Sunday, May 29, 2005

Dainty Americans

Having grown up not in a military family but in a family where regular Army officers were frequent visitors, I knew the name “George S. Patton” in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Ft. Knox was about thirty miles from my house. Then when a first cousin became Patton’s HQ Commandant at Ft. Benning, GA, I learned even more about this quintessential American hero.

One thing I learned was to respect the military. Those poor people before WWII were paid very little and were shortchanged by a stingy Congress at every turn. Yet, they persevered and stood ready to protect an ungrateful nation. Most of the men in the military were a dedicated group of soldiers.

Another thing I learned was to honor sacrifice. One by one, older boys in my Boy Scout troop disappeared into the military for active duty in other countries. They were my personal heroes. Some made it back, some did not. I didn’t say to myself, “Now, if the Military does well, the President will look good and may get more votes, so I better do some real serious fault-finding.” Such shallow people are not worthy of the sacrifices made in their names.

Finally, I learned that if I were to make an impact on my world, I needed to join up. So I joined as soon as I was eighteen. In time the Navy pointed out that while I was very qualified as an electronics technician, my feet and ankles were a bit deformed and they could no longer use my services. So they sent me home.

I always felt guilty and never lost my respect for those who wore the uniform. I was quite willing to give up my life for my country. And then one day I had a sobering thought: the Military doesn’t ask us to die for our country. It asks us to kill for our country. That is harder for some people. I often wonder if I could measure up. I happen to be a good shot and would have found out quickly if I were in the Army.

When I wrote about my cousin’s valuable and dedicated four years under the famous generals in Europe and North Africa, I came to this conclusion; on this Memorial Day of 2005, I think it is a good one:

It is the blessing of this nation that when problems arise, ordinary people step out from the backwoods and the cities to lead magnificently. This tradition of leadership began well before the Revolutionary War, and the halls of American history are covered with great names: George Washington, George Rogers Clark, Andrew Jackson, and U.S. Grant, to name a few. Marshall, Patton, Truscott and Mark Clark’s names will be displayed with these great people. And no doubt there will be many more in the years to come.

But the brave leaders of the future will not come from the ranks of those dainty Americans who want fried chicken but don’t want to kill any chickens to get such a tasty meal. No, the leaders of the future will come from the ranks of those who are willing to die for their country; but first, they are willing to kill for it. There is a huge difference.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

All I Know Is What I Read in the Newspapers

“All know is what I read in the papers,” Will Rogers told his audiences. And then he began to fill in the spaces between the lines of what he read with extremely funny analyses. It is a cinch that Will did not have access to blogs. Blog writers may have their biases but they are faster. Often you will know their biases because they will tell you, up front. But with newspapers, it is more difficult to pick out the biases.

Once, I ran across a newspaper that made clear its biases. It was the Lexington, MO, American Citizen, a newspaper that lasted from about 1855 to 1857. I was doing research on a project when I came across filmed copies of its pages.

What, you ask, was its bias? The American Citizen was devoted to telling the truth about slavery. It wanted the world (at least its small readership) to know that slavery was a good, constitutional part of American life.

While its forthrightness was commendable, the newspaper’s political goals and attachments were suspect. It wasn’t long before it was out of business and so was slavery. The Civil War determined the rest of the story.

I suspect most newspaper writers have been more economical with the truth about their goals and agendas since 1857.

If, like will Rogers, all you know is what you read in the papers, then your knowledge is a bit on the short side. Newspaper writers do not want to appear biased, while at the same time they have an agenda they want to sell the reader. Such writers are aware that newspaper readers are quite likely to vote. If they can be convinced of a particular stance, perhaps readers will vote the way the newspaper writers would like. It worked for the Lexington, MO American Citizen’s readers for a while. But then the readers found other papers and soon decided there was a better truth.

It is well established that President Lincoln, through his agent General Burnside, attacked some 200 northern newspapers that dared to print news he didn’t like. Many printing presses were totally destroyed. President Lincoln well knew that newspapers had the ability to move people, so he chose to crush those who might move people in the wrong way. He kept a stranglehold on news of his time.

