Doing Good

In 1902, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, began what he called “hygienic table trials,” but soon the Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with the name The Poison Squad. Dr. Wiley was attempting to prove that additives and adulterants in everyday foods were unsafe and unhealthy. In doing so, he took on powerful industries and their bought-and-paid-for government supporters. It took years of fighting, issuing reports, doing the right thing, but it wasn’t until Sinclair Lewis published The Jungle in 1906 that headway was finally made. Dr. Wiley’s story is told in Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad, and in the  documentary based on the book (you can watch it in it’s entirety at the American Experience website https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/poison-squad/).

One of the many things that disturbs me is that over one hundred years later, the same excuses are being used to prevent doing the right thing. The arguments go: changes will adversely affect business, it’s too expensive, the people advocating for change are misguided radicals or alarmists, and other common protests. Special interests still buy off politicians, seek to cut funding to watchdog groups, delay, sue, ignore the law–whatever it takes to not do the right thing.

Writers have a unique opportunity to draw attention to bad behavior. Certainly journalists and writers of exposés do this, but writers of fiction sometimes make far more headway in capturing the attention of the public, raising awareness, and calling people to action. Sinclair’s novel was written to draw attention to the inhumane working conditions of the meat packing industry, but in exposing it his disclosures inspired  changes in hygienic practices. Science fiction writers have a long history of asking questions, proposing worst case scenarios, making us look at ourselves and the people we trust but maybe shouldn’t. Fiction puts us in the story so we can see the real costs of failure to do good.

I feel strongly that truth has great value, that lies once told take on a life of their own and can cause real harm. I believe doing the right thing s may sometimes be difficult but is never the wrong way to go. I am proud that my writing has been included in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. I am proud to be one of the voices saying, take notice, this is important, we need to act. It is my personal goal to always try to write with truth and compassion. Though I may not always succeed, I will always try to do good.

Image: The Members of The Poison Squad. THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION/FLICKR/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Why We Walk

My friend, Chris, used to read Lord of the Rings in its entirety every autumn. She stopped for a while, but is back to it this year, although she started later than usual and is reading it through the winter. The appeal to me of LOTR is the journey. I’ve always loved any story that involves a long trek on foot. I have the same passion for movies that depict grand journeys.

Sometimes the algorithms work, and Amazon Prime offers you movies like the ones you just watched that might interest you. That’s how I got sucked into watching several documentaries on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Camino de Santiago, the Hayduke Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and others. What I’ve found interesting about the people who take on these really long journeys is why they do them. Often they are looking for something, usually wildly different somethings. Some are looking to escape, some to spend serious time inside their own heads, some are running toward something. I don’t think anyone who starts one of these great treks is the same person when the journey is done. All of them seem to find something, but it isn’t always what they expected to find when they started.

There was a time when I would have aspired to hike one of these trails, but old age and sin have taken their toll, so not likely in this lifetime. That’s not to say I won’t try something less ambitious–the Katy Trail, perhaps. Maybe I haven’t started one because I don’t have a good enough reason yet. Just walking to walk doesn’t seem like sufficient justification to ignore everyone and everything and walk for a couple of weeks, although a walk across Missouri in the spring seems like a pretty good reason all by itself.

Of course, I can’t help but make a comparison to why we write. I suppose there are as many reasons to write as to walk. The beauty of crafting words is perhaps comparable to scanning a spectacular vista. Spending days inside your own head, plumbing the depths might reveal the means and motives of a character. Writing for redemption, for amusement, for adventure, to find out who we are.

I’m not sure I’ve taken the really grand trek in my writing yet. In many ways, I feel like I’m still at the trail head. But as I write more, I think I’ll be moving on down the road, and perhaps some day, when I’ve reached a stopping point, I’ll have found something transformative. And when I do, I promise to share.

And speaking of writing, I’ve just read the final proof of my novella, “Wasting Water”, that is due out this spring in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. It’s been a long time coming, but finally seems to be on its way.

Image: Chris and Marilyn walking at Dragonfest in Colorado, 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Only God Can Make a Tree

I’ve probably mentioned this before–when I was a scientist, I saw a tree as a living entity with a paleobotanical history, a structure, metabolism, reproductive cycle. In short, I loved it as only a botanist could. Then I learned to oil paint. Suddenly I had new eyes, artist eyes. Now I saw a tree as texture and light and shadow and a play of color that changed with the changes of the day. I had learned to love it as only an artist could.

