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Wayfaring Stranger

It’s been so long since I wrote for this blog that I feel like a complete stranger to all the bells, all the whistles and the do-dads and new gizmos. It’s been four months since hip replacement surgery and am still not quite right. At some point, spending most of the day in bed, I just stopped reading the ‘news’ on my tablet. I gave it up.

At any rate, I will try to catch up. Last night did a performance with the music group and one song was ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and as always Tom was terrific on the fiddle.

He had texted, “I am coming straight from work for rehearsal, no time to change, hope you’ll overlook this’.

So of course when he rushed in carrying his fiddle case everybody held their noses and gasped and staggered backwards. He’d been operating the big blade machine all day, the one that uproots cedar.

Above, Mark on guitar and Tom on fiddle.

Also work on the new book — finally the Harper Collins strike is over and so the novel is back in the pipeline again. Here’s the cover. Most people like it. At first the image of the rider did not have a hat and I insisted that they put a hat on him which they did.

I had wanted to complete my post on visiting the Contreras family last August, and so finally am getting to the photos from the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, a most beautiful building. Elvia and I went there and spent the day. It is a beautifully designed museum. Long terraces sloping downward, all under glass of course, and the collection of Olmec clay sculptures were amazing. Elvia talked the young ladies at the entrance into giving us a discount on entrance fees — she being a retired teacher and me too, apparently!

These are all so human, so personal and yet universal. So alive! They are the early Olmec sculptures, full of life and work and faces you seem to know. This old fellow is apparently the divinity of fire — he makes fire in the basin. This is why he’s wearing mitts. Observe the missing teeth and the jolly, jaunty do-dad on his hat. A world-wide figure, the one who makes fire, like blacksmiths the world over, he handles magic and sparks and light.

There is no way to know what these figures signify so one is reduced to wild guesses. The one on the right is clearly unhappy and looks savage with anger but who knows? Maybe it’s the dog paws instead of hands. The one on the left seems to be taking a deep breath, and the dog/human figure in his/her lap (the figure seems to have rudimentary breasts) has a peculiar little hat with ears, one up and one down. At any rate, you know people with faces just like these.

There is no way to know for what purpose this figure served but he seems to have just set himself down after a hard day’s work hauling rocks for the latest temple. He’s wore out. He could really use a big mug of pulque. But again, he is so alive, so vernacular and expressive. This was one of my favorites.

And here’s Elvia in one of the photographic opportunities provided! I made myself amazing and attractive in another one but she took it on her phone and has forgotten to send it to me.

Here is the text re; the Olmecs, it’s in Spanish but easy enough to read. And one of the famous ‘baby face’ stone heads.

I will try to keep up from now on.

Coatepec and Rain October 1/22

A return to that beautiful town in the eastern Sierra Madres of Veracruz state, and the amazing Contreras family. Jim and I met them when we went there in the early nineties — we had just picked out the town of Coatepec at random — up in the mountains above Veracruz — and rented a hotel room while we looked for someplace to rent. One day during the almost-daily rain Jim ducked into a doorway and Elvia (biology teacher, escuela segundaria) opened the door and said ‘Come in and get out of the rain’! This story has been told many times.

There are four brothers and a sister, all of them very accomplished —Julio the architect, Elvia, a teacher, Jaime with his doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Fermin, also an engineer, Jose Luis who has gone into insurance (I think). And Ramiro, also an architect, who died twenty years ago RIP. At any rate, back then we were all in our forties and fifties and now we are all in our sixties and seventies. Such a great reunion! They know all our family, we know all their family …I flew down with my stepson Jim Jr. and DIL Nadine

Dinner and Luz and Julio’s house —Luz in in orange, she’s a dentist, and Elvia to far left.

They had been many times to visit us in San Antonio, and this was a time when Jim and Elvia and I drove out to west Texas and ended up spending Christmas eve in the Catholic church in — I think — Van Horne — no it was Sanderson… the priest was Vietnamese and incomprehensible and I kept asking Elvia, is he speaking Spanish? many years, many crazy adventures …

Elvia and the brothers’ dad was alive when we first knew them and we ended up going to sit at his wake… a wonderful man..

