Eerie or Terrifying?

Ah, it’s the season for plastic skeletons, fake tombstones, spiderwebs all over, and rings of dancing ghosties. I like cute or fun Halloween decor, and eerie special effects. Gruesome, horrifying, and terrifying things don’t really need to be in front yards, in my opinion. Now, granted, one person’s “eerie” can be another person’s “terrifying.” But, um, let’s just say that gore isn’t really a great thing to impose on the neighbors.

This is one of those places where my “it’s your property, do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone or keep other people from enjoying their property” beliefs collide with “I don’t appreciate that and there are small kids in the neighborhood.” Skeletons are OK, fake tombstones are OK, obviously fake spiders and webs, witches who have collided with trees, dancing ghosts . . . Especially witty things, like the guy with the skeleton in a lawn chair holding a phone and a sign that reads, “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line.” Or the inflatable pirate ship, black cat, dragons, cute stuff that’s kid friendly.

The pretty realistic headless horseman on a horse still held together by scraps of muscle and sinew, with glowing red eyes? Um . . . I was impressed, it was spooky, and there are no young kids on that block that I’ve seen, so hey, go for it. The slightly too realistic dead dude in the tree with a motion detector that makes screaming sounds when someone approaches? No, please.

I suspect my difficulty is that I have an all too vivid imagination at times, and a low tolerance for fake gore. I’ve dealt with real gore, and real-life scary things. Halloween as a public festival should be fun, eerie, a little creepy for the older kids who like creepy. That’s great, and I enjoy costumes and corn mazes and the like. Halloween as a private, or at least indoors, event can be terrifying for people who enjoy that kind of thing. There are some local haunted houses (commercial type) that I won’t go into for love nor money. I do not enjoy that kind of thing, and my reaction to jump scares is probably not what other people want to see. Gore and fake blood isn’t witty or clever, at least not 99% of the time.

Likewise, horror is not a genre that I enjoy most of the time, especially not on screen. Splatter-fests just make me want to reach for firearms or other appropriate means of dealing with the monster of the week. Written horror can be better, but I avoid a lot of it because it pokes places in my mind that don’t need to be poked. Plus, many writers don’t seem to do psychological horror well, at least not the best-sellers I’ve sampled recently. Manly Wade Wellman and H.P. Lovecraft, early Stephen King, they all left things out, left mysteries lurking in the shadows, implied a lot that the reader could fill in for herself. That sort of thing I can appreciate, although King . . . His endings can leave something to be desired, in my opinion.

Bring on the wit, bring on the humor, bring on the spooky! Please leave the gore in the back yard, or indoors.

Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)

Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.

Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.

Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.

People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.

But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.

Everyone Knows that the Word Comes From . . . Popular vs. Actual Etymologies

Tucumcari. Karabela. Canadian as in the river name. Where do these come from? “Everyone knows that . . .” doesn’t always match what the language people, or historians, know. Or think they know, because English isn’t the only language to borrow bits and pieces from other tongues. It’s just the most likely to. German translates, English steals.

“Karabela” is the name of a type of Polish cavalry sword. It’s a form of saber, but works better when used on foot than do many sabers. There are at least four possible sources for the name. One is that it comes from Turkish and means “black curse.” Many of the surviving examples do have black hilts, and it would fit the Polish attitude toward the Turks and vice versa (not best friends). Another source claims that it is a corruption of “Karbala,” the city in what is now Iraq that was known for sword making. Or it could come from Italian meaning “precious beautiful thing [cara bella].” Perhaps a Polish noble or sword maker named Karabeli introduced the sword to common use, because there are other weapons that bear the names of their creators or popularizers. Or none of the above. I’m inclined toward option number one, but that doesn’t mean much. Polish is not one of my languages, nor is Turkish.

When I moved to Texas, I was told that the Canadian River was named for French-Canadian fur trappers, or named by them. And there were beaver in the main river valley and tributaries, so OK, sounds good. Except the name appears before Canada existed, and as far as anyone can tell, no one familiar with northern beaver would bother coming down here. The pelts are not as good for what people wanted beaver for. No, the name comes from Spanish, from a term meaning a sheep path so worn that it has raised sides, a cañada. The term can also mean a box-canyon, which is what part of the valley looks like when approached from the west. So it was a rio cañadian.

