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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, out in August 2020, is a new collection of short stories about people trying to work through the downturns in their lives.

Republicans Deny Global Warming

Donald Trump refuses to accept the threat of global warming. He maintains that climate change is a “concept created by the Chinese” to make “U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Loyal Republicans are following his lead. While 87 percent of liberal Democrats say that dealing with global climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress, only 21% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say so.

Meanwhile, the earth is being devastated. Sea levels are rising. Mountain glaciers are shrinking. Ice is melting at a faster rate than usual in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic. Unprecedented floods in China and Europe, record-setting heat and fires in Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., and similar catastrophes in Africa and South America all point to global warming’s damage and the urgent need to act before it is too late. But the Republicans say we are imagining the problem.

And this isn’t the first threat to our planet that the Republicans have dismissed. Following Trump’s lead, they poo-pooed the covid-19 threat and refused to be vaccinated. As a result, more Republicans than Democrats have fallen ill.

And, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, 70 percent of Republicans still insist that Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

With more and more scandals from the Trump presidency being revealed daily, I am mystified that the Republicans still allow themselves to be subservient to him. And the damage they are doing to their country and democracy grows daily.

What will it take to free them from Trump?

New Book Review Up

The Washington Independent Review of Books has just posted my review of Dean Jobb’s newest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books, 2021). You can read the review at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-case-of-the-murderous-dr-cream-the-hunt-for-a-victorian-era-serial-killer 

Please comment—let me know what you think.

Thanks.

Life after Death

Human beings all share the same fate: death. You can’t escape from it. You can’t change it. We all die.

And yet we Americans never speak of it. It is, like sex, a verboten subject. In other cultures I’ve lived in, death and sex are both spoken of openly and casually and are accepted as normal topics of conversation. But not in the U.S.

That said, I’ve never met anyone from any country who welcomes death. Except for the suicidal—which I make no claim of understanding—every last one of us wants to go on living. We struggle with our death sentence and look for ways to change it. One way to escape from it is to believe in life after death.

We have no direct evidence of life after death. Skeptics say that people’s insistence on the existence of an afterlife is pure wishful thinking.

Maybe so. And maybe I’m as fanciful as the worst of us. But I’m struck with the fact that all the great religions of the world accept some form of an afterlife. Only the nonbelievers, the atheists, and the doubters, agnostics like me, reject or question the idea that people go on living after death. Since there’s no proof one way or the other, I am free to believe as I see fit. So I choose to believe in the afterlife just as I choose to believe that God exists. But faced with a lack of evidence, I can’t quite convince myself. So I end up where I started: an agnostic.

National Characteristics Show Up in Languages (2)

Beyond the structural differences I faced in Vietnamese and Chinese, the underlying thinking in each was dramatically different from anything I’d learned in western languages. In Vietnamese, for example, there are no tenses or grammar or parts of speech that form the basis for languages in the west—any word can act as any part of speech. Meaning depends on word order and context. The word for the personal pronoun “I,” for example, depends entirely on the relationship between the speakers. The word used for it can mean literally “your servant,” “older brother,” older sister,” “younger sibling,” or something else. The same is true for “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” and “they.”

So as a student of languages, I thought in terms of two main branches, western and eastern. But within those branches I found characteristic differences that seemed to me to reflect the personality inherent in the culture from which the languages sprang. German, for instance, is specific and meticulous in its grammar and vocabulary, where French is languorous, romantic, and condescending. Italian is the most passionate of all the languages I have studied, and Spanish shows a kind of easygoing relaxation. Latin has the most complex grammar of any of the languages I know, so I can guess at the personality qualities that must have been common in ancient Rome.

Vietnamese and Chinese Mandarin also seem to me to express temperament. Vietnamese is precise and orderly, like the Vietnamese people. But Mandarin is more easygoing and friendly, like the people I met in China.

Like all generalizations, my observations about the quality of language are subject to error. That said, I can express my preferences for national character. Those I enjoyed most and felt most comfortable in were the Chinese and the Italian. I guess that tells you that the human qualities that appeal to me most are friendliness and passion.

Come to think of it, that does describe me pretty well.

