Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Seventeen: Inside of a Dog, It’s Too Dark to Read

Today’s writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 17: “Favorite childhood book”.

This is where regular readers of the Blogge may get that feeling of slowly dawning horrible realization … so this is why he is why he is.


In response to this prompt, I tried to think back to the various books that made an impression on me, usually thanks to a teacher (darn; Teacher Appreciation Week was earlier this month).

[] My first grade teacher, Ms. Baird, sent a couple of us off to the school library to go look for a book we would like to read. (That was in the age where a teacher wouldn’t be reprimanded for deviating from the standardized-test prep curriculum.) I ended up with a book called “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet”. (See again the first paragraph of this post.)

My research about this book tells me three important things: [1] there were actually eight of those books in a series, [2] based on a television series of the 1950s, and [3] written by several authors who all used a pseudonym, and had a technical advisor. No word as to whether the technical advisor’s name was also a pseudonym.

[] Some time during the third grade I think, I found a book on the classroom shelves of my teacher, Ms. Howe, called “The Mouse and the Motorcycle”. It was written by the estimable Beverly Cleary (who, trivia alert, celebrated her 100th birthday last month!), of “Ramona” book series fame … about whom West Chester University professor of children’s literature Pat Pflieger wrote, “Cleary’s books have lasted because she understands her audience. She knows they’re sometimes confused or frightened by the world around them, and that they feel deeply about things that adults can dismiss.”

At that time I felt deeply about a mouse who finds a toy motorcycle in a house in which he lives, and rides it around, making its engine work by making a vrrrrroom!! engine noise. Talk about environmentally-friendly fuels! (Although, oi, the noise pollution…)

[] I have already blogged about my eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Tornrose, organizing a creative writing / dramatic reading after-school activity (not listed in the school yearbook, therefore I suspect he wasn’t drawing a stipend; therefore this was out of the goodness of his heart and his interest in expanding our middle-school minds a bit) … during which, most memorably, I and four of my classmates had Shakespeare and his mighty “Macbeth” revealed unto us.

We even got to say “out, damn spot!” on school grounds.


But unquestionably, the book which had the biggest childhood impact on me, I would judge, was one that I found at a church yard sale on Cape Cod during one family summer vacation. It was an oversized book, packed equally with illustrations and text regarding a topic that would permanently re-define my idea of what was funny and how to express it.

It was called Why a Duck: Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies.

I was ten years old.

And only now, at the end, do you understand…

I was doomed.

May 17, 2016 Posted by | blogging, books, education, humor, language, literature, teachers, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

…In a Galaxy Far, Far Too Grey

[Nerd alert. And book-report alert. Both. At the same time. You have been warned.]

There are just some books that you go back to, over and over again. Either they’re good enough to re-read … or there’s something else about them that brings you back … or both.

I have one of those – and you’re going to giggle.

Star Wars: Order 66: A Republic Commando Novel”.

I know; half of you just summarily bailed out.

I mean good grief, Rob, the title’s not only got one colon … it’s got two.

Well, look, it’s from the big wide sweeping (and now, thanks to J.J. Abrams and Disney, defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe, so obviously it gets the “Star Wars: …” treatment. And it’s the fourth book in a series with an overarching title, so it gets that, too … a title which admittedly sounds like a first-person shooter video game. … Sure enough, a decade ago, “Republic Commando” debuted as a prequel-trilogy-era video game, and not long afterward, author Karen Traviss began her series of tie-in novels.

Oh, Rob. You got caught up in one of those examples of product placement literature? How could you?

I’ll be honest: several summers ago I was loitering at my local public library, and what the heck, for no money down I could take a chance on a silly Star Wars novel – especially one with a title that referenced the moment it all went south for the heroic Jedi. And, methodical person that I am, I noted that it was book four, so I started with book one … and a startlingly short time later, arrived at “Order 66”. A guilty pleasure, to be sure, but a book! With paper pages to turn!

Let me yield a portion of my time to the exciting! book jacket! prose!:

As a battle-scarred era nears its end, a shattering power play is about to stun the entire galaxy … and set in motion events that will alter destinies and resound throughout history.

