Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

Broad Green Husk

Since I have been talking here about bits of writing and the products of fermentation taking their own sweet time -- or their own dry time -- I was amused last night when reading about Jo Files, a character who happens to have sprouted from the idea-tree of L. Frank Baum nearly a century ago.

Files, Baum tells us, "had nine book-trees, on which grew a choice selection of story-books. In case you have never seen books growing upon trees, I will explain that those in Jo Files' orchard were enclosed in broad green husks which, when fully ripe, turned a deep red color. Then the books were picked and husked and were ready to read. If they were picked too soon, the stories were found to be confused and uninteresting and the spelling bad. However, if allowed to ripen perfectly, the stories were fine reading and the spelling and grammar excellent."

Jo Files, according to Baum, had to read most of the books himself, before they spoiled, since the people of Oogaboo cared little for reading. How like a writer's fate.

The broad green husk of an unripened book: I am wrapped up in one. (Actually, today it was in a red-ripening husk of a minor deadline project.)

Cheers ...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Filtered for Error

Nothing is quite so slow, we have found, as the unbleached coffee filter.

We use paper filters; and we like the idea of their not being bleached -- especially since some of our best-tasting cups of morning coffee have gone through unbleached filters. We like to have a liquid be filtered during our lifetimes, however. What I hit upon was to use an old metal flower frog -- I will leave that unexplained unless you are puzzled -- to press tiny holes in the unbleached filters. Many manufacturers of bleached ones do the same, albeit not with old metal flower frogs.

This speeds up the process -- which plays into the making of imbibibles of the sort more often up for discussion here. Martha and I have dingled around with the making of liqueurs, for instance. For one thing, doing so offers a way of using fruit that you have at hand but that is in a quantity too small to produce wine. As does wine, a liqueur requires of you that you take some time to sit around on your hands. Not as with wine, the separation of fruit from liquor, or liqueur, takes place at the end of the sitting-on-hands process, not near the beginning.

Which is where filtering comes in. Martha suddenly became industrious about filtering some liqueurs we started last summer, in recent days. The first she chose was elderberry: amazing, dark-cranberry, exquisitely smooth stuff. We are modest in our use of organic sugar, sometimes honey, in our liqueurs: so it comes out as not a particularly sweet drink. We have found, moreover, that what moves into the fruit is alcohol, in displacing the fruit essences. So the drink is not as strongly alcoholic as the vodka that first went into it.

There is a physical principle established by Fig Newton -- the Law of the Conservation of Alcohol in a closed system -- which perhaps will come in for discussion another time ... suffice it to say that liqueurs need not be the obnoxious, weirdly colored liquids sold at stores. They may be restfully lovely to the eye. They may be redolent of a summer season that has otherwise escaped into the past.

("Filtered for error" is a phrase remembered from Kornbluth's "Apocrypha," a story which was retitled by an editor in a rather peremptory manner, to "The Advent on Channel 12" ... although the "filtered for error" phrase apparently came from Anthony Boucher, oddly enough -- whom Kornbluth consulted -- and who was not the title-changing editor.)

Cheers ...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

As a Typewriter

In one of those fortuitous encounters, last night I was reading one of Carl Claudy's 1930s wonder tales written for a juvenile audience, and came across a line that leapt out at me. I had written earlier in the day, for this blog, about typewriting. The narrator is speaking about Martians -- these particular ones are brains-inside-machines affairs -- and describing them in this way: "They were responsive to any suggestion, just as a calculating engine is to any hand which presses its keys, as inexorable in their thinking as a locomotive is in progress, as emotionless as a typewriter."

I look at any one of my various typewriters nearby, and think they have such character. An emotionless character? I suppose so -- and suppose that the same could be said of all the old things that adorn and clutter our existence.

At the time Claudy was writing, the typewriter was still a relatively young bit of technology -- some decades old as a somewhat commonplace piece of mechanical equipment. (And with important roots here in Wisconsin.)