National Characteristics Show Up in Languages

Much of my life has been spent in studying and working in languages. I was born with a natural flare for foreign tongues, and before I was through, I had worked my way through seven of them. As a child, I taught myself French and Italian. As I have noted before in this blog, I was neglected as a child and had to depend on myself for basic needs. So I saw nothing unusual in my teaching myself languages just as I taught myself how to read music and how to play the piano. I had four years of Latin in high school, studied German (among other things) in college, learned Vietnamese at the Army Language School while I was in the army, and later took Chinese and Spanish at Georgetown and Howard County Community College, respectively.

As an adult, I traveled widely all around the globe. I’ve written at length here about my thirteen years in Vietnam, but after the fall of Saigon in 1975, I journeyed elsewhere. Where I went and what I did is still classified. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you about it.

What I discovered in my studies and travels, among other things, was that the characteristics of a language reflect the attributes of the people who use it.

When, after learning French, Italian, Latin, and German, I delved into Asian languages, namely Vietnamese and Chinese, I discovered an entirely different way of thinking, as alien to western reasoning as the Chinese writing system is to English lettering. All the words in Vietnamese and Chinese are monosyllabic, but you can form compounds of more than one word to express complex ideas. Both languages use tones on their monosyllables—six in Vietnamese, four in Chinese Mandarin (the dialect I learned), and six in Cantonese. The same syllable with a different tone has a completely different meaning. For example, the sound ma in Vietnamese can mean ghost, cheek, but, grave, plumage, or rice seedling depending on which tone is applied to it.

But that’s not all. If a word in Vietnamese is derived from Chinese, it is “restricted,” that is, only used in compounds with other words that originate in Chinese. And its meaning has no relationship at all to the meaning of an identical word of purely Vietnamese origin.

More next time.

Suzanne

When I was four years old, my sister, Suzanne, who was six, died of polio. I have vivid memories of the huge iron lung engulfing her in the living room of my grandmother’s apartment where my mother and I lived in Mullens, West Virginia. I remember being disappointed when I saw my father. My mother had summoned him because Suzanne was dying. He and my mother had been separated for so long that I didn’t remember what he looked like. I had hoped he was handsome. He wasn’t.

The function of the machine that held my sister—the iron lung—had to be paused for her to be allowed to swallow. At one point, when she was being spoon-fed her medicine, she said, “Let Daddy—” Then the lung came back on. When the medical staff paused it again, she said, “—do it.” So he fed her the medication.

Before Suzanne died, I was moved to my grandmother’s farm in the nearby hills. One of my great aunts took care of me. I remember asking why everyone was so sad about Suzanne. Didn’t anyone care about me? That made my aunt cry.

I have often wondered what would have happened if Suzanne hadn’t succumbed to infantile paralysis. My father’s visit at the time of her death led eventually to my parents’ reconciliation, and, as a result, I grew up in the San Francisco bay area. A few years after their reunion, he was in prison for embezzlement, and she was drunk much of the time. Now far away from my mother’s family, I was left on my own. One result was that I became a loner and fiercely self-reliant. My ability to depend on myself saved my life more than once during the years when I was on the battlefield in Vietnam and elsewhere.

How different would my life have been if Suzanne had lived?

The Beatific Vision

I was raised Roman Catholic and was a practicing Catholic until I was in my thirties. Since then, I have been, as noted here a few days ago, an agnostic: I don’t know whether to believe or not.

One of the reasons I left the church was its insistence on moral rules that made no sense. Leading that list was the proscription of contraception and forbidding divorce. My wife at the time decided that after four children, she didn’t want any more. But as a practicing Catholic, she couldn’t use birth control. So she said we simply wouldn’t have sex any more. That was the beginning of the end of the marriage.

Even though I am now of advanced age and for most of my life haven’t been a practicing Catholic, one crucial belief of the faith has stayed with me. It’s called the beatific vision. It specifies that after death, the saved dwell with God and see him face to face. But God’s beauty is so overwhelming that beholding him is instant and interminable ecstasy.

One of the reasons I’m inclined to believe in the beatific vision is that several times in church and later regularly in meditation, I have experienced a rapture that seems to me to be the equivalent of the beatific vision. That ecstasy is one reason I can’t reject out of hand the existence of God. But at the rational level, the evidence against the existence of the deity is more persuasive than the data supporting it. So I’m stuck with not knowing what to believe.

Flying in the face of all that doubt is my firm belief in the beatific vision. I have to believe in it because I have experienced it. If my bliss was not the consequence of seeing God face-to-face, then I have to conclude that human beings are capable of ecstasy—or at least the illusion of ecstasy—that they create themselves. Again, I’m left without firm evidence. I don’t know what to believe. That makes me, once again, an agnostic.

