Friday, April 29, 2016

Me, He, and She: A Writer's View on Infidelity

So I'm sitting with a long-time friend recently, chatting about our mutual lives and people in them, and she alludes to something that causes me to glance up at her in astonishment.

"You knew I had a boyfriend, right?"

I burst into astonished, semi-amused laughter. "No, I did not know that."

This friend has been married for nearly thirty years to the same man. They were married very young. I have never asked, but knowing their background, I would say that they probably got married because everyone expected it, and were too young to really have a clue about anything beyond puppy love. Four kids and several grandkids later, things have soured. Her husband has health issues and a problem with erectile dysfunction. Despite her pleading with him to seek medication and/or marriage counseling, he has refused to show any interest in fixing the problem. The problem being not so much that he can't get it up, but that he doesn't want to, and she is a good-looking, red-blooded and often horny woman. This isn't a novel. This is a real adult life.

My writing buddy recently asked how my new book was coming along, and as I heard myself enthusiastically relay some possible plot twists I had considered, it occurred to me that I am again writing about - and maybe obsessing about? - infidelity. It's a subject that is so interesting to me that I can't stop working it into my plot lines.

As a writer, I have learned a lot about the subject of infidelity; I have learned more as a writer, perhaps, than I did years ago as a cheated-on wife. Now, there is something I never would have thought possible.  I thought you all - writers and others - might like to hear about some of that.

My book Gentlemen's Game involved quite a bit of cheating. Some of it was mindless "for fun" cheating - where the spouse doesn't find out and the perpetrator feels no guilt.  Some of it was "I'm cheating because you have given me no choice by your behavior".  I think that it took many years for me as a person to understand that sometimes, there is justification.  Sometimes, as in much of life, the issue isn't all that black and white. I had to laugh at the many reviews for G Game that mentioned the infidelity, usually in the vein of "there is cheating, but . . ."  and some praise of the book as a whole.  People really, really don't stomach infidelity easily.  And I noticed more than once that it is the young, the more recently-married (say less than ten or fifteen years), who are the least tolerant of the notion.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that fidelity as a concept should be morally acceptable! I'm saying that for me, there was a point in life where I realized that cheating is common (more than it should be), that all who cheat are not pigs, that people can be good spouses and still cheat, that people can be good people in much of their lives, and still cheat.  It's more complicated than we want it to be.  I am speaking about tolerance of the notion in the sense of a writer - that when one has the maturity to tolerate the thought of infidelity enough to try to understand it and allow one's mind to explore it, a given book might be more enjoyable and more of an enlightening experience than simply an emotionally difficult one.

Infidelity in the publishing world is interesting. In literary, mainstream fiction, it's acceptable.  In the romance genre, it most often isn't; publishers' guidelines will state outright that infidelity is not to be presented. Most interesting to me, many publishers of erotic romance - the most X-rated - also don't like to publish infidelity, unless it's a group sex thing where the spouse/significant other is involved. This is amazing to me:  so often the conflict of relationships, in real adult life, involves some sort of infidelity, whether strictly emotional, or sexual. And yet it makes readers of romance so uncomfortable that publishers are shy about it.

I confess that I was once one of those readers. Well, I never could stand romance novels - haha! - but I was that kind of person. I could not read about infidelity. I could not watch a movie about it. I was terrified. I did a lot of thinking about why I was terrified (I'm a writer, it's what we do - obsess about the whys of human behavior).  This is what I believe:  I could not allow my mind to go to a dark place where everything I wanted to believe in would be rendered, perhaps, null and void.  I was afraid the book or film in question would present cheating in a sympathetic light. And then what would that mean for my beliefs and my views of the world?  Would it suddenly have to be a place where The Cheaters were not so bad, and we - the ones who would never cheat - were doomed to be deceived, lied to, hurt? What kind of backwards Hell would that be?

If you've read this far, I'm going to reward you with a juicy personal story. I want to tell you the story so that you understand how my feelings about cheating evolved as a writer to a point where I can write a sympathetic character that happens to be cheating. And there will be a point to all of this, I promise. Here goes.

I was about thirty-five or so. I'd been married for about a dozen years by then. I was fairly attractive, I had a lot of friends. As a wife I was fun, kind, if a little bullheaded. My husband was not so kind, not much fun, and I had married him too young to know that someone who is egocentric doesn't get better through the years, but worse. But I was raised with some old-fashioned values, which is probably why I hadn't walked out years before, and as long as he was faithful, I was committed.

He had a colleague and best friend, whom I'll call Mark. He often hung out with us. I didn't care much for him.... he was fairly young, maybe late twenties, and he had a high-school level locker room style humor that often offended me. And I had nothing in common with him. Plus, my forty-year-old husband acted like an immature ass when they were together. But Mark never knew my feelings. His maturity level wasn't his fault. And they had known each other and worked together for several years by then.

The day came when Mark suddenly got married, to a girl from his hometown he'd known for a few
years and dated off and on. He said his parents didn't like her - I wondered why - and didn't explain further why the relationship hadn't been more on than off.  But at any rate, now they were married, and he brought her to our area to live and work.  My husband met Angela, came home and mentioned how gorgeous she was. She was from another country and culture originally - not unusual in our circle, since my husband was also foreign and many of our friends were immigrants.

They married on Valentine's Day.  Within a month, the four of us were spending a lot of time together. Angela was also much younger than I was, and I had little in common with her either. She was nice enough, but a little full of herself. I chalked it up to the age and maturity level, and did my best to help her feel at home in a new place. She adored me. She used to bring me little gifts, tell my husband how wonderful I was. I liked being looked up to.

Meanwhile, my husband insisted we spend a lot of time with them. Maybe two evenings a week, plus time on weekends. I gradually started to resent it. Before, we had always had Friday as a "date night". Now the date was always a double date. Always. When we weren't with them, he was talking about them. I started to go a little nuts with it. But the months went on, and I didn't say a lot. After all, Angela was getting used to being married, in a new place, and she often sought my advice.

 Once, she confided in me that she appreciated my friendship, because she had never had a lot of female friends. "Women don't like me. They always think I will steal their boyfriends." She laughed. I thought it was a rather arrogant thought on her part. But I couldn't argue, she was a very pretty and very, very sexy girl. She was from South America, and displayed an easy physical sensuality that so many Latina women have. In addition she was funny and charming, and had just finished a law degree. I imagined she might invite a lot of jealousy from women.

And advice she needed. They both did. The fights were often, and childish. My husband and I spent not a few evenings with them indulging in a bit of impromptu marriage counseling. But they seemed to be a good match, and Mark certainly loved the girl. I never could quite figure how she felt about him, but I didn't want to judge something so personal.

I spent early evening of Halloween at their apartment. Angela had summoned me there, saying she was in some crisis and needed to talk. I remembering listening to her and wondering what the issue actually was. She rambled on about the usual, her frustration with Mark, their fighting. But I didn't get a feeling of crisis and wondered why I had had to drop everything and drive over there. It was weird, and I felt rather manipulated. Mark and my husband arrived at some point, and things were even weirder. Mark seemed oblivious. My husband seemed annoyed. Have you ever had that feeling that something is definitely going on in a room, but you haven't been made privy to it and can't put your finger on it?

Next morning, my husband nervously told me he had to tell me something. I remember him shaking as he told me - sitting there on the side of the bed, this man who usually didn't care what I thought about anything - that he and Angela had been having an affair since May. Since two months after her marriage. He was having an affair with his best friend's wife.

Now... this is where it gets really interesting. Because this is where I started learning what infidelity really is, and what it really means.  It isn't about someone having sex with someone. That is just a tiny detail in the end.  It hardly matters. (Believe me, it doesn't.)  What matters is that your judgement failed you.  You failed to see the signs. Your mind failed to protect you from your worst nightmare. You were deceived by the person closest to you. Everything you believe about yourself, and the reliability of your intelligence, explodes around you. He would not have told me because of an attack of conscience, mind you. He told me because they had quarreled and she had threatened to tell me. He had merely beat her to it.

I didn't scream. I didn't yell. I was numb. He asked if I was going to leave him. I told him I didn't know. I cried a little.  It was immediately apparent to me that this man who was often so cold, so arrogant, so dismissive of me, was now shaking, so small and terrified that he would lose me. I wondered if he was surprised too. (Looking back, I know he was. He never saw her again. Hilariously, after that day the fun of it was gone for them. The sneaking around made it interesting. They didn't even like each other much as people, and both were painfully aware of it in the end, much to my great amusement. Last laughs, poetic justice, all that, you know.)

