Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

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

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Understanding of Scottiedogs

The understanding of dogs surpasses all understanding -- except (perhaps) the understanding of dogs.

That is to say, they seem to understand us, even if we fail to understand them ... and that is (again, perhaps) the moral of this story.

In our Farmer MacGregor's garden, we are beset by the pestilential presence of long-eared lagomorphs -- those herbivorous mammalians of the snipping teeth and spring-wound hindquarters.

We have owned one live-trap for some time, which has proved helpful in sequestering squirrels, if not rabbits. When I picked up a second live-trap a week or two ago, at a farm auction, I figured I had a better chance of catching a buck-toothed miscreant or two ... for if I had several traps set in various parts of the garden, how could I fail?

The other day I set up the two traps toward the rear of the yard, which adjoins a small overgrown patch belonging to a neighbor. Toward that overgrown patch is where the bunny rabbits, Easter rabbits and Peter rabbits, and all their kin, run to hide once they are spotted by MacGregorian eyes.

Two traps, baited with carrots ... sure to succeed!

Little did I anticipate the strategy of wily rabbithound Scottiedog Lorna, who immediately made it a practice of rushing down the lane between the grape vines, empowered with an humanitarian sense of immediacy, while barking out, "Trap! Trap! Trap!" The traps were no more than live traps, of course -- but when a ferocious little Scottiedog comes zipping along with a jawful of helpful warning, how is a rabbit to know that a somewhat innocuous transplantation to the outskirts of the village was to be the full extent of the dread fate awaiting the entrapped?

Rabbits are all ears, though. Being all ears they have few if any places left in their already tiny heads for brains ... so upon hearing said Scottiedog, they swallowed said Scottiedog Lorna's line, and twitched their noses wisely at one another as they blithely passed by the enticing chunks of carrots.

Martha and I know this to be so: for we have observed that the traps have remained empty.

The other evening, though, Lorna showed the fruits of her strategy: for she came to show us one of the rabbits which had followed her warning (you may recall it: "Trap! Trap! Trap!") -- and which had, as a consequence, steered well clear of those devious wire-and-carrot contraptions.

Admittedly, Lorna showed Martha and me something less than the totality of the wise little rabbit that had evaded the traps.

But that is the way of Scottiedogs. Had Lorna shown us the whole rabbit, it might have seemed boastful, on her part. So she showed us only as much as modesty permitted.

The part she brought to us, when she trotted up the garden path, was the leggiest part of a wise little long-eared and boundingly leggy creature.

This leggy part is, I admit, one of the of the most characteristic parts of the rabbit.

Not the most characteristic part, though. Since bringing us that leggy part and the ears might have seemed a bit obvious, she opted for understatement.

This proves, perhaps (I say, yet again) that Lorna can speak with other animals. (Or is that not what I set out to establish ... I am no longer clear on the matter. I took a shovel and buried the documentation Lorna brought us. I suppose I should have kept it ... scientifific evidence ... etc.)

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Aging Spring Wines

An aspect that may take years for me to gain some handle upon is the effect of aging on different wines. General wisdom calls for aging a wine at least half a year and ideally a year. Beyond that, my impression is that wines have a certain stability, after that first year's aging.

Is this the actually the case with spring wines? Last Thursday, coming home from a day's labors -- literally labors in my case, since I had been doing some concrete work -- I fetched up a Wine 22, a dandelion wine that had seemed quite satisfactory when sipped during the time of dandelion blooming, and in the month or so before that.

On Thursday the flavor seemed to me less than ideal -- making me wonder if these wines should not be enjoyed early in spring, and finished before the arrival of summer. The wine is still changing as the season does, after all.

Does it not seem possible that the wine is at its peak at that point of its first year of age, when its ingredients are again fresh at hand, in yard and field?

Is it not just as possible that the spring-influenced imbiber is at peak receptivity for the product of the season being re-experienced?

Another thought is that basement temperatures may be part of the picture. Those temperatures are now rising from their winter lows. Bringing a wine up from the basement is not the same as it was: for the wine I bring up today, though cool, is warmer than the somewhat chilled wine I brought up in April.