Elvia inherited the Contreras villa and lives there now, Julio (the architect) designed this beautiful library and stairs for her

(Library above — Elvia with our picture below)

And their kids have grown up, our grandkids have grown up, all starting families of their own — Julio and Luz’ kids, Mariana is a lawyer and married with two kids, Julio Joven is a veterinarian working for Pfizer in Canada, also married with two kids, Cecilia is the principal of an elementary school in Coatepec … time has gone galloping on like a racehorse. Jaime’s daughters — one is in England and married to an Englishman with a new baby, the other is in banking — they were tiny when we first met them. Jaime worked on Mexico’s only nuclear power station at El Farallon, this was 20 years ago, we got to visit him there, very interesting, great people.

But, back to this visit — I got to stay in the beautiful Ortiz villa (Luz’s family) just across the street from the Contreras villa and Mariana told me the most delightful stories about the place.

This is it— repainted and reconditioned except for the second story which I will get to directly.

This was my room — so restful!

Here’s Julio, at the Ortiz finca. Julio Joven and I rode out of there twenty years ago up into the mountains, on a couple of lovely Arabs, pictures of which I will include another time.

This is Orizaba in the background — 19,000 feet, volcanic cone, exceptionally beautiful.

And Elvia found this picture of me in an album which I am including because it is so flattering and I am a sucker for flattery. There. I said it.

More tomorrow on the mysterious and ancient Ortiz Villa, The Pink Palace, which Luz and Mariana insist is salmon and in fact it is indeed salmon!

Beautiful Gala, Mariana’s oldest daughter. She was waiting while we were getting some coffee ground. It’s like a Vermeer painting.

Trapped In the House

and lots of time to mess around with this blog!

August 5/22

There’s this thing about wordless camping videos on Youtube.

It’s got to be about 60 days now with temperatures in excess of 100. No rain for two months and in the 100s since April and in the hot hours I have to stay inside, I can’t work in this heat. The hot hours means from about 10:30 to 7.

So at any rate, here’s something about the non-talking camping videos on Youtube. The ASMR videos. Peculiar! And interesting!

They are selfie videos about people going out in the wilderness and camping in the rain, or storms, or blizzards, building a shelter in the nick of time and you just watch them cope and survive. A great many of them advertise ‘no talking’. Sometimes there are comments in text but mainly the adventurer struggles in wordless silence except for chopping sounds as they split firewood, crackling sounds as they walk through leaves or snow, spitting and sparking sounds of a hot tent-stove, and many of the videos promise howling winds, rain and lightning and they deliver. Then there are the crispy sizzling sounds as they make supper and mmmmmm crunching sounds as they eat it.

I came upon them researching horseback travel for Chenneville.

At least one of these videos has hit 21,000,000 views. This is clearly a subculture of outdoors-type-stuff videos. And from the comments, most viewers aren’t adventurers themselves.

It’s absolutely hypnotic.

As I said, they advertise their video as “no talking” and “ASMR sounds” and “Comfort food” and “only natural sounds” meaning ‘this is the real thing, I never added fake wind noise’.

Every one of them has The Supper Scene — and some are clearly made for The Supper Scene and nothing else — I mean somebody has unloaded a cheap tent in a public park and proceeded to fry Spam and green beans while turning a sprinkler on the tent overhead, but these can be summarily dismissed for their pure and evident fakiness. But others, as above, are people who want your subscription and are willing to freeze their asses off to earn it. And they apparently love doing it.

Supper scenes; campers from Russia to Thailand to Canada to Oklahoma:

Rice and pot stickers and rib-eyes and borscht and King Ranch Chicken, it’s the Supper Scene! And It’s lovable because the supper-maker has fought wind and snow and rain to make his/her own little shelter in a cruel world and they deserve it. It is with relief that we see them fortify themselves with various national cuisines!

(Sorry — also breakfast. How a bear could not smell this is beyond me.)

This one above is an engaging young guy named Dima who camps out and builds shelters — and appropriates shelters — in the Russian forests and somehow he managed to keep those tomatoes in perfect condition.

What is the attraction? For one thing, the silence, the wordless solitude. They are all a kind of story or narrative without words. There is some talking to the camera if the person is demonstrating camping equipment for some company that has given him demos, but mainly they forge on in sweet untalking quiet. They have clever little campstoves, ingenious tents, brilliantly designed backpacks, and we envy them. They have no deadlines, don’t work in an office and their dogs love them. Their food is delicious. Their sleep is untroubled.

