Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

Order No. 11

July 15, 2019

I have a friend who, once or twice a year, sends me clippings from newspapers or magazines on topics that he thinks might interest me, or that he recalls I had expressed an interest in, or that he’s interested in and wants to share. (We also exchange postcards from wherever we travel.)

He’s meticulous about neatly trimming the articles from the mother documents, and if he happens to remove the information, he will write on the pages the name of the publication and the date of issue. He’ll also usually include a short note about what he has sent (though not always, which leaves me puzzling sometimes how he thought I’d be interested in whatever he’s sent).

Most recently he sent me clippings from two different newspapers about the George Caleb Bingham painting “Order No. 11.” The painting is being moved from one location to another in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri.

If you read the link, Order No. 11 (1863) is about a misguided effort at ethnic cleansing in west central Missouri during the Civil War. It was eventually rescinded, though some have observed that the economic consequences to some communities affected then continue today.

And all of that is fascinating to me, but my friend got one detail wrong. There was another Order No. 11, which was attempted a year earlier, and which ordered the expulsion of Jews from parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. A man named Ulysses S. Grant issued this order. Prominent among these places affected was Paducah, Kentucky, where I had spent many summers of my youth (a hundred years later) and where my mother currently lives.

The accusation/assumption/assertion/rationale was that the Jews in these areas were profiteering from the inflated prices of cotton due to the war. (Never mind the non-Jewish cotton merchants who were also benefiting from the higher cotton prices.) Grant’s order was intended to affect only the Jewish cotton merchants, but it was worded poorly enuf that all Jewish people in the region were considered the target.

The Order lasted only a few weeks when the outcry against it reached President Lincoln’s ears and he ended it. It happens, though, that my mother’s condo is just down the street from Paducah’s synagogue, and I think of this dark bit of our history every time I visit her.

So when I respond to my friend’s latest letter with the clippings, I’ll thank him and gently point out that my interest was actually about the other Order No. 11

bits and pieces

July 8, 2019

This is a not-so-random image from my massive photo inventory. I tell the interesting and perplexing tale of this book in an old post here.


I’ve been bike-less for the last few days. When I bought my bike last summer, the neighborhood bike shop — where we’d begun buying bikes for our kids when they were young — offered a free 30-day tune up and then another at one year. My riding on the Indian Creek Trail has not been kind to my bike. Mostly it’s covered with mud on the underside, but it also tends to shift poorly into second gear, it rattles a lot when I pedal, and now the rear wheel feels out of alignment (from, it turned out, several broken spokes). So, as I was fast-approaching my year anniversary, I thought I should get it into the shop for its free annual tune up.

Except the bike shop closed. It had been a family business for all of its decades, and the family decided to retire. I was told that another bike shop, deep in the urban core, would honor the one-year tune up, and so I hauled my bike down there last Friday. I expected to be disappointed or at least cross sold on gear or services I didn’t want/need. But nothing like that happened. They said that of course they would honor the tune up, and they’d get to it right away. Right away turned out to be Monday (today), and my hope is that I can pick it up this afternoon and begin punishing my legs and lungs again.


Not counting my initial (fumbling?) attempts at finding an agent for OMF, I currently have six stories in submission at ten publications. Seems a little low, and one of those has been out there since September, but most of my new writing has been stories with the OMF characters in the years after that story ended (in fact, some are actually in the future from today, but as long as no one looks too closely at the timing hints, no problem). These stories are in various stages of completeness, and when I think I have them all worked out and polished, another thought pushes into my head. But as one wise friend told me, they’ll never be good enuf in my mind, so there’s that.


I did not get out to Roundrock over the four-day weekend as I had hoped/planned/wished. The weather forecast was always iffy, with rain predicted until the day of the event, when it was removed. I could have gone down there after all, but I managed to fill my long weekend with other activities. This coming weekend, however, seems likely.


