Easter Eyases

April 15th, 2017 4 Comments

About a week ago, perhaps two, I first saw a large nest at the top of a very tall oak a few hundred yards away. I was on the side of a hill, which put me at the same elevation as the nest, but it was so much a part of the tree, made out of large twigs from the self-same tree—an oak that has clumps of mistletoe in it—that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for movement. I got my binoculars and saw Mrs. Red-tail’s head sticking up, and while at that distance even ten-power binoculars couldn’t get me close enough to say for certain, I can guess that she had very much the same resigned and long-suffering look of all mothers who are approaching end of term and very much ready for the next phase of events. I made a note to keep an eye open for the next phase. It has now occurred.

I went out with the binoculars yesterday and could see two downy white heads sticking up above the nest while mom (or dad; I couldn’t tell the difference at that distance and might not be able to tell the difference unless I had one on each shoulder; females are larger) sat on a nearby branch doing guard duty.

And guard duty is very much a critical constant. Ravens and, I assume, other birds of prey, possibly even other red-tails, are an unending threat, as too, I suppose, would be any raccoon ambitious enough to climb that high. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was out walking with one of my dogs when I witnessed a raven make a very ill-advised and badly-timed attempt to raid a red-tail’s nest. How the raven thought he was going to get away with it, or how he was myopic enough not to have noticed mom sitting on the nest, I can’t say, but I actually saw the damn fool descend, feet first, as if he planned to sit on the nest himself. The next moment he wanted very much to be anywhere except where he was, because mom had grabbed one of his legs in her beak and for the space of almost a minute I was treated to the spectacle of one of the most intelligent birds on earth behaving like a moron, frantically and stupidly flapping his wings in an effort to get away, and screaming his fool head off. Of course, if a red-tail grabbed my leg in its beak, I’d probably scream my head off too, but it certainly didn’t show the raven off to best advantage.

Baby hawks and falcons are called eyas, the plural being eyases or possibly eyasses. The Oxford Unabridged tells me the word comes from the Latin and is one of numerous words that originally had a “n” in front, a “n” that got dropped, much as adder used to be “nadder,” and apron used to be “napron.” To be honest, I only know the word, eyases, from Hamlet, because Rosencrantz uses it to describe child actors in the scene where he and Guildenstern tell Hamlet the players are coming to Elsinore. Otherwise I would have been content to call them baby hawks. Since Shakespeare spells the plural with one “s,” that’s good enough for me, and don’t bother telling me Shakespeare’s spelling is suspect at best, and frequently attributable to someone else entirely. The Yale Shakespeare has him spelling it that way, Shakespeare’s good enough for me, and that’s that.

They are cute little beggars. As I watched them, dad (or possibly mom) came home with groceries and was immediately greeted with open beaks. It was impossible to tell, at that distance, precisely what the groceries had once been, but the odds are good it was either a gopher, a very small ground squirrel, or a chipmunk, but I’m basing that solely on size. Whatever it might have been, I watched for a while as mom (or dad) tore off junks and thrust them into waiting beaks.

Feeding one’s children is always a lot of work, for every species that actually devotes some care to its offspring, including humans, but baby red-tails must count as some of the most demanding. They grow very quickly: within six weeks they are ready to leave the nest, which seems like an exceptionally rapid rate of growth for a bird that can live to be twenty-five years old in the wild, and that much growth in six weeks requires a lot of fuel.

Red-tails are technically considered migratory birds (at least, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act) but throughout virtually all of the lower forty-eight states they tend to live in one area year-round, and that one area encompasses almost every kind of habitat we have in America, as long as there is some open area for hunting and as long as there are some high perching spots for nesting, so you can find red-tails in heavily forested areas, in open prairies, in the mountains, and in the deserts of the Southwest.

They also have a wide range of plumage, including a melanistic variation which I have seen in my neck of the woods. By melanistic I mean very, very dark brown, almost black, and almost completely devoid of any markings. It took me a long time to realize what I was seeing when that particular bird appeared near our ranch, but regardless of coloration, they are breath-takingly beautiful and I get a thrill every time I see one sailing majestically along or taking his ease in a tree. Or sitting on a nest with babies in Easter week.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

The Windhover, To Christ Our Lord, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

At the Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives

April 9th, 2017 3 Comments


I’m reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language, but what drew me to it was a comment ascribed to V.S. Pritchett (I think) who called it “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature.” I take exception to that. Think of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, William Trevor, Tolstoy, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes… Oh, I could go on at length, naming authors ancient and modern, alive and dead, classic and casual, whose books have characters that so epitomize aspects of humanity that those characters’ very names have become bywords for real and enduring qualities of human nature, both good and bad.

But it was that description, “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature,” that came back to me as I watched The Best Years of Our Lives the other night, because that movie is, if not unsurpassed, certainly up there at the top of the heap in its depiction of human nature. It is rich, complex, tragic, funny, multi-layered, compelling, but above all very real, real in its humanity, real in its understanding of the difficulties soldiers faced returning to civilian life following the horrors of World War Two, real in their hopes and dreams and disappointments, real too in each one’s final tenuous and ambiguous triumph over his own personal adversity.

