Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Expressing a Right to be Shocked

Following is my response to an article by blogger Courtney Parker West (right) titled "On 'Woke' White People Advertising Their Shock That Racism Just Won a Presidency," in which she asserts that the way people express their feelings should be dictated by their race. My sense from an examination of her social media presence overall is that her primary goal was to emotionally bully her white liberal friends rather than make statements that would clearly be outrageously racist if the word "black" was substituted for "white" throughout. In short, and to emulate her tactic of using made-up words as a device for controlling the dialogue, "West performs a macroloathsomeness in order to merely achieve microloathsomeness." One would think this was not the time for liberals to be turning on each other, or to be relinquishing their commitment to speech that promotes racial parity. 

Suffice it to say that I find this article offputting and even a bit pathetic, in that it takes a poke not at people who voted for Trump because they support his racist rhetoric, not at those who voted for him in spite of that, and not even at those who did not vote at all — but rather at those who took a stand against him because the author does not approve of the way they are processing their own grief and fear.

Yes, I was shocked and upset that Trump won this election, because I fought like hell to the extent that I could to keep that from happening, through personal interactions, attendance at political events, posts on social media, and articles on websites and in the local newspaper. As a resident of rural Texas, my political and social views are in the minority where I live, and I have publicly spoken out against Trump in a local city where white supremacist events are now being organized. My supposed “white privilege” is probably not worth as much to me in this environment as Courtney Parker West would like to imagine. And if something happens to one of my biracial daughters or grandchildren, or one or the many people I care about deeply who are members of minority groups, should I still feel “privileged”? And will that then be something I am allowed to express feelings about, or will West still want me to keep quiet simply because of the color of my skin?

So, being both white and surprised that Trump won, even though I did everything in my limited power to keep that from happening, makes me the villain of West's unpleasant little narrative. I can only wonder if West is going to follow up with articles on large groups of minorities who stayed home on election day and did not vote at all, or on the DNC, which undermined the candidate the majority of Democratic voters wanted. It would seem to me that their indifference and malignance, respectively, are far more relevant than my after-the-fact surprise at the results of the election.

On the day of the election — when I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win but before the results were known so that it would not look like I was trying to curry favor with either side — I posted on Facebook that I have never unfriended someone merely because of their political views. I was thus interested to learn that, according to the meme West included with her article, that this makes me a “douche.” I have, in fact, unfriended plenty of people who have used racist epithets or advocated violence, just not ones who have simply stated a specific political preference or candidate, and I have been unfriended by plenty of less-tolerant rightwing friends and relatives. As soon as I unfriend large numbers of people who have opposing viewpoints, however, I lose any kind of platform for influencing them. If West thinks a verbal circle jerk where only talking to people with similar points of view is productive then I will direct her to the results of the most recent election.

Finally, as an aside, I don’t know if I’m “woke” or not, because I’m 50 and therefore not accountable for learning new slang. I will note, however, that one of the organizations I have always admired most in my capacity as a writer is the Black Panthers, because they traditionally made a point of producing materials only in standard written English (i.e., in the 1960s and '70s), so that everyone would be able to quickly and easily understand their message.

Suffice it to say that I have found this article to be divisive, unproductive, and hurtful and that it has made me a little sad and angry. And now, I am going to soldier on, because the world is full of douches and dumb jerks who look like me — and also ones who look like Courtney Parker West, it turns out — and we have got more work to do than ever before. 


This is the picture that appears with West's article.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Contemplating the Worth of Values

Following is an op-ed piece I wrote for the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung that it ran on November 3 as "Finding the 'values' in this election." It is somewhat longer than what the newspaper normally accepts and the editors there had to tighten it up a bit and, in doing so, wisely toned down some of my more inflammatory verbiage. Hope you enjoy it or, at least, are prompted to reflect upon the issues it addresses. 

Never before the current election cycle have I been so grateful to be almost entirely bereft of values and to have had to limp through life guided by almost nothing but ideals. Likewise, never before have I so pitied the many “values voters” who have contorted themselves to cite their fundamental beliefs as the basis for defending candidate Donald Trump and the many loathsome and disturbing things he has personally uttered and admitted to. 