Chilling the wine does seem to restore some of that spring freshness. I remain uncertain, however, about whether the wine tastes quite as good as it did when the yellow brightness of riant dandelion blooms adorned the yard.

Cheers ...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Strawberry Wine, Part III

In our days of rainy picking we had filled a few bowls.

Over the years we have accumulated a stash of stainless-steel containers, mostly bowls, which come in for regular service during the summer. At the beginning of this week we were at the point, in fact, of having bowls of strawberries, fully ripe, on two refrigerator shelves, while other bowls of ripe or ripening berries were taking up space on kitchen table and kitchen window ledge ... prompting Martha to make noises about running out of bowls for gathering greens from the garden and for making the evening salad.

So late Monday I was preparing the five-gallon crock and measuring out ingredients based on a wine we liked from last year's efforts of around this time.

Enlarging the recipe called for enough strawberries to half-fill the rock, before their being chopped and mashed down. I washed and emptied large bowl after large bowl of berries -- not quite depleting our stores, but completely using all but the ones still ripening.

Twelve and a half pounds ...

It astonishes me still -- having such a quantity of such fleeting delicacies ... mashed up and given over to the labors of yeasts.

Cheers ...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Puritan Planet, Part III

In the biography C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, I discuss the elements in Kornbluth's stories "The Little Black Bag" and "The Silly Season" that allow them to be read as critiques of his chosen form, which was science fiction. Similarly, elements appear in Carol Emshwiller's "Puritan Planet" that allow it to be read as a critique of science-fiction, as a pulp genre.

A story that is emblematic of the masculine viewpoint in pulp science fiction is the famous Tom Godwin story "The Cold Equations," in which the feminine principle, the anima, the "girl," of the story is jettisoned to die in the vacuum of outer space, putatively because the action is necessary in order to save lives. The definite murder is justified by the indefinite possibility of preserving numbers of others.

Kornbluth's being a fiction of the divided individual, it interests me that this emblematic "hard science fiction" story is also symbolically a piece of fiction of the divided individual, with the anima separated and then rooted out from the masculine soul. (Interesting, too: Rick Bowes' story mentioned here recently, "Pining To Be Human," has a conflicted main character who "sees" his anima in an external manifestation. The word "anima" even appears from the lips of a character who is a woman of insight.)

In "Puritan Planet," the anima plays a redemptive role. The "she," who is called "girl" by Morgan, is a cat who simply by existing resolves the conflict of the story. The cat is named Cat -- which as Cat or Kat can be a shortened form of a woman's name. Cat's presence in the crash-landed ship calls into action Brotherhood's social organization named Animal Welfare. Cat is "a poor dumb animal" -- the defenseless, voiceless anima -- who nevertheless speaks and defends, in resolving the story's crisis; and she does so in a way outside the ability of the male aspect, as represented by Morgan. The soul's coherence, in other words, brings the story to closure. This stands in contrast to the sacrifice of coherence that brings "The Cold Equations" to closure.

It might be too much to call Carol's story brilliant -- the alert reader, for instance, knows from the beginning that Cat will prove a pivotal figure. Yet it rolls out some verbal felicities ("It was still and black and beautiful, and he wanted to stay in the soft, warm, dark forever ... "); and it offers ample reward when regarded from the historical perspective. It also suggests to me that Carol's works are of a piece -- that there is coherence to be found there, scattered across the course of decades.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Picking in the Rain

A rainy June leads to your having many moments of being down with knees to the damp ground, leaning forward among wet leaves and reaching for ripening berries. Mornings -- the strawberries beneath the row of grapes where the plants grow rampant. Evenings -- same areas again, and then in the fenced-in, protected strawberry beds. So you are getting wet first thing and then again last thing, the way these days have been going.

Yesterday, I opted to leave the house a little early, to walk up the hill and do some Maple Valley work. I left all the picking for the later gray hours of the day. At work we watched the clouds and the rains through large windows. When late afternoon arrived and the three of us -- Martha, Lorna and me -- were home from the job, as we were settling down to enjoy a revivifying nip of whisky, the sun started peering and then staring out from between clouds.