Ambiguous? So, is there a happy ending or not? Yes, there is, to the same extent that you can say The Graduate has a happy ending: Dustin Hoffman gets the girl and they escape on a bus, but the final shot of Hoffman and Katharine Ross shows both of them beginning to comprehend the uncertainty of their choices, and the fragility of their future. So too in The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews takes Theresa Wright in his arms at the end and kisses her rapturous face, a part of you thrills for them, but you also hear Andrews lay out succinctly and brutally just how difficult their life together is going to be.

I think movie-making may be the single most vulnerable art of all precisely because it is such a collaborative effort. Writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound mixing, editing, lighting, art direction, set decoration, props, make-up, all these and more have to come together perfectly, and any weakness in any one of them can tweak the whole production enough to reduce potential greatness to mediocrity. (If you should doubt me, I will cite as an example a 1950’s-era mystery I tried to watch recently that had such stark and garish lighting, as if every Manhattan apartment was lit by Klieg lights, that I turned the thing off.) But it all starts with the script, and in this case Richard Sherwood’s script is simply perfect. He won an Academy Award for it, and the movie also raked in awards for William Wyler (directing), Fredric March (best actor), Harold Russell (best supporting actor), best film editing (Daniel Mandell), best score (Hugo Friedhofer), and then topped it all off by winning best picture.

In addition to Andrews, March, Wright, and Russell, the film also stars Myrna Loy, about whom Jimmy Stewart once said: “There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” That pretty much tells you all you need to know about her personally, and it shines through in her acting.

But what gives the film its humanity is the very real, three-dimensional depth of all the characters. There are no heroes here away from the battlefields and jungles, beyond the extraordinary heroism shown by practically all of the Greatest Generation, nor are there any villains. The only “bad” person (played by Virginia Mayo) is bad only to the extent that she is vain and vapid, shallow and narcissistic, and people like that are on every street corner; in fact, who among us has not been all those things at one time or another? The good guys and gals make stupid mistakes that are little better than the deliberate selfishness of Virginia Mayo and all of them have to live with the consequences of those mistakes.

Given that the three males (Andrews, March, and Russell) are all thrown back into normal, everyday, middle American, big town/small city life after four years of unparalleled hell and horror, it is small wonder that they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Given that the women who love them (Wright, Loy, Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell) have no training or experience to prepare them for helping or even dealing with their wounded men, it is small wonder they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Not as many as their men, but they too stumble and fall. Being women, they all—with the exception of Mayo—pick themselves up more quickly and gracefully than their men. Loy’s character in particular epitomizes the wisdom and patience we all wish all women had all the time, yet she also has just enough humorous annoyance to make her maternal paradigm as believable as she is engaging. It is a remarkable performance, and it should have earned her an award. The scene where she tells her daughter of all the times she and Fredric March had to struggle to keep their marriage intact could be a masterclass in the very best kind of acting, where all the pain and all the tears are only subtly hinted at, resonating beneath the surface of the calm and beautiful face. It’s human nature at its best.

The other parallel I could make to Middlemarch (and I’m only comparing it because of the accidental juxtaposition of taking a break from the book to watch the movie) is that each of the returning soldiers in The Best Years of Our Lives represents a different socio-economic level, just as each of the primary characters in Middlemarch represents a different level of England’s rigidly stratified society. The problems Andrews, March, and Russell have to deal with are the same in terms of wounds, physical or psychological, but greatly different in terms of the reaction and support of their families and loved ones.

One last note: watch for Hoagy Carmichael’s compelling turn as Uncle Butch, the owner of the bar where the three soldiers congregate to lick their wounds and drown their pains. He radiates the same kind of quiet strength and wisdom that Myrna Loy does, asking the right questions at the right time, giving the right direction at the right time, without ever being overbearing, all of it while playing the piano and listening, listening, listening. Listening, after all, is the actor’s most important job.

Africa and Golden Joys

April 5th, 2017 22 Comments

I received an email here, on this website, offering me an unparalleled opportunity. I post it here, unabridged and uncorrected, with my responses in italic font.


From Sandra Elizabeth David

Abidjan. Cote d’Ivoire,

West Africa.


Hello Dearest.

I always respond favorably to endearments, especially from unknown women.

I deep it a respect and humble submission, I beg to state the following few lines for your kind consideration, I hope you will spare some of your valuable minutes to read the following appeal with sympathetic mind. I must confess that it is with great hopes, joy and enthusiasm that I write you this email which I know and believe by faith that it must surely find you in good condition of health.

Well, thank you, Sandra Elizabeth. We oldsters just love yammering on about our health, and guys like me who used to be pretty athletic really love going on at length about what tough SOB’s we are. So, after three years of various issues and surgeries to fix said issues—all of them caused by a horse wreck that you can read about right here on my website under the heading, “Fistfuls of Balloons”—I’m at last doing pretty well health-wise. Heart pumps, bowels churn, kidneys distill, and following pretty extensive spinal surgery that left me with the bottom four inches of my spine made out of titanium, I’m even back to walking my dogs and trying to regain some muscle in the gym. By golly, Sandra Elizabeth, if and when you come stateside, I’ll have to show you some of my scars. I probably have more than anyone in your neck of the woods who doesn’t actually still participate in ritual scarification, if they still do that sort of thing in your country.

