Wednesday, March 31, 2010

White Belts

A little more on beginners, to go with the long call-and-response after the Time to Teach post:

In the mid-1970's I was a MA teacher evenings at a school. There were a couple of us sharing the space, a White Crane teacher and I, we alternated times and days. Sometimes we swapped techniques, he was a college professor and a nice guy. I wasn't really qualified to teach much, but I did have a black belt, and back then, that was more than was available most places.

What we learned, and what I've heard from several other teachers who had/have schools open to the public, was that the white belts largely paid the freight.

Not usually the case in a garage art like silat, where you don't come across the place by accident. At a mall dojo, you get a certain amount of business from folks driving by and stopping in for the introductory package -- three month's lessons, a gi, and a white belt, $99.

In our class, you have to go to some effort to find us, more to be allowed to stop by, and if you aren't called to it -- and a lot of folks aren't -- you won't even start.

I suspect this is true with other small classes in some of the less-common arts.

But beginners paid most of the operating expenses for the school where I was teaching. They would join, drawn by the Yellow Pages ad or word-of-mouth, or because they passed by the school and saw the yin-yang symbol. They would sign up, come to classes for a month or two, then they'd quit. We didn't have the droids there were looking for, and they moved on. The turnover rate was very high.

Of those who stayed for a couple of color belts, the retention rate climbed sharply. Of those who made it higher, the drop-out rate mostly vanished.

Same people are what keep health clubs and commercial gyms in business most places. The folks who sign up, work out a few times, then stop coming, even though their memberships are still good. Which is why a lot of places want lengthy contracts. They get your money, and you don't clog up the machines by being there.

In the garage and the sand-pit, most of the players have been there for years. Now and again, somebody stops coming, but even those who can't attend regularly but come when they can, still consider themselves students. Our drop out rate is very low.

We get very few newbies, and most of them come from other arts and have been looking for something like what we do for a while.

This is not to say silat is superior, only that's how it shakes out for attendees to the classes.

If you don't have to pay for freight, then you don't have to start a newbie class every five or sixth months. That kind of starting over from scratch is what I'm mostly talking about when I say that for a world-class teacher, doing that is apt to be less than satisfying. These days, we blend the newbies in, they tend to get paired with somebody who has been there a while to help them.

It's rough on them, because they have to learn a lot in a hurry to keep up. They can learn the techniques, but without the underpinnings, they don't have as good a grasp on it as someone who has been training for a much longer period.

After a couple of years and half a dozen beginner's classes and the dropouts, I was done with it. I can't imagine doing it for decades. I let the White Crane guy have the building and started teaching a few students in my back yard. It's why when I teach writing classes. I prefer students who want to learn how to write, who will pay for it, rather than at a school where they have to attend the class.

You never know, of course, but that one of the new white belt kids is going to be The One, but it's like selling scripts in Hollywood. For every one bought, tens of thousands are rejected; for every one that reaches the silver screen, hundreds were bought and nothing done with them.

As the head instructor, you might want to drop round the white belt class now and then to see how your senior student is doing as a teacher. Let him or her take them from from zero to good, because that's doable. Then you take them from good to great, which is something you can do that your student cannot.

My opinion.

The Hotel California

Had a chance, finally, for a visit with the writer Daniel Keys Moran. We have been bumping into each other for a while -- I recall eight or nine years ago doing a review of one of his space operas -- favorably -- and a telephone conversation about the review.

For my money, Moran is one of the top space opera writers in the biz, hands down. When I got into blogs a few years ago, I came across his while on Barnes's, and we exchanged a few remarks on his blog and mine, and then some email, and eventually, some manuscripts.

The title of the post is the name of the big book he has in progress, and what I've read of it is flat-out terrific. Dark, lush, violent. Given the nature of the publishing industry, there might not be many editors with the guts to publish it, but as George Takai says in his current TV commercial for TV's, "Oh, my!" I am looking forward to reading it when it is finished.

Dan and his family came up for a short visit during spring break. Lovely people -- his wife Amy Stout-Moran, and their three boys. Amy used to be an editor and has done some writing of her own. She had some great stories.

Nothing major. We grilled some burgers and drank a little beer, talked about this and that. Next day, we had breakfast/lunch, at J.D.'s Morning Star Cafe, visited with J.D. (The catfish po'boy, by the by, is the best I've had since I left Louisiana. If you live in or around Portland, you really should go eat there, or if you'd druther, drink there. Got beer, and stronger spirits.)

After lunch, we did a fast tour at Powell's Books before they had to get back on the road.

Always fun to watch a writer's mind boggle a little when he or she first steps into Powell's.

Hey, are you laughing at me?

Oh, hell, yeah.

Raining the whole time, of course, it being Oregon in the spring, and they had to make a fast turnaround, so we cut the book shopping short. Wandered around in the underground parking lot for a while trying to find the car -- we had a good excuse for losing it -- and they dropped me off at home and headed back down I-5.

Sometimes, when you know somebody for a while over the phone, or online, via chat rooms, blogs, or email, you build up an expectation of what they would be like in person, and there is a worry that when you see them, they will somehow not measure up.

Not the case here. Dan Moran was every bit as much fun, as irascible, and good-hearted as I thought he might be. Loves the Lakers. Hates the Celtics. Works too hard at his Real Job, but was a delight to finally bump into in person. And while I didn't get a chance to meet the two older girls who were off at school or otherwise occupied, the three boys were bright, well-mannered and behaved, and as cute as they can be.

Always a delight when somebody turns out to be what you hoped.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Time to Teach

Read an old posting on a martial arts blog, one of those at which you must be a member to make comments and I was too lazy to go through the steps necessary. Basically, the teacher was addressing the notion of what happened when you got older, and therefore weaker and slower, and how you might deal with that, if you had students who wanted to learn -- essentially -- how to be strong and fast.

Guys who want to learn that don't want to hear some old fart talking about it, they want to see him do it.

I suspect that the teacher, who is getting up there, but who is considered really good at what he does by folks who know, wanted to stir up some thought, but he didn't get any responses.

Might be other folks didn't want to jump through the hoops to be able to post, either.

So I thought I'd address this here, being the oldest guy in the room and all.

My teacher believes that there is a window in which you can teach beginners. This space is bracketed by your abilities -- what you know and how well you can do it -- and that there is both a beginning and an end to it.

The beginning is when you have enough skill to understand and demonstrate what needs to be shown first. The end? Martial artists tend to refer to this time -- whether they believe it or not -- as when your circles start to get smaller.