"Picking strawberries in the sun ... why, that is not how it is done," I joked. The irony of the evening, when the sky-change might have made the picking of berries more an idle pleasure and less a sodden task, is that I never got around to picking. We were looking into ideas and possibilities for this and that -- mostly writing-related travel later in the year -- so that suddenly I noticed we had reached the point in the evening when, even with a clear sky above, things were too dim for seeking reddening glimpses among the greenery.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Puritan Planet, Part II

Carol Emshwiller's "Puritan Planet" is interesting additionally (see previous posting) in that it can be read as a commentary on the masculine hierarchy.

The hero, Morgan, in is a forced-landing situation -- with the landing complicated by the fact that the obviously inhabited world he is landing upon offers him no support for his landing there.

The planet is named Brotherhood.

Morgan reflects on the irony of this name in the face of its uninviting aspect. Later, when in contact with its representatives, he finds himself speaking with individuals who state their concern, first and foremost, for the children of their planet.

Morgan is seen by these inhabitants of Brotherhood as not a "brother" but as a threat to these children. He is seen in this negative light due to his displays of masculine coarseness. Because he is seen as a threat to the children's innocence, he is left to die in the place where he has crash-landed.

The Brotherhood representatives, in other words, give lip service to a maternally nurturing spirit. In their actions, or inaction, however, they demonstrate a brutal, perhaps violent, perhaps masculine character.

Brotherhood is isolationist and exclusionary, rather than open and receptive to outside influences and to possible change.

Cheers ...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Puritan Planet

Reading Carol Emshwiller's "Puritan Planet" has generated several thoughts. One is that Carol's distinctive contribution to the science fiction pulp genre reflects a mindset that echoes well with the current concerns of Wiscon attendees.

The central character of "Puritan Planet" is "a big, square man" whose name is Morgan. However big and square he may be, from the opening paragraph he is displaying elements in his character somewhat at odds with that big squareness. He is deeply and unquestioningly concerned for the welfare of others who cannot care for themselves, to the extent of placing himself at some risk when acting protectively; and in his manner he is freely expressive of his feelings.

In Carol's more recent fiction -- here I am speaking from general memory, not of a particular work --- a sort of character appears who may be described as male but who displays openness, curiosity, sympathetic feelings, and some amount of capricious logic -- none of which are necessarily feminine aspects but which resonate nicely with my understanding and experience of what it is that, at times, makes female personalities valuably different from male personalities.

This stands in contrast to some overtly feminist fiction, in which the female characters are strong, decisive, experience-hardened, and not at all capricious or outwardly emotive. They are emulations of an old masculine model -- one that saw heavy deployment in the pulps, including the science fiction pulps. (In speaking of "some overtly feminist fiction," I am again speaking from general memory, from my reading experiences of perhaps a decade ago -- so these impressions may, of course, be less than perfect.)

What Carol seems to have done from early in her career was to conform to the pulp model of the masculine hero (Morgan is big and square and, importantly to this story's proceedings, one who curses freely) while at the same time housing within this masculine outwardness a richness of character that seems in many ways to be female in its expression.

Her approach might be regarded as subversive, because of this. She was subverting the pulp hero to serve her own non-traditional artistic ends.

Yet this approach may have been a natural expression of Carol's personality, and not a conscious practice intended as subversive. The approach reflected her instinctive way of adapting to the given marketplace situation.

Cheers ...

Friday, June 11, 2010

The New F&SF

I mentioned the James Sallis review, the other day. The review appears on pages 33-38 of the July-August double issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- an issue apparently not yet on the stands, since Rick Bowes reported on Facebook this week that he had yet to receive either contributor or subscriber copies as of yet ... while I had received a copy in the mail at midweek, not too long after having received an electronic copy of the review.

The published copy arrived here in Cashton thanks to special attention from Gordon Van Gelder. He sent the copy first class from New Jersey, bless his heart, in a manila envelope spotted with The Simpsons stamps.

