Yet Another Post That Started With A Point, But Lost It…

I’ve been busy over the past week or so.  Oh, not too busy to think and write, but still busy nonetheless.  The fact that it is a business of my own creation and choice makes it a thing very different from those days when “busy” meant running to meetings I didn’t want to attend, with people I didn’t want to talk to, in places I didn’t want to be…

In that life, busy meant miserable.  Busy also meant trying to pass the day ever more quickly so I could get to those few hours of “non-busy” in the brewery taproom, spending time with those with whom I did want to talk.  Compared to those days, nothing will ever be “busy” again…

Thank God.

This busy-ness — the busy-ness of the last few days — has been a thing important to me on both a personal and a professional level.  And, no, before you ask, I have not shared it here on the blog.  It isn’t yet time.  When that time does come, however, you can rest assured that I will talk — probably non-stop! — about it here.

Even in the midst of all that busy-ness, however, I have been making time for myself to do more reading.  Now, as is usual for me, I have been focusing that reading on history.  I know, I know…you are very surprised by that.  I mean, who would ever have thought that I read history?  My God, before you know it I’ll be talking about crazy shit like astronomy and cosmology!

Ahem.  Never mind.  Let’s just /sarcasm and move on…

My reading of late has gone back to what is perhaps the greatest well in all of European history for stories of power politics and intrigues and ruthlessness: the English Wars of the Roses.  Look, there is a reason why Shakespeare’s most impactful characters and plays comes from his cycle about this period.  Hell, it was for the very same reason that modern writers take the Wars of the Roses as the basis for something like, oh, a million stories.  Shit, every single bit of Game of Thrones came from this freaking period!  Even the dragons!

Err…well…maybe not the dragons…unless, of course, you want to postulate early canons and artillery as “dragons”!

Err, sorry about that.  Give me a moment to /nerd too…

There, that’s better.

So, I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses and, well…shit.  What writer can not think about characters and plots with that particular bit of history in front of them?!  Even better — or worse, depending on your point of view — I’ve been diving back into the stories and details about the death of Edward IV; the machinations of his queen, Elizabeth Wydville; the ambitions of his brother, Richard of Gloucester (yeah, I pretty much refuse to give him the royal styling of Richard III — sue me, I’m convinced of his guilt); and all of the ruthlessness and maneuvering around the fates of the Princes in the Tower.

If you don’t know, by the way, that final phrase refers to the 12 year old King Edward V, and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York.  Now, no work of history can get into the reality of those two boys because, quite simply, all we can definitively say about them is that their uncle imprisoned and murdered them in order to seize the throne.  And in that simple sentence I just typed there lie literally millions of words of stories and characters and conflict as inspiration for a fiction writer!

The Princes in the Tower

There is a record, from a contemporary writer unaffiliated with either political faction of the day, about how people used to gather across the Thames from the Tower to watch the imprisoned princes come outside to play everyday.  Then…one day…the boys just never reappeared.  It was only after that disappearance that everyday, average Londoners turned against Richard Gloucester.  It was only after that disappearance that people began to question whether a man so popular and respected could be so ruthless and evil.

I’m sorry, but just how can you not take something like that and run with it?

One of the things I find most compelling about the whole story is the fact that not a single one of the players involved gave a damn about anything other than their own power.  Elizabeth Wydville was a grasping, ruthless woman committed to cementing her own (unofficial) power and influence over the government of England at all costs.  Richard of Gloucester had more official and legitimate claims to power — as regent, not king — but that most certainly wasn’t enough for him.  Hastings and Buckingham (if you remember them from your Shakespeare!) wanted desperately to cement their own power…

And not one of those people, trusted with the care of two young boys unable to defend themselves as much as they were trusted with the care of England itself, cared one whit for any of their charges.  Nor did they, to get more to the point in terms of today’s world and politics, ever bother to pause and think about what was best for the nation or the people.

And in all of that you have…everything.   You have characters who are sympathetic, and characters who are detestable.  You have conflict and tension on multiple levels, from the personal to the international.  You have scheming and murder; evil deeds and cowardice; manipulations and mistakes; hell, you have a dude executed by being drowned in a barrel of wine (!). You have, when you get right down to it, an illustration over just a few short months of everything that makes humanity so fucked up and miserable…and so very human.

Richard III

Oh…also…if you extend the window out a bit, you do get a touch of justice, too.  Hastings and Buckingham were executed by their former master, Richard of Gloucester.  Not much later, Dicky 3 himself died at the hands of a man whose claim to the throne was laughably thin; a man who barely spoke any English; a man whose grandfather was nothing more than a Welsh groom with the good luck to marry a (former) queen…

That man, who became Henry VII, had his faults and problems, but let’s be honest here — he not only killed Richard of Gloucester, he married the dead princes’ sister and gave eventual rise to a magnificent grandchild in the form of Elizabeth I.  So well done, Hank.

Err…on a pointless history-is-complicated note: Hank7 didn’t actually turn out to be a terribly nice guy.  He wasn’t a hugely bad one, mind you, but he was certainly no shining, chivalric hero.  His mother, on the other hand, was one of the strongest and most remarkable women you’ll ever come across.  Which leads inevitably to a whole separate character-inspiration rant.

*sigh*

Anyone who says history is simple, and writing easy, is either crazy, or lying their ass off.

Raise a Glass to the Brave

Given yesterday’s anniversary, there’s only thing I can write about.  Only one thing worth the words, or the sentiment: Yuri Gagarin.

Now, the first iteration of this post moved past Gagarin and became a piece about the divides of nations that have prevented that brave, brave man from achieving the level of recognition he deserves.  It became about the rivalry and adversarial relationship between the US and Russia.

It became, in the end about the futile waste and foolishness that saw a brave, brave man ignored by two-thirds of the world.  Oh sure, that man was named a Hero of the Soviet Union…but who in the US or Western Europe, or that vast majority of Asia that lies outside of old USSR borders, remembers jack shit about him?

“Yuri who?” is all you’re likely to get if you bring up his name to the next person at the bar…

For those who have forgotten — or who never knew — let me remind you: a full month before Alan Shepherd flew Freedom 7 on a fifteen-minute-ish suborbital flight, Yuri Gagarin became not just the first human into space, but also the first to orbit the Earth.  A US astronaut would not follow into a similar orbit for damned near a year, when John Glenn flew Friendship 7 through three full orbits.

Today, we make far too much of “firsts.”  The first left-handed tailor to use right-handed scissors.  The first idiot to piss on an electric fence.  We celebrate the most trivial of firsts like they were the first summit of Everest…

…or the first human into space.

Just put your mind back into that morning: Thousands of tons of highly explosive fuel were set to propel a basically untested craft into an environment completely and totally inimical to life.  The courage of that first man to strap himself into that thing…

The courage to put aside thoughts of his wife and kids…

The courage to nod and give a thumb’s up, knowing death rode just a few feet behind him…

Look, let’s be honest: the Soviet Union is not a country folks look back to for inspiration or reassurance, or competence, even.  But the Russian men and women of courage?  Those who — in the terms of one of my favorite books — had the Right Stuff?

Raise a glass, then, to Yuri Gagarin.  Raise a glass to one of those few men so brave — or so crazy — that they extended the boundaries of our entire species.

Oh and, by the way, if the first human-crewed ship we send to Mars is NOT named the Gagarin, there’s something freaking wrong with us!

A Bit of (Non) Random History

For some reason, the American media just gets all sweaty and shaking when the British royal family comes up for discussion.  That same media also loves a juicy family scandal, so when the two can be combined that sweaty-and-shaking thing turns into a flat-out orgasm pretty damned fast.

So, Harry and Meghan have been in the news lately, thanks to an Oprah interview session artfully crafted to maximize their future earning power as US-based influencers and celebrities.  Yes, that does in fact make them pretty much the Kardashians, but that’s what the public wants, so…

The historical snark in me, however, just can’t let the mediagasm pass without a bit of historical perspective.  Hey, I indulged my space-nerd side a couple of posts ago, so why not let my poor history-nerd side out of its cage for a few minutes?!

Let’s list, for just a moment, some of the — ahem — highlights of Prince Harry’s family history, shall we?