Certainly there are not many good choices in the current presidential election and, as I am wholly unable to defend or promote Hillary Clinton, I cannot in good conscience reproach anyone for even misguidedly choosing Donald Trump as the lesser of two evils. What baffles me, however, are the many convoluted and grotesque attempts to invoke moral values on behalf of Donald Trump that we have seen recently. 

Perhaps my problem getting my mind around this apparent disconnect is my own lack of values and subsequent failure to comprehend them, and so I am attempting to understand the difference between them and ideals. 

To me, ideals are forward-looking and represent hopes and aspirations. One of my ideals, for example, is that “I want to live in a country where women don’t have to fear sexual violence and where those who admit to such crimes are held accountable for them.” 

Values are harder for me to get my mind around but I have identified a number of common characteristics many of them share. One is that they are applied to the conduct of others at least as much, and often more so, than to one’s own behavior. Another is that they can be invoked as the standard of behavior in a fictitious golden age that existed before our current era of moral decline. Yet another is that they tend to claim as their moral authority verses from the Bible. In that the contents of the Bible are meaningless to the more than one-third of Americans who are not members of Christian congregations — and, as far as I can tell, that it is not actually comprehensively read by most Christians anyway — this last trait really does seem like an odd basis for anything one might want everyone to get on board with. 

Having recognized these attributes, however, I decided to watch people purporting to have values on the news, on social media, and in person, and to see if by doing so I could formulate some of my own and come to a better understanding of them. Here are some of my initial results and conclusions about them: 

“Bill Clinton is a rapist.” 

Hmmm, strangely, I hear this get invoked a lot as a direct answer to questions about Donald Trump’s conduct, but that technically makes it what we used to call a non sequitur, rather than a value. 

“Benghazi.” 

Nope, that is not a value, just a city in the Middle East. 

“9/11.” 

No, that’s the date of a historical event, not actually a value. 

“Make America great again.” 

OK, sure, at first this sounds like a value, but is obviously predicated on the idea that America is not in fact a great nation today. This is the kind of assertion that might have gotten hippies, blacks, or other troublemakers pretty badly beaten by conservatives in earlier eras, so it is kind of funny that it has been co-opted by rightwing “patriots” today. I would postulate that, by definition, a statement that demeans the United States cannot be characterized as a legitimate American value. And aren’t the people saying this now the same ones who coined “Love it or leave it” back in the day? 

“My Christian faith does not allow me to judge others.” 

Hahahaha! Oh, good grief. OK, so this really does meet all the tests for being a value. What makes it ridiculously laughable as a defense for Trump, however, is that we have all routinely seen many of the people who are invoking it today — from individuals we know to prominent religious leaders — actively judge and condemn others as a matter of course. Withholding judgement only when it applies to someone a person has already decided to vote for does seem like a bit of a double standard. 

“People who have more money and power than me have the right to demean and use women, including ones I care about, as they see fit.” 

Yes! This one actually hits all the marks and can be regarded as a genuine value. In Genesis 20, for example, we see Abraham willingly give his wife to Abimelek, king of Gerar — and read that she is returned to him only because of direct intervention by God — so it meets the test for being supported by obscure sacred texts. And it echoes the disturbing medieval practice of primae noctis, in which a feudal lord could exert the right to sleep with a new bride ahead of her husband, thereby hearkening back to a golden age when everyone knew their place. And, most critically, adherence to this value allows one to support Donald Trump not just despite the most loathsome things he has openly admitted to but even because of them. It would be a humiliatingly shameful thing for any American to say out loud, of course, but for months now we have seen any number of them implicitly promoting this idea as their reality. 

My initial success at formulating a value notwithstanding, this is probably pretty clearly something that does not come naturally to me, and moving ahead I am likely simply going to have to remain value-free and continue to stick just with ideals. And, if the only use for values is to show that black is white, that evil is good, that ugliness is beautiful, then I really don’t have much use for them anyway. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

My Book List

As part of getting ready to serve as as Guest of Honor for the ConClave science fiction convention, I was asked by the organizers to provide a list of the various books I had authored! When I started going through the most recent list I had I realized it needed quite a bit of updating and, once I had done that, figured I should post it here. In any event, since 1998 I have authored or co-authored 46 titles covering many subjects and in multiple genres, including five novels or book-length works of fiction; 13 non-fiction books that include writers guides, history, and travel guides; and 28 games or game-related titles. Beyond that, I have also written hundreds of articles for dozens of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, blogs, websites, and other venues. 