But I have recently acquired a new addiction. I have discovered woodworking. I’ve flirted with it for a while, but with the aid and abetting of my husband, I’ve begun to acquire the tools, the patterns, the materials for yet another hobby. And I have begun to see trees in yet another way. That dead branch doesn’t have to be fire wood. It could be almost anything. I just never knew it before, I could never see with a woodworker’s eyes until now.

We all know knowledge is a dangerous thing. It makes us do crazy stuff. It opens worlds. For a writer, the fun part is often that once you know the things you get the joy of telling someone else about them. They say write what you know, but learning, research can lead to a whole new “what you know.” And once you know, don’t you have to share?

One of my favorite mystery writers, the late Dick Francis, worked with his wife who apparently loved doing research. Mr. Francis started writing his stories in the racing world, a world he knew well. But later he  and his wife took me into other amazing worlds, each one described in a way that drew me in, convinced me he knew what he was talking about.

Lately I’ve gotten a little crazy about learning new things. I’ve been experimenting with “going back to school”, but by way of home schooling. It’s like this: every day I spend an hour studying Spanish, an hour in gym class (exercising followed by yoga), then at least an hour writing (English class). Home Economics is all the cooking and other household chores. That leaves time for Science–watching “Nova” or some other appropriate video– then Shop when I do my woodworking. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day if you’ve got a schedule. Not sure how long I can keep this up. I might become a drop out, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun.

I like having all these eyes. I like seeing things in a new way, and I like how old things, old friends like trees, become new again. The trick is the sharing part, sharing well and letting everyone else have the fun of discovery.

Enough English and writing. It’s time for shop.

Image: Sunset through trees. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Creating Legacy

I just finished reading Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine and his wife, Monica Murphy, who has degrees in public health and veterinary medicine. The book is entirely fascinating, but one of my favorite parts was the description of Louis Pasteur and all his work with vaccines. I always knew Pasteur was awesome, but I never realized how totally awesome. His legacy includes vaccines for anthrax, rabies, and (with a significant contributions by Emile Roux) chicken cholera, not to mention saving the French wine industry, as well as establishing the method for purifying and protecting food that bears his name: Pasteurization. Add to this his establishing the Institut Pasteur and all that it has accomplished both during his life and since his death, and you can’t help but be impressed.

Within the same day of finishing Rabid, I came upon a story about J.K. Rowling and what is likely to be her legacy. Beyond the beloved Harry Potter universe she has created, she has donated hundreds of thousands of her millions to charities, especially those that preserve families and aid orphans. Being someone who knows what struggling to survive is like, she is giving back in a significant way. I contrast this with the probable legacy of another extremely rich person recently in the news–Jeffrey Epstein. I think that people will not remember him as fondly.

I’m not sure people think much about their legacies. In a television program I like a lot called “A Craftsman’s Legacy”, the host, Eric Gorges, asks each person he spends time with two questions: do you consider yourself a craftsman or an artist; and, do you think about your legacy. Some folks are conscious of what they are leaving behind. Someone who creates a body of work or has trained a lot of students tends to have an awareness of their effect on the world and that it will linger after they have gone. Some people think about their children as a legacy who will carry on their genes and names, their looks and maybe their mannerisms, perhaps even their businesses and skills. But whether we realize it or not, everything we do “leaves a mark,” and people don’t often act as though they understand that. Abuse often begets abuse as families of abusers can attest. Kindness and generosity, often the same. I see my father in my family members and hear his humor and turns of phrase. He was a man who loved his children unconditionally, and I’m happy to say I think that legacy survives in his children and in the people whose lives he touched.

I’m not sure what my legacy will be. Nothing from my days as a researcher is significant as far as I know, but at least a few people lived and didn’t die because of things I did in the lab. I have some writing, fiction and non fiction, that may last a while, for better or worse. I have had students, and they have had students, so I think that’s good. It’s hard to say what will survive after we are gone. I’m no Pasteur or Rowling, but I hope my legacy will balance on the side of leaving things better rather than worse after I’m gone. Maybe between now and when I fall off my perch, I can add to that legacy in a positive way. Best get on it.

