Friday, September 10, 2010

10 Concerning Vampires, Pt. 2 Longevity and hunting

Vampires are predators and differ from werewolves in that they are not pack hunters. The distinction is important.

Within any given environment only a finite number of predators may hunt with success. Once the predator population reaches a certain level the prey begin to dwindle and the number of predators reduces until the prey increase and the cycle continues. A kind of fragile homeostasis exists where environmental factors come into play. A bitter harsh winter finds the deer population reduced in the spring and by autumn the critters that feed on the deer have either departed, died or switched to other prey.

This always happens.

But with vampires we have something else to consider, their alleged immortality. How will that, if true, effect the hunter-prey balance?

But first let me tell you a story.

Europeans stumbled upon the islands east and south of North America a bit over over 500 years ago and a soon began to visit Isle de Florida (they believed Florida was an island) and in the north founded the military base that soon became St. Augustine. What we seem to forget, ignore or perhaps just shovel aside are the people who lived there before the Europeans came to visit and stayed.

The Europeans found Florida hot, humid and prone to autumnal visits from hurricanes. But they also employed steel armor and woolen clothing - and a lot of it. The locals probably assumed these new folk nutters. We can’t be sure, since none of the locals survived, but given the ease with which the Europeans (Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and the occasional Italian) seized the coast of North America the locals treated these new visitors as guests and not as invaders - the indigenous people could have tossed most of the first wave of Europeans without any particular difficulty (muskets might make a loud bang, but once one realized it takes 5 or 6 minutes to reload… well, let us just say that a good bowman could place a dozen or more arrows into a musketeer in a minute or so…. Rate of fire makes a difference!).

But I digress. A community of locals lived around St. Augustine when the first Europeans arrived. Described as tall peaceful fisherman and farmers (as were most of the coastal dwellers at that time), they also had a reputation for, if not immortality, then at least extreme longevity. The average Spaniard at that time lived some 40 years. If one of the native people lived to 80 and was born in the year of the first visitors, then by the time she died, the grandchildren of the guests might have already died…. One might credit this extreme difference in life expectancy as the original source of Ponce de Leon’s spring of regeneration or fountain of youth. But it probably was not water quality (although good clean water might have helped…) but a combination of good diet, good genetics and a peaceful, contented lifestyle that brought about the differences.

— So, do vampires live forever (if not actually killed by one contrivance or another)? Or does it just seem so from our limited perspective?

Another story…. Years ago I read somewhere that a researcher decided to estimate how long an immortal might survive. He established a couple of perimeters. Death could not occur through illness or other ‘natural’ occurrence. The creature could only die through accident or deliberate destruction by self or other - by suicide or murder. To determine this the researcher tracked the ‘lifespan’ of a batch of water glasses.

Remember that water glasses are essentially immortal - if it doesn’t break it won’t spontaneously ‘die.’

At some point (and sooner than you might think!) we reach the 50% point - the moment when only half of the original water glasses/ vampires still exist; then a quarter remain and finally, some day, only one.

Anne Rice implies this in her novel Blood and Gold. The ‘hero’ Marius is not the oldest vampire - and in Anne’s world the vampires are definitely immortal - but few of those he knew some 2000 years earlier still exist. Over the centuries most have been destroyed.

My own researches suggest that vampires have at best only a quasi-immortality. They are resistant to most diseases (no heart disease, no cancer no - or glacially slow - deterioration from aging), but it becomes clear that age related changes do occur. There is the translucent quality of the skin that Anne Rice and others mention - a quality that some mistake for a vapid paleness - and an indifferent lethargy that seems to occur as the centuries pass - these are the symptoms one sees most often. The series V goes so far as to suggest that damage (from the sun usually) that occurs to a vampire never heals. And so a slow, almost inevitably deterioration progresses. But they do not die. And so we reach the horrid notion of a 2000 year old vampire existing in a quasi-living state, always in agony and without hope of release….

— But, still, do vampires die?

Yes, all the sources suggest that the vampire can die.

— Can the vampire commit suicide?

Most likely, although this seems never (or rarely) to occur. For whatever reason the drive for continued existence seems strong in vampires. But one must always allow for the glamorization of the vampire in the 20th century.

— How does a vampire die?

The power of religious icons seems weak - although if the vampire herself believes in the power of the icon it might create fear. Vampires simply dislike (and are burned by) garlic. There is no evidence that garlic is necessary. Cutting the head off works, but then so does a stake (or a .44 magnum bullet - wooden or otherwise) through the heart. These things work because the utterly destroy key organs (brain and heart). Keep in mind that if vampires can heal they heal slowly but effectively, by which I mean that vampires seem to be able to survive with damage to (but not total destruction of) vital organs - kidneys, liver, stomach, intestines. These organs regenerate if not destroyed.

Vampires are strong, quick and have a vigorous metabolic system. Blow out a vampires liver and he will still likely escape into the night! But how long will he survive without his liver? Not long….

— But, OK, hold on a minute, a vampire isn’t alive….

I didn’t say that. They are in fact proto-human predators. Most likely we share many biological and even genetic characteristics with vampires.

— So, hmm, does the bite of the vampire create another vampire?

Ah, here we have the beginning of another topic which we will consider another day….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 09-10

Thursday, September 9, 2010

9 Concerning vampires, Pt. 1 Sunlight

Misinformation abounds regarding vampires. I propose to go back to some of the principle sources of our current information, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Camilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and The Vampyre by John William Polidori as well as a few of the more recent and reliable, although unfortunately most of the more recent work is derivative….

