Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Assassination In Tsarist Russia

     It was with this heightened sense of distrust that he left with Ashavan to board the Trans-Siberian Railway on a week-long journey. The streets of Moscow were a little more accommodating than when they had arrived, due to some unusually warm weather for late February. The streets were crowded with people anxious to experience weather that was approaching the thaw mark. It was a few blocks to the station, which they chose to walk for the exercise, anticipating long-days of sitting aboard a train.
     Everything that moved did so against a background of white. Doug’s senses were keen as he walked along, noting a man whose face he thought he recognized from the hotel. He tried to look away, tried to look inconspicuous, but Doug could sense that he was on their trail. He glanced at Ashavan, noticed that he too was aware of the man. Ashavan glanced to his right, and Doug followed his gaze, noticing another familiar face. They did their best to blend in with the crowd, but Ashavan stood as tall as any, even in the semi-slouch he assumed to de-emphasize his height.
     The street they were on was approaching a frozen river that wound its way up from their left. Doug noticed horse-drawn sleds being loaded with large blocks of ice that were being harvested from the river for use in summer months. Another horse was dragging behind it a saw as if it were a plow, cutting the ice into blocks large enough as to be suitable for constructing an ice castle. Beyond the bridge that spanned the frozen river, Doug could see the train station that he had almost mistaken for a church, so elaborate was its design. Once aboard the train, they could be relatively sure of relief from the observation of the Okhrana: the secret police would not much care what anyone did east of Moscow. It was in the major metropolises where political mischief could cause real damage.
     The closer they approached to the bridge, the more heightened Doug’s senses became and the greater the sense of urgency he felt. The two men they had recognized from the hotel had not disappeared, and now there was a group of regular police in front of them to the right side of the bridge. They appeared to be staring directly at him and Ashavan. His heart seemed to double its pace and intensity until the throb of it pushed hard against his eardrums, muting sounds around him. But his vision was sharp, benefiting from the generous supply of oxygen his heart was pumping, his eyes registering every perception that came through the crisp air. There was a man walking across the bridge carrying a brightly wrapped package in his hands. Behind the group of police, to their left, stood a young woman with a swaddled bundle in her hand which she gently rocked back and forth. From the other side of the bridge came a man astride a horse. As he approached, Doug recognized him from pictures he had seen as a Cossack. He wore a wooly hat and a soldier’s long-jacket, and as he neared Doug could see a cold look of pride in his eyes. But he was merely a herald for the carriage that drove behind him. It was an ornate and anachronistic carriage for the Twentieth Century, a bit of ostentation to display the importance of whomever it conveyed. But the Cossack was not merely there as a part of that ostentation, Doug knew. He was there as protection in a place and time where political power was being contested by more than a few factions.
     As the carriage drew even with the man with the brightly wrapped package, Doug’s attention was drawn to his sudden movement. The package in his hand he threw at the carriage, where it landed immediately in front of it. Doug anticipated an explosion but none was forthcoming. He was witnessing an assassination attempt gone wrong. The driver, seeing what was happening, urged his team of horses on.
     It was only when the carriage approached the end of the bridge, its driver now whipping the horses into a frenzy, that the young woman sprang into action. She threw what Doug had mistaken for an infant at the window of the carriage and an explosion of flames and shattered glass flew from the center of the carriage. An instant later the thunderous sound caught up to what he had witnessed, distracting the attention of the police at the bridge. One of them went down, a victim of flying debris, as did the woman who had thrown the bomb.
     There was a brief moment of inaction, as the scene registered upon passerby and police alike. And then everything sprung back to life again. The carriage was still moving, an inferno on wheels. The horses ran wildly trying to escape the touch of the flames and the nameless terror behind them. Their shuttered eyes did not permit them to see their predicament, and so mad flight was the only option open to them. Something managed to keep the driver in his place, but it was no life within him that did so. He was like a doll which bounced with each bump but did not spill from his perch.
     Doug stared as if a detached observer at the scene until the reality that the horses were coming straight at him dawned. Even as he lurched into motion, he felt the hand of Ashavan pulling him out of the way. It was a mad dash, a last second plunge that saved him from the wheels of the carriage. He heard it speed past him, the noise of snorting, fear-mad horses and the steel of the wheels on the cobblestone street moving the maelstrom beyond his immediate zone of danger.

     He felt the fear-numbed throbs of pain in his forearms and elbows from him hitting the road, tried to assess the damage done through an adrenaline surge intent on more immediate issues. He was still trying to gather his wits when he again felt Ashavan’s hand tugging him, this time upwards. He looked at him, and more from reading his lips than by being able to hear him, he knew that Ashavan was urging him to hurry on towards the station. Here in the chaos of the moment was their opportunity to escape the eyes of the Okhrana and make their escape. Doug tried to move and felt the shakiness in his legs, the result of an excess of adrenaline. He walked as one might walk in a dream, his legs working as if in quicksand to propel him over the bridge and towards the station. Somewhere behind him the horses still ran with their fiery load, but there was no time for him to worry about it. They needed to get aboard the train, put as much distance as they could between themselves and the eyes of the Okhrana.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chapter 1 of The Association (Annotated)

Not sure how this will look on blogger, but I'm giving it a go. 