My name is Sandra Elizabeth I am the only child of my late parents Chief. David Joseph. My father was a highly reputable business magnet who operated in the capital of Ivory Coast during his days.

You can probably forget the part about ritual scarification: I doubt highly reputable business magnets do that sort of thing, being too busy snapping together when their ends touch, or getting stuck to pieces of metal all over the place. By the way, I’ve forgotten what the capitol of the Ivory Coast is. Do tell. Would that be Abidjan?

It is sad to say that he passed away mysteriously in France during one of his business trips abroad through his sudden death was linked or rather suspected to have been masterminded by an uncle of mine who travelled with him at that time. But God knows the truth! My mother died when I was just 6yrs old, and since then my father took me so special.

Wow. That’s a shame, Sandra Elizabeth. You sound sort of like a female version of Hamlet. Not the part about your mom, of course, Hamlet’s mom being alive and well in the play, as I’m sure you remember, but evil uncles and dead dads just litter the stage in “Hamlet.”

Before the death of my father, he called me and informed me that he has the sum of Three Million, Six Hundred thousand Euro. (€3,600,000.00) he deposited in a private Bank here in Abidjan Cote D’Ivoire.. He told me that he deposited the money in my name, and also gave me all the necessary legal documents regarding to this deposit with the Bank,

Cool! You’re all set, girl! Even in these troubled and uncertain inflationary times, 3,600,000.00 Euros ain’t to be sneezed at. You know, it’s just amazing how many young people just like yourself are the only children of wealthy Chiefs back in your part of Africa. When I say, “your part,” I’m speaking of course in general and broad—geographically speaking—terms, since most of them used to be in Nigeria, but if you take “your part” to mean West Africa generally, you really can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting a wealthy young orphan.

I am just 22 years old and a university undergraduate and really don’t know what to do. Now I want an honest and GOD fearing partner overseas who I can transfer this money with his assistance and after the transaction I will come and reside permanently in your country till such a time that it will be convenient for me to return back home if I so desire. This is because I have suffered a lot of setbacks as a result of incessant political crisis here in Ivory Coast.

Of course you do! When I was a 22-year-old university undergraduate, I too was dumb enough to reach out to total strangers in my search for an honest and God-fearing partner. And I’ll bet you do indeed have a lot of incessant political crises back there in the Ivory Coast, what with evil uncles running around all over the place and all. The problem is the “reside permanently” in my country part. See, we have a new president, Donald J. Trump, and he is making difficult for people to immigrate into the United States, even innocent young 22-year-olds with 3,600,000.00 Euros. (By the way, what business was your dad engaged in that earned him so much moola? I ask because writing doesn’t pay the way it used to, and I’m thinking of maybe dipping into some kind of business venture, anything to put beans and rice on the kitchen table. That’s a joke, Sandra Elizabeth. I’m really hoping to put some fat, juicy sirloins on the table, along with a bottle or two of a really good Zinfandel, since I’m an all-American kind of honest and God-fearing type.)  

The death of my father actually brought sorrow to my life. I also want to invest the fund under your care because I am ignorant of business world. I am in a sincere desire of your humble assistance in these regards. Your suggestions and ideas will be highly regarded. What percentage of the total amount in question will you take after the fund has being transferred to your account and I come over to meet you?

Well, I just bet the death of your father brought sorrow to your life! You’d be an unnatural kind of daughter if it didn’t, a sort of Goneril or Regen (to switch Shakespearean tragedies), and I’m sure an innocent and wealthy young girl such as yourself couldn’t possibly be a grasping, conniving, grifter trying to scam old fogies like me. The problem is that this old fogey is also pretty ignorant of the business world, and any assistance I gave you would, by definition, be very humble indeed. I doubt my suggestions and ideas would be highly regarded, even by a girl as young and innocent and wealthy as you are. As to what percentage of 3,600,000.00 Euros I would take, I would have say that’s an awfully tempting offer, almost irresistible, and I can resist anything except temptation. But since my business acumen is so feeble, indeed practically non-existent, I would have to give that percentage thing some thought. Though, 100% sounds awfully good to me.

Please, consider this and get back to me as soon as possible. Immediately I confirm your willingness, I will send to you my Picture and also inform you more details involved in this matter.

I just can’t hardly wait to see your picture! But the internet is so impersonal, and on-line photographs are so easily photo-shopped, so why don’t you send a hard copy—and the details you mentioned—to me at:

Jameson Parker

c/o FBI: Internet Fraud Division

11000 Wilshire Blvd.

Suite 1700

Los Angeles, CA 90024


Kind Regards,

All kinds of regards to you too, Sandra Elizabeth

Sandra Elizabeth David

Doin’ that Executive Rag!

March 26th, 2017 5 Comments


Here is the wording of US Code 1182 (entitled “Inadmissible Aliens”) section “f” (Suspension of Entry or Imposition of Restrictions by President):

“Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

I am not a lawyer, but that certainly seems pretty unequivocal to me. You may disagree with the law, but you can’t argue that Donald Trump was trying to circumvent existing law, unlike his predecessor, whose 2014 executive order on immigration was, by his own frequent admission, unlawful and unconstitutional.

