Saturday, July 2, 2016

Horses in Fiction: That Sinking Feeling

Something I haven’t really discussed before is how a horse person, someone who has lived around horses a long time, and especially the same horses, can tell the critter’s mood at a glance. And they can tell instantly—and I mean instantly—if there is something wrong. It produces that nasty sinking feeling you get when you discover someone has broken into your car, a total reversal of the good day you were just having. One second you’re bebopping down to the barn to say hi to the ponies or saddle up for a ride; the next you are wondering how bad it is and how big the vet bill is going to be.

That happened to me Tuesday with Nellie, and again last evening. Since I am writing this in the airport on the way to the Westercon science fiction convention in Portland, OR, you can imagine how much greater a kink that put into my reaction. Do I go? Do I stay? Do I wait and see and have someone check on her? As of 0430 this morning she was fine, thanks, so here I am. But still. Oh geez, it is a nasty feeling. Imagine how your fictional character riding through the wilderness or eluding pursuit will feel when he wakes up and discovers his horse standing with head down and a general air of “I don’t feel good, Dad.”

Let me start by saying that knowing something is wrong doesn’t have to be anything obvious like a horse holding a foot up or rolling in pain from colic. No, it’s lot more subliminal sometimes. In the same way that most people can tell when someone close to them is having a bad day just from facial expression or body language or tone of voice, horsepeople can tell from the way the horse is standing, the cock of the ears, the set of the head, the droop of the tail, or the look in their eyes that something is off. A certain curl to the lip should be a warning that Horsey is not in a good mood; splayed hind legs can indicate pain in the hooves or gut or irritation between his legs. If he’s “camped under” with his hind hooves far forward under his belly, he may be trying to ease his back or take the load off his front legs or hooves. Standing off-kilter with his weight oddly distributed may indicate pain in the shoulder or hip. That doesn’t include the normal “hip-shot” stance of a horse standing with one hind hoof cocked and hip sagging. He’s usually just asleep.

It’s all in the body language. If your character is supposed to be an expert horseman, then he/she would pick up on cues like these.

In Nellie’s case, she and Pilot were both in the barn, avoiding the heat and the gnats/flies/mosquitoes down in the pasture. Pilot was in the doorway, looking fine; Nellie was farther back in the shade where she usually stands, yet when I leaned over the fence to scratch her neck, her eyes were half shut. That right there was odd, because she didn’t look sleepy; she looked dopey. Plus, she didn’t look at me, which is unusual right there. She always pays attention when I come in, and she’s always hoping for treats. She’s big on sticking her muzzle through the fence and nuzzling my hand. And, in general, a horse will wake up to look at you, because you might be a threat.

She could have just been sleeping and lethargic from the heat. Or not. She just did not look right, so I went in and checked her. She still did not act interested, and when she went outside she was actually squinting in both eyes.  Cue stomach sinking a little farther. Then she backed up to the fence and started to scratch her tail.

Now, this time of year, tail scratching is not unusual. Gnats drive them crazy, and can make raw patches at the top of their tail or on their chest or belly. Sometimes if the dock area (just under the tail) is really dirty it itches. Worms can make them scratch their tails, but they were both just wormed not six weeks ago. Certain plants can make them itch or react. So that didn’t worry me nearly as much as the eye thing. Plus, she was so lethargic. And she kept shifting a little on her hooves. Ugly words like “sleeping sickness” and “founder” floated through my mind. I began trying to remember when I last gave them their vaccinations.  Eeee.

She felt warm, but it was a hot day and she is a black horse. Her hooves were cool, so it likely wasn’t founder. I did not have the means to check her temperature but there was nothing obvious to the eye that would cause a fever. No puffiness in her legs, no welts from bees on that silky hide, no cuts or open sores. Her eyes weren’t swollen or weepy as with allergies or bugs, and she perked up a lot when the sun sank far enough for the evening to cool off. So... no panic, but I checked her the next morning and she seemed fine. Her eyes were open and she was perky and eating well. Crisis averted, right?

Well... Last night she wasn’t just standing in the same spot in the barn with droopy (not squinty) eyes. She was also sweating gently. That can be anything from heat to pain to fever, but she was not at all distressed, A little. Enough to make me worry, not enough to rush to call the vet and waste everyone’s time. Half an hour later she was down in the pasture eating her head off. She was no longer sweating and walked and trotted fine, with no more reluctance to bestir herself than usual. She is not a horse to waste energy just running up and down like Pilot. She’ll run and buck and play, too, but she is just a more sedate horse than he is.

