Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of Flags and Symbols and How to Change Them

You know, I usually avoid political rants, but this whole business over the Confederate flag (more properly, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia) is making me quietly crazy, and now I see that Amazon and eBay are patting themselves on the back for banning sales of it on their sites. Fine. They have that right. But I keep thinking about when I visited Gettysburg. It was a Memorial Day weekend, and I was walking up along the route of Pickett's Charge from the spot where Lee watched it. When I came to the wormrail fence that separates the lower half of the battlefield from the highway bisecting the field below Cemetery Ridge, lo and behold, there was a small group of kids, probably 10-12 years old, in the company of a park ranger. They were recreating the charge, bearing Lee's battle flag with them, doing their best to keep it flying. What struck me most was that they were so serious about what they were doing, complete to a little sergeant yelling at his troops to dress the line, to keep going, to keep the flag up. Somehow, the ranger had imbued them with the spirit of the thing, the life-and-death importance of the charge itself felt by the men who participated in it. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives. They were exposed to history in a fun and memorable way, something that can never happen in a world where "hateful" things are all banished out of sight and terribly correct lectures all stress how awful anyone who ever flew that flag must have been (or still be).

For millions of people the Confederate flag is about the courage it takes to stick to a cause, even a cause our modern eyes see as wrong. For others, the fact that it has flown over profoundly racist acts of violence makes it anathema. How do we get to the truth? Not by whisking it away out of sight. Sure, I would lean toward taking it down as a public symbol. Its heritage has simply become too tainted with modern sensibilities and distortions. But banishing it to the museum? Making it impossible to buy or sell? Banning it (as I'm sure a lot of the screamers would like) from public view altogether? BS, to put it bluntly. Depriving the many for the actions of the few is the first step on the road to totalitarianism.

If it becomes impossible to obtain the proper accouterments, shall Civil War recreators no longer teach the crowds who come to watch "how it really wuz," or share their profound love of history, often sparked by the fact that their ancestors fought in that war? Mine did, on both sides. Shall we no longer examine why they fought, and forget the hardship, heartbreak, and pain suffered by the combatants in a cause both sides believed in? Shall we not examine the roots of slavery and why anyone would fight for it in the first place, or why defeat spawned such bitter and lasting injustice as Jim Crow? Or why Reconstruction embedded that flag in the Southern psyche? Should we not study this symbol to understand the very psychology of American bigotry?

How can we understand the passions of our ancestors if we shove one side under the rug, or honor the sacrifices of the men who did fight and die to end slavery? How can we prevent another such war if we are too afraid even to honestly discuss the first one? This villification does nothing to advance the cause of eliminating racism, because guess what? When you take down that flag...the racism is still there. All the screaming will have stopped. The screamers will declare victory and move on to the next cause du jour. But the real haters will still be there. And the real victims will still feel that hate in myriad ways, with or without a flag being waved in their faces.

You can't eliminate a problem by covering up a problem. Shall teachers never unfold that flag in a classroom and have a thoughtful discussion about what it meant to the men who fought for it, or about what it means today, or how the meaning changed? Shall we forgot how far we've come because a few cretins use that flag as the living symbol of their own bigotry?

As usual, the passing bandwagon has collected a lot of people who really believe that screaming loudly and forcing people to take down a piece of cloth will actually fix racism. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Sorry, this is a band-aid on a much deeper problem. This isn't a hash tag on Twitter where you can click through and feel all warm and fuzzy for joining the current club. Did BringBackOurGirls actually bring back our girls? Did BlackLivesMatter actually change any minds, or just make people who already considered themselves enlightened feel good about themselves?

To root out the everyday reality of bigotry, you have to reach the real bigots, and taking away their flags isn't going to do it. This is a deep and endemic problem of perception and reality, which aren't always the same. It needs thoughtful discussion, not knee-jerk reactions. Yeah, it sounds good to hurl "racist" labels at people displaying that flag. And I would agree that not walking under state-sanctioned displays of it every day might help the black population of states that fly it feel more safe, more included. I applaud that. I do not applaud this unthought-out drive to make it disappear. Because flying it reminds us all where the America we know today came from, of a war fought to end injustice, of the constant struggle to not go back there, of the need to keep trying to heal the lingering wounds. The Confederate flag can be--should be--a living symbol of change. If we choose to make it so. If we quit screaming long enough. If we really want change.

Next time you see that flag, try stopping to consider what it doesn't mean: a country where human beings are held in bondage, blacks are counted as only 3/5 of a white person, and "free" only comes with a piece of paper if your skin is a certain color. Look at it flying below an American flag and realize that America won. The Confederate flag is the symbol of a defeated attempt to destroy the American experiment. Look at it and rediscover pride in the courage it took to stand up and fight to preserve not only the Union, but human dignity. See it and remember that defeating the Confederacy was just the beginning, and that we still have a very long way to go.

You really want to take the sting out of the Confederate flag? Try changing your own perceptions instead of demanding that other people change theirs. That's usually the first, essential step to effecting real change.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Horses in Fiction: Out in the Barn

I love summer. It has always been my favorite time of year, but even more so since I grew up and have sole responsibility for my horses. Not being a morning person, I anxiously await that magical day in spring when the grass in the pasture is tall enough to support the beasties, and I can decadently roll over in bed instead of getting up to go feed them breakfast. Long live summer!

Summer temporarily frees me from another chore that has faced horse owners since domesticated equines came off the steppes and into the stable. Keeping the barn mucked out is a major undertaking most often glossed over in fiction. A good many writers and movie directors seem to believe the grooms are just there to conduct illicit affairs with the Earl's daughter and catch reins tossed by imperious masters as they stride off to advance the plot. Eh, no. Those gorgeous, shining beasts you see in the movies are the product of a LOT of work, not the least of which is conducted with pitchfork in hand.

This farmer looks this way because he knows how much
fun pitching poop really is.
Since at least Xenophon's time horse owners have understood the importance of a clean living space for their critters. Despite Horsey's unfortunate tendency to stop and smell every pile of poop he comes to, he really doesn't like standing in his own excreta any more than you would. Fresh horse droppings attract flies--and I mean instantly; within a minute the whole pile will be covered with little black flies--which can lead to disease, hoof rot, sick and unsound horses, and just the general nuisance of airborne insects attacking sensitive ears and eyes all the time. My horses spend a good deal of time lounging in the shade of the barn in the summer to get away from the gnats in the pasture, which seem to need the grass to hide in. They swarm up when the horses go out to graze, and I see them trotting (or running) around to stay ahead of them. I cut a ride short just last night because the little monsters were swarming in my face so badly I couldn't concentrate.

It is, however, difficult to feel sorry for my beasties, because both of them have figured out how to remove a fly mask in sixteen nanoseconds flat. Aaand... Pilot hates fly spray. Really hates it. Used to have panic attacks at the sight/sound of a spray bottle. I spray it on a rag and wipe him down, which he tolerates, but he still doesn't like it. Unlike Nellie, he has not figured out the association between the spray and the relief from the flies.

But I digress.

There are other reasons to keep the barn clean. In fact, stable management revolves in large part around Horsey's digestive system. The stench of urine-soaked straw rotting would knock Bigfoot flat. Acrid, eye-watering, it just gets more foul the longer you put off shifting it, so it behooves a good stable manager to keep the lazy grooms stirred up every morning. And though horse poop smells (to me, anyway) way better than cow poop, it can still get pretty strong in large amounts. With horses, you WILL have large amounts. A thousand-pound horse produces forty or fifty pounds of manure every day (eight or nine tons a year!) and pees several gallons. The resultant soggy mess, left untended, will quickly make the stalls unusable. Think medieval cities. Think 19th century cities, for that matter, with thousands of horses crowded into small walled enclosures. Unmanaged manure piles would mount to the skies! Simply wheelbarrowing it out and dumping it by the garden wall was not enough; it had to be carted outside the city and spread on fallow fields to get rid of it, which at least fertilized the fields and made better crops. This, of course, was a much more labor-intensive solution than simply dumping it in the nearest river, as many lordly houses in London did. Eeeww.

See why I love having the horses on pasture?

The grooms in a large operation really earn their keep, and they work very hard, because that sh--er, stuff--ain't really light on the pitchfork. Shifting an accumulation of horse manure is hard work. It's not too bad if you muck every day, and twice a day is better, picking up the two or three piles that accumulate between morning and evening. Some horses will even conveniently pick a place in the paddock or stall and deposit everything right there. Others let it fall where it may and then grind it to itty bitty green bits polluting every scrap of bedding. Cleaning those stalls takes a whole lot longer, involving shovels as well as pitchforks, multiple trips to the manure pile, and a lot of grumbling. The old-fashioned pitchforks shown in "American Gothic" above were not created for this, by the way. They were made for pitching straw and hay, not used hay.

The underside of horse keeping is a revelation to a lot of people because you really don't see it presented much in fiction. In movies you may see someone leaning on a pitchfork outside a stable door, or shoveling sh*t played as a joke. What you don't often see is the time spent with currycomb, hoof pick, and brush needed to produce that shiny, dust-free coat; the daily grind of hauling water, hay, and oats; and the ubiquitous labor of keeping stalls bedded and clean. Every. Single. Day.

Horsey is a demanding master. Try to give the grooms a little credit (or blame) if you can. An ill-tended horse might just break down on that lordly plot-driver at the very worst moment and throw everything into chaos.

And a last note on horse droppings. You know those picturesque cobblestone streets that do such a marvelous job of setting the historical scene in the movies? The ones with nary a road apple in sight? I always have to laugh at those shiny, scrubbed stones. In actuality they would have been two inches (or more) deep in horse crap, exuding stench and flies, and turn to green slop in the rain. I would venture to guess that until about the 18th century or so even grand ladies didn't worry about their skirt hems, because horse and oxen poop underfoot was just a fact of life.

Ah, I love summer.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Walking in Heaven's Shadow

Heh. I'm back! It was a tough winter but summer has arrived in all its 90-degree glory,
and I am reveling in it. The air hereabouts will make you giddier than a toddler on helium right now, so full of the scent of peonies and new-mown hay and sun-warmed pines you want to just keel over and breathe all day in appreciation. I suppose I would feel differently if I had hay fever, but fortunately, Mama Nature gifted me with a nose oblivious to pollen. Soon I will wander out into the sunshine that wilts half the people I know and mow my yard in the middle of the day instead of sensibly waiting until evening. Evening is for riding, when the horses regain sufficient pep from their afternoon tail-swishing naps.

Living where I do, on 20 acres of mostly pasture and a small (and growing) patch of mixed fir and pine trees, really does feel like Heaven to me. And I suppose, given my up-and-down state of health, it is sort of like living in Heaven's shadow, because I have no idea how much longer I will get to enjoy it. But none of us do, so I am tickled I lived long enough to see another Triple Crown winner (yessss!!), to watch the shoots off my grandfather's yellow rose bushes bloom again and spread their perfume around my house, and to sit on my deck in the slow cooling of the evening and watch the old doe who comes every dawn and dusk to pick her way through my pasture.

I have also had more time recently to get back to the business of writing. A new short story Sunday (woohoo!) and steady forward progress on revising my epic fantasy/soft SF series "Fate's Arrow." Oh, how I want those out of the drawer! And, the nastier side of the writing biz: drumming up book sales. I have been a piker about promoting my own books because, just like everybody else, I don't want to read constant "buy me!" stuff on author's blogs. I am not keen on doing that to my readers, either. It is, however, necessary, if one does not want to die unread, so I've been prepping for blog tours today, and ran across this excerpt from my Civil War ghost story/fantasy, not coincidentally named "In Heaven's Shadow." It still makes me smile.
“Lilith!” Joab roared on top of Bert’s, “Miz Stark!”
Bert disappeared from the doorway. Joab stepped toward her; she tried to hush herself up but couldn’t manage it. Her ribs hurt and she couldn’t breathe, and still the giggles just kept bubbling up out of her. Pretty soon she caught a wispy movement in the corner of her eye and saw the giggles turning to little floaty sparks bouncing around her like soap bubbles. The nearside mule snorted at one and bounced it back toward her. It splatted into another one, and they rained light all over the dirt in the barnyard and laid there, glowing sort of silvery gold.
“What in hell…?” 
That was Bert, arrived in the yard still clutching his pistol and staring like an owl. Lilith knew she couldn’t explain if she tried all year. She gave up on the notion and just let the giggles take her. 
“Lil!”
Joab squatted down in the dirt beside her. “Come on now, pull yourself together. Bert thinks you’re loonier than Abe Lincoln. What’s the matter with you?” 
Lilith tried to stop but discovered she couldn’t. She fought to take a deep breath and get control of herself. Her lungs seemed locked up somehow, and she just couldn’t stop laughing. “Hysterical,” Joab muttered, sounding so disgusted that Lilith wanted to slap him but couldn’t manage that, either. 
She floundered around, trying to get to her feet, and found Bert Cummings waving a hand down in her face. She reached up to take it. 
“Lilith Stark! What in the name of God are you doing?”
Even the mules shied from the outrage in the Reverend Fisk’s voice.
You can find the whole thing anywhere books are sold, but this link goes to Amazon. I would be tickled if you'd give it a try, and if you like it, how about a review? Thanks!

I promise to do another Horses in Fiction very soon, perhaps Thursday. Does anybody want a particular question answered?