Unless something interferes. Grandchild #7 is expected in ten days (by C-section), but if the little girl, Alice will be her name, hurries things along, my weekend may no longer be my own.

this week’s rescue read

June 19, 2019

This week’s rescue read is The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth. When I finish a book that I don’t really like, I search for one I do so that I can “rescue” my reading self from its wander into the wilderness. I’ve said here before that I’ve probably read The Ghost Writer thirty times, and while I have ready it many, many times, on reflection I don’t think it’s been thirty.

I came to the novel in the first year of my marriage (more than thirty years ago), and for a while I read it every year. I think there may have been a year when I read it twice even. But it is part of a trilogy (and the central character makes appearances in other Roth novels not related to the trilogy) so when I finish this novel, I tend to pick up the next two, and that, along with reading everything else in the world, tends to spread out my visits.

I think it’s safe to say, however, that I’ve read The Ghost Writer more than twenty times. Many people find American Pastoral to be Roth’s greatest novel. Some cite The Human Stain. Some even think Sabbath’s Theater earns the title (in which Roth first discovered his angry old man theme). But if I were going to introduce someone to Roth’s writings, I would make the case for The Ghost Writer, at least as the best place to begin.

Add to this the fact that the central character is in search of a new spiritual father and you can see why I like it so much.

Here is a single sentence from the novel. A young, aspiring writer is meeting who he thinks is his hero novelist:

In fact, the writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes; the writer who could locate the hypnotic core in the most devious American self-seeker and lead him to disclose, in spirited locutions all his own, the depths of his conniving soul; the writer whose absorption with “the grand human discord” made his every paragraph a little novel in itself, every page packed as tight as Dickens or Dostoevsky with the latest news of manias, temptations, passions, and dreams, with mankind aflame with feeling — well, in the flesh he gave the impression of being out to lunch.

muddy editing?

June 3, 2019

Many years ago, in my river infatuation phase, I read a book called Big Muddy by B.C. Hall and C.T. Wood. It was about a road trip the two authors took from the headwaters of the Mississippi (in some place called “Minnesota” — sounds made up to me) all the way down the river to its arrival in the Carribean Sea. You can read the (scathing) Kirkus review at the link, and I remember my reading of the book at the time was similar.

Most of all I was struck several times by glaring inaccuracies in the book, and these were just the ones I knew about and could identify. The first was the title. In my universe, the Big Muddy is the Missouri River, though I’ve since learned that the Mississippi is also sometimes called that. But when the two passed through Saint Louis (where I grew up) it happened to be during the city’s huge annual festival, The Veiled Prophet Fair (now called Fair Saint Louis). In the book, though, they referred to it as The Veil of the Prophet Fair. Where was the editor?

They were attempting to match their account with Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and thus brought in Twain references wherever they could. And so the author Hall, who was/is a university English professor, referred to two characters from Huckleberry Finn as “the Duke and the Dolphin,” and I don’t think there was any intended joke about this.

Lapses like that made me dismissive of the book as a whole. If it contained those errors, what else might it have gotten wrong? The book didn’t stay long on my otherwise burgeoning river books shelf.

I recently read Richard Russo’s early novel Risk Pool, and I could see in it how he was trying out certain characters and situations that he employed so well later in Empire Falls. But something happened twice in that novel that bugged me. He used the term “slight of hand.” Had he been referring to how small someone’s hands were, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but he wasn’t. He was referring to deliberate deceptions on the part of certain characters. What he needed to say was “sleight of hand.” Again, where was the editor?

bits and pieces

May 20, 2019

I started work on a new story over the weekend, and it’s always a hopeful time. It’s a pretty good little story, not part of any universe or with characters I’ve created before; it’s fresh, which is refreshing. I know just where the story is going, and I know what I want to do along the way, so it’s simply (!) a matter of capturing the words as they rumble through my head and typing them onto the screen. (And then refining and refining.)