Today I wish to consider the impact of light upon the vampire.

That the vampire is sensitive to the sun no one doubts, but as to how sensitive or to what particular element of the sun… well that does not seem clear.

But first let us consider our texts and try to sort out fact from fiction. Most people consider all three of these sources as fiction but yet we have reason to believe all derive from something real. Dracula purports to be a series of journals written by the various major players in the adventure. But critics have pointed out how unlikely that a person in the middle of a vampire attack would note the many details as these people. Mina Harker seems to have a bizarre ability to specify accurate detail while experiencing extreme situations - a good woman to have at your back in a fight! But it seems likely that the details come from the additions added by Bram Stoker rather than the validity of the originals.

Camilla does not claim to be a journal nor a first person narrative, but it does portray the vampire with such accuracy that I can only imagine that Le Fanu had some degree of direct contact with one or more vampires. The Vampyre is by far the oldest of the three tales and appears based upon real events experienced  (or observed) by the author.

— But can a vampire go out in the sun or not?

In many recent accounts, vampires immediately explode into flame and disintegrate to dust upon entering the sun. These further propose that the vampire will burn upon entering light coming through a glass window. In the otherwise quite good movie, Let the Right One In, we have vampires exploding into flames when exposed to light filtered through a glass window. If true, imagine how ‘simple’ to create a ‘vampire zapper’ that works much the same as a bug zapper - pull the trigger of a hand held UV emitting device and ZAP! no more vampire….

But glass filters out a good bit of UV (ultraviolet) radiation from the light entering from outside and we must consider how sensitive the vampire really is to UV radiation. Even if they explode on direct contact with the sun, the process should be less violent through a window. But if sun through a window has the same impact as direct sunlight, we have to suspect light itself is the culprit not UV radiation.

So, if the vampire is sensitive to light itself and not primarily to the UV radiation, then to what is it sensitive? What makes it explode into a ball of flame in the light of day? If not UV then why would not the vampire at least smolder in the presence of a bright full spectrum light bulb?

There can be little doubt that most recent tales - both written and on DVD - are inaccurate about the impact of the sun, though Buffy, the Vampire Slayer came pretty close with its image of Spike running through sunlight with his trench coat over his head (although he does have smoke beginning to swirl around him as he sprints…) and yet he stands in the shadows of a bright day with complete comfort. Nor can I remember Spike being much concerned with light from a window - but then not much concerned Spike!

A few of the more recent works have also tried to think this through. The Gates, a recent American TV program, has the vampires wearing sun screen - but then makes the egregious error of having them go without UV shielded sunglasses - in which case we would anticipate they would explode/ burn from the inside as the UV radiation entered their retinas if they had such a hyper reaction to sun. The show also has the vampires being burned by sun filtered by a glass window. Yet the vampire’s belief in the efficacy of their sunscreen seems complete. So, perhaps the burns shown to occur from window light are a dramatic exaggeration and they fear not so much exploding in the sun, but the damage inherent in hyper-sensitivity to the sun.

Camilla seems to ‘get it right.’ The vampire is sun sensitive in the way people with really pale skins may be - but to an extreme degree, having zero melatonin. They will always ‘burn’ in the sun. And healing from sun damage seems slow and not always complete. The vampire goes into the sun at extreme risk. But a few seconds, even a few minutes will likely do no horrid harm. They will not explode into flames - although, again we must consider the slow and incomplete nature of healing of sun damage that plagues the vampire. No rational vampire will risk accumulated damage by the sun.

A little sun exposure here, a bit more there and pretty soon the vampire has debilitating skin (and perhaps organ!) damage that may take, not days (as with a human sun burn) but years to repair itself. Imagine a sunburn that lasted a decade!

As reference to this fact, I refer you to the semi-documentary series called V and produced by the BBC a few years ago. It’s not entirely correct, in that it overemphasizes (again for dramatic effect?) the impact of sunlight through a window, but in many ways it is among the best work done in years (and not unlike Camilla I have to wonder if the writers/ creators have had direct experience with the vampire community?). I certainly recommend this series to the serious researcher.

It is important to always remember the vampire is a predator and historically has hunted at night. It’s predilection for nocturnal hunting probably relates to humans tending to be maximally active during the day while the shadows of darkness and reduced crowds at night (especially in the large cities favored by most vampires - Ann Rice gets this aspect correct) create an ideal hunting ground for the vampiric hunter. 

2000 years ago Rome was arguably the most densely populated city in the world - upwards of a million people lived there (the densest population in Europe for the next 1500 years!). This, most likely, allowed for the growth of a large hunting population - and not just of vampires…. It seems likely that many vampires hunted this city only to have to disperse as the city began to depopulate by the beginning of the 4th century.

Keep in mind that predators such as the vampire have hunting territories (often of a fixed nature) and for any one predator there must be sufficient prey for that predator to survive indefinitely.

But here I am drifting into tomorrow’s considerations: Concerning vampires, Pt. 2 Longevity and hunting.

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 09-09

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


This is the eighth blog of September. 8 of 30. Only, somethings blocked me for the past 2 days! I need to get moving. The goal is a Blog a day for the entire month. Of course, I suppose I’ve been cheating some. I understand the ‘rules’ say I am to write the blog and post it the same day. I guess…. But no way I can manage that! If I can’t let what I write rest for a few days I will never feel comfortable that it isn’t pure drivel.

