Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday and Car Bombs

Today is a partly cloudy, warm Sunday -- too warm for this time of year, maybe. We went out for breakfast. On the way back, we stopped at the St. Paul Farmers Market. I bought tomatoes and red, yellow and green peppers. This is the best time of year for the market, I think. The summer vegetables are still present, and the fall foods -- apples, pumpkins, winter squashes, full sized onions, carrots and potatoes -- are also present. The sweet peppers, previously green, are turning red and yellow.

I just read Buda's Wagon, A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis. It is exactly what it says it is, 195 pages long and easy to read in a day. For the most part, it's factual. Davis does little analysis.

He starts with Mario Buda, an Italian American anarchist and friend to Sacco and Vanzetti, who in 1920 parked a horse drawn wagon packed with explosive and iron slugs opposite the offices of J.P. Morgan on Wall Street. The explosion killed 40 and injured 200. As is usually true of car bombs, a very difficult weapon to target precisely, the people killed and injured were office workers and passersby, who had the bad luck to be there. J.P. Morgan was out of the country. His partners were not harmed. Buda got away and went back back to Italy. He was never charged with the crime.

Davis sees this "horse drawn bomb" as a precursor. The car bomb came into its own with the Stern Gang and Irgun, Jewish terrorist organizations that operated against British forces in Palestine in the 1940s.

From there he traces use of the car bomb by the Viet Cong, French settlers opposed to Algerian independence, the IRA, a group of American war protesters in Madison, Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, the CIA, Pakistani Intelligence, Peru's Sendero Luminoso, Columbian drug lords, the Italian Mafia, white supremacists in South Africa, the Basque separatist group ETA, Al Qaeda and various groups in Iraq. He does not include 9/11, because he has limited himself to car bombs.

I had not realized that the Stern gang was responsible for car bombings as a systematic method of warfare; and I had not realized how important Europe was to the development of car bomb warfare.

As should be obvious, use of the car bomb is not limited to any set of political opinions or any part of the world.

Davis calls car bombs "the poor man's air force." Like aerial bombing, their main target is civilians, and their main purpose is terror. In general, they have been used by organizations which do not have a government's resources. When car bombs are used by organizations such as the CIA or Pakistani Intelligence, it's to hide a government's involvement and create an incident which can be blamed on someone else. Or so Davis argues.

One thing I really like about the book is Davis's objective tone. He is moving fast and covering a lot of ground in this book, and he does not spend a lot of time talking about how horrible the bombs are. He lets facts speak for themselves; and he does not distinguish between kinds of terrorism. To him, government acts -- such as war -- are just as bad as a car bomb. Murder is murder. Terror is terror. A person who has been chopped to pieces by shrapnel probably does not care what kind of organization is responsible.

This is a good book. Anything by Davis is worth reading.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Post I Wrote for the Wyrdsmith's Blog

I think my role here at the blog is to talk about writing from the point of view of an older writer and from the point of view of someone who has never made a living at writing. Over the years, I have gained a modest reputation and almost no money. Has it been worth it?

I would feel a lot of worse about my life, if I hadn't written.

So I am going to talk about writing as a life style, rather than a professional career, and as part of my entire life.

Why does one write? archie the cockroach said "expression is the need of my soul," and that is a pretty good answer.

I write to understand life and to make something that is interesting and valuable and uniquely mine. I have always hated the line, "everyone is replaceable." When I die, I want there to be a Eleanor shaped hole in the universe, a void that no one else can fill, except maybe a thoughtful lizard-like green matriarch on a planet in a far distant star system, who will pick up a stylus and begin to compose stories about verb tenses or the names of numbers...

A Post I wrote for the Wyrdsmiths Blog

My brother was talking about me to a neighbor. He said, "My sister is a respected science fiction writer and sells everything she sends out."

"How much does she get for a story?" the neighbor asked.

"About a thousand dollars," my brother said.