Tucumcari is another term that has a wildly off-kilter folk etymology. A certain local tourist bureau used to spin a tale about an Indian princess (or chief’s daughter) named Tucumcari, or her lover named Tucumcari, and doomed love, and how one or the other of them plunged off a butte (Tucumcari Mountain) because of a broken heart, and so on and so forth. Alas, the Comanche language doesn’t work quite like that, and the name in Comanche probably means something like “high alone in a low place.” The Comanche named places for what they looked like, thus the “hills like prairie dog mounds” and “the river that flows near the hills that look like prairie dog mounds.” Or “the red muddy river.” Not quite what the Chamber of Commerce wants to use in their tourism pamphlets, alas.

Overheard in the Halls: Episode 29

*cue “Morning” from Peer Gynt Suite*

A teacher strolls down a long hallway, savoring the relative quiet. She raises her can of soda pop to her lips . . .

Voice from Around the Corner: AaaaaiaiiiiEEEEEEEEEEE!

Me: [races down the hall, cuts the corner and skids to a stop]

Jolted Junior: Spider! Spiderspiderspider Biiiiiiiig spider!

Me: [studies wolf spider heading for the outside door] You are quite correct. I’ll get the door for him.

The spider went in peace under his own power. Headed for the van used by the teaching sisters to commute to Day Job.

* *******

A confused soul wanders into my classroom during chapel hours.

Me: Can I help you?

Confused Soul: Um, I think this is my first period class?

Me: You are?

C.S.: Mumbles name

Me: No, you are in Brother Vector’s math class next door during first period. This is chapel period. Which chapel are you in?

C.S: Um, Protestant Two? I think? I left my schedule at home?

Me: Let’s go check with Mrs. Hutchinson.

C.S. [As we go up the hall to Mrs. Hutchinson’s room]: This is kinda my second first day. I’ve been sick.

Me: That’s quite alright. Some days are like this.

Indeed, she was in Protestant Two, and Mrs. Hutchinson took over.


I was being invisible behind the desk, covering a study hall while Sister Scholastica was on retreat.

Frazzled Freshman [sprawled in chair at study carrel] Uuuuugh, I’m doooomed.

Sober Senior [looking up from calculus book]: It’s only the second week of school. No one is doomed until the fourth week.

Secular Senior: Unless you are among the reprobate, not the elect. But that’s only if you’re Protestant. The rest of us are safe. [returns to history book]

Frazzled Fresh: I skimmed the stuff for English and I still busted the quiz.

Sober: There’s your problem.

Frazzled: But that’s what you do, right? Find something on the ‘net, answer the questions, get an A. That’s what we did at my other school.

Sober: You went on the net? For English? How do you think you can learn it without actually reading the story?

Frazzled: Magic?

Sophomore Standing at the Printer: Just read it. One short story won’t kill you.

Secular Senior [muttering from behind history book]: No, but Sr. Mary Conjugation will.

I stayed where I was, invisible, and trying hard not to laugh.


Sister Scholastica (aka The Dean) returned from her retreat refreshed and out of the loop. We crossed paths in the secondary workroom.

Me: Good morning, Sister.

Sr. Scholastica: Good morning, Miss Red. [stirs coffee] How have things been?

Me: Mostly quiet.

Sr. Scholastica: Mostly quiet?

Me [counts off on fingers of hand not holding tea mug]: First hairy spider of the season, two misplaced student laptops, major communication lapse between here and the usual place so Señora Piñata is rather irked, and the junior students have been counseled about how to return to class when they come back from off-campus chapel.

Sr. Scholastica [sips coffee]: Generally normal, in other words.

Me: Yes, ma’am.

Random Thoughts and Musings

So, I’ve been juggling a lot of stuff, some interrelated, some random. A lot is either writing related or Day Job related (Day Job begins this week. No, I can’t believe it is already “fall” already, either. I squandered a lot of July.) The outside world has also been hanging over my head, just like it has been for most other people. I’ve quit wondering what strange thing is going to emerge from Washington DC or California, because they make the Babylon Bee satire site look too prophetic. Sort of like the military folks who read the Duffel Blog back between 2008-2016 to find out what the Department of Defense was going to do next.

