Sarah Doughty’s paean to self-reliance today has moved me to craft a new word. Your withinspiration may not always work out well, but as Sarah reminds us, not all your faults are bad.


The Handmaid’s Tale

After a lackluster 1990 film adaptation, this 1985 novel appeared destined for the backroom shelves of the dystopian literary canon. Then a certain someone got himself elected president, and with him came a second-in-command with social and cultural beliefs even more extreme than his boss. Hulu’s television series, already in development at the time of the 2016 election, seemed less an homage to a literary classic than a warning shout to America.

But in addition to its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be recognized for its literary qualities. Offred is an engaging narrator, and the theocratic dictatorship in which she lives is fascinating in its brutal orderliness. It’s not a world we’d ever want, but could certainly become ours if we don’t fight against the darker impulses of our society.

The audiobook performance by Claire Danes is very good; Danes gives Offred a complex voice, one aware of the outrages performed against her but also proud of her own petty indiscretions. The novel’s epilogue is included, and in a wise decision is performed by actors other than Danes. Also included is an brief and informative commentary by Margaret Atwood, as well as a concluding academic essay which is unfortunately the driest and least interesting part of the entire audiobook.


Victory is a mirage for both of us,
the manic schemer
and his somber doppelgänger.

But the game can’t be stopped
and the only way we know how to play
is to imagine an oasis that could sate
our thirsty ambition for winning.

The brash schemer believes his coming triumph
is the destiny unjustly denied to him,
and knows it will be the start
of a life-long winning streak.

His quiet foe is confident
of a devastating conquest,
draining his opponent of the desire
to continue trying.

The game continues,
momentum flowing to one side while ebbing from the other
before shifting like the tide,
balanced in indecision.

The game tires both combatants,
Yet neither is willing to concede.

Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life

Sometimes it pays to stick with a book even when it turns you off at the beginning.

The opening paragraph of Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction concludes with a metaphor I found entirely self-indulgent, and as the first chapter continued I read many claims that seemed overly simplistic (“We’re limited by our point of view” — yes, and we’re also enabled by it), over the top (“The hardest part of writing creative nonfiction is that you’re stuck with what really happened” — reality is an opportunity, not a prison!), and just plain wrong (“when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie” — anyone who struggles with the truth shouldn’t be writing anything other than political speeches). If I hadn’t purchased the book as part of an online class, I might very well have stopped reading after the first chapter.

Fortunately, subsequent chapters are less egregious, and Gerard has a number of insights into the craft of non-fiction which I found very helpful. I especially like his claim that every story has both an apparent subject (such as the sport of fencing) and a deeper, more meaningful subject (the impact that fencing has on the lives of its competitors). Gerard encourages writers to discover what is meaningful to them, and allow those passions to direct their choice in both apparent and deeper subjects. His advice on interviewing, research, and outlining are also valuable.

Journalists probably won’t like this book, as it contains numerous criticisms (most of which I found appropriate) of mainstream reporting. But writers who believe in the aesthetic qualities of non-fiction writing will appreciate this practical guide to the genre — despite its less than inspiring opening chapter.


The masked man in the picture is me, testing a theory about my unusual motor skills.

When I picked up a foil for the first time in my teens, I used my right hand, as that’s side I use for most activities. Through high school and college I continued fencing as a righty, and when I returned to the sport after a three-decade absence I defaulted to my right again.

However… I’m not completely right-handed. When I eat or brush my teeth, I’ve always used my left hand. It wasn’t until I met my ever-observant wife that I understood this oddity. “Your gross motor skill — hand and arm dexterity — is on your right side,” she explained, “while your fine motor skill, finger dexterity, is on your left.” Makes sense to me, and sounds a lot better than you’re a freak.

Soon after resuming my fencing career, my coach saw me writing with my left hand, and made a suggestion: “You should fence as a lefty.” I always parried her suggestion with the fact I am entirely right-footed. Roll a ball towards me, and I’ll always kick it with my right foot — that’s the gross motor skill at work. And with balance being an important component of fencing, I considered leading with my right leg of paramount importance.

Thing is, finger coordination in fencing is important for point control. The disengage, in which you drop your blade under an opponent’s attempted parry, is most effective when executed with the fingers, rather than wrist or arm.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided there was nothing to lose by trying. Borrowing a glove and foil from the club, I started fencing as a lefty.