And at 0430 this morning when it was nice and cool, she was hungry and ornery and perfectly willing to trot up and take a treat from my hand. So, I’m guessing heat, and that I woke her up. Maybe it was a passing reaction to something she ate. And maybe a bit of bugginess, though there was no obvious sign of irritation in her eyes. After I washed her dock and tail with soapy water she hasn’t been scratching anymore, so it was likely just gnats. The eye thing still makes me wonder, but...

Such are the joys and perils of horse ownership, because they can’t tell you. You can only watch and guess and call the vet if you’re really not sure. But vets aren’t usually readily available in stories, so your horsey hero had better pay attention. And if he cares about his horse, he will be caught on the same horns of indecision as all of us—is he sick or isn’t he? Can I safely ride him or will he collapse under me? Maybe I should wait a day. But what about the bad guys chasing me? Aaaagh!

The bottom line is that your character will know the second she lays eyes on her horse that she might have a problem. How that impacts your plot is up to you, but oh the possibilities! Just don’t forget to add that instant sinking feeling to the hero’s reaction, because I guarantee you, every horseman feels it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

New Free Fiction from S. A. Bolich

Mondays are my day to let you know what's going on in my writing world. Aside from getting ready for Westercon this weekend, I'm setting up a newsletter (stay tuned) and updating my website.

My best intentions of putting a new, previously published story you may not have seen up every month didn't happen, but I did finally get a new one up today to replace Wishes and Horses. You can check out Kraken's Honor, originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2009, on the home page of my website.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Gun, the Vase, and Me

I don't normally do political posts for the time-honored reason that no matter what you say you're bound to offend somebody. But as the debate rages over gun control, with all the predictable, cynical political posturing, I feel compelled to offer my view as an historian, a former army officer, and an American old enough to have seen a lot of changes in this country. Some of what I see rings loud alarm bells for me. So here’s my take.

First let’s establish that it is the inalienable right—nay, the responsibility—of every individual to protect himself from harm. Any species reluctant to exercise its survival instincts is doomed to extinction. How we protect ourselves depends upon the circumstances and the tools at hand. Mankind, being a big-brained sort of creature, long ago invented tools for that purpose that are far superior to sticks and stones and bare hands. Given that capability, I find it rather stupid that a good many well-meaning folk want to limit our possibilities for self-defense to the nearest vase when an intruder violates our personal space. Only in Hollywood does the vase drop the intruder unconscious on the floor; in real life he will keep coming, and now, on top of wanting to rob or rape you, he is bloody, in pain, and angry. At this point, running for the closet is not going to help you. And dithering about whether he’s just there to steal the TV could get you killed.

Basic survival has bred into the human creature greed, aggression, ambition, and an ability to use violence in offense and defense. The glory of humanity is that the majority of people use their big brains and reasoning capacity to manage those instincts for productive purposes. The shame of humanity is that some people revel in them, or are too mentally ill to overcome them and go untreated. What are we to do when confronted with these aberrant individuals? Not everyone lives next door to a police station.

For those who can't see themselves ever wielding a gun, how fast can you run? How good are your negotiating skills? Good enough to talk down a guy intent on harm? Do you have the slightest idea how to throw him off his game? Have you ever once treated yourself to a day learning how to defend yourself in an unexpected situation? Or do you trust solely and adamantly in your safe neighborhood or the designated violence-wielders of policeman and soldier to keep you safe?

If you do own a gun, can you hit the broad side of a barn with it?

As adults, we make choices every day. Some of them should involve the remote possibility of becoming involved in something unexpected and dangerous. I once had a clearly disturbed street person wander into my workplace and confront me where I happened to be at the front desk. He immediately launched into a diatribe about the people standing outside on “his” street corner (waiting for the bus). He was agitated and rambling but at least communicative, and I was fortunate in that I managed to find the right words to get him to peacefully go back outside. At which point we called the cops in case he went after the people on the corner. I remember wondering what I could do with the pen in my hand to deter him if he pulled out a knife or a gun or lunged at me with flailing fists. Not much, I’m guessing.

That was a school, by the way.

Am I advocating that every business keep a gun at the front desk or that everyone run out and buy one? Of course not. I hope that overall, our society is still one where you can expect to go about your day in peace, and that never in your life will you feel so threatened as to wish for a gun. But America has strayed a long way from the place I grew up in. My country is more violent, less civil, more volatile, and hugely divided, and our society is growing less predictable and excitable by the day. Ask anyone who has been trolled on the Internet how fearfully easy it is to collect death threats or to stir up the mob. We have pundits and politicians and professional activists who deliberately engage in setting various segments of the populace against each other, some from self-righteous ignorance, others from the calculated knowledge that the surest path to power is to make people afraid of each other. This may be political gamesmanship to them, but to ordinary folk caught in the resultant hatred and violence, it is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Does a gun in the house guarantee you’ll get a chance to use it before the intruder gets to you? No. But at least under the Second Amendment you have the option.