Both Trump and Obama, just like all other politicians, lie with impunity, with frequency, and with no conscience whatsoever. The only difference between Trump’s lies and Obama’s lies is that Obama spoke smoothly and eloquently, lying so gracefully that he frequently sounded believable even when it was self-evident he was lying. Poor Donald Trump trips over his own tongue at his best, and at his worst sounds like his own incoherent tweets. The problem for President Trump is the very thing that worked to President Obama’s advantage: namely a post-literate society where only a tiny handful of nutcases (self included) have bothered to read the Constitution, or ever bother to do any fact-checking on their own.

The one thing all Americans should beware is any politician who takes an illegal action and justifies it by saying, “it was the right thing to do,” because the day may come when a politician will simply rescind one of your rights because he believed “it was the right thing to do.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt shamefully issued executive order 9066 which stripped the rights of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens of Japanese descent and put them all in internment camps. (Less well known is that 9066 also applied to Americans of German descent, over 11,000 of them, and to Americans of Italian descent, a little under 2000 of them.) It was touted as “the right thing to do.”

In spite of the hysterical hand-wringing by the media, Trump’s order applies only to people who are not residents of the United States (and therefore are not being stripped of any rights because they don’t have any Constitutional rights in their countries, let alone American Constitutional rights), and is a temporary ban (ninety days), so I personally don’t have a problem with it. But my personal opinion is of no consequence. Nor is yours, gentle reader. Nor is Donald Trump’s. Nor, even, is the personal opinion of some judge in Hawaii. All that counts is the law, and the law does not encompass anyone’s personal opinion.

Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order to prevent millions of illegal aliens from being deported was overturned by the courts because the courts ultimately agreed with Obama that it was illegal and unconstitutional, in spite of his insistence it was “the right thing to do.” And that is the point. Donald Trump’s travel ban may or may not be “the right thing to do,” but “the right thing to do” inevitably devolves down into nothing more than personal opinion, whether Franklin D. Roosevelt’s or Barack Obama’s or Donald Trump’s. Or yours or mine.

The only thing that stands between the citizen and the concentration camp—or the killing fields—is the law, and when the law is ignored, or twisted, and citizens remain silent, or worse complicit because it suits their temporary sense of safety or convenience, or their sense of morality (‘it’s the right thing to do”), Manzanar will spring up in one country, Dachau in another.

Dancing with the Dead Update

March 23rd, 2017 11 Comments

For all you young whippersnappers out there (I’m referring to all of you under 108) who like to use electronic devices, my publisher has informed me that Dancing with the Dead is now available from BearManor Media as an e-book, here: ( I understand the convenience of these devices, but I’m afraid this ancient Luddite will never see any form of electronic device that feels as good in my hands, or smells as good, as an old-fashioned, three-dimensional, paper-and-binding book. But the e-book is out there, and I do hope you enjoy Dancing with the Dead in whatever medium you choose to read it.

Spring Is Sprung

March 20th, 2017 12 Comments


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide


Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.


And since to look at things in bloom,

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.


A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Housman


My father used to send me poems when I was away at school or college, and this—along with pretty near everything else A. E. Housman wrote—was one of his favorites. It is one of mine, too. It resonated when I first read it, precariously typed and with frequent corrections made in my father’s singular, elegant, elongated handwriting, and it resonates with me still.

California is a monochromatic state, not given to the lush greenness or seasonal riot of color we associate with eastern states or European countries. Its nickname, the Golden state, is a reference to the fortuitous discovery made at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, but it is also a tip of the hat to the ubiquitous golden grasses that cover every inch of the place, save the Mojave desert and the golf courses of metastasizing urban areas, from the Oregon line to the Mexican border.

But this year, after the coldest and wettest winter in (insert the number quoted by your favorite news source) years, an abrupt week of sun and warm temperatures has turned my part of the world into an Impressionist painting. The first shy blush of green on the cottonwoods, grass as rich and dark green as Ireland, jonquils, hyacinth, forsythia, and a riot of fruit trees, fruit-bearing and flowering only, in every lovely color, with great patches yet to come on the mountainsides that will eventually be poppies and lupine, all of it evoking the rituals and ceremonies and traditions of Easter and the world awakening. The deer are all blowing their coats and look decidedly shabby. The redwing blackbirds have returned, and on a nearby lake I saw a cinnamon teal. He might have been lollygagging there all winter long, but it pleases me to imagine him resting on his northward migration, another harbinger of long summer days to come.

Of course, the forecast calls for cold and snow next week, but it is lovely as long as it lasts, and what more can a man ask?

The Artisans: Joe Smithson

March 18th, 2017 5 Comments


If I were going to make an argument about which man-made item most closely approaches perfection when it comes to the integration between man and tool, I would be torn between a handmade musical instrument and a custom firearm. Both can be mass produced and will achieve admirable results in a competent owner’s hands, but when handmade, either is capable of transcending its basic function. Think of a Stradivarius. Think of what Eric Clapton can do with a great guitar, or what Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix could do.