An amusing aspect of the review that escaped me, on first reading, was that Sallis calls the biography "imminently readable" -- which means the book will become readable, any day now.

No doubt most readers will wait for that to happen, before investing in copies of their own.

... but in any case I remain impressed with the heartfelt response that Sallis has, to the biography. I feel a bit humbled.

For those who have too little or no exposure to the fiction of Bowes, by the way, "Pining To Be Human" displays many of its characteristic strengths and beauties. The first paragraph is magically effective:

"So many years later I can still see the Witch Girls gliding over the grass amid the fireflies of a summer evening. I first saw them the July when I was four. That season in 1948 is the first piece of time I can remember as a coherent whole and not just a series of disconnected images. That evening I saw magic and told no one."

Do those lines not transport you elsewhere than here?

The phrase suddenly occurs to me: "shattered continuity." Are Rick's words so convincing because of the shattered aspect -- or the sense of over-arching continuity ... the latter which gives many pieces of his fiction their mythic feeling?

Cheers ...

The Weight of Strawberries

Tuesday in the rainy morning I spent an hour bent among the strawberry plants, picking. I was especially concerned about gathering the still-white ones showing their first touch of blush, from among the plants growing below the Kay Gray and Canadice grapes.

These plants among the grape vines I had meant to weed out. Since I have yet to get to that task, though, I have been taking what fruit I can before the robins eat it all. Last year from these plants we harvested almost nothing: the birds were voracious. This year by picking at first hint of ripening, we are adding to our strawberry stores.

After picking below those grape vines, I picked in the areas that are fenced and netted -- and then walked up the hill to Organic Maple Co-op, the place where I am putting in some days of work. In the course of moving some 400-pound barrels of syrup that day I threw my back out, a little -- enough for a few days of discomfort. The fault, of course, lies with the strawberries. I was bent over in the rainy chill for an hour -- then went and exerted myself. Were only strawberries a more respectable weight -- say, five or ten pounds apiece -- then even in the rainy chill I would have limbered myself up for other tasks of the day. I would have been sweating, wheelbarrowing the strawberry harvest up from the gardens to the basement chutes where I would dump the morning tonnage.

Instead, what are strawberries? Tiny bits of soft and seedy ripeness that at their largest will fit in multiples within the open palm of the hand, weighing probably less than the heads of the robins we would like to decapitate for their marauding incursions. Strawberries as fruit are tiny, low to the ground, leaf-hidden, and connected to their parent plants by whiskery bits of green thinness.

No wonder they break backs.

Cheers ...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Speaking with Madle

On Monday I had a nice telephone conversation with Bob Madle, one of the few souls around who was present during those heady days of late-1930s science fiction.

I believe I have yet to note the correction here, for those who have the C.M. Kornbluth biography, concerning page 70. Even if I noted it before, it bears repeating. In the photograph, Bob is standing in the middle, holding some posters or a portfolio of some sort, with Robert Thompson to his left (as in stage left). The figure (stage right) who is mostly turned away from the camera, and whom the caption makes out to be Bob, Bob tells me is almost certainly Sam Moskowitz.

This photo was correctly captioned, in the proofs of the book. At a late moment an editorial question arose, since the caption was seen to be ambiguous. I apparently misunderstood what the editorial question was -- or else the editors misunderstood my clarification -- since the incorrect attribution then appeared in the published book.

This was quite embarrassing, since Bob not only helped me with numerous matters relating to the text of the book, but was also the source of that photo.

In any case, Bob is impressed with the biography -- which impresses me. His mind is so full of factual detail, concerning so many events that I describe in the book, that to have the text gain his approval is to set my mind at east about it, to one degree more than it already was.

"It's a remarkable book," he said, Monday afternoon. "I read every word, every footnote -- every ibid., ever op. cit..

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Not the Original Science Fiction Stories

The title I gave here earlier, The Original Science Fiction Stories, turns out to be not quite that -- even though that is how it appears on the cover.