But nowadays, there is too much news delivered in too many ways for a politician to control. It is probably the first time in America’s history that news cannot be controlled. The solidarity between television, radio and newspaper writers seems to have been shaken partially because foreign news media is abundantly available to Americans and partly because there have sprung up alternate sources of news within the formerly closed ranks of the old news oligarchy. Blogs are an increasingly larger part of the alternative source.

But I could be wrong. All I know is what I read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and TV, and read on the blogosphere.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Troubles in Cansas.

There was a story going around some years ago about the growth of information. At one time all mankind’s information was handed down orally, and the amount of it doubled every thousand years. It was stored in people’s heads. Then along came writing and scrolls. Information doubled every hundred years. We began looking for places to put this information. Libraries were invented. Indexing came later. With the advent of books and education, mankind’s information doubled every ten years, and we quickly ran out of library space. Now, with computers, mankind’s information doubles every year and there is no place to store it all, except on the Internet.

The Internet overwhelms us with information. Fortunately, it also indexes what we know, so we can avoid the uninteresting stuff and go right to the heart of whatever we are interested in. Sometimes.

My family has a letter that was written in 1856. It was written by my third great-grandfather, and it was full of folksy family information. Except for the remark that the “Cansas troubles are continuing.” I wondered why the family kept this letter. Later I found out: it was the last letter they had from him. He was murdered in Lexington, Missouri shortly after he wrote the letter and shortly after John Brown had hacked up six or seven slave owners nearby.

My ancestor, Henry Bruce Vallandingham, was part of the “Cansas troubles.” The Kansas territory was about to come into the Union as a new state, and it meant a great deal to both the North and the South whether Kansas came into the Union as a slave or free state. Henry was in the restaurant business, but it seemed he was helping to free slaves on the side. The Missouri penalty for that was death, so someone saved the State money by blowing away Henry’s stomach with a shotgun.

The l856 letter from Henry is only an example of an obvious but often overlooked factor about all the information one finds on the Internet. This information is indexed (eventually). Words like Cansas, cross-referenced with 1856, may show up during a search, and by themselves or in connection with other words, tell a story.

Yes, much of today’s blog material is useless crap right now, but maybe in tandem with other words, ideas, or blogs, it will tell an important story. The trouble is, we just do not know what is important and what is not.

But blogs may help provide some answers.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Belly Button Blues

It is an ancient and honorable art—gazing at one’s navel and reporting on what one finds. Music, painting, literature and the blogosphere as well as the art of psychology contain many examples of this escapist exercise. Two hallmarks of navel-gazing come to mind. One is that the output of gazers seldom reaches classic status, and the other is that it often attracts only a small audience.

To some, the blogosphere is personal, a bit of cyberspace that should be dedicated to navel-gazing. To others, and I am one of them, the blogosphere is an opportunity to spread new ideas and new information. Frankly, lint in the navel is an old idea. It is chewing gum for the eyes.

Sure, the blogosphere may be a “voice for the voiceless,” but the voiceless may well have something new to add to the very small supply of ideas that support society’s daily struggle to survive.

Daniel Conover, a newsman in South Carolina, is using his blog to provide insight into to the news business (and sometimes to respond to general complaints about its real or imagined biases). He is also using his blog to explore new concepts and he is causing his newspaper to reach out in new ways with its own blogs.

After all, news people are in the information business, not the newspaper business.

I wish them a great deal of success, not only because they are offering a valuable service, but also because they are offering relief from belly button blues.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Reinventing Government, Son Of

It was either Mark Twain or Will Rogers who made a comment about Congressmen that had their hands in the pockets of the public. If they didn’t, they should have. It would sound more authentic coming from them than me.

Now that an irritated Democratic minority has managed to slow or stop all activity in the U. S. Senate while earnestly claiming that they are not doing so, the public can relax and take a breather, safe in the knowledge that the Senate can do no harm until the two disparate sides get together once more. From the looks of things it appears that Senators’ hands will be out of our pockets for some time to come.

It was over a hundred years ago that the House gave up its filibustering ways despite dire predictions of looming disaster. The public has been waiting and hoping for some time but the House has managed to survive anyway. And while waiting for imminent collapse, the House managed to produce an income tax and increase it on a regular basis. But perhaps the change in House rules has had a delayed topsy-turvy effect on the American public.