I’m certainly not going to compare music to hunting, but that same integration, where the tool becomes an extension of its owner’s will, is also applicable to fine, custom-made firearms.


Joe Smithson is one of the preeminent custom rifle makers in the world today. He is a graduate of Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, the school renowned for the gunsmithing program started in 1947 by P.O. Ackley of Ackley Improved cartridges fame. Smithson was able to study under some of the best gunsmiths in America, and went right from college to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jerry Fisher. Then he opened his own shop in Farmington, NM, before ultimately moving up to Provo, Utah where he now turns out works of functional art in wood and steel.


These are the kinds of rifles that are reminiscent of the guns the legendary and intrepid explorers of Africa and India carried, only those men would have been unable even to imagine the degrees of perfection and the technological advances that have come since those long-ago days.

Take a look at some of Joe’s masterpieces at

Fake News

March 12th, 2017 19 Comments

Why should I, why should you, believe any news report you read, see, or hear? From anywhere? It makes no difference whether it’s the New York Times or any other left-wing news source, or whether it’s Fox News or any other right-wing news source, or whether it’s any online source that purports to be a news source. They are all driven by bias, dishonesty, ignorance, or all three.

Taking a break yesterday (Saturday, March 11) I decided to catch up on the world’s turning and clicked on Fox News. It was about eleven-thirty on the west coast, which would make it about two-thirty back east, so I believe the host was Julie Banderas, but don’t hold me to that. I don’t watch enough news during the middle of the day to be able to identify any of the so-called reporters. In any case, what caught my attention was that, during an interview about the attempts to repeal or repair Obamacare, the host suddenly switched topics, and with indignation flashing out from under her false eyelashes, demanded to get her guest’s opinion about Trump’s overturning of the Obama executive action requiring the Social Security Administration to turn over to the National Instant Criminal Background Check the names of anyone receiving benefits who required help managing his or her affairs. The way the reporter phrased the question, however, was (basically) as follows: “What do you think of Donald Trump allowing the mentally ill to have guns?” (That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close.) The guest declined to answer.

Obama did indeed sell that executive action as keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but consider that the ACLU, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Arc of the United States (an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities), the Association of Mature American Citizens, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Council on Disability, the Nation Council of Independent Living, the… Oh, let’s just say an extremely lengthy alphabet soup of organizations which, yes, also included the NRA and Safari Club International, all opposed Obama’s overreaching measure and urged it be thrown out.

I could go through that executive action from soup to nuts and show you precisely why it was an embarrassingly bad measure on many levels, even by the embarrassing standards of an anti-gun president who distinguished himself with numerous embarrassingly bad excesses of authority, but the bottom line is that it required nameless bureaucrats in the Social Security Administration, which is already overworked and severely underfunded, to make determinations about the mental health of senior citizens without any of said bureaucrats having any medical credentials or psychiatric expertise, and without any consideration of due process, without even a face-to-face meeting. It would have helped perpetuate false stereotypes, false assumptions about a correlation between financial acuity and mental illness, and made a mockery of both the second and fourth Amendments, but an ignorant or dishonest newscaster couldn’t be bothered to do her homework and simply accused Donald Trump of making it easier for the mentally ill to get their hands on guns. So when you hear this moronic meme perpetuated—and you will, gentle reader, you will—please remember that regardless of your personal feelings about firearms, we have a Constitution and we have laws, and remember too that no so-called journalist who declines to do even the most rudimentary investigative homework is worth watching. Also, tell me when you last heard of the ACLU, the AAPD, a host of other civil rights organizations, including the NRA, and much of the medical community, all joining hands to overturn an executive action?

Dancing with the Dead

March 2nd, 2017 10 Comments


It used to be said that writing a book was some of the hardest work a person could do, but let me tell you, gentle reader, writing a book is a lazy day at the beach in comparison to getting the damned thing published, and getting said damned thing published is nothing, a trifle, a mere bagatelle, in comparison to marketing.

Marketing is an invention of the devil, an exercise in perpetual frustration, much like dining with the devil. (Remember the spoons and forks so long no one can get the food to their mouths?) After I finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on a novella (“No one publishes novellas these days,” I was told, “it simply isn’t worth it, financially.”) that is neither pure fiction nor pure non-fiction (“Where is the bookstore going to stock it? Which section? And what is it anyway? Is it a romance? An adventure? A memoir? What?”) I decided to get a jump start on marketing, a primer, if you will, from wiser and more experienced authors. I contacted every famous and successful writer I know and asked for their secrets, the tricks they used to make their books fly off the shelves and into readers’ homes. The answer from each one of them amounted to, “Damned if I know.”

So, like Butch Cassidy, if there are no rules, I might as well get started.

Most of the homeless you see are mad or drug-addicted or both, but there are a few whose worlds spun out of control through no fault of their own.

Dancing with the Dead is a non-fiction novella. Most of the primary characters in it were real people; most of the events actually occurred; most of what I’ve written about those people and those events is true. At least, some of it is.