Yet that phrase "as emotionless as a typewriter" has a magic ring to it (as in the ring at the carriage-return) -- and so I believe I will attempt to be as emotionless as a typewriter in something or other that I do today.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Automated Writers

Although Cyril Kornbluth lived only to age 34, the amount of material I had to review, absorb and fit into the life-and-career story that became C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary was fairly sizable. The book itself became sizable, too -- some 240,000 words, as I recall. I ended up doing much of the writing directly to electronic file. I regret this, since a few repetitions and other problems resulted that I might have avoided, had I fleshed it out on paper, first, at a more leisurely pace.

Although I type with some rapidity, I find that the slower nature of the manual typewriter, as against the faster electronic keyboard, results in cleaner, more interesting writing. The eye and mind are not hypnotized by the radiant screen. The light of day, usually, illuminates the page.

Handwriting sometimes goes more slowly but sometimes as quickly as typewriting; yet in the long run it may lead to the shortest writing times. Handwriting seems to lead the mind to produce its most thought-out, most interesting, most well-wrought sentences -- so that the time spent in rewriting is all the less.

For deadline writing, word-processing -- a term of significant homeliness, quite in keeping with our Age of the Masses -- has its advantages.

Yet as with other automations, it offers increased production of diminished-quality results.

I suspect our age, so prone to look down upon the productions of earlier ages, has produced record quantities of writing not worth reading.

Cheers ...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Capping Ideals

It seems impossible to coordinate all the doings-to-be-done that would put life on an ideal basis.

I had that thought when reflecting on our having bottled, on Saturday, some five gallons of beer Martha had made -- just short of two cases. In an ideal situation we would have had some bottled-and-aged beer to crack open with our well-worn, cast-iron bottle opener, while bottling: for how can you work on your beer without having one? Yet we had exhausted our small store of homebrew. Which means the ideal went unachieved.

We are, on the other hand, certainly at the point of having miscellaneous wines to open, to go with any impending wine-bottling. And it does seem to me that the life I lead represents a sort of ideal to some earlier Mark Rich; and if that aspect of the matter is sometimes invisible to me it is simply because these are not unchangeable Platonic ideals that keep our lives moving forward, but rather parts of a changing and developing idea of what life can be. (And also because we seem to enjoy complicating our lives with projects.)

In our bottling, by the way, I have been using two different old, perhaps antique, cappers. On Saturday I was coming down well in favor of one over the other. I mainly used the cast-iron capper marked only by a raised "M" on each side, over the heavy cut-and-stamped-steel one made by the Everedy Company of Frederick, Maryland. But my estimation may change whenever I get around to constructing a solid, sturdy bottling worktable, onto which to fix them with bolts. The "M" capper is relatively stable when simply standing on the floor. The Everedy would benefit from bracing.

We happen to have a third to clean up and try, someday, too.

Cheers ...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wild Yeast

The effort to restore personal meaning to food and drink might seem hardly worthwhile, given the amount of time that must go into it. Yet to think of time as equal to monetary value is one of many ways to talk yourself into opting for the factory-made life.

Last week at a little shop we picked up a bag of Amish-grown apples. Some of the peel of one apple went into a new sourdough I was starting, which I am keeping in a bean pot. My sourdough breads last winter generally took a long time to rise. The buns and loaf I made yesterday afternoon rose in only a few hours -- maybe four -- after kneading the dough, even though the dough was cool because our pantry-kept flour is cool. The afternoon sunlight pouring in the kitchen window helped, of course. But it is a vigorous sourdough. It forced breadmaking upon me, in fact, because the spongy starter wanted to push the lid off the bean pot.

The borrowed labor of many millions of willing yeast laborers -- free laborers, at that. Time being equal to its fermentation potential ... a ridiculous thought: fully worthy, then, of serious consideration.

Cheers ...

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Martha took off Tuesday from her job, which has to do with organic maple syrup. Monday had been a rough day, for her: so to make Tuesday as sunny inside as it was outside I pulled from the basement, to go with lunch, a bottle of Wine 25. Since we had bottled this batch on the third of this month, it has had little time to mature and go about its final clarification.