What I take this to mean is that as your physical abilities wane, vis a vis speed and power, your technique has to advance to replace them. If you are going to stay in the art and deal with those who are younger, stronger, and faster, you must become more efficient, based on your ability to select moves that require more skill but less speed and power. Your timing has to be better, there will be less room for error, and you can't fall back to cheating with muscle like you could when you were the fittest and strongest guy in the room. You make it work because you have a lot of time in grade, but you can't teach somebody that time in grade.

That outward block that smashed an arm off track by a foot and left a big bruise, driven by hours in the weight room every week, gives way to the soft snake block that deflects the punch just enough to barely miss. Both can work just fine. They require different abilities.

If you have been training properly, this will be coming along naturally, if the art permits it, and you'll already be thinking of easier ways to get the job done. That old work-smarter-not-harder business.

One of the problems of an art that depends largely on speed and power is that you don't have anything if you aren't fast and strong. (Or if you run into somebody who is faster and stronger.)

This is going to vary from teacher to teacher, of course, as well as the kinds of art being taught, but at some point, you will of necessity have to be moving less and doing more, and such skills are not those that can be taught easily to people without a foundation in the art.

One fine morning, you are going to wake up and be over the hill. A fit eighty-year-old simply can't run with a fit twenty- or thirty- or even fifty-year-olds. This doesn't mean you can't defeat them; it means that have to play your game -- not their game.

Doesn't mean you can't stay in as good a shape as you can manage, either. There are plenty of fifty and sixty-year-old guys who can run circles around men half their ages, but however long you stretch it out, you will eventually get to that place where you can't run with the young dogs.
The joints start to creak, the endurance fades, and gravity is always waiting.

Once your circles get small, the window for teaching beginners closes. Who you teach are the advanced students who already have the foundation and skills to do the art fairly well. They are the ones who can benefit from the instruction because they have the capability to grasp nuance that beginners simply cannot.

At this stage one of the students teaches the beginners, because they are still close enough to relate. Doesn't mean you have to stand to one side with your arms crossed nodding sagely and being the wise old master, but it also speaks to the notion that everything has its own season, and when it is passed, you can't go back to it.

Doesn't have to be all or nothing, though.

Beginners learn the simple stuff first because that's the way of things. Easy to show, easier to learn, and the circles are big, the movements broad. They can cheat it with speed or strength or stamina and get by.

As they become more adept, they can begin to learn more subtle stuff.

To those teachers who leap up and cry "Bullshit!" -- and there are some -- I simply point out that you don't take a first grader who has just just been exposed to addition and subtraction and hope to teach him the calculus necessary to work out planetary orbits. Before you can learn higher math, you kinda need some lower math.

So, the window. There is a time to teach. Before it, you don't have the ability. After it, you have, odd as it may seem, too much ability.

I was talking to a newbie once, working on a simple attack and defense sequence, when I realized that he didn't know how to make a fist. No biggie, I showed him a couple ways, we moved on. After that, I made it a point to ask newbies. You did a year in TKD? Fine, you know how to make a fist. But if you have never taken any kind of fight training, you could damage your hand worse than the guy you punch. Boxer's fracture, a limp and crooked wrist when you punch a heavy bag -- somebody needs to let you know why these are not the best ways to do it. At some point that kind of thing gets to be so automatic you don't think about it any more, and if you don't think about, you won't be able to teach it.

One window closes, but another one opens.

Peaceable Kingdom

Fighting like dogs and cats ...


In 1965, The Barbarians, a garage band out of Cape Cod, charted with their second single, "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?"

They weren't even one-hit wonders, since they never got past #55 on the Billboard charts. At the time, they wore their hair longer than most, and must have caught a lot of flak for it. Apparently the song came out of their experiences.

Another American sixties group reacting to the British Invasion, they disbanded in 1968.

For people who grew up in the last forty years, it's sometimes hard to understand that the Beatles' early haircuts were quite appalling to mainstream America. Still years away from the hair and glam bands and guys wearing lipstick, rouge, and eye-shadow, if, in 1965 you were a boy and your hair touched your collar in back? You would be sent home from school for a haircut.

Men with locks covering their ears and flowing over their shoulders were, at best, suspect.

In my senior high school class picture, with one exception, the boys all wear their hair combed back or close-cropped in crewcuts or flattops, and none of it is long.

For some reason, the lyrics to The Barbarians's song popped into my head this morning whilst walking the dogs.

Let me share them with you ...

Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?
With your long blond hair you look like a girl
Yeah, you look like a girl
You may be a boy, hey, you look like a girl

You're either a girl or you come from Liverpool
Yeah, Liverpool
You can dog like a female monkey, but you swim like a stone
Yeah, a rolling stone
You may be a boy, hey, you look like a girl
Hey! Aw!

You're always wearing skin tight pants and boys wear pants
But in your skin tight pants you look like a girl
Yeah, you look like a girl
You may be a boy, hey, you look like a girl

Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?
With your long blond hair you look like a girl
Yeah, you look like a girl
You may be a boy, hey, you look like a girl
Yeah, you look like a girl, hey!
Yeah, you look like a girl, hey!
Yeah, you look like a girl, hey!
Yeah, you look like a girl, hey!

Monday, March 29, 2010

March Goes Out Like a Lion

Rain, wind, the creek is riz, like that around here. Poured last night, been raining or drizzling all day. We have some friends coming over for dinner, up this way from down the corridor on spring break, and I was planning to grill some burgers. Probably still will, unless the sky opens up. I can stand under the roof overhang and cook 'em. Want to use the grill around here, you have to get used to a little rain. Not like Michigan or the Dakotas where they grill in hip-deep snow, but it's not L.A. where if two raindrops fall, the Los Angeles River overflows and the city sloshes to a halt, either.

The house is clean. I walked the dogs, dried them off. Got the beans in the oven to bake. While avoiding work earlier, I put some music to "Details," a poem Tiel wrote, just happened to fit well with the old blues progression for "St. James Infirmary." Did a few pages in the space opera. The usual ...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Silat References

Got an email from a young silat student looking for some background on the art, so I thought I'd put up what I told him, more or less, here:

There's not a lot of general material about silat in English. The best overall book I've found is still Donn F. Draeger's Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago, written in 1972. O'ong Maryono's work, translated by Ruth Mackenzie, Pencak Silat in the Indonesian Archipelago, is also good, and Ian Wilson's doctoral thesis from Murdoch University in Western Australia is available online:

A good place for a general look at the art online is You have to join, but it doesn't cost anything, and there are a plethora of styles respresented from all over the world, videos and discussion groups and such.