They don’t weigh us down with woke stuff, with disapproval, with negative takes on other people. And these aren’t glamorous people, they are un-made-up and are devoid of urban polish. They are not celebrities, so far anyway. It’s just them and the fire-starter and a galloping wind-driven tent that threatens to sail away into the blizzard. These are little stories about self-reliance, their main character is always Robinson Crusoe and Robinson Crusoe stories never fail to captivate.

And why are the sounds of chopping wood, cutting meat, stirring the soup, trudging through dry leaves, hypnotic? These stories are all images and sounds, no dialogue. You fall into a kind of timelessness. Deep attention is paid to the most ordinary things and every leaf and every dance of the lamp-flame is profoundly interesting; when the tent finally is erected everything is in intense close-up. Everything matters, very much, since all they have is what they can carry on their backs or drag in a sledge. So that’s why they get 21 million views, and ten million and fifteen million.

And so I also looked up what might be the most popular Youtube videos and it turns out that music videos are way, way down the list and of those ‘Baby Shark’ is the most popular by a long shot. I suppose these would fall into the DIY category? Or How-To? Don’t know.

So if he just keeps on there’ll be a cozy fantasy and a rib-eye at the end of his quest.

July 30/22

Another post same day

The publication of my next book has been delayed again, to a year from this October or November perhaps. The finished manuscript remains with my editor.


A Story of Loss, Murder and Vengeance

He came back from the Civil War both wounded and spent, only to find that his beloved sister and her family had been murdered in an unsolved and shocking crime. He is a tall man, quiet and watchful after three years of fighting. He is the son of a wealthy landowner of the old St. Louis French and had fought for the Union in Virginia. Now he must find his sister’s killer somewhere on the long road to Texas.

He rides into a land in chaos, but he is used to chaos now. He has forfeited his ancestral lands in Bonnemaison for this untethered life in search of a murderer, following the telegraph lines from St. Louis to Galveston. Using the new technology of the post-Civil War era in his search — the ambrotype and the telegraph — he is solitary and unshakeable in his determination to find justice for his sister and her family.

He travels light during a hard winter, his only friends a Remington New Model Army revolver and a Spencer carbine. When he asks for information he usually gets it one way or another. But as in any hero tale, the tall man accumulates companions along the way, including a redbone hound named Dixie, a plowhorse called Major, and the enigmatic Victoria Reavis, telegrapher, an unseen helper whose voice is made of dashes, dots and sparks. It is a bodiless voice, sane and comforting, and he is afraid to meet her.

Against the lush and forgotten background of the old French colonies of Missouri, the hard winter of Reconstruction in Texas in 1866 and the unsettled world of Oklahoma’s San Bois Mountains, a strange serial killer is tracked down to an astonishing conclusion.”

July 30/22

The cypresses along the Sabinal River are dying. I an see them from here, my house on the ridge. Long stretches of rusty-red color, dead trees.

I am trying to keep this little live-oak tree alive because it’s a kind of memorial to my friend Laurie Wagner Jameson. I wrote her about it and since she was an avid gardener, the care of any kind of plant or tree was pleasing to her. So I carry containers of water to it, as my hoses won’t reach that far. The blue planter has three holes drilled in the bottom so that the water soaks in slowly.

It’s a kind of little bonsai tree that has struggled mightily to stay alive and so I am helping it long.

Laurie wrote the most amazing memoir, When I Came West, years ago. I hope someday it is recognized for what it is, an ordinary girl somehow totally taken with the idea of living in the western wilderness with a writer’s skill and a poet’s eye. And so how do you do that if you’re not wealthy or well-connected or can manage an academic appointment at a western university? She just did it. Her attention to detail is amazing; she saw everything; goats, horses, pumpkin pies, bear hunts, mountains.

Rest in Peace.

The Automaton

July 25/22

AI Hype and Type

Having looked further into use of AI writing software used by authors, I have come to the inevitable end, which is a creeping paranoia; just how many and how much of the writing we see today is actually machine-generated? Some of the software programs cheerfully enthuse about generating blog content. Why work hard? Why work? Why? An AI program takes care of that bad thing called work. Also thinking. Also why?

AI can generate a blog post on any given subject in minutes! (Me; So then wouldn’t it be like everybody else’s blog posts?Same language, same sentence structure etc.)

But then…are all the girls on TikTok paid actresses with AI generated scripts? Are the news presenters all robots that have escaped the Uncanny Valley? Is there really a country called Ukraine? And so on.