Image: Stable dog (not rabid) at Harrowway House, Penton Mewsey, Hampshire, UK. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Popular Mechanics (1949).

The wonderful actor, Rutger Hauer, died recently. I’ve loved him in so many movies, but Lady Hawke and Blade Runner are two my friends have been talking about a lot. In Blade Runner (made in 1982), Mr. Hauer plays Roy Batty, a replicant or bio-engineered being. The film takes place in 2019 Los Angeles. Some people are noting Rutger and his character, Roy, died in the same year. The film has flying cars, bio-engineered people and animals, and references to mining operations in outer space. Here in the real 2019, we don’t much have those things. Blade Runner was based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, first published in 1968. Dick’s version of Los Angeles was post nuclear war, and the story takes place in 1992, then in later editions, in 2021. So far, we’ve avoided nuclear war, and we still don’t have replicant pets, although cloning is making strides.

Sometimes stories of the future get it wrong, sometimes they get it right. Sinclair Lewis, in his 1938 novel It Can’t Happen Here, was probably thinking about Huey Long when he wrote his story of a potential totalitarian regime in America, but the satire bears an uncanny resemblance to the rise and rule of Donald Trump.  Orwell, Huxley, Wells, and Verne got some things right, perhaps more right than most other science fiction and futurist writers, but predicting the future and how we will live in it is hard. Some things we think will change don’t or do so very slowly, other things change at an unimaginable pace. Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio, introduced in 1946, is a more accurate description of today’s technology than many science fiction stories of a similar era.

Even near future predictions can be tricky. Throughout the 1950’s, we all expected nuclear war, nuclear accidents, and the results these things would bring. We weren’t expecting global climate change. Now that we’re experiencing it, we may still get things wrong. In my novella, Wasting Water, I was expecting massive droughts throughout the United States. Instead, we seem to be having floods, followed by droughts followed by severe storms, excessive heat, excessive cold, and who knows what next? The droughts may come and stay yet, but it’s hard to predict. It would be nice to be right, but I wouldn’t wish that on my planet.

In 1949, it was hard to predict that computing would become what it is today, not a 1.5 ton machine, but portable, readily available, and ubiquitous. I often wonder what breakthrough will make the next unpredictable leap in technology, the next science fiction moment. It may be decades in the future, or maybe just around the corner. Perhaps we’ll get those flying cars yet. After all, we got our Star Trek communicators.

Image: Even with Abby standing on them, none of my computers weighs 1.5 tons. By Marilyn Evans.

Difference of Opinion

I’m always at a bit of a loss what to say when I disagree with the prevailing opinion of the general population. I don’t mind disagreeing with critics–their job is to find excellence, and sometimes I’m not in the mood for excellence. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. The Kansas City Star, K.C.’s local newspaper, used to famously send Robert Butler to review all new film releases. Butler pretty universally hated genre films. You knew he wasn’t likely to review science fiction or horror films favorably, but that didn’t tell you if YOU were going to like them. The Star finally wised up (or Butler decided he’d suffered enough) and started sending genre fans to review the movies. Finally you could trust the reviewer to tell you if you were going to like the latest installment in the “Fluffy Invades Io” franchise or not.

My problem is, what happens when a movie or book is highly praised by critics and the population at large, and I think it’s grot? When “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” came out, the guy I was dating and his son raved. The critics loved it. The film was universally praised. I thought it was cute, sure, but it was manipulative and predictable. I never found it as compelling as everyone else seemed to.

I’ve been out of step more than once. I wanted to slap Anna Karenina (“Get a grip, woman!”), ditto the silly twit in The Thorn Birds. The Red and the Black strikes me as a soap opera. Hawthorn is a mixed bag, but “Young Goodman Brown” was utter crap (at least I thought so when I read it in college).

Which brings me to my latest read, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir. The critics seemed to have liked it, but a few of the readers on Goodreads were a little more aligned with me. I loved Wild, another book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had high hopes for Girl. Suffice it to say I was disappointed. But what makes critics and reviewers like this book so much? Some of the writing is good, even lyrical, but the book as a whole is rambling, repetitious, and disjointed. The author comes across as a really dis-likable person, but she is struggling with the aftermath of a rape, so does that make it okay? I can’t quite figure out what those who give it a five star rating are seeing. Did we read the same book?

