Scumbag studies: Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube

It’s high time for another of these, for there are so very many scumbags yet to review. This one you might not have heard about. Wilhelm Kube was from Glogau in Silesia, and was an early adopter of Nazi philosophy. (Interesting bit: he attended college in Berlin on a Moses Mendelssohn Scholarship.) In 1933 he joined the SS as an Oberführer (senior colonel), and soon received promotion to Gruppenführer (major general).

An active Christian–what to make of his devotion, in light of his conduct, is up to the reader–Kube was also a corrupt intriguer. By 1935 he was a Gauleiter (regional Nazi party boss), and managed to get himself investigated by no less than Martin Bormann’s father-in-law on suspicion of adultery and corruption. Based upon his general character, it seems credible that he was guilty as all hell. Guilty or not, he was a bit dense. He retaliated for the resulting reprimand by sending an anonymous letter accusing Bormann of being part Jewish. Oops. The Gestapo discovered that Kube was the author, and he was canned from all positions. He also managed to get crosswise with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most dangerous Nazi leaders. That got him booted from the SS.

By 1941, Kube was back to work in the Nazi machinery. Hitler planned to make him Nazi boss in Moscow, but the Soviet military did not cooperate. Instead he received  an appointment as Generalkommissar for Belarus (then referred to as Weissruthenien). Here he becomes very difficult to figure; he behaved as if he had a personality disorder. Weird as it sounds given his demonstrated anti-Semitism, he spoke out against massacres of Jews and non-Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (essentially, death battalions). He was loud enough to trigger an in-person ass-chewing from his old pal Heydrich, who flew out to Minsk for the task. And yet he participated in massacres, including one in which SS thugs threw a number of children into a sandy pit to die.

One theory, suggested by Christopher Ailsby, is that Kube was trying to take it easy on the populace with one hand while being mean enough with his other to make the Nazi leadership stay off his back, and that the goal here was to increase his own gain. I consider it possible. Kube does seem to have always been above all about Kube.

After Heydrich said whatever he said–and we may safely assume there were dire threats involved–Kube straightened up and flew wrong. By mid-July 1942, he was directing the atrocities that would earn him the title “Butcher of Belarus.” The Nazi occupation committed numerous well-documented atrocities on his watch, and for them he was therefore responsible. Despite his moments of semi-decency, he deserves his place in scumbag studies. Had he survived the war, it is impossible to imagine him ending any way but at the end of a rope.

Thankfully for history and decency, if he would not restrain himself the Soviet partisan movement was prepared to restrain Kube. A Belarusian woman, Yelena Mazanik, got a job as his maid. On September 21, 1943, Mazanik emplaced a time bomb under Kube’s bed. It detonated early in the morning of September 22, killing Kube and triggering a wave of reprisal murders. Also thankfully, Mazanik managed to escape and continue the war as a partisan. I drafted this during Women’s History Month, making it perfect time to honor her and her closest accomplices. Their names were Nadyezhda Troyan and Maria Osipova, and all three earned the highest honor the Soviet Union could bestow: the title of Heroine of the Soviet Union (in Russian, Geroniya Sovietskovo Soyuza). Mazanik passed away in 1996, Troyan in 2011, and Osipova in 1999.

A new sample critique service

Some writers might want editorial input on style/flow/syntax/etc., but not at the cost of submitting a full ms for a developmental edit. A more manageable length would be a very economical way to improve one’s writing, and a good introduction to the editorial relationship.

For a flat fee of $50, I will deep dive on any writing sample up to 1500 words (an industry-standard six pages). This is longer than the customary sample edit provided upon request, and would give the writer enough space to develop a basic short story. In addition to my own detailed commentary, I will focus on any specific concerns you might present. Fiction and non-fiction are both fine.

The result will get you the frank truth that those first readers closest to you might hesitate to present, from a practiced eye with long writing and editing experience. Eighteen and over, please; I stay within my limitations, and I do not have pedagogic training. Younger writers should seek out a teacher who works with young people’s writing on a daily basis and knows how to serve age-appropriate feedback. While I reserve the right to decline to work on material I consider objectionable, in practice that’s rare.