I think that is part of why I’ve been putting off working on White Gold for so long. Yes, I am working on it, but it moves slowly and I am fighting myself as well as the story. It is so different from the Familiars books, and somewhat different from the other Merchant stories, that I’m having trouble sussing out where a main thread in the story needs to go. I have a feeling that once I know what my Day Job schedule will be, things on the book will move faster because that’s one outside distraction out of the way.

Henry of Bavaria “the Lion” was a character and a half. A pain in the rump if you were Frederick Barbarossa, but also a vital asset and supporter. That is, as long as Henry wasn’t getting too, let us say, confident in his own abilities and power. I’m a bit surprised that there’s not a good, current book about him in English, but then the Holy Roman Empire in the 1100s isn’t a popular topic in US and England. Henry was a town founder, among other things, and a wee bit too fond of power politics for his own good.

If you are a fan of the heavy metal sound but not so fond of some of the topics in some metal (the Satanic stuff . . . No thanks.) I recommend Twilight Force if you have not found them yet. They riff off of high fantasy and Tolkien, and have fun doing it. Yes, the lyrics can be cheesy. So is some fantasy writing. I also like _Beyond_ by Freedom Call, except fro the song about how great animism and voodoo are. No, voodoo is something best left well alone.

After White Gold is done, I’m going back to the Familiars. I might have another Merchant book after that, or might work on some other unfinished stuff, that I’ve been kicking around, like the fantasy I roughed out over on Mad Genius Club. Spring is going to be very slow on the writing scene, because Day Job is uneven this year. Fall is fairly chill, and spring is heavily loaded. Even more than usual, in terms of class load plus outside activities.

In theory next summer I’m going to England and Scotland. I’m less and less certain about that, because of a combination of things, including policy and legal changes in Scotland. Some of the proposed regulations on political and personal expression are rather worrisome, should they come to pass. The “quarantine for two weeks, then start your vacation” part is also a difficulty, as is the current “must have a negative SARS2-WuFlu test 48 hours before returning to the US, then go into isolation for a week” rule. If I don’t go to the British Isles, I will be at LibertyCon. Maybe. If it happens in person next year. *taps wood*

I’m reading a lot of Central European history right now, and refreshing my Chinese history. I really should have picked a field 1) far less broad with 2) fewer books and sources and 3) that doesn’t change and expand so much! About the time I think I’m close to current, whoops! A new title has arrived, with previously unstudied sources. Yes, I know I will get no sympathy from my science and tech people.

RedQuarters will get some kitchen work done this fall. I may hide for a week or so.

Cleaning my Office

Papers and books and notepads. Two laptops and a printer and all the cables and chargers that go with electronic stuff. A box full of old gift textbooks that probably need to go to a better home (or recycling, because they are Pluto’s-orbit away from what we use at school and no one else wants them.) Reference materials that moved to my office over the summer because of work on “my” classroom. Stacks of teaching DVDs. Desk toys and a life-sized stuffed-animal lemur. The desk itself has stacks of books that I use to elevate the laptops to eye-level, and the necessary adapters as well. Behind those? Reference books, and three pigeon-holes full of back-up drives, blank CD/DVDs, stationary stuff, bills and other paperwork. Beside the desk? More books that need to go elsewhere, including a box of books to give away.

Not dirt, but clutter. So on Sunday morning, when I felt overwhelmed and frustrated because a second party hadn’t gotten something done yet, and something I had been looking forward to got postponed yet again, I started attacking paper stacks. I got the pile on top of the printer riffed and sorted, and the mess on top of the cat platform coerced into order. Already I felt better.

After worship, I tackled two overflowing boxes of financial documents, sorting and reorganizing. One of those will go into storage, along with five years of tax binders and folders. (I keep ten years of documentation, just in case.) I cleaned out two of the cubbies on the desk. The books still need to be rearranged and in some cases shelved. In other cases, they will go back to Day Job next week, after I get furniture relocated and book shelves wrestled into their proper positions. I found a piece of fancy candy that I was given as a gift in Schwäbisch Gmund, Germany.