Seldom have voters seen a more Conservative group than the Democrats. They do not want to change a Senate rule, they do not want to alter Social Security, and they want to keep taxes at a high level. In the meantime, the Republicans, Conservatives in name only, are after many changes in Government, including the end of filibusters for judicial nominations, private accounts for Social Security, and lower taxes. There is every indication that the Republicans are planning even more changes the Democrats will resist. It is a very confusing political world, difficult for the average citizen to keep score in. But there is hope.

Since former Vice President Al Gore “reinvented Government” several years ago, one would think that these differences would have been subsumed into a system of mutual accord in which political lambs and lions could lie down together and the lambs would get lots of sleep. Yet, some eight years after the Reinvention of Government (ROG), the Senate is coming to a standstill and surely all of Government will slow with it.

There is no doubt about it. The time has come to reinvent the reinvention of Government (RROG). Mr. Gore doesn’t seem to busy these days, so perhaps he would be free to tackle the job. Some enterprising government employee will probably call the task “Son of ROG,” and we voters can rest easy, knowing an expert is on the job. (We might not rest as easily as we would when the Senate is not functioning, but we can’t expect perfection from government all the time.)

On the other hand, it is possible that RROG will obtain the same reverence that President Ford got with his WIN “Whip Inflation Now” campaign. Some voters are cynics, despite all that a sincere Congress has done to convince them otherwise.

Where are Mark Twain and Will Rogers when we need them?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

George S. Patton and other Difficult Characters

There’s no doubt about it; some people are harder to write about than others. Once I wrote a small novel about the 1874 murder of my great-grandfather. It was a straightforward tale. The Klan was killing citizens and he took steps to stop them, so they killed him along with the others. Yes, he was warned, but he was brave and took a bullet anyway.

In order to spice up the story, which was factual in every other way, I introduced a young woman, the only person who did not exist in the real-life drama. Her name was Sheba Good. Sheba just about ran away with story. I spent too much time on her. Readers also took quite an interest in the girl, which took some of the edge from the outrage of crooked officials, courts and legal systems of the time.

Sheba turned out to be a rascal, an unintended handful. I still like her.

In a small history due to be out soon, I wrote about my cousin’s adventures during WWII in North Africa and Italy under Generals Patton, Clark, and Truscott. My cousin, Laban Jackson, was Headquarters Commandant for these generals and was well acquainted with them.

Of the two better-known generals, Patton was much more of a “character” than Mark W. Clark. I had more material on Clark, but Patton’s nature was overpowering. It was the same way with my cousin, as he wrote about the two men. He had several humorous stories about Patton, but none about Clark. Jackson admired both men, but he quietly favored one over the other

While I was writing, I made the mistake of driving over to San Gabriel, CA, where the Pattons went to church. That was a mistake. A life-sized statue of Patton dominated a garden area, while some of his family were buried nearby. His presence seemed to inhabit the place. I should have stayed away and maintained my neutrality.
It is enough to make these observations and let readers decide what motivates people. A few decades ago it was expected that biographers would at least attempt a psychological analysis of their subjects. I don’t care for the method and have no desire to use such banal tools as “pop psychology” when I write. Most of it is junk anyway. And like most writers, I am unqualified to analyze. All I know about Patton and Clark is what the facts stated. These men’s lives needed no interpretation.

Patton, like Sheba, was a bit of a rascal. I like them both.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Importance of Fingertips

Here is one of the stories I told seventh graders at a public school when I was substitute teaching, and had a few minutes at the end of class. At the kid’s request, I wrote the stories into a book called Four on the Floor.

If I asked any of you why fingertips were important, I bet you would not be able to tell me. After I tell you this story, you will know. It is another Holly story (Holly is my daughter). I alluded to it when I told the Holly story about two arms and three elbows.

Holly and one of her girl-friends at school would ride horses at a stable near us in Upland, California. She was a seventh grader, I suppose. The other girl’s parents and we would take turns dropping them off at the stable and picking them up later. They had the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to ride all over. There was a lot of open space and no cars to worry about.