Of course, no matter how long I age the product, it may still stink like that pack of chicken in my ‘fridge after a month or so….


Let’s take a look at jazz…. As I write I’m listening to a John Coltrane piece with blazing runs that sound oddly off key. But I now know that John is playing the upper reaches of the chord - not that I have a clue what the chord is - my ear isn’t good enough….

Which reminds me of the girl next door. I had known her from Mr. Odgen’s level 300 evening English class. A most interesting class with a minister, the girl and me creating a strange harmony with our varying takes on the world - often dissonant, but always interesting. Well, OK, this was mostly the girl and the minister rifting, but I WAS there and I stuck my nose/ mouth into the excitement sometimes.

About half way through the term, Mr. O announced the required term paper topics and passed a paper around for everyone to sign up. He allowed space on the off chance someone might have an idea for something different. I put in for ‘something about John Dos P’ and my assignment came back the next week as: “Write something about John dos Passos.”

I have to say that felt good and I ended up collecting a 40+ page bibliography (really…!) and an essay on how JdP was neither a Socialist nor a Fascist and that his swing politically from the left to the right fitted the notion of an Anarchist. Who knows how close I came to truth, but I remember having a good time with it and I got an A, so there ya go….

But I was talking about the girl, who I will now refer to as the Girl (since I seem not to remember her name). Besides arguing with the preacher her major devotion was to jazz - specifically to John Coltrane’s music and soon after she moved in next door (between Nancy McCorkle’s home and mine) she invited me over to listen to JC and for the first time I heard the long convoluted solos that he created.

I had no idea what I was listening to. I had never heard jazz before - had no markers to guide me along.

The Girl tried to help. She explained the concept of chord changes and how one could play over and around them. How one could approach the music obliquely by playing in those upper reaches of a chord. How John Coltrane was pioneering this sound. I suppose I probably nodded, but I had no idea what she talked about.

However, not long afterward, I bought Live at the Village Vanguard with an aching solo off of My Favorite Things that seems to go on forever. I later learned that JC had already become ill with the disease that would kill him and supposed that this solo somehow reflected the state of his soul at the time. It never occurred to me that another performer had actually created the solo I admired and around which I had created such an tragic romantic scenario.

Several years passed and at the new Student Center - the new one replacing Sharkey - I stumbled onto a jazz group wailing away in one of the basement bistros only to recognize the tenor jazz player as the Girl. I had not particularly advanced in my knowledge of jazz and my ear was still tin, but what I heard sounded dreadfully off key.

More years passed…. And I learned a little more and my ear became a bit better - just a bit.

And I began to wonder if what she was doing back then was simply playing entire solos based on the upper reaches of a cycles of chords - all 9th, 11th, and 13th notes rather than what we might regard as ‘pretty’ notes matching the root, 3rd, 5th and (sometimes) the 4th of a chord. I suppose I could drone on about what all these numbers mean, but I won’t. They either mean something to you or they don’t.

No matter.

Because the point is really about good and bad, right and wrong, consonant and dissonant. Much of what we regard as good or right or consonant has to do with what we are familiar with - what fits within our comfort zone. Jazz players - the best at least - like to push into the Zone, to push into dissonance. Maybe life is like that. We get so comfortable and cosy we forget that it’s the roughness that becomes memorable.

I don’t know. Let’s just play….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 09-08

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pullman Plaza & supper

Back in Huntington, on that Saturday after my High School reunion I wandered the streets taking late afternoon photos of places I could still recognize - many of them empty buildings where some 30 or 40 years ago existed a thriving community. I walked in an absent loop northward toward the Ohio River - toward the flood wall - and finally reached 3rd Avenue and the area known as Pullman Plaza.

Pullman seems the surviving heart of downtown Huntington, thumping away amid a surrounding mass of dying flesh….

It’s a couple of blocks long and a busy block thick. When I arrived, about 6 PM, young people still lined the small green space on the outer 3rd Avenue side. I watched as groups of kids boarded the free bus shuttle that took them between the Marshall University campus and Pullman Square. And I wondered about that free shuttle.

A nice idea… but who footed the bill? And why?

The idea that it might not be safe to walk the 6 or 7 blocks from the campus to Pullman Square kept coming to mind.

I remembered the Marshals at the Courthouse mentioning the 4 or so murders in downtown Huntington so far this summer and the drunk I had passed on 4th Avenue about 7 PM the night before. I recalled the solid row of clubs with darkened windows lining the south side of 4th Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets. And the flashing light show that I could see from the north side of that same block visible as I returned to my car a bit after 11 that same night. The lights sparked and lit the top floor where I could only imagine a club raved. I guessed the darkened entrances did not necessarily lead to ground level bars but perhaps to stairs or elevators that would zip one up to the real activity.

Not that there’s a thing wrong with having a good time. Clubs and parties are fine. But amid the otherwise empty buildings and general absence of any security presence (more about that in a bit…) and the fact that TPTB felt a free shuttle necessary to move kids from an area about a block from the ‘club zone’ (my name, not Huntington’s); amid all these facts… I wondered.

But I could not resolve my questions and walked up 9th toward the area where in my memory all the places I had once held dear still clustered: Post Office, Nick’s News, Library, 5th Avenue Hotel (never a ‘nice’ place, never glamorous, but always an intriguing building about which I made stories when I was a kid - creating a fictional set of residents who lived there - still do in my imagination).