But few in the town now have any memory of the man. Even the imposing structure in which he lived seems to have become so familiar with age that it was barely noticed, and the current owner was able to live there in relative anonymity.[L1]  Time had weathered the house, exposing some of its imperfections, but for the better part granting its benediction for its ability to endure.
A decorative iron fence surrounded the property edge, which was lined inside with evergreen shrubs that stood well above the heads of any passerby. The evergreens, neither meticulously trimmed nor altogether abandoned to their own designs, permitted only glimpses of what lay beyond, and even then only to a person brazen enough to make his curiosity obvious. Such a person might have seen the two figures waiting, might have seen the front door open, allowing the visitors entrance.
Passing through an anteroom lit by a chandelier that betrayed a few cobwebs[L6] , they entered a large room that was not unlike Dave and Mindy’s living room, though on a grander scale. But while their apartment was of necessity filled with props and equipment they used in their magic performances, this room was large enough to have collector’s items tastefully spread around the room, magic memorabilia that enhanced the d├ęcor rather than dominating it. Amidst the Victorian furniture—the only kind that would not have looked out of place in such a house—were fine details, proofs to those who would know that Doug was a serious collector and connoisseur of all things magic[L7] .
Upon the wall was a large poster of Carter the Great, promoting his vanishing elephant act. [L8] On another wall was a Houdini poster, advertisement for his famous Milk Can Escape.[L9]  Below the poster, barely noticed between a settee and a large mahogany table, sat a smaller milk can. Having knowledge of such things, Dave knew it to be one that was used by Houdini’s assistants to fill the oversized milk can that Houdini himself had escaped from.
The items in Doug’s sitting room had a direct connection to the stories that inspired Dave to pursue the craft of magic. Such Items were almost talismans of power to Dave. He would have loved to linger longer in the living room to inspect what was there, but Doug led them on towards a large wooden door, which he opened by sliding it into a wall thick enough to easily accommodate it.
Beyond it was a room Doug evidently used as an office. Here, things were less orderly, with piles of papers, books, and magazines stacked atop props and tables. Large bookshelves built into the walls were stuffed with books, the better part of them as old as the house they inhabited. It was apparent Doug had more money for purchasing rare items than he had time to properly classify and assess them. Such was the cluttered disorder of the room that neither Dave nor Mindy took notice of Johnny, a fellow member of The Beyond Show, seated behind a large desk. Johnny was a fire performer who had shared a stage with them several times now. It was not until Johnny rose to surrender his seat to its rightful owner that Dave noticed him. The various tattoos that entirely covered his face acted as a sort of camouflage, disguising the natural features of his face.[L10]  “Welcome,” said Johnny, with an unmistakable British accent.
“Please, have a seat,” said Doug from behind them, closing the door they had walked through as if privacy was needed even here. [L11] “I’ve taken the liberty of inviting Johnny, as well as Russell, who will be joining us via Skype,” he said, gesturing to a television screen with a man that stared awkwardly towards them[L12] . “There are no secrets between us, and it may very well be that your lives may someday depend on the abilities they possess.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mindy greeted the man on the television screen. The man seemed unable to meet her gaze, even through the distance technology provided.[L13]  It seemed that a certain youthfulness clung to him, although close scrutiny revealed that he might be older than Dave’s twenty-nine years. Perhaps his boyish shyness made him seem younger than he was.
“Russell is not a part of The Beyond Show,” said Doug, “not a performer. But he is an important part of what we do. I hope you’ll soon have the occasion to get to know one another better.”
Doug walked behind a desk large enough for planning a military campaign and began to fix himself a drink from a mini-bar, offering the same to the others. Mindy declined, but Dave felt a certain obligation to accept the friendly offer.
“Izzy won’t be with us today,” said Doug[L14] , referring to the man who had recently accompanied Dave and Mindy on a journey into the supernatural, accompanying them, they were later told, at the instruction of Doug Slattery. “He’s attending to some…business for me.”
Not waiting for questions, Doug handed Dave a glass that tinkled with ice and said, “I suppose some answers are in order. Of course, you must realize that answers are a rather difficult commodity to come by when dealing with matters such as these. And the answers that most approach the actual truth will be the most difficult to comprehend, let alone believe. Even more than that, the answers that will best explain your questions are ones you will be most resistant to.[L15]  They will be the ones that attack some of your most basic assumptions of life. But what answers I can provide for you, I will. So please, ask away.”
Dave was unsure of how to start. He was unwilling to aggravate Doug Slattery, who was both his boss and a man of unknown abilities and knowledge. Yet Dave couldn’t afford to place trust in a man who had kept secrets from him, worked from a covert agenda. Also, Dave was angry at the idea that their lives may have been put at risk without them being made aware of all the facts.
“What do you want with us?”
“You have certain abilities. I have need of people who can see things others do not.”
“But how did you find out about that?” Dave was feeling very exposed.
You have your abilities, Dave, and we have ours. [L16] Your ability to see things in your dreams, that is something none of us can do. We—each of us—have our unique talents, all of us able to pierce the veil as it were in some way. In your case, discovering you was a bit of an accident. We weren’t searching for you at all. Word had come to me of an amazingly accurate fortune teller, Jennifer Hodgson. I believe you knew her?”
“Yes,” said Dave, remembering the brief meeting with her when she was still alive, remembering also the look and smell of her corpse a few weeks later.
“I sent a dear friend of mine to learn more about her in the hopes that she could be of help to us. Sadly, he never made it back alive.”
Dave shivered at the memory of it. “An older gentleman? Short, thin, bald?”
“You knew Alan?” Said Doug, surprised.
“I saw him…in a dream.” Dave couldn’t suppress the memory, couldn’t keep the images of the old man’s dismemberment from appearing in his mind’s eye. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Yes, that makes sense,” said Doug, the realization playing across his face. “Remarkable. You’ll have to fill me in on the details of what exactly happened. Poor Alan. He had three daughters and several grandchildren.”
Dave sat silent for a moment, not wanting to disrespect the old man’s sacrifice. But his questions were too important to silence for long. And while Mindy had agreed to let him ask the questions, he knew she wouldn’t allow him to be lax at the task.
“And that’s what you want us for? To pick up where he left off? To do your work for you, whatever that is, until we encounter a similar fate?”
“If I’d known the danger involved, I never would have sent him. I would have gone myself. But there are unavoidable risks involved with the ability to perceive what others do not. And whether you choose to join with us or not, you won’t be able to avoid similar situations.”
“I’d just as soon forget the whole thing, if you don’t mind,” admitted Dave. “Not to sound rude or ungrateful, but I have no desire to see things in my dreams. I’d like to go to bed knowing that I’ll be able to sleep without nightmares that don’t go away when I wake up. I don’t know what Jennifer Hodgson did, but she gave me that power, and I’d just as soon be rid of it. Any chance you could help me do that?”
“You misunderstand,” said Doug. “But that’s to be expected. You’re relatively new to this. When I said you see things others don’t I wasn’t talking about your dreams. Your dreams are merely a consequence of your ability to perceive. Ms. Hodgson was able to share with you her capacity for extra sensory perception precisely because you were already ripe for such a thing. You were already seeing beyond the collective paradigm of the society you live in,[L17]  so it is only natural that you are able to make use of powers that the existing paradigm does not recognize as possible.”
Dave shot a glance over at Mindy[L18] , who remained uncharacteristically silent. It seemed that she recognized that the problem was his to figure out, he that would have to live with the consequences.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” said Dave. “Furthermore, I don’t want to understand what you’re saying.”[L19] 
“Oh, but you do. You want to see, or else you would not see at all and we would not be having this conversation. You have seen beyond the parameters that have been set for you by the culture in which you live, and it has pushed back the limits of what is possible for you. Power follows perception. No one can do something he cannot first conceive.”
“But I don’t get—“
“There is a lot you won’t get right now.” The voice came from the television screen, which had been positioned so that everyone in the room could see the image of Russell, and he, them. “That is the very essence of seeing beyond the collective consciousness, to be made aware of just how much you do not know. The artificial world that surrounds us is filled with answers we believe we possess. [L20] It is important that you hear what is being said now. Understanding will come later.”
Russell continued, his voice sounding thin through the television speaker, “What you need to understand now is this: every era, every culture, suffers under the delusion that it, and it alone, has a correct understanding of the world around it. [L21] They are, all of them—to a great extent—wrong. Generally, a society clings to the simplest narrative it can find to explain the world outside and its relationship to it. [L22] It stumbles upon it rather clumsily, each of its members working more or less blindly, unaware that they are working towards a common purpose, cells oblivious to the organism they are part of. As long as this narrative works, it doesn’t matter how accurate it is. Life went on for those who believed the earth to be flat. Newtonian physics explained the universe quite well for centuries. The problem is that no story adequately explains reality. Eventually, the differences between perception and fact tear apart the perception. Eventually, every society is undone by its inability to correctly grasp life as it truly is. Like a building that sooner or later crumbles due to some weakness in its infrastructure, every society collapses by the sheer weight of its own incomplete understanding of itself.”
As Russell spoke, Dave noticed that Doug was quite willing to let him speak for the group. While Doug was in some way the leader of this group, he deferred to Russell as one who had the greater understanding.
What you are witnessing now are glimpses of the larger world beyond the smaller dome that encapsulates our current cultural understanding. [L23] The cracks in our imperfect little bubble reveal things we cannot even comprehend, things we have sought to protect ourselves from. We have built for ourselves a little ark where we are safe from the storms of a great ocean, but the ark is not capable of protecting us forever.”
Sensing Russell had said what he wished to say, Doug continued: “When a certain manner of thought is working for a group, those within it are quite willing to see the world through the parameters of the existing narrative.[L24]  Thus a successful paradigm tends towards a sameness of thought, for who can argue with success? In the last century or so, our society has achieved unprecedented success. Never in the history of the world has a paradigm led to such advancement of the human race. And success, as it always does, leads to an unwillingness to have a different opinion. We begin to accept as fact what we once realized was only a perspective. Why mess with or question what is working so well?”
“More than an unwillingness for different opinions,” it was Johnny’s[L25]  turn to have a say. “An intolerance for opinions that differ is more like it.”
“At any rate,” said Russell, “the very success of our present generation has led to its inability to perceive of different ways of looking at things. In past ages, in other cultures, people that perceived reality differently than the rest were often persecuted, martyred.[L26] 
“And now?” asked Mindy.
“Now? Now they simply do not exist.”
“Don’t exist?”
“What you describe sounds like what could have happened in the Soviet Union,” said Dave. He was not trying to argue, didn’t believe he was in a position to argue. But he did seek to understand, and so was unafraid to question. “Or Europe under the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. But life isn’t like that now. Nobody can control the information we receive, nobody can control the way news is reported. We’re free, in our country, at least. I mean, more free than most.”
“You tend to overestimate the role of force in such matters,” said Doug. “Or will, for that matter, or even awareness. People assume that since there is no dictator that sits over us that we are all free to be individuals. But we’re not. Maybe we don’t realize it, but we’re not.”
Doug was about to continue, but Johnny was just starting. It seemed as though, while they were all speaking from a shared pool of knowledge, each of them had their own interpretation of things. [L29] Dave was curious what Izzy might have added to the conversation.
“A century ago, all houses were made individually,” Johnny continued, taking his turn at attempting to explain. “Then someone standardized the process in order to make them easier to build, and suddenly we all end up living in cookie cutter houses. And with modern automation came mass-produced goods. To produce such goods, tasks were broken up into simplistic little blocks so that the people who were put into their roles could be interchangeable. Of course, to buy the standardized products made by standardized workers, the system needed standardized consumers. It didn’t do any good to mass-produce an item when you had many people desiring many different things. So you needed to market to the masses, create a common desire for everyone. And since the whole concept was predicated on the idea that mass production called for mass consumption, material goods were sold as the cure for all our ills. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Insecure about your place in the world? Buy a fancy car. Tired from working too much? Take a pill or buy a comfy chair to relax in.
“And since manufactured goods were what our paradigm did well,” again inserting his own perspective, Johnny added, “questions of spirituality were of little use. What good was meditation or contemplation or prayer when the real problems of the world were halitosis and waxy yellow build up?”[L30] 