One Saturday morning Holly said her friend could not go with her. We considered the facts and decided to take Holly up there anyway. She had been going for a long time and should be able to handle herself.

I went on to work, leaving Holly’s mother to handle the transportation problems. And when I got home there was a surprise waiting for me. Holly had a huge bandage on her hand.

“What happened to you?” I gasped.

“Got hurt by a horse today,” Holly told me. She was afraid I would be angry with her.

It turned out that when Holly went to rent her favorite horse, she was told by the stable owner that the horse was being ridden.

“Take number 5,” he told her gruffly.

So Holly took number 5 and had a nice ride. When she came back and tried to tie up the horse, it reared. All thousand pounds of the horse pulled back. Unfortunately, Holly’s small hand was in a steel ring, holding the reigns when it happened. Thus, her fingers were caught between the steel, unyielding ring and the very heavy duty reigns. The result was that the ends of three of Holly’s fingers were crushed off.

Do you know what happens when you lose the ends of your fingers? The skin on your fingers falls back to your hand and what you see is muscle, tendons and bones of your fingers. Holly dropped her hand and pulled then skin back over her fingers.
Then she went to the stable owner’s shack to ask for help. He wouldn’t give her any help, telling her to call her mother.

Well, it is difficult to dial a telephone when you have no fingertips. But Holly bravely managed somehow and her mother came to get her. They went directly to a hospital where plastic surgeons tried to fix as much of the damage as they could.

Holly’s mother and I were furious at the stable owner for not helping. We wanted him to pay for Holly’s medical bills. But he said, “No.” Then Holly said something that really got my attention. She said, “As I was leaving the stable, a worker said, ‘Number 5 always rears when you try to tie him up.’”

“Come on Holly,” I said, “we’re going to see a lawyer.” I was thinking that there was a point of law that might be in our favor. We explained our situation to the lawyer, and at the end I asked, “Do we have a case?”

The lawyer rubbed his hands together and smiled broadly. “Do we ever have a case!” he said.

I hate suing and courts, but this time I was really angry. So we filed lawsuit papers immediately. I found there is no advantage in threatening to sue; you just file the papers.

We waited for the case to come to court, and I am sure the stable-owner’s lawyer told his client to pay, that he was in deep trouble.

The case finally came to court for a hearing. Holly walked into court with her mother and her lawyer. I was working again. Fingers1 Holly was on crutches. Her foot hadn’t healed from the needle episode I told you about earlier.

“Did the horse do that to her, too?” asked the judge, looking at her crutches.
Our attorney told the judge what had happened and the judge simply told the stable owner one word: “Pay.”

Eventually a check came for Holly to be held in trust until she was eighteen.

What was the point of law? Well, if you put someone in danger, you have to tell him or her about it. If you had reason to believe a horse would unexpectedly rear, you have to tell the renter of the horse, or you are at fault. If you sell a car with bad brakes you have to tell the buyer the car has bad brakes or you, the seller, are responsible for what happens. It is the legal and ethical thing to do.
And what is the importance of fingertips? Fingertips keep the skin of your fingers from falling down.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Fast Women Develop Slowly

I know perfectly well who Sheba Good was. Besides being a fictional character in a book I wrote, she was Arabella in Hardy’s tome, Jude the Obscure. And maybe one other person who is still alive, so I can’t tell. I modeled Sheba after two women who still linger in the back of my mind. They have been there for many years. Many years elapsed before they showed up in print.

But when I wrote a science fiction novel, I included another female, Moira, who was a stranger to me, her creator. That is, I don’t know whom I used for a model. All I know is that she is someone I once knew.

Moira was tough, single, at the cusp of middle age, good looking, and the owner of two heavy duty pistols (a .45 for her neighborhood and a smaller caliber model for polite society). She was volatile and likely to explode at any time. I often wondered what made her that way (and how many men she had shot), but didn’t go far enough into her background to find out. Perhaps such explorations would have caused me to dabble in the black art of psychology; I do not care for psychology. Besides, I am not qualified to dabble.

