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My Books

This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have five novels and seventeen stories in print. Adelaide Books in New York published my latest novel, Secretocracy, in March 2020. It will bring out my newest collection of short stories, Coming to Terms, in July 2020

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the thirteen years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

Secretocracy, published in March 2020, tells the story of an federal intelligence budgeteer persecuted by the Trump administration because he refuses to approve finds for an illegal operation. Coming to Terms, due out in July 2020, is a new collection of short stories about people trying to work through the downturns in their lives.

 

Rerun: Bufes

I’ve written here several times about the objets d’art collected over my years working abroad. They have not changed, but they’re worth a second look.

These odds and ends that decorate my house are from around the world, especially from Asia. I have half a dozen paintings, oils and water colors, painted by South Vietnamese artists, that I bought over the years in Vietnam. On my desk is a coffee tile, now cracked, mounted in wood, showing the Chinese character for dao (道), meaning “way” or “path”—the source of Taoism. A fish basket table stands beside my piano, and rounded wooden stools are by the fireplace. Two white ceramic garden seats, two to three feet high, sit on my deck. One is perforated to show the empty spaces between leaves. The other, completely solid, is three elephant heads formed into a single column—it’s from Laos, the land that once worshipped an elephant god with one head but three faces, each with a trunk.

On the wall in my piano room is a painting of the cathedral in Kiev. Nearby is the sculptured head of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen. Over the fireplace in the sun room is a rendering of an Aztec face. Nearby, hung on the wall by my reading chair, is a copy of the head of Mary in Michelangelo’s sculpture called Pietà on display in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

But the items that get the most attention are my bufes, that is, “big ugly fucking elephants,” as the soldiers and Marines used to call them. These are three-feet tall Vietnamese ceramic figures of elephants with ornamental head dresses and decorated saddles. I have them in a variety of sizes and colors.

I bought the bufes in Vietnam and displayed them in the various villas I had with my family over the years in Saigon. I couldn’t resist talking about them in my novel, Last of the Annamese, set in Vietnam. Early in the story, Ike and Chuck, housemates, are entertaining a visiting U.S. Marine colonel. Also present is Molly, the nurse known for her irreverence and rangy language. The scene reads as follows:

            After dinner, the guests adjourned to the living room for brandy. Molly sat next to the colonel, munched chocolates served by Oanh [the servant], and asked for an ice cube in her snifter. Chuck gave her one without comment, but [Colonel] Macintosh laughed.

            “Sorry,” she said to the colonel, “but if it’s worth snorting, it’s worth snorting on the rocks.”

            Macintosh eyed the ceramic elephants—one green, one purple—supporting the glass top of the cocktail table. “I see a lot of these. Are they a Saigon special?”

            “We call them bufes—big ugly fucking elephants.” Molly ignored Ike’s wince. “Yeah, you can pick them up on Tu Do [Street] for a few thousand pee [GI slang for piaster].” She held her glass to Chuck. “Would you?”

End of quote.

Ungeminnt

A reader reminded me of my fondness for using foreign words in my writing. Probably the most egregious example shows up in my novel, The Trion Syndrome, where I used the German word Ungemmint which has no equivalent in English. The term means both unloving and unloved. It’s a quality born of evil which has no understanding of love.

The protagonist of Trion, Dave Bell, a German scholar, applies the term to himself without knowing why. For reasons he can’t remember, he thinks he has lost his soul. Something happened while he was serving in Vietnam; he doesn’t remember what.

I used the concept of Ungeminnt because it describes my own feeling about myself. Many things happened during the thirteen years I spent more time in combat in Vietnam than I did in the states. After the fall of Saigon, when I returned to the U.S.,  my memory was incomplete and faulty. Later, events came back to me, sometimes in dreams. I knew that if I ever wanted to be free of being haunted, I had to bring those events into my conscious memory, face them, and learn to live with them. I had, in effect, to get my soul back.

For me and for Dave, my protagonist, it’s a life-long struggle. Dave is helped by his son. I’m helped by my writing. In telling Dave’s story, I confront my own past and find the remnants of peace.