Many of my story ideas mosey around in my brain for a long time, sometimes for years, before I get started on them, so I generally can’t recall what their genesis was. In this case, though, I can. Oddly, it’s related to two disparate things. One is the drive I make to take my dogs to the park (which also inspired this old post), and the other is visiting my mother in Kentucky recently. She getting on and getting around with a Rollator. Those two disparate things melded and gave me the story I’m working on. (Okay, a third thing: a feud betwixt two neighbors down the street who have a lot more in common than they realize.)


The farmers market in my suburban town opened for the season recently. My wife and I went there on Saturday (dodging raindrops) and spent $6.00 on two tomatoes. I have no idea whether that is a good price or not.

The market has been growing in popularity, and the city has been exploring ways to expand it. We went to a city council meeting where this was discussed, and while weighing the options, the goal was always to have the biggest farmers market in the county. (Our neighbor town to the west has created a space for one that will be very large, so, of course, we have to be larger. Maybe it’s a guy thing.)

As it stands now, our farmers market is just this side of corporate (4th definition). There is competition for prime stall placement, for example, everyone’s signage is slick, and even the Mennonites use iPads. I expect it to get worse as City Hall completes its expansion of the market. (There was talk of moving the whole thing to a nearby park, using the green space for “making green” instead, but there was a lot of opposition to that. I think the plan they settled on was to wrap the market shed around a corner at its current location to double its size. The objection to this was that they would have to elevate some of the stations given the topography, and the car wash that was occupying the coveted space had to go, which it has.)


The rejection mayhem continues. I got two rejections in the last week. I also withdrew a story from consideration. This reality, that rejection is a far more likely outcome than acceptance, is the chief reason why I don’t like submission fees.


I continue to pursue a definitive answer to my concern about getting chapters of One-Match Fire published and whether or not this hurts the novel’s chance at acceptance. I’ve written to several agents and even one publisher explaining my situation and asking for an opinion. So far none has responded. I’ve posted the question on a couple of message boards, but mostly all I’ve gotten is an echo, the responders saying they wonder the same thing. One responder on a certain forum was emphatic that I had forfeited my chance of getting the work published as a novel, but I checked his credentials, and he is not an agent, nor does he work in publishing. He also has thousands of comments on this forum, and in my experience, there are always one or two self-appointed “authorities” on such forums whose word must be taken as absolute, at least in their minds.

A subsequent responder said she thought the publication of some of the stories probably wouldn’t be a problem. Still, I would like something conclusive (though would I accept it if it wasn’t the conclusion I wanted?).


I mentioned some weeks ago about wanting to post a short video of my lake at Roundrock here (as I used to be able to do) but that I was unable to figure out how. So I did something uncharacteristic: I did research. It turns out that I can post videos in the format my phone produces, but the assumption is that I’m using the paid-for version of WordPress and not the free one. I don’t suppose this is an accident. (In the past I was also able to put my text in color, but that feature has apparently dropped behind the paywall as well. Too bad since I signaled hidden messages on my posts with colored titles.)

latest recovery read

April 3, 2019

I mentioned recently that I was working my way through To the Lighthouse because I had re-read Mrs. Dalloway last year and really enjoyed it. But I knew I needed to put a little distance betwixt my Woolf readings, so I waited this long to pick her up again. (I did, however, buy a nice reading copy of Orlando over the weekend.) Her stream-of-consciousness, Modernist sentences took some effort, and I often had to re-read a given sentence, either because I didn’t understand who was talking/what was being said or because I just wanted to savor it again. So it was slow going, getting to that lighthouse.

When I finished it, I grabbed a novel called The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper. The jacket blurb mentioned something about a troubled relationship between the protagonist and his father (plus the obvious Old Testament reference), so I was interested. It turned out to have less to do with that (the father dies pretty early in the story) and more to do with the protagonist becoming less of a dick.

It was a quick read, not demanding and not making any deep literary or philosophical allusions (that I spotted anyway), and when I was done I wanted to read something with a little more substance.