But I do know that when Moira suddenly found herself the belle of the ball in society in the year 2863, she had no trouble deciding what to do about returning home with her boyfriend to her own time in 2003.

Moira lived in a poor section of Portland, Oregon in 2003. She had not always been poor. As a child she was brought up in a solid American middle class family. So she knew well the attributes of both strata of society. She seemed to agree with her boy-friend, Andy Frost, when he observed:

That love was a luxury for the middle class. They could afford it. In his social system, people joined together because each had something the other needed. If someone came along who offered a better deal, then a new bond was established, the old one fell apart, and people moved on. That’s just the way it was.

Whether she was in her own time or eight hundred years out in the future, Moira, like most of my women characters, was unpredictable. Maybe readers will find them doing exactly what all other women would do in the same circumstances. Not I. (I have a feeling that men writers have the same problem with their women as I do.)

Moria was unflappable in the face of enormous change, hoping only to find an advantage somewhere. Traveling through time and meeting new people and places didn’t faze her. So you raised the Titanic? What else is new? Andy, on the other hand, could scarcely take it all in. He was my handle on reality.

Women have always taken advantage of me.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Reader Corrects

Recently a reader reminded me that V.P. Al Gore did not directly claim to have invented the Internet, as I said. The reader referred me to a site that contained V.P. Gore’s actual comment, which was, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Somehow, the Senator’s name does not show up among the movers and shakers of Internet innovators.

And that about sums it up. No doubt Mr. Gore felt he could not be harmed if he obtained some of the Internet glory for himself as he campaigned for president. My comment was not meant to be political, but rather Congressional. That is, a Congressional campaigner from any political party might make a similar statement if he felt it would reflect some honor on himself (most politicians want to appear to be in favor of Mom, God, and apple pie. Nothing wrong with throwing in a dash of technological wizardry, too).

The most excellent Senator was a Congressperson, and it is they who often act late and inappropriately (add the Federal Reserve leaders in that mix). For instance, Congress levied a big tax on yachts, saying they were a big luxury and thus, their owners could pay a big tax. Congress felt it was the sole arbiter of luxury-ness and that wealthy people are small in number and could not vote against them in the next election.

As it turned out, wealthy people resented the tax and refused to buy yachts. Yacht makers suffered some, but their employees suffered most. So, as a result of Congressional interference, many yacht building laborers were put out of work. They were the little people, the ones who could least afford silliness in government circles. It is no business of Congress who has money and who does not. Had they realized that fact, there would have been no tax and no resulting unemployment.

No doubt Congress will remember this lesson for all of 20 days, then will enact a luxury tax on twelve inch candles because only the wealthy can afford them. Resulting unemployment due to decreasing demand for twelve inch candles and larger, will cause a howl among suddenly-unemployed workers.

On the subject of the Fed, I can safely state that I read every Federal Reserve report from 1914 to 1967. They were printed in chloroform, so it was a difficult task. (I had a research fellowship in economics at Case Western Reserve University in 1968.) One of the ideas I got from the research was that the Fed acted too heavily and too late nearly all the time. It was especially obvious as the country was coming out of the darkness of the Great Depression in 1937. At that time the Fed thought it saw inflation on the horizon, so it clamped down and brought about another dose of depression. The last two Fed chairmen seem to done better with their ministrations, so the Fed may yet redeem itself.

I have no such hope for Congress.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Paying Debts

There was an old story about the honey dippers who practiced their art in my small city in upper New York State. (I lived there for three years and ten minutes as a member of General Electric’s corporate manufacturing staff.) Citizens’ homes were surrounded by forests and were somewhat rural, so we had no sewer connections. Septic tanks were the rule.

Septic tanks had to be cleaned out from time to time, and the euphemistic name for the folks who did the cleaning was honey dippers. The old story was that honey dippers explained their professions this way: “Well, it may be ____ to you but it’s bread and butter to me.”

That is what I can say about my writing. But it is more than bread and butter to me. I write not for money, but for other reasons (it is a good thing, too). One of these reasons is that I am working on my craft because I know I can do it better. But I can only do it better if I write. Thinking, extemporizing and worrying about the past won’t help. Only practice will help.