 [L1]Something very large can somehow be unnoticed. A recurring motif.
 [L2] While I always write from a restricted point of view, I occasionally like to intermingle author Point of View with character POV. Here I try to give it a cinematic effect, having the camera slowly swoop in from an establishing shot into a more personal view.
 [L3]I appreciate work done not just for a paycheck but done with legitimate passion and pride. And ambition. People seemed to make things with an eye to the future back then, now they make things with an eye towards profit. This is me saying I have pride in what I make, I have an obligation to those who have taught me my trade. Of course, it also applies to the characters in the book, who are looking for a connection to truth and not merely trying to fit in to the environment they find themselves in.
 [L4]A reintroduction to characters from the last book.
 [L5]A personal rejection of what is popular in favor of what is enduring.
 [L6]Like the evergreens, we see something that was once in its prime, yet is still impressive in advanced age.
 [L7]Magic, a major motif in the book and the series.
 [L8]A lesser motif (something so big and yet unseen) and a larger motif (magic) merged.
 [L9]Escape, another major motif, related to magic.
 [L10]Again, something that is in plain view and should be obvious is not noticed.
 [L11]I’m not sure why I included this but I liked it. I think when writing, one does not have to know why something effects one the way it does.
 [L12]The distance that television provides is ?
 [L13]Russell is the first casualty shown of what can happen to one who strays too far out from the safety of the herd mentality.
 [L14]I’m not a hundred percent sure if Dave and Mindy should trust Doug at this point. Therefore I’m playing his character as a little vague, and yet always having perfectly logical reasons for his vagueness.
 [L15]It is so easy for us to find simple answers to complex problems that we don’t want to let go of them even when the answers we hold are not only insufficient but actively harming us.
 [L16]Unlike typical books dealing with magic, each of the characters in this book have a power that deals only with perception. Nobody can make a twig turn into a snake, or levitate things with their mind. Rather, it is the power we as human beings acquire as a result of seeing life more perfectly.
 [L17]Seeing beyond the times and attitudes that surround you can give you power that others do not comprehend. It is not in their universe. Plato’s allegory of the cave, which shall be discussed.
 [L18]Mindy has experienced everything Dave has, but she does not consider the idea that having perceived she too will acquire abilities as a result of perception.
 [L19]Fear is the natural barrier to understanding.
 [L20]As soon as we believe we understand a person or an object or an idea, we cease to question it. It has become a static thing rather than a dynamic one. And in reality, there is no such thing as static. Nor is there such a thing as a complete understanding of anything.
 [L21]After three books, I see that choosing current day oddity of thought might not be the easiest way to get my point across. In my book, Seven Stones, I deal with the same issue in the year 1913, where it is really easy to point out the absurdities that people of a certain era can ascribe to. Unfortunately, it’s easier to see such things in others than see it in ourselves or our times.
 [L22]Consciousness exists on a group level as well as an individual level. We tend not to admit that. So much of who we are depends upon what the group we are in determines we should be.
 [L23]A fool’s paradise does not last, and we are all fools compared to a universe as vast as ours.
 [L24]Group think. Also relates to the idea of ruts from the last book, Perchance To Dream.
 [L25]Johnny’s opinion stems from the fact that he’s always considered himself an outsider.
 [L26]How many people have been killed because they happen to perceive the world somewhat differently than the ruling class does? Sometimes those distinctions can be quite tiny.
 [L27]Our current world is more homogenous than at any time in our history. The reasons for this are: 1. We are more alienated from the natural world, thereby stripping us of the common sense needed to live in that world. 2. The success of capitalism is unlike anything seen before. Never before in our history has so much changed with so little thought. 3. Mass communication has been able to propagandize us in a way before undreamed of.
 [L28]I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the power that advertisement has had on shaping our behaviors. The new field of psychology revolutionized propaganda.
 [L29]The old story of the three blind men describing an elephant by the part they were able to feel.
 [L30]The mass media does not mention spirituality. Why would it? Who would profit from such a discussion?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Metric System And American Exceptionalism