Vietnam and Skin Cancer

The legacy of my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam is cursing me more than ever before: skin cancer.

Throughout all those years in Vietnam, we Americans wore as few clothes as possible because of the heat. Temperatures averaged between 91 and 95 degrees during the dry season, peaking periodically to 104 degrees. That was far hotter than any of us were used to. Going shirtless was standard.

I stayed darkly tanned for all those years, and I became so accustomed to the weather that I dreaded the coolness of the states. I became so acclimatized that to this day I enjoy hot weather and dislike the cold.

I had no idea that continuous exposure to the sun would damage the skin of a pale-complected man of Irish-English-Scottish lineage. When I returned to the states after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I continued to wear few clothes during the summer months. I even sun bathed.

Some years after Vietnam—I don’t remember how long—my primary care physician sent me to a dermatologist. The diagnosis: skin cancer. I had all three types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The only treatment, as far as I know, is surgical removal of the cancerous tissue. I underwent so many excisions that I made no attempt to keep count.

The treatments went on for years. Then three or four years ago, for reasons I no longer remember, I stopped my dermatology visits. When I went for my regular routine checkup last month, my doctor recommended that I see a dermatologist. When I did, I discovered that I had skin cancer all over the upper half of my body. The excisions started all over again.

The worst so far has been inside my right ear. The skin there is so thin that cutting out the cancer required a skin graft, with flesh taken from my collar bone. The procedure took more than two hours. I now have one ear covered in bandages and a collar bone under gauze and tape.

I’ve learned my lesson, though it’s too late in life to seek correction by behavioral change. I’m stuck with the fruits of my youthful actions. It looks like I’ll be fighting skin cancer for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it’s not fatal.

Senatorial Representation

As stipulated in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 3, clause 1), “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State.” At the time when the Constitution was written, a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and apportionment of the House of Representatives. As a result, some southern states had lower legal counted populations than northern states. Providing each state with two senators, no matter what the population, assured equal power in the Senate for slave states.

That arrangement creates major inequalities in modern times. The citizens of the smallest state, Wyoming (578,000 people), have legislative power in the Senate equal to that of the citizens of the largest state, California (39 million people). Citizens of Wyoming, in other words, have voting power 67 times greater than those in California. The gross unfairness is obvious.

This leftover vestige of a prejudicial past, like the filibuster and the Electoral College, must be expunged. Why do we as a nation go on accepting blatantly undemocratic practices when it is within our power to change them?

The answer to that question is, in part, because change is difficult and complex. But it is also because these practices benefit a minority of people. Members of that group tend be white, financially better off, and conservative in outlook. It is not in their interest to have the goods and the powers of the nation equitably distributed to all citizens.

The United States of America is, by all accounts, the greatest nation in history. That doesn’t mean it’s flawless. As citizens, we must work together to rid our homeland of blemishes that weaken us. Now with a new progressive administration in power is a good time to start.

The Electoral College

My post on the filibuster brought to mind another outdated relic of a bygone era, the Electoral College. Originally created by the nation’s founders to protect against uninformed voters, the law requires that each state name Electoral College members who will cast votes in a presidential election. Each state has the same number of college members as it has representatives in the House.

It is, unfortunately, a clumsy system that distorts the will of the people as represented in the popular vote. Almost 10 percent of presidential elections under the Electoral College system have resulted in the investiture of a president not elected by the nationwide popular vote. During the 2016 presidential election, for example, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes and won the Electoral College by 74 votes.

Most Americans oppose the Electoral College and would prefer that we elect our president and vice president by the popular vote. And the opposition is growing. A September 2020 Gallup poll found 61 percent of Americans were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, up 12 points from 2016.

So the time is ripe, with a new Democratic administration and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, to start the process of changing the Constitution with an amendment that will establish the popular vote rather than the Electoral College as the deciding factor in the election of the president and vice president.

Now’s the time. Let’s do it.