The Library is now a College of some sort, the Post Office may still be a Post Office - it seemed a bit unclear what was going on in there…, Nick’s News is now the site of the new Library (not a bad exchange) and the 5th Avenue Hotel is now a training facility and residence for… well, I’m not sure, actually, although I suppose the generic term ‘underprivileged’ might apply.

I walked past the Hotel and continued along 9th Street past empty ground floor shops that had clearly been empty for a long time. Some had woodworking materials inside suggesting use as part of the training programs, but many were simply empty. I had parked my car near the only business still functioning on the entire block, another bar with blacked windows. And since I had not bothered to feed the meter in about 7 hours I more or less anticipated a parking ticket, but no, nothing.

Which made me think of the absence of any sign of police/ security. Decades ago the police department was a part of the city building across from the county courthouse, but in the last decade it had moved into what had back in the day been a dress factory along 10th Street flush against 7th Avenue. A huge building covering more than half a city block, it suggested a massive police force… but I had not seen one officer during my stay.

In the little village where I live I see police on 24 hour patrol looping around the place - a presence even when they are not visible. During fair days and special events (John McCane passed through in 2008) one of the younger officers zips around 8 or 9 feet off the ground on a Segway scooter. Even when I can’t see them, I know they are there if I need them.

But in Huntington… I don’t know…. The place had a odd ‘vibe.’

I just hope things turn around for the place. But as I left I traveled a street I had not visited on this trip, a block of boarded up buildings leading to the 8th Street viaduct. And sadly, that’s what I remember right now, rows of empty buildings, both commercial and residential, some with foreclosure signs, some with for sale signs, but many just empty. The apartment my Aunt Dorothy lived for 30 years was still occupied but the houses on each side showed boarded windows and foreclosure signs.

So I left Huntington.

I still love the place, but it’s the city I knew years ago that holds my heart, not what it has become. But it can renew. It doesn’t have to remain a desolate empty place. I’ll visit over the next few years. I’ll be interested to see how things improve.

* * * * *

On the way home I stopped at a Chinese place I had favored during my last visit (10 years ago, I suppose…) and had supper as a massive downpour passed through.

Awful. Overcooked and flyspecked.

But it filled the belly. I even had some of the chocolate pudding which, I suppose, is equivalent to eating plastic and raw sugar. But any fly feces in the pudding didn’t seem to affect the flavor - chocolatish and sweet.

The chicken, although overcooked (and probably nutritionally dead), had a slight chickeny flavor, so I ate a good bit of that. And the green beans, looking sad, soggy and faintly angry, had a salty greenish flavor that reminded me of food. So I did OK.

But the music…! What I had taken upon entering as a kind of generic elevator pop, revealed itself over my visit as christian pop, a nonstop drone of noise celebrating generic non-heathen…. Well, let’s just say it got old fast….

Eventually the rain stopped - at least enough for me to trundle to my car without being soaked. I paid and left. And as I left a small truck pulled up in front of the place and the entire clan from the restaurant came out and gathered around peering inside…. At what, I wondered? I have an odd sense of peace knowing I will never know. Some things are best left as mysteries….

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 09-07

Monday, September 6, 2010

Freddy and his human

For reasons that elude me I have found myself drifting through one of my MST3000 cycles - where I watch awful movies just to hear a guy and a couple of robots cracking wise. The latest epic, Racket Girls, concerns professional women’s wrestling in the days before silicone implants. Hard to image such times….

But that’s not what I want to discuss today. To clear my pallet (still jaded from the Racket Girls of the previous night…) I went for a walk across the Little Miami River into Terrace Park. I ambled across the bridge snapping pictures as fast as I could (of dogs driving cars, plants growing out of concrete, hundreds of electric cars all parked in a cluster - the sort of thing one always sees around here) and after a time came upon two more pedestrians, a large dog and his human.

I asked permission to snap a pic (using low tech real film, naturally) to which the dog agreed with a woofing shrug. By that time I had gotten close enough for my eyes to slip into a semblance of focus (I’m still not wearing my glasses most of the time - and the world looks better for it…) and noticed that his human had copper colored hair with slight fluorescent overtones. Interesting….

The dog introduced himself as Theodore (‘but you can call me Teddy’) of the Bernese Mountain family. And his human he named as Brianna.

“Brianna,” I asked. “Is that a real name or a taken name?”

Real, of course.


By this time Teddy already seemed a bit restless, but he seemed willing to let the humans interact. He settled in the shade as we humans chatted.

I snapped another picture. This one of his human’s tattoo - one of his human’s tattoos, she had several - of a cat in a stained glass window setting (it turns out that her father makes stained glass creations).

Teddy made a grumbling sound at the mention of a cat - or rather of a cat tattoo - but being a Bernese Mountain dog and thus a creature of enormous good nature, he made no other complaint.

And it turned out that Teddy’s human was not his permanent companion, but a person who’s day job it is to assist doggies when their everyday companions are not available. Which may explain Teddy’s willingness to tolerate such oddness as a CAT tattoo.

Other tattoos included a dragon on the left shoulder and an unidentified flower like object in the upper mid back - all of which the human had designed herself and had a friend inscribe upon the canvas of her skin.

Quite nice, actually.

No visible piercings however - not even a dangle from an ear lobe. Odd….

After a few minutes conversation, Teddy rose and suggested he must be on with his constitutional. Polite but insistent.

With a nod to the two of them, I moved along and began my loop back to Milford.

Not a bad walk, actually….