     Back when I was in grade school, sometime in the 70’s, they decided it would be a good idea to start to teach children the metric system in anticipation that we would soon be switching over to it. We were taught that it was based on common sense and logic rather than on the lengths of the king’s body parts or the quantity of liquid his bladder could hold.
     For example, the meter was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Pretty neat, right? There would be no arguments about exactly how long some long-dead king’s foot was when we had a constant scientific measurement that would be for all times provable. And then there is the measurement of area. Rather than the acre, which corresponds to I don’t know what, you have the are, which is simply 100 meters squared. And here’s the beauty of this, not only units of distance and area but also volume and mass and temperature are based on the simple meter. Because a liter is simply ten centimeters cubed. And the gram is the weight of the cube of a hundredth of a meter. And best of all, water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 degrees. Genius!
     And tens, everything was broken down into tens. Being young, I found it infinitely easier to learn than having sixteen ounces to a pint, two pints to a quart and four quarts to an American and five quarts to an Imperial Gallon. If that’s right: I’m still not sure how the Imperial Gallon worked.
     But beyond the fact that it was easier, it was universal. People all over the world were using it and it only made sense for the good old U.S. of A. to use it as well. Using an antiquated system of measurements that wasn’t even of our own design was an embarrassment. Even our own scientific community had long been using metric since it was practical when comparing studies in the world.
     So it made sense that we were switching over. We were told that there would be a certain amount of resistance from those who had been doing things differently their whole lives, that was understandable. But the change would take place and we’d all be better off because of it.
     The switch was taking place in Canada at about the same time. I remember one year visiting relatives in Canada and the older ones complaining about it. But when I visited them the next year, everybody was already adjusted to it. Suddenly, instead of measuring the speed limit in miles they were now doing it in kilometers and everybody was okay with that. In the course of a year, Canada joined the rest of the world and acquired a vastly superior system of measurements.