The Filibuster

The time for abolishing the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is long past. It is a leftover procedural relic used by southern senators to uphold slavery and block civil rights legislation. “Filibuster” is defined as any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

Even today, the filibuster continues to be used to stymie racial justice legislation. Last summer, Senator Rand Paul used a parliamentary delaying tactic to derail a federal anti-lynching law. It is unpardonable that the U.S. has no federal law against lynching. Before the most recent attempt foiled by Paul, the last previous try was in 1922 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Southern Democrats halted its passage in the Senate by a filibuster.

How can we as a nation allow racial prejudice to continue to sully our law-making process? I can only hope that with Biden and the Democrats now in power, we will move to strip away obfuscation of civil rights. It’s high time.

Music

I’ve written here before about my attempts to escape my fate, to be a writer, by trying other vocations. The one I gave the most time and attention to was music.

I have a natural affinity for music, similar to my flare for languages—maybe it’s the same affinity. And my love for music showed up early in my childhood. I taught myself to play the piano and to read music when I was in grammar school using the pianos at school because my family was too poor to afford to buy one. At the beginning of my sophomore year at college (the University of California at Berkeley), I switched my major to music and three years later graduated with a BA in music. In my twenties and thirties, I composed reams of music, arranged music for a variety of instruments in the church folk groups I formed and ran, and composed and helped perform two masses for choir, folk group, and wind instruments. I learned to conduct choirs and led numerous performances. When I was in graduate school working toward my doctorate in Public Administration, I fulfilled the requirement in one course for a project by writing and recording with a group of musicians a musical illustration of government in action.

To this day, I still regularly play the piano, now a magnificent Steinway grand my daughter bought me some years ago—where she got the money is another story. And I listen to music during meals. I’m listening to and playing music less these days because so much of my time is taken up with words, that is, reading and writing, and I can’t have music playing while I’m working with words because to me music is never in the background—it is the focus of my attention when it’s playing.

So music remains one of the most important aspects of my life, although not the primary one. Reading and especially writing—on novels, short stories, articles, book reviews, and this blog—take up most of my time and energy. Music gets squeaked into leisure time, of which I have little.

But music is always there to comfort and heal me. It is still my salvation.

Death

My recent post on my volunteer work in hospice sprang in part from the fact that the subject of death is so much on my mind these days. There are several reasons why.

First, the pandemic. Well before the end of February, more than 500,000 Americans will have died from covid-19. The press reports this horrifying figure with such nonchalance that I begin to see that the U.S. is accepting a half million deaths as perfectly okay. No big deal.

Second, my partner of many years died last March. That brought home to me the naked facticity of death in a way nothing else could have.

Third, I’ve now lived well past the average age of death for American males. I’m in excellent health, better than any contemporary I know. And while I’m determined to live to be a hundred, I have to accept that the likelihood of my death grows greater by the day.

We Americans shun any discussion of death as being in poor taste, just as we avoid menti0ing sex and the ways that the human body relieves itself. It’s as if not talking about these facts of daily life will make them go away.

Meanwhile, the prospect of death haunts me these days. I know it’s coming. I just don’t know when. I haven’t accepted the inevitability of my own death. I still struggle with the very idea.

It would behoove me to come to terms with death. I don’t know how to do it.

Memories of World War II (2)

I remember the end of the war, though my memory is suspect. What I recall is being at camp—every summer, my parents sent me to what we called camp, a sort of impoverished resort for young boys that lasted two weeks—when word came that the war was over. The boys went wild in celebration. The problem is that the war didn’t end in the summer. Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Japanese in September. So I don’t know what we were celebrating.

And I remember the aftermath when consumer products slowly became available again. Life went back to being the way it had been before the war.

Only years later did I come to understand how fortunate we were as a family during the war. My father was too old to join the military, but two of my uncles on my mother’s side saw combat. One was so damaged that he never returned to normal. Only after Vietnam did I realize how fortunate the U.S. has been to have fought its wars not on its native soil but abroad.

I know now that the U.S. suffered from World War II but far less than our allies. The last war we fought on our own territory was the civil war. No American now alive knows the damage war inflicts on one’s homeland. With luck, we never will.