As for fiction, I modestly offer that my own writings, the first four or five Tom Clancy's Net Force novels, and The Musashi Flex depict our version of the art fairly well as I understand it.

Silat, as are so many martial arts, is highly political and the wrangling endless. I used to play a lot in this back-and-forth, not so much any more. Every group is certain that it is on the One True Path™, and that everybody else is second-best -- if that. Even in branches of the same art this goes on. I routinely piss off touchy Sera players from other lineages without even trying. They get upset over insults that weren't offered. Some of them don't realize that if I was trying to insult them, I'd be a whole lot more cutting.

As for where the arts came from, the truth is, origin stories tend to be only as accurate as the memories of those who pass them on -- most of that stuff is lost to the mists of time, and even if somebody wrote it down, that doesn't mean what they wrote is so. Getting too hot under the collar about it is pretty much a waste of energy. Takes a while to get to that point.

I'm getting there. Slowly ...

For me, the most important things are, does it work, and can the teacher offer it in a way you can get it? The wallpaper, history, clothes, traditions, etc. can be fascinating, but in a fighting art, they aren't the deal. Neither the certificate nor the sarong will keep you from getting an ass-kicking. My teacher tells a story about when he came home to tell his grandmother he had found a silat teacher. She knew the art, and was his first teacher, along with his uncle. Her question about the new teacher was, "Can he fight?" And the codicil would be, "Can he teach it, too?")

Whichever style of martial art you are in, you are going to get flak from other styles. You'll mention your art, and some people are going to sneer no matter what it is. Even if you are studying the same art they are studying, they will offer that their version is better. Or their teacher is better than yours. Or they are better than you.

More you can ignore that, the better off you are.

Today's lesson. All done now.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On a Hazy Spring Day

Six little words catch the mood here:

We are doing our taxes. Bleh.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Hey, check out the link to a local knifemaker that J.D. came across. Guy does gorgeous folders, including some switchblades. Just getting to fixed-blades, apparently. Have a look at his site.

Name is Bill Tuch -- "touch" -- it's worth a look. I'm guessing they cost and arm and a leg, but you can see the quality in the slide show. Always nice to come across an artist like this and be impressed with both his art and skill.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New Under the Sun

I correspond now and then with a fellow silat sera student in Italy. Fortunately, he has English, because I have no Italian. Recently, he was doing some research on old European fighting styles and he sent me a link to this site.

If you are a fan of such things, you'll probably enjoy this, go have a look.

An example: the illustration above, is from Nicholaes Petter, circa 1674 CE. Anybody have any trouble recognizing a sweep? Foot going one way, arm going the other? Opposite levers?

My fellow MA allowed as how the Europeans used platform training -- in the footwork-sense, and how it was amazing how much of the stuff they did looked familiar. I've seen some of this stuff before, especially in fencing. Various Spanish, French, and Italian schools used quadrants and patterns on the floor to teach swordsmanship.

Sir Richard Burton's book on swords has illustrations in it taken from the pyramids. The Mayans had beaucoup carvings on their pyramids and stella showing how they swung their blades, as did Indian temple carvings, as did the Chinese, as it ... well, you get the idea.

Actually, what would have been amazing would have been if it hadn't looked familiar.

This is a subject upon which I have touched before, but it's been a while, so I thought it might be worth visiting again.

As human beings, bipedal creatures evolved -- or created, if you'd rather -- to live at the bottom of a gravity well, there are only so many ways we can articulate our upright frames. Muscles work a certain way, joints do, and that pesky gravity sets limits on both.

Take a man from the African veldt and plunk him down in New York City, he will have no trouble at all recognizing what the folks on Fifth Avenue consider to be walking. There are only so many ways to walk, and it's pretty universal, with only slight variations. That's because there are limits as to how creatures with two legs that bend at the back can ambulate efficiently and every human culture has a version that is not far away from it.

Somebody tells you he has a new way of walking? Hang onto your wallet, or put in a call to psychiatric services.

In martial arts, as in other physical activities, there are only so many possibilities in toto, and fewer as you head toward safe, effective, and efficient ways to move.

A fist is a fist. There are variations, of course, but only so many ways to make and use one. If you eliminate the methods that will immediately damage the user and whittle them down to those that will likely cause more harm to the recipient, then there are really only a few ways left. It's the nature of the machine that it only works in certain manners, and the possible ranges of motion are going to be strait-jacketed by that biped-at-the-bottom-of-the-gravity-well and the hinges and levers and all.

It's all pull, though we call some of it push. It is how things work. Form follows function.

If you lived in India a few thousand years ago and you were fooling around with ways to punch, you'd eventually come up with something that looked like what the Chinese fellow came up with, as did the Australian aborigine, as did the Viking, Eskimo, or First Americans. Especially if you actually hit something instead of shadow-boxing.

The question isn't how could you? but -- how could you not?

As art forms, the chief differences are going to be in ways of combining such techniques; the strategy and tactics of when and where to use them; how one focuses on the overall pattern of activity; and whatever cultural or religious or physical limitations one brings to the table.

Something in the Chinese character veered into kung-fu and found resonance; and something in the Japanese liked what became ju jutsu; and something in the cold Northlands brought up their version of how to beat an enemy with whom you are standing toe-to-toe. And eventually they started swapping them back and forth.

But they were all using the same basic hardware that is the human body.

The stuff that worked got kept, and most of the stuff that didn't got you maimed or killed, so you didn't pass that along. If you are expecting kung fu and you get judo, you might not be able to adjust on the fly. If you survive, you can learn from that and be ready next time. You train for what you think you are going to run into. You can debate what that part might be, but you are bringing the same wind-up doll to the game.

A slight digression: This doesn't mean that things can't be recombined or altered to fit new circumstances. How you'd fight underwater or in zero gravity would lend themselves to somewhat different expressions. And technology can be thrown into the mix.

Consider the track event, the high jump. Up until the late 1960's, the way you went over the bar varied, from a straddle to a scissors, and eventually, a crab-like roll, but that was it, and the reason was simple. The landing surface was usually a pit dug into the ground filled with sawdust or thin mats. However high you leaped, that was how high you had to fall, and landing on your feet was the safest way. You could do a gymnastic roll and come up, but it was still hard on your body. (I knew a gymnast when I was in junior high who claimed he could set the world record in his age group in the high jump if they allowed a two-foot take off. During his tumbling pass, his back layout, if timed right, would easily clear a seven-foot bar. Ever watch those little girls do free exercise in the Olympics? They fly higher than that.)