My opinion is no predictor of greatness, because who the heck am I? But I am part of the reading and viewing public, so theoretically my opinion matters. It matters even more for my own work. If I can’t figure out what people will like, I may be wasting my time. Then again, I hope to avoid manipulative Steven Spielberg tricks. But writers are supposed to write for themselves. Uh huh, sure they are. Then maybe when we are long dead, someone will discover our greatness. I’m thinking that’s not the way to bet. So I suppose the line to tread is to give the people (if not the critics) what they want within reason, yet maintain your integrity. Now if only I could figure out what the people want….

Image: Chris in the woods, Colorado 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.

In the Family

For all its flaws and foibles, without her family, Elizabeth Bennet would never have fallen in love with and married Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is about family: Bingley’s, Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s. And where would Game of Thrones be without the highly stressed and often dysfunctional Lannisters, Starks, Targarians, and the rest? Families define circumstances, characters, conflicts, and so much more.

About thirty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a friend, I attended a party where one of the guests was holding forth about “these kids today” and the demise of the American family or some such tripe. I found his thesis interesting but flawed. I jumped right in (I’m seldom shy at parties where I don’t know anyone and there is alcohol) with a comment that family is so important to “kids these days” that if their own family didn’t work for them, they’d create a family out of friends and fellow travelers. My utterly humiliated friend drug me aside and hissed, “Do you know who that is? He’s the professor (at the local college) of family studies!” Unabashed, I responded, “He’s still wrong.”

Everybody comes from somewhere, and even orphans, a la Charles Dickens, end up with someone close to care about or devil them. Even a nameless assassin with no past like Jason Bourne will claw his way back to being David Webb, a man who once had a family. Because you can pick your friends but not your family, kin folk can bring a story tension and conflict; allies, or rescue at the appropriate moment; insight into the protagonist and his actions; even insight into why the bad guys got the way they are.

My family has been, at various times, not fully functional, so when I went out into the world on my own, I figured I could do a better job of running my life without bothering with family interference. For the most part, that worked for me, but, as I said, family is so important that, in time, I made my own–my own community of friends, people with similar interests, drinking buddies, allies, and so forth. I also, in time, made peace with my family, or the fragmented bits of it that have presented themselves over the years.

When I started writing, I wanted my characters to be independent and self sufficient. But I found if I introduced some of their family as well as their friends, colleagues, and lovers, the story got richer, like the stories of many of my favorite fictional characters who have lovable or maddening or otherwise noteworthy family members.

Some of the family that show up in my stories are modeled after my own relatives. But I have had enough scrapes with other families that I think I’ll have a supply of notable characters for the rest of my writing career–enough to round out a lifetime’s worth of  work.

Image: A slice of my husband’s family. By Warren C. Hutchins, Sr.

Back in the Saddle

If you check now and again to see if I’m posting to my blog, you may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from writing. Between funerals, the kitchen remodel, a two week visit by my best friend (involving much drinking and conversation), and a few other things that took my mind elsewhere, I’ve been unable to really focus. Last night I re-read all of my blog posts. At the risk of seeming immodest (oh, who am I kidding–I haven’t a modest bone in my body), I have to say there seemed to be some pretty good advice in a few of those posts. I’ve decided to follow my own advice and get back to work.

The first thing I did was drop by the library and get new books, both to read and to listen to as I drove to the stable to see my husband’s horse. I realized after reading on my blog about reading that I haven’t been doing enough of it lately, and I know reading is a strong stimulus for getting me to write. I’ve also set aside time each day to write, either at home or someplace that works for me–coffee shops and the library are among my favorites. I get a lot of writing done in waiting rooms, but if I just plop down in one and help myself to their coffee and donuts without a good reason to be there, I might get asked to leave. I haven’t actually tried it yet.

I’ve decided I need to take another look at publishers for my second novel. I also need to take a good, long look at the short stories I’ve written to see if they are salvageable and should be sent out on the endless merry-go-round of submission and rejection. Always a good time. I was inspired to this by a friend I recently had lunch with. She has multiple plays being produced this summer at multiple venues in multiple cities. This success is the result of sending out masses of plays and then forgetting about them. I found that inspirational. I shall go forth and do likewise.