And then as I watched him sitting there wringing his hands, I said something that surprised me as much as it did him. And I am proud of it to this day, because I learned how terribly strong I was, and I knew in that moment that of the four of us, I was the strongest. And I knew he knew it too.

I said, "I don't know what will happen. But I will tell you this: you have 24 hours to tell Mark. If you don't, I will."

He said quietly, "You would do that, wouldn't you?"

I said, "Try me. He deserves to know the truth about his life and what he is married to. He deserves better than her. And better than YOU."

In the end, he told Mark, after begging me to be present. He told him like a man, apologized like a man. A few hours before, Angela, forewarned, had gone crazy. She begged, threatened, cried to me, "You don't understand! Mark isn't like you! He isn't going to understand and he'll divorce me."

Tough cookies, little girl.  You made this bed.

Not like me?  Who said I wasn't going to leave?  What did she imagine I was? A saint? I was no saint, but I was no fool either.

Mark surprised me, moved me, and humbled me by his reaction. He was calm, he didn't try to kill my
husband. Within weeks, he'd forgiven him and they were working out together. He did file for divorce the very next day.  I didn't feel sorry for her one bit.  I did feel sorry for Mark. He did deserve better. Anyone would.

I stayed in my marriage for several years, but I should not have. It took time to get my mind to stop obsessing over the deception.  Because that's what you obsess over. It isn't flashes of possible sexual rendezvous. It's memories of the moments your partner looked you in the face and lied. And questions about how you were so easily fooled.

Here was another surprise. A revelation. It took a while to come to me. But finally one day I said to my husband, "You know... I have a feeling that Angela's sleeping with you had something to do with..."

"... fucking you?  Of course it did. It wasn't about me at all."  He finished the thought for me.

Fidelity is ultimately a terribly selfish act. It's the deliberate deception of the person who relies on you to keep them emotionally safe in this emotionally brutal existence we all share. It's the ultimate betrayal from the ultimate friend. It's ugly.

It's also selfish on the part of the co-cheater. Angela wanted to stick it to me: someone she couldn't be. She called me, in fact, a few months after the divorce. "Mark and D-- are still friends. Why can't we be friends?" she whined.

"Are you crazy?  You fucked my husband. That is why we are not going to be friends. I have no respect for you. Now get the hell off my phone."  I knew that she knew I was a bigger person than she was. That was enough for me. I hope she grew from it, but I really don't care. She was a big girl, she destroyed a marriage and nearly two. She knew what she was doing. Now for the rest of her life she gets to know what she did and regret it.

When I was younger and more innocent, I thought infidelity was always unacceptable. I don't believe that now, despite the ugliness of what Angela and my ex did. I think of relationships, particularly marriage, as a literal contract. You screw me, prepare to be screwed.  I used to tell my husband in those latter years, "I guess you owe me a freebie."  Meaning that I could, without guilt, sleep with a man of my choice for a few months. At any time. I enjoyed watching him squirm, wondering if I'd do it.  I never did. Because in the same way he chose to live deceptively, I chose to live honestly.  Like I said before, I should have left him immediately after. But I was young and dumb. Marriages may survive infidelity but they are never the same again. This is the bottom line: A person who is capable of that level of deception will always be capable of it. Each individual has to chose whether living with such a person and the fear of the havoc they can wreak in your life, is really worth it. When I did leave him finally, he knew that I would always deserve better than he had been. Because I never would have done to him what he did to me.

Characters are never interesting if they are saints. Sometimes good people do bad things. Selfish things. Maybe even unforgivable things. The wounded party, after an affair, understands this as no one else can. All of this makes for multi-layered relationships, real multi-layered characters, and interesting stories. Affairs are common. We all know the stories. We all can predict every scene and the ending.  But can we all understand the emotions? The nuances of the experience?  I think that is where one can weave a unique tale. And we are all individuals, certainly experiencing infidelity differently, both as the offender and the offended party.

I do believe that some philanderers have good reason - or at least an understandable reason. Coming up with those reasons as a writer is the fun part, and does allow me to reflect and invite the reader to reflect, on some of the more difficult aspects of human behavior.  Jack Miles, in Gentlemen's Game, came to believe he was in a terrible, bad marriage, to a selfish person, and strayed to explore who he really was. Jack was basically a good man who did some bad things.  In my story Frozen, Ethan is a selfish man who keeps a young gay man on the side, masquerading as a straight and happily-married man with small children.

My friend, after bowling me over with her announcement that she had a boyfriend on the side, quickly explained that her husband knows and doesn't seem to care.  I listened for half an hour, and at the end of our conversation, I said, "Good for you, Girl!"  And I meant it.  Her boyfriend is also married, his wife knows, and this works for all of them. Divorce for either couple would affect children and many lives, and isn't the best option. For them it is not a moral one.

Life is messy. People are messy.  A writer that is afraid of looking at messy never gets their hands dirty, and misses a lot of fun playing in the mud.  Okay, my writing buddy Becky is the Queen of Metaphors and I'm not, but you get my point.  Wallow in the mud, Writers!  Figure out the real whys of why people do what they do.  Putting all behavior in a "this is good" and "this is bad" box is cowardly for a writer, and will stifle your voice and imagination. Don't be afraid of exploring the darkest places.

You are not your characters.  I would never do what Jack Miles did. I would never live as Ethan's piece on the side.  I am infallibly honest to my friends and lovers.  But then . . . I'm much less interesting than my characters are. ;)

Gentlemen's Game and Frozen can be found at and other online retailers. See reviews on this page and at .  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Tragically Disappearing Value of Letters

I have a letter dated 1852. It is written by an ancestor - Reuben Peacher - to his son-in-law Zachariah Elkins and his daughter Nancy Jane. The young couple, who had been married some three or four years by then (she had been only fifteen, but he almost a decade older), were living only a few counties away, but in an age when there was no email, no phone, no motorized vehicle, it was a few days journey. They both came from large, tight-knit families, and it must have been a big decision to leave; in a few years more, they would join the wagon train on the Oregon Trail, going from Independence, Missouri, to a new home at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

The letter tells us a great deal about them. It is written on light blue, unlined paper. The weight and quality is such that it has survived intact for 164 years. The black, uneven ink pen lines belie the use of a fountain pen. The hand is neat and well-schooled, the grammar good but not perfect. Spelling wasn't yet standardized. Reuben was educated. Zachariah was obviously capable of reading it - although he had been raised in the wilderness of Kentucky and later Missouri. I don't know whether Nancy Jane could not read or whether common custom dictated that the men should write to one another and bypass the women.

At any rate, Reuben had a bit to say, over two pages.  Although the details are mundane, they paint a picture of domestic life for a frontier family, and the very real individuals who lived what we can hardly imagine now. Imagine their world, where one couldn't exist without a horse or a plow or an ax or a rifle or a thorough knowledge of agriculture and hunting. Imagine staining your fingers with ink as you wrote, knowing that news of a death in the family or a new baby would take a week to get there. Imagine that visiting on a whim was impossible - a move across country meant saying goodbye for a very, very long time, if not forever. Imagine that our journeys of a few hours took days or weeks. This is the world the letter allows me to visit - and as I hold it in my hands I wonder about the hands that first made the creases in it and sealed it with wax, and then saddled the horse or hitched him to the wagon, to travel several miles to post it.

The point is, these letters can be held in a hand, my experience of it mingling with a man's of 164 years ago, his skin cells mingling with mine. Letters are a tangible piece of the evidence of lives of the past. And they are quickly fading from our experience.

When I was young, letters were a fact of life. There was no internet, no email. I wrote and received
letters from relatives who lived four states away, across the prairies and cornfields of the Midwest and West. I still have a few of those letters. When I was maybe about ten years old - my favorite grandmother taught me about writing a proper letter.  She said it had to begin with some personal news. Then, a good story - which must include some description or drama or something else of entertainment value to the recipient. And it should end with affection and some plan to write again or to see the loved one again. I have a few of her letters in a box; she's been dead for a few decades now. When I look at them I remember the way she formed words, and the slow, careful way she spoke. She had a wonderful, warm chortle in her voice. I marvel at the uniqueness of her hand and her style.  And I experience her again as an individual and miss her. Without those letters, I don't think I could get so close.