Even as the Clone Wars are about to reach an explosive climax, no one knows if victory will favor the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) or the Separatists. But no matter who wins, the stakes are highest for elite Special Ops clones like the Republic Commandos in Omega and Delta squads – and the notorious renegade Advance Recon Commando troopers known as Null ARCs. With Republic forces stretched to the max and casualties mounting, the last thing these beleaguered warriors need to hear is that Chancellor Palpatine is keeping vast armies of secret clone troops in reserve. … Caught in the treacherous dealings of their leaders, and locked in the battles of their lives, the disillusioned Null ARCs and Commandos nonetheless fight with everything they’ve got, determined to wrest victory from the Seps and save the galaxy. But even the deadliest weapons may not be powerful enough to defeat the real menace. And nothing will stop the apocalyptic horror unleashed when Palpatine utters the chilling words, “The time has come. Execute Order 66.” Translation: the Jedi have tried to stage a coup, and all must be shot on sight.

With their faith in the Republic and their loyalty to their Jedi allies put to the ultimate test, how will the men of Omega and Delta squads react to the most infamous command in galactic history?

Spoiler alert: Order 66 means the end for a lot of Jedi.

But during the first seven-eighths of the book, the inexorable approach of Order 66, which readers know is coming but none of the characters do, isn’t the only compelling subplot going on.

In the space of four novels, author Karen Traviss deals with little tiny insignificant issues like: are clone troopers, created and bred for combat, human? Do they know anything other than how to fight? Are they slaves? Do they have free will? Are they capable of disobeying orders if they believe the orders to be unjust? Do they suffer from PTSD and other difficulties that “regular” human soldiers do? (Spoiler alert: yes to all of that; and about that that last, yes, if not nearly as soon as “regular” humans.)

And she makes some very pointed points, while spinning tales of the Grand Army of the Republic and its galaxy-spanning campaign against the armed-insurgent Separatists.  (Who, it is rumored, have many many many many many droids and other weapons of war ready to unleash electric death upon the good citizens of the Republic, and thank heaven for the Grand Army and an on-alert citizenry!, … and that rumor is mongered firmly by Republic politicians and PR people.) Traviss uses the GAR, its activities, and those of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (pre-Emperor) and the Republic as allegory for various recent military and public-relations campaigns that exist in our real world, starting not so long ago and not in a galaxy far, far away. The Star Wars universe has defense contractors, and fudged budget numbers, and military strategies that seem to emphasize maintenance of the status quo over making real headway in the conduct of a war, for reasons which the average citizen has no access to, let alone any idea about …

(Usually I try to remember one of the things that “space opera” doesn’t traditionally do, but which “science fiction” assuredly does: it allows an author to make veiled commentary upon pressing issues of the current moment. Hmmmm. Wars carried out via off-the-books funding … where have I heard that before?…)

As well, Traviss has taken some serious heat from some corners of Star Wars fandom, arguably because she dared to write books that don’t always show the good guys as good guys, and occasionally feature protagonists who do dastardly things in the service of the right cause and the right reasons. Hers is a very grey universe, compared with George Lucas’ original, much more 1930s Errol-Flynn movie-serial, black-and-white universe.

The heat that Traviss has faced can be traced, in part, to her reluctance to paint the Jedi Knights as the unfailingly, unflinchingly moral people that we have been used to seeing them as – from the first soliloquy of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in a small Tatooine hut, until the moment when the Jedi finally figure out that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Lord they were hunting for all along, and so clouded was their vision that they never saw it coming … and even after that, they’re sure that they’re still good people who just missed a signpost or two along the way.

Broadly, Traviss suggests that it’s not the Dark Side of the Force that clouded the Jedi’s vision … it was the Jedi’s moral degeneration, it was that they allowed their principles to slip – it was their willingness to be manipulated, to be changed from “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” and into the Republic’s corps of military generals, leading troops in military campaigns that by their very nature ran counter to the How To Be A Proper Jedi instruction manual.

Traviss shows this gradual shift through the eyes of Jedi General Etain Tur-Mukan. For three novels, Etain leads a group of clone troops but refuses to treat them as faceless, expendable automata, as many other Jedi do. (In a curious aside, one of the clone troopers calls Jedi General Obi-Wan Kenobi arrogant and egocentric, but concedes that he’s one of the few Jedi who address troopers by the names which many of them have chosen for themselves.) Instead she treats them as humans, not just as soldiers with operating numbers but as individuals with names and personalities and unique qualities, which in fact they do have. All of the above, in spades.

And because of that, two important things happen: [1] her troopers view her, and only a select few other Jedi, as worthy enough of their respect that when Order 66 is put in place, they look the other way.