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 09-06

Postscript: As I reread this little blog, I realized that it seems a bit… well, ‘odd’ seems the right word. I wrote it after a 90 minute walk in the late morning as the temperature pushed upwards of 85 and I proceeded to leak a quart or three of water from the pores of my skin.

Now I’m of Celtic ancestry, pale of skin and moody of character, and I believe I wrote this essay under the influence of dehydration and borderline overheating.

Or maybe not…. Still an odd essay though….

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ken Heckler

Yesterday I began an account of my Saturday in Huntington from a few weeks ago.

By the time I left off, I had spent a couple of hours in the Library and had drifted into musings about young couples and vampires.

Perhaps the more thoughtful among you noticed that the noon hour had passed without me reporting the slightest hint of hunger or taking time for a nosh.

— And what actually happened?

I forgot to eat and by the time I felt my stomach rumble a bit it was already early afternoon. Might as well wait for dinner….

So I focused on my maps and telephone books and the next thing I noticed was a not particularly loud loudspeaker announcement that “Former congressman Ken Heckler will deliver a lecture….”

Dr. Heckler was running for the Senate to replace Robert Byrd, who had died at age 92 after 50 years as one of West Virginia’s Senators. Senator Byrd had managed to travel the long path beginning as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and filibustering against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and yet somehow by 2001 he had rejected his previous views. Of course he also voted against Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court…, but I can imagine all sorts of not-racist reasons for that decision…, believing that Anita Hill told the truth being one…. And, anyway, Byrd played bluegrass fiddle, so he couldn’t be all bad…. Right?

I wandered up to the 3rd floor where I found Dr. H (PhD from Columbia University in History and Government) hosting perhaps a dozen listeners. I slipped into a seat and listened as he discussed his primary topic - the one he based his campaign upon - the removal of mountain tops to pull out coal and other minerals. His point is simple. You can’t reclaim such an insanely radical operation. As he says, (I’m paraphrasing…) ‘Once you have the ground saturated with acid, reclamation becomes impossible.’ And you get acid run off from ALL mountain top removal operations. So reclamation is a fantasy….

Since I now live in Ohio I can’t vote in West Virginia. Although when I was a lad, the motto in WV was, ‘Vote Early. Vote Often.’ And both parties enjoyed a strategy by which they voted the graveyards, an actual procedure that swayed more than one election. More sophisticated techniques included driving potential voters to a polling place and accompanying them into the booth to ‘assist’ in filling out the ballet. Afterwards, the voter would either received a pint of some liquid refreshment for his/ her efforts or move on to the next polling place and vote again. It all depended upon the contract previously arranged between the contractees.

But as I say, things have changed. There are fewer dead people still on the polls and voting more than once is frowned upon in most areas of the state. Had I tried to vote I might even have been challenged, although I suppose I might have given my address from 35 years ago - might have worked….

Anyway, I listened with awe to Dr. H’s speech and went up after to introduce myself.

Some 45 years ago I had participated in one of the good Docs Week in Washington programs, although in typical fashion I had managed not to win the essay contest and rather than an actual week I received a Day in Washington (which included a fascinating train ride from Huntington to Washington).

Toward the end of the day, irritable and tired, I was ‘rude’ to Strom Thurmond asking him about racial relations in his state (South Carolina) and making noises indicative of disbelief when he told me there were no problems. Of course, in this one case I was right and Strom was wrong… but I still should not have been rude…. I hoped Ken had not received any difficulties back from my misdemeanor. He said it hadn’t.

I really wanted to talk to Ken (I guess I’m a fan boy…) and somehow the conversation looped to history and Ken told me that during his ramblings over West Virginia during this campaign for the Senate he had met the last surviving American who had served in WWI, one Frank Buckles, now living over in Charles Town, WV in the Eastern edge of the state. Not knowing how to respond (a not untypical thing for me) but not wanting to show my ignorance I muttered something about the longevity of Civil War vets vs WWI vets and made the mistake to suggest Civil War vets had survived longer than WWI vets.

Without any rancor, Ken corrected me, explaining that the last confirmed Civil War vet had died in 1956 at about 108 or so, more or less the same age as Frank B (he’s 109 now). The point being that maximum longevity didn’t seem to have changed over the past 150 years or so.

Ken added that he figures he should manage one, maybe two, terms in the Senate before he has to retire.

(Regrettably, in the 28 August 2010 special election, the democratic party of West Virginia decided they wanted the present governor to run for the Senate in November ‘10 rather than Ken. However, some 17.3% voted for Dr. Heckler. Not bad for a guy who would be 96 by the time they swore him in….)

Afte Doc H finally peeled myself away from me (he had to return to the capital for an evening campaign activity), I returned refreshed to my cubby hole where I transferred from my telephone books to newspaper archives.

Interesting how little news one actually found in newspapers back then…. But actually the ads and prices grabbed my interest more than facts - except for a few curious events including a murder outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan which may (or may not) have been a serial killing. I scanned quite a few papers, but had to leave of with the police looking for ‘a young man on a motorcycle.’ Friends reported last seeing the deceased young woman boarding the young man's bike and the couple zipping off.

And then at 5 the library closed without me finding out the conclusion of the story. Luckily I don’t have to know the ending. I know enough to use the outline in my next NaNoWriMo story - although it is a bit grimmer than I like….

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 01-29

Friday, September 3, 2010

After the renuion

I returned to my home town a couple of weeks ago for my High School reunion. I’ve written about how I might quell my anxiety - and I suppose it worked since I enjoyed the evening I spent with this group of strangers I had (more or less) known all those years ago.