The earliest letters I have read were those written between kings in the early medieval period. Such as letters from Charlemagne, king of Franks (and part of what is now France) and the great Mercian (England) king, Offa. They survive on vellum, a material made from lambskin and dried. They are written in Latin, which in that world enjoyed the universality similar to today's English. They show the personalities, the daily concerns, and the world, of two powerful men in the eighth century. Twelve hundred years ago. I envy the researchers who protect these letters, and who have held them in their hands. A part of me believes that the energy of the past world travels through such objects - what a gift it is to reach back through time and touch the eighth century.

Letters exist between family members, friends and lovers, that reveal details of famous lives. Mozart's wife understood the enormous value of letters to reveal secrets: she burned all of the great musician's letters upon his death. I can almost forgive her - Mozart was mentally ill and so difficult to live with that she had left him years before and they lived apart. But in the end she was there, and his friend, and she had the foresight to protect his privacy.  She robbed us all of a glimpse into his mind and genius, of course.

The great Persian poet, Kahlil Gibran, enjoyed a decades-long romance with a woman through letters. It is believed that although their letters are affectionate and romantic and show devotion and respect, they never met face-to-face.

In December of 2015, a New York man was remodeling the fireplace of this vintage home and found letters over a century old - written by the two young children of an Irish immigrant family that had once lived in the house, to Santa Claus. Ten-year-old Mary's words reveal much about their lives, their values, and the thoughts of a generous-hearted little girl:

"Dear Santa Claus . . . My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to  bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best. - Mary   P.S. Please do not forget the poor. "

Letters reveal the most intimate relationships of the famous people of the past, and also the lives and cares and dreams of people who no one would remember if not for a surviving letter - a bit of a person that survives for decades or centuries beyond death. What are we losing, as we allow the art of letter-writing - in my generation something so common - to fade from our experience?  What are we sacrificing?  How will people, hundreds of years from now, know how we spoke and how our experience of the world around us differed from theirs?  How will they know the things that letters have preserved for us about our past?

They will have books, of course, but letters are different. They are informal, intensely personal, and reveal personality more clearly than any carefully-written prose ever could.  How sad it is that people in the future won't hold the leaves of a letter, with beautiful handwriting and a lingering scent of perfume, in their hands and glimpse the private life of someone else who has passed away?

From now on people will not know the joy of receiving into their hands a personal letter - its paper once handled by the hands of a distant loved one or a lover, the individual's unique handwriting decorating the front. They won't know the surprise of finding a feather, or a piece of lace or fabric, a lock of hair, or other surprise. Or the familiar welcome scent of cigar smoke or perfume. The intimate nature and privacy of a letter is forever lost in the age of computers and emails.  Now, with schools discontinuing the training of children in handwriting skills, future generations won't be able to write a letter if they want to.

I have made a decision that soon I will have that old letter laminated, so that it will survive for decades to come. I won't be able to touch it anymore in the same way, and that bothers me greatly, but it's time to give that up in favor of its preservation. I hope that someone in a coming generation appreciates it as much as I have, and the view of the past and three pioneers' lives, that it offers.



Reuben Peacher lived to old age and is buried in Howard County, Missouri, on the land that once belonged to his farm, from where he wrote the letter and many others. His grave still exists. His own father had come from Virginia and wealth but had been ousted from the family by his father, along with his brother. The two, once the heirs of a rich Eastern family, would eventually be hanged in the wilds of Kentucky for stealing horses. But their children, Reuben and his wife and first cousin Anne, would live the quiet life of farmers in Howard County, Anne preceding her husband in death by a few decades.

Zachariah Elkins took his young family by wagon train to Colorado around 1861. He worked as a cattle rancher on the eastern plains of Colorado Territory, until his death in 1880. In 1870 a census taker asked him what year he was born in, and he wasn't certain, according to a marginal note. But I know now that it was about 1825. Funny that I know and he didn't. He did know that he had been born in Missouri, but when asked where his parents were born he didn't know that either; it was Kentucky - of that I am certain. He died in his fifties, in 1880. His grave has been lost.

Nancy Jane Peacher Elkins was married to the boy who lived on the farm next door, about 1848, at fifteen. It must have been a bittersweet day, because only a few days earlier her 13-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister had both drowned, in the creek that divided the two farms. One can safely assume the brother died trying to save the sister, or the other way around. Several children still survived, including Nancy Jane, and life had to go on. She is buried in Colorado, between her son and his wife on one side, and an infant grandchild on the other. She lived well into her nineties, and was photographed with four younger generations, including my grandmother who is an infant on her lap.

I wonder if they would smile to know that I have and treasure that letter.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How Far Will the Lies Go? 9 Reasons Why Michelle Fields is not Believable

NOTE:  Late-breaking #10:  The video shows Lewandowski grabbing her upper arm. Her tweeted photo of bruises shows her lower arm.  Oops.

I didn't start out supporting Trump. I loved him in The Apprentice. But as a president?  Not so much. (Although I have to admit, nearly anyone would be more competent and principled a leader, in my view, than Obama.) Now, as the campaign progresses, we have seen a lot of nonsense, from all quarters. But I notice especially the nastiness with which the candidates attack Donald Trump. Maybe it's because he's a political outsider - the only non-career politician. Maybe it's because he represents a threat to the political establishment and the comfy status they all enjoy. Maybe they are jealous of his wealth and the fact he can run without being in any rich corporation's pocket. Maybe it's because he is a little like a junk-yard dog - he'll go over them with teeth bared if they dare to harass him. Whatever it is, it's become damned unattractive.

It's enough to make a person who is sitting on the fence, jump to the Trump camp.

One may argue that Trump can be equally vicious. The difference is that he doesn't pose as morally superior, a "true Christian", a politician with more class, more experience, more humanity. The self-righteous posturing, from Ted Cruz, to the insufferable Marco Rubio (I was once a fan), to John Kasich, is obvious to many voters for the self-serving hypocrisy it really is.

Since most of what the rumor mill produces about Trump has turned out to be nonsensical: either outright fiction or serious twisting of the original truth, those still spouting sound bites like "Trump is a racist!" "Trump hates women!"  "Trump steals from the poor!" -  look sillier and sillier.  A serious perusal of the man's accomplishments and a serious listen to interviews with his many friends - educated, accomplished, articulate people all - who offer a glimpse into the real character of the man, would convince the intelligent person to take a second look at him as a candidate.

It would be expected that the Left candidates and their reporters would be equally as nasty, of course, but they have taken it to a new level. They actively threaten and harass Trump supporters at rallies, blocking access to those rallies and threatening the organizations and venues that host them. They bully those who go to hear Trump and then play the victims for the press. Today, it's gone to a new level.  A few weeks ago, a two-bit reporter was fired from her job at Breitbart News after lying about an encounter with a Trump staffer. Now, bitterly tweeting her anger for all to see, she has done her best to make trouble for the staffer, all the while falsely championing women's causes and hoping she'll do damage to Trump at the same time.

Former presidential candidate (and black leader) Herman Cain says what many are thinking: "The attacks on Trump have gone from ridiculous to stupid. . . this is another attempt to distract from his campaign."

Indeed. It seems Miss Fields may be seeking - again - her 15 minutes of fame. And this time it's at the expense of a presidential candidate she doesn't happen to like, and his employee.

1.  Michelle Fields, before she knew the episode was on tape, said to the press that Corey Lewandowski "almost threw" her to the ground.  Trump released the video, which clearly shows she lied.

2.  Fields waited 3 days to go to police with the story that Lewandowski attacked her.

3.  Fields at first said she did not know who pulled her to the ground. Later, after Lewandowski's name was offered by another reporter, she pounced on that. The video shows him touching her briefly to move her back from Trump. She complies, always on her feet, and doesn't show any reaction of distress whatsoever.

4.  Video shows that she, after the press period was over, pursued and Trump and grabbed his arm, still asking questions.  At that point even his bodyguards (Secret Service) reached for her to move her away. Lewandowski, whose job description includes acting as bodyguard to Trump, beat them to it.

5.  Michelle Fields, years back, accused the NYPD of throwing her to the ground, during her reportage on "Occupy Wall Street".  This was never charged.  (Info can easily be found on search of internet.)