On pages 188-9 of the issue I picked up, Lowndes notes in response to a letter from Edmund Meskys: " ... the title of this magazine is Science Fiction Stories. That phrase 'The Original' is just there to indicate that we were the first to use the title SCIENCE FICTION and SCIENCE FICTION STORIES, whereas all others using this title had preceded the words 'Science Fiction' with some adjective -- Astounding science fiction, etc. But it's no more a part of this magazine's title than is 'The Honorable' before some distinguished person's name actually a part of his name."

To clarify -- this magazine was first to use "Science Fiction" without an adjective ... not the first ever to use the phrase, for its title. Interestingly, the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that John W. Campbell, Jr., nursed the ambition to drop Astounding from his Astounding Science Fiction title -- but was prevented from doing so by the appearance of the magazine entitled simply Science Fiction. The latter stole Campbell's thunder, as it were, even if the thunder was not particularly resounding.

(The Encyclopedia also, very strangely, alphabetizes Lowndes' magazine under the name The Original Science Fiction Stories .... giving the argument that this was, indeed, the way people referred to the title at the time. The magazine's indicia clearly indicates the formal publication, title.)

Cheers ...

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Not-So-Odd Job

I have been distracted somewhat from my writing here for the blog, and have had most of my normal routines vigorously tossed out the window, by my having taken on this new job that I mentioned here the other day.

I was interested in this job somewhat but never quite pursued it -- I was comfortable in my already complicated life, after all .... yet I ended up with the work, all the same.

A pattern exists in my life which is quite clear, now -- that I tend to step up to help resolve a less-than-desirable situation, if that less-than-desirable situation happens to be afflicting a co-op. This first manifested in me becoming manager of the struggling Turtle Creek Food Co-op, in Beloit, in the late 1980s. The co-op's struggle continued, while I earned almost nothing for my labors; yet the co-op did last another four years. I was by no means ideal for the job except in the sense that I was somewhat willing to taken a vow of poverty in support of what seemed a community Good, having already quite decisively taken and frequently renewed a vow of poverty in order to pursue the creative life, throughout the earlier decade.

Having stepped up to take on that task was perhaps a mistake. The task was there to do, though. Likely I failed at it it to no greater degree than I excelled at it.

In the second instance, however, I am fairly sure my failure was complete -- for at a point of leadership crisis at the Stevens Point Food Co-op I become involved in trying to reshape that leadership, and ended up in a position that was wrong for me. I had sworn I would never end up a part of a day-to-day cooperative management team. I felt some interest in managing store matters in a logical manner, but also felt an equal disinterest in holding endless meetings ... so I bailed out of the situation pretty promptly, but not prettily.

I suppose I am exactly the kind of dust that coooperative vacuum-claners suck up: for in recent weeks it again has been a co-op that has done just this, with regards to the dust that I am. The differences from earlier situations are several. In this case, I seem to have actually resolved an operational problem, simply by stepping in. (You might think of a dishwasher stepping into a restaurant and suddenly ending a half-year cooking dilemma: it is akin to that.) Despite my early expectations, moreover, this new job has turned into one requiring a fair degree of physical labor.

This has a bit of an odd feel for me, since physical labor has always seemed something to be volunteered, rather than to be paid for. I have certainly taken my share of odd jobs that involved simple physical work -- yet I did always think of those jobs as "odd." The opposite of the odd job is apparently the regular job, which this one seems to be.

(As you may be thinking, it does occur to me that my life might have been easier had I viewed matters otherwise than this, sooner.)

For a third difference, this is a co-op on the producing end of the spectrum, not the consumer end. Many of the myriad forces that pull together and tear apart consumer co-ops seem to go unfelt in producer co-ops.

Cheers ...

Friday, June 4, 2010


Novice Scottiedog asks, "What is the difference between a workdog and a playdog?"

Scottiedog Master: "They are the same. That is the difference."

(Author's note: Tallie Alexander's sons, at one point, called their Grandma Roxie's dog, Muffin, a "workdog." Roxie liked this; and the term has always seemed to me an excellent one ... even if the finer nuances of its childhood meaning might escape me.)