Enter Dick Fosbury, who came up with a way to go over the bar lying more or less flat on his back. This was only possible because of thick foam rubber padding which brought the landing surface up higher and made it much softer. Doing the Fosbury Flop onto sawdust six or seven feet down would be a method you might try once, maybe twice. After that, you would doubtless wonder if high jumping was worth pursuing as you lay in your hospital bed nursing your busted spine ...

Um. Back to to the main point. As soon as I hear that somebody has come up with a radical new movement system, unlike anything anybody has ever seen, my bullshit detector goes off.

No, I am here to tell you, they have not. They might have taken a direction maybe nobody has thought about recently; or perhaps combined some things that hadn't been combined just that way before, but I can guarantee you that in however many millions of years the hairless monkeys have been dancing, and however many centuries since they started writing it down or chiseling it onto walls, whoever is offering the new, never-seen-before! system of exercise, fighting, or whatever, is building it on the bones of those who have gone before.

They might have come up with a new mix 'n' match. And maybe it works better than either one alone. But that high-tech-eccentric-pulley-computer-monitored weight machine is, in the end, just a variation on the big rock. And most anything that is going to tone your muscles is something that we were doing in the trees and on hillsides and plains and in ponds two million years ago, and written down into systems since we came up with writing.

Caveat emptor ...

More Nibbles on the Writing Lure

Got another potential project about which I can't really say much popped up yesterday. And an earlier one has progressed to a point where it might come to pass, I should know something in the next couple of weeks on that one.

I know, being vague is, well ... vague, but I didn't want you to think I was sitting around all day not doing anything but blogging.

Given the economy and the lean times, I'm happy to be getting nibbles, and I expect one of them will eventually lead to a fish on the line in the not-too-distant future.

For Matador fans, my editor has indicated she is interested in Siblings of the Shroud. No paperwork generated yet, so no delivery nor publication dates, but I have more than enough material to provide chapters-and-an-outline. I'm continuing to work on the novel, with just over a third of the projected mss first draft done. I'll keep doing that until something with a shorter deadline gets in the way. Which with any luck, will happen real soon now ...

And the beat goes on ...

Mah People

So the British chef, Jamie Oliver, has come to the U.S. to do a TV series about the awfulness of the American diet. And he went to the fattest, unhealthiest city in the country to get started, Huntington, West Virginia. I haven't seen the show, but I have seen the promos, and there is a scene with a tearful, morbidly obese woman and a pile of processed food on her table during which Oliver tells her she is going to kill herself and family feeding them such crap.

Another scene shows a dump truck dropping similar heart-clogging goop at a school where it is being served. This is how much fat you eat every year, he says. The kids go, "Yuck!" but when given the choice between healthy food and crap, they go for the crap. What a surprise.

One kid, shown some tomatoes and asked what they are, says, "Potatoes?"

Oliver wants to teach them how to cook healthier food down there, and I wish him luck, but I'm not holding my breath. Ain't gonna happen.

I bring this up because my aunt pointed out something I'd forgotten. This is where my mother and her sisters came from, when they went to town ...

Mah people. Y'on't fries 'th that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp

Aw, Jeez, another one gone. Robert Culp, actor, writer, director, dead at 79. Apparently he went out for walk, fell, and hit his head.

If you aren't my age or thereabouts, you might not remember him in I Spy -- in which he took a newbie comedian-turned-actor, Bill Cosby, and taught him the ropes well enough that Coz beat him out for three Emmy awards on the show. Starting in 1965 and running for three seasons, it was the first series to feature a black guy in a lead role, and race was never an issue -- everybody on the show just assumed it was no big deal, and so it wasn't.

For Gen-Xers, Culp later went on to work on The Greatest American Hero, as the federal agent paired with the teacher who got the super-suit that came without instructions. He was Ray Romano's father-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.

He was in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, one of my all time favorite hippie/sixties movies. He worked all the time, in hundreds of television and theatrical shows.

Culp had been around a while before I Spy, been in a slew of TV shows and movies, later began writing them, as well. Hardcore F&SF fans know him from the three episodes he did for The Outer Limits, a somewhat rougher version of The Twilight Zone. This included "Demon with a Glass Hand," written by Harlan Ellison.

One of my first trips to Hollywood in the 80's,, when I was trying to come up with a viable movie script, my collaborator Reaves and I were out and ran into Culp in a store somewhere. I didn't have the wherewithal to speak to him, but I always liked the guy.

Adios, Bob.


Happened again, another Portland Police shooting. Day before yesterday, some mentally unstable homeless guy started threatening patrons at the Hoyt Arboretum, up by the Zoo. He wasn't actually violent, just noisy, so the police told the caller to call back if he got feisty.

Can't bust every homeless guy who yells at somebody "Gimme a dollar!"

Meanwhile, Officer Jason Walters decided to go check it out. Thirteen years on the job, a routine roll. He got there, found out the guy was in the outdoor toilet, so he herded the tourists out of the way and went to go have a word. Door pops open, and the guy, bloody and waving a "razor" knife, charges out. ( I haven't heard exactly what kind of knife it was yet, but that's not important. People hijacked planes using boxcutters, a sharp is a sharp, the little ones kill you as dead as the big ones.)

The officer drew his gun and backpedaled. A slew of witnesses heard him yelling, "Put the knife down! Put it down!" over and over. The guy kept coming, the officer was, according to witnesses, in full retreat.

The knifer didn't stop.

The officer shot him four times. Guy fell over, the officer called immediately for medical aid, and the guy was dead by the time the ambulance got there.

Now if ever there was a righteous shooting, this is one. Charging loon with a knife, it's self-defense. Open and shut, anybody can see that.

But -- and you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? -- given the assorted goings-on in Portland wherein guys have died from injuries during an arrest, a preteen girl got shot with a beanbag, and a despondent unarmed man was killed, the public's confidence in the police has been shaken.

The common thread was that those three didn't do what they were told to do right now!

Here a cautionary tale: If the po-lice in Portland tell you to jump, you jump and ask how high on the way up, else you might get kilt.

Now it might be that each of these was justified. I have discussed them, and in my mind, one of them was excessive, one was completely unnecessary. The third was just an out-and-out tragedy. Same officer was involved in both of the first two, by the by. And in the case of the homeless man who died from injuries sustained during his arrest for peeing in public, it took three years for the Chief to get around to finishing the investigation -- and allowing as how it was sad but nobody's fault.

That's not swift justice in anybody's book.

The local activists and city government are agitating and dickering for a citizens review board with teeth, and I'm guessing, despite the union's all-out effort to stop it, it's gonna happen. People want the ability to know what is going on, and they don't feel as if they have that.