6.  Lewandowski, in anger, sent out a tweet to Fields claiming he didn't touch her and had never even met her.  While those opposed to Trump call this a "lie", it is more likely that in the confusion of the crowd and his job as bodyguard, he simply moved a person away from Trump, and indeed did not speak to her or even look her in the face, and thus had no memory of her at all.  (And since video shows she did not, as she shrieked, fall to the ground, why would he notice?)

7.  Reporters are regularly jostled and bumped in a crowd situation. Field claims she had bruises on her arm from Lewandowski, but there is no evidence that he caused the bruises. 

8.  The "incriminating" videos all came from Trump himself, a man who has long understood the value of videotape for security purposes. Once Breitbart saw them and realized the extent of Field's dishonestly, she was immediately fired and a "cease and desist" order placed against her. 

9.  The District Attorney of Palm Beach is a Democrat. The accusation has been deemed by police to be worthy of investigation, since in Florida, merely touching someone without permission is a misdemeanor crime.  Lewandowski voluntarily turned himself into police for questioning but  has NOT been formally charged.

Meanwhile, Hillary of the HIdden Emails has jumped on the chance to point out the "sleaze" in the Trump camp and his hatred of women.  Never mind that she was happy to hobnob with him and take his money not so long ago.  And that beacon of Christian charity Ted Cruz has taken to the press corps to harp about how the Trump campaign is now engaging in "physical violence".  Yep, Ted, the violence on that video is pretty traumatizing! 

It's anyone's guess how much further the biggest character assassination attempt, arguably, in the history of American politics will go before this election season is up.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Enter the Age of Lies and Ignorance: The True Fascism

I can't remember the last time I was this angry. It is after 9:00 pm now, and I know I won't be sleeping tonight. I am by nature a very calm person; I can occasionally be very direct, some might say blunt. I tend to appreciate the irony in Life and I like dark humor. Some get the humor, and those who don't would say I can be snarky. But this . . . this heat tonight . . . this is rage. This is unfamiliar to me. This is something I feel about once every five years, and so as I sit here and feel my temperature rise, my heart pounding (guess that coffee I am craving won't be a good idea now), and notice how irregular my respiration is, I am not sure how to get myself back in order. Thank goodness I live alone.

When I was a teenager, many years ago, I had the opportunity to live in Europe for a time. Those were the days when East was divided from West by a "wall", which really consisted not only of a wall but of stone barriers and electric wire. Stretches of this were guarded by armed soldiers who would, and did, gun down the occasional human being who, driven to his wit's end by the injustice of an elite group of governing individuals deciding for others what they could hear and see and where they could travel, rushed the wall in a desperate attempt to grasp freedom even for a few moments before death. Or maybe it wasn't an attempt at all, but the ultimate last act of defiance of the human spirit.

We in the West - we kids in American schools (that was back when we were actually being educated)
were taught early about the Soviet Union and its history, and about those many souls trapped in the strange world of the Eastern Block and Russia. We learned early to appreciate their suffering. We learned early to understand the root of it, and how it came to be. We understood that we were fortunate and privileged, and that we would inherit a responsibility to find a way to end their suffering. If you asked 100 random university students today to explain that history, I wonder if even three - or one - could. The suggestion of that obligation would no doubt cause them to stare back in blinking dumb muteness. These are the walking blind, this generation of "millennials". The dire, horrible mistake that we have made in allowing our educational system to fail will be seen through the decades to come. We have created a generation of ignorant, spoiled, self-obsessed, perpetual children - useless to their society and to the rest of the world. Oh they want to "help" all right, but they haven't the power of mind to understand what in this world actually needs help, nor the ability to understand the power of sacrifice.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned my experience of a day trip into the Eastern Block, into East Berlin. It changed the way my young mind saw the world forever. As did the visit to a Holocaust survivors exhibit, and the experience of writing a term paper on a Russian writer imprisoned and tortured for years because he wrote books the government didn't like.


This week the Obama administration has admitted that they are exploring the idea of criminal prosecution for people in this "free country" who disagree with Obama about climate change.  THEY WANT TO CRIMINALIZE IDEAS.  We have an attorney general, who as recently as a few months ago, suggested that "hate speech" - which she defines as criticizing the religion of one favored minority group - should be legally punishable.

And so it begins. The world of the U.S.S.R. - an acronym that chilled the blood of American school children for years, and not a few adults as well - is greedily peeking around the corner at a vulnerable world and calculating its chances of rising again.

Trump isn't always PC or eloquent, but he has the right to speak.
I had spent the evening with friends, bowling and eating. It's a welcome change on Friday evenings from the stress of a week of editing and writing. I came home to the news:  a political rally had been cancelled in Chicago, due to an organized group of rabble-rousers having entered it and started fights en masse with people who were simply there to hear a conservative speaker. Police were called, and became involved in a situation growing too violent to be brought under control in an easy and timely manner, and Donald Trump's campaign decided to postpone the event. The political group, which has a history of being involved in "protests" which depend upon violent frenzied crowds of very young people, strategically designed to do harm to groups they don't agree with politically, is believed to be involved (and at this hour some of the group's members are confirming it).

In other words, a Leftist political, monied organization, has manipulated undereducated youth and others to do their dirty work of stopping the open dissemination of information they don't want to be heard.

Behind reporter at the rally riot, a protester flies a communist flag. 
The University of Illinois at Chicago - and mind you that the Univ. of Illinois is a STATE funded university system, depending upon your tax dollars and mine for its existence - has said that for many days faculty and staff have been petitioning the university to cancel the event, warning that it would create an atmosphere that would result in dangerous behavior and bodily harm. HUH? How did they know this?  I have to wonder who had a hand in it and knew beforehand of what kind of plans were underway to stop it. Given the atmosphere in our universities in 2016 - one in which conservative voices are silenced routinely by intimidation or direct threat and where young minds are indoctrinated to be wary of ideas that contradict the Left, instead of think critically according to their own values - it isn't surprising that this abomination tonight occurred at an academic venue.
In the past few years, event after event has been cancelled at universities due to the threats and protests coming from students wanting to silence others.  These children have no understanding whatsoever of the First Amendment or the history of the political process in this country, not to mention the concept of fair exchange of ideas.

Video of the protests is stunning. But not for the reasons one might predict.

  • The vast majority of "protesters" are obviously under 25. They are hardly old enough to wipe their own asses, they have no experience of a 9-5 career and a mortgage and grown-up life, and judging from the number of them laughing with their buddies as people were being slugged in the face and banners were being gleefully snatched and torn to shreds, they have spent very little of their tuition actually learning anything.  
  • Despite the very ironic screaming from the protesters about the "hate" of the Trump campaign, their own rhetoric and signage betrays some of the most exclusionary, bigoted, misguided, hateful, vile garbage that I have heard in this political season. I witnessed some of them questioned by reporters out on the street. When asked directly about this little irony, they seem not to comprehend the point at all; they justify their abuse and violence and silencing of other people by pointing out things about Trump's THOUGHTS they don't like. The arrogance of the assumption is mindbogling: as previous candidate and Trump supporter Dr. Ben Carson stated this evening, university students are being taught that when someone doesn't agree with them (and the Left P.O.V.), attack - even violent attack - is justified, because "we must fight hate".  And then they go on to list the things they hate about Trump's ideas. . . which leads to my next point.
  • These people understand nothing about Trump. They seem to be working with little real information, because their facts are so screwed up. One young man, when asked directly what Trump had said or done to make him feel justified in trying to stop a political speech, he said "he says he hates Islam!"  "he says all Muslims should be banned!" . . . then he mumbles, a defiant glint in his eyes, "and all that stuff about Mexicans! you know!"  Oh, we know all right. Never mind that what Trump actually said.  Which is that immigration from Muslim countries should be TEMPORARILY halted while we fix the vetting system, which the Obama administration admits is not working. Never mind that many in Congress agree. That is not hate, it's freaking common sense!  But some professor, or someone from, has fed this young man and others just like him some sound bites that they swallowed like sweet little peppermint candies. Here is another young man's justification:  "The city felt they didn't like what Trump was saying so the city shut him down."  Never mind that thousands of the citizens of that city - young and old, Democrats as well as others - wanted to hear Trump. But thus is the level of reasoning of these jerks. A third young man, trying to speak to a reporter about why he had wanted to hear Trump, was heckled so loudly that he became frazzled and intimidated and couldn't speak to the microphone. I saw two more interviewed who when asked what they believed and why they were protesting, shrugged and said they didn't want to talk about it. (Translation: Drunk and nothing better to do on a Friday night.)
  • Many signs in the crowd of protesters supported Bernie Sanders. 
The irony lost upon student protestors and . . 
I am increasingly grateful that I came up in a generation where a higher education was offered in a thorough, balanced manner Most students would have been offended by a professor who used our class time to trumpet his or her own politics. That wasn't what we paid for. We paid for the facts, and we expected to be respected as budding adults who were capable of then making up our own minds. Today, I suspect professors think their students are malleable and somewhat naive, and care little for them at all. Our professors are some of the most intolerant people in this country, and they are carefully teaching that intolerance to our youth. As Dr. Carson says, it is interesting that "tolerance is only taught in one direction".  