I did have some encouraging news. Alternating Current Press has finally closed submissions (again) for Undeniable, and they project an early autumn publishing date. Of course, there’s still a chance they’ll decide, “Oops. We don’t like your novella after all.” I should know by the middle of June.

So it’s back to the keyboard, I go. Time to get back to work.

Image: Me on Amish Honey in 2013. By Jonathan Hutchins.

 

Instant Gratification

My husband can tell you I’m lousy at delayed gratification, so I keep wondering why I end up in vocations and avocations that are all about delayed gratification. There aren’t too many things on this planet slower than research–something I did for over twenty years. First you do the lit search, then come up with a theory, write the grant, wait for funding, do the experiments (if you have to wait for donors, that takes even longer than if you’re working with something more compliant, like, say, bacteria). Some experiments take days, even weeks to get results. When you finally have the results, you write the paper then try to get it published. Waiting and waiting and waiting.

It’s the same with writing fiction (or even nonfiction) and with gardening. So much time is spent waiting, for the seeds to come out of the ground and the fruit to set, for the publisher to get around to doing what publishers do. I recently suffered another gratification blow. The anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change has reopened submissions hoping to add diversity to its author pool. This anthology accepted my novella “Wasting Water” about a hundred years ago, then kept pushing back the submission deadline. I told everyone I knew to send them something. The publisher finally closed the call for submissions, but recently reopened it. I’m guessing by the time this anthology is published, half of Florida and most of the islands in the Pacific will be underwater. Oh, well, delayed gratification is the name of the game, and I’m nothing if not gamy.

Fortunately, I have coping mechanisms. One is to keep writing. The other is fiber arts. Yes, knitting and sewing are my methods of choice for instant gratification. With needles and yarn in hand, I can make a hat in an afternoon. I can whip up a dress in a couple of days. These mechanisms are less fattening than baking and more fun than cleaning house while serving to satisfy my need for instant gratification. Unfortunately, if I keep at this writing business, I am going to need more closets (to supplement the four I already have).

Image: Captain Jack holding down the fabric for me to cut. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Writer’s Block? Nah.

I don’t seem to suffer from writer’s block–that horrible time when you stare at a blank page or computer scene and can’t bring yourself to begin. There are times, however, when I can’t write, like this January when I was celebrating my birthday and burying my brother.

Over the last few weeks, I found I had nothing important to say, or at least, nothing that was worth inflicting on others. I can always blather away about nothing in particular, but I mercifully try to keep most of that to myself. Instead, I’ve lately found myself thinking and pondering and struggling with meaning or some form of significance worthy of taking up someone else’s time.

I had another birthday, so I looked back on my year and my life and found I’m the same and different. I reconnected with a lot of long-lost relatives and friends over the past year and found I had been missing those connections. I hope in the coming year to spend more time with those people and to not misplace them again.

And my brother died. My last full brother, the last of the Fantastic Four, the small family that consisted of my father, my two brothers, and me. The time when we were a family I remember through the fog of time as being the happiest of my life. Mind you, this was when I was somewhere between five and eight years of age. In the house my father built with his own hands, I had a bedroom with horse wallpaper and a lamp that was a black knight on a black horse and, pinned to the wall, dozens of pictures of horses cut from magazines or traced from books. Are you detecting a theme here? During that time I spent Christmas with my Great Aunt Sadie in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we all ate popcorn balls and played Monopoly. It snowed, something that doesn’t happy in Albuquerque very often, and the luminaries on the tops of the adobe houses were beautiful. We four camped and traveled fearlessly and celebrated Treat Night every Friday (see my earlier post about that).

Things changed. My dad married and suddenly our family included a stepmom and two stepbrothers and, later, a half sister. Meanwhile, my mother had remarried and had a son, a half brother I’ve only come to know over the past few years. Time has been taking these people away from me, one by one. I still have one step brother, my stepmom, and the two half siblings. Over the holidays I visited my half sister and was delighted to see my father alive again in her mannerisms and turns of phrase–there was so much of him in her.

So instead of writing, I have been thinking. But enough of that. Time to write again.

Image: Birthday flowers. By Marilyn Evans