Fascism

A form of political totalitarian dictatorship that I find especially repellent is fascism. The name of this brand of tyranny comes from the Italian word fascio, meaning bundle, or by extension, a political group. It reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century in Italy under Mussolini and in Nazi Germany under Hitler. The pogroms both undertook, especially those with the goal of eliminating the Jews, were characteristic.

According to Wikipedia, “Fascism is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti [under Mussolini in Italy]) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Fascism interests me these days because it’s obvious to me that the U.S. was well on its way in that direction under Donald Trump. One feature of fascistic governing is the use of the power of the state against the ruler’s enemies. Trump’s corruption of the Department of Justice was precisely that. Another trait of a fascist regime is defining for the citizens what may be believed as true, no matter what the facts may be. That is exactly what we had under Trump, especially with respect to the 2020 election. And Trump’s “make America great again” is ultranationalism writ large.

Auspiciously, Trump was, beyond any doubt, defeated in the 2020 election. That hasn’t deterred him from claiming victory in the face of overwhelming evidence that he lost. What is astonishing to me is that so many Americans accept his lie in the face of undeniable evidence of his defeat. The violence of January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters attacked and ransacked the U.S. Capitol, is strikingly similar to that which led to Hitler’s empowerment and the establishment of Germany’s Third Reich.

There are lessons to be learned from Trump’s triumph and ultimate defeat. We must ask ourselves why so many voted for Trump in the first place. We must consider the implications of the fact that in 2016 he lost the popular vote by almost three million and yet was elected by the Electoral College. And most amazing, why do so many Americans continue to believe the proven lies he told?

We can make a more perfect union by learning from the mistakes we have made. Let’s get started.

Languages Slipping (2)

A more important reason for grasp of languages to weaken is aging. My ability to remember things seems to weaken daily. My recall of people’s names is embarrassingly bad. Sometimes, I can’t remember where stores I frequent are located. When writing, I far too often can’t remember the word I want and have to resort to a list of synonyms. And my recollection of past events is becoming spotty.

But as my language facility weakens, my work in my true vocation, writing, is actually becoming better. I long ago discovered—and recorded in this blog—that the ability to think expands with age. That’s what we mean when we say that the old are wise. And thinking in depth is the key to successful writing. So my writing today is better than it ever has been in the past.

My problem is writer’s block. When my partner of more than twenty years, Su, died a year ago last March, my ability to write stopped dead in its tracks. I had been working on two novels at the time. One was about the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands; the other was based on my relationship with Su. I have been unable to work on either novel since Su’s death. My sense is that I must wait for my grieving to lessen before I can pick up my pen again.

For all that, I genuinely loved studying, speaking, and reading in the languages I knew so well. Switching from one to another was second nature to me. And learning those languages greatly enhanced my understanding and use of English. But now I must accept the changes that go with a different time of life. Working in other languages no longer dominates my life. My calling, now and always, is to write. I’d better get to it soon.

Languages Slipping

I’ve mentioned in this blog a number of times that I am—or at least used to be—comfortable in seven languages, other than English, that I have worked in. But as I get older, I’m finding that my grasp of the languages is less and less reliable. All too often these days, I reach for a word in, say, French, but come up with one in German. Other times, I simply can’t remember the word at all.

My best foreign language is Vietnamese. I spoke it constantly during the thirteen years I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S, that is, between 1962 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. The language became so natural to me that sometimes native Vietnamese talking with me on the telephone mistook me for a native of North Vietnam—all my professors at the Army Language School in Monterey were northerners, so I learned the northern dialect, generally accepted back then as the preferred dialect. Vietnamese became so ordinary for me that I thought in it and even dreamt in it.

But nowadays even my Vietnamese is slipping away. Too often, I can’t remember a word and have to look it up. I find myself substituting Chinese words for their Vietnamese equivalent. It’s worse with other languages. I’m finding that when speaking in similar languages, like French, Spanish, or Italian, I mix them up and choose words from one language to use in another.

Some of the problem is that when one doesn’t use a language, memory of the grammar and vocabulary fades. I haven’t spoken any of my languages during the more than a year that the pandemic lockdown was in force. And I have fewer opportunities now than I did earlier in life to visit locations where the languages are spoken.

More next time.