Pamela came from a world of wealth, education, privilege, and unlimited opportunity. Tony came from a world of pre-civil rights poverty, discrimination, and manual labor, where options were circumscribed in ways that are hard to imagine today. Pamela’s world came apart in the junta of Argentina’s Dirty War. Tony’s world came apart in the jungles of the Viet Nam War.

Part I provides the backgrounds of these two very different people; told in alternating chapters we learn who they are, how and why they became the people they became. Part II follows Pamela from Argentina to Los Angeles, from wealth to destitution to that condition beyond destitution we call homelessness. Part III looks at them from an outsider’s point of view, the author’s point of view, as they were when our paths crossed during my Simon & Simon days.

In their individual ways both Pamela and Tony were beyond help in any traditional, societal understanding of that word, yet together they were able transcend mere survival. On the streets of Los Angeles, where any two desperate people might forge an alliance, Pamela and Tony were lucky enough to find each other and forge something more, something very human and very moving.

Dancing with the Dead can be ordered from Amazon

or any online source, or, I believe, through your local bookstore. If you like it, I would greatly appreciate it if you could post a review on Amazon.

Varieties of Canine Eccentricity

February 28th, 2017 21 Comments


We have three dogs now. Bear and Daisy Mae are Australian Shepherds, which is clearly a fine and sensible name for a dog that was conceived of, bred, and perfected entirely on working ranches in the American West, a stock dog as archetypically American as the cowboy, the quarter horse, and the Colt single-action.
The American Kennel Club claims the breed goes back, genetically, to the Basque region of the Pyrenean Mountains, and that it owes its name to the Basque shepherds who came to America from Australia in the 1800’s. I suppose that’s possible—anything is possible—but I prefer to think it was a bunch of good-natured but mischievous cowboys sitting around a campfire with a bottle of Jack Daniels and talking about how ignorant city slickers are. “Hell, those New York City folks can’t tell a horse from a cow from an elk. Why, I bet we could even tell them Ol’ Blue here is an Australian dog and they’d by golly buy that.” Think Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern, amiable, gullible, out of their element and out of their league, but having a fine old time with some fine old cowboys spreading misinformation.
However it happened, the Australian shepherd couldn’t be more American. He is a firm and unwavering believer in the Constitution, and in the equal and separate balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. He believes in baseball and apple pie or any other foodstuff, whether in his food bowl or fallen to the floor, and he especially believes in the rights of all American citizens to do or be or say or go where they choose, so long as he can herd them in the right direction.
Their most obvious attribute—their great beauty—is the attribute most dangerous to them. People take one look at Aussies and fall in love, and this is emphatically not a breed for everyone. They were bred to move stock over long distances in rough country all day long, and sitting around on the sofa watching Animal Planet is not going to satisfy their physical energy demands. Nor will it satisfy their intellectual demands, because this is a highly intelligent breed that needs and wants and demands a job, preferably a challenging job. If you don’t interact with your Aussie both intellectually and physically, you and the dog will both end up very, very unhappy.
That beautiful coat also sheds constantly. If you share your home with an Aussie, dog hair will become an ever changing but constant feature in every corner, on every piece of furniture, under every piece of furniture, on all your clothes, and as a condiment on the dining table competing for space with the salt and the pepper and the mustard.
Temperamentally, Aussies are pretty easy-going as long as you work them and stimulate their brains. They are very sensitive dogs who need a light touch and, in the first two years, a lot—a lot—of patience. Their formidable brain power simply does not kick in until they reach about two years of age, and until then they can be what is politely referred to as a challenging handful. I imagine my parents thought very much the same about me, if you add about twenty years or so to that two years of age. Darleen claims my pre-frontal cortex still hasn’t fully developed, but then she’s a wife, and what wife doesn’t consider her husband a challenging handful?
Another Aussie trait is that they crave, desire, demand, and need close, very close contact with their people. If your idea of a dog is as a piece of yard art, do me a favor and don’t get any living, sentient thing; just buy a pet rock. But above all, do not get an Aussie, because that will truly ruin the dog and will ruin him in a slow, sadistic way. In fact, don’t even think about getting an Australian shepherd unless you really like having a dog underfoot. Correction: make that on top of foot. Both our Aussies, but Bear especially, will lie on top of your feet the instant said feet stop moving. I have learned to gather everything I might possibly need before I sit down to eat, work, read, watch television, or anything else, because both feet will instantly be glued in place by Australian Shepherd Superglue, and getting them out from under him can be painful to my toes and to his feelings. I’ve also learned that if my feet are under the toe-kick of the kitchen sink, or under the bathroom sink where I shave, I have to look behind me and move cautiously if I don’t want to trip and go ass over teakettle, because he’ll be right there. When I do sit in the easy chair to watch television, he puts his front half in my lap—he knows he’s too big to get all of him up there—and he will stay indefinitely.
His chief eccentricity, however, is very endearing. He likes to walk up to me and thrust his head firmly between my legs, leaving only his ears visible and touchable. That’s because he loves having his ears rubbed and as long as I continue to rub, he will continue to stand. Or until he hears dinner being prepared.
Bear’s raison d’être is to keep this world safe from birds. If I turn him loose in any pasture, or take him to the dog park, he will spend his time chasing every bird he can find. It’s his calling, and he takes his duties very seriously.
On one memorable occasion, at the local dog park, a raven decided to play with him. Bear got the raven airborne, no troubles there, but the raven simply settled on a nearby fence post. Bear would duly charge said fence post and the raven would fly to the second one down, or the third one back the other way, or sometimes just far enough away to give Bear a false sense of security. Then the raven would call or flap its wings to get Bear’s attention and off they would go again. For a while, both of them were clearly having a fine old time, but I finally had to call Bear off; he was starting to trip on his tongue, and you don’t want to discourage a dog with a good and useful habit of chasing birds. Useful? Yes, because for my retirement, I’m considering renting him out as one of those dogs that keep birds off airport runways.
I’m not as knowledgeable about canine anatomy as I should be, so I’m not sure how the mouth is connected to the legs, but Daisy Mae is one of those dogs incapable of forward movement without something in her mouth. In Daisy Mae’s case, it’s almost always a Nylabone, held at a jaunty angle in one corner so that she looks for all the world as if she were smoking a stogie. She is much more frivolous and light-hearted than Bear and she smiles constantly, so between that and the stogie, she reminds me of a much prettier version of George Burns.
She likes to have her tummy rubbed, so she runs at you and at the last moment leaps into the air, turns sideways onto her back, and falls with a crash onto the floor where she will gaze up at you in a manner that no man of woman born can possibly refuse. She has one brown eye and one blue eye, and either one of them could melt the heart of a brass statue of the devil himself. In short, she has charm and she knows how to work it.

