The New York Times and it was always entertaining and informative, on language at least. Oh, that column was about much more that language; Safire was a clever one and a brilliant writer who would use the topic to serve up a sickening dollop of his conservatism but I never swallowed a mouthful of that stuff. I went for the writing and the wit, the container, if you will.

In these difficult times, when I find myself confronting a national epidemic of illiteracy, I often think of Safire, especially on a day like today, when I encountered a word of particular power. The word is Resilience. It’s is defined as the ability to recover from misfortune or change; a substance, like rubber, is resilient in its ability to absorb the energy of a blow and then to release that energy as it recovers its original shape. Say what you want about our President, Donald Trump, (and at times I’ve had a lot to say about that individual) you must give him credit for his resilience. Less credit though, for his divisiveness.

Trump ran on his appeal to an enthusiastic minority with some very strongly held beliefs but his star-power endowed him with cross-over appeal. I don’t want to get mired in an analysis of the last election now but let it be understood that he was able to split the Republican Party and divide the electorate into warring factions. Today, many of his supporters do not endorse his opposition to the idea of Climate Change, the term under which scientists collect several natural processes that involve the warming of the Earth and the concomitant changes to the Environment. Trump has dismissed Global Warming as “a hoax.”

It’s no secret that the upper echelons of the Trump Administration comprises a congeries of short-sighted, money-grubbing privateers and when they sing the praises of Reconstruction of the Infrastructure, a popular song these days, it’s to the accompaniment of a cha-ching! chorus of cash registers. Hell and Highwater are coming, and we’re going to have to rebuild America, our roads; our bridges; our railway lines; water distribution systems and our electric grid. The Climate Deniers want to eschew environmental considerations both in the design and construction of these essential elements of the national infrastructure. The scientists and their more level-headed fellow- citizens are advocating caution and foresight and speaking of Climate Resilience. They want to build an infrastructure that considers the expected changes in things like the sea-level and the frequency and severity of storms.

But some of these advocates, considering the broken and divided condition of the political body, have suggested that all mention of Climate Change be dropped from the discussion and that the way forward is to consider Resilience as a common sense element of design. Using the word, ‘Resilience’ isolated from the divisive phrase ‘Climate Change’, has been effective in helping local governments to move past political confrontations and to take effective action to solve local problems. In Miami, where sea-level rise is wreaking havoc with the water-supply (sea-salt leaking into ground-water) and the tourist industry (as beaches get washed away and basements flood),

“Creative local leaders have navigated this dilemma by translating the thorny political question of climate change into the palatable language of resilience. In 2015, Miami established its first Sea Level Rise Committee … .The committee emphasizes the effects, not the causes, of sea-level rise when “mak[ing] recommendations to the City Commission for increasing the City’s resilience to rising sea levels.” Even the resolution establishing the committee omits any reference to climate change (City of Miami 2015City of Miami. 2015. “Miami City Commission.” Resolution Establishing the City of Miami Sea Level Rise Committee, R-15-0072. [Google Scholar]).”

Link to entire article.

Seems like a good way to get a useful conversation going. Find the common ground and work together from there.

I’m all for Resilience. The way things have been going for me lately, I need it.

* I’ve tried to create a link to the Times archive of Safire’s work but it might be behind a paywall.

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