Which brings me right back to the U.S.S.R.  In that system, there was one favored political ideology. It was a socialist ideology, eerily compatible with the liberal progressive ideology shoving its angry words down others' throats today. Like today's Left, it also fancied itself as the Savior of Humanity, as the only fair and just way, as the only humanitarian way, as the way of the future.  It felt so confident in this idea that it justified the murders of millions, the silencing of generations, the jailing of innocent people for lifetimes, behind a wall.  It sent writers and other "dissenters" to prison.  The religion of Bernie Sanders - that one that is based on the false idol of a vast government parent that pays all the bills and solves all the problems and controls anyone who has too much of a unique voice - is the religion of the New Left of the youth in our universities. 
Bernie Sanders is a silly old man that has no fucking idea what socialism really is. If he did, he would not embrace it. Or.... think about this: maybe he understands it very well, and like those silly old men who ran the monster that was the U.S.S.R., knows that it is the way to power for a select elite at the expense of the ignorant masses. He and his ilk want these kids ignorant and their empty little heads filled with garbage - because that inevitably leads to control and power by a big government.

If these kids had any real education, they would know the history: that Socialism inevitably led to Communism, which led to Fascism, throughout history. That this ideology has been responsible for more human suffering, torture, imprisonment, murder, and genocide than any other ideology in history (The idea - popular amongst the self-styled liberal intellectual crowd in every generation, yawwwwn, that it was Christianity, or "all religion" - a bigoted Marxist mantra since the late19th century! - that holds that honor, is demonstrably a factual fallacy.).  If these well-meaning children knew history as well as they should by their early twenties, they would know that they are terribly used by a radically liberal political agenda, and stop allowing themselves to be made fools of. Because . . . many of us are still on this earth who remember it first hand: the horror that was real fascism, real socialism. 

I lived in a tame socialistic country in my own youth. Do you know what that time away from the freedom of American life taught me?  That socialism murders the individual. It stifles creativity. It makes things like entrepreneurship and innovation so difficult by its inherent economics that people give up on dreaming and innovating and achieving great heights. (Is it any wonder why the USA has led in innovation in so many areas?  It was free thought and free trade and economics that drove this!)

And here is the ultimate lesson: Socialism ultimately goes down a very familiar path. First, freedom of expression is stifled. Next, education becomes controlled by the government, and by its own favored ideological point of view. At some point, those who resist - those who stubbornly cling to the idea that the individual has the right to certain freedoms, including the free exchange of ideas - are criminally dealt with. These things are already beginning in Europe - where freedoms of the citizens are being stripped under the stress of immigration and failing economies, in Canada - where "hate speech", that is speech which disagrees with the politically correct point of view, is criminally prosecuted, and in the USA - where our own government contemplates punishing citizens for thoughts and where university campuses allow student thugs to shut down free speech.
Think I'm crazy? He is another demonstrable fact. Brigitte Gabriel, Ben Shapiro, Robert Spencer, Donald Trump, and many others. What do these people have in common?  They were all threatened and/or some students attempted to disrupt or stop their ability to share their ideas with other people who had come to hear them speak, all in the past year. And . . . they are all conservatives. Exclusively. These incidents are increasing. These are all - ALL - perpetuated by an elitist, leftist, self-righteous, self-congratulatory mob that points its collective finger at conservative speakers and calls them names . . . "racist", "bigot", "hater".  


And so . . . it begins. Do you grasp the enormity of these things?  The Russians, and later the Poles, the Czechs, the Slavs, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, the Romanians, the Germans, and others . . . all ignored the signs of rising Fascism. As the socialist movement rose, they told themselves it was all in the best interest of progressiveness, of justice, of humanity, and they went about their business and told themselves it would all be all right. But it would not be all right. Not at all. 

Socialism is a virus. It infects and destroys society. It wounds the human spirit. It steals freedom. It is the BFF of censorship of free discourse. Look around you. Look what is happening in the West. Look at what happened in Chicago tonight.

What are we going to do now?  

What are we going to do?  


Read an excellent first-hand account of the Chicago rally riot by someone who was there.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

If Trump Trumps Them All . . .

Whatever your political affiliation, if you have any interest in politics at all, you must be having as much fun as I am watching this year's election process unfold. From the British Parliament taking time to debate the issue of banning Donald Trump from the country for using offensive language so that no one in Britain will be exposed to offensive language, to Bernie's Einstein hairdo and his supporters' blindness to the real meaning of "socialist" (no it isn't another word for "humanist", "philanthropist" or "social worker"), to Hillary's being investigated by the FBI even as we all revisit her husband's White House Philanderer years (horrors!), to having to admit to oneself that the best thing going on reality TV is the GOP debates (sorry, Bachelor) . . . this is the most entertaining, craziest election in my lifetime of over half a century of presidential elections.

I have been registered as an Independent for quite a while, minus a few years' stint as a Libertarian. The far Left scares me and the far Right makes me roll my eyes. Neither appeals to my common sense or my morality, so I'm a renegade. Like most people, I voted ultra-liberal in my college years, came to my senses by my thirties, and tend to be more conservative as I age. Much of the conservative platform I can't support, and the liberal is just too nonsensical. But in the end, I do try to vote in such a way that it will matter. So this year, I'm watching all candidates closely and I can't wait for the dust to settle in early November.

As the person amongst my friends and family who is arguably the best-informed and up-to-date on current issues, I get about five texts a day asking who I like in this election and why.  Today I got a barrage of questions about the latest Trumpisode. Which isn't unusual: the man does know how to keep the presses rolling.  After listening to myself repeat the same things all day, I thought I'd put them down here for you all, in case a few of you are interested. You might be surprised at what I have to say about The Donald.

The biggest question I am getting is: If Trump gets the nomination, aren't you scared?

My answer: Not a bit. Oh, I can't stand the sight of him. Like many, I cringe when he puts his foot in his mouth. But . . .

I am not personally supporting his nomination, just for the record. There are two others I like better. A lot better. And let me just say that this year - as entertaining as it may be - is crucial. We must get it right, because I agree with so many on both sides that the last seven years got it terribly wrong. It is no laughing matter, really. But at the same time, I'm only one person: I have a healthy sense of what I can affect and what I can't.

But let's talk about the elephant in the room: Trump.  What do I think about him, as his campaign screams along like a freight train toward the nomination?

Unlike many people, I was a bit addicted to his reality show, The Apprentice, when he was on it. For probably four seasons, I watched religiously.  I found it really fascinating to watch the minds of highly-driven people, entrepreneurs by their wiring, battling it out. I learned something about business, but I learned even more about the qualities some successful people have: never quit; if Plan A fails, switch to B seamlessly; be a great team player, and get rid of those that hurt the team.

Here is what surprised me most about the show:  Trump is a terribly impressive man. I had expected
to dislike him. After all, I don't like his history with women; I don't like the bombastic personality, or arrogance. I don't, in general, like people too full of themselves.  But during the course of watching the show, I came to see something unexpected: it's all an act.  Through four seasons, he surprised me, time and time again.