NON-FICTION

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Writer's Digest, 2013; w. Orson Scott Card)

Disunion (New York Times, 2013; w. multiple other authors)


Life in Civil War America (Family Tree Books, 2011)



Shipwrecks & Lost Treasures: Great Lakes (Globe Pequot Press, 2007)

Civil War Armchair Reader (co-author, Publications International, 2007; w. multiple other authors)

Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953 (Savas, 2000)

D-Day: June 6, 1944 (co-author, Savas, 2001; w. Randy Holderfield)

Everyday Life During the Civil War (Writer’s Digest, 1999)

The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference (co-author, Writer’s Digest, 1998; w. Terry Brooks)


FICTION/NOVELS
Swords of Kos Fantasy Campaign Setting (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2016; w. Jim Clunie, Brendan Cass, et al)

Opal of Light & Shadow (GP Adventures, 2016) Illustration for the cover by fantasy artist Lloyd Metcalf appears here! 


Swords of Kos: Hekaton (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013; w. multiple other authors)



GAMES/GAMING BOOKS




100 Oddities for a Creepy Old House (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013; w. William T. Thrasher and Clint Staples)


d-Infinity Vol. #6: The Mythos (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2014; w. multiple other authors)

Heroes & Monsters of the Necropolis (Cardstock CharactersTM) (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013)








Experts v.3.5 (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2007; w. Paul O. Knorr)

Nuisances: Director's Cut (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2007; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty, William T. Thrasher)

Gary Gygax's Nation Builder (Troll Lord Games, 2005; w. Gary Gygax)

Nuisances (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2004; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty)

Tests of Skill (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2004; w. Paul O. Knorr)

Warriors (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2003; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty, Luke Gygax)

Experts (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2002; w. Paul O. Knorr)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Going Beyond 'A Stroll with A Million Dollar View'

One of the first things I did when I moved to Texas Hill Country more than seven years ago was walk Canyon Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that constrains the Guadalupe River in Comal County. As of this writing, my most recent piece for the Canyon Lake department of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper is about the people who walk the dam every day for exercise and relaxation ("A Stroll with A Million Dollar View," August 26, 2016). As usual, I submitted more photos than the paper could actually use, and so have posted some of them here as a visual supplement to my article. 

Canyon dam overlooks the water and its boulder-covered interior face slopes down to it from an elevation of about 60 feet to the east, and the grassy slope of the dam plummets about 200 feet into the largely-wooded area known locally as the Hidden Valley, ending just short of where South Access Road passes by it.

Overlook Park, located along the south side of Canyon Dam, includes its own wooded trails, fishing access, and this pleasant little swimming area. 

A view from the western edge of Canyon Dam, toward where the Guadalupe River flows out of it and continues on in the direction of New Braunfels. A small hydroelectric plant there generates some of the energy used in our area. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Going Beyond the 'Butterfly Effect'

One of things I do these days is cover the Canyon Lake department of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper where I live in south Texas! My most recent piece as of this writing was on the beautiful butterfly garden at Tye Preston Memorial Library, which was based to a large extent on a visit there with Susan Bogle, one of its founders ("The Butterfly Effect," August 19, 2016). Unfortunately, the paper was only able to run two of the six photos I submitted, along with their associated cutlines, so I am posting the balance of the material I developed here for people's enjoyment. I am also including color versions of the images they had to run in black-and-white and a direct link to the video I shot of my walk through the garden with Bogle. Above right, a Sulphur butterfly feeds on blue mistflower, a nectar plant especially favored by pollinators. 

Austin sculptor Margie Bivens created “Butterfly Effect,” a massive iron representation of a Texas redbud tree, and it was donated to the library by a member of our community in honor of her mother. Bogle said it is her favorite tree in the garden because it is the one that requires the least water or care. “If watch it from left to right, you can see that its leaves morph into butterflies,” Bogle said. “I have counted the butterflies on it innumerable times and never gotten the same number.”

“It has a lot of things that you might have in any garden,” Bogle said, but creating a butterfly garden meant there were rules they had to follow. “We needed to provide host plants, nectar plants, places for them to hide, places for them to hang their chrysalises. We have grass here, which you’re not going to see in most gardens, but that is where they go when it rains. So, we’re providing habitat and food for these creatures.”

