Fluency

Fluency in writing has been elusive for me, while when it comes to coding I’ve had it for a long time.

I define fluency as being able to translate something from my mind to screen as quickly as I can type. There may be a more scientific definition somewhere, but I don’t care right now.

When I figure out I need a programmatic thingie that can do this or that, it’s usually written before I start typing. It simply comes down to getting it into the computer with correct syntax. As I go I may have to tweak one thing or another, maybe to allow for unexpected errors or bad input, but things proceed quickly.

When I write, things are not this smooth. When I figure out that a character needs to go somewhere or do something I struggle. What if I am wrong? Can she do that? What if another character shows up and says “I can’t believe you did that! What kind of hack is writing you?”

It’s the opposite of fluency. It’s hesitancy.

The solution seems to be write more. Back to it.

Slow TV

It’s impossible for me to overstate how much I enjoy having this on in the background when I am working, whether it’s writing or coding.

Pluto TV has a Slow TV channel, which I run on my Roku. It runs train rides 24×7 (as near as I can tell) with some fantastic cuts, such as seasonal transitions as the train moves and the occasional picture-in-picture, with drone footage, interviews, or historical footage.

Here Comes NanoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month 2016 (NaNoWriMo) is almost here. If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it means what it says; write a novel in a month. “Writing a novel” means a 50,000-word first draft, but the criteria for success is up to the participant.

I am participating for the first time this year. I’ve decided to set my ongoing project, the book about my grandfather, and work on a fantasy novel that’s been banging around in the back of my mind for a couple of years.

When I started to focus on the book about my grandfather I was worried about making it my first project, and I was right: it’s too personal, and the plotting is a little tricky.

The fantasy story, which is primarily (but not only) about a character named Johann Hehl, is a bit more straightforward and less personal. I think it’s a unique take on the genre, but I suppose most authors start out saying that.

50,000 words are a lot in a single month, and I will need to prioritize the book over the blog. I’ll do my best to check in and at least post some quick updates.

Is anyone else participating this year? Let me know in the comments.

Stabs In the Back and Big Lies

Stab-in-the-back PostcardBy the end of September 1918, the Germans were beaten.  Earlier that year Chief-of-Staff Erich Ludendorff commanded the “Kaiserschlacht”  offensive that briefly seemed to turn the tide, but the Germans lacked the resources to support the effort. Ludendorff himself told the Kaiser and Germany’s Chancellor to ask for a ceasefire on September 29th.

But the myth that Germany’s civilian leaders betrayed their military started to spread before the Treaty of Versailles was completed.  It said that the army had won but was forced to surrender by Jews, or Bolsheviks, or Socialists. This story later became known as the Dolchstoßlegende, the “stab-in-the-back myth,” after Ludendorff said that the civilian government in Germany “stabbed him in the back”. Despite the fact that he had admitted defeat, and later recommended accepting the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

This myth is no small thing. It’s not “spiders eggs in Bubble-Yum” or “Paul is dead”. Even “FDR knew Pearl Harbor was coming” is trivial compared to this one. It was a central belief of the Nazi Party, and I’m sure you noticed the part about Jews being behind it. Ludendorff himself, who obviously knew it was false, went on to support Hitler.

The myth is strong enough that still around today. I’m not going to link to the sites, but a search yields a few “truther” sites that blame it for just about everything bad that’s happened since 1918. Which of course means that, you guessed it, the Jews are responsible. Think about it: if you believe this myth you can draw a straight line from the end of World War I to 9/11. Or, if you believe 9/11 was a conspiracy than this myth is a no-brainer. (Literally.) I’m sure there are more than a few people that hang out at Trump rallies that are very familiar with the Dolchstoßlegende.

There is, of course, absolutely no historical basis for it. I’m not going to bother debunking it any further. It’s just bullshit.

The stab-in-the-back myth is hardly the first big lie, and it’s certainly not the last. Today we have Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City, Benghazi, Obama the Muslim, and the murder of Vince Foster, to just name a few. There’s even a modern variation of the stab-in-the-back myth for Vietnam.

My book deals directly with the stab-in-the-back myth. The antagonists are right wingers that will eventually become prominent members of the Nazi Party. They believe the myth, or at least contribute heavily to spreading it. Even though I based the characters on real people, I’ve struggled a bit with bringing them to life. It’s tough to write someone who believes these things without making them seem like a cartoon character.

But today’s current events remind me that sometimes cartoon characters come to life. I can usually pick up some inspiration by checking the day’s current events.

Sigh.