Other than being charming, Daisy’s only other accomplishment of any note is herding the cats. Since “herding cats” is a metaphor for an impossible act, this is not an accomplishment to be sneered at. Unfortunately, the people Daisy shares her life with aren’t quite smart enough to figure out how to make cat-herding into a productive source of revenue, so Daisy retains strictly amateur status. Just as well, since she is only a year old and still in the prolonged impossible stage of all Australian shepherd puppies, but we have high hopes for her as she matures into professional cat herding.
Daisy’s has a serious bark like a Black & Decker masonry drill going into your skull, but she has an endearing way of greeting strangers by woofing at them. This is not barking, but—quite literally—well, woofing, a sort of quiet series of little grunts intended to indicate openness to friendly overtures, but no intention of tolerating unwanted liberties. Aussies are generally good-natured and people-loving, but they can be protective if not properly socialized.
Aussies hold it as a basic tenet of faith that they are, in fact, human beings with fur, and in this they are not far off the mark. It’s an endearing trait, but it means that they have a pronounced tendency to stand up on their hind legs. Think about every YouTube video you’ve ever seen featuring circus dogs, or dogs competing in dance competitions; there is a reason why so many of those dogs are Aussies. It also means that while you might be able to teach them not to jump up on you (be gentle and patient; you’re trying to break a normal—from the Aussie’s point of view—behavioral pattern) they will still be prone to stand up on everybody else, to lean against the kitchen counter to see what’s cooking or to request a nibble, to put their paws on the bathroom sink to supervise your shaving, and in general, act like an amiable and sociable old friend next to you at the bar. “Hey, it’s great to see you again! Let’s have a beer. How do you think Green Bay’s going to do this year?”
Basically, both our Australian shepherds are perfectly normal dogs. Not so the third member of our family.
Lola is a Cardigan Welsh corgi. In case you are unfamiliar with that breed, the Cardigan is the other corgi, the one with the tail. The Queen of England’s corgis, the ones seen on television clustering around the queen in her garden at Buckingham palace, are the smaller, tail-less variety known as Pembroke Welsh corgis. We rescued one of those once, long ago, and I can testify that Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is well-protected. I got into a fistfight with a pit-bull who objected to us taking up space on his planet, and our other dogs, including a German shepherd from imported police and Schutzhund lines, all ran for their lives, while that little corgi managed to pull her head out of her collar, escaping from Darleen, and hit the pit-bull amidships like an express train. Of course, given her size, it had about as much effect as I would if I hit Deontay Wilder, but it distracted the pit-bull long enough for me to get back on my feet and grab him by his hind legs, incapacitating him until his owners could take him.
Cardigan Welsh corgis are supposed to be much tougher than Pembrokes. Having been owned by some of both, I can state empirically that the answer is an absolutely clear-cut yes and no. We had one very sweet and loving, but hopelessly fearful and neurotic Cardigan who used to fall apart at the slightest provocation, anything from turning on the shower to turning on the vacuum cleaner, from the faint and distant sound of far off neighbors quail hunting in a canyon a mile away from our house, to the unexpected sound of voices at our other neighbor’s house. She was a semi-rescue, but fearfulness, like aggression, is usually a sign of bad breeding.