Also entire novels! “Publish it on Amazon!”

So how many novels on Amazon are written by software programs?

One of the programs enthuses so:


—“AI novel writing software can be used for many different types of novels. For example: A Sci-Fi story set in the distant future where humans have become slaves of machines. A murder mystery taking place on an isolated island. An epic historical drama about a war that is fought between two ancient nations. Very fast and saves time.”

—“You can have a high-quality product that is also original and unique.”

—“You’ll feel more confident in writing your novel.” (Me; But I thought you weren’t writing it?)

—-“Enjoy seeing your story come to life in front of you.”

Then: more reasons to use this software:

—“It is helpful for people who have problems with writer’s block.” (Me: people who have writers block are either 1.) not writers and are writing something merely for the prestige of saying “I’m a writer” or 2.) They are writing the wrong kind of story that does not suit them.)

—“You do not need any experience in writing a novel nor do you have to write it from start to finish.” (Me; this is approaching parody and invites some sort of clever ridicule but I can’t think of anything right now)

—“Based on the information that you provide, your AI program will generate an original plot and well-developed characters.”

—-“People are using this to write books under 7 days!” (Me; I did not eliminate the ‘in’. The AI did it.)

Then, finally, it cries out, “Shout me if you need more help!”

So I’ll just leave this here.

July 24/22

Computer-generated fiction! What could be better? Think of the time you could save and the pacing up and down thinking and the thesaurus-thumbing.

I have not yet sampled its delights but I would have to start out with (click on) Hero story as opposed to (click on) relationship stories/beach reads. Then when I got to the option of Hero story I would have further options; (click) YA hero poor-with-hidden-magic-talents or military sci-fi commander or tortured-by-past hero or Empress of the Golden Plains.

And what about the dialogue? I find that intriguing. I imagine garbled AI voices as all your options implode and bot voices speak to one another, taking on lives of their own.

Lincoln Michel’s substack touches on this. His substack is called Counter Craft and it’s always interesting. The article is called ‘Outsourcing Originality’. He refers to an author that uses a program called Sudo-Write and I looked up that author’s book and it has not done well. In fact, abysmally.

So many authors that I read or try to read seem to have grown up in a netherworld of urban isolation, as if quarantined. They imagine their main characters as people who are subject to events and then have emotions about these events. Doingness or intelligent problem-solving is rare, most characters seem insolvent, in a psychological sense. It’s the fashion for victim characters, I suppose. They always seem holier and more pure than do-ers. (Using David Foster Wallace’s terminology). I wonder what Sudo-Write does with this situation.

On another substack site I came across this alarming statistic; “98% of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”


Best seller, 9th Century

I just re-read 1984 and halfway through I grew really weary of Winston’s confused inertia. I suppose Orwell was trying to show how even the best-intentioned human being was overcome by television propaganda, but still. At any rate, I had forgotten that the girl worked in the Fiction Department.

…in Preparation for the Two Minutes Hate a girl (came into the room) whom he had often passed in the corridors. He did not know her name but he knew she worked in the Fiction Department. Presumably — since he had often seen her with oily hands and a spanner — she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines.

And It was the girl with the dark hair… as she came nearer he saw that her right arm was in a sling…probably she had crushed her hand while swinging round one of the big kaleidoscopes on which the plots of novels were ‘roughed in’. It was a common accident in the fiction department.

And …She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor. She was ‘not clever’ but was fond of using her hands and felt at home with the machinery. She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the finished product. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.

Futureology back in the Fifties had no concept of the digital. Same with Stanislav Lem’s Solaris. But one doesn’t mind, the stories that are told are so gripping. Who cares if they were using glass retorts and paper records in the space-station labs, I for one do not. And wonderful Ray Bradbury didn’t gave a damn one way or another, he had his spacemen stepping out of their spaceship on Mars and setting up a card table on which to spread their lunch sandwiches. Probably tuna.

“Fiction being a fundamental aspect of human culture, one of the defining characteristics of humanity.”

Amazing heat wave

When there’s a drought and very high temperatures, there’s a lot more work when you’re rural. Dragging hoses around trying to save trees, keeping animals cool, keeping self cool. I had to drive to Uvalde (40 miles away) to pay my Cricket phone bill and the temperature on the highway was plain scary.