So I picked up Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. I’d read at least two of his other novels years ago in a book discussion group I was in. (I miss those guys!) Our Souls at Night is a short book, and the copy I have is a small book, so even the “few” 179 pages are misleading since the physical page is undersized enuf that each page contains fewer words than a regular book would. I finished it in two days.

Haruf is perhaps as far from Woolf as a writer can get. I think he would make Hemingway seem verbose (if I were ever going to read a Hemingway novel again to compare, which I won’t). His sentences are spare. His descriptions are minimal. He comes directly to his points without a lot of verbiage or scene setting. He assumes that a lot of the story corollary is going to happen inside the reader’s head, so he doesn’t throw a lot of stuff at you.

Yet even so, his characters are believable and easily visible (though in my mind I did not picture the two main characters as Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, as they were cast in the movie made of the novel).

All of Haruf’s half dozen novels (I intend to read them all) are set in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado, on the Front Range. It’s a good setting for such spare writing since it is a spare country. He makes reference in each of his novels to characters who appear in his other novels, even touching on those plots. I’m fine with that (Elizabeth Strout does this sometimes, too), but what happens in Chapter 34 of Our Souls at Night is something I’ve never seen another writer do.

I won’t tell you what this is since the novel is such a short read. You could indulge yourself if interested, no?

famous for its regressive politics

April 1, 2019

In the third-person bios I provide on those rare occasions when a journal publishes one of my humble stories I say that I live “near Kansas City” (but escape to my Ozark cabin whenever I get the chance).

As you may know if you’ve read this blog long enuf, I grew up in St. Louis, as did my wife, and our four children were born there. I moved my young family to where we are now (30+ years ago) to take a job. When we were looking for a home, our first priority was to get into the best school district. And that’s how we landed on the Kansas side of the state line that Kansas City abuts. (Note: the Kansas City you’ve heard of is probably the one in Missouri, though there is one in Kansas as well, and there’s a North Kansas City that is also in Missouri.) Yes, I live in vanilla suburbia, but it was a fine place to raise children (who have all since escaped to live very different lives). The “problem” is that our home was/is in Kansas, which is famous for its regressive politics. (And spoken by someone who originally comes from Missouri, that’s a serious jibe! Though the recent Blue Wave did make some deep inroads!)

All of this is by way of explaining what is happening in Kansas today. As of April 1, 2019, the grocery stores can now sell “full-strength” beer. Before today, we had to settle for 3.2 percent grocery store beer or carry ourselves to unseemly package liquor stores to get the hard stuff. (And when I first moved here, you could not get an alcoholic drink at a restaurant unless you went to and were a member of dedicated supper clubs that had permits for such debauchery. True story!) You might think that someone who grew up in St. Louis (where Big Bru was a major employer) would be rejoicing at this, but that’s not really the case. And despite the kindly efforts of someone whose name might be something like Yellowstone, I have never developed a taste for craft beers (and I have tried!).

The thing is, I’ve drifted from the true faith and now actually prefer to drink non-alcoholic beer. Sure, I can drink a “full-strength” beer at a restaurant. More than one even. And alcohol-containing beer can sometimes be found in my refrigerator, but given my druthers,* I will supply myself with non-alcoholic beer.

And there’s the rub. For some reason, in the middle of March, all of the grocery stores pulled ALL of the 3.2 beer from their coolers. The shelves were either left empty or they were filled with bottled water. I suppose that was a Puritanical requirement of the law change for some reason, but in that time I could not find my non-alcoholic beer. Certainly the unseemly package liquor stores didn’t carry it. Why would they? I even went across the state line to Missouri to find it, but the grocery stores there didn’t carry it either.

And so the new alcoholic era begins today in Kansas. It remains to be seen whether or not I’ll be able to find my non-alcoholic beer in this embarrassment of riches.

*”druthers” is a curious, regional contraction of “would rather.”