"Then she should write 50 stories a year and sell them," the neighbor said.

I usually get around $700 for a story, and the story is a novelette, about 17,500 words long. (This means I am getting 4 cents a word, which is kind of scary.) So, if I wrote and sold 50 stories a year, I would make $35,000; and I would be writing 875,000 words a year, which is the equivalent of 7 novels. I would also have a story in every single issue of Analog, Asimov's, F&SF and one or two other prozines. Interzone? Realms of Fantasy?

Back in the 1970s, Norman Spinrad said no writer should accept less than $10,000 as the advance for a first novel. That was enough to live on for a year then. I know, because I did it. To live equally well now, you would need around $40,000. The last time I heard a figure, first novels got around $5,000. I don't know what the advances for a reasonably successful midlist author are. Maybe Kelly and Tate could tell us.

I need $30,000 a year gross. I could reduce that figure by not buying coffee out and not taking vacations or buying clothes or cute little thingies such as jewelry or pens. But I am no longer willing to suffer for art, if I ever was. And I need more than $30,000, if I am going to save for retirement, which is getting pretty close.

For me to be a full time writer, I would need to write a book a year and make $30,000 off it -- and do this consistently, year after year. The fastest I ever wrote a novel was 18 months. In order to make a living at this rate of writing, I'd have to get $45,000 per novel.

I was first published in 1973. Since then, I have published 5 novels and more than 30 works of short fiction. Off the top of my head, I would say I have made $60,000 total. I am not adjusting this figure for inflation. $150 for a short story in 1973 would be about $660 now. (The stories I was selling in the 1970s were very short. I was getting 17 cents a word in 2007 dollars, which means my rate per word has declined 76% over the past 30 years.)

Leaving aside inflation, I have averaged $2,000 a year income from writing. Granted, I am a slow writer. I have averaged 27,500 published words a year, which means my average pay rate has been 7 cents a word. At that rate, I could make $7,000 or $8,000 a year, if I consistently wrote and sold 100,000 words a year.

The most I ever got for a novel was $8,500 for Ring of Swords, which was my fifth published novel. I sold it 15 years ago. $8,500 then would be $17,000 in current dollars. If I could write and sell two books a year at that rate, I could live on writing. That's about 250,000 words a year or 2-3 pages a day, which would be doable. I think, at this point in my life, I know enough about writing so I could produce at that level, though it would be a lot easier if I didn't have to work close to full time. But do I have that much to say?

Kelly McCullough added a note to this post. From what he's heard, the advances for midlist writers are in the $10,000-30,000 range. So, maybe, at the high end, enough to get by on... If one can write a book or two a year...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dinosaurs and birds

I know exactly when I became a bird watcher. It was in 1974, and Robert Bakker had an article on dinosaurs in Scientific American. In it, he mentioned the new theory that birds were descended from dinosaurs. It was a magical moment. My beloved dinosaurs were not dead. They were all around me. I wrote a poem:

Little did I realize
That every summer breeze
Brings the sounds of dinosaurs
Singing in the trees.

And in the cool of morning,
When dew is barely dry,
The cousins of Triceratops
Soar across the sky.

Triceratops is dead and gone,
Which proves the worth of might.
Maybe we should put our trust
In music and in flight.

I know that dinosaurs are descended from therapods, and they are pretty remotely related to Triceratops, much farther away then cousins. But it works for the meter, and Tyrannosaurus does not; and my poetic license is around here somewhere.

If you think I am goofy, going on about birds, think of me as watching small, feathered dinosaurs...

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Patrick had to go to work Friday. My brother and I went to the Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota and the Walker Art Center. AFSME is on strike at the U at the moment. However, I did not see a picket line at the museum; and we didn't spend any money inside. I probably should not have gone, but my brother wanted to see the museum.

I like the Weisman. There was a show of contemporary Chinese photography, which was interesting, since it focused on how the lives of ordinary Chinese are changing; and part of the permanent collection was on display, works from the 1920s on.