The next day I spent in Huntington's old downtown. I parked on 9th Street between 5th & 6th Avenues, now a row of empty store fronts. There was a bar that might have been open, but I could not be sure given the blacked out windows.

As I dropped a quarter into the parking meter I could see the old Pritchard hotel looming against the partly clouded sky. The day was becoming hot and the morning clouds began to dissipate. As I positioned myself for a picture, I noticed way up to the 9th floor where a cluster of boarded up windows - one still with an air conditioner in the window - gave the place a desolate look.

— I must admit that at that moment I remembered the movie, Let the Right One In, and gave myself a shiver wondering who or what lived behind those darkened windows….

I spent the next hour or so wandering a few city blocks comparing the pictures in my head (from the late 1960s) to the present reality before ending up at the Court House. After taking a couple of pictures (real ones with a camera and film), I went up to the door where a little sign declared the place closed on the weekends. I peered inside and to my surprise a face loomed before me waving me to enter.

So I went in and through the security screening. I managed to make the buzzer buzz, but the guard just said, “It just your shoes. Been happening all day. Go on and vote.”

Vote? On Saturday?

It seems 'they' (The Powers That Be) had opened the Court House for early voting (as part of the process to determine who would replace the late Senator Robert Byrd).

The security guys turned out to be Marshals of the Court, not Rent-A-Cops nor even City Police. I'm sure these differences are important....

One of them turned out to have graduated from HS the same year as had I - only from Huntington East High, rather than Huntington High - nice guy despite that….

So, over the course of the next half hour or so we swapped stories - or rather they told me stories. There was one about the Huntington tradition of running disreputables out of town… but, no, I’m probably going to use it for NaNoWriMo this year (and I’m still considering that boarded window in the Pritchard hotel…), so you will have to wait.

I left after they ran the strange fellow out of the rose garden (he was picking - or perhaps just trimming? - the roses)…

“Oh, him,” one of the Marshals said, distaste grumbling his voice. “That guy's a weird duck. We see him all the time. A child molester….”

… just as the pizza arrived…

... and I spent the afternoon in the library.

In my red journal I have pages of addresses (and phone numbers…) that I gathered from the 1968 Telephone Book (which came out new each November…). Anderson-Newcomb, Nick’s News (& Card Shop), Star Book Store, Tradewell Super Markets (5 throughout the city), Bailey’s Cafeteria (410-9th Street), Long’s Parkette (across from Marshall U on 5th Avenue), the Bazaar, WT Grant, New China Restaurant, UpTowner Inn (with the Hawaiian Luau each weekend), White Panty (beside Nick’s, across from the old Public Library), the Milner Hotel (with not exactly a good rep…), Cinema Theater (previously the Orpheum), the Keith-Albee, the Palace, the Princess Shop (popular, I believe, with the Marshall co-ed), Vapo Baths & Massages (hmm…), Ward’s Doughnuts, George H. Wright (whose namesake died crashing his Corvette on Rt. 60E), VW of Huntington (on 4th Avenue - hard to believe how many car dealers were in-town back then…), Hez Ward Buick, Egnor’s Barbershop (owned by brothers of Dagmar…), Davidson’s Record Shop….

The list goes on.

Most of these places have long since disappeared. George H. Wright’s men’s shop still exists, as do all three movie theaters, although the Keith-Albee seems to only host special concerts and events (it’s now an historic site, I believe), but the rest… all memories - well, OK, I have no memory of the Vapo Baths…, but Ward’s Doughnuts…? You betcha….

I also spent a good time while in the Library peering at maps from before the last decade (or so) of urban renewal (or whatever they call it now…) trying to visualize the layering of the city from some 40 years ago.

16th Street/ Hal Greer Boulevard is unrecognizable - I will have more to say about THAT later - except for that row of low income housing TPTB somehow allowed to survive. As I drove up and down that main drive (my motel was down that-away) I realized I couldn’t visualize how I used to loop around the area on my bicycle….

No, that’s not quite right. I could visualize it, but I couldn’t find it.

Back in the day (c 1969 or so), 16th Street/ Hal Greer butted up against Rte 10. The minute I passed the boundaries of the city, the road would narrow and, amid the rural greenery, become the wandering way to Logan, WV. And just before its southern terminus 16th Street branched left and east into a series of twisting residential streets which led, incidentally, up to the small, almost European, plaza (or should I say, piazza) with a tiny movie theatre that (back then) was the city’s only hope to see an art film…. I also remember the 5 or 6 cornered intersection with a European pharmacy that, in my memory, had a clean European feel.

As a kid, I loved the odd times we would drive past that area. I have no idea why…. Later, I might bike up there, still a kid, but now more or less post pubescent, usually just poking around and more or less by mistake I would surprise myself. Then I would stop and walk around the place. I’m sure something will happen in that area in my next book…. Probably nothing mysterious, maybe just a couple walking arm in arm along the street - when suddenly a piece of space debris crashes into the steeple of the corner church… or a vampire [one of those guys from that room in the Pritchard hotel!] comes gliding from the darkness to the shadowy pavement.

Or maybe not….

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 08-28

Active vs passive

Yesterday I discussed the Passive Voice and even defined it… kinda.

“A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.”

Which is about as clear as mud, to quote my Nana.

But our friends from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (from whom I stole this definition) didn’t stop there. They actually gave an example:

“Why was the road crossed by the chicken?”