     But we here in the U.S. couldn’t do it. We just didn’t have the will it took to accomplish such a basic task.
     Perhaps it was because of the bicentennial. Right about then we started getting downright patriotic again. And looking around us we realized how well we had done as a nation and how we had everything we needed. And being patriotic and contented is only a short step from being arrogant and demanding. Somehow we got the attitude that we didn’t have to change for nobody, and that the rest of the world could just suck it. If they wanted to sell their goods in America (yeah, I know Canada is in America too, but dammit, we’re AMERICANS), then they would have to measure things in ounces and feet. Of course, other countries were glad to be selling their products and were only slightly put out having to convert things to our system of measurements, as long as our currency was profitably converting.
     Another reason, perhaps, that we could not manage to make the change was that we had an instinctive dislike of someone telling us what to do. We were Americans, and we were nothing if not free. How did we know? Because that’s what had been drilled into our skulls every day on television and in cigarette ads. We didn’t mind being told what to do by advertising, but by golly, we weren’t going to have our government doing it. At some point, we got it into our thoughts that any attempt our government made to gravitate us towards something was just a sinister move towards socialism.
     And so today we are one of the few countries in the world that has a system of measurements different from the rest of the world. Only Myanmar and Liberia now stand with us.
     I write this not to suggest that it is high time America switches to the metric system, although it is, if only to save money for mechanics who have to buy two sets of wrenches. I mention our failure to convert to the metric system as a symptom of a deeper problem. It seems that Americans today cannot come together on ANY problem, no matter how much of a no-brainer it is. We have lost the ability to unite in any kind of cause at all. During the Second World War, patriotism meant having paper drives, tin drives, and victory gardens. We knew that we as Americans, whatever divided us, were united in many ways. We knew that we had built something pretty good and that we would have to occasionally work together in order to preserve our way of life.
     That’s a long way from where we are today. After September 11, 2001, our president did not ask for us to come together to sacrifice for the common good, but instead implored us to continue our daily routine and go shopping. And in the ensuing years, it has only gotten worse. Today, there is no sense of unity, no sense that sometimes the only solution is to pull together and make the necessary—and often vastly preferable—changes that should be made.
     It’s not just our failure to commit to the metric system, which was and is a no brainer. Add to that our inability to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, from inefficient forms of transportation, from an addiction to foreign produced consumer goods that we simply don’t need, and a mass of other problems we have no heart to tackle. We have become frozen, unable to act to confront the problems that can only be confronted as a group. Not as individual consumers, but as a unified front. We have become like the old world that we once mocked for the way they clung to outmoded ideas.

     When I was young and my dad tried to tell me what to do, I always asserted my burgeoning age by telling him experience was the best teacher. His reply was that experience was not the best teacher but the most expensive one. I hope that we as a nation can learn our lesson before harsh reality hits, but if that’s what it takes, at least we will learn a lesson that will hopefully stick.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Brief Story Of Fannie Sellins

     My grandfather was involved in the Little Steel Strike in 1937. While investigating it a little, I came upon the name of Fannie Sellins, who was involved in another strike in 1919. Her story so touched me that I felt the need to share it. The story comes from the book "The Great Steel Strike And Its Lessons:

     Mrs. Fannie Sellins was an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, stationed in the notorious, anti-union Black Valley district along the Allegheny river. An able speaker, and possessed of boundless courage, energy, enthusiasm and idealism, she was a most effective worker. Due largely to her efforts many thousands of miners and miscellaneous workers in this hard district were organized. She was the very heart of the local labor movement, which ranked second to none in Pennsylvania for spirit and progress. When the steel campaign began, Mrs. Sellins threw herself whole-heartedly into it. She worked indefatigably. More than any other individual she was responsible for the unionization of the big United States Steel Corporation mills at Vandergrift, Leechburg and New Kensington, as well as those of the so-called independent Allegheny and West Penn Steel Companies at Brackenridge. The results secured by her will compare favorably with those of any other organizer in the whole campaign.

     By her splendid work in behalf of the toilers Mrs. Sellins gained the undying hatred of the untamed employers in the benighted Black Valley district. Open threats were made to "get" her. The opportunity came on August 26, 1919, when she was deliberately murdered under the most brutal circumstances.

     The miners of the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company were on strike at West Natrona. The mine is situated in the mill yard of the Allegheny Steel Company and furnishes fuel for that concern. All was going peacefully when a dozen drunken deputy sheriffs on strike duty, led by a mine official, suddenly rushed the pickets, shooting as they came. Joseph Strzelecki fell, mortally wounded. Mrs. Sellins, standing close by, rushed first to get some children out of danger. Then she came back to plead with the deputies, who were still clubbing the prostrate Strzelecki, not to kill him. What happened then is told in the New Majority (Chicago) of September 20:

     (Name Withheld), the mine official, snatched a club and felled the woman to the ground. This was not on company ground, but just outside the fence of a friend of Mrs. Sellins. She rose and tried to drag herself toward the gate.

       (Name withheld) shouted: "Kill that — — — — — —!" Three shots were fired, each taking effect. She fell to the ground, and (Name Withheld) cried: "Give her another!"

One of the deputies, standing over the motionless and silent body, held his gun down and, without averting his face, fired into the body that did not move.