The Portland Police have nobody to blame but themselves if it happens. If you want to show folks you have nothing to hide, you open the curtains and invite them to have a look. You don't fill the moat with monsters and raise the drawbridge and hope they'll get bored and go away.

The thin blue line becomes a thick blue wall when outsiders want to have a peek. On the one hand, I don't blame them; on the other hand, that trust that the police will police themselves has been rattled.

If there had been some kind of transparency so that the public got the information up front and fast, I don't think we'd be looking at things this way. And it might hamstring the police to have some do-gooder civilian board looking over their shoulders, but it's their own fault. You can't just shrug it off with, Well, shit happens, it's a tough job.

Yeah, it is, but civilians don't understand, and it is part of your job to make them understand, or you are apt to be seeking work elsewhere.

Spider Man said it: With great power comes great responsibility. Explaining why you did what you did goes with the badge and gun. If you don't volunteer it, somebody is going to demand it, and it's getting to that stage in Portland.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Reform

I was holding off on posting about this -- I figured everybody and her kid sister had heard about it ad nauseam and this whole slouching-toward-Bethlehem process to do the right thing about health care has gone on far too long. But the post-vote right-wing spew was too much. So, a missive I offered elsewhere, slightly altered:

Fascinating, as Spock might say, the disingenuous and facile statements that the Republicans are offering up after the historic vote:

This is not the democratic process! they whine. You are treading on our rights! After eight years of shoving civil liberties down the toilet during the Previous Occupant's tenure in the White House? Using the same loopholes to give the rich guys tax breaks? Nope, they don't get to say that.

Nobody is against health care reform, but this isn't the way! We should scrap it and start over! they lament. The way they offered health care reform up during Previous Occupant's tenure is the ticket? Pray for it? Naw, I hear that for what it is -- if we can stonewall it long enough, it'll die, like it always has before. And we are gonna keep trying.

We can't afford it! they piss and moan. Just as they pissed and moaned during the arguments against Social Security and Medicare. I'm not making this up, go look at the history. They said the same things then they are saying now. Wars? Always money for those. Health for the poor? Why bother? Let's go with Swift's "A Modest Proposal ..."

It won't help anybody! they bleat. Just as they bleated during the debate over the Civil Rights Act and giving women the right to vote. Separate-but-equal. Barefoot-and-pregnant.

No, it won't help as much as it should, because the ball-less Democrats couldn't get what really needed to be done done, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

The Republicans have become the just-say-no-except-for-tax-breaks-for-the-rich-white-guys party. Stand in the hallway, block up the door, offering nothing for, only against.

Oh, wait. They do have something they are for! Let's have a war, that'll fix everything!

Above all, guard the status quo.

Once upon a time, I was a Republican. But the days are long past when I can stomach any of their platforms. (And the Democrats don't please me all that much, either. Why I register as an Independent.)

They claim the big tent, the Republicans, but there are no seats in it for anybody except the white guys. Yeah, they want the Latino and Black and Gay and Lesbian and Atheists' votes, but that's all they want. Y'all stand in the back over there and don't make too much noise. If we could win without you, you'd be outside in the rain, so take what you can get and be happy you got that much.

Well, well, looky here. The worm turns, the karmic wheel rolls, the chickens come home to roost.

It's your turn in the barrel, guys.

That's how it works.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Seven Deadly Sins

Over the centuries, the Seven Deadly (Cardinal) Sins have been edited and revised, depending on the times. The current version seems to include these:

1. Lust
2. Gluttony
3. Greed
4. Sloth
5. Wrath
6. Envy
7. Pride

Back in the old days, fornication topped the list, and vainglory ("inordinate pride") got downgraded to pride in general.

And who among us has not been guilty of some of these? Got drunk Saturday, pigged out, kyped the last hot wing as you watched the game? Lusted after that cheerleader you saw on the half time show? Pleased with how much you could drink before you fell over? Wish you had your buddy's 60" Hi-Def 3D TV? Laid around all day Sunday and bagged mowing the lawn? Got pissed off at your spouse for ragging on you about any of the above?

Hey, you are guilty of all of them.

Well, that's between you and God. I'm here to talk about the one I'm most guilty about today, which would be sloth.

Aside from being a big tree hanging critter called this because he's slow -- that's what "sloth" means, from the Old English -- "slow" plus "th" -- the word has come to mean other things:

"Laziness, idleness, indolence, slothfulness, inactivity,inertia, sluggishness, shiftlessness,
apathy, acedia, listlessness, lassitude, lethargy, languor, torpidity; literary hebetude."


I'm gonna let the obvious racist definitions of that one pass, thank you. And no, torpidity is not something a U-boat used to sink ships.

But the sloth I'm acknowledging is the usual beast I notice this time of year. I've done basic workout stuff during the cold and wet winter, but slacked off enough so that I've lost flexibility, strength, and allowed myself to stagnate. Let's face it, when it's thirty-eight degrees F. and raining, going out back to do djurus and work the punching bag and fling around the iron just isn't as much fun as it is on a warm spring day. So the workout tends to get abbreviated, or done inside, and the long warm-up, stretches, and cool-down left off altogether.

So each spring, I wipe the moss from my eyes and look around and come-to-realize it's time to clear the decks and get moving.

Don't really feel like it today, mind you, because I moved furniture and boxes of books and like that all day yesterday, plus I'm still not altogether well, having not quite shaken the bug I got. The crackles and crepitations and rales make me sound like the eighth dwarf, Wheezy, and even the dog walk was tiring.

So I'll just put it off until tomorrow ...

No. No. That way lies slothitude. At the very least, I can do yoga and stretch before doing djurus. Bending over and putting my hands flat on the floor isn't in the cards today, but maybe I can loosen up enough so I don't pull my back out putting the dog food bowls onto the floor ...

A quick word of -- pardon the expression -- wisdom here:

Every year it gets harder. If you get too far behind, you are going to look up and realize you aren't really in the race any more, and if you don't pick up the pace, you will be lapped. Better to get far enough ahead and try to hold on as long as you can. Much easier to stay fit if you already are than it is to get fit if you let it go.

Gotta do it. Otherwise I might have to get a new T-shirt: I Am a Man My Age ...

Donkey R Us

For reasons I won't go into, my daughter's family and her in-laws -- who share a two-family house, upstairs and down, decided to swap residences. What this means is that all the furniture uplevels went down, and vice-versa.

Fortunately, there were professional movers involved.

But, once the stuff was moved, there were all the boxed-up books and clothes and dishes to be put away. The furniture needed to be rearranged, too.