The feeling was as awkward as I expected.

At times I found myself advancing by moving my right foot first, which when fencing as a lefty is behind your body — the motion made me lurch forward, like pushing a wheelbarrow with its front tire stuck in the mud. Each lunge was an argument with my body, an attempt to convince dormant muscles that it was perfectly all right to stretch.

Yet despite these discomforts, I felt my sense of distance to my opponent was somewhat enhanced, which I had not expected as I am right-eye dominant. I also had a better awareness of the tip of my blade — the heightened finger dexterity did seem to make a difference.

At this point, I fence far better with my right hand, and I’m not thrilled by the prospect of buying an almost entire new set of equipment. (If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see a covered zipper channel on the left side of my lame, the gray covering for my torso used for electronic scoring. For safety reasons, fencing regulations require jackets and lames to be zippered either in the back or on the fencer’s non-weapon arm. I can continue using my current gear for practice, but should I enter competitions as a lefty, I’ll need appropriate gear.) But I’m intrigued enough by what I’ve observed these last two weeks to continue this experiment.

Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.

King of the Holly Hop

Some words of advice to all private investigators, especially the fictional ones: don’t go to any of your high school reunions, because if you do, somebody’s gonna get themselves killed.

Milan Jacovich arrives at his class’ 40th, and one of his fellow alumni has a drink thrown in his face, walks out to his car, and catches a bullet with his noggin. Advice for reunion attendees: if a private eye shows up, don’t wander off by yourself. Especially if you’re carrying emotional baggage from your high school years.

Hired by the lead suspect in the case to clear his name, Milan interviews many of his classmates, and discovers some ugly scar tissue over adolescent wounds. The lead suspect, for one, had been humiliated during the Holly Hop, a school dance held just before Christmas his senior year; he confronts the cause of his embarrassment at the reunion, and when that man winds up dead minutes later, suspicion rightly falls on him.

“King of the Holly Hop” falls within a series of Milan Jacovich mystery novels written by Les Roberts. I haven’t read any other books in the series, but I didn’t feel at a disadvantage for entering this series without a previous introduction. There isn’t as much action as you’d find in most other mysteries, but Roberts’ characters are complex and engaging. If you like the mystery/crime genre, you’ll appreciate this novel’s craftsmanship, and if you’re just looking for an entertaining read, you’ll find more than enough satisfaction.

Where the Heart Leads, Part 3

“I apologize for being short with you on the phone,” Eddie said in a rasping voice, as if his throat had shriveled in the Arizona heat. “I didn’t know you were working for Clara.”

Micky cleared his throat again. “All she wants, is to know what happened to her husband.”

“Husband?” Eddie laughed wearily. “Well there’s your first problem, detective. Jonas Haart, was never her husband.”

Micky couldn’t help looking surprised, as he suddenly realized he hadn’t checked this basic fact.

“Jonas was a hit man. The electrical company he worked for was owned by the mob, his job an excuse to infiltrate homes and businesses, his ‘marriage’ to Clara a part of his cover.”

“But if Clara knew this — why’d she hire me, to find him?”

“Because she figured out what was going down. Jonas’ identity had been compromised, and the mob needed to relocate him. When he disappeared without a trace, Clara knew the mob didn’t trust her, and she’d eventually be removed. But if she could find him, that knowledge could be used to strike a bargain. You, detective, were her last hope.”

Micky felt his forehead perspiring. “I take it, you’re not going to tell me where Jonas is?”

Eddie waved a dismissive hand. “I called Clara right after I hung up with you, and told her not to worry. She was loyal to Jonas, and generous with me. I told her I’d take care of her — I even told her, ‘I love you.’ Because I do love her, detective. We’ll relocate her, to here. She’ll be my caretaker.”

Micky stood up. “That’s great, Mr. Clague. I think my work here is done, so if you don’t mind — ”

“Oh, I do mind,” said Eddie, as Micky felt a meaty hand slam down on his shoulder, pushing him back down on his chair. “You should have given up on this investigation when the trail grew cold — that would have been the intelligent move. But you couldn’t control your curiosity — you let yourself be led by the heart, not your mind. And that decision has taken you to a place you should never have gone. And can’t ever leave.”

End of “Where the Heart Leads”