On Not Being Funny Anymore

trump

In case you’ve been under a rock for the past 36 hours or so, Donald Trump has won his second primary.

This blog is not about politics. It’s supposed to be about my writing. But current events have taken an eerie, and actually quite frightening, parallel trajectory to my most important writing project.

When I was very young my father told me a story about my grandfather. In the late 1920’s, before he brought his family to the United States, my grandfather opposed the NSDAP (the Nazi party) in an election. My grandfather wasn’t running for office himself, he just spoke out against them.

My grandfather’s word was important because he was respected as a hero from World War I as well as someone educated because he had traveled outside of the village to learn a trade as a machinist.

This led to one of them trying to kill my grandfather (with a scythe) while he was working in the families’ fields outside the village. (Despite his learning a trade, my grandfather ended up responsible for the family farm because his older brother was killed in the war, leaving him the eldest.)

To be honest, even as a kid I found this a little hard to believe. I knew my grandfather as a quiet man, who disliked talking about the war, liked to tell jokes, and work in his garden at home.

A few years later I was in Germany serving in the U.S. Army. A cousin picked me up where I was stationed and took me to Liedolsheim (our family’s “home town”) to meet the family. When he introduced me to some older gentlemen I stopped being “Cousin Eric aus America” and became “Emil’s Enkel” (grandson.) The men treated me like a visiting dignitary. I heard a different version of the story, with my grandfather as a hero and his actions being important and consequential enough to still talk about 56 years later.

But I was 19, and drunk on Campari (which I only drank to be polite)  and the story still seemed unreal to me. While I never really forgot it, I spent several decades not looking into it and not thinking about it much.

Over Christmas I visited my Aunt. I was finally considering trying to write a book about my grandfather’s experience’s at the Somme and in Liedolsheim, but wanted to make sure there was enough there to write about.

Heh.

It turns out my grandfather’s disagreement with the Nazis was not isolated to a single election, and that the incident with the scythe was only the last in a series of clashes. His opposition to them lasted years, and the incident in the fields was the one that finally led to our family getting him out of the country before he was killed.

Apparently “opposing the Nazis” in the mid/late 1920’s in Liedolsheim meant opposing them in what in the capital of NSDAP activity in that part of the country. My grandfather was the vocal minority, and a troublemaker.

(It’s like we’re not even related.)

The details there, and why I misunderstood the incident when I was younger, is another post.  I only shared this to set the scene for what I have been researching of late, and why.

Trump is frequently compared to Hitler. But comparisons to Hitler and Nazis happen often enough online that it has spawned the oft-cited Godwin’s Law. As a matter of fact one of Godwin’s corollaries (often misidentified as the law) is that the mention of Hitler or Nazis in an online forum ends the discussion. Comparisons to Hitler have been overdone to the point of diminishing the understanding of his evil and impact on the world. It’s hard to take someone being called a “Nazi” seriously anymore.

The real similarity between Trump and the NSDAP is not about building walls and racism. It’s about Trump’s willingness and his ability to tap into and harness anger and dissatisfaction, regardless of the consequences. It’s about the consequences of his campaign, whether he wins or loses.

It’s about the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, too. And it’s even about the success of Bernie Sanders.

All of these things have one thing in common: anger.

The NSDAP (and several other nationalist groups) surfed a tide of anger in Germany from the end of World War I right up to 1932 when they were suddenly the majority party in the democracy that they then dismantled.

They waxed and waned in the time between WWI and 1932. They were made fun of. (“Nazi” is a pun based on a Bavarian insult.) They were outlawed (as were several other nationalist parties) and then allowed to reform after promising to not rebuild their paramilitary wing.

The NSDAP was not the first right-wing nationalist group, they were just the most successful. The end of World War I did more than set the stage for the great Depression to start early and hit hard in Germany. The formation of the immediately doomed Weimar Republic put a powerful ruling class out in the cold, and they were not pleased. Some of them formed their own parties and paramilitary groups, using connections still in the government to acquire weapons.

While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was the most bold and memorable attempt at fighting the Republic by force, it was not the only one. There were several very dangerous groups that engaged in attacks, assassinations, and attempted takeovers.

We would call these people “domestic terrorists.”

Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor just over 15 years later. Less than the time it takes us to hold 2 presidential elections.

During these 15 years the right wing groups surfed a tide of anger that raged over the Treaty of Versailles, the poor treatment of the outgoing German royalty, cultural change brought on during the Weimar Republic’s brief period of prosperity, and finally the double-tap to the back of the German economy’s head delivered by the Great Depression.

In 1928, the year my grandfather had to leave Germany, the Nazis lost 2 of their 14 seats in Parliament. Even before they lost those 2 seats they were a distant minority. The 9th of 9 parties.

But they harnessed that anger, and when the other 8 parties, stymied by gridlock, failed to govern, the NSDAP won 107 seats in 1930. Parliament failed again,  and the NDSAP won 123 more in 1932, and suddenly they were the majority.

People were tired of government that didn’t work. They were tired of high unemployment and runaway inflation. When someone told them it wasn’t their fault and gave them an enemy (really several enemies) they believed it and, in the words of Newt Gingrich just this past Saturday night, voted for the guy that will “kick over the kitchen table.”

You know what happened next. He kicked over the table.

People are angry right now. But we are not in the same shape Germany was in after they lost WWI. You might think we are after hearing the stump speeches of Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. You might think we are headed that way listening to Sanders.

But empirically, we are not even close. After severe economic hardships in the early 1920s, Germany saw relatively good times for a brief period. Then the Great Depression hit and their economy collapsed. The government collapsed soon after. Repeatedly. We’re not, by any measure, in such dire straits.

But people are still angry, and that matters. We do have structural problems. People are being left behind by what is a very strange economic recovery. So much so that they have rightly asked: “What recovery?”

So it’s easy for the other party to do what they need to do to win: paint a dire picture of a country in ruins. (Even when they hold both houses of Congress.)

You’re not the first person to watch a video of Hitler and say “Who the hell voted for that guy?” Nor are you the first person to say it about Trump.

The answer to both is: someone who is mad as hell and wants change. Unfortunately those people don’t always make rational decisions. You’re a laughingstock right up until you stop being one.

I thought Trump stopped being funny just before the Iowa caucuses. By that point, after watching his ineffectual opposition adopt some of his more hateful positions, it was apparent to me that he had stirred up enough anger and ill will that we would still be paying for it 8 years from now.

His escapades since then have done nothing to change my mind. I’m convinced that win or lose, his imprint on this country will outlive him.

Getting Over Gwen Stacy

Forty-two years later, I still haven’t gotten over the death of Gwen Stacy.

Gwen Stacy died in Amazing Spider-Man #122, cover dated July 1973.  In 1973 comics were dated 2 or 3 months in advance, so that issue hit the newsstands sometime in April or May 1973. The event actually spans issues #121 and #122, but it’s in the first few pages of #122 that we see she is really dead. I was eight years old and not reading superhero comics yet, other than the issues of Adventure Comics (with Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes) in the barbershop. As a matter of fact, I first read Spider-Man #121 & #122 thirty or so years later when they were reprinted as a trade paperback.

Yet this “death” still affected me back then.

The death of Gwen Stacy was a major event for comics in 1973. This was before death had become a temporary condition for nearly every major character in nearly every comic book. Killing a recurring character and “showing us the body” (however bloodless and antiseptic) wasn’t done back then. Sure, plenty of villains fell off cliffs, disappeared in explosions, or washed out to sea, but they always had a good story about how they didn’t really die when they showed up to terrorize again.

Gwen died. Peter held her in his arms. There was a funeral. Spider-Man was even a “person of interest” in her death.

The fan reaction was large enough that it affected the stories in Spider-man comics for the next few years. This was the mid-70s with no email or huge conventions: the only way fans could react was with pen, paper, envelope and stamp.

My first solid memory of buying comics is Amazing Spider-Man #136, which was on the newsstand about 14 months later. I remember riding my Ross Apollo 3-speed to Phillips Stationers in Midland Park to buy myself comics with money my Nana gave me for a good end-of-year report card.

Phillips had the kind of newsstand that existed from some time in the early twentieth century right up until the early nineties. Newspapers were arranged in stacks in front the register as you entered: The New York Times, The Daily News, The Record, The Star-Ledger, The New York Post, the Ridgewood News, and probably a few more I don’t remember. The smell of cigars, smoked and unsmoked, hung in the air.

At the first corner of the rightmost aisle was a spinner rack with Disney and Archie comics— the kid’s stuff as far as this nine-year-old was concerned.  I would only buy this when I was flush with money from a birthday or other holiday. The barber shop had Archie Digests each month anyway, so I could just tell my Mom I needed a haircut if I wanted to see them. (Yes, I did that.)  Further down the aisle was a wall-mounted magazine case with superhero comics. As I flipped through the comics deciding where to place my hard-earned twenty-five cents each, a steady stream of people entered for cigarettes, newspapers, and lottery tickets,

I distinctly remember buying Spidey #136. I think I may have picked up Fantastic Four #150, Mighty Marvel Western #34, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #21, and G.I. Combat #173 that week also. I had at least two dollars from that report card, so it should have been a big haul.

Amazing Spider-Man #136 had a full page recap of the death of Gwen Stacy.

recap

This was my introduction to comics’ extended plot lines. The comics I had seen had before stories that lasted one, maybe two issues. When those stories ended, everything was back to normal: Lois still didn’t know Clark was Superman. Commissioner Gordon still didn’t know Bruce Wayne was Batman. Captain America still had his mighty shield. You still really didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was angry.

But this was a recap from a comic that was 14 issues ago! More than a year! To nine-year-old Eric (well, Ricky: but that’s another story) that may as well have been the nineteenth century! And Peter (Spider-Man) was still recovering from the loss.

This page was my gateway drug to comic collecting. I immediately wanted the whole story…which meant having all of them.

Going into Midland Park meant descending the long hills of either Vreeland or Erie Avenues, and coming home meant climbing one of them in the other direction, something that my nine-year-old legs couldn’t quite manage yet. Thus began what became a weekly tradition: walking up my bike up Erie Ave while reading all of my comics before I was even halfway home.

Which was fine. I need to read them each three or four hundred more times before they were fully memorized anyway.

Phillips Stationers was just over a mile from my house. I had to cross 2 major roads, as well as ride down a third busy road to get to “downtown” Midland Park.  I did this at the tender age of nine.

My parents let me ride my bicycle a little over 2 miles round trip, at the age of 9, to buy books with my own money. Imagine this happening now, or even 10 years ago when today’s crop of “safe space” craving college kids were 9 years old.

Spider-Man #136 had the recap of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and introduced the new Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, the son of the original Green Goblin. This might sound familiar if you’ve seen any of the last five Spider-Man movies. The book was better. Trust me.

It also continued what had been an entire year of Peter mourning Gwen. This continued through the return of Gwen via a clone that Peter pretty much saw through right away. Yes, a clone. Not quite “one ring to rule them all” but not quite as sad as midi-chlorians either.

As I stood on Erie Ave and read about Gwen’s death I learned about loss. Peter Parker was hurt by Gwen’s death, and still he went on. (I hadn’t read the “origin story” where he lost his uncle yet.) Up to that point (and for many years after) I had lead a charmed life and hadn’t dealt with loss. This lesson, however abstract, taught me something.

There were many bicycle rides to get comic books and regular books after than one. I still associate cycling with reading even now.

Riding a bicycle two miles round trip to buy comics isn’t quite the pinnacle of character-building, but it’s emblematic of what an excess of caution has removed from growing up. Kids used to have to entertain themselves from time to time, and that meant things going wrong too. I actually got a flat tire once. I think a nine year old boy getting a flat while riding his bicycle to the store alone would be a Huffington Post story about parental neglect now.

But that’s a rant for another time.

On Use of the Word “Nazi”

captain-america-1Writing my grandfather’s story is going to mean writing about the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1920’s.

The word “Nazi” is loaded — for good reason. It’s what call the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP.) The Nazis are responsible for the murder of over 6 million Jews, a war that killed another 50 to 80 million people, and shaped the world in ways that still affect us today. It’s hard to list all the bad they caused because it’s easy to leave something out and offend someone. We should think twice when we refer to them and when we use their name to describe others.

But that’s what makes the word so hard to use now: it’s been diminished via overuse. It appears so often online there’s an adage about the inevitably of it being used to describe someone.

The word has been in very heavy use the past couple of years to describe our current President, political opponents from both parties, and at least of two of the current candidates.

In none of these cases is the word deserved. It’s pure hyperbole. Doing and saying things you don’t like doesn’t make someone a genocidal fascist (or even a non-genocidal fascist) it’s makes them someone who does things you don’t like.

Yes, Trump seems to have the potential, but right now that’s all it is. He’s still just a reality TV star that knows how to work an audience. That is a little scary but he’s not a dictator yet, and there is a difference between a garden-variety racist and a genocidal dictator.

My dilemma is this: I’m going to have to refer to members of the NSDAP and their party affiliation. Sometimes it will be in a character’s dialogue and the word “Nazi” will fit: it was still used as a word to insult NSDAP members then. Other times I will need to refer to the party in “neutral narration” or in this blog. What name do I use?

Which terms fits? Does the work Nazi generate more heat than light? What do you think?

 

 

 

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