Above left: “Just the idea of a butterfly garden seems to inspire people,” Bogle said. This bench shaped like a butterfly and decorated with pieces of colored glass was created by a local artist for installation in the garden. Above right: TPML’s butterfly garden is on the west side of facility and deliberately situated outside of its largest window. Bogle said she initially expected that it would be a maximum of 20 by 30 feet in size, but its actual footprint is about 90 by 80 — larger than the library’s original building in Sattler! 

“We’ve tried to have a complete habitat” for butterflies and other pollinators, Bogle said. “Someplace place to live, something to eat, something to drink. You need to have nectar plants to attract butterflies but what keeps them here is the fact we have so many host plants,” notably milkweed,” which is what they lay their eggs on and the caterpillars live on until they go through their several stages to become butterflies.” Butterfly varieties that can regularly be found in the garden include the Buckeye, Checkered Skipper, Gulf Fritillary, Hairstreak, Monarch, Painted Lady, Queen, Red Admiral, Black Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, and Sulphur. 




Monday, July 25, 2016

Martin, Whitey, and the Manifestation of Ignorance

When I was in the 4th grade, I had an enigmatic and menacing nemesis named Martin. He was tall, hulking, and hunched, with straight red hair and buck teeth, and I can recall him wearing an overcoat and heavy shoes and having a backpack hung from his sloping shoulders. He was strong and hateful and I knew he could hurt me if he ever laid hands on me, but he was also pretty slow, and as long as I stayed alert I could keep out of his reach. 

Somehow Martin and I ended up in a special reading class together for a short time — I remember being told after maybe two or three sessions that I should not come back to it — and it was at these that he revealed a strange new dimension to me. When Martin would read, I was amazed to discover that he could see in the text things that I could not. Even as I followed along in my copy of the book we were reading from, he would utter words that I simply could not see, different from and in addition to those visible to me. That made this monster both mysterious and an object of envy to me and I wished that I was able to see the things that he could. 

Eventually, I realized that Martin was not a magical ogre and that he was simply stupid. If my ability to read a page of text, understand the words on it, sound out those I didn't know, and generally comprehend it could be envisioned as a connect-the-dots image with a hundred points, then his might have had, for example, 70. So, when he had to connect that diminished number of dots, his lines were coarser and less nuanced, sometimes they went to incorrect points, it was unclear how to incorporate some of them, and the final picture he created would inevitably be warped and incomplete. 

When the mass shooting in Munich, Germany, occurred on July 22, I was even more moved by it than I was by other recent but similar incidents, as my family had lived there for seven years, including those when I was in high school. I am still friends with many people I knew there, along with a handful that still live in Munich, and so I started looking at their Facebook pages to see how they were reacting, make sure everyone was alright, etc. While I was doing that I came across a comment from someone I had known some 30 years ago from the old neighborhood, who for a couple of reasons I will dub "Whitey" for purposes of this discussion. I remembered him as being a good-natured kid and as not having any weird issues, and so before turning in I sent him a Facebook friend request. 

Next time I got online, I had a notification on Facebook that Whitey had accepted my friend request six hours earlier and that he had sent me a message about an hour after that. The first thing that struck me upon reading his brief message was that he had used a racist epithet to describe one of my friends, and then asked if I thought that person would be offended by posts on his Facebook page. On the face of if that is a nonsensical question and kind of confused me, because he and I being friends would not cause my non-mutual friends to become aware of his page. It was also disquieting that his first words to me in three decades needed to include racist insults.

Things got stranger still when I went to his Facebook page and, near the top of it, saw that he had shared a post I had made more than four months ago about a book I had written about the folklore and mythology of Ethiopia. This book covers timeless themes and tales of things like dragons, architectural wonders created by mysterious ancient peoples, hippopotamuses the size of islands, men that can turn into hyenas, and the like. He appended one comment to his re-posting of the item: "The government and corruption in Ethiopia is noteworthy." There nothing pertinent to modern politics in my book, which draws upon folklore going back hundreds or thousands of years, rather than ephemeral things like the current governmental regime, so this was a really baffling and irrelevant comment. I then began to scroll through the rest of his posts and, to my disgust, discovered the same sort of racist, xenophobic, hatemongering posts that have become all too familiar to me anymore. 