While it was not ready, we were -- a situation that allowed for compromise, in our favor.

Last year's winemaking was all a specific kind of experiment; and of its results the wines that gave us greatest hope for future efforts were the rhubarb ones. I was using ample sliced-up lemons in those wines -- organic, whenever possible -- and so those wines had a strong edge given them by the peel. This rhubarb was our first of the sort we would call raw wines. Since the quite-simple recipe I had found in an old cookbook made no mention of cooking the rhubarb, I instead heated the water, to sterilize it, and let it cool before pouring it over the wine's ingredients.

That rhubarb wine was, as I recall, also the first I started in a stoneware crock, a Red Wing three-gallon. Our experience would be that crock-started wines succeeded to a greater degree than did glass-container ones, although glass in general seemed fine; and it was tremendously better than steel-container wines, which were the most apt to go astray into vinegary territory.

I remember us sitting in the backyard on a summery day and trying some of that first rhubarb. We marveled at its beautiful, lightly tinted clarity, and at the wonderful sense of freshness, a quite dry freshness, about it. It went well with being drenched by sunlight. I believe I made the batch too dry -- which in this instance means its alcohol was not high. Yet we were pleased. Such promise! A wine of encouragement.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Dregs of Memory and Awareness

Last night in re-reading a favorite writer I happened upon this line: " ... a contemptible falsehood -- a poor hoax -- the lees of the invention of some pitiable penny-a-liner." So I must have run across this phrase before, "penny-a-liner," for hack writer.

I wrote down part of Poe's line, to help me remember.

To show that my mind even in this rediscovery was not wholly alert, I note that this morning I was thinking about "racking," a word not used in the winemaking sense by non-winemakers nor non-brewers, so far as I know. Racking refers to using some means to draw the clear liquid off the sludge or dregs that will accumulate at the bottom of a fermenting vessel.

The other day I was doing my racking quite inefficiently. Some of the wine we made last summer and fall went into odd-sized secondary fermenters, because we were running out of gallon jugs. Since we have no siphon-pump to fit in a smaller-size bottle, "racking" a liter bottle, for instance, means pouring it off into another same-size bottle -- as carefully as possible, to minimize the inevitable stirring-up of the yeast that has settled out.

So this morning in thinking about racking, it struck me that, of course, the dregs or sludge is called "the lees." I had read the word in Poe's line thinking it more-or-less meant dregs, without thinking past that meaning to its winemaking reference. I felt pleased enough about finding "penny-a-liner" -- and I could have felt twice so.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Call It Aging, If You Will

Hours pass with seemingly small result; yet they are necessary hours.

Same way, months.

This past Sunday I spent time in kitchen sterilizing bottles, doing a little bottling of wines from their secondaries, and a bit of racking of other wines that were in less-than-gallon bottles. Martha was a little alarmed yesterday when looking at beer recipes to find that a porter she plans to make soon will take eight weeks. These wines I was moving from container to container were ones started in June, in July, in August. Since most of the source ingredients grew in our backyard, the timeline might be shoved back even farther.

Red currants seem to have grown in this area for what may be, in human terms, forever. When this house was built, around 1900, woods had more of a foothold; and hereabouts red currants are part of the woods. The plant from which we harvested was one we planted, though. We did so just to the west of the grapes, thinking they would be shaded in morning -- a consideration we are no longer sure was necessary, since for most of our backyard getting away from the shade of surrounding trees is more the issue. Since this is the first real red currant wine for us, it has been several years in the making -- if measured from our planning, digging and planting.

As a wine, though, it is only around its sixth month or so. Almost halfway there, to the wine-bottling mind. Yet all wines are drinkable after first fermentation, if perhaps not quite desirably so. Sitting down to a gallon crock of new wine would not be most people's idea of a palate-pleasing time. Aging works wonders, when the aging is done properly. Finding out what "properly" means, at all stages of the process, is part of the experiment.

And I think at times that this finding-out is a means to age myself more properly than I have managed to do at many points in the past.