Does the Second Amendment Still Have Value?

Most arguments for gun control purport to limit themselves to particular weapons or circumstances surrounding gun ownership such as background checks. Gun control advocates say they are not trying to eliminate Second Amendment rights, only institute “common sense” reforms. That sounds good in theory, but history teaches us, in excruciating detail, the effect of human nature upon law. Many are the power brokers who will push the limits of law for their own purposes. For the true believers in gun control and disarmament, no state is satisfactory until only agents of the state have guns. The case study in British disarmament is here for those of you serious enough and honest enough to inform yourselves with the other side’s facts. It is also a blueprint for what the anti-gun lobby is trying to do in the U.S.

I can hear the screams of "paranoia!" and "right-wing conspiracy theorist" from here. But have the people doing the screaming ever spoken with a woman who crammed herself onto the floorboards of a car with her sister while a neighbor tried to drive them out of East Germany? I have. The neighbor died; the woman and her sister somehow survived the hail of state-owned bullets. Have those people ever met someone who remembers a dark, cold, frightening journey through the forest as a four-year-old, fleeing the gang rapes, the beatings, and the unspeakable terror in Berlin as the Soviet army moved through the rubble, making sport of hunting disarmed German civilians? I have. Have those people ever stood at the edge of a minefield that was sown, not just to keep enemies out, but citizens in? I have.

Nonsense, says the dedicated anti-gun crowd. You’re conflating self-defense with war. Well, there are two kinds of tyranny: of the individual and of the state, and we are entitled as human beings to defend against both. But “militia” is an outdated concept, and besides, that stuff couldn't happen here. I daresay that is what the British Parliament thought before Dunkirk, when all the legal guns got left on the beach. Churchill was forced to issue a frantic call to America to ship rifles and sidearms to Britain to arm the Home Guard and the (previously disarmed by government decree) citizenry against what seemed an inevitable Nazi invasion. No doubt it is what the unarmed people of Leningrad thought before the German army showed up and 500,000 civilians starved to death in the subsequent siege. I daresay it is what the parents of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram thought, or the victims of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, or the civilians even now caught in the path of the ISIS barbarians who make sociopaths look sane. I daresay it is what any woman raped by a bigger, heavier male thinks, or the survivors of home invasions in nice neighborhoods, or what the victims of flash mobs thought before they were beaten senseless while shopping on a summer evening. Can our armies always protect us? Can the police always show up in time? Are we then supposed to rely on the vase to save ourselves?

Once upon a time, we understood at a gut level that there are nasty things in the dark that we need to defend against, and that survival is a personal as well as societal responsibility. For most modern humans, the worst thing out there in the dark is the unbridled ambitions of other members of our species. Civilization is wonderful, but in the entire history of the planet and nowhere upon it have we evolved the perfect, peaceful Utopia of wistful liberal dreams and SF visions. You cannot legislate away human nature. Some people will always try to dominate the rest. Some will do it violently, with fists, stones, clubs, knives, bombs, guns, and airplanes converted into battering rams. Eliminate guns, and criminals will simply use something else. Not so long ago in my town a WWII vet was beaten to death by two young thugs with flashlights. What then should we regulate?

One of the “reforms” continually touted by gun-control advocates is reducing the size of magazines. I agree that no civilian needs a thirty-shot mag, and if you can’t hit a deer with five rounds you shouldn’t be hunting. But any half-smart wannabe mass murderer already knows how to overcome that limitation, so what these reformers are really objecting to is any weapon that fires more than one bullet without reloading—pretty much any modern firearm. So I must ask: in relegating offenders to single shots—or clubs—should we be proud of having simply reduced their ability to do damage to one-on-one violence instead of one-on-many? Or should we instead think about how to return our culture to one of respect instead of self-indulgent rage?

We are not a third-world hellhole, many will argue. We live in a modern era, one too enlightened for civilians to need lethal weapons. Our laws, our institutions, and our common sense will protect us. Well then, welcome to the past. Every time the sun rises, we stand in the most modern era of human history. Tomorrow will be more modern than today. Next year will be more modern still. Yet in 1933, a majority of very "modern" people living in an industrialized democracy handed power, peacefully, through the ballot box, to the worst monster in human history. Twelve years later they were standing in the rubble of their country, and small children were fleeing through the dark to save themselves from the horrors coming behind.