My wife went Saturday, but I was still coughing and wheezing and zoned out from whatever crud it was I'd contracted, and trying to decide if the bronchitis was pneumonia, so that I stayed home. But yesterday, I was feeling up to it, so most of Sunday was spent moving things around.

Felt like: Here is a big pile of rocks on this side of the yard; move them over there, to that side, and bring that big pile there over here. Wending your way through the big pile of rocks in the middle both trips ...

We didn't get it all done, but at least they can walk into every room without having to climb over stuff. My son-in-law, whose back isn't in the best shape, managed on Friday to bung up his knee, and really needed to be lying down icing it, but he soldiered on . At least the computers and TV were hooked up, so the grandsons were occupied.

Being a lousy patient, I had been lamenting that, being sick, I hadn't got to work out the last few days.

That'll teach me to be careful what I gripe about ...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Matador Novels as eBooks

Now and again, I get inquiries from fans who want to know how come Ace hasn't made the Matador novels available as eBooks. (They have, partially -- at least the most recent title, The Musashi Flex, is available for the Kindle from Amazon.)

As to the other titles, I dunno why, and I expect it's because they don't think they can make any money from them. (As it happens, I have several of those as PDF's, courtesy a book pirate, but I can't sell them, either.)

Um. Anyway, if you are somebody looking for electronic versions of these and wonder why they aren't available, ask them:

Sci Fi is Dangerous - Part II

In December, I posted about Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction writer who got arrested crossing the border. His contention was that he wasn't doing anything, but he was beaten, maced, and maltreated for no reason at all. Here's my post.

The trial is over and he was convicted. He posted his response online, essentially saying that his lawyer demolished the prosecution's case, but that the jury was narrowly interpreting the letter of the law, which is just wrong.

There are folks who are going to believe that an innocent, mild-mannered sci fi writer was beset by low-brow thugs for no reason and beaten and thumped into submission and ain't it awful? And if that was the case, yeah, how terrible --

-- but wait ... hold on a second ...

Buried in the news reports of the trial is a small point that nobody seems to have brought up before: Watts was arrested and convicted in 1991 for obstructing a police officer in Guelph, Ontario.

My, my. Puts a whole 'nother spin on things, doesn't it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bleh ...

So Wednesday I was snurfling and my sinuses ached, and I developed a little headache.

Well, that could be a seasonal allergy, since things are in bloom. But since my grandson went to the doctor last week when I went over to visit him, and came home with a diagnosis of sinusitis, that's what I figured it was. Little viral URI, and there you go.

Yesterday, it went down and I started coughing, mostly throat, and got a little warm.

Today, I have a nice expiratory wheeze and a deeper, productive cough, and the fever is a bit more, though still not more than a hundred, if my ancient glass analog-thermometer can be believed. (This piece of gear goes back to my days in the medical field, in the bag next to the leeches and bone saw, and I can't remember offhand the color codes -- I think red was rectal and blue was oral. I hope that's the right color designation, 'cause mine is blue and it went under my tongue ...)

If I were hazarding a diagnosis, I'd say I've have acute bronchitis, secondary to sinusitis.

Mostly the different between bronchitis and pneumonia is the causative organism, and the involvement. Mine, if that's what it is, is probably viral, since that's the case 90% of the time.

Of course it could anything from a cold to Pneumonic Plague ...

Not too awful, but I have felt better.

If it is viral, antibiotics won't do any good, and if it is bacterial, I'd probably feel sicker, plus -- close your eyes if too much medical information makes you queasy -- the phlegm I'm hacking up would probably be green or tinged with blood ...


So. Rest, gallons of water, ginger tea, vitamin C, ibuprifen, Robitussin, and better in a couple days, if I'm lucky.

When I get to be in charge, this sickness business is going away.

Another Look Back

Fess Parker's death and a search on the web kicked up the fact that there is a remake of the old private eye series 77 Sunset Strip in the works. Supposedly to be done as a period piece.

Starting in the late fifties and running to the early sixties, this was a show about a couple former secret agents who opened a detective agency on the strip in L.A., and who were the epitome of cool. Roger Smith and Efram Zimbalist, Jr. were the stars. Comedy relief came from Louis Quinn, as Roscoe, the racetrack tout, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes as Gerald Lloyd Kookson the III. Jacqueline Beer played the switchboard operator.

It was an hour long, full of action, the odd gunfight, and a lot of coming and going from the strip.

It ran out of steam in 1963, was revamped, then cancelled, in '64.

Zimbalist eventually wound up doing the voice of Alfred, Batman's butler on the animated show, and Smith married teenage lust icon Ann-Margret in 1967. He left the show because of ill health after 74 episodes and eventually quit acting to become a producer of his wife's Vegas act.

"Kookie" was the wisecracking hipster who called everybody "Dad," used what Hollywood thought was beatnik lingo that had people scratching their head, and who spent a lot of time combing his own DA 'do. There was a song, "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb," that hit #4 on the charts at one point. Listening to his dialog today is a howler, but back then, it was, um, hip, Dad, you know? He was considered to be one of the top five teenage heartthrobs of all time on TV. These days, he apparently makes his living signing autographed pictures at car shows.

Anybody who was anybody as a TV actor did a guest shot in the show in the years it was on, from William Shatner to Roger Moore to Troy Donohue; Marlow Thomas to Tuesday Weld to DeForest Kelly; Adam West, Peter Lorre, to Nick Adams ...

The theme music was an orchestral fanfare, followed by singers who went "Seventy-seven Sunset Strip!" followed by snapping fingers, pop, pop!

Davy Crockett

Fess Parker, the Texas actor who played Davy Crockett in the 50's TV series, and later, Dan'l Boone, in another series, died at his home in California. He was 85.

I watched Davy's adventures. I never had the coonskin cap, but like I expect ten thousand other boys did, I named my first BB gun after his rifle, ole Betsy ...

Parker retired from acting in the 7o's, opened a hotel in Santa Barbara, and a winery, and was a successful businessman who people recognized the rest of his life. He once said it was interesting to watch the double-takes when they walked into the hotel and saw him and came to realized who it was:

Holy crap -- It's Davy Crockett!

That's Buddy Ebsen to Parker's right in the picture, who starred as Davy's sidekick, Georgie. He went on to do The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Miller. And who, if he hadn't been deathly allergic to the silver paint makeup, would have starred as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz ...

