30. September 2012 · Comments Off on Oranges and Honey · Categories: Domestic, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , , ,

I have a shoebox full of vintage postcards, collected in the Thirties by the invalid young son of Grandpa Jim’s employer. Among my favorite cards are those of places I knew, like the Devil’s Gate Dam, on the nebulous border between La Crescenta and Pasadena, with a Model-A Ford on the roadway atop the dam, and Mt. Wilson topped with snow in the background, and a view of the Arroyo Vista hotel, still a landmark in the days when Mom was driving us to Pasadena to visit the grandparents, but half a century past its Roaring Twenties prime.

My very favorite is a view again of Mt. Wilson and the San Bernardino range, edged with snow against a turquoise blue sky, and acres of orange groves covering the entire plain below, even up to the foothills. From the mountain peaks and ridges, an expert could deduce where that particular vista had been taken down for 3-penny posterity. The citrus groves were long gone from Pasadena when I was a child, nibbled away by suburbia, but pockets of hold-outs still held sway in back yards; Grannie Jessie and Uncle Jim had an enormous lemon tree in their front yard, and a smaller orange tree along the driveway, shading the only place where JP and I were allowed to dig, and make mud pies amid the sweet scent of orange blossoms and the still-sweet moldy smell of the windfalls.

When Grandpa Al and Grannie Dodie first moved out to Camarillo in the early 1960ies, and Mom and Dad would drive up on Saturday afternoons for dinner, the way there from the Valley that was not rolling hills covered in tawny dry grass and dark green live-oaks, was still taken up with citrus groves. The orchards were like vast, roofless rooms, walled with the windbreak trees, and floored in neat rows of orange, lemon and grapefruit trees, guarded by tall towers with slow-moving vanes intended to move the air when it came too close to freezing.

Gradually, creeping fingers of suburbia reached into the groves along the highway, just as they had before in Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. Between one Saturday dinner and the next, the grove was bulldozed and by the next year, there would be a tract of houses, and the windbreak around the grove would be ragged, no longer a tall, sheltering wall against the wind. No doubt a few survivor trees lingered in back yards, or maybe were planted by the builders. Redwood House was built on hills which had once been olive groves, and the surviving trees still aligned in rows, along the roads or from yard to yard, but someone had planted orange and lemon trees there, and around Hilltop House. After we moved in, Dad averred that he had favored buying it because he had a wish to have fresh-made lemonade from fresh-picked lemons from his own tree on the Fourth of July.

Oranges and lemons were so ubiquitous, so much a part of the public and private landscape that it came as a shock to realize there were people elsewhere who had to go to the store and actually buy them… and they were an exotic and foreign delicacy at that. Our neighbors at Hilltop House brought over their visiting English cousins, so their children and their little cousins could swim in the pool— three little boys who looked like various incarnations of the juvenile Roddy McDowell. The youngest happened to notice the orange tree, growing in the hillside by the steps to the pool.
“What is that, miss? A peach tree?”
“No, it’s an orange tree, “ I said, and his eyes widened.
“May I have one, miss?” he asked, tremulously, “To eat?”
“You can pick many as you like,” I said, and damned if he didn’t sit down and eat four of them.

Feeling a little guilty over the fruit that fell from the tree and was wasted, Pippy and I made a concerted effort to keep ahead of production, that summer. We filled three or four shopping bags with ripe oranges, without making an appreciable dent in the bounty. It was more than we and our neighbors could ever eat, so we converted it into juice. Gallon jugs of juice filled the refrigerator— still more than we could drink, and before we could think of what to do with it all, the brush at the end of the hill caught fire, and we would up taking it out to the firemen afterwards. They drank it gratefully every drop, straight from the jugs, fresh-pressed and icy cold on a hot day after a brushfire. So much for trying to keep ahead of the bounty, but we could not count on a fire every day.

We went back to letting the surplus rot on the ground, but at least our bees got the good out of it. Amidst the other pets, strays and lab survivors and Hilltop House, we had taken on a hive of bees. Our pastor’s oldest son had begun working on a Scout Merit Badge in beekeeping, and alas, too late, discovered that he was one of those severely allergic to bee stings. The hive had to go, and go it did, with all the paraphernalia, to the sunny hillside above the vacant lot next door, which was planted in thyme and native chaparral. For two or three years, we had our own honey.
We never did figure out what plants the bees favored, because the honey was like nothing else I have tasted since. It was clear, almost like Karo syrup, with a delicate flavor, not quite citrus, not thyme, distinctive, but unidentifiable, as rare as the oranges were common.

Oranges and honey, tart and sweet, enduring, but ephemeral, a vision of California that still exists in the backyards of suburbia, and on the postcards from another era.