And [2] … she and Darman, one of the troopers in her squad, become friendly, then friends, then more than friends, then lovers, then parents-to-be (but Darman doesn’t know), then parents. (A necessary but clunky soap opera subplot then occurs: how will he react when she finally tells him he has a son? The answer happens to be: first he freaks out; then he realizes that he’s a father, a role which his clonemaster creators on the drippy planet Kamino probably never planned for or even imagined. Even the clunky subplots get complicated and interesting.)

The mighty Wikipedia takes over the narrative for a moment (um, yes, super spoiler alert, and this time I’m not being facetious … if you want to read the book, pause here, please):

Chancellor Palpatine enacts Order 66, which means that all clones must kill off their Jedi commanders. Etain managed to have renounced her Jedi ways prior to Order 66’s enactment and married Darman … over a comm message. But Etain is trapped on a bridge on [the Republic capital planet] Coruscant with many other citizens of the Republic by clone troopers who are scanning for any Jedi to be killed in the crowd. Darman and several other clones arrive to extract Etain, but Jedi are found among the crowd. And during the ensuing battle, Etain protects a clone from being killed by a Jedi wielding a lightsaber, [is wounded and dies].

Again, spoiler alert: Order 66 means the end for a lot of Jedi – Etain included.

That scene, in which (I told you to look away, didn’t I?) Etain dies, is just awful. Not badly-written awful – Karen Traviss, in my book, is one of the Expanded Universe’s very best wordsmiths. Instead, it’s a horrific moment, exquisite in its depiction of simultaneous utter chaos and utter heartbreak, that a reader both can see coming and can hope won’t come to pass. Our hero might make it to safety; she might not … she’s about to make it to safety; and suddenly an event beyond her control places her squarely in the path of not-safety … and the absolute worst possible thing happens, both for her and for her clone trooper of a husband, who is standing mere yards away when it all goes down, and when it all goes horribly, permanently wrong.

She’s dead. No, she can’t be. … She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone– It wouldn’t stop. … She can’t be dead. She can’t be. She was right there, right in front of me.

What would go through your mind if you saw your mate murdered in cold blood? At any time, but particularly in a moment of wrong-place, wrong-time bad luck … and on top of that, while instinctively trying to do the right thing, to save someone else’s life, instead of laying low, keeping quiet, saving his or her own skin?

She’s dead. She’s dead.” Darman said it, heard it, and hated himself. He’d said it; he’d made it real.

Traviss endeavors to show her readers what went through Etain’s husband’s mind, and it ain’t pretty … and I can only imagine that it’s just about spot-on. Fortunately, clone trooper helmets can offer a degree of privacy …

Darman could still see Etain and the lightsaber like a freeze-frame in his HUD when the holoimage emitter had gone haywire. He let it stay, switched off all comms, and screamed Etain’s name over and over in his silenced purgatory until he couldn’t scream anymore.

That scene comes 87 percent of the way through the book (or so my Kindle tells me), and it’s spectacularly painful to read … but is also so compelling that I’ve come back to it. Over and over again, over the course of the years since I first read it. I always start this book from the beginning and read those first 87 percent. Reading only the death scene seems voyeuristic, too thrill-seeking.

the Darman who’d come to think he had a right to a life beyond the army, who’d loved a girl and married her, seen her die, and held a son for far too short a time before it was all snatched away from him – that Darman was too fragile to survive an indefinite period in this alien environment. That man would have to wait in suspension until the time was right for him to come alive again, if that time ever came at all.

Not bad for a video game tie-in novel.

So much for Star Wars as mere escapist entertainment.

Tragedy; politics; issues of warfare and of the people conscripted to fight it, and for whom … weren’t we supposed to be enjoying a facsimile of the old 1930s adventure movies? Zap guns and rocket ships and fun? This is Star Wars, right?

Now … let’s see if the upcoming The Force Awakens Star Wars for the 21st century – decides to try and straddle that line …

November 20, 2015 Posted by | books, entertainment, movies, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

By What Small Men

This is by no means an essay about politics. My political leanings have nothing to do with this. Nothing.

Today, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 torture program. Actually what the Committee released was a summary of its actual report. The summary was 528 pages long. The report itself is more than 6,000 pages long.

I’m trying to decide if I have six thousand pages’ worth of details in my whole life. Verbose as I may be.

Five years of investigation have yielded a report that condemns CIA personnel who ran the torture program during the George W. Bush presidential administration. (That program has been called the “enhanced interrogation program” by many; but in one of his columns (to be found at esquire.com/blogs/politics/) today, political writer Charlie Pierce wrote, “[a]nyone who still calls this ‘enhanced interrogation’ is an idiot and a coward and I have no time for them.” He’s right, and that phrase will not be used here, not that I’d planned on it.)