Cheers ...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fresh from Cradle, and Cribbing

The news last week about "novelist" Helene Hegemann, of Berlin, Germany, seems less like news than a re-run confirmation that our Age of Masses is insane in a way quite different from the way the Modern was. Hegemann has used cut-and-paste methods in "writing" her novel -- a natural outcome, perhaps, of living in a global culture in which cut-and-paste refers to an activity no longer restricted to kindergarten.

Hegemann's being up for an award worth $20,000 from the Leipzig Book Fair, however, gives belated recognition to the artistic success of the Activity Book of our childhoods, which usually was printed on newsprint and was meant to be "read" with blunt-tipped scissors and colored wax crayons at hand. We can only hope the Leipzig Book Fair judges have these essential tools within reach; and we can hope the local kindergarten can spare a teacher to supervise judging.

Hegemann's "novel," of course, is only a pimple on the face of a society that has been eating factory food. It comes in for mention here as an example of what this effort of mine, this discussion, stands against.

With all due respect I would suggest Hegemann try to write a short story using a pencil. Writing is the finding of a line to follow -- usually a line that is invisible until the setting of pencil to paper. While a pencil may be used in cribbing, it is such a fine tool for finding lines that reveal inner worlds as well as outer ones that its use might shame even a plagiarist into removing the horrifying mask of Age-of-Masses stupidity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Sweepstakes: Malzberg & Rich Trade Thoughts

Rick Bowes asked about the exchange with Barry Malzberg, mentioned here a few days ago. I asked Barry about making it public; and he thought it would be fine to do so.

I wrote to Barry on Monday, February eighth, about having posted my short piece about Klass on this blog, and added, "I've never blogged before ... but I'd been thinking about it ... and now I figure it's so out-of-fashion that it's sure to do me no good: so I have to strike while the iron's dead cold." (I used those ellipses: and I do so below. They represent nothing but themselves.)

"The in memorium is very good," Barry wrote, the next day. "Recapitulates some of our discussion. SF became a different thing after the fifties and his exit was both cause and effect.

"For reasons we can parse at another time I don't think that Phil was as heroic or tragic as you think but he was an important writer and certainly a wounded soul. As are we all."

I wrote back, "I'm not sure I think Phil is either heroic or tragic, although I suppose there are elements in my perception of him that must give my words some coloring of that sort. Come to think of it, though: the fact that he was saying these things aloud (and fortunately managed to get interviewed saying these things aloud) that no one else was saying ...

"What is alive in my mind is the image of 1946-47: Klass, Merril, and Sturgeon wandering down Manhattan streets, joking, drinking, and arguing about the nature of science fiction. It's just me -- but that seems one of the powerful scenes, within my limited understanding of all that went on."

Barry wrote back, still on the ninth, with this: "He was indeed saying what very few were, certainly none of the others for the record. But Phil was a (shall we say) alterer of the truth; he was its custodian, the truth was not his. There are some enormously revelatory passages in that 104-page Solstein interview in which he explains that his mother, a really skilled and crafty figure, taught him everything he knows about lying and taught him well.

"He was wounded all right. But I know wounds and you know wounds and let me assure you that I was at dinner with my spouse not an hour ago discussing three writers who clearly went far beyond him in the wounded and inequity sweepstakes: Horace McCoy, Cornell Woolrich and Walter Tevis."

Responding, I wrote: "I would agree (even not knowing the stories behind the writers you mention) that many writers would surpass Klass for being wounded; when I wrote that line, I was thinking of the war experience. And that is an experience I do not pretend to be able to comprehend in anything like a full sense. The ones who went through it had trouble comprehending it -- which is why they wouldn't speak of it.

"I personally don't know what I would do, mentally, with the experience of seeing the concentration camps.

"There's a book title for you, in your last line: The Wounded and Inequity Sweepstakes. I know you'd do a bang-up job! On the cover: 'WHICH of these FAMOUS WRITERS will be the WINNER?'"