The peaceful handover of power to Adolf Hitler led directly to my friend and her sister fleeing the bullets of East German border guards. Stalin and his minions did not believe in an armed citizenry either.

One citizen with a gun cannot withstand an army, however poorly trained. A million citizens with guns should make any government think twice about its foreign policy. Or its domestic ambitions.

For those of you now crowing that I’ve lost the argument by invoking Hitler, I commend to you a current and less clich├ęd example of poor voting choices. See once-prosperous Venezuela, History and Current Situation Of. Or Mexico, where desperate citizens are mugging corrupt cops and soldiers to obtain weapons to defend themselves against the drug cartels.

Too bad Santayana was right. Those who forget the lessons of history are indeed doomed to repeat them. Corruption at the top always leads to disorder down below. Always.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Self-defense is a basic human right. Unless, of course, you live somewhere like Chicago, which boasts some of the strictest gun laws and highest gun crime rates in the country. The 2016 toll in Chicago to date is noted here and here, along with the misguided policies that are contributing to it.

There are countless studies on gun violence, most of which cherry-pick their facts to support arguments for or against. This rather fascinating little site gives you the facts (a little dated but still valid) and lets you decide. You can argue what they mean to your hearts’ content. But consider this: in all "enlightened" Western societies, gun control policies are forcing citizens to become more dependent on state agencies that cannot keep them safe even as, culturally, the old norms of respect for other people's rights (and the belief that you will receive swift and firm retribution for failing to respect them) are fading. Never mind the high-profile failures of governments from Russia to Nairobi to France to the U.S. to prevent terrorist attacks that have killed thousands. What about fads like the knock-out game, or mobs of young, bored men assaulting women in Germany, or the growing number of out-of-control, mostly youthful flash mobs swarming shops and robbing or assaulting passersby for fun and profit?

These facts of "modern" life are not spotty clouds in an otherwise clear sky, as some would have us believe; they are the lightning strikes spat out by a society wherein the normal tensions caused by technological advances, demographic changes, economic stress, and injustice are magnified by instant communication of every passing thought and impulse. Couple that with an increasing hesitation to teach or demand respect for societal values, and these incidents indicate clear warnings of what happens when “authority” cannot or will not uphold its responsibility to maintain order. Over the past 20 years we have invented a million excuses for bad behavior, and our courts and prisons are consequently overflowing with people who truly believe they were entitled to do what they did. This erosion of a simple awareness of right and wrong should disturb any intelligent person.

Nobody wants to live in a society where everyone feels they must own a gun just to get through the day. The underlying problem is not guns but the breakdown of civility, and until we seriously address what we're teaching our kids, why do we insist on making it harder to defend ourselves against the growing number of people who never got the memo that attacking people is socially unacceptable? Even the former head of Interpol states that protecting every public venue is impossible, and that yes, an armed citizenry can reduce the death toll.

Here’s the thing. When a government stops trusting the majority of its citizens to act responsibly, that government is not protecting us but itself. When we allow any group, however democratically elected, to decide that a common item that has been safely used by the majority for centuries is now too dangerous for ordinary folk, there can be no end to fussy declarations that this, that, or the other thing must be removed from the people's hands for their own good. Where does it stop?

Instead, what we can and should do is what free and responsible societies have always done: decide by calmly reasoned consensus what is "unacceptable" and how to control behavior that crosses the line. As a society, we have already decided that mass murder is unacceptable. The debate hinges on what should be done to prevent it. Do we assume all people are closet-crazy and take away guns from everyone? Do we use prohibitive taxes and a byzantine licensing process to make it so difficult to own them that reasonable people give up? Do we allow only certain people "with a need" to own or carry them?

These things have all been tried in the crucible of democracy that is our republic, with various states experimenting with their own solutions. Yet the Newtown, San Bernardino, and Orlando shooters all used guns that had been acquired under these same laws. The latter worked as a security guard for a major DHS-affiliated agency. With two FBI investigations to his name, he still managed to beat the background checks, with full intent to do harm. Perhaps we should be examining the information-sharing habits of our law enforcement agencies—and the rules that have replaced common sense with an abiding fear of never stepping on a possible perpetrator’s sensibilities—instead of shouting about how nobody has a “right” to thus-and-such.

Balancing public security needs with private rights is undeniably difficult. While better intelligence is certainly needed, I cannot discount the fears of gun rights advocates who resist a national gun registry. Neither the left nor the right can resist pushing the envelope regarding their pet causes when in power. And neither side can currently claim that paranoia is limited to the other guy. How many millions of Americans on both political fronts are afraid of the outcome of this fall’s presidential election? If that is not fear of your government, what is? The right fears that Hillary will wield her executive pen or stack the Supreme Court to gut the Second Amendment. The left fears that Trump will somehow raise himself to dictator and reduce us all to serfs (completely discounting the power of the other two branches of government to check him). What then? Shall we call in the Praetorian Guard to assassinate him?

Can you tell that I’m tired of the hysteria?

Most mass shooters are mentally ill, members of a tiny subset of our population. The rest are driven by grievances or ideology that override societal values. Street thugs think themselves invincible, their actions greased by an American media that, sadly, glorifies violence and worships the gun, unashamedly teaching viewers that it’s “cool” to swagger up to your enemy and shoot him to solve your problems. And afterward people will cheer you as a hero. Yay! Is it any wonder so many unstable people dream of finding immortality in other people’s blood?

We don’t need to confiscate guns; we need to restore the respect we used to extend to each other as a matter of course. We don’t need to arrest children for pointing a finger and yelling Bang!; we need to teach them what happens when a real gun goes off. We need to teach them that guns are a last resort, not a first option. That they don’t make you cool, they make you dead, because that is their purpose. That the right of self-defense comes with personal responsibility—and that other people have the same right, and will exercise it on you if you are stupid enough to think a gun makes you God.

Most of all we need to teach them civility, a vanishing commodity in this country.

What we need, instead of blanket bans and vilification, is a return to the sober realization that trust is the root of a democratic society. Whatever laws we pass should always be aimed at deterring the aberrant, not depriving the masses, because otherwise we are just telling 300 million non-violent folk that they’re not really adults and can’t be trusted with grown-up stuff. Go stand in the corner, America, and take your beatings quietly.

How do we restore trust? Both sides need to compromise in order to reestablish that societal necessity. Stop excusing bad behavior while simultaneously punishing the law-abiding. Crack down on street thugs, but make gun ownership a responsibility as well as a right. Perhaps the necessary prerequisite is not a background check and a 3-day waiting period, or feel-good but useless restrictions on types of weapons and magazines. Perhaps it is a background check and three consecutive days of safety instruction under the eye of a licensed instructor at a certified range, where the behavior of the buyer is directly observed across a long enough period to get a feel for his mental state and intentions. The store ships the gun to the range and only after passing the course may the buyer take possession. Hunters in my state must take gun safety courses; why shouldn’t ordinary buyers?

The much-reviled NRA is happy to provide such courses and has the resources to do it. Retired police officers accustomed to assessing lies and unwarranted nervousness might jump at the chance to earn a few bucks and maybe deter a tragedy. Maybe a red flag would earn the buyer a chat with a behavioral psychologist. Yes, gun buyers would be put through an extra one-time hoop, but in so doing, they have “earned” the trust of their community and should be left alone thereafter to pursue their legal rights. And the state should not put purposefully onerous conditions on the range and instructor qualifications, or set too low a bar for a red flag.

This is a public-private partnership that could produce a win-win for the community. While it would not stop criminals buying guns on the ever-present black market, it might reduce domestic violence and guns bought legally for illegal purposes. Some cold-blooded killers could withstand three days of steely scrutiny; the depressed suicide or the angry guy brooding on his ex probably would not.

For those who have been harmed by guns, I grieve. I certainly understand your desire to "do something." For those like me who grew up with guns and have always handled them safely, yes, it is insulting to be branded as "unsafe" while the bureaucrats argue about how to prove we're not. But can we all please acknowledge that we don't live in a perfect world? That there are unique tensions in this country that preclude simple solutions? Yes, we need laws that weed out the crazies and restore trust in gun ownership. We don’t need laws so restrictive that they deprive law-abiding citizens of the basic right to self-defense.

If we are to call ourselves "free," we must be allowed to both exercise and defend our freedoms. The most basic freedom is life itself—and our right to defend it. Against a violent criminal, against a terrorist, against a stalker or abusive spouse, against foreign invaders—against, if necessary, the out-of-control government the Founders feared if power were allowed to accumulate at the federal level. Until nature or culture manages to cure the blacker side of human nature, I don't want to be reduced to throwing a vase at the bad guy while screaming into a phone for help I know can't get there until it's too late.

Do you?