A logical question perhaps, yet expressed in the passive voice. And we know it’s PV because it’s the chicken who did the work - who crossed the road. And yet the road is the subject of the sentence.

OK, so now we have something to work with. A passive construction MUST have that ‘to be’ verb as I was told a while back, but it must also have a past participle.

And a past participle is pretty much any verb that ends in ‘-ed’ (or equivalent = ‘paid’ is the example UNC uses).

So in the example from a few sentences above we have the ‘to be’ verb ‘was’ followed (eventually) by the past participle ‘crossed’ which equals the dreaded Passive Voice.

But UNC goes on to point out a few other things.

First, using the Passive Voice is NOT a grammatical error. It just tends to reduce the clarity and ‘power’ of your writing.

Second, using a ‘to be’ verb does NOT automatically create the Passive Voice.

And third, sometimes the passive voice is OK.

They (the folks at UNC) go on to give examples and further details and if you are interested here is their website:

They go on for a good bit pondering how to change the PV to the AV and when it might be OK to use the PV and even give you a list of further reading if you’re really interested, a list that includes the ubiquitous book by Strunk and White (of course) and a book with the intriguing title of Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Well, enough of that….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-27

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to write stuff

First find a sheet of paper and a pencil. Then sharpen the pencil. Place the pencil on the paper and move the arm onto which the pencil is affixed.

Or do you know all that?

OK, but do you know the rudiments of grammar?

Years ago I heard that ‘you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them.’ Ridiculous. A person is a hundred times more likely to break a rule she doesn’t know. But then, I suppose that’s not what the quote means. Yet both concepts apply - if you don’t know a bit of grammar you’ll write dreadfully because you really don’t know when/ if you’re getting it right. And you sure won’t be able to play around with your words if you don’t know the fundamentals of putting them together.

But let me tell you a story. It’s not a pretty story….

After surviving 7th Grade in the purgatory known as Oley Junior High (in Huntington, WV) - a place so predatory that when it was mercifully torn down a bit later it remained an empty parking lot for decades - I suspect because ‘they’ couldn’t find a Medicine Man with enough Mojo to clear the nastiness of the place. Did I mention I did not enjoy my year at Oley?

Then next year, I began a sojourn at Cammack Junior High and ran afoul of Catherine Venerables! - whose name, I believe, is legend - at least among the students who survived a year in her English class.

Or maybe it was just me. I can’t really be sure….

At the start of that school year I was still 13 (a bit younger than most of my peers), small, skinny and in a tizz starting my 2nd new school in two years. For reasons that make no sense to me TPTB (The Powers That Be) decided to place me in the toughest, most demanding English class (and Math class, but that’s another story!). Given that my 7th Grade English teacher spent most of the year chasing unruly kids (usually the boys) around the room with her wooden paddle flailing the air I can only imagine that in relation to most of the students I must have looked akin to a whiz kid (I could read and that put me a couple notches above most of my peers).

Now I don’t mean that some Oley JHS grads didn’t managed to learn something - I met a few who had brains - but that the sheer nuttiness of the place made it difficult to learn. In theory a bright kid can thrive and learn in a gutter, BUT it’s hard to reach your potential while floundering in the muck….

Anyway, Catharine started us with outlining sentences.

But I didn’t know the difference between a subject and a predicate. I had never even heard the words or if I had no one had ever hinted at what they might mean. And then there were nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, participles and something called the Passive Voice. I managed to comprehend that nouns and verbs did different things and that adjectives and adverbs ‘modified’ other words although I was a little vague as to the differences between the two. Plus I read at a glacial pace (still do, for that matter).

If my memory is correct, I survived the first quarter with a C and went down from there. By Christmas, I had floundered so that even being generous Catharine could only give me a D-. I suppose any sane teacher would have sent me packing to another class, but Catharine was nothing but persistent. Plus, she had gone to school with my mother and after a series of (increasingly desperate) meetings a Secret Solution was proposed.

Since I had not managed to ‘get’ Algebra my father had arranged for me to be tutored by one of his co-workers, an engineer who guided me through the math maze until I ‘got’ it - an event that literally happened between one session and another - but that’s another story. Somehow (and for reasons I don’t fathom even now) Catharine agreed to tutor me…. So once a week I received a guided lesson that tried to move me through the labyrinth of the English language. In class - no mercy…. Tutoring - persistent guidance and gentle drilling. And she did this at risk since the Board of Education looked askance upon teachers who helped their students outside of class…. But, if anything, she treated me with greater rigor in class!

I finished the year with a C (or maybe a C-) and the next year TPTB relegated me to a Bonehead English class located in the basement of the school where most of my fellow students spent their time pitching paper wads into the light fixtures - by the end of the school year the place seemed as dark as a dungeon. But even so the teacher managed to terrify the students enough to maintain order and actually tried to teach - a good change from Oley, if not exactly up to C. Venerables expectations.

By my Senior year of HS (3 years later) I had moved slowly up the ladder to a notch below the top - up with SOxley (one of a pair of sisters, FOxley who taught History and SOxley, English - both good people… I learned from each).

But I still didn’t manage Passive Voice.

College helped a bit.

But I would still get papers back with ‘Use Active Voice’ scrawled in red. Which made no particular sense given that no one could explain to me what ‘Active Voice’ was, especially in relation to ‘Passive Voice.’

The years passed….