On February tenth, Barry wrote, "Yes, you are right, suffering battle injuries (or psychic brutalization) goes beyond a lifetime of battling the three cent a word markets. I accept that. Most combat veterans don't want to talk about it and we know why. I went through nothing - basic training in 1960 in Eisenhower's sleepy peacetime Army -- and I don't want to talk about even that. [ ... ]

"It's a hard, sad business, this 'professional writing' and looking out at a vigorous snowfall just starting and predicted to continue for 24 hours (and leave us over a foot, maybe a foot and a half) doesn't ease the corpus."

That snowfall had already passed through Wisconsin by this time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the First Floor

Here on the first floor of our house we have, at the moment, a five-gallon crock (Western Stoneware, with a maple-leaf decoration) full of beer Martha made which may go into a secondary fermenter today; and a three-gallon Red Wing crock with sorghum beer that I started last Friday. And in the back room is a five-gallon carboy with LaCrosse grape wine in its secondary-fermentation stage, which I suppose I could start bottling any day now. Martha was kind enough to order in some corks with her latest beer-making supplies.

I was just thinking of these, and then of the unknown numbers of gallons of wine in secondary fermentation in the basement -- not a huge amount; but the variety is not bad -- and was thinking, too, how similar the situation is to my miscellaneous writing projects. Who knows how many I have, in the basement. Here on the main living floor, I have just a few projects in active or semi-active state.

I just checked my wine-making notes. The carboy of wine is mostly LaCrosse grapes, with some Edelweiss, and also some that I thought might be the Alpenglow variety. All these were grown by Bob at Vernon Vineyards, in nearby Vernon County. All are northern grape varieties; all are Elmer Swenson varieties. In LaCrosse, a white grape, I remember the bunches being tightly packed and compact. The Edelweiss are a large white-Concord-type, extremely flavorful. The Alpenglow have a slight, quite attractive blush to the skin.

Homegrown hops, by the way, went into the sorghum beer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Not Even a Penny a Line

I've been engaging in an exchange with Barry Malzberg that springs in part from my use of "wounded" with regard to Phil Klass. Certainly writer after writer has been wounded by the conditions of the writer's life. I think just now of Phil having been, by his own estimation, a hack writer at one early point, then feeling offended by Virginia Kidd's much later characterization of him as a hack writer. His taking offense may have been the cry of one being slapped upon a wound that never fully healed. Judy Merril, too, showed discomfort at memories of engaging in writing that she regarded, from a later vantage point, as not being writing from the heart.

Yet in this case I was speaking of a different wounding: that of having been a soul caught up by and transformed by the experiences of World War II. (See Klass's Dancing Naked and my own C.M. Kornbluth, to begin understanding the transformation. I say "begin" out of feeling unsure we can fully understand.)

Being a penny-a-liner, though, may be a necessary stage or at least a useful stage for even the writer of conscience. The experience of trying to pull forth the reluctant words from whatever obstinate realm has its clutches upon them, no matter whether they are true words or false; of doing so at as fast a pace as possible while at the same time making sense; of writing as though the act of putting forth words is no less than life itself -- these are tasks easy for some but hard for those for whom words have not just dimension but weight.

I had expected to write something today about snow -- about digging out the dog-run that goes in-between and around the grape vines -- about doing that digging in the predawn, windy darkness. Ah, well. "Penny-a-liner," by the way, is a term I fortuitously stumbled upon in the dictionary the other day.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Willingness

The choices you make add up to the person you become. Many of mine have pointed me toward a life that must seem small, to an outside viewer, but one that is full of interest all the same. This last is a good thing, given that what I do is what I feel I must do. If you attempt a life based on a sense of responsibility to the world, you find how little you can do. But if the little you can do is important to you, then you must do it.

So you end up doing something like writing poems in the morning and digging dandelions in the afternoon, while the two-ton behemoths fueled by American debt trundle past the front of the house.

I was thinking this morning of the times it has seemed such a ridiculous enterprise, to be growing a few rows of grapes in a backyard that has room for them, but not all that much room. Yet growing grapes here was a matter that called out to be done: so Martha and I undertook it, hoping to be doing right.