So here, in a nutshell, is what I think of Trump:

  • He's smarter than people realize.  I think he often puts his foot in his mouth because he hasn't learned to think an opinion through before spouting it. That can make him appear stupid. But it isn't stupidity, it's bad judgment. His raw intelligence always struck me when I watched The Apprentice
  • He's ethical and fair-minded.  These qualities were very apparent in the show. He never fired someone unjustly. He was not intentionally cruel - although he could be terribly blunt, it was always about business, it wasn't personal. He has a certain kindness, even in dealing with difficult people. 
  • He doesn't play favorites between men and women.  I had expected him to talk down to the "ladies", to either treat them with kid gloves or be so demanding they couldn't compete fairly. Neither happened. He expects the women to be just as tough, and often pointed out to the men the strengths of a particular female competitor. 
  • He has amazing kids.  This is a man who has raised incredible children; all are adults, and all adore him. That says something. Even his daughter from his briefer marriage to Marla Maples, is assisting in the campaign and worships the man, even though he wasn't present a lot during her childhood.  During The Apprentice, he was often assisted by his younger son and his daughter, and both are very impressive people:  savvy, articulate, intelligent, classy, always polite and patient, and great business people in their own right. 
  • He is well-liked by impressive people who actually know him.  His wide circle of long-time friends have come out to speak about him, and many of them are successful, respected people.  Each one of them emphasizes his generosity, his morality, his intelligence. Each of them speaks of him as an honest, good-hearted man who occasionally speaks before he thinks. Each of them says he isn't in bed with the political elite, or the mafia, or any other group.  Each of them says he would make a fantastic president. How can so many people of that quality be wrong? 
  • He is quietly generous.  As his friends have begun to speak up, stories have come to light of the things he has done through the years for people who could give him nothing.  He is the type of wealthy man who, upon hearing about the plight of a person down on their luck, quietly gives financial support without being asked. He has been generous with veterans, both in terms of individuals and organizations; he has been generous with homeless.  Early in the campaign, a story was raised by another candidate about Trump using imminent domain to take an elderly woman's house: actually not the entire truth. Trump offered her a ridiculously high price for the house, and the land was slated to be taken anyway.  He did nothing illegal, nothing out of line with other businesses.  
  • He tends to surround himself with capable people.  This is important: a more arrogant man
    surrounds himself with people he can manipulate. Trump hasn't seemed to do that in his business life; rather, he sought out people who knew more than he did, and then gave them a task. He knows how to hire the best, then stand back and let them do their job. Again, arrogant men don't operate like that.  In terms of governing, I would think he would be one to find people who are experts and let them teach him.  That's a great quality in a leader. 
  • He has an uncanny ability to ignore the chaos of the forest and pick out the diseased tree.  This is exactly why thousands are showing up to his rallies. He tells the truth as he sees it, ignoring the self-strangling politically correct screech that has held this society hostage since Obama took office. 
  • He can be immature and mean.  This is an unattractive quality in a candidate and in a person. It happens when his thin skin gets nicked and his short fuse lights.  It is something he seems to be learning to censor, but he needs to learn faster.  It makes him appear to be a loose cannon; after all he can't be popping off to just anyone on an international stage - he needs to learn to marry that strong will with common sense and good judgment. I hope he can do it. 
  • He is good-hearted.  I don't think he is racist, or a misogynist. I think he is practical, less than diplomatic, and sometimes is so blunt that people aren't hearing what he is really saying. It makes me cringe, both because I hate to hear it from anyone, and because coming from a man
    who is shooting himself in the foot with it, it hurts. 
  • Trump will support minorites, the LGBT community, etc.  These issues are important to me. I don't believe the hype from the far Left that conservatives are all racists - I know that is nonsense. A few are. Not a few liberals are too.  I think when it comes down to it, Trump is pretty much color-blind. I think he will think in terms of equity and fairness without allowing the Left to hijack the narrative and take it to a ridiculous place of non-fairness.  I think he supports the gay community unconditionally.
  • Like great leaders, he is flexible.  I think he makes mistakes now, but will learn as he goes. This is not someone who has had years to learn the ropes of political science. He's an outside, which is exactly the point.  The danger would be a know-it-all; that isn't what we have here. He seems to be less concerned with pleasing everyone than with speaking his own mind and truth as he sees it. Refreshing in a "politician". We have a guy who seems to adjust his view as he goes in order to win - the quality of a stellar businessman - the quality of a great leader.  This is why he can win both sides of the aisle. He is being driven by common sense, not misplaced blind loyalty to some unworkable ideology that the constituents do not relate to.
  • He is weird when it comes to women, BUT . . .  You know, I don't like his history with women. I don't like the images he has promoted as the former owner of the Miss America pageant. I don't like the way he has talked about women, focusing obsessively on their looks rather than their actual capabilities. I don't like the way he went after Megyn Kelly because she dared challenge his treatment of women - in a way I suspect he would not have dared to if she were a male journalist.  I don't like his smarmy pokes at Carly Fiorina's looks. But I can't explain - if he is truly a misogynist, why did he marry such intelligent, capable women? Why is his daughter so incredibly capable, articulate, classy - never hiding her intelligence for the convenience of men around her. It doesn't compute. A man who dislikes women doesn't raise such a daughter or marry strong-minded, talented women.  I do believe that he is a bit conflicted, and a bit of an ass when it comes to women - but I can't give myself a reason why that should matter so much in a president at this point, in this year. Other issues are enormous.  
As you watch the process, I would - humbly - advise you not to panic. Trump may be the best thing in the end - for the conservatives, because they will have to finally get a grip and look at the real world; and for the liberals, because Trump won't deal in pie-in-the-sky narratives that aren't based in reality. His deep streak of common sense will trump anything.

And I would caution you to take all the pointing fingers with a big grain of salt. I've taken time to research the accusations others level at Trump, in their zeal to bring him down. Every one has turned out to be ... well, less that accurate.  Remember that both the far Left and the far Right don't want him in the way.  The Left may be afraid of the momentum behind his popularity; the Right is worse, as they see the empire that years of cronyism has built start to crumble as Trump preaches to the dissatisfied conservative masses. That is a very frightening thing for people who have their livelihoods and years of their lives built upon power.  

I am sick of some conservatives defining the movement for us all. By the looks of Trump's numbers, it would seem many - from independents to evangelicals, from immigrants to Democrats, from students to retirees, are good and sick of the establishment too. The degree of hate displayed by the Right has to be motivated by fear, of having their throne toppled and broken into irretrievable pieces. What they don't realize - those elite running the show - is that none of us are interested in picking the pieces up anymore so that they can stay in power and keep deceiving us.

Some say that Trump can't beat a Democratic candidate because he has too many secrets and garbage in his past. I notice that most saying that are staunch conservatives, invested in the status quo. They said the same thing about Reagan, by the way. Others say that he is the one who can beat Hillary - I don't think that is necessarily true, but I can't see any reason why he couldn't - we have evidence of many Dems defecting to Trump now, and more will during the general election. (Think about it - that would be a nightmare for the conservative elite, even as Trump is cleaning up the economy and creating jobs for thousands of liberals!) He certainly is likely to show no hesitation in going after Hillary with guns blazing, and she has plenty to hide herself, in addition to the Clinton cesspool that is already becoming more public daily. 

Whatever happens in the end, Donald Trump has been a godsend to America. He has stimulated a movement where people are tuning in to debates in record numbers, and going out to vote primaries in record numbers. Politics are studied and discussed as they haven't been in decades. People who long ago felt disenfranchised by the process and lost interest, suddenly are involved again. People have begun to think outside the lines that seemed so permanent for so long. And best of all - those who have run both major parties for so long are running scared, because this "crazy man" has risen in this fight to make a fool of all of them. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Art of the Short Story, Defined

Back when I was getting my creative writing/classic literature degree, we did a lot of short story writing. Within a class setting it made sense: professors were trying to assess whether we each understood how to develop a plot, characters, etc. and who has time to write a novel, during university?  (Well, not if you take your classwork seriously and are in a demanding program!)

I got a journalism degree at the same time, and pretty much immediately went into news writing and editing. So I put the short story aside for many years and thought little about it. Those years at school had left me with a healthy respect for the form, and I still admire people who do it well.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about how long a short story needs to be. I suggested to her that it needs to be long enough to develop certain elements - characters, solid conflict, tension, enough description to establish an atmosphere, etc. Personally I have seen someone do that maybe three times through the years, in under say, 1500 words. Skilled writers can do it under 5,000, and many legitimate short story contests ask for stories around that length. But I would say at least 2,000 and up is best. Oh, there are a lot of 1000-word "short stories" out there, and almost all are crap.