But how had Whitey drawn a connection between a book about folklore and the government that happens to be in power in a particular country today? And then I remembered Martin who, as a particularly stupid child, had filled in the blank spots in the things he could not decipher with random words and concepts from his limited experience, and I understood what Whitey had done. Not particularly smart to start with, unhinged by the same 15 years of war and terror that the rest of us have also had to deal with, Whitey had connected the limited number of dots in his mind according to what he had nurtured and allowed to grow there. And, while the pictures young Martin drew were merely incorrect, middle-aged Whitey's are grotesque, misshapen, and malignant, connected not just by lines of ignorance but also ones of hate, bigotry, and violence spawned from decades of fear, confusion, disappointment, and growing mental illness. 

And then the rest of what had happened became strikingly and appallingly clear to me. Six hours before I got online, Whitey had received my friend request and accepted it. He had then spent a full hour exploring my Facebook profile and scrolling back through at least four months of posts on my timeline. As he did all this, he became increasingly agitated by evidence of my love for other cultures, the many races and nations represented among my friends, my African-American children. He then reacted by sending me a message laced with racist insults and, right after that, unfriended me. 

And, among all the unhappy elements associated with this unpleasant tale, that last is the one I actually feel good about. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Introduction to 'D-Day: June 6, 1944'

Following is the introduction to my 2001 book D-Day: June 6, 1944, which is a snapshot of the first day of the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. 

To many Americans of the 21st century, D-Day may seem to be a subject of limited relevance, fought as it was on the shores of a foreign continent nearly six decades ago by the men of a generation that has been depleted by the passage of more than half a century.

Had the mammoth amphibious operation launched on June 6, 1944, failed, however, the world we live in today would be a very different place, and certainly not a better one. The successful execution of Operation Overlord — the code name used by the Allied leadership for the invasion of Normandy — was the first great moral victory on the Western Front against the military forces of the Third Reich. Indeed, the Allied beachhead in northern France helped turn the tide of the war.

D-Day also ushered in a new era of American involvement in both Europe and the world. True, U.S. troops had crossed the Atlantic and battled Germany 27 years before during the Great War, but after their victory they had packed up and gone home. This time they were in Europe to stay, and they remain there to this day, albeit in numbers much reduced since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, D-Day was emblematic of American ascendance in the world. Foreign observers of the beaches at Normandy were staggered by the amount of wreckage strewed about the landing zones, the ruined landing craft, vehicles, and weapons intermingled with human remains. In the latter years of World War II, few countries could have absorbed that sort of material loss and considered victory still possible. With the resources of a large continent behind it, however, the United States could make good those losses quickly enough to exploit its advantage — just as the Soviet Union, its counterpart in the new world order, was even then doing on the Eastern Front.

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy is the second book in the “History at a Glance” series that began with Michael Varhola's Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953 (Summer, 2000). Like its predecessor, D-Day was written to provide an overview of its subject for people with little or no knowledge of it. It will also serve as a road map for experienced students of World War II who want to discover other avenues worthy of deeper investigation. Readers will find it full of fascinating and useful information about the men, strategies, tactics, and weaponry of D-Day, all presented in a fresh and interesting “fact book” style format.

Several aspects of this book make it useful in both these roles. One is that its chapters are divided thematically. For example, readers can refer to the chapter on “Air and Airborne Operations” when they need information on this aspect of Operation Overlord, rather than jumping throughout the book in search of information relevant to them. D-Day also has a number of chapters with crucial information that weightier volumes, especially narrative histories, fail to cover at all or relegate to skimpy appendices. These include the chapters on weapons, armored vehicles, and Allied and Nazi leaders, all of which contain background information that can help readers more fully understand and appreciate the invasion of Normandy. ...

There are numerous individuals who assisted us in preparing this book for publication. Author and publisher Lee Meredith offered sound advice and read portions of the manuscript, as did historian Mary Deborah Petite. David Lang, of San Jose, California, who knows as much about both world wars as anyone, shared useful information with us all along the way. Finally, publisher Theodore P. Savas, of Savas Publishing Company, offered suggestions and guidance as this project developed, albeit slower than he would have liked. 

We sincerely hope that you find this book useful, interesting, and enjoyable, and that it facilitates your study of history in general, and D-Day in particular.