There’s a lot of truth to Admiral McRaven’s advice “Make your bed,” and Jordan Peterson’s “Clean your room.” Clutter eventually leads to chaos and irritation, even if it is necessary and semi-organized clutter. We can only tolerate a certain amount of chaos. How much varies from person to person, but we all have our limits. I hit mine. I can’t do much about the chaos outside of my office. I can straighten, sort, and dispose of what is no longer needed. I can organize the DVDs and books. I can made a decision about the box of textbooks. The two cat beds will stay, but stacked in a corner out of the way.

I make my bed every morning, and straighten my bedroom. The office has been ignored for too long, even though I spend a lot more time—aware and looking at things—there than in the bedroom. Do I need day-planners from 2015-16? Probably not. Various holiday cards? Yes, those can stay because they will get sent out this fall.

Order out of chaos, at least for a little while. One small pocket of control in a large world that seems to be going crazier than usual. The world has always been chaotic, and always will be. But we need refuges of order, of self-discipline and control. For all the jokes about Marines thriving on chaos because they created it, they created it. We can also create a small, ordered space for ourselves, even if it is a closet or the downstairs washroom. Too much rigidity and order stifles. Too much chaos overwhelms and leaves us feeling helpless.

The balance is a tidier office and a comfortable but not show-place home. And a calmer, happier person. Some days, “I got rid of two stacks of papers and moved the cat bed out of the flow of traffic” is a great accomplishment, one to look at with satisfaction. Other days you can do much, much more.

Stonehenge? Why not!

So, what happens when you have a rancher with an artist friend, a large left-over slab of rock, and display space?

You get Stonehenge II, just outside Kerrville, TX. In 1989, Doug Hill had a slab of rock left over from a patio project. His friend and neighbor Al Sheppard took the rock and made it into a menhir in a pasture. And since one rock needs a few friends, one slab became a rough arch became . . . a stone henge. The replica is only about two-thirds as tall as the original, but is nine-tenths of the horizontal size, so yes, the proportions are a bit off. In the early 1990s, Mr. Sheppard went to Easter Island, and two Moai-head statues now mark the ends of the henge.

After Mr. Sheppard’s death, the family gave the stones to the Hunt County Art Foundation. The rocks had been on private property but open to the public. Now they are in a public park across from the open-air theater and art center.

I didn’t inquire about renting the place for the Solstice.

It’s amazing what happens when you get two Texans, some unoccupied ground, and a slab of stone together. Why Stonehenge? Why not? It’s fun, makes other people happy, and gives the neighbors something new to talk about.

What are You?

No, not “a fish,” or “irritated.” I will assume that most of my readers are mammals, or can pass for mammals. How do you define yourself culturally or in terms of Nation? In the US, this is a question that causes much puzzlement, perhaps amusement, or if you ask the wrong person, a long lecture about identity and why one dare not assume such a thing about a different person. Elsewhere, you will get a clear answer, perhaps. Then, if you go farther and ask “Why are you a/an X?” the reply might take hours of history to understand.

Yes, my mind has drifted into Central Europe again. Part of it is writing related, part is not writing related, and part is because I need a vacation and Medieval Europe seems pretty mellow compared to here and now. (Heck, in some ways the Volkerwanderung seems mellow compared to here and now.) The Middle Ages, AD 800 CE to 1500 or so, is the period when us vs. them expanded past tribe to fellow-religionists, and then to the idea of the Nation, the Volk, the People, a larger-scale “us.” States such as Poland-Lithuania, Hungary, and Bohemia became recognized political and economic units, and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations provided a common government*, economic stability (sort of), and a mediating power in much of Central Europe.

How do you define “Central Europe?” How do you define “Polish,” or “Hungarian,” or for a real challenge, “German?” YOu can use geography, as somewhere between the Urals and Atlantic Ocean, except then a lot of Russia is included, and everyone agrees that Russia is not Central Europe. So between the Atlantic and the Pripet Marshes? What about the Dnieper? Most people would agree on Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, and possible/probably Croatia. So the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Hungary,** and Poland.