But not all. In recent years I ran into a short by British writer Clayton Littlewood that was astounding - it is called Grindr. He used to have it up on his blog, and I recall that when I read it I found my jaw on the floor. I was so moved because of the quality of his writing, but also because the thing was so short. It must be maybe 3-4,000. No more. Here was a short-short story in the hands of a truly skilled storyteller; he knew exactly what he was doing with an often difficult form. He seemed surprised - gracious and humble - when I wrote to express my congratulations on it, but Littlewood is a master of language, and well-versed in building plot and suspense, even within the confines of a small word count. He has removed it from his website now, but has it published within an anthology of short pieces called Six Stories.

One can spend a few hours on Twitter or at writer-oriented blogs and run into a plethora of contests for writing short stories. Lately too many of them involve such silly premises as writing a short story of 250 words or less. I ran into one that wanted short stories less than 100 words!  Ugh! These are not short stories!  They are exercises in writing a succinct paragraph, perhaps, but they are not short stories. Am I being a snob?  Insisting upon a specific, narrow definition?  Or am I protecting the integrity of an ages-old genre?

From before our ancestors were literate, the short story has entertained. It took a bit of imagination, and not a little amount of memorization skills, to hold an audience captive for a bit with a short narrative. In a time before the novel, these narratives involved the necessary elements of characters, plot and structure, atmospheric description.  There had to be a stated conflict, and someone in the story had to move toward resolving that conflict. This has formed the basis of story for us - whether the story happens within a novel, film, or short story. Notice I say "basis" - in the modern era, many influences have changed the structural rules of each of these forms so that there are instances of each which stray from the traditional ideas.

It is said that the advent of photography changed art forever. Where once a painting recorded the scene before the artist's eyes - and used light and color and movement to emphasize certain truths about that scene - photography replaced that function.  The photograph could record reality as never before.  So painting was forced to find a way to convey truths beyond black and white reality. Thus, new forms were born - impressionistic painting, abstract painting, and others.  It is no coincidence that the masters of these styles worked at the forefront of art in the decades following the birth of the photograph.

In the same sense, the advent of film pushed the novel and the short story. I think it may be argued that before the development of cinematography as not only a recording of moving pictures but an art form in its own right - probably by the latter 1930s - novels contained more detailed descriptive passages. But the reading public soon became accustomed to a panoramic atmosphere unfolding before their eyes; they were taken through an entire story in a few hours. Perhaps they lost patience in the end for description in dime store, mainstream novels. (I would argue that this factor diminished forever our ability to imagine detailed visual scenes without the crutch of film - which feeds it to us in such a way that we don't have to do the work, but that is a blog for another day.)

Films did even more to change short stories.  Because most films in the early decades of the medium ran a logical narrative - story with character and traditionally structured plot - short stories were pushed to find a new, innovative path of expression.  This is the root of the modern tendency of the short story to offer alternative and highly unusual structures.

It may be argued that America contributed more to the birth of the short story than most places. The genre rose as the world of magazines grew in America.  It flourished in the late-19th and early-20th century popular magazine bought by a large part of the American population and beyond - where ever issue contained either a short story or a piece of serialized novel. Categories such as the romance story, the murder mystery, the sci-fi story, the western, and others - were established during this period. In the early years, the narrative structure was traditional. But, of course, then came film . . .

In more recent decades, writers have experimented with various styles in the short story form. Now, a short story doesn't necessarily need a traditional narrative plot (although many still have one).  So then, what constitutes a short story now, in 2016?  If we have stretched tradition and invited innovation for decades, often very successfully, then what constitutes a true short story? Can it be defined?

Of course. And it is because of this definition that I have to scoff at contests for 250-word "stories".  A quick study of the modern definitions of "story" in various dictionaries might leave the researcher confused: most definitions involve words like "narrative" and "tale", which of course mean the same thing as "story".  But I like this one, from the Cambridge Dictionary: "a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events". That gives us something to begin with. Descriptions from every major dictionary go on to add that a "story" informs, teaches, amuses, entertains, and/or changes a reader or listener.  Also inherent is the idea that the narrative somehow evolves.

A writer cannot evolve a narrative in 250 words. A writer cannot successfully persuade or change, either the narrative or the reader. You may amuse. You many even entertain for a few minutes. But you have not used narrative as an art form to guide the reader through any evolution. You have merely written an amusing few paragraphs, and although it is a useful exercise it isn't any great accomplishment fit for a contest! As a writer, you will learn nothing serious about the art of the short story.

So my argument is in the naming of the contest a "short story" contest. A "short story" is far more than that.  If you want to learn the form, and do it well, following these guidelines:

  • Establish tension early on. As with any fictional work, you are obligated as a writer to catch the reader's interest early and hold it.  In novel-writing we speak of establishing conflict - you may or may not have time - within the confines of the first few paragraphs of a short story - to attempt something that grand. But you should establish an uncomfortable feeling in the reader and/or a large question in their minds. Drive, which has its birth in conflict, is absolutely necessary in a good short story. 
  • Work toward change, above all. Something must evolve.  Either the character must change/grow/learn, or the situation must change in a surprising way. I would suggest that the best stories might combine both.  But you must have a different truth at the end of the story than was present at the beginning. The reader must see the world differently than they did a few pages ago. 
  • Don't be overly mindful of length, because it stifles your creative urge; don't try to keep it short nor try to achieve a certain length. If you are gearing it toward a contest where the length is say, 5,000 words for example, you should have a feel as a writer for the difference between 5,000 and 10,000 or 15,000, right from the first word you write.  So you know whether you are in the ballpark as you write. When you finish you can edit to correct word count. But for now, be more mindful of the structure - the drive and the evolution - and just get the story down. 
  • Never forget that the same elements which make for a great short story are the same that make a great novel, and don't lose sight of them. Keep in mind elements such as:  description and establishing a mood or atmosphere; narrative drive (already discussed); characterization (strong characters make a strong story); catch and hold the attention of the reader; avoid  clich├ęs and work on being original; employ the use of elements such as metaphor; mind that dialogue sounds true to the characaters, and that each character speaks differently; watch the misspellings and grammar.  You get the picture. Treat your short story with the same technical respect that you would treat a novel. 
Meanwhile, I won't discourage you from participation in the sillier contests for "short story" writing. Just make sure you aren't wasting time; the best of us get caught up in online games and useless exercises that help us avoid the real work of applying ourselves to our writing. And make sure you are truly going to learn something valuable that you can apply to real writing.  If that is to write a more interesting paragraph or scene, fine. But call it a paragraph or scene. Out of respect for an art form that has entertained, taught, and helped us evolve for centuries, call something lesser what it is.

Clayton Littlewood is much underrated short story writer, diarist, journalist and playwright. You can see his Amazon page at Clayton Littlewood .  His personal website is at  .  

See my short stories:  Frozen, Lightning (my first attempt at the paranormal!) and Quandary, at Amazon and BarnesandNoble .

Sunday, November 29, 2015

BBC Series "The Last Kingdom" Ends With a Battle and a Bang

In 878 A.D. (C.E.) a battle took place in a field in what is now southern England, which determined the very existence of the country. How odd it is now, to consider that of the few thousand fighting men and women present that day, some gave their lives for what they thought was the small kingdom of Wessex - the last remaining stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, after years of Viking raids - but in the end, they gave their lives so that the United Kingdom would eventually come to be what it was centuries later . . . one of the world's greatest and most productive empires. How surprised they would have been to learn that their sacrifice was the foundation of so much more than what they could have imagined.  

The final battle, with the shield walls dividing enemies.
The Battle of Edington (aka the Battle of Ethandun) was arguably the most important battle in English history, and it is fitting that the first season of the magnificent The Last Kingdom from the BBC gave us this battle as its finale. For many reasons, the first season has been an impressive debut for what has become a standout series, and it has in a short time built a strong fan base who must have been, as I was, cheering a little inside as our hero rode off into the final sunset with a narration promising more adventures ahead. Given the enthusiasm of a growing fanbase, the BBC would be foolish not to be planning for a second season.