     An auto truck, in waiting, was hurried to the scene and the body of the old miner thrown in; then Mrs. Sellins was dragged by the heels to the back of the car. Before she was placed in the truck, a deputy took a cudgel and crushed in her skull before the eyes of the throng of men, women and children, who stood in powerless silence before the armed men. Deputy ——picked up the woman's hat, placed it on his head, danced a step, and said to the crowd: "I'm Mrs. Sellins now."

     Thus perished noble Fannie Sellins: shot in the back by so-called peace officers. And she 49 years old, a grandmother, and mother of a boy killed in France, fighting to make the world safe for democracy.
     Many people witnessed this horrible murder. The guilty men were named openly in the newspapers and from a hundred platforms. Yet no one was ever punished for the crime. Witnesses were spirited away or intimidated, and the whole matter hushed up in true Steel Trust fashion. A couple of deputies were arrested; but they were speedily released on smaller bonds than those often set for strikers arrested for picketing. Eventually they were freed altogether.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My novel in The Amazing Morse series, The Association, will be available for free tomorrow April 20, on Kindle. Please help yourself to a copy, as well as help spread the word:

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Seven Stones: An Introduction

Here then is a brief introduction of my forthcoming book, which I think I shall name Seven Stones:

The year is 1913.
     An aspiring magician, Douglas Slattery, comes across an advertisement for rare illusions for sale. He meets an older magician, known only by his stage name Ashavan, who is giving away his old secrets and props for services rendered. There is a certain jewel in the possession of a spiritualist in Chicago which Doug is sent to retrieve in return for the secret of the Bullet Catch trick. Later, there is a jewel that has found its way from Australia via Houdini. Then there is the one in Louisiana owned by a landowner who believes he can possess his laborers not only in life but also in death. With each jewel, the reward becomes greater, but the price payed by Douglas Slattery becomes greater.
     He learns there are seven jewels in all, one for each of the seven continents. They are parts of what was once a single jewel, the jewel of the continent Pangea. Both Ashavan and Doug learn that assembling the jewels leads to greater understanding, while also giving greater power to the stones that remain apart. Together they are a power for unity, separately they’re a source of evil. But assembling all of them into their original shape will bring about the recreation of Pangea.
     Would the re-emergence of a single continent be possible? Would it be preferable? Unfortunately, there’s not much time left to think about it. They’ve already unwittingly set the pieces in motion. As the individual jewels seem to want to unite, the power of the remaining pieces grows, as does the desire for them by those who would use them for evil.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Another Snippet From My New Novel, 7 Stones

A little sample from my forthcoming novel, 7 Stones. I'll try my hardest have it out in fall:

Ashavan was attempting to use his senses to bridge the gap, now, speaking softly in his deep resonant voice in order to tease out some kind of response from the seemingly comatose man lying on the bed in front of him.
“You have stared into the darkness, Douglas Slattery, and it has overwhelmed you. You have, as Freidrich Nietzche said, stared into the abyss, and the abyss has stared back into you. But what would happen, Doug, if while gazing into the emptiness we did not lose faith? What if, while traveling in the darkness that it so happened that we were the light we needed? The abyss exists, there is no denying, but so do we. That also is indisputable. We may be tiny, but as Tennyson said, ‘what we are, we are.’ It is perhaps the era we are now living in that has forgotten this. We are the first generation to have left the land and gone to live in cities of man’s creation, and so we have forgotten that we are still a part of all creation. Science has caused us to look at the world as outside observers, we see everything as scientific phenomena, but we have forgotten ‘self’.
He spoke on, in some way hoping the words might bridge the gap between himself and Doug. “I met a man aboard the ship we were on, a wonderfully intelligent physicist, Max Planck. One seldom gets the opportunity to come across a mind like his, even for one as well travelled as I. He told me that science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature, and that is because we are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.”

Ashavan looked down at Doug, hoping for signs of some kind of recognition. “Don’t you see, Doug, in the final analysis, it is up to you. And I. The abyss, the nothingness, it’s an empty stage for us to perform upon, an blank page waiting for you to write your story on it, a silence awaiting a song. Nothing doesn’t matter. You do, we all do. And it’s up to you, there is nothing that nothing can do to you. It is your choice to come back. You can be part of the nothing if you wish. But it is a choice. It is your story, Doug, you who write it.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Influences Part 3: Mike Royko

     My mom is 91 and has moved into an assisted living facility. A lot of stuff from her house got thrown out, other things sold in an estate sale. What was left were the important things, the things that regardless of monetary value, mean the most to our family. These are the things that define who we are. In the end, it comes down to the contents of a few cardboard boxes.
     I finally got a chance to go through a couple of these boxes. They were filled with old photos, work done by us children when we were in school, and various mementos of a lifetime. There was a bell-shaped Christmas ornament my grandmother hung on the tree the year my father was born. There were pictures of my grandfather in his World War I uniform, and postcards from the lodge my dad once owned. But something I came across really surprised me, something that meant a lot to more than just my family.
     I came across two old newspapers, over thirty years old. One was the last issue of the Chicago Daily News, a paper that had been around 102 years. The other was an issue of the Chicago Tribune. What stuck out for me was that Mike Royko was on the cover of both of them. In the Daily News, it was Mike Royko who was permitted to write the obituary for the paper that was perhaps best known for, well, Mike Royko. In The Tribune, the front page announced that Mike Royko would be joining their paper to write his daily column.
     That’s how important Mike Royko was to us, that these two papers made it into these boxes of family memorabilia. And not just to my dad, or to me, or someone else, but to just about the whole family. And we weren’t that kind of family that agreed on everything political, either. I remember some intense arguments in the house and even a fair amount of yelling. But Mike Royko was the kind of guy that cut through all of the nonsense and got to the heart of the matter. He was able to speak to the conservative and the liberal with a common sense manner and Joe Average style of language. Everybody liked him.
     Well, not everybody. Mike Royko never shied away from going after the powerful and the corrupt, the kind of people that tried to make you see life through their eyes, tried to sell you their story and make it look right. He was merciless at humbling the mighty, tearing to shreds stories built on faulty premises. And as he did so, he was able to make you laugh. Because, see, when someone shows you an absurdity and builds it up so much that it starts to make sense, and then he pokes that bloated bubble of absurdity with a few well-sharpened points, that’s what humor is all about.
     There were many years I read his article on an almost daily basis, and I was always amazed at the way he could be so consistently perceptive and witty. And likeable. Those were formative years for me. His column would be the highlight of the newspaper, no matter what was going on in the world or how my sports teams were doing. Royko’s column usually spoke to the most important matters of the day and more often than not gave the definitive perspective on it.
     In my best moments as a writer, when words and ideas flow from my pen or keyboard, I permit myself to think I am somehow channeling Mike Royko, that somehow I am able to keep his spirit alive through my writing. This is pure egotism on my part, but it is undeniable that Mike Royko has influenced not only my writing but who I am as a human being.
Let me give you this one little taste, one of thousands of pieces he wrote over the years:

A Rich Lesson In Citizenship
Mike Royko
It`s always poignant when a boatload of half-starved Haitians tries to land in this country, only to be turned away because they don`t qualify.
But that`s the way our immigration laws are written. Not just anybody can become an American.
People can`t come here only because they want to improve themselves economically, as the skinny Haitians do.
If that were the only qualification, half the hungry world would be streaming into this country.
Thus, we have the limited immigration quotas, most of which have long waiting lists. And we take some people who are fleeing communist tyranny. (If you happen to be fleeing from a right-wing tyrant, you have a real problem.)
We also admit people who have a skill in short supply here. That`s how many foreign doctors and nurses made it.
So I`m a little puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Rupert Murdoch announced that he intends to quickly become a citizen of this country.
I don`t see how Murdoch qualifies.
For one thing, he`s not fleeing communism or any other form of tyranny. He`s already a citizen of Australia, which is a very nice, freedom-loving country. He`s treated with great respect in Australia because he`s rich and powerful, and anybody who doesn`t treat him with respect will feel bad in the morning.
Nor does he have a skill that is in short supply. By profession, Murdoch is a greedy, money-grubbing, power-seeking, status-climbing cad.
Since when is that skill in short supply? Stroll along Chicago`s LaSalle Street or New York`s Wall Street, and you`ll see thousands of greedy, money-grubbing, power-seeking cads.
Just read the financial pages. It`s all corporate raids, greenmail, hostile takeovers and other forms of modern-day piracy. If John Dillinger were alive, he`d put away his pistol, get an MBA, and if he could pull off a big enough heist, he`d be invited to join the best clubs.
So why does Murdoch want to become a citizen?
For the very same reason that those rejected Haitians and all the Mexican illegals want to come here - except on a much grander, greedier scale.
He`s already incredibly rich, but he wants more and more. That, in turn, will allow him to exercise more and more political influence.
Now, you might think that a man who is already one of the richest, most powerful men in Australia, and who owns newspapers and magazines all over the United States and in England, would be content with his bottom line.
But not Murdoch. Hundreds of millions aren`t enough. He wants billions. He wants all he can get, and then some.
To get it, he`s set out to buy a chain of TV stations in some of America`s major cities, creating his own network. That way, he will make even more money while tinkering with the minds of the viewers.
But a sensible law stands in his way. Because of the potential of television to scramble, shrink or soften our brains, only an American citizen can own more than a minority interest in a TV station.
And because of that restriction alone, Murdoch says he is going to become a citizen of this country.
Well, that doesn`t seem fair. If a Haitian on a leaky boat can`t come here to improve his pitiful economic condition, why should a bloated millionaire be welcome? And for the opportunity to earn a living, the Haitian would be willing to sweep stables, behead chickens or clean toilets. Murdoch? His approach has been to fire American workers and break unions in order to increase his own cash flow.
We might also consider the question of character, of which Murdoch has little.
For one thing, he is a proven ingrate. His willingness to switch national loyalties establishes that. If you had more money than you could ever spend, would you consider giving up your American citizenship just to add to the pile?
But Murdoch is willing to wave goodbye to Australia, because he`s already taken as much as he can out of his homeland. And in England, where he also wheels and deals, the antimonopoly laws frustrate him.
He`s also a proven liar. Only 18 months ago, when he bought the Chicago Sun-Times, he vowed to improve the paper and said he was making a journalistic commitment to this city. Some commitment. He promptly trashed and gutted that once-fine paper. And now he`s casually put it up for sale because he wants to switch to the TV business.
Finally, why would we want to give citizenship to somebody who has contempt for Americans? In his heart, if such an organ exists, Murdoch thinks we`re boobs. That`s why he publishes boob-mentality newspapers. He thinks that`s all we can understand. And he hires only Australian or English editors because he thinks American editors don`t understand what boobs Americans really are.
So if Murdoch is allowed to become a citizen - while we`re turning away people who are running from death squads or starvation - then we should make one small change in the plans to renovate the Statue of Liberty.
Get rid of the torch. Just have the lady hold up her hand - with the middle finger extended.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Letter To Myself

Shortly after I graduated college, my dad died. Life seemed to get hectic after that, and somehow the aspirations I had that got me through college somehow got put on the back burner. I was an English Major who desired to be a writer, and for twelve years I did not write. I got married and raised a son and looked after my mother and somehow the whole passion for writing got lost in the shuffle. I kind of kept up with my other passion, music, as is recorded below, but it never really got me where I wanted to be. Below is the first bit of writing I did after those 12 years, a message to the person I was back then.

This is me writing. I have not done this in 12 years. 