But they had the Fourth of July parade anyway.

I didn’t stay too long, it was just too absolutely crushingly hot.

I manage to keep the upstairs study cool by putting those mylar space blankets on the windows and door. Makes it dark but at least I can work. I miss my big tall windows but whatever.

I’m working on putting all the Lighthouse Island books into shape. It’s the same future dystopian world of overpopulation/drought/civic dysfunction and rigid class structure that all gets swept away by floods. There are now three books. The fourth on the way and the final one (the fifth) will be very far into the future when human population is almost nil. In the first four it’s all the same timeline, with different characters and different plots. They do run into each other briefly. The location is a future Kansas City that has spread so far with overpopulation and slums that it is about to run into St. Louis. It’s life on the hot streets, and the survival devices and joys and miseries of the poor and the semi-poor.

In the fifth book the characters of the first four show up briefly in ancient video devices.

They are: Lighthouse Island (now called At Large) 2.) The Weaponsmaker — 3.) Action Figure —4.) (working title) Quinn. The final one, (working title), The Plague.

It’s fun! Keeps me busy.

Social life goes on as always, horses and music, also planning a trip to Coatepec with my DIL Nadine and stepson Jim, that’ll be August and God knows it will be cooler than here. A great visit with the Contreras family. Coatepec is at about 3000 feet, just outside Veracruz, at the foot of El Cofre de Peyrote and not too far from Orizaba.

Happy Independence Day!

Which, for my ancestors — the Giles’, the McCords, the Dobsons and others — I imagine was an enormous relief. They probably just heard the news of Cornwallis’ surrender in Yorktown and sat down and said Thank God at last, peace. North Carolina had been ravaged and burnt by Cornwallis and Tarleton. For seven years they’d been fighting mostly barefoot, always hungry, winter-ragged, and at last it was all over.

This is a contemporary painting of the 1st Maryland Continentals fighting at Guilford Courthouse, NC. They all look pretty healthy and well-fed, which they weren’t. In fact, most of the faces all look like the same guy. The artist must have had a template for ‘resolute fighting man’ and just re-used it. Anyway, I don’t have any pictures of North Carolina troops — that would have been the North Carolina milita, and of the Revolutionary War reminiscences I have read, the NC militia were said to talk funny, most were barefoot, slovenly and tended to go home after the battle was over to take care of the farm. But they helped win the war. You’re welcome.

Heroes — Just add title

Because there are so many kinds. For a long time, in literature and storytelling in general, heroes have been missing in action as novels become less read, more interior, the fashion ambiguous and gentility the only approach. But heroes keep leaping back up and making money, considering Star Wars and the Reacher novels. And Tom Cruise, the maverick birdman. Okay so that’s a movie, so whatever.

The Heroes’ Journey has the same steps every time but a writer has to meet the challenge to make his/her heroes’ journey distinct. And write it well. Put the story on an exo-planet or in 18th Century Ohio or the streets of a city slum, but the story had best be full of details. And the hero a genuine one. The term is being thrown around constantly to include any main character at all. But it doesn’t work that way.

Heroes are frequently simplistic. They are often very crude. There’s no getting around it. But they crudely keep coming back into the human imagination and striking down demons, evildoers and the Devil himself.

(The Punisher action figure and Hercules striking down Nessus, also a punisher, both of them with clublike things.)

They become raw and unfinished and coarse when neglected. Refinement comes with attention, care, the novelist giving them a local habitation and a name. A cause, a journey and the refining fire of injury. A story, a plot, a narrative highway into the unknown. Mystery. Heroes go really well with mystery.

I know many writers feel that a story should instruct, teach, admonish, lecture, edify and improve the attitudes of the person reading. But this assumes an unequal relationship between reader and author. The author being powerful and smart, lecturing the reader who is presumed to be powerless and very dimwitted. OR — reader and author can sort of gang up and together sneer at all those others out there who don’t get it. However, the hero’s journey invites you to tag along, if you wish. If not, put the book down. I’m going someplace, I have something I have to do, you can come if you want.

This is assuming the hero of the story knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, chalk and cheese and does not need a biologist to tell them the difference between The Punisher and Sweet Georgia Brown. The permutations of the Hero are endless, but their appeal is powerful; thus the success of Star Wars, Harry Potter and Jack Reacher. The longing for hero stories will never die. You and I will, but the stories won’t.