Monday, April 28, 2014

Mapping the Past

Every writer puts some of their own life in their books. This might seem challenging if your book happens to take place on Mars, but it turns out not to be the case. Writers depend much on research, but they can’t help drawing from their own experiences.

In the forthcoming book, The Crappy Used Diary, an important component of the book is an old family house located in a fictional river valley. In my real life there is a similar house in a similar valley, and this week marks a big event in that house.

My great grandparents, Nels and Emma Just came to Idaho as teenagers with their parents in 1863. They would not have thought of themselves as that, because the word “teenager” wasn’t invented until the 1920s. They married in 1870.

In 1887 they built a brick home near the banks of the Blackfoot River in eastern Idaho. To celebrate the completion of the home, Nels hung a brand new map of the United States in the hallway. It has hung there ever since, admired by generations of Justs, Reids and visitors to the house that was the life-long home of regional writer Agnes Just Reid, my great aunt.

Tomorrow, the map comes down. I cannot stress enough the consternation this causes for family members, none of whom have ever seen that bare hallway wall. The map is a touchstone across the years to Nels and Emma.

We will be taking the map down with reverence and the help of a textiles expert. Over the years, the 4’ x 6’ map has been damaged by hands that wanted only to touch it, learn from it and feel the past. The varnish, commonly applied to maps of that vintage, has yellowed and the map is flaking in places. It is in need of restoration.

We’ll be shipping this treasure off to New York City for the specialized work of bringing it back to life. When we get the restored map back, it will be professionally mounted behind conservation glass in a solid display case. After a little tour to selected places in Idaho, it will find its way home where it will once again hang in the hallway for generations to come. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chewing up the Jawfish

I’ve never been much of an athlete or participant in any sport. Bowling hardly counts. Maybe motorcycle racing does, but I got over that fairly quickly and only limp once in a while nowadays.

I like games, though. I’ve played a jillion rounds of pinochle, rummy and hearts. I’ve become briefly addicted to a couple of videogames, i.e., that Laura Crofts series and a car racing game. I play Words With Friends. I’m pretty good at that, but I get beat plenty.

I wasn’t a star at anything until Jawfish Words came along. It was like Boggle, except there were randomly selected challenges, such as being the first to get a full blackout or double blackout, the first to find a word, the most diagonal words, etc. Reaching higher game levels was logarithmic. It was easy to get to level 2 or 7 or 12, but became increasingly difficult with each level. Most players hovered around 20. I’d reached level 61. I never saw any player higher than 70.

It was great fun for me to enter a tournament with 15 other players and get 25% of the total points made in the game. I won about 95% of the time. I was an elite player.

So, of course, Jawfish went out of business. If I lived in a cave and held mystical beliefs I might think that I caused that. The way the company intended to make money was by charging players 8 coins every time you played. The problem, for them, was that some of us made enough coins every time we played that we never had to buy any. I had more than 22,000 when the company went bust.

I recall putting several magazine publishers out of business in the 80s. I would send them an article, which they would accept. Then they would promptly go out of business, often before the article even appeared. Goodbye Broadcast Programming and Production, National Retired Teachers Journal, and Vortex. You were apparently cursed by the pen of Just.

I know it wasn’t about me. The demise of Jawfish wasn’t about me, either, but I regret that they have gone away. It is a real rush to be one of the best in the world at something. I guess I’ll move on to a similar game that doesn’t have some of the elements I so excelled at. Watch for Word Hero to go down in flames any day now. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another Range War

When I wrote KeepingPrivate Idaho in the mid-90s, I focused on xenophobia. Idahoans then seemed bent on keeping non-natives out of the state.

Now, an issue in Nevada seems ripe for parody. The standoff over the Bundy cattle and years of unpaid grazing fees has all the elements of political theater. Bundy claims he’s a patriot while refusing to acknowledge the authority of the United States Government. Meanwhile, his supporters say they are willing to lay down their lives for a fuzzy principle, which boils down to “government bad.”

It does not seem to occur to the “patriots” that they are proposing anarchy.

Mostly unasked in the reporting is whether grazing should be taking place there at all. That’s a complicated subject. At one time, the answer probably should have been no. Had we known in the 19th century what we know now, the federal government would have been wise to prohibit it. Those who grazed cattle back then assumed the grass would always be there and their cattle would have little or no impact on the ecosystem—a word they would not recognize.

We’ve been grazing those public lands for about 150 years. The land has changed because of it, and usually not in a good way. Counterintuitively, removing cattle from public land would not necessarily improve it. Modern grazing, which includes critically timed movement of animals, is now one of the better tools in the management toolbox for public lands. Correctly done, cattle grazing can help beat back invasives, encourage native species, and assist in fire management.

Once you start messing with an ecosystem, you’re stuck with managing it forever. If we walked away from public lands now that they are over-run with invasive species, those species would quickly dominate. If you think sagebrush is boring, how do you think you’d like a desert ecology based on cheatgrass, tumbleweeds and fire?

The BLM, which moves slow as a snail to recognize innovation, is poorly equipped to manage grazing. Local managers are hamstrung by bureaucracy and lawsuits. Meanwhile ranchers, who are often well educated in range stewardship, experience deep frustration year after year when they advocate for innovation with little effect.

There’s a lot for ranchers to complain about. Claiming some imaginary birthright and refusing to pay reasonable grazing fees doesn’t help their cause. Most of them realize this and will keep themselves far away from this particular scuffle.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


With more than 4,500 books published every day, I suppose it’s not surprise that I’ve missed one or two. I recently took a chance on one from about 1990, because Audible had it on sale.

I’d not heard of the book or, as it turns out, the movie. I didn’t know there were sequels. I feel a little foolish for all that, but check that number-of-books-published figure again, before you think me hopelessly out of touch.

I expect Jumper, by Steven Gould, is often shelved as science fiction. This, despite the fact there is no hint whatsoever that science is in any way involved in the hero’s new-found ability to teleport at will. Genre labels drive me crazy, mostly because my own books, which often straddle the fuzzy lines between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, are so hard for people to categorize. I pegged this as science fiction from the first incident of teleportation, not because technology was involved, but because it was so reminiscent of the trigger for teleportation in Alfred Bester’s classic, The Stars My Destination. In jumper, David Rice “jumps” to safety when his life is in danger. In the Bester book, Gully Foyle puts himself in imminent danger of death with no way out in order to trigger teleportation.

Gould does give a nod to the earlier book that people who had not read it would miss, but I appreciated his acknowledgment.

And, I’ve said so little about the book itself, to this point. Okay, it’s mostly plausible and very well researched. The reader can easily empathize with the protagonist and it’s a fun adventure. It’s also a YA book, defined as such because the protagonist is 17 when the book starts. Don’t let that scare you away from this or any other YA book. You were 17 once, too, and you haven’t forgotten how that feels.