Hi, me. I haven’t talked to you in a while. Don’t be mad, I have been busy doing all of the things you would have wanted me to do. I have been taking care of business. I have been trying to maintain relationships, although I’ve never been good at that sort of thing. I have been scouring the world wide web in search of all of the arcane information you were always so interested in. I have tried to keep in touch with you  but there has been  some barrier between us. I will not blame myself as you are so wont to do. But I have missed you, and so I have decided to come home to visit. I would like to live here but it seems a difficult thing to do. But I see that you are here with me now. Time is a river which we must step out of from time to time. You live there always but I am always being swept along. I must confess that were it not for computer problems, I would not be saying hi now. It is an accident, but a happy accident. I can feel you here now, much stronger than I normally feel myself. You have found yourself a hole within time where the things of the moment pass harmlessly by. I live in the moment and yet am constantly harassed by both the past and future. I fear death, both for myself and those I hold dear, without appreciating the live I am given. I am surrounded by the now without any appreciation of it. I experience and then move on without reflection. I eat without digesting, resulting in an ever upset stomach. I cry over the past without fond memories and worry over the future without hope.  My present is a constant toil without recompense. But in all that I do I have struggled to stay true to you, which is my consolation. I have worked to keep the people you love worthy of the love you have for them, as well as repay the debts you owe them. In this brief time with you I find more happiness than the countless hours I spend in the pursuit of distraction. It would surely bring a smile to me to know that you could find humor in my present situation, even if you were laughing at my expense. I know that you will never be me and I will never be you, but together we can be us. Something can be passed on-- both ways--hopefully the best of us both. Everything I have done has been compromised. No-one you love has been given the love they deserve, but we are not as big as we would like. 
     Here follows a brief synopsis of the last 12 years. Dad died. Got married. Learned to play flute. Saw Anglagard, Echolyn, and Caravan play live. 

As it is now 7 years since I wrote that, reading this again is levels of strange to me now. So if I may indulge myself once again, let me say a word or two to the person I was in 2008: I'm glad you did not lose heart. You did not feel at the time much faith, but I admire you more for fighting the battle while lacking it. I remember that time, wanting so passionately to do something with what you had been trained to do, and fearing you did not have the time, or the talent, or the luck or the whatever. But perseverance pays off, and perhaps faith is not always what it appears to be. I am the person you are, as well as the person you were. We are all the same person even though we're at different stages of being. And the person you are now, plagued by doubt as you may be, will eventually see his way through to the other side. Desire will win out. I wish I could tell you that, but it will be good enough to take the baton you have handed me and finish the race. I'm not there yet, but I am heartened by the effort you have shown, and confident of what I can do.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

If You Are An Artist, The World Is In Your Hands

WARNING: In over 130 blog posts, I don’t believe I have ever resorted to vulgarity of any kind. However, I find it hard to avoid using a few vulgarisms on this occasion. Please forgive me if their use offends you and I will try to keep their use to a bare minimum in the future.

     I’ve been around the writing game long enough now to identify a certain attitude. It is one that is shared with critics of all art today, one that feels the need to heap scorn upon anyone who attempts a loftier style or desires to accomplish something more than amuse and distract their audience. To anyone who does not sufficiently amuse them, to anyone who makes them uncomfortable and makes them think a little, they use words such as pompous, pretentious, or arrogant.
     I have an answer to such criticism, one which I hope you won’t find too elitist or arty. Fuck you. You call me pretentious? I call you intellectual and moral cowards. You are too afraid to attempt what can and should be done and so you attack others for making the attempt. You masturbate because you are afraid to procreate. You play at life when you should be living it.
     To artists and audience alike I say to you: demand more! Be more! We ARE more than what some would make us. We have souls, we have purpose. Life has meaning!
     Artists today, especially when in pursuit of fame and cash, are unafraid to transgress any moral sensibility but they flee from any critical thought that might separate them from the safety of the herd or the cash of their potential customers. They are willing to dream up any sexual perversion, any sick violence in order to titillate their fans. Money has somehow wormed its way between artists and their audience when there should be no barriers between us. This is not a fucking business transaction, this is human communication at its most basic and honest level.
     Be men. Not men as we now describe them, crude, violent and stupid. Be men in daring to seek the truth and defend truth even when it is unpopular Be women. Do not indulge incessantly in adolescent fantasies but instead become the strong intelligent women the world needs. Be human beings and not pawns in a marketing game. Dare. Get out of the kiddy pool and think thoughts that make you uncomfortable. Brave putting down in you art your deepest darkest fears and hopes. Expose your most hidden selves to the light. Dream a dream that is worth sharing.
     The world needs changing but you are too timid to admit you have the power to make it better. It is up to you, no one else can do your job, share the perspective that only you have. You are important—nay, vital to this world, and it’s time you shook off your doubts and realized it.
It is up to you to show the world that ideas can accomplish what bullets cannot.
     Be bold, my friends, be bold. Not bold in expressing prejudice or hatred, but in expressing new ideas and optimism. Not bold to shock or offend but bold in order to enlighten and inspire.
     A culture whose artists are afraid to push further is a culture in decline. That is the power you possess as artists, to keep your culture afloat and moving ahead, to reach new shores and new heights previously unimagined.
     Do not be afraid to fail. Nor should you feel the need to accept society’s judgment of what success or failure is. Do not try to fit yourself into the cattle chutes called genres, but instead blaze your own trail, create what you see and feel, let what is inside of you be what it is meant to be.

     You owe it to yourself. You owe it to everyone who has influenced you, those who gave you a sense of wonder when in your childhood you picked up a book, gazed at a picture, or were enraptured by a song. And you owe it to a future that deserves the same as you received, art that speaks to the heart and the mind without further considerations of any baser motives. This is life. Art is life. Art is the communication that speaks to those whom you have never met nor will meet. It is the passing on of beauty and vitality. And it is in your hands.