The Book I Want to Read

brain1-e1312872869675-281x300I thought about a couple of topics for today. I even had a couple of posts worked up in my mind. Then my brain turned into old cheese, and…well…there ain’t much left in there at this point in time.

Erm…

Okay, so instead of trying to dredge up those sparkling, all-star, award-winning — and lost — ideas, I’ll just go with what I was thinking about as I drove to the coffee shop this morning: a book I wish had been written.

This whole train of thought came about after reading some interviews with Robert Jordan from a few years ago. Now, Jordan* is most famous for passing away with 3 books remaining in his 14-volume magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, but he was a man who most definitely was far more than “just” a massively successful fantasy writer. More on that later.

*A pen name, by the way, but I’ll stick with it as that is how he is best known. Yay for all us pen-name users!

WoT is a great series, by the way, even if it can be infuriating as hell, even frustrating at times. Jordan’s talent as a writer puts him solidly among the very few at the top of the mountain. It also happens to be a favorite of mine; I’ve read those 4+ million words several times, in fact…

But the story of the Dragon Reborn and the White Tower (and all the dozens of other subplots) is NOT the story Jordan set out originally to write. No, the original vision of the story was about an old soldier returning home from his final war. It was a story intended to be about his efforts to rebuild a life, and a spirit, all-but destroyed by war…only to be forced to take part in yet one more fight.

I want to read that story. I want to read about that old soldier.* I want to read Jordan’s insights and emotions on that topic. I want to read it not because of his undeniable talent as a writer, but because he lived it. Jordan’s take on the end of his time in Vietnam is chillingly honest and impactful, especially to those of us with friends and loved ones who have their own demons and memories of combat. Those words, and the wisdom behind them, get to the heart of who Jordan is as a man, and as a writer…and to the heart of the book I wish I could have read.

*Rand’s father, Tam, if you’re familiar at all with the Wheel of Time series.

Here is part of the passage about his time in Vietnam that I found so powerful:

I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so.

I didn’t originally plan this post to be solely about Robert Jordan, and about Tam’s unwritten story, but the man has had a profound effect on me as both reader and writer…too great an effect, in fact, to shortchange. He is a major part of the reason — alongside Zelazny, Eddings, Cherryh, LeGuin, Feist, Tolkien and Heinlein — why I write sci-fi and fantasy. For that reason, among others, I owe him a debt I can never repay…

216D3D4C-DEC0-4D48-ACF1-622DAA638CCEPost Script:

This post, by the way, did touch off some thinking about a (necessary) follow-up. A follow-up that will take a great deal more thought, and more time, however, than I generally give to these posts. It’s going to be a post for which I will actually have to do research: the impact of (real) war on sci-fi and fantasy. Jordan wasn’t alone in having his battlefield experiences profoundly affect his writing: from Tolkien in the trenches in WWI, to Haldeman and Jordan (and a host of others) in Vietnam, the realities of combat have shaped some of the best works we have in the field…and that’s without touching on the all-time greats that I love, writers like Graves and Tolstoy and Wouk…

Updated: because I suck at editing.

Update #2: I didn’t think I had to explain — mostly because I buy into the writing theory that you explain only what you have to — but I’ve had a couple of private questions on the passage above, so here is the explanation I avoided before: the photo in question is of Jordan himself, and the “man” he killed is what he had become during the war…

Overcompensation, or The Art of the Hunt

There’s this urge, when you write about something where you can (kinda) see both sides, to prevaricate. To cover your proverbial bases in order to establish your credentials with both sides.

Now, amidst the US’s current bitter divisions — divisions of society as much as politics — that might be simple common sense…or it might just be an attempt to weasel out of criticism or condemnation.

I am not, when you get right down to it, immune from such prevarication. I cover my bases, too, and today’s post is no different. My first go-‘round at writing this started with an intro paragraph about the fact that I own several guns, and that I have no problem at all with hunting. Hell, I went on to add, I have any number of recipes for deer and elk and duck and quail and anything else my friends might happen to bring home from their forays.*

*I personally suck at hunting, by the way. I grew up in Southern California, where walking around with a gun wasn’t “hunting,” it was self-defense…

But why should I need, or want, to add such prevarications? All those little caveats did nothing to change or add to or develop the point I wanted to make.  They were nothing other than a pointless effort to establish my bona fides with those who probably wouldn’t like what I have to say in the subsequent paragraphs.

Fuck it, I finally yelled at myself, just make the goddamned point!