The Walker was less interesting. A big show had just closed, and the next big show -- Frida Kahlo -- has not opened. So we looked at works from the permanent collection. Most of it seemed fairly recent, done in the past 20 or 30 years. I stopped paying attention to contemporary museum art in the 1970s. My brother has kept better track. But too much of the work in the Walker seemed conceptual rather than sensual, and the concepts did not interest me.

Too much contemporary art is designed to be seen in galleries or museums. It is large, because it's meant to be in a large space; and it is designed to make an immediate impact, because the viewers will move on after a minute or two. So there is not a lot of depth and subtlety and complexity.

I like art I can imagine in my house: fairly small and complex enough so I could look at it every day and not get bored.

We then went on to Indigo, a wonderful store in north Minneapolis which carries Asian and African art: amazing stuff, bowls woven out of colored telephone wire, carved wooden replicas of coke bottles, Japanese ceramics, antique jewelry and furniture. I bought a small bronze or brass bird from Ghana and looked at silver Tuareg earrings.

We talked about the Walker with one of the owners. He said the Walker's attendance has been going down and down, and museums should be devoted to dead artists. This is not a bad idea. It would force artists to make work for ordinary people, and it would mean that museums would have time to judge work. Rather than chasing the latest trend, they would be looking at an artist's entire oeuvre, his or her place in art history.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Memorial Gathering

My cousin Gina died in March, very suddenly of a cancer which was found only a few weeks before she died. A memorial gathering was held this past weekend. I flew out to the Bay Area to attend. The gathering took place at the Middle Eastern Children's Alliance, which is located in a small building in the Flats, the less classy lowland part of Berkeley. Framed drawings by Middle Eastern children cover the walls, along with examples of Palestinian embroidery: shirts and dresses and hangings. High on the walls are posters of Noam Chomsky, Pete Seeger, Edward Said and Rachel Corrie.

My favorite drawing, done by an eight-year-old, was a rider on a winged horse, high in the sky above Jerusalem.

My sister-in-law and I cornered the executive director and asked her what exactly the organization did. She said, "When I tell people, they either think it's wonderful, or they hate it."

MECA sends medical supplies, school supplies, clothing and food to children in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

My brother was acting as MC for the gathering, so wore a handsome suit. My sister-in-law was also handsomely dressed. I worried about being under dressed until I saw the rest of the attendees. I guess I could call them middle-aged counterculture people. They looked pretty much like me.

There was music at the gathering, provided by a friend of Gina's, who played the guitar. The songs were "If I had a hammer," "Last night I had the strangest dream," "This land is your land," John Lennon's "Imagine," and Paul Simon's "Feeling Groovy." The people at the gathering knew most of the words and joined in. According to the singer, these were the songs she sang with Gina the last time she saw her.

People who had known Gina at various times in her life spoke about their memories. My favorite story was told by her ex-partner. At one point one of their friends was going through a very rough period and thinking of suicide. Gina's ex-partner asked Gina if she had ever been so low that death seemed like a good idea. Gina thought very briefly, then said, "Oh no! There are so many good things to eat!"

What else can I say? Gina was a life long political activist, concerned with peace and justice issues; she worked 20 years for a Native American pre-school run by the Oakland public school system; and she raised a son to adulthood. The people who spoke talked about her ability to make and keep friends. One of the people who spoke had known Gina since grade school.

She liked eating out, as does pretty much everyone in my family. She seemed mostly happy. I have decided the best way to remember her is to be happy and send some money to MECA. And maybe I will eat some good food.

Bird watching

I went out to the Bay Area for a memorial gathering for the cousin who died in March. I may write about that later. My brother came back to the Twin Cities with me. Wednesday Patrick and I and my brother drove down along the Mississippi. As we crossed the river at Red Wing, we saw a flock of large white birds on the water. Patrick saw one clearly; it was a pelican. We got down to Lake Pepin and stopped at an overlook. The lake was bright blue under a bright blue sky and dotted with white pelicans.