Lola is the other extreme. Not only is she not afraid of the devil himself, but she has the kind of foolhardy courage that makes her a danger to herself. She is very prone to swaggering up to dogs that outweigh her by a factor of five, rolling up her sleeves as she goes, smacking her rolling pin against her open palm, snarling threats of violence and unwarranted comments about the other dog’s mother. She never actually does anything once she gets to the other dog, in fact she’s usually happy to play, but the menacing march up to them is someday going to inspire some dog to get his retaliation in first.
That’s with strange dogs. With strange people she responds as if each individual were her one true long-lost love, the single person she has pined to see all her life, the person she should always have lived with in any right-thinking world. “Who’s who? Oh, you mean that guy on the other end of the leash? He’s nobody, don’t worry about him. I just let him tag along with me because I feel sorry for the poor schmoo. Kiss me again.”
Her real eccentricity, however, is that she curses like a drunken sailor trying to find the red-light district. Constantly, almost nonstop. She wanders around the house, cursing under her breath and threatening anyone and everyone who comes anywhere near her even when she wants them to come near her. It’s a little hard to take this coprolalia (compulsive swearing) seriously because she does it so incessantly. When Daisy Mae helps Lola with her morning toilette, licking her eyes and ears for her, Lola issues a steady stream of hair-raising threats and obscenities that make you think she is about to pull a razor out of her garter belt. And when Lola returns the favor and grooms Daisy Mae’s eyes and ears, which she does daily because, like everyone else, she adores Daisy, the same bloody and vicious torrent of curses and threats pours out. If I pick Lola up to put her on the bed (her body is not designed for jumping up onto or down from anything higher than a bathmat) I am rewarded with promises to tear me limb from limb. If Darleen leans down to give her a kiss, Lola threatens to rip her lips off. When Darleen starts to prepare the dogs’ dinner, the threats and curses reach such a crescendo we’re always afraid the neighbors will call the police. Of course, Lola would greet the police with ecstasies of wriggling, jumping up on their uniforms, kissing them, and generally acting like her namesake in Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and little man, Lola wants you!” Of course, Gwen Verdun’s dance as she sang that song was somewhat more enticing than the gyrations of a dog built upon the lines of an overstuffed kielbasa, but at least she stops swearing when greeting strangers.
The funny thing about the swearing is that it is accompanied by steady, cheerful wagging of her tail, a sort of split personality division of canine, as if the front end were full of psychopathic danger and the back end full of Christian charity and goodwill. It can also be a little sad to see, because no one, not even the cats, takes her threats seriously. To watch the cats rub up against her as she mutters imprecations is to see the definition of hollow and meaningless posturing. She really is quite the most eccentric dog I have ever known.
She also has the most acute hearing of any dog I have ever known.

I was sitting on the sofa with Lola, one cold winter’s day, procrastinating after lunch instead of going out to do chores. I was procrastinating so successfully that I was just beginning to doze off when suddenly her ears flipped up from sleep mode (think Yoda in Star Wars) to alert mode. Then her head came up and she stared intently out the sliding glass door. She has learned to alert me when there are ground squirrels on the back hill. Ground squirrels are a very destructive pest and they harbor the flea that carries bubonic plague, so when they move in near the house, Lola tells me and I go shoot them. It’s a division of labor satisfactory to all except the ground squirrels, and their needs and wants are antithetical to mine. But Lola always runs to the sliding door when the ground squirrels are there, and this time she stayed where she was, her whole body tense with anticipation, muttering softly to herself.
Thinking we might be under attack by North Korea, I got up and peered out the door, cupping my hands against the glass. Nothing. There are a lot of trees and a lot of brush on the slope behind the house, so I took my time methodically scanning the hill. Nothing. Finally, I noticed Lola staring to the southwest and I looked over that way. Still nothing, but just as I started to turn away, on the far edge where the hill folds down into a culvert, a little buck’s head appeared, then his body, as he walked up into view. That deer was easily a hundred feet or more from the house, the house itself was buttoned up tight against the cold, and yet somehow, she had either heard or smelled or sensed that little guy. How? I have no explanation.
In theory, if you need a watch dog—and who doesn’t need a watch dog in these troubled times—a Cardigan would seem to be an ideal choice, but… But be prepared. Lola frequently alerts us to dangers that exist entirely in her own mind, as well as to actual things that don’t qualify as dangers to anyone but her. Getting our propane tank filled, for example, is something I like, I want, I need, I encourage, but Lola regards the propane guy as right up there with a Mexican drug cartel. The first time we spent the night in a hotel with her, we did not sleep, at all, because Lola evidently regarded the hotel as our new house and alerted us to every single person who walked down the hall or opened a door or closed a door or… We finally had to lock her in the bathroom with the exhaust fan on to deaden her ability to hear, but by then the sandman had gotten bored with waiting for us and had moved on to more receptive climes. In short, if you want a watchdog, be careful what you wish for.
Her other great skill (other, I mean, than barking at dangers real or imagined) is agility. Oh, stop laughing. I know she doesn’t look like an agility dog, but she has a real genius for it. She learned the obstacles with lightning speed, and can go through a course with something pretty darned close to lightning speed, or at least what passes for lightning speed from a kielbasa. The only real drawback she has is that she adores our local professional agility trainer and will frequently take time out in the middle of a run to go jump up and bestow kisses, and then go right back to where she left off as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This usually causes Darleen, who runs her, to get absolutely hysterical, and it’s hard to run while you’re laughing.
She really is the most eccentric animal I have ever known.

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