Adios, Mr. Parker.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mouse Gun Reaches Out

Bob Munden - fast and accurate

North American Arms .22 revolver
(Magnum, I think, but the best picture I could find to show the relative size)
Pepper Popper

Happened to catch an old episode of Impossible Shots last night I'd missed. Bob Munden stuck some balloons up on a pepper-popper (a flat metal target shaped something like a tongue depressor shoved through a small rubber ball) at two hundred yards and then used a couple guns to pop them. First was a Colt Peacemaker. Second, a mini-revolver in .22 LR.

Two hundred yards.

Now he didn't have to hit the balloon to do this -- if he hit the metal anywhere close, the spatter would do the trick, but, Geez-Louise -- ! That he hit a target that size at two hundred yards with a -- literally -- belt-buckle revolver (you can actually buy them this way) with fixed, tiny sights, and on the second shot?

I have one of those revolvers. At that range, I'd have a better chance at popping that balloon with prayer than the mouse gun.

Impressed the hell out of me.


So, Blackstone is coming out with the audio version of The Musashi Flex, unabridged. Ten hours on eight CD's ...

Nice cover design, hey?

You should all immediately click the link and buy ten or twelve copies ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


In 1519 A.D. Ferdinand Magellan led a small fleet -- five ships -- from Spain on a voyage to try and reach the Spice Islands by heading west. At the time, the Portuguese held the eastern routes, and there was some thought that the world might be round as the ancient Greeks had it after all, and Magellan was certain he could find the route.

Magellan himself was Portuguese, though he got a commission from Spain, and he convinced the King he could do the job.

Off they went, five ships -- a caravel and four carracks -- about 234 men, and yo, ho, ho!

I won't go into great detail, but the voyage was no Sunday afternoon sail on the pond. Storms, scurvy, mutiny, hunger, the usual. After trying every dent in South America, Magellan and his hardy, if diseased and starving, crews, found a strait, almost to the southern tip of the continent, and sailed through to the ocean he named the Pacific. Eventually they named the strait after him, too.

They thought they had it made. The Spice Islands should, according to the old maps, be a few days away.

Turns out that the ancient wisdom of how big around the globe was was off by ten or eleven thousand kilometers, and they sailed for a long damn time before, down to hunting and eating rats, and just before they were all about to croak from this or that, reached the Philippines, olé!

Paradise -- food, water, and heathens they could convert as they claimed the land for Spain!

The conversions got rolling pretty quick, but one of the local chiefs, Datu Lapu-Lapu, the next island over, wasn't eager to bend the knee to Spain or become a follower of Christ.

Words were exchanged. When it became apparent that Lapu-Lapu wasn't going to roll over, Magellan decided to demonstrate the might of the Spanish King and God. He and about fifty of his men loaded up the cannon on his ship, donned their steel armor, and sailed for the neighboring island of Mactan where Lapu-Lapu ruled. Bunch of savages with bamboo spears and arrows? A piece of cake. They were, by the Grace of God, the Spanish!

April 27th, 1521, the date. The Battle of Mactan.

Unfortunately, either because the tide was out or the shoals near the shore were too treacherous, or both, the sailors were forced to anchor a ways offshore and to slog their way to the beach.

In armor.

Carrying guns whose powder had to be kept dry, and thus raised overhead.

They were passing tired when they arrived but that was the least of their problems. The shore was out of the ship's cannon's range. Magellan was so sure he was going to kick native ass that he forbade his other remaining men to get involved. (By this time, one of the ships had been sunk and another had said "Piss on this!" and turned around to head home. Not that they made it.)

The bamboo spears and arrows would not penetrate the armor, but the Spanish were bare-legged and their arms and faces were uncovered, and the -- estimates vary from 1000 to 1500 -- warriors on the beach aimed for the non-armored spots and had at it.

It was something of a miracle that the Spanish contingent wasn't slaughtered entire. The ass-kicking didn't go the way Magellan figured it would, and they knew which one he was, so they concentrated on him. He was, by accounts, a fierce fighter, but ...

Magellan's body was never recovered, and the Spanish survivors -- how many is an unanswered question -- slogged back out to sea and sailed the hell away.

They still celebrate the battle in the Philippines today, and Lapu-Lapu has statues raised to his national hero status.

Later, of course, the Great Nations of Europe would take over the world and screw it up pretty good, but for a brief and shining moment, the locals got to shine.

As a postscript, with only a hundred men to operate three ships, the new commander, Juan Sebastian Elcano, burned one and loaded everybody onto the other two. They split up, and Elcano took the long way home, dodging Portuguese all the way.

The Portuguese did capture the second ship. Tossed the crew into gaol and kept the cargo.

To finish the tale, the last ship, The Victoria, with eighteen scurvy-ridden starving sailors made it back to Spain in September of 1522, having taken three years to circumnavigate the globe for the first time. They had enough spices on the ship have have made them all wealthy men, spices in those days being worth far more than their weight in gold. Alas, the King decided that the loss of four ships was worth something, so he confiscated the cargo and that was that

A sailor's lot was hard in them days, argh.

If the sailors had thought to eat some of those spices, supposedly as many as twenty-six tons of cloves and cinnamon they brought back, which had vitamin C in them, they would have escaped scurvy, but nobody knew what caused it back them.

Elcano eventually got another ship to try again, but died of scurvy on that trip.

And nobody lived happily ever after

The point of all this, of course, is that attitude is important, but it isn't everything ...

As If Writers Didn't Have Enough to Worry About ...

Behold, a scanner that can copy and digitize books as fast as you can flip the pages. It's a lab bench prototype now, but throw in a few miniaturization techniques, get it down to the size of a laptop or cell phone, wham -- walk into a bookstore or library, riffle the pages, steal the whole book.

Future is all around us, folks. Better keep a sharp eye out it doesn't smack into you from behind like a disabled airplane ...

Keeping it Mysterious

Mostly, I like a story or novel or movie to resolve at the end. I want the loose threads neatly wrapped up, the murderer revealed, the lovers together.


Sometimes, I don't mind a bit of ambiguity. Easier for me than some folks, because I can easily come up with a resolution I like. If it were mine, I think, here's what I might do.

Alfred Hitchcock used to leave questions at the end of some of his tales. In The Birds, the set-up is that all our avian friends suddenly go crazy and begin attacking people hither and yon.
Not a real problem if it is Pancho your parakeet, you bat him silly, but if a couple hundred crows dive at you at once? Enough ducks, they can nibble you to death.

Sitting in the audience, the first question is, how come the birds did this? And onscreen, they ask that too, but as the engineer who went to the swamp realized, when you are up to your ass in alligators, the draining project suddenly takes a lower priority.