To begin, get in touch by going to the To hire me page and scrolling down to the contact section at the bottom. I look forward to working with you.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:


As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.


What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:


“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.


What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:


“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.


Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.


As my youth catches up with me, invoicing me for my poor decisions, I encounter the tendency to start dreading this or that now rather than wait.

While I might perhaps be avoiding long lines, I have to fight that. It would not do myself any favors.

I think some of us are more keenly affected by surprise than others. At the dentist, I ask her to let me know when we are a quarter of the way through, halfway, three-quarters, and nearly done. (I have a marvelously compassionate dentist.) If I’m having a medical exam, I must rassle my mind away from predicting all the possible batches of very bad news. Telling me my A1C needs to come down thus seems bearable, given that I was preparing to hear they were concerned about some mass in my abdomen.

Earlier this month my wife and I celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her acceptance of my marriage proposal. We might be the only couple out there who celebrate such a day, but that’s all right with us. The fact that we’re having one, and that the only thing that will prevent a twenty-sixth is if one of us has something sudden happen to him or her, speaks for itself. Celebrate a day, again and again for a quarter century, and one communicates that one remains grateful for it.

Something sudden is the problem. If not restrained, my mind is sort of like a cat. Now and then it will wander off into someplace that doesn’t help anyone, and this would become paranoia if not handled in a sane fashion. For me, that means refraining from pre-suffering. It’s one thing to grieve ahead of time for a friend lost to pancreatic cancer–something I recently did–because it’s not paranoid to imagine that the friend will not survive it. Few do. It’s another thing to take that ball, run with it, and start thinking about a day in the future when one or one’s spouse might be given news of such a deadly affliction. And then to start processing grief on some level.

That’s pre-suffering, and it helps no one. It also carries with it a terrible pessimism, and this also must be battled. Imagine I were to find myself a sudden widower. If I’d worried myself half to death about that possibility for two decades, would the pre-suffering and all the time it had ruined do one bit of good to help me once the real thing was present and undeniable? I don’t think so. We have no idea how we will react to close loss, regardless of what we imagine. If I were eighty-five and received a diagnosis of dementia, would I grieve less if I’d screwed around for the last twenty-five years fearing dementia? Bet most people would not.

In essence, pre-suffering is an investment in an emotional stock that looks on the surface to be a huge bargain but in fact is going to zero. It is the Thornburg Mortgage of mental attitudes. (Let’s not talk about why that analogy rings so true for me.)

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

Ways to make telemarketers have bad days

Been getting a lot of these recently on the cell phone (which is also the business phone). Not sure why, but they always present us with the same choice: just hang up, or waste a scammer’s time. Because I’m the sort of person who will hit at an adversary with whatever he’s got, even if it’s a blade of grass, I waste their time.

When we do this, we should be careful.

I will never be as good at this as Haven Riney, who literally wrote the book on messing with telemarketers (that’s the title), but I have picked up/developed a few good methods for those of us who aren’t as quick-thinking in the moment. Here are my own guidelines for doing this:

Always remember that you are bound by no strictures of courtesy, honesty, or other values you might uphold in real life. If they were honest, they would not telemarket; ergo, they’re thieves. It is not moral to reward thievery with kind politeness, much less with success in any form. In any form. Seriously. They are among the few people in your world who deserve not one bit of understanding. When they aren’t talking to you, most of them are scamming bewildered elders (this is stealing and fraud).

Those rare few who are in fact offering an actual real service are like people coming onto your property with a weapon, then claiming that the fact that it was not loaded means you should have treated them as friends. You can’t see whether it’s loaded, so to speak, so you owe no distinction between honest and criminal, nor any energy expended to try. They’re all adversaries if you don’t know them.