Alright, so just what the hell am I talking about?

Hunting grizzlies.

Well, not just hunting grizzlies…trophy hunting in general. Hunting not for meat, nor for need, nor for survival, but solely to “prove” just how big is someone’s imaginary hunting-dick.

I am not, as you might have guessed, a fan.

Quite simply, I am a firm believer in the concept of showing respect to that which you kill. Anything you kill. You use everything — and I mean everything — to show that respect. Skin, meat, organs…you use the lot. Whatever you killed, be it deer or elk or fish or what-have-you, deserves at least that much.

But to hunt and kill something solely for a pelt? Or some horns? Or, worst of all, for a fucking picture with its corpse?

Yeah, there ain’t enough bragging in the universe to make your genitals seem any bigger than the sad, tiny little things you actually possess…

Ahem.

So, Wyoming — my neighbor state, I’m ashamed to admit, and my home when I lived in Yellowstone — chose to schedule a hunt for grizzlies just as soon as the current administration decided to “unlist” them from the endangered species registry. They were unlisted because Yellowstone currently has about 700 hundred of the things…700.

Where once thousands roamed, there are now SEVEN HUNDRED…and the rednecks just couldn’t wait to start shooting the damned things.

Not even freaking Montana or Idaho jumped into the slaughter so quickly, or so thoroughly. But Wyoming is…errr…well…it’s a shithole, to be honest. It routinely competes with Alabama to see just who can limbo ever lower under our already low bar of decency, civilization and intelligence.

650B1C08-042C-47C7-BB68-111D28CFA0A5No one, by the way, kills a grizzly for the meat — bear meat is greasy as hell, and not worth the effort. Just as no one goes out to hunt random grizzlies to survive. No, if a grizzly is threatening you, or is preying on humans, you shoot that specific bear…you have to, when you get right down to it, because killing in those instances is a necessary part of survival. I carry a gun on every single one of my backcountry hikes, and I’m fully prepared to shoot if and when I hit one of those “him or me” moments. But what you don’t do is go out and start randomly blasting away at any and every grizzly you see and have the gall to call that “survival.”

No, the sad truth is that the “great” state of Wyoming just wanted to give a handful of trophy-hunting yokels a chance to get new rugs for their floors…

All my criticism and condemnation aside, there have been some good guys in all this. There is a wildlife photographer out of Jackson Hole* who managed to cage one of the permits. He got the permit to shoot grizzlies, yes…but to shoot them with a camera, not a scoped rifle. Others have been working similarly, to deny at least some of the limited number of permits to trophy hunters. I have supported those folks, and will continue to do so…

*Far and away Wyoming’s best town, by the way, even before all this crap.

I don’t care if it’s grizzlies, lions, giraffes, or freaking penguins, for heaven’s sake — if you are hunting solely for the thrill of the hunt, and to prove how “manly” you are, you have failed. You have failed as a man. You have failed as a human. You have failed as anything other than a pathetic weasel with, err, “substandard equipment”…

God Speed, Captain

I put-off typing this post. I put if off because I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it — I wasn’t sure it was any of my business, just as I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to what has already been written.

In the end, however, the subject is a nexus of two of my interests.  The subject is someone too important to me to ignore: John McCain.

It’s worth the time, I finally decided, to write a few hundred words…especially when the immature and petulant partisans on both sides have come out of the woodwork to add their acid, hateful comments to every story and eulogy about Senator McCain.

It is especially worth it when the current occupant of the White House is the most petulant and immature of all. He hated McCain, I get it…but, Mr Trump, maybe it’s time to grow the hell up and at least try to act like someone worthy of respect.

Enough of that. I don’t want to dip any deeper into the sleaze of our current politics, I want to honor a man I respect…a better man than I could ever be.

I do, however, have to start with politics.  Politics were not just important to the Senator, they pretty much defined the last 40ish years of his life. So, from the start, let me say this: More often than not, Senator McCain gave me a headache…a big, splitting, miserable, political headache.

But…

character-war-soldiers-character-military-demotivational-posters-1313084604ButCAPTAIN McCain earned the right to give me that headache. Captain John S. McCain, as a matter of fact, earned the right to do whatever the hell he wanted.

If ever you want to question his dedication and courage, if ever you want to question the heart and soul of Captain McCain, just go back and read the words of his fellow “guests” in the Hanoi Hilton. Even the commandant of the camp — the man who tortured the prisoners, lest you forget — commented after the war on McCain’s courage and commitment.