There is yet another reason I write: I owe several debts. One is to my Kentucky great-grandfather, who was shot down in 1874 by a member of the Klan; he was trying to save the lives of defenseless black people. In order to justify his murder, this kind man‘s name was blackened by the Klan before the shooting. I strongly felt a need to clear up the record (and to publish the name of the killer). I wrote articles about him and then made up a novel that contained his story. And I paid one more debt.

It is the same way with my third great-grandfather. His stomach was blown away by a shotgun blast at noon on a Friday where everyone could see it happen. This warning was in 1856, near the place where John Brown hacked up six or seven people, and a month or so afterward. My ancestor’s name had to be destroyed first. But one saving grace was that pro-slavery people in his town hated him. Once again I wrote an article or two and then made up a short novel that contained all the facts of the case as related by newspapers of the time. Thus, I paid a second debt.

Until recently, I was substitute teaching in middle school. Often, when the lesson was over, I would tell a story about my kids or about something bizarre in history, and I always tacked on a moral to these short tales. The kids asked me to write down these tales, which I did. I asked the artist, Caleb of Tampa, Florida, to make line sketches to illustrate each one. Caleb was one of the stars of the stories, which became the book, Four on the Floor. And a third debt was paid.

And then there was my first cousin, who was a hero (to me) during WWII. His story needed to be told. He was a Kentucky farmer’s son who became HQ Commandant for Generals Patton, Mark Clark, and Lucien Truscott. He went in early on thee invasions. Promoted four times and given a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart for wounds, my cousin emerged as a Lieutenant Colonel. He and his wife knew the Pattons and the Clarks. My cousin met King George, Winston Churchill, Ike Eisenhower, the Sultan of Morocco, Prince Borghese of Italy, and many other well-known people of his time. He lived with death and destruction in tents (and less cover) for four years, emerging as a fairly normal American citizen who served his State in business and politics, working into his eighties. I wrote a small history of WWII covering his service. It will be out soon, canceling a fourth debt.

When I wasn’t burdened with a duty to my relatives I wrote a story for me. It was about time travel, one of my favorite subjects (Time Out of Joint).

But mostly, I have been discharging debts and making a few enemies (I was told I am not popular with Klan members and descendants of Klan members). Under no circumstances will my efforts have been wasted. There were debts to be paid and facts to be told. I have discharged the debts and told the facts.

Writing is still more than bread and butter to me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Technology Vs. Congress

As this is being written, a small airplane has strayed into the airspace above Washington, DC. Congress was suspended while Senators and Representatives have fled to safety. For a short while the Nation was safe. But alas, Congress has returned and the Republic is once more in danger.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Congress were more modern, but that is not the case. When Senator Al Gore announced several years back that he had invented the Internet, he was probably not making a partisan political comment, although Republicans had a lot of fun with it. No, Senator Gore was more likely making a Congressional comment, indicating the dismal state of knowledge Congressmen had attained. The comedian Fred Allen described the situation well and I paraphrase him with this statement: “The knowledge Congress has about the Internet (and modern technology) would fill the navel of a flea and leave room for the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Telephone, television, radio, and the mail are regulated and taxed by Government. In the days when technology made slow improvements, Congress did a muddled job with their rules. But then came fax machines, and the flood gates were opened. Telephone companies and citizens were regulated and taxed under the premise that phone calls would be of a reasonable length. The U.S. Postal service expected a certain volume of first class letters. But fax machines resulted in short phone calls and fewer pieces of first class letters.

Congressmen may have barely grasped the importance of fax machines (after the fact) but they do not understand much of the newer developments. However, they want to tax and regulate everything. They are very frustrated. The world is changing very rapidly.

And there really is a lot of change out there. For instance, my son Caleb in Florida, many miles away, "held my hand" on the telephone as I branched out from email to blogs. He doesn't like computers much, so I asked him how he learned to work the Internet. He said someone "held his hand". It must be a contact sport (or science). There are probably no college courses--it is all happening too fast for that. Anyway, few would take time out to teach a college course when they are successful on the Internet.