True, the CIA has a reputation for carrying out intelligence endeavors without checking in with any of the actual branches of American government; but it was specifically authorized to carry out this program by Justice Department lawyers David Addington and John Yoo, among others.

[T]he Justice Department drafted memos providing the brutal program with a veneer of legality,” said the Senate report. And by this time, many articles and books have been written which identify the people within the Bush administration who fully supported the various legal memoranda which were created to justify all this genuine awfulness, this inhuman activity to be carried out by humans against other humans.

On the one hand, during the Nuremburg trials after World War II, no quarter was given to Nazi personnel who claimed to be “merely following orders”. Sorry, said the prosecutors; that doesn’t cut it. That won’t get you off the hook. Perhaps we can’t know what kind of pressure was exerted upon Nazis who ranked anywhere below Hitler (it may have been difficult to just resign), or upon American intelligence personnel who were authorized to do this, this, and this to prisoners in order to interrogate them fully.

As Charlie Pierce also noted today, there are plenty of CIA agents who have been properly excoriated for what they actually did, but who may also be feeling thrown under the bus somewhat – at the very least because the people, the leaders, whose orders they were carrying out appear to have largely escaped the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ire, at least within their report. Many CIA personnel are done; meanwhile, their superiors of that time are still being interviewed on CNN, are still giving speeches, and astonishingly are still being asked for their opinions about what American foreign policy should be and how it should be carried out.

Great. Thanks to them, the United States of America has ceded the moral high ground in international relations for a good long while.

There are a number of writers, whose work I have read in the last 48 hours, who suggest that all this was not merely done “in our name” … which is bad enough … but that it was done by us, the United States of America, and we all bear responsibility.

Sorry, but I reject this idea. I didn’t authorize such miserable things, and you likely didn’t. My friends wouldn’t have, and I bet your friends wouldn’t have either. Most decently-adjusted people wouldn’t.

Sound a little naïve? Perhaps.

But beyond such lofty, American-history-class thoughts as “our representative government has failed us”, and “if we can only muster 30 percent turnout in an election, then we get the government we deserve”, and such … I can’t think of a single person that I know personally, in any of my spheres of life – family, personal, professional – who would consider any of the torture techniques of the Bush years as remotely okay, never mind actually participate in them.

I’m willing to bet that even some of the people who jump on the Internet and post genuinely awful comments in the comment sections … even some of the people who make chest-thumping noises about taking people they don’t agree with and doing horrible things to them just because they believe something different … even some of the Ted Nugents of the world … … if push came to shove, I’d still bet that the vast, vast, VAST majority of those people would still physically buckle if given the instruction to actually commit the acts that the Senate report detailed, themselves, with their own hands.

(I know, I know, there are all those intriguing science experiments wherein people were instructed to administer electric shocks to other people who gave wrong quiz answers and those shock-administering people’s behavior seemed to suggest that the veneer of civilization can be thin indeed. My delicate mind would prefer that those didn’t exist, this moment. And the book Lord of the Flies, as well.)

I’ve written previously in this space about empathy, or the lack thereof. There are those, assuredly, who do lack. But I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of American citizens still possess some … enough, at least, to recoil from orders like those that the CIA agents were given. I’d be willing to hope so, at least. Again, this probably brands me as naïve.

The people in the higher echelons of the Bush Administration – knowing that they wouldn’t ever have to be the ones to use their own hands in this effort – didn’t flinch. They figuratively pulled the trigger. According to a lot of articles and books that I’ve read in the past few years, they did so enthusiastically.

Which brings me to yesterday’s New York Times editorial page.

In it, there’s an op-ed piece (found at nytimes.com/2014/12/09/opinion/pardon-bush-and-those-who-tortured.html?_r=0) by Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; an essay which makes a remarkable suggestion (for an ACLU leader; and for anyone who has been supportive of any effort to prosecute the bastards):

Before President George W. Bush left office, a group of conservatives lobbied the White House to grant pardons to the officials who had planned and authorized the United States torture program. My organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, found the proposal repugnant. Along with eight other human rights groups, we sent a letter to Mr. Bush arguing that granting pardons would undermine the rule of law and prevent Americans from learning what had been done in their names.

But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.”

The way to establish this, Mr. Romero said, is indeed to pardon these people for authorizing and ordering the torture. After all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?