The North Vietnamese knew what they had in John McCain — they had not a prisoner of war, they had not a pilot, they had propaganda gold. The commander of US forces in the Pacific happened to be, erm, close to John McCain. It was, after all, not every newly promoted Lieutenant Commander who received a congratulatory note from a four-star admiral signed “Love, Dad.”

That was the gold, that was what the North Vietnamese wanted to use: the son of the commander-in-chief of all US Pacific forces.

Special treatment, McCain was offered. Release after just a year in the Hanoi Hilton, he was offered. All to embarrass his father, and to discomfit and demoralize the US Navy.

McCain refused.

When others were using every excuse in the book to dodge the draft, from “student deferments” to “bone spurs”, McCain answered his captors with one simple word: No.

After that one word, he suffered four-and-a-half more years of torture in that camp.

How many of us would do the same?

How many of us would have the courage, or the commitment?

How many of us would be willing to pay that kind of price for honor and loyalty?

The US Navy teaches its sailors and officers many things, but it all starts with a simple phrase, a mantra really: ship, shipmate, self. Those are your loyalties, in that order. You focus on saving your ship first, then you focus on saving others, and only after that do you think about saving yourself.

Captain John Sidney McCain lived that credo. Every single minute of his life after that one simple “No” was the very essence of that credo.

McCain’s father and grandfather were heroes in their own right. They were men who paid the price in blood and service for the rank and honors that were theirs. But it was Captain McCain who was the true hero of the family.

C9C7B5E7-9108-4CB5-80AB-9CEE9ABAFDA2So, as often as Senator McCain gave me a headache, to Captain McCain I can only say: fair winds and following seas, sailor.

There Go I…

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a hockey guy. I’m a hockey guy from, err, way back.*

*I’m pretty sure the definition of “way back” is when you see the sons of players you loved as a kid entering the league…

Now, most of the US sports-news outlets are garbage when it comes to hockey. I am, in fact, pretty sure that ESPN doesn’t even realize there is such a thing as a sport played on that mythical thing called “ice”.

Thank God, then, for Canadian networks…

One of those networks — TSN, if you’re curious — just ran a story about a former NHL player named Joe Murphy. Now, Murphy was drafted very, very high in a star-rich draft in 1986. While he wasn’t a perennial All-Star during his NHL career, he most definitely was a legit player on any team in the league.

Then he disappeared.

No, really, he pretty much fell off the face of the planet.

A reporter from TSN recently took on the challenge of tracking Murphy down to see what had happened after his playing days. After much effort, that reporter finally did find him…found him drug-addicted, broke and homeless. After a fifteen year playing career, after earning millions, after having everything, Joe Murphy had become one of those guys holding a sign on the street-corner…

Now, the writer in me can make a hundred stories out of that situation; out of the why’s and how’s, out of the choices made, and out of the tragedies that resulted from those choices.

But I’m not just a writer…

I never knew Joe Murphy. I do, however, count more than a few current and former NHL players as friends. I know the pitfalls they face, and the prices they pay. Mental and emotional prices, as much as the physical ones.

I know the very fine line they walk, and how quickly it can all disappear. Especially after retirement, especially when — for the first time in their lives — no one knows their name. When no one is cheering, when every single aspect of the life they’ve led since they were three or four years old is different. When they no longer have a place or a purpose in the world.

It’s more complicated than just this, but that dislocation and desperation is one of the themes behind the fantasy story I’m currently developing, as well as being one of the reasons why it is (tentatively) titled Once Magnificent

Joe Murphy is not the first athlete to fall, just as he is not the first successful person to lose everything, but still his story resonates with me. Still, his story means something to me. As a guy who has lost everything more than once in my life, as a guy who battles my own private demon of depression, I can sympathize with Murphy.

No, that’s not quite right…

I don’t feel for Joe Murphy, I very well could be Joe Murphy.

Murphy, alongside a host of a nameless others, is one of those unspoken reasons why I write, why my stories and characters inevitably revolve around the flawed and the broken.

D21E96E2-4A53-405A-98D0-0E857B426261I’ve said a million times on this blog that I write for me. I’ve said that, but it’s not 100% true. I write for me, yes, but I write also for anyone and everyone who just might see a bit of themselves in my words. For anyone and everyone who might take even a grain of hope at burdens (and demons) shared. For those for whom that light at the end of the tunnel never seems to get any nearer…