The very first podcast (radio-type broadcast on the Internet) produced by anyone was made in November of 2004. Think of it: radio-type broadcasting across the world without the assistance, control, or cost of NBC, CBS, ABC, or FOX! In process now is an arrangement whereby a person can make telephone calls by Internet, without regulation.

As a result of modern developments, telephone companies can lose revenue. Aslo radio and TV networks and newspapers can expect to lose revenue for two reasons: 1) Many people get more and more of their news from the Internet (balanced in their favor), and 2) Many people use the Internet for newer forms of entertainment, such as podcasts and TV-type podcasts (in the offing). Complete movies on the Internet are also in the wings (Blockbuster, beware). After all, a person has only so many hours to devote to news and entertainment. Most people will seek the most efficient sources that provide that entertainment at the appropriate time for them.

Numbers of emails surpassed numbers of first class letters handled by the US Postal Service some ten years ago. As the USPS raises the cost of stamps, more people will use emails and bill paying by Internet, so the USPS will lose even more revenue. The USPS will try to regain their revenues with more junk mail. (The USPS is the main proponent of junk mail and will be, until the last tree is cut down to feed paper mills.)

Congress wants to regulate and tax all this technology that it doesn’t understand. In a feeble effort, it taxed extra phone lines in each house, but people switched to cable. Congress still does not understand that its laws change behavior.

What kind of handle on technology can Congress obtain? Will it tax emails and podcasts at a rate of a dollar each? How will it count them? Congress is having a very difficult time protecting copyrighted material, which, when digitized, seems to fly all over the world. How will a ponderous Congress ever catch up to modern technology?

Even if Congress could catch up, what Congress taxes and regulates, it may destroy. Some Congresspeople seem to have a dim understanding of this. They also understand that tax revenue is greatly enhanced when profitable companies emerge and when employees of those companies earn big salaries. Maybe Congress will have to rely on taxes from these enterprises. But I am afraid its need to regulate will lead to tinkering and destruction.

That is the nature of Congress.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A Writer's Angst

In the movie Amadeus, composer Antonio Salieri is shown with a sheet of music in his hand, written by Mozart. He marvels because there are no corrections on the complicated score. Then he becomes envious and eventually plots to get his competitor, Mozart, out of his way.

Salieri had worked his way into a comfortable career position and no doubt felt threatened by Mozart. Eventually, he tried to destroy himself because in his own mind, he was a mediocre talent, while Mozart was a genius. (In the real world, Salieri was a very good composer, not at all mediocre. He was just not as prolific or remembered as well as Mozart.)

So far on this blog I have discussed two very good writers. They are contemporaries with whom I have had some contact. One in particular, Wendell Berry, is like Mozart to my Salieri. Well, maybe he is Mozart to my Spike Jones, but I am not going to destroy myself because Wendell is one of America’s finest writers; I am going to use his work as a goal. Nevertheless, Wendell’s genius adds to the angst I feel as an aspiring wordsmith.

Getting myself in gear to write is the biggest source of angst. Most writers have this problem at one time or another. I have lots of other things to do and ignoring my writing by accomplishing something in another field gives temporary relief.

There are other sources of my angst. One occurs when I try to design a plot. I am not handy with plots even though they are extremely important for a written, commercial work. Possessing an engineering nature, I do not take a lot of detours on my way to the denoument of a story.

I want to write beautifully with unforgettable imagery but at the same time I want to be efficient with words. Poets can do this; it is their art. For me, achieving these twin goals is the same as wanting sleeves in my vest. I am not a poet.

My angst ranges wide for lots of other reasons. I have a feeling it has found a permanent home. What am I going to do about it? I am going to write. Then I am going to read good authors and then write some more. I am going to send my brothers-in-law emails that describe something awkward or abstract, just to see if I can get a difficult idea across to him. They have PhDs. Let them use their educations. The exercise will do them good.

The worst part is that I care when my work is bland and unimaginative or misses the point I am trying to make. I love it when I have constructed a well-turned phrase. I hate it when I do not.

Having been a contributing editor for a magazine, I am already one of those who can claim partial professional status as a writer. The Wall Street Journal has published my rather lengthy letters, and I have a several books on the market that have netted a few dollars. Yet, I am not fooled: Wendell Berry and Hunter S. Thompson are much better authors than I, at the moment.

Everybody needs a goal.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Wendell Berry

Long have I been aware of the author, Wendell Berry. I had not read much of his material, but I knew he was important; when he published, the New York Times and the L.A. Times took notice.

One day, my erudite cousin Martha Carroll and I were exchanging letters on genealogy matters when she mentioned Wendell’s new book, A World Lost. The book was published in 1996, so I suppose she mentioned the book in 1997. She mentioned the book because it had some similarity to one I was writing called The Courage Place. She knew about his new book because she knew Wendell and she lived near him. Also, Martha had been Wendell’s teacher when he was in the second grade.

Having purchased a copy of A World Lost, I read it twice very carefully. Wendell was an artist with words instead of a brush. His prose was like poetry. And I saw that there was some similarity with his subject and mine. In each case a man was murdered for little reason, but in my story he was murdered eighty years before and clearly by a member of the KKK. However, he was murdered near the place where Wendell’s subject was murdered.

With much trepidation I wrote to Wendell and introduced myself, mentioning our common acquaintance. I asked if there were any KKK involvement in the murder of his subject. “After all,” I pointed out, “The motive for the murderer in your book was not clear you did leave room for speculation.”

After a few weeks, Wendell replied in a simple, short handwritten note that there was no KKK involvement as far as he knew, and he expressed some interest in the book that I was working on. I replied in another letter that I was probably the only person on the face of the earth that knew of federal government involvement in the KKK murder of my great-grandfather, James M. Walker, in 1874. (I still have copies of reports from three Secret Service spies who went into Owen and other Counties in Kentucky to find out what was going on.)

I began to read more and more of Wendell’s work, including his poetry. His imagery was fascinating. In the process, I mentioned Wendell to my son Caleb who exclaimed, “Is that guy still alive? He was the founder of the ‘back to the earth’ movement by the hippies in the 1960’s and 1970’s.” Tactfully, I pointed out to my son that I was several years older than Wendell. I continued to read more of Wendell’s work.

It was a year or two later that my wife and I ventured back to Kentucky. We stayed at her brother’s house in Lexington. Her brother, like Wendell, was a professor at the University of Kentucky. He knew of Wendell, but didn’t know him personally. I called my cousin Martha and asked if I might have Wendell’s address so I could visit his farm as we went to see her. She said for us to come on, that she would ask Wendell to drop by. I figured she would give him a detention if he didn’t make to her house.

We were in Martha’s parlor when Wendell walked in. A tall, spare man of about sixty in a sport coat and tie, Wendell was most gracious. I hastily assured Wendell that I was not writing for anyone at the moment and was not conducting an interview. He sat and talked to us for some time and even posed for a picture with my wife and me. We liked him almost instantly.

Wendell seemed shy and thoughtful as I somehow expected him to be. He even remembered my project and congratulated me for being so thorough in my research. It turned out that Wendell already knew part of the story I was researching, since it happened so close to his farm. (Other people had told me that the local lore was that my great-grandfather was an evil person who got what he deserved. If being tired of KKK bullies killing defenseless boys and girls and their parents was evil, I guess he was evil.)

In the depths of my Philistine-ness I asked Wendell if he used a computer in his work. I didn’t know that he was known for shunning modern technological developments. Once again he was kind. He didn’t laugh. He told me that a computer wouldn’t help him write any better (maybe not, but it might help him write more, and that wouldn’t be too bad for the rest of us). Wendell said his wife, Tanya, typed his hand-written pages. They went to his publisher (currently Counterpoint) where they entered Tanya’s typing into their computers. Wendell added that he had control over every step in the publishing process because that was where the errors crept in. Poets are very careful with their words.

Wendell was pinched for time, so he left. What had been ho-hum hour for my cousin was a great moment for me.

When I got back to California and read more of Wendell’s books, I sent him notes with comments and questions, such as the subliminal identity of Jayber Crow. He always answered me with short, courteous handwritten notes. I still have them.

So now I have a new goal. If I live long enough, I want to write as well as Wendell Berry. I am afraid it is going take more years than I have, but I am going to try.

Everyone needs a goal.