Cheers ...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sallis Reviews the Kornbluth Biography

An electronic file has just arrived from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Upon the file's digital pages are the six pages of the F&SF review, by James Sallis, of C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary.

My first reaction on seeing this was to think that Sallis was an excellent choice for reviewer. He does, indeed, home in on many of the major themes and arguments of the biography, with great accuracy -- and does so with a stylistic approach entirely his own.

It seems to be a deeply felt, deeply sympathetic consideration of the book.

I am, in response, deeply grateful.

Cheers ...

On Missing Wiscon

Our normal activity for Memorial Day weekend has been, for many years, attending the feminist science fiction convention named Wiscon. It is held, these days, in the Madison Concourse. This year I made the decision to attend Wiscon countless times. despite lack of means.

I made the decision not to attend countless times plus one.

I had particularly wanted to go this year to see old friend and collaborator Richard Bowes, a fine novelist -- one of the finest, in truth, in my reading experience -- and to see again Carol Emshwiller, who came to my assistance during the writing of the Cyril Kornbluth biography.

But ...

The financial situation is in the process of changing, here in our household, because of my having taken on a job -- one that seems to be the kind of job best for me: one that saps less than the full energies that I should be putting into creative activities ... yet while the financial picture is changing, it has yet to actually change. I could not quite contemplate going two thousand dollars in debt to buy my author copies of the biography, and then adding atop that the hundreds required to spend time at the Madison Concourse. Moreover I have yet to prepare the promotional materials I need to have at hand, in any convention appearances ... so had I, this year, opted for Wiscon, I would have been making the drive down and spending the days and dollars without books to show and sell, and without materials to hand out. However much the value -- it is immense -- of seeing friends whom I dearly want to see, it seems far better to wait until I can attend conventions better equipped.

Staying home allowed us the pleasure of frittering away time, doing some Memorial-weekend rummaging. At one point in our wanderings we went into an antique shop in Centerville which usually we have seen closed and so never had investigated. A great many wonders awaited us inside. What I walked out with, though, for $2.50, was a copy of the January, 1960, issue of The Original Science Fiction Stories -- a magazine with which I had no familiarity. Its editor was Robert A.W. Lowndes, though -- the figure who, as Robert W. Lowndes, Bob Lowndes, or "Doc" Lowndes, has such prominence in the Cyril Kornbluth biography. What prompted my purchase, though, was the prominent notice on the cover:

"Puritan Planet," by Carol Emshwiller.

A perhaps stranger reminder of the Wiscon we were missing came for Martha at the Agricenter in Viroqua, where we stopped on Sunday to look at some plants. She was writing a check, so picked up the pen lying on the plant-nursery counter ... a pen from the Madison Concourse. The clerk said she had never seen the pen before.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Strawberry Wine, Part II

As I noted before the holiday, the situation seemed promising for doing a direct comparison between cooked Wine 30, strawberry, and raw Wine 32, also strawberry, made soon afterward.

Having opened Wine 30 on that day, I went back into the basement to find Wine 32 -- and turned up Wine 30 after Wine 30. Somewhere among the bottles we may yet have some Wine 32. My suspicion, though, is that I had left the Wine 32 bottles on a table nearer the front of the basement ... so that they were the ones that I fetched up on whatever whimsical evenings they were that came along, when a bit of something different sounded like just the thing to break up the same-old.

The chances are good that this nicely set-up opportunity for visual and nasal and lingual comparative testing has passed us by.

On the other hand, the chances are mighty good, too, that had I found a bottle of Wine 32 in the basement, that day, I would have uncorked it, decanted it ... and then we would have said, "Ah! Better!" -- and consigned Wine 30 to the fridge for cooking, without giving a thought to doing a thoughtful, careful comparison.

For I did bring forth a Wine 29, rhubarb-strawberry, instead -- a raw wine -- and we said, "Ah! Better!" -- and consigned Wine 30 to the fridge for cooking.

We have quite a lot of Wine 30. We had better do quite a lot of cooking.

Cheers ...