All these countries are Western Christian – Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Uniate, Hussite, or Anabaptist – or Jewish (not as common as in the past). All look west for culture and political ideas, more toward Rome-as-Imagined than to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The historian Lonnie R. Johnson adds multi-national empires (multi-ethnic), opposition to the Ottomans, and lagging behind western Europe after the Renaissance. (Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends). You can quibble the details, but there’s a core there that works very well with what I’ve read and observed over the years. Poles and Hungarians most certainly look west, not east, for their history and culture, even if they look west warily. Germany post 1700 is suspect, to put it mildly, and the Poles traditionally tried to avoid getting entangled in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Hungary likewise. Bohemia got in, then tried to get out (or at least to gain more independence within the Empire once the Habsburgs took over. 1620 took care of that for, oh 300 years give or take.)

Language works to define Pole, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian, but Austrians and Germans all speak German, and there are differences in the culture and attitudes of the various parts of Austria and Germany. Someone from Hamburg is rather different from a Styrian. And the Swiss speak German, some of them, even if the Germans and Austrians aver that they can’t read written Swiss, or understand parts of spoken Swiss. But Switzerland is not Central Europe. Hamburg, the Rhineland, and Ruhr are not really Central Europe entirely, if you require Ottoman opposition and lagging behind Western Europe.

I think it comes down to “here’s the general guideline, and we’ll sort out the specifics later.” Sort of like “Hungarian.” Speaks Hungarian, is western Christian (but probably not Lutheran, because Lutheran is German,) or Jewish. Probably lives in or near modern Hungary. Is aware, possibly too aware, of Hungarian history, or a certain understanding of it. Prrrrooooobably no longer swears he or she is a descendant from one of the five founding princes who were the sons of a princess and an eagle, but . . . Poles are Catholic or Jewish or Uniate, not Lutheran, but other flavors of Protestant? Eh, well . . .

There’s a LOT of history in all those definitions and identities. Some of it is documented history, some of it is felt history, some is just understood but not really discussed. For Americans, it seems odd, perhaps anachronistic, downright off-putting perhaps to have the legislature vote to affirm that the Virgin Mary is the Queen of Poland. The US Constitution forbids that. Poland? No problem. Some controversy, but no problem. Ditto Hungary affirming that Mary is the true ruler of Hungary, and that other governments are care-takers. There are deep cultural as well as religious reasons for these choices, and links that go very, very far back, a thousand years back, in the past.

America is an idea and a choice. Central Europe is . . . a wonderful part of the world with too much history to be comfortable, at times. A Romanian writer-associate opined that “You don’t want to live in a place where a lot of history happens.” There’s something to that.

*In the sense that lots of people recognized that it existed, and claimed membership, and at least nominally followed its rules and decrees.

** Hungary claimed Croatia, or vice versa, before 1526, then again after the mid 1700s. Hungary also claimed what is now a chunk of Romania, just to confuse things.

What Overcrowding?

I took a different route this weekend for part of my run downstate, in order to avoid the construction Purgatory that is I-40.

Remind me about global overpopulation again.

This was on the way home, same route, facing northwest. Just your typical Panhandle pasture.

Big sky – not just in Montana.

It was good to get out, away from the city. I felt a weight lifting as I left people (and traffic!) behind. Yes, it is a mildly rough two land farm-to-market road. It’s not quite as convenient as the interstate, or as the interstate would be if it were not torn up, narrowed down, and otherwise made sporting. But ah, to get out and about, and to see more than just the back doors of a big-rig.

The view from FoolzCon as a cold front lingered.

The picture above is from a well -watered part of the state, well-watered in comparison to my corner of the world. We’re east of the 20″ rainfall line, and in an area that has been blessed by a lot more moisture this fall and winter than I have been. It shows. The wildflowers were beautiful, plentiful, and all growing in places where it would have been suicidal to try and pull over to take photos.

But the fellowship was fun, and the coffee, well . . .

Tay and Wendell (“Hooooonnn!”) approved.