Yesterday we drove to Crex Meadows, a wildlife preserve in western Wisconsin. It's a mixture of marsh, prairie and scrub forest, which is being restored to its original (pre-European) condition.

The sky was overcast, and we ran into some rain, but it had stopped by the time we reached Crew Meadows. The clouds broke apart, though the light remained silvery, which meant it wasn't entirely easy to identify birds.

As we entered the preserve, we saw a large dark bird fly down into the bushes by the road. We stopped. It was an immature bald eagle, which flew up and perched in a nearby tree, where it stayed while we got a very good look at it.

We continued along the road and saw trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, yellow shafted flickers, vesper sparrows, marsh hawks and red tail hawks, as well as many ducks and little, brown birds which we could not identify. The little, brown birds moved too quickly; and we couldn't make out the markings on the ducks, due to the light.

All in all, a satisfying couple of days.

I hope Patrick and I make it back to Crex Meadows later in the fall. At the height of migration, there are thousands of sand hill cranes and other birds present. I would not mind seeing 5,000 sand hill cranes, though a dozen or so is also nice.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Living in Difficult Times II

Another technique that helps me is keeping a list of improvements during my lifetime. I do this so I won't end up as a sour old lady, saying, "Things were better when I was young."

The Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow; the second wave of feminism; Gay Liberation; the end of the draft; Native Rights movements throughout the world, including the current movements in Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador; the Environmental Movement; the test ban treaty...

Antibiotics, the personal computer, the Internet, power wheelchairs, cell phones, a lot of medical technology...

The Dalai Lama was in Minneapolis a few years back, visiting the local Tibetan community, and I went to hear him. He said that he once asked the Queen Mother of England, who was then alive, though very old, if the world had gotten better or worse in her lifetime.

"Better," she replied. "Beyond question."


"When I was young, women and non-English people were not seen as equal."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Living in Difficult Times

How does one live in bad times without becoming chronically depressed and angry? This is an increasing problem as I age. Many of the hopes I has when I was young have not come to fruition. It's likely that I will die before the world improves much. How can I enjoy life?

One solution is to focus on personal pleasure and ignore the rest of the world. I can't do this, though my personal life is pretty good.

Another solution is to pretend the world's problems are not happening. Deny the Greenhouse Effect, deny poverty and oppression. Everything is fine. La-la-la. But it seems to me we ought to know what's going on in the world, and that we need to face problems honestly. Patrick spent years working in locked psych units. He once said, "No situation is made better by ignorance or stupidity."

Some people use their anger to fuel activism, and I admire this. But most activism involves work with people, and I am an introvert. Most of the time, I find dealing with people draining. So activism doesn't usually help me enjoy life.

These days, I limit my activism to sending money to good causes, writing to politicians, working for a nonprofit with a mission I like, and writing fiction and nonfiction about issues that seem important to me. If I were going to pick a single theme in my fiction it's the struggle against prejudice and the social conditions that limit people's lives.

Our brief time on Earth should be as pain-free as possible, as productive and fulfilling and happy as possible. That should be the goal of every society.

The best solution I can find to focus on ordinary pleasures -- a drive to Duluth, a visit to an art museum, time spent with friends, a walk on a nice day, a good movie -- while remaining aware that much in the world needs improving.

I know that depression is utterly unproductive, and that anger is not a good idea, unless it leads to productive action.

And there has to be a way to acknowledge the world's problems without brooding on them, until they ruin the ordinary pleasures of life.


Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

It looks as if the Bush Administration is getting ready to attack Iran. People who watch Washington more carefully than I do say this is real. Most likely it will be an air attack, possibly using nuclear weapons.