Clever, these natives.

I am hugely conflicted about this idea.

At first, I recoiled as much as Mr. Romero did. A pardon, to some, might imply exoneration … might suppose a lifting of guilt … and, in extreme interpretations, might even suggest forgiveness.

No. No, damn it.

The current President, whom I admire, and who upon his inauguration immediately instructed the CIA to knock off the torture … nonetheless feared political fallout too greatly to put into action the means of holding the proper people accountable for the policies they justified and the orders they gave. And now, for many (although not all) of these people, the statute of limitations has run out. That’s one of the things that I can not appreciate Mr. Obama for. Maybe there were backroom Beltway highest-levels-of-government so-secret-even-the-Prez-knows-little-of-them reasons why it was a fool’s errand to even think that such holding-accountable would ever happen. I’m not a conspiracy theorist; but my God, there are days …

He hasn’t – or, all right, we haven’t – even been able to properly try and convict the Addingtons and Yoos and Rumsfelds and Rices yet. A pardon could give them the idea that they’ve dodged the biggest bullet of their lives. Unless they don’t require that idea. Unless, as former Vice President Dick Cheney takes every possible televised opportunity to insist, they feel that if they had it to do all over again they’d not change a thing because it was justified and correct and right and so am I.

This interpretation of a pardon strikes me, at least, as unfair: because those who might be pardoned don’t deserve this peace of mind – not after what they put other people through. Not just the other people who were on the receiving end of the torture, but the other people who went to fight wars (utilizing intelligence, gathered from tortured prisoners, which has been shown to be inaccurate and useless and therefore actively unhelpful to them), and to die, and to leave behind families to grieve and never get their loved ones back (or just return physically and psychologically damaged) and wonder what in the hell it was any good for.

Then I got thinking … maybe, just maybe the pardon really would do what President Obama has not: label these people, unequivocally, once and for all, as criminals. “An explicit pardon would lay down a marker, signaling to those considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted,” wrote Mr. Romero.

And after all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?

The jury inside my head is still out.

But what makes me certain that at the end of this particular figurative day, the label of “criminal” needs to be assigned, and made to stick, is this:

Former President George W. Bush approved these measures. Captain goes down with the ship. Fish rots from the head. Name your aphorism; it’s all there.

Nations would be terrified if they knew by what small men they are in reality ruled.”  -Charles de Gaulle

Oh! …That’s a good one, too.

In his remarkable book, “Bush on the Couch”, professor of clinical psychology Dr. Justin A. Frank created a psychoanalyst’s profile of Mr. Bush, tracing his character from childhood through presidency. He utilized a startling amount of circumstantial evidence to identify and analyze Bush’s patterns of thought, action, and communication.

Two of Frank’s cited anecdotes stand out, to me:

First, this. In May 2000, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof quoted Bush’s childhood friend Terry Throckmorton: “’We were terrible to animals,’ recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. ‘Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,’ Mr. Throckmorton said. ‘Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.’”

As Baltimore Sun reporter Miriam Miedzian subsequently wrote in September 2000: “So when he was a kid, George W. enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up. Should this be cause for alarm? How relevant is a man’s childhood behavior to what he is like as an adult? And in this case, to what he would be like as president of the United States?” Dr. Frank lays out why he thinks it’s very relevant indeed.

And second, this. Dr. Frank references commentator Tucker Carlson’s interview with then-Texas Governor Bush about how his state’s Board of Pardons had arrived at the determination of the clemency plea of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker. During the interview, Bush alluded to a TV interview which Tucker had given to Larry King. Carlson wrote:

In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, ‘A number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.’

‘Did you meet with any of them?’ I ask.

Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them,” he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for [the interview]. I watched his interview with [Karla Faye] Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’”

What was her answer?” I wonder.

‘Please,’” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “’don’t kill me.’”

I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.”

The former President was interviewed this past Sunday on CNN, as news of the Senate torture report’s impending release was spreading. He said this:

We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots, and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Their contributions to this country, Mr. Bush, were both inhumane acts on a personal level and also disastrous acts on a foreign-policy level, on an international-relations level, and on a less-intellectually-driven, patriotic-music-laden “what this great nation stands for” level.

And since you (and your Administration colleagues) gave the orders, gave the okay, pulled the trigger … that means that those contributions are your contributions.

And if you think that this means that, via the commutative property, you are a patriot? …

I beg your pardon.

December 9, 2014 Posted by | books, civil rights, current events, Famous Persons, government, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment