An Hour in the Life of a Nerd


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• Try to remember the name of the waterway that separates Delaware from New Jersey. Can’t recall. Go to atlas. (It’s the Delaware River/Delaware Bay, by the way. You’re welcome.)

• Spend fifteen minutes or so with atlas. Dang, those things are addictive.

• Notice that the atlas appears to show a tiny bit of Delaware on the east side of the river. Can that be right? Head for the computer.

• Sure enough, there are not one but two pieces of Delaware on the New Jersey side of the river! Oooo, time for Wikipedia.

• Wikipedia gives me the names – Killcohook and Artificial Island – but that can’t be the whole story. Time for more searching.

• Aha! Great stories! Killcohook is known by locals in Salem County, N.J., as “the Baja,” and it’s where teenagers go to drink, criminals go to dump cars (and once in a while, a body), and hunters go to shoot out of season. Because the local authorities can’t touch them! They’re legally entitled to, but it’s a roadless, mucky area, and their patrol cars get stuck. And it’s an hour by road from the rest of Delaware.

• But why is it in Delaware in the first place? Ahhh…..a better story! During Colonial days, a British court ruled that the entire riverbed within a twelve-mile radius of New Castle, Delaware, belonged to Delaware, up to the low-water mark of the river. Not a big deal until the 1920s, when the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging the river channel and dumping the silt on the New Jersey side. The manmade island that was created at Killcohook was part of Delaware, but eventually merged with New Jersey although the old low-water-mark boundary remained. As for the poetically named Artificial Island, it was created when fill dirt from the creation of a nuclear power plant crossed over that magical twelve-mile radius from New Castle, thus creating a little piece of Delaware where none had existed before.

• Learned that the geographical term for these odd bits of territory is “exclave” (as opposed to “enclave”). Nice word. Gotta remember that. Kaskaskia, Illinois, is the nearest example that comes to mind, along with the “Kentucky Bend,” a chunk of Kentucky that is separated from the rest of the state by a bend in the Mississippi River. The biggest exclave I can think of worldwide would be East Prussia when it was separated from the rest of Germany, but maybe there are others that don’t come to mind immediately.

• But what’s up with that “twelve-mile radius“? Back to Wikipedia. Turns out that the circular top of Delaware is part of that twelve-mile circle, which was specified in 1682 when the Duke of York granted the land to William Penn (although it wasn’t until 1750 that the center of the circle was definitively established as the cupola of the courthouse in New Castle.) That weird border delineation led to court fights that lasted until 2007 involving Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware at various times. In 2008 the Delaware House of Representatives considered a symbolic bill to call out the National Guard to defend its interests against encroachment by New Jersey.

• Now wouldn’t a war between Delaware and New Jersey be something to behold? I don’t know about you, but to me this was a heck of a successful hour.

Favorite Ozarks People – 10


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Jean Bell Mosely

Jean Bell Mosely

Missourians of a certain age may remember Jean Bell Mosely, and those who are not of that age should learn about her. She was a prolific writer whose work was characterized by a gracefulness of style and a clarity of observation that many of us would envy.

Her work was conventional in the sense that it stayed within accepted social norms; she was an exceptionally good citizen in the community where she spent most of her life, Cape Girardeau, a churchgoer and faithful alumna of Flat River Junior College (now Mineral Area College) and Southeast Missouri State College (now University), having been the valedictorian at both Doe Run High School and the junior college. So you won’t see her name in the list of ground-breakers. But her devotion to craft and her exceptional observativeness are exemplary. Her stories were published in Woman’s Day and The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, and her books, six in all, came out from the Fifties through the Eighties. She died in 2003 at age 89.

But the way most people in Southeast Missouri experienced her work, I suspect, was in her newspaper column “From Dawn Till Dusk,” which appeared in the Southeast Missourian and was frequently republished elsewhere. She and another Southeast Missouri writer, Thomza Zimmerman of Advance, alternated columns, and they were eagerly read throughout the region. Mosely’s close observations of nature and of human nature were particularly insightful. She began writing the column in 1955, and the last one was published five days before her death. How’s that for meeting your deadlines?  In that final column, she mused about how the clothing worn by the various caregivers at her medical facility reflected their personalities and perhaps their unspoken wishes.

I hope I am still writing in the week before my end, and if I am, I’ll try to remember to end whatever I’m working on with the word that Jean Bell Mosely used to conclude every column: Rejoice!

Bush and the Zombie Campaign


Fascinating analysis by my old friend Terry Bollinger.

Originally posted on Terry Bollinger's Blog:

The TOP Blog — Nov 1, 2015

It is the day after Halloween, and a zombie is shuffling through the halls of the Republican Presidential nomination process. Like most zombies, it does not yet realize it is dead.

My somewhat retro future prediction for this blog entry* is that the Presidential campaign of Governor Jeb Bush died from a self-inflicted short, sharp, shock back on October 24, a week before the debate in which he did a truly and exceptionally conspicuous job of not standing out in any way.

More specifically, on October 24 Jeb chose to leap far beyond the bounds of the social contract envelope of what is acceptable for a Presidential candidate to say.** That envelope of acceptability varies by both candidate and audience, and is absolutely gigantic for Donald Trump — a fascinating topic for a future blog entry.

Alas, for Jeb Bush the contract for…

View original 744 more words

Originality and conventionality


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A short excerpt from a talk I gave to the Quincy Unitarian Church, yesterday:

I think of Emerson’s famous comment about individuality: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” The adjective that often gets overlooked there is the “foolish” before the “consistency.” It’s not consistency itself that is the problem, it’s foolish consistency, following the dictates of convention without knowing why or having good reason. It’s fine to scorn the herd, but sometimes the herd is heading for the waterhole. Conventional wisdom is sometimes conventional because it’s wise.

It seems like the older I get, the more the idea of the wisdom of the elders makes sense to me. What the elders have to offer is accumulated practical experience, the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. The word “orthodox” originally meant “correct thinking.” Rejecting the conventional sometimes means rejecting common sense, substituting what you would like to be true for what is true. My “unorthodox ideas” may just be whims. Emerson writes in “Self-Reliance,” “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” but I would not recommend using whim to build your porch.

The entire talk will be up on their website before long.

Something Every Modern-Day Float Tripper Can Appreciate


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Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, describing his passage through the Bull Shoals on the White River in 1819:

“There is a channel through which canoes and even large boats pass with a good depth of water, but being unacquainted with it, we ran the hazard of being sunk, and found our canoe drawn rapidly into the suction of the falls, apprehensive of the result. In a few moments, notwithstanding every effort to keep our barque headed downwards, the conflicting eddies drove us against a rock, and we were instantly thrown broadside upon the rugged peaks which stand thickly in the swiftest part of the first schute, or fall. Luckily it did not fill, but the pressure of the current against a canoe thirty feet in length, lying across the stream, was more than we could counteract, and we had nearly exhausted our strength in vain endeavors to extricate and aright it.”

Been there, done that, although not in January and not with a thirty-foot canoe! Nowadays, of course, Schoolcraft would have to contend with powerboats rather than rocks.

A Genuine Ozarks Story, Which Is No Doubt True


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In his 1867 book Beyond the Mississippi, Albert D. Richardson writes about traveling the Ozarks in the late 1850s. He writes that in Springfield:

I was told of eight North Carolinians bound for Arkansas, who stopped for a few hours on the public square, and were asked innumerable questions.

One communicative fellow replied that they were going to found a town; the pursuit of each person was already marked out, and there were no drones among them.

What was this man to do?

He was to open a store.

And that?

Start a blacksmith’s shop.

And the other, standing behind him?

Engage in sheep raising.

So they were nearly all classified, when a decrepid, white-haired octogenarian, venerable enough for old Time himself, was observed sitting in one of the wagons.

‘Why, who is that?’ asked the eager questioner.

‘That’s my grandfather.’

‘What is he going to do? He can’t be of any use to your settlement.’

‘Oh yes,’ replied the North Carolinian promptly, ‘we are taking the old man along to start a graveyard with!’

Working Like a Duck


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You know that old saying about how a duck works — calm and still in the visible part, but paddling like heck down below? Well, that’s how I’ve been the last couple of weeks. I’ve been quiet on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, because I’ve been focusing on a couple of projects that have taken a lot of time and concentration.

There’s the next book, which is rounding the turn toward home at last, and I’m very excited about that. You hit a moment when things start coming together, when the plot threads that you put down months ago in earlier chapters finally start tying up, and it’s an exciting passage that makes all the groaning of earlier months feel worthwhile. Still some distance to travel, but the finish line is in view.

I’ve also been working on my presentation for the Ozarks Cultural Symposium, which is next week in West Plains. I was honored this year to be asked to be the keynote speaker. I’m hoping to live up to that honor with a talk that will also draw together a lot of the threads of thought that I have about the Ozarks, its image, and its representation in creative culture.

If you’re near the West Plains area, you should definitely come to this symposium! It’s put on every year by the branch campus of Missouri State University there, and they always draw a wonderfully diverse group of presenters from Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere. It’s interdisciplinary and includes creative presenters (poetry, music, fiction, etc.) as well as scholarly ones.

M.M. Bennetts Finalist Review and Interview – 9


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Princes Doom

My tour of the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists nears its completion with the shortlisted finalists. First up, David Blixt’s The Prince’s Doom. 

Imagine a world in which the 14th-century historical figures of Italy — the Della Scala family of Verona, the Doge of Venice, Petrarch, the family of Dante Alighieri, the Carrara family of Padua — interacted and lived alongside the characters of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Katherine and Petruchio, the Merchant of Venice, and so forth. It’s a great premise: after all, Shakespeare did use incidents from Italian history for some of his plays, and historical characters pop up in them from time to time. So why not have them coexist in a fictional universe of their own?

That’s the premise of The Prince’s Doom, and I gather of the other books in David Blixt’s “Star-Cross’d” series, of which this novel is the fourth. The book is an enjoyable literary mash-up of characters we’ve seen before, historical figures we may have heard about but known little of, and entirely new fictional characters brought in as well.

The central character is Pietro Alaghieri (to use the novel’s spelling), the heir to Dante and a knight of Verona. He has been given the task of overseeing the upbringing of Francesco (“Cesco”) Della Scala, the heir to the ambitious and formidable Cangrande Della Scala, Verona’s ruler. Cesco is brilliant, unstable, and vastly promising, so Pietro’s task is not just the obligation of a knight to his ruler, but a personal and moral challenge. Pietro is a complex, sympathetic character, and following the turns of his mind as he tries to understand and curb Cesco’s extravagant behavior makes for great reading.

I would probably have been able to follow the complicated plot of this novel better if I had read the earlier books in the series. These novels are real doorstoppers, with The Prince’s Doom coming in at just under 700 pages, so they’re the kind of books a person can burrow into and enjoy a huge cast of characters, lots of action, and an exotic setting depicted with great care. In addition to being an author, Blixt is a theatre professional known for his skill at the staging of theatrical swordfights, so as you can imagine there are plenty of rip-roaring fight scenes here to go along with the court intrigue and intricate plotting. The Shakespearean characters add a dash of familiar unfamiliarity to the story, and it’s enjoyable to see them reinvented in the mind of another.

You can learn more about David Blixt and his work on his website or his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter.

David Blixt

SW: The Prince’s Doom is nearly 700 pages with an enormous cast of characters. Was it daunting for you to undertake such an ambitious project?

DB: More daunting in hindsight. This is the fourth novel in the series, and the cast and size both grew naturally from the previous books. I had a lot to accomplish in this one, and at the same time wanted the story to have room to develop naturally. That was aided by the visit I made to Verona last year – I was allowed to see places I’d never visited before, and several spots became settings for scenes I hadn’t even imagined yet. The places determined the action, which allowed the city to be as much a character in the story as the people.

SW: I’m guessing that many of us know fourteenth-century Italy mainly through its literary representations. Your novel engages with the actual historical situation of the time, as well as bringing in figures we know from literature. How did you balance the fictional and the historical in the book? Were there particular rules you set for yourself on how much liberty you could take with actual people and events?

DB: My rule of thumb is I cannot contradict the historical record. That being said, I’m lucky there’s a lot of missing data from this period. I am allowed to fill in the gaps, and do so either with literary characters or historical ones I’ve appropriated. When possible, I like to blend the historical figures with the literary ones – Cesco is an example of that, being both historical and literary at once.

As far as liberty, I’m using the historical backdrop to tell my story. I won’t contradict history (at least, not intentionally), but why people act the way they do is open to me. Motives matter a great deal. Part of my great joy in writing historical fiction is the creative detective work of figuring out why one of my characters would have done this or that in the historical record. Sometimes the actions fit perfectly with the characters I’ve crafted. Sometimes they don’t, and those are the fun times, when I have to weave new threads and hatch new plots – political, familial, martial – to explain a seeming incongruity. It has the added benefit of making all my characters more complex.

SW: I’m particularly curious about the characters from Shakespeare that come in and out of the book. Did you find it advantageous having characters with what we might call a “past history” as characters, or did their prior characterization in Shakespeare act as a limitation on what you could do with them?

DB: Mostly advantageous, though an occasional trouble was wanting to resolve their issues, and knowing that cannot happen. At this point in the series, I’ve hit about a third of Shakespeare’s Italian plays – Shrew and Merchant are behind us, Much Ado, 2 Gents, and R&J are ahead of us. So some characters have their histories behind them, but for most their famous scenes are yet to come. So, just as I can’t contradict history, I cannot contradict Shakespeare. I very much wanted to end the Capulet/Montague feud – I love Mari and Antony, and want them to stop their nonsense. Yet as the play is still years in the future, the feud must continue to exist. But for Tybalt, Romeo, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Nurse, it was just pure fun to give them their early years. And of course Mercutio, whose series this is.

SW: One of the focal characters is Francesco della Scala, known as “Cesco” in the book. How much is known about the actual individual? What attracted you to him as a character?

DB: I came at him backwards. When I created the series, it started with the feud from Shakespeare. Then I delved into the history of Verona, and was astonished by Cangrande. He’s a figure deserving his own books, and so I gave them to him. Yet he reminded me of someone, too. Shakespeare’s wildest spirit, Mercutio, who is referred to in R&J as the Prince’s “kinsman” and “near ally”. So when I discovered Cangrande had a bastard son, one whose life was mostly unknown, I decided to merge them. That decision has dominated fifteen years of my life, and will continue on for some time.

As for the historical Cesco, his marriage is factual. The rest is me, a la Shakespeare.

SW: Reading The Prince’s Doom, I felt a real fascination with the city of Verona. Can you tell us a bit about Verona? What do you find interesting about that location?

DB: One of my favorite things about Verona is that it is a living city. Whereas all the ruins in Rome are only tourist attractions, the historical sites in Verona are still in use today. There are operas and concerts in the Roman arena, Cangrande’s palace is city hall, his suite of rooms the residence of the Chief of Police. Verona is not a monument to the past, but has incorporated its past into its present. And the wine in the region is marvelous.

SW: What’s next on your writing agenda?

DB: Talk about daunting. I am skimming the surface of four different novels, seeing which one takes hold. I have to edit the next volume in my series on the Roman-Jewish wars, WAIL OF THE FALLEN. I’m dabbling in an Elizabethan noir. I have a book about Hell, another about the supernatural, and I’ve just started research for the next Will & Kit book. I want all of those out of the way before I dive back into Cesco’s world. Yet I have to admit, there’s an itch, a longing, to do it now, this minute. The Star-Cross’d series is where my heart resides. These are the stories I most want to tell, and count myself lucky that I’m allowed to do so.

Favorite Ozarks People – 9


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Chief Wana Dubie

Chief Wana Dubie

I’ve never met Chief Wana Dubie, born Joseph Bickell, but I appreciate his type. The chief first caught my attention in a feature story in the Linn Unterrified Democrat in the 1990s, when he seceded from the United States and declared his property to be a reservation of the Santimaw Indian tribe, which no one had ever heard of. As you can guess from his adopted name, he is a marijuana legalization activist who served five years at Algoa for his stance, having been busted after his secession for growing 135 plants in his front yard.

The Ozarks have long been home to outcasts and eccentrics of every variety, and that’s part of what makes it such an interesting place. Wana Dubie has even had a movie made about his “war” with the Establishment, and has run for office several times, including president in 1992, Missouri House of Representatives in 2006 (receiving 556 votes, for 3rd place), and currently U.S. Senate. With a name like his, you can understand why he is playing up the “Dubie vs. Blunt” aspect of this year’s campaign. The chief maintains a Facebook page where he reports that he recently smoked his first legal marijuana, on Pike’s Peak in Colorado. The experience was not completely satisfactory; as he writes, “Pot may be legal in Colorado, but there are no hippies. It’s business as usual at the marijuana shops, big business. They were quite busy with people from all walks of life. Old people, white people, rich people and others. But you didn’t see any hippies like me. I saw only one tie dye shirt the whole time I was there!”

Odd characters may seem like the weeds in our tidy garden of life, but as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “What would the world be, once bereft / of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Favorite Ozarks Books – 6


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WMH cover

It doesn’t feel right to classify this book as a “favorite,” as its subject is so horrifying and its treatment is so detailed that, frankly, it’s not an easy read. But White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 is definitely a book to be read and reckoned with.

The book draws on copious original sources — testimony, newspaper accounts, witness reports, court records, and more — to detail the circumstances and aftermath of lynchings in the Missouri towns of Pierce City, Joplin, and Springfield, and the Arkansas town of Harrison, to portray the life and racial situation of the time. It’s a grisly picture, one from which author Kimberly Harper does not flinch.

The story repeats itself in town after town: a crime that excites racial antagonism, public officials who are either indifferent or sympathetic to the mob, a lynching in the town square and the subsequent intimidation of the rest of the black population. In reading these accounts, what struck me was the pervading and casual racism of the time. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because I remember the Ozarks of my youth, seventy years later, as a place where racist attitudes were openly and casually expressed.

When I was young, I took the whiteness of the Ozarks for granted. It was simply a condition of the locale. But after reading White Man’s Heaven, I realize that the racial homogeneity of the Ozarks was not a natural condition, but an enforced one, in which entire towns were depopulated of their African-American population, often through violent means. The word “pogrom” comes to mind.

This book is not one to be read for pleasure, but it’s a valuable read. It was published by the University of Arkansas Press, but for some reason when I do a search on the UAP website, it comes up “not found.” It’s available elsewhere, though.


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