09. August 2012 · Comments Off on In the Post · Categories: Domestic · Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been thinking for a while – based on my own use of the service – that the good old US Post Office is something well past its best-if-used-by date. Oh, no – not that it should be done away with as a government service entirely. But I can contemplate delivery of the mail only two or three times a week with perfect equanimity … which is at least a little tragic for there were times when the daily arrival of the mail was a much-looked-forward-to thing. When I was overseas, or in a remote location – like Greenland (and in military outposts today I am certain) the arrival of the mail (three times a week) was anticipated with keen interest, since it was our lifeline to the outside world. There were letters from family, loved ones, magazines, catalogues and packages with goodies in them – sometimes gifts, sometimes items ordered … the whole world, crammed into a tiny box with a locking door in the central post office; the magical envelopes, the catalogues and magazines in a tight-packed roll, the little pink slips that meant a package … and then, between one or two decades, it all changed.

Now, the packages come mostly through UPS or Fed-Ex. The various utility bills arrive as emails and are paid on-line. My pension and my daughters’ VA disability are paid by automatic deposit to bank accounts. Magazines? I dropped a lot of my various subscriptions through lack of interest (I am looking at you, Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly) or through the magazines or the publications themselves going under. My news and intellectual-contact jones is fed on-line. Email works for just about everything else save for birthday cards to Luddites like my mother. My various businesses as a freelance are conducted thru Paypal, or through email with my business partner. I realize that not everyone has this kind of luxury – and in the case of the zombie apocalypse or some sort of solar event that crashes the internet I will be SO screwed … but then I am not advocating abolition of the post office. Just that in those metropolitan areas in the continental US that are well-served by internet services and by the various rival delivery services, the Postal Service can probably dial it back, quite a bit. Nothing much comes in the daily mail any more, save the print equivalent of the stuff that I empty out of my spam email box. Really – I am never going to respond to the Capitol One offers for a credit card, so do they need to have their weekly c**p underwritten with tax dollars? My way back into the house from the group mailbox leads past my trash and recycle cans; convenient, as that is where the bulk of it winds up.

I’ll shed a nostalgic tear for the USPS, when they cut back services. I really will – as there are (or were) the occasional business that would send a payment check by mail, instead of an automatic transfer. And the businesses which depend upon cheap bulk mail deliveries will be set back a peg or two. I do dispatch my own books when bought by readers through media mail, and the workers at the post offices where I do and have done business are wonderful, competent and cheerful people (Yeah, I know that is SO much against the usual stereotype) … but otherwise I fear that the USPS is a zombie corpse, being kept alive out of habit. To enable it to keep shambling around in those places where it does truly provide a neccessary service, I’d be willing to give up delivery service on Saturdays and at least two weekdays.

I’d also be able to avoid encountering my slightly-deranged and very chatty neighbor, who haunts the group mailbox; another win-win, as I count it.

24. July 2012 · Comments Off on Nat Love – Cowboy Rock Star · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

Nat Love, who was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854, went west to Dodge City after the Civil War and cadged work as a wrangler and cowboy. He was already a pretty good rider and bronco-buster, and in a very short time had picked up the other requisite skills – with a six-shooter and lasso, earning the nick-name ‘Deadwood Dick’ through a contest of cowboying skills at a 4th of July celebration in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He not only won the roping contest, but the the grand prize pot of $200 in the shooting contest. He was a hit with the audience, as well as with his fellow cattle drovers. He cut a striking figure in his star cowboy days; lean, slim-hipped and cocky, with a mop of long black hair to his shoulders, and a wide-brimmed sombrero with the front turned rakishly up – a Jimi Hendrix of the 19th century rodeo.

As a teenager, Nat Love worked the legendary long-trail cattle drives; when Texas cattle ranchers faced with a glut of native long-horned cattle and no other means of making money in the desperate years following the Civil War thought to trail them north to where the transcontinental railroad was slowly creeping across the upper Plains. There, in the open prairies of Kansas, there was no hazard of infecting local farmers’ cattle with tick fever, and for ten years, millions of Texas cows walked north to the stockyards of Abilene, Hays City, Wichita and Dodge City. For a few years he was employed on the Duval ranch, in the western part of the Texas Panhandle – near Palo Duro, the sheltered canyonlands that were last heartland of the wild Comanche.
His autobiography contained many stories of derring-do familiar to aficionados of classic Westerns; accounts of chasing bandits and Indians who had absconded with the best part of a herd of longhorns. On one memorable occasion, when under the influence of something stronger than lemon sarsaparilla, Nat Love tried to lasso and drag away one of the cannons that sat in the open compound at Fort Dodge; he told the astonished soldiers that he wanted to take it back to Texas to fight Indians with. He was one of those who also were enshrined in cowboy legend by riding his horse into a drinking establishment (a Mexican cantina, location unspecified) and grandly ordering drinks for himself … and his horse. He had cleared the way for himself and horse with a splatter of wild shots from his revolver – which rather excited some wholly understandable hostility from the local citizens, and so he had to depart at speed before having a chance to enjoy his drink. He even claimed to have been captured by Pima Indians while working at a ranch in Arizona. In the best tradition of adventure novels, he was thought so much of that he was adopted into the tribe and only made his escape a year later, presumably leaving several broken hearts behind him.