Yes, I know it’s the day before US Thanksgiving. They’re still the adversary, and they will still be the adversary when many of us are sitting down to dinner tomorrow. I am thankful for just enough native creative wickedness to give them what they deserve, and for the fundamental crassness to advocate it even at festive times.

While it could be fun and would certainly be moral to press the get-a-human number on the robocalls–objective being to seek out a human’s time to waste–I myself won’t go that far because it’s like giving them permission. They should never get any permission. If you think it’s a robocall and want to test, just go hoccccccch real loudly, as if you are about to expel a mucous. A robot won’t know how to interpret that (robots do not experience mucous). A person will ask whether you’re okay, or will hang up.

  • First rule: Never, never, never say “yes” to any question. There are scam artists who will take that one recorded word and use it to show some sort of proof of your agreement. When you answer that phone, that word isn’t in your vocabulary.
  • Second rule: First job is to suss out whether they have your real name (quite often if you are a homeowner), someone else’s, or have just called at random. If they have your real name and/or address, find out what it’s about just in case it’s actually a legitimate call. While it might annoy you for your auto repair shop to call and market to you, that’s not as evil as someone trying to sell you Inhumana Medicare Silver Senior Elder Suckup Advantage “that you deserve.” (You know, the sort of thing you get between watching segments of Crochet Wars on The Living Antiquity Channel, which promises to put money back in your Social Security and give you free continence products. That You Deserve. Whatever it is, You always Deserve It.)
  • Third rule: Try to avoid saying anything illegal. This article discourages any activity that violates US law. It’s not as if someone in Shaitanabad or Santa Sinvergüenza can exactly call the FBI and have you arrested–but be careful nonetheless. Bear in mind that buying or selling under false pretenses is against the law depending on how it’s done, while just talking to a caller under false pretenses is not. Do a little self-editing.

Clearly, if it’s someone you do business with, you have better choices and should consider that. For example, you can tell them to stop, and they would be wise to heed you. But before you do that, make sure it’s not them trying to help you. It might be the nurse from your medical provider with a message from your doctor. I never advocate being an idiot.

Assuming it’s not a legit call: If they have your real name, deny it of course, remembering that how you answer anything could tend to confirm it by mistake. If they ask whether you still live at 101 Maple Street, the logical question is not “no”; it’s “which city is that even in?” Make up any name you want. Count von Crappenburg. Imelda Reina de los Zapatos. Alexei Alexeyevich Romanov. Joe Schwantz. Barron Maples. You have no idea where that address is, or even what state it’s in, but you live at x address. If you know it, pick the address of city hall, or the sheriff’s office, or your local mall. Tell them you’re homeless and living in a tent along I-5 atop Mount Rubbish. Claim to live in an army barracks, or an army tank for that matter. Claim to be flying an F-13 and about to shoot down some North Korean Dong missiles. To any question they ask, you tell anything but the truth. They have no right to ask such nosy questions anyway, so this is the proper way to reply.

Once you have worked out that it’s not real, and have assessed and blunted potential dangers, you are free to have some fun. The only rule is to drag the conversation out as long as possible (wasting their time) and making it as fruitless and annoying as possible. Everyone doing this should be made not to like it. This isn’t the grocery checker, who is earning an honest living and deserves your kind patience and courtesy when she is overwhelmed. This is not the guy at the McDonald’s window, underpaid and probably mistreated by his manager, who deserves your civility and decency. This is not the saintly nurse who stayed on the job through two years of pandemic and will not stop caring for people, even for donkeys who refused vaccination and then had the gall to expect care for their coronavirus. This is not the waitress at Denny’s, who should never be punished because the kitchen is stupid, and whose livelihood depends on you tipping her fairly based upon her service. This is not those good people. This is a bad person in a bad business. This is your chance to punish them. For example:

  • Affect an accent. Any accent. If it mimics their accent, that’s fine. That would be considered at least borderline bigoted if it were a decent person, but remember: it’s not a decent person. They choose to telemarket or join scam operations, mostly offshore, spoofing phone numbers so that you won’t know who it is. If they have an accent, there is nothing wrong with mocking it, whether it’s a Deep South drawl or a Pakistani lilt.
  • Come up with a name, since you are not going to admit to your real one. The more credible it is, the longer the call might go. Batman Supergirl might not get much traction. Cecilia Yobukovskaya might do better.
  • If you speak foreign languages, use them when you see fit. One sentence in English, one in Spanish. Be careful with Spanish, lest they say “Purdonnamay, senior, no hobblo esspaniel, uno momentito pourfuvor.” If they do that, and you speak a third language, when the Spanish speaker arrives you can switch to that. Imagine the conversation later: “You ignorant asshat. The name he gave you means “smoke pole” in Spanish and the language he was speaking was probably Italian. What, you think every foreign language is Spanish? Who even diapers you in the morning?”
  • Think of a backstory and flesh it out. Look back to an earlier phase of your life and answer as that person. Think of the craziest person you know and answer as them. The nephew who became a meth addict? This is the only good that will ever come of that human tragedy.
  • Consider speaking very slowly and not understanding half of what they say. Use enormous amounts of regional slang that no one in Hyderabad is likely to know. Talk about interests you don’t have. Tell them that you are an ethical vegan and that meat is murder and ask if their company abides by vegan principles. (If you in fact are an ethical vegan, ask them something else, so as not to tell them the truth in any way.) Ask them if their company is organic according to USC 14.285.828a. Since I just made that one up, they probably won’t understand it even if they’re American.
  • Tell them that you live by the Shania Laws of Appalachian Islam and that it’s time for your daily prayers. (Get a confederate (upper case possibly) to sing the Call to Prayer: “Y’all come pray now.”)
  • Go wild. Ask if they have Jesus. If so, ask whether they can help you find him and let him out. Ask if they have Satan (they do, whether they know it or not), and encourage them to let him into their hearts. Tell them you have ten million dollars in the credit union, and that the credit union is actually complaining because it takes up too much vault space. Ask if they like vaping.
  • Repeatedly interrupt the conversation by admonishing an imaginary child or dog. (“Timmy! Don’t do that or you’re going in the stew!”) Apologize in advance for your Tourette’s, and have periodic outbursts. Claim a very interesting occupation, such as cat herdswoman or fertilizer processor or bison yoga instructor or dromedary veterinary assistant. Say “kushkushkushkush” as if telling a camel to kneel. Be Jed Clampett. Be Elly May Clampett. Best of all, if you can pull it off, be Granny. Irene Ryan was one of the funniest comics I ever saw.
  • Ask the nuttiest possible questions about their product or service. Does their insurance cover Peyronie’s Syndrome? Scrotal lesions? Does it cover therapy for obsessive-apathetic disorder? Organ failure? Piles? Tiles? What about pudding therapy? Will their home refinance loan have an interest rate below 1%? They say that your “Windows Computer” is spreading a virus and they want you to go to a website; go to your microwave, pretend to have mistaken it for a computer, and attempt to follow their directions. Will their home warranty cover cases of Orson? “No, not arson. That’s illegal. Orson is different, obviously. It mostly affects houses with Welles, and can be quite costly to repair.”
  • Got a confederate in the house? Have her start screaming in the other room. Tell your child that right now it’s encouraged to go totally cattiewhompus. Got multiple people? Have them fake an argument in the Pentagon. “Fuck you, General! We are invading Guam only with Navy ships!” “They don’t do very well on land, Admiral.” “Dipshit, it’s an island! The Army can’t even get there unless they swim! This is our turf, so go dig a foxhole!” Got a cough? You do now! Sneezing fit? Let ’em rip in the middle of everything the caller says, then ask them to repeat it. Got a kid whose hobby is making flatulence noises with his armpit? Get him to do it as loudly as possible near the phone.

If you had fun, wasted their time, and gave them no truthful or useful information, you did well. If you felt a twinge, that’s normal; behaving with a complete lack of consideration is not natural for most of us. In such a case, remember:

  • No one forced these people to call you.
  • Nothing they are offering is legitimate.
  • Nearly all of them are giving false phone numbers.
  • Most aren’t even using their real names.
  • All of it is a fundamental insult to your intelligence.
  • While you’re wasting their time, they aren’t preying on someone’s grandma.
  • You are performing a community service, a random act of caring for others. It’s one of the few community services you can perform by being as cruel as possible.

Leave scars.

Current read: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Provocative, eh? From my little editing perch with its industry perspective, I have to admire the marketing value of such a title. That’s how you throw a bomb. Love the book or hate it, I don’t see too much of Texas being neutral about it. Then again, I’ve only been to Texas a couple of times, and it’s probably one of the two or three states where I would least fit in. I do care about US history, though, and if California history is US history, so is that of Texas.

The book first sets forth to tell the history preceding and including the Texas Revolt, based on what the authors consider the best evidence and historical analysis. They do not reach the conclusion that has long been taught in Texas schools. They contend that black, Native American, and Hispanic participation has been written out or diminished, or at the very least oversimplified. This fortified a Heroic Anglo Narrative to which the remaining bits of the old mission compound in San Antonio represent the ultimate shrine.

The next part of the book, about half, details the making of the legend. It’s been what, 185 years since Santa Anna finally had it with his Texian subjects (and illegal US aliens who refused to abide by Mexican law) and marched in to subdue them? If you guess that people have spent the entire time arguing over the story itself, if and how it should be preserved, and who has the say in its future, you can don your coonskin cap in celebration. The story of the story of the Alamo is almost as interesting as the story of the Alamo, and is as germane to US history. Given the key role in advocacy and preservation (and in some cases, turf warring and neglect) played by women’s groups, it is also women’s history. (Not all of women’s history is automatically admirable. Time and again, they’ve proven they deserve to be remembered for their successes and failures, just like men.)

I don’t think any objective, educated reader of history doubts that there are some unverifiable “facts” that most people believe about the Alamo because those people want to believe them. That is normal about most history; why not this one?  I do think that any such reader realizes that minority contributions to the story have been minimized or bent into strange shapes. The error would be in somehow imagining the Alamo story as unique in this regard because it has been told–insisted upon–with such strident passion. I deprecate the idea that the loudest voice must be considered the victor. The louder they yell, the more suspicious I get.

Put simply, incomplete or exaggerated history happens everywhere. We just pay more attention to this one because people make so much noise about it, almost defying the world to contradict them. Well, yeah. If I sit in my living room, where no one can hear me, and say something provocative based on false premises, I’m probably not getting much hate mail over it. If it put it on an airplane banner, that’s another story.

The greatest thing about the book is the writing itself. I used to love Molly Ivins’s style, affectionate toward her homeland even when critical of it, like when her employing newspaper folded and she commented that she’d never had a newspaper shot out from under her before. It was always fun and often funny. This book is a history, and the history of the making of a history, told in just such a relaxed style. I can almost hear a gentle drawl as I read it. I believe she would have loved it and its message.

I find the authors’ historical study credible. To me, the amount of pushback they have gotten tells me that the detractors have long known there were ugly realities about the story, did not want to explore those ugly realities, and would defend this old mission compound’s ruins as a key bastion in the culture wars. Put it this way: If the authors were full of shit, and everyone had good reason to believe that, no one would feel threatened–just annoyed. It’s like that political fringe nut who thinks the queen of England is a drug dealer. The suggestion is not credible enough for the monarchy, or its defenders, to take seriously.

This book was very much worth my time.

Current read: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen

I learned of this book from one of its primary subjects: Leonard Peltier himself. The full title continues: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement.

While I’m nearly always sympathetic to Native American causes, I don’t swallow  without question every cause put before me. I knew of Peltier, and of the killings on Pine Ridge, but few of the details. I’d generally assumed that justice had not been done, since Native Americans rarely get justice from the US legal system. This is especially so in states where anti-Indian bigotry is the social norm for whites. When the deck begins stacked against a group, I stop offering default faith in those who stack it. The burden of proof and honesty falls upon the stackers, and until they satisfy me, I assume that they will lie and cheat.

In this case, the legal system was the BIA-supported tribal police, the local law in South Dakota and other states, and the FBI. For me, that begins as oh-for-three in terms of fundamental trust.

A few years back, not much later in the year than this, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for an auto services company to put the studs on Deb’s car for the winter. At a nearby table sat a Native American man, older than me, wearing a shirt or jacket advocating freedom for Leonard Peltier. I nodded and complimented the shirt, a standard icebreaker for talking to strangers, and he invited me to sit down. While I do not remember our entire conversation, and definitely could not identify him now, we had a pleasant and informative talk. We talked about the dry sense of gallows humor often seen in Native-specific situations, such as when they seized Alcatraz on the grounds that its complete lack of resources and facilities made it the perfect Indian reservation. We spoke about Leonard, and the man expressed his firm conviction that Leonard Peltier had killed no one.

The killings in question occurred in 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation, during a series of armed confrontations in which one Native and two FBI agents died. The latter were wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then executed. All police have visceral reactions to deaths of their own, which is understandable enough; the problem here is that there was and is no reliable proof of who killed the agents. Eventually four Native Americans were charged with the murders; three were indicted; two were acquitted. Having fled to Canada and been extradited, Peltier was the last to stand trial. One might reasonably suspect that, this being the last chance to make sure some Indian paid for the agents’ deaths, the government forces were taking no chances with a fair trial. In my opinion, based upon a review of the government witnesses’ credibility and much evidence suppression, no fair trial occurred.

It’s not that this proves Peltier innocent; it’s that it does not, to my satisfaction, prove his guilt. And if he were white, I do not believe he would have been indicted, much less convicted.

Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated ever since. He is 77, in poor health, and there is good reason to believe he is currently being denied medical care.

Until I studied the Rosenberg case some years back, I would have begun with more faith in (or at least, less distrust of) Federal agents’ and courts’ integrity. That case made it abundantly clear to me that when a case touches certain issues–a Red Scare, for example, or a Native American movement painted in public pronouncements with the potential for foreign subversion assistance–the government will cheat. In short, Julius was guilty enough (no real argument there), but Ethel’s indictment was flimsy. Julius had the option to plead out and inform on others to save his wife, whose indictment rested mainly on her brother’s suborned perjury, and the government expected him to accept. He maintained his innocence and refused to help the Federal agents bust others, so the government carried out its threat. The trial proceedings represent a craven failure of justice, with even defense counsel at great pains to distance themselves from any hint of being soft on the Red Menace. They shamed this country and its system of justice.

Based upon my conversation with my tablemate in the waiting lounge, I determined to look into the Peltier case. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m enough of a Kansas boy to have a good sense of bullshit when I smell it. My review satisfied me that Leonard had not received a fair trial, and that the case against him should have been rejected by jury nullification based upon the suppression of evidence and vindictive reactions to the agents’ deaths. I came to believe that this elderly man should have his conviction vacated; at the least, that he should receive executive clemency. I had thought that Il Douche might have pardoned him just to piss off the FBI, which he resented for not doing his bidding, but it did not happen. Biden won’t, unless it’s in the last days of his administration (by which time Leonard might no longer be with us). The Federal government has long memories, extensive files, and unchecked power. For half a century, a virtual secret police chief led the FBI, and the country got used to the idea that the Feds had dirt on everyone. I can see where that might intimidate even a sitting chief executive, though I don’t see where it absolves them.

Not so long ago, I was wondering what I could do that might mean something. Evidently Leonard is kept in solitary confinement, but can receive letters. If I were in solitary, I would want letters, so I wrote to him. My first mailing came back; the prison had rejected it for using an address label on the envelope. I repackaged it, handwrote my return address, and sent it again. (Those fuckers owe me a 55-cent stamp.) I did