Remember what has already happened. The U.S. made an unprovoked attack on Iraq, invading and occupying the country. The invasion has continued longer than WWII. More than 100,000 people have died. (I suspect hundreds of thousands, if we add up everyone who would have lived if the war hadn't happened. The old people who die of heat, the children who die of malnutrition and disease are all war victims.) Millions have been displaced. The infrastructure of the country has been destroyed. Irreplaceable art has been lost. Irreplaceable archaeological sites have been destroyed. The origin place for western civilization has been reduced to rubble.

Why was this done? We still don't know. Maybe to control the country's oil. Maybe to deny the oil to Europe and China. Maybe because Bush and Chaney wanted to show the world how scary they are.

Now the Bush Administration wants to do this again to another ancient, lovely country. I was in Iran briefly as a kid, visited the national museum in Tehran and saw the blue mosques and palaces in Isfahan. I do not want the people there -- who struck me as perfectly nice people -- killed. I don't want the blue mosques destroyed.

I think it's time for all of us to email or call to our congresspeople and say, NO MORE WAR. And I think we need to figure out what we are going to do, if Congress cannot stop Bush or does not try.

We cannot get through another war by going to the mall.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day

This has been a very quiet weekend. We ran errands on Saturday; and I did some house cleaning on Sunday, with the help of Rumi (or Roomie) our robot vacuum cleaner. (The spelling of the robot's name is not firmly established.) Monday we went to Duluth. It was a lovely day, sunny and cool in the morning, sunny and warm in the afternoon, with almost no haze, either heat haze or pollution. A lot of yellow autumn wild flowers are blooming. About half of them are goldenrod; the rest are flowers I don't know.

We stopped at the DM&I docks in Duluth and took photos of the Mesabi Miner, which was loading taconite there. The boat was in the dock's shadow, and my photos came out very dark; so I am not including any.

Then we went to Canal Park. We arrived just in time to see the Alpena come in through the canal. Patrick had his camera, but I left mine in the car for no good reason. So I have no photos of the Alpena. The Paul R. Tregurtha, the biggest vessel on the Lakes, was due in a couple of hours later, which gave us time to wander around the shops in Canal Park. When we first began visiting Duluth 25 years ago, the area was a rundown industrial area. Now it is full of art galleries and gift shops.

I am sorry about the loss of industry; but I'm glad something has moved into the old industrial buildings; and I'm glad Duluth has managed to recreate itself as a tourist center. Jobs are jobs. In addition, I like Scandinavian design, handmade pottery and jewelry, and North Woods art. I feel a little guilty about liking the last. I was raised in art museums and trained as an art historian. Surely I ought to like stuff that is more demanding that photos of wolves and pine trees and ceramic ravens and so on. But the people doing the work are real artists, who know what they are doing; and I happen to like pine trees and wolves and ravens.

This time, I bought a North Shore calendar for 2008 and a pair of Smart Wool socks, after looking at art I would have liked to buy -- except, as I age, owning things no longer seems quite so appealing. A loan would be nice. Could I rent art on a monthly basis and return it when I decide it's time to free myself of possessions? I would love to rent art.

Anyway, we finally went back to the shipping canal and watched the Tregurtha come in. It's a big boat, 1013.5 feet long, 105 feet wide, with a capacity of 68,000 tons.

This time I had my camera. A couple of photos are above. In case you are wondering, we were on the far side of the canal this time, so the angle is different from the photos of the Algolake.

The Algolake

These are a couple of photos of the Algolake, taken at Canal Park in Duluth several weeks ago. I never got around to downloading them from my camera. The first photo shows the boat approaching the canal. The second shows it turning after passing under the Aerial Bridge. Patrick always crops out the sail boats and power boats. He wants only the working vessels. But I like the pleasure craft; and taking a sail boat out on Superior can be hard work. It's a dangerous body of water, but also very lovely on a sunny day in summer.

The Algolake is 730 feet long, 75 feet wide and has a capacity of 32,150 tons.