Henry I (very likely) murdered his eldest brother and (very definitely) imprisoned his middle brother for 30 years in order to sit his throne…

As prince, John conspired with the king of France to keep Richard I (the Lionheart) locked up indefinitely in a German prison.  Later, as king, that same John got drunk and personally murdered his 16-year-old nephew in order to secure his grip on the crown…

Edward III seized all goods and possessions from the Jews, then expelled them from England on pain of an agonizing death…

Richard II used to make people — well, nobles and rich commoners — sign blank confessions which he would keep handy in case anyone got uppity, or failed to send him enough money…

As regent and protector, Richard of Gloucester murdered his nephews — the 12-year-old King Edward V and 9-year-old Richard of York — in order to seize the throne and become Richard III… {And you wonder why “Richard III“ is in the top three of Shakespeare’s plays?! I am currently watching on Amazon, by the way, Ian McKellan’s fantastic version of this play}

Henry VIII…well, good ol’ Harry 8 executed pretty much anyone and everyone who possessed so much as a single drop of old Plantagenet blood besides himself and his kids (including a 9-year-old boy and a 70-year-old woman)…

Speaking of his kids, Queen Mary I very much lived up to the nickname that history has since surrendered to an alcoholic haze: Bloody Mary.  She was so ardent a catholic, in the days of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, that in her five year reign she burned at the stake more protestants than did the Spanish Inquisition in its entirety…

And let’s not leave the recent royal kids out of the loop, shall we?  Edward VIII, who popular fiction and perception has romanticized as abdicating the throne because of a love affair with an American divorcee, was (quite literally) a fascist who said — after WW2, mind you — that Adolf Hitler “wasn’t such a bad bloke.”

And Prince Andrew…err, let’s just skip Epstein and underage hookers until things like criminal charges and prison sentences are settled… [Edit: sorry to Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, for screwing up the reference — it’s little Andy that is the creeper, not Edward]

Oh, and that list above leaves aside some of the most remarkable — and bloodthirsty — women in history, who sat not on the throne but behind it as Queens Consort:

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spurred and guided her sons to rebel — repeatedly — against her husband, and their father, Henry II… {Yep, Eleanor and Henry are in fact the two main characters in one of my favorite movies: “The Lion in Winter”}

Margaret of Anjou who, quite literally — and quite accurately — was the model and inspiration for Circe Lannister…

Hell, looking back at that list, it’s pretty much Charles and William who need to watch their backs, not Harry and Meghan.  Given the family history with siblings and close relations — and Meghan Markle’s full-bore Kardashian-ness — one has to wonder just how long it will be until someone goes all Corleone…

On Courage and Strength

I finally sat down to write today.  Oh, it hasn’t been all that long since my last post — certainly it has been nothing like some of the pauses when I was still living inside Yellowstone itself— but it has felt like forever.  It hasn’t been just this blog that I haven’t been writing, by the way, it has been everything.

I haven’t written a word since that last post.  Not a word on my personal stuff, not a word on my professional stuff, not a word on anything.

That honestly has sucked worse than the COVID itself (which sucks pretty damned bad).

I still can’t quite catch my breath, but at least I can see some daylight ahead…

At any rate, I want to get a post put together.  It’s more than want, really.  I need to write these few hundred words in order to flip that switch inside my brain from “meh” to “create.”  

I am not, however, going to write about the election.  Bah!  No more!  No more robocalls!  No more texts!  No more bullshit, I can’t take it anymore!  I put my phone into a box, then I buried that box.  I poured some cement on the dirt.  I built an altar on top of the cement and sacrificed a goat to the old gods of silence. I put a nuke on top of the altar…

Yeah, you get the picture.

So, what am I actually going to write on?  Err…well…”manliness.” 

And, no, I’m not trying to make this about sex or gender.  Linguistically speaking, I’m using the word to denote the complex set of beliefs and behaviors our culture has associated with concepts like strength, endurance and courage.  These concepts have nothing to do with the fun bits below our waists, by the way.  They have, however, everything to do with who a person is, rather than what.

I know, I know…how can I make a short blog post about something so big?  And just how did this come up anyway?!  Yeah, I just read a good article on it, and I got to thinking.  That’s always dangerous, of course.  Actually thinking is just asking for trouble…

Now, I’m not going to even begin to try to fully unpack the concept itself.  That would take several thousand words…and enough beer to drown me.  What I do want to say, however, is just how screwed up is our surface level view of this concept.  If you ask anyone for an example of “manliness” without giving time to consider and think, you will get some silly ass answers (no matter their location on the socio-political spectrum).  You will get the kind of “manliness” that is anything but.  You will get the false “tough-guy” persona of a Trump, or the false “real man” persona of a Bernie Sanders.

Neither of those is true, nor admirable.  Both are, in fact, the merest masks worn to cover inner deficiencies, and to give a shorthand route to popularity among their shallowest of followers.

No, what is true “manliness” — what defines true strength, endurance and courage — is something far more than shallow bravado and meaningless belligerence.  Equally, it is more than the shallow and meaningless showboating of “virtue” and “righteousness.”

No, if you have to talk about your strength and courage, or if you have to signal to others that you have it, you have already failed.  You have become an empty suit more prone to villainy than heroism.  Period.  End of story.

I’m going to offer an example to make this point.  An example not of those who come instantly to mind — those showboating and wearing masks — but of one whose strength and courage were true…and made a difference.

The story, then:

Tensions were rife everywhere.  The world was on the edge of war.  A single mistake and hundreds of thousands — millions, even — would die.  Those who made the decisions were not at risk, of course.  They pushed and pulled and manipulated from places safe and insulated from all threat.  Those on the front lines, however, were not so insulated.  They were instead educated and trained to fight and to follow orders to the cost of life itself.  They were taught just how much of a threat were the “others” (humans will always find “others” to hate and fear), and that survival rode on their ability to fight and win.

The ships above were carrying death.  Even worse, for our hero, they were seeking him.  Seeking him, and his shipmates on the fragile little submarine.  They would kill him, he knew, if they found him.  Every bit of training he had, and all of the secret intelligence so hard-won by those living among the enemy, told him that.

There was no contact with home.  Submarines at the time could not communicate when they were deep underwater.  Even today they struggle with such communications when down a thousand feet.  The world was on the brink of war, they knew.  The enemy was hunting them, they knew.  And that was all they knew.

Then the enemy found them.

There is no doubt, when on a submarine, that you have been found.  Your main defense relies solely on your invisibility.  When that invisibility fails, you have few options.  One of those options, however, is as old as war itself: overwhelming force.  If the other guy tries to stab with a knife, you shoot with a gun…

The sub was dying already.  The air was foul and batteries almost flat.  They could wait no longer.  The order came from the captain, then.  Fire.  Fire everything.

The torpedoes on the sub, they weren’t those of this man’s father.  The torpedoes would do far worse than sink a hunting destroyer.  They would do far worse than sink the entire fleet, even.  Detonating nuclear weapons underwater, you see…that would sink the entire world.

This man…this man of quiet strength, he refused to fire.  Without his approval, as first officer, the  sailors could not — would not — carry out the captain’s order.  The torpedoes stayed in the tubes, the sub surfaced to quietly face the circling enemy, and the world lived on…mostly unaware that the strength and courage of one man saved them all.  Even the enemy, those who had hunted so hard, quietly acknowledged this man with the highest of praise: “he saved the world.”

Oh, who is he?  Not who you may think.

Vasily Arkhipov, Soviet Navy.

Submarine B-59

There are other examples I wanted to offer.  Examples of names you no doubt know, and others of which you have never heard.  Examples, even, that would surprise you.  I wanted to offer those, but verbosity got the better of me, as it so often does.

Courage and strength — that which we in the US call “manliness” — it is not a thing of posturing and shouting and the shaking of fists.  It is a thing of heart and meaning and conviction.  It is, when you get right down to it, a thing inside you, not a mask to wear.

P.s.

Can you guess who has spent the morning thinking about his next protagonist…?

Edit — I don’t think I need to add this explanation — err, I hope I don’t need to add this explanation — but I will, just in case. When I mentioned the wearing of masks above, I was referring to the wearing of a false face. To the external projection of qualities not present internally. I most certainly was not referring to the wearing of masks as a tool in the battle against this damned virus. Forget the false masks of pretense, but wear your real mask!