The series is based upon the Saxon series of nine (so far) books, from renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The story follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Saxon Northumbrian ealdorman (the precursor of an earl). When the Danes (Vikings) invade and kill his family, he is taken as a child slave into the Danish household of Danish warlord Ragnar, where due to his intelligence, loyalty and charm, he is eventually raised as a son. But fate is not kind to Uhtred, and a warring clan of Danes kills off his adoptive family as well.  Uhtred is left without a country, rejected as a Saxon by Danes and a Viking by Saxons.  He has to fight his way into acceptance by those he must trust - including the future King Alfred "the Great" of Wessex and later of all England - in order to gain back respect and his birthright.  His story is told against the backdrop of the fierce wars of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries of England against Danish invaders intent on making the British Isles part of a Scandinavian kingdom. This was a time when battle was eye-to-eye brutal, life was cheap and dearly won, and Pagan and Christian strove to coexist.
Lord Guthrum of the Danes is baptized.
The series was produced by the executive producer of Downton Abbey, Gareth Naeme, who obviously understands how to capture and hold an audience. Unlike some of the others in the current parade of Dark Ages and Medieval fantasy series, this one follows much more closely actual historical events and incorporates characters based firmly in historical reality (even Uhtred of Bebbanburg existed, and is a distant ancestor of Cornwell, although little is known of his actual history). As can be expected from the BBC, production values are held to a high standard. 

David Dawson's King Alfred battles for Wessex.
The eight-episode season was shot mostly in Hungary, with some additional work in Wales and Denmark. From the reconstructed villages and wooden/stone palaces of the Saxons, to the costuming (reportedly done with an intentional "modern edge"), to battle scenes, one is easily transported back in time to a place that actually existed, and a people who were caught between two worlds and facing an uncertain future. The film is saturated with warm, rich red tones which bring out firelit interiors, skin, and setting sun, and also green tones which exploit the wild, earthy feel of a time when life took place mostly outdoors. Camerawork is consistently expertly rendered, and interesting without being distracting.

Not enough can be said about the cast. Heading it up is the relatively unknown Alexander Dreymon, whose anonymity will come to a screeching halt with this project. The well-trained young actor has delivered a performance worthy of an epic - always competent, nuanced, and fascinating. He understands the value of accent, the glance of an eye, posture, and all the small moments that raise a performance from passing to mesmerizing. His Uhtred is multi-layered, enigmatic, superbly physical (check out the horseback stunts and the fight scenes - his martial arts training shows) and by turns quietly emotional and fiercely warrior-like, as he cries over a friend's betrayal or his dead child, then rushes into battle swinging a broadsword with an intimidating fury-birthed grimace. He is never less than 100% male, as a ninth century warrior had to be in order to survive.

Also excellent are David Dawson as King Alfred, Adrian Bower as the knight Leofric, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Ian Hart as Father Beocca, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry MacEntire as Athelwold (a fan favorite, to be sure!), Charlie Murphy as Iseult, Rune Temte as Ubba, and many others.

Wessex has finally won everything, while Uhtred has lost all.
Fans of the books will love the series, but may be a little put off by a few instances of straying from the novels' storyline. As a writer and a film fan, I have no issue with the changes: many are necessary in order to make a series play to a film audience without confusing them with too many characters and subplots; after all, film is a much different medium, and must have different requirements for the sake of clear storytelling.  Other changes added to the stories, such as the screenwriter's decision to flesh out Uhtred's love relationships, where in the books they are too often mere mentions. This change in particular makes the film more interesting to a wider audience, and Uhtred's character more multi-dimensional. It also, in this writer's opinion, raises the quality of the story. Like many a male, Cornwell tends to write from a testosterone-laden point of view. In much the same way that some female writers are unwilling to write a great battle scene, he shies away from love scenes or any scene of emotional romantic depth. The screenwriter has understood the value of fixing that, and brings a story accessible and interesting to everyone.

Hild the Nun takes no prisoners.
Which brings us to the battle scenes. These are some of the best you will ever see on television; each battle-cry to raise the shield wall gives the viewer goosebumps. The filmmakers employ stunts and special effects and camera work to increase tension and authenticity -which is expected - but they go further. In an era of television and film when rape and massacre are too often exploited for entertainment (this means you, Game of Thrones), this series neither shies away from tough scenes nor does it present them as purely entertainment. There is brutality, but not the glee of excessive butchery; there is rape, but not a script or camera that lingers over a woman's torture and humiliation for the sake of titillation. These filmmakers understand the difference between realism and exploitation, and it raises the production to a higher level than any other historical out there.

Uhtred and his Danish brother "Young Ragnar" loyal enemies.
Just about the only quarrel I had with the series, and one present also with the books, was resolved in the last episode: that of the treatment of various religions. In the books, Christianity is presented nearly always in a bad light - never as a force for good or the power of justice and peace, against poverty and blind brutality, but as a particularly malicious form of oppression. As an amateur historian of the era, it troubled me because it doesn't give a complete picture. I have always been fascinated in the question of why the new religion swept over a culture as quickly as it did (given that there was no mass communication). Through the years I
have read the suggestions of many historians - it encouraged the value of the individual life, and raised the value of life overall; it offered a way out of a pattern of personal vendetta and inter-clan wars; it raised the value of literacy and learning; it established the first social programs such as orphanages, schools, and soup kitchens; it improved ties to the Continent and the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe, which meant trade and improvement of quality of life. Cornwell has said in interviews that he holds a personal bias against Christianity given his upbringing, and while I can't fault him for that, I do think it's a shame that it kept him from writing more realistically about the gentle slipping away of the pagan world, and the gradual establishment of the Christian. Historians agree that for the vast part, it was a peaceful transition for England, and I for one think it would be a fascinating question for the novels to have explored more. 

But here, the screenwriters have rescued the story from one-dimensional Christian-bashing. In the final episodes, pagan Uhtred comes to reconcile the two philosophies in his own mind, Christian King Alfred comes to appreciate that his god may have a broader point of view than he originally thought, Father Beocca realizes that God works even through pagans, and - as happened in history - the leading warlord of the Danes, Guthrum, offers himself for baptism as part of a peace treaty. (In reality, Alfred stood as Guthum's godfather for baptism, and Guthrum took the Christian name Athelstan, after Alfred's deceased elder brother.)  In the last minutes of the final episode, we have nuns and priests taking up the spear and raising the battle-cry for Wessex and rushing headlong into the battle - a scene which, given the politics of the moment in time, I agree is highly imaginable. Even the religious would have understood that the saving of a way of life demanded every heart and weapon available, and that defending one's life and land was a justification for war when the invaders were at one's doorstep.

As I watched this series, I was often moved not only by the story of Uhtred and his companions, but by the story of England's birth, and the comparisons in my own mind to our political struggles today. Surely the people of Wessex were increasingly frightened as the Viking menace first tickled their shores, and then made its way inland to kill and conquer. Perhaps at first they - preoccupied with everyday survival at their little farms and trades - would have heard stories of the pillaging and murdering and thought of it as a far-off thing, of not much consequence. They would not have understood that it was growing bigger, that it was a force that did not share the values they had embraced with Christianity, and would spare no one until they were all dead or subjected. Even good King Alfred imagined the Danes as people who would be reasonable, could be negotiated with and then trusted to obey a peace agreement. But he was wrong, and it is to England's luck that he learned it in time enough to get serious about defending his people.

Today we face a similar situation, as a force intent on the destruction of our way of life moves closer and grows larger, while still our leaders and a vast majority of our citizens play blithely along at their day-to-day pursuits, without understanding what is at stake and the choices we will have to make in a very near future. I wonder if we still - we peoples of the western world, who have built civilizations on a specific set of values and beliefs, whether we acknowledge that fact or not - possess the courage it will take to keep the right to decide our own path into the future. 

As Uhtred told us in every episode of The Last Kingdom, "Destiny is all."  In the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, Destiny ("Wyrd") was a reality predetermined before one ever took a first breath. But they believed also that individual choices could affect destiny.  Let's hope that our destiny is as hopeful and kind to us, as was that of the brave Anglo-Saxon men and women who won their future with blood.

Do yourself a favor and watch The Last Kingdom in its entirety. You'll get a great history lesson, a glimpse into the past of a great people and land, and a rollicking good time.


Writer Bernard Cornwell with "Uhtred" Alexander Dreymon.

Bernard Cornwell's series can be found at, at bookstores, and elsewhere all over the web. The popular books are well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend them.

The Last Kingdom is currently finishing up its run in the UK and Europe, but is finished with the first season's run in the US.  It can be purchased online as a DVD, or downloaded from Amazon or ITunes. If you are like me you will be watching each episode about four times.