Even if his life as a cowboy had not been all that eventful … and many of his adventures remembered with advantages … it was still a life better suited to a young man. The work itself was physically hard, most of it in the out-of-doors, and not that well-paid. Most working cowboys only did it for a couple of years until something better came along. So after two decades, Nat Love wisely took up a second career. He became a Pullman porter on the railroad; apparently being just as well-respected by his employers and fellows as in his first career … and with more remunerative and regular paychecks. He died of respectable old age in the 1920s, after completing an autobiography which related his gloriously rowdy days as a cowboy.

I read a good few chapters of his autobiography – he comes across as a very appealing person; unusual in his charm and swagger, but not for his color; something like one in seven or eight cowboys were black, one in seven or eight Mexican. An actor like a young Will Smith could have played him, in the early days. There will be a character very like Nat Love in the next book – I promise.

16. June 2012 · Comments Off on Further Adventures in Book Marketing · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , ,

Well, no one ever really considered our family or anyone in it as cutting-edge … although it might be fairly argued that we were mosying so slowly along behind everyone else in our practices and preferences that the cutting-edge, tres-up to the minute actually came around full circle in the last half-decade and caught up to us at last. Home-made everything, home vegetable garden, chores for children, no television, tidy small houses and abstention from debt of every sort, from student to credit-card … an enthusiasm for all such things are now apparently trendy and forward-thinking.

I think about the only time that any of us got ahead of the zeitgeist in any way – and it was only for a brief time – was when I got into blogging and indy-publishing. Even then I wasn’t an early-early-Dark-Ages of Blogging adapter, only more of the first flush of the Renaissance, where practically all of us whose sites were honored by being on the Insty blog-roll knew each other – in the on-line sense of commenting on each other’s blogs and being free with personal emails. Fortunately for my family standing, that all passed about the time that comment-spam became a plague upon the earth and various formerly wide-open websites began requiring registration to comment, or at least acquiring some heavy-duty spam-prevention plug-ins. A blog? Now, everybody had a blog.

Indy publishing – now, when I went ahead and did my first book, cobbled together out of various posts on the Brief – I went with a POD publisher recommended by one of the commenters, and from there I went wandering off into the wilds of independent publishing. Now, there was new territory and relatively un-trodden, being that eBooks were still some years in the future. Self-publishing was, in the eyes of the mainstream media and publishing establishments, a mere half-a step away from vanity publishing, wherein a talentless hack with delusions of adequacy and fairly deep pockets overpaid for a print run of their book, and settled down to a lifetime of giving away copies out of the boxes of them in the garage. But the POD houses had a new twist; only printing as many as were required, and distributing through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all the other on-line vendors … and only costing the author a relative pittance: a couple of hundred dollars instead of a couple of thousands. So, there I was, happily embroiled in writing and marketing my books, moving from my first publisher to a partnership with a local San Antonio boutique publisher, ensuring that my print books would be available here, there, and everywhere.

Within the last year or so, a couple of things became pretty obvious: even at the required discount and with returnability, local bookstores still preferred that I supply the books for consignment sales … and the hassle of that just became too much. I laid out my own funds to purchase the books in the first place, got repeatedly stalled on payments, had information lost by the bookstore and was paid with bouncing checks. Borders closed – the one big box bookstore that did happily stock my books at their San Antonio outlets. Exasperated, I made the unilateral decision: I’d either do direct sales at special events, especially around the holidays, or refer interested purchasers to Amazon, etc. I was tired of playing games with local vendors – if they wanted to stock my books in-house, they could go through their distributor to get them.

So – sales of print books trickle along at a pretty steady rate, with an uptick at Christmas. As long as their various Amazon rankings are low-number six figures or less – I’m happy. But digital sales – that’s another kettle of fish. In the last week in May, I got a mention of my books on Instapundit, and a link to my Amazon author page – and sales of Kindle versions of all six books soared. No kidding – total sales quadrupled almost overnight for the month of May, and so far for June are about twice what I normally expect. Print sales remained fairly consistent through the last of May and the first of June, which demonstrates to me that I really ought to focus more on marketing the eBook editions. Last month was a wake-up call … and the call said ‘Make Facebook pages for your books!’ ‘Do more with Smashwords and coupons!’ and ‘Plug the Kindle and Nook versions!’

I should have expected this, really. More and more people that we know have e-readers of some kind or another, even older citizens who are normally resistant to any newfangled electronic toys – being able to change the font size, and instantly acquire any new book that takes their fancy probably has a lot to do with this. I suspect that e-readers will become as ubiquitous as cell-phones and iPods over the next couple of years – just about everyone will have one, no matter how wrecked our economy might become. Like cellphones, the e-readers will become cheaper. The trend is for indy authors to charge far less for their books than the establishment publishers do for theirs, which can only work to the advantage of indy authors.

Yeah, I know that some of the other indy authors I know have been harping on this for a year or two already … but I never claimed to be out in front of trends.