Birds are attacking, why is not as important as duck and cover. Why? Figure that out later, because in the moment, there's nothing you can do about it even if you know why. You need to get out the way.

Hitchcock used to do this now and then in his TV show, back in the fifties. Bothered me no end as a boy -- What? What just happened? But as I got older, I began to realize that all questions were not equal, and if the really important ones got answered, that was enough. And sometimes, not even those get answered in real life.

In the fifties, there was another television show, The Millionaire. Set-up was, a batty billionaire (John Beresford Tipton) would, each week, pick out somebody and send his employee to present them with a check for a million dollars. Real money, back in those days. The stooge, Michael Anthony, would show up, tell them his boss wanted them to have it, and not say why. No strings attached, do whatever you want with it, taxes already paid.

You never saw more than Tipson's hand in the show. Who he was and why he did it? Who knows? Nor did it matter.

The show was all about what happened to folks who suddenly found themselves unexpectedly rich. What the money did for them. Or, to them.

As we have come to see, not everybody who wins the lottery is happy they won. Yeah, I know, give me a hundred million bucks, I expect I can fake being happy pretty good, but consider what that might do to your relationships. Is my old friend pissed because I didn't pay off his house note? Is that woman smiling at me because I rang her bell -- or because she knows how fat my wallet just got? Are my kids going to be safe on their way to school? Kissing your phone number and email address good-bye are the least of your problems -- you are going to need an armed guard to keep people away from your door, or a gated community is in your future.

Big money changes your personal climate.

I bring this up because last week I stuck The Trinity Vector up as an e-book, and not to spoil it for you, I did much the same thing in the telling of the story. The set-up is that a mysterious box appears and it has the ability to answer all manner of questions, from whether the Shroud of Turin is real to tomorrow's winning lottery number. What it won't do is tell anybody where it came from, or why it popped up.

At the end of the novel, I wrapped up the main story lines, resolved what the main characters needed, to get their come-to-realize moments -- or die, which also works. And then I sent the players off on their ways.

I didn't explain what the box was, where it came from, who sent it, or why. Because that wasn't what the story was about, it was a "What now?" tale.

Book got a couple of reviews on Amazon when it first came out in paper, and one of them took me to task for not explaining about the box. And I've gotten a couple of emails and letters asking the questions.

Ambiguity can be frustrating. People don't like it, they want concrete answers.

The origins of our martial art are as murky as tar. While there are some fun theories as to the history, including some I've come up with, one is as good as another, insofar as provable validity is concerned. We have a mysterious one-armed man, a cloistered, secretive tribe, and all manner of who-was-born-where; who-was-buried-where; and who-taught-whom-when. I enjoy playing with the notions, but there are two things that are apparent: 1) Nobody knows. 2) It don't matter anyhow.

For me, what matters is does the art itself speak to me? Does it have something I consider useful and valuable? Can I learn it? If those are true, everything else comes a distant also-ran.
As far as I am concerned, if my teacher made it all up from scratch, it wouldn't bother me a whit. (I don't believe he did, though he has surely added much of value to it.)

Neither the history nor a gilt-edge curlycue certificate is going to save me from an ass-whippin'.

A lot of life is that way. In my from-the-neck up mode, I want all the answers. In my heart- touchy-feely mode, I realize life won't always supply those, and I need to take what I can and move on.

P.S. Not to be a total bastard when I wrote the novel, I did include a Big Clue as to the origin of the box. The last two lines are a dead giveaway. I don't know who got it, but when I point that out to people who ask, they sometimes shake their head and go, "Aw, crap! I missed it!"

If you read my stuff, now and again, there will be little tidbits I've left out for you ...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Experience is the Best Teacher?

Experience, the old saying goes, is the best teacher. I dunno who said it first. A quick search comes up with Julius Caesar, but I wouldn't be surprised if it predates him by a couple thousand years.

We all know about learning stuff the hard way and how well it sticks. Nothing like a little scar to remind you how you got it and how you might avoid adding another keloid to your inventory.

Often this is true, but in the category of direct experience, depending on what it is, patently not so.

If you take a swan dive off a fifty-story building to the sidewalk, the concrete will eat your bones. You might have a come-to-realize micromoment between the time your head hits the walk and it turns into jello: Oops. Bad i --

Yes, you won't repeat that one again, but that's because you won't be given the choice, being dead and all.

An observation of somebody's else's dive, which is less fatal, if you aren't standing there directly underneath looking up at him when he arrives, can indeed offer a lesson.

Hmm. Maybe it would be better if I didn't jump off a tall building like that. Of course, I'm different than that fool was, but maybe not so different that I'd be able to bounce up and stroll away.

If you are reasonably sane and you touch a hot stove once, you might be forgiven for trying it a second time to be sure. Third time, you've crossed right over the county line into Stupidville, population huge and growing, and deserve what you get. Because that personal experience is non-lethal and you should have learned from it.

You don't need to take poison, nor watch anybody do it to know that it's probably not the best idea you had all day. You don't need to open your spacesuit in the vacuum of space, either. Even though, to the best of my knowledge, no human has ever done that, the fact is that if you suck all the air out of the bell jar and the mouse dies is pretty much all you need to know to make an extrapolation. In space, no one can hear you scream.

You need air to live. If you take away the air, add a temperature a couple hundred degrees below zero? In what way would that seem like a good idea if you wanted to stick around?

Which is where education -- and that includes reading both fiction and non-fiction, watching movies and television, and going places and doing things, comes in.

Wisdom isn't pegged to age. Lot of thirty-year-olds who are probably wiser than some people two or three times their age. But if you are a seeker who pays attention, chances are you will be wiser at eighty than you were at twenty. Tumbling down life's mountains tends to knock off some of the sharp edges; spending time in the river with the water flowing past can often smooth some of the rough spots.

You do have to pay attention.

I point this out because I think that such lessons -- ersatz experiences, as they are -- can be gotten from a novel, a movie, or even a music video. Not to say there isn't a lot crap in all these, but maybe if you knew there was a ten-carat diamond at the bottom of your toilet bowl, you might want to find some rubber gloves and have a look before you flush things away.

In Grand Canyon, (1991, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, and a bookend to The Big Chill) Steve Martin's character, Davis, is an action moviemaker who does a lot of exploding heads. There's a scene near the end where Davis talks to Mack, the main character. Mack's problem, Davis says, is that he doesn't go to enough movies. The answers to all life's riddles can be found in the movies.

He's right. Because something is fiction doesn't mean it's not true. And in fact, what makes fiction work is the ability to put that truth in it enough for people to see and understand it.

Keep that in mind when you write it.