When I was about 40 (or perhaps 50) some One - who? I wonder - said, “Passive Voice? That’s just using the ‘to be’ verb all the time.”


So… it is when I use ‘is’ or ‘was’ or ‘were’ or ‘had been’ (although ‘had Ben?’ could be just fine - ya gotta love English…) - is that it?

Hmm… no…. There’s a bit more to it than that.

Here’s the definition of Passive Voice from the University of North Carolina (the first place I found on the internet…): “A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.”

So now we know…. But….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-26

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Some thoughts on reading

There are only so many hours in a day and even retired I do not have enough time for everything I would like. And now we have so many alternatives - call them distractions. The internet itself - the home of this blog - is a major distraction with it’s near infinite variety of ‘things’ to peer at and ponder.

And then there’s the near constant flow of cable television, now pumped in a stream through the internet. Movies on demand through cable and Netflix. No wonder people don’t read any more.

Or do they…? I have no statistics, but even with the distractions I seem to complete more books now in a year than I ever managed in the past.

Well, sure, I AM retired and that makes a difference, but not as much as you might think.

No, I believe it’s in the ear.

Let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time when cassettes began to replace 8 track and even reel-to-reel as the recording medium of choice, ‘somebody’ decided she could make a buck (or two) producing books which people could listen rather than read. People did this for years using records (big black discs played non-digitally using a special needle and a curious non-digital amplification process that I never really understood). But access to these had limited itself to the visually impaired - folks who for one reason or another could not read.

But beginning with the ‘Cassette Age’ people who could see more or less well began to enjoy having someone read a favorite book aloud. I discovered Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (and read by the brilliant Frank Muller) and realized for the first time how brilliant and accessible this book is. And I realized how important to find a good reader….

Let me tell you about Frank Muller. For years a favorite reader of mine, I heard he had a motorcycle accident with debilitating brain damage and that he could no longer read professionally. I kept checking to see how he did, always hoping for his return to the public sector, but alas, he died a few years ago, finally released from his damaged body…. He will be missed by all who knew him, even those of us who only met him through his wonderful voice….

The Digital Age began and let us make the starting date 1984 with the advent of the first Apple Macintosh (not that I’m biased or anything…). And with that came the CD. But for many people CDs never had as much appeal for recorded books as did cassettes, since most players could never remember where the CD left off. A cassette only required that the listener remember which side to put into the player (and which cassette to play…). But both CDs and cassettes seemed too expensive for the average listener. Luckily libraries began to catch onto the technology and at that time seemed well enough funded to keep a nice stock.

Today libraries have entire rooms devoted to CD and cassette versions of books. Yet how long before libraries cease to exist? But let me not digress further….

The next and (to date) the most important step was MP3 technology. This created the digital equivalent of the tape cassette. And for about $100 I can own a recording device that rivals studio quality machines from 30 or 40 years ago! I can, if I want, record my own book, make a series of MP3s and release it through my website. It’s just unfortunate that my voice isn’t quite as luxurious as that of Frank Muller…, but the fact that I can do it is amazing!

And here’s the thing: with my MP3 player I can listen to a book at any time. I can drive with Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl helping me along. I can walk or bike with Jane Austen or Tolkien. I don’t have to hole up in a corner with a book unless I want to (and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!).

And now eBooks have arrived…, but I'm not sure…. I like paper. I like the bulk and substantiality of hard copy…. And is there a real value to carrying a library in my pocket? How many books can I read at one time? (2 or 3 seems the limit - 1 on my MP3 and 1 by the bed [perhaps a 3rd as a carry along in my tote]). But perhaps an ebook collection means I can go to some obscure place and have my reference library with me…. For me the issue has yet to clarify.

As for what to read…. Well, the classics still work: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Herman Melville (just skim the fishy stuff in Moby Dick and you’ll do fine), William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, John dos Passos - or whomever you regard as a classic (not everyone will agree about Philip K. Dick or even John dos Passos).

And the moderns…. Well here we have a problem…. “Many are called, but few are chosen….”

I suspect Thomas Pynchon will remain, although if you’re in High School or younger, I suspect you should stay with The Crying of Lot 49. Try V after HS (or your Senior year of HS if you’ve the nerve) and tackle the others if you're still interested.

And, young people…, PLEASE, if you must read Stephanie Meyers, try to find a bit of Anne Rice and Dracula and, if you really want to get the vampire vibe, Camilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu (a truly strange person…). At the very least reading these will make your conversations about Steffi’s books more sensible….

Am I being too hard on Stephanie Meyer? Sorry - nothing personal…. Perhaps I can salvage myself by saying I liked the Harry Potter series (up to the very end, at least…)…. Although, now that I think of it, I might suggest that Harry Potter devotees consider reading Philip Pullman for a different (and MUCH more sophisticated) take on… well not magic, but life in general….

And then there’s Haruki Murakami. Awesome stuff…. It’s hard to say where to leap into his work…. Oh, just try After Dark. Good story, interesting characters and strange enough to make me wonder: WTF….

And then there’s Joanne Harris - Chocolat was her ‘movie’ novel, but all her ‘stuff’ is terrific. And Tracy Chevalier. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is her movie book, but, again, all her stuff is solid.

I mentioned Charles de Lint earlier. Not only does he write well (within a solid base of magic realism), but he has ‘soul’ (and, no, I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s still true…).

And you might find John Crowley’s Little, Big worth your time.


Well, enough…. As one can see, there’s no end to the list. But if you want to write, ya gots to read….

I’m just sayin….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-25