Doing right has meant in my life a willingness to make mistakes. The making of mistakes is often the only open option, in pursuing the ideas that arise in a life. If you go ahead and make them, then you have accomplished something.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Phil Klass, or William Tenn; and Science Fiction

Science fiction went away from what mattered about science fiction.

This, I believe, is what Phil Klass came to understand. He saw the change as it was coming; and he stepped away. Where he went was academia -- the place where forms whose times have passed are put upon the examining table beneath the unforgiving glare of all-night library lamps. That it was science fiction that he was teaching, much of the time, suited him: what had mattered about the form had grown so attenuated that it was no longer a form that could hold him. It could not hold him, so he held it, instead; and he taught it. He taught writing, too. Writing was a living matter -- and it was a way of living that mattered.

Importantly he wrestled with memories, with self, with the nature of science fiction, with history.

He was wrestling with internal matters still in his last year: to speak with him was to know this of him.

Although we were present to one another only through that uncomfortable yet strangely intimate medium of the telephone, Phil and I had marked effect on one another, last year. Aside from giving him chance to voice thoughts and memories, I was able to offer him some documentary confirmation of rumors that had put him on edge for decades. He did considerably more for me: for he was speaking to me across a distance, from his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to my Cashton, Wisconsin -- but more importantly from his 1945 and 1951 to my 2009. Some of the doubts that had put me on edge -- for a mere dozen or fifteen years -- he erased by speaking to me from his store of thoughts and memories. Yet he did more: for he had engaged in a dialog within the field of science fiction, a dialog that started as early as 1946, of pivotal importance. His arguments helped me understand what it was that happened to science fiction in 1956-58 and the years afterward.

This understanding came clearer as I was trying to lift the larger-than-expected project of my Cyril Kornbluth biography into the light of day. In a way, my understanding grew even greater three quarters of a year later, while Phil was in his final illness and we were having no communication -- not by telephone, at least. Yet for weeks -- months, maybe -- I was still communing with Phil, in my wrestling with certain perspectives and ideas he brought to the table; and I was adding my returning words to the conversation, while writing a study of Judy Merril's earlier years in science fiction.

It gave me great pleasure to bring to the story of Cyril Kornbluth some of the story of Phil Klass. The final chapter I hope makes clear the debt I owe Phil for his helping me identify certain strand's in Cyril's life.

I may have paid some of that debt simply by incurring it. So it now occurs to me. Phil had attempted to raise a monument to Cyril, after Cyril's death -- a fact that had been lost, due to the erasures of time ... and perhaps thanks to the erasures of an interested party. That he helped me, with such strength, raise my own monument to Cyril made my task considerably less a solitary one. I see now it may have given him some sense of redress, when placing his shoulder beside mine at certain important moments -- redress for the lasting hurt of having had his own monument to Cyril taken from his hands.

Rest in peace, Phil. I hope the world does a better job than it did during your life of giving your wounded, beautiful soul, in death, its due.

Why "Vines, Wines and Lines"

I have spent a lifetime pursuing matters that seem built upon lines: lines of melodies, lines of drawings, lines of words.

When working in the thickets and tangles of plants in the garden I keep seeing parallels to writing -- especially in the last few years, as I have introduced myself (in the excellent company of lifemate Martha) to the realm of grape vines and other flowering and fruiting bushes and trees and vines.

One of the pleasures of creative activity is the enriching light it sheds on other activities ... or other lines.


Blogwriting on these connections -- on vines, wines, and lines -- occurred to me, a year or two ago.

I am not one to hurry into a latest-thing-to-do. Not even into yesterday's latest.

Today, wading in snow, I was clipping back raspberry canes. Entangled in them is netting against birds -- placed there in late summer, and left there as the canes grew higher to entangle them firmly with prickles and leaves. I hoped to clip the netting free, and clip down the canes, much sooner than this.

Today, belatedly beginning this particular small task, I quit before finishing: cold fingers, and a Scottie named Lorna who wanted back inside.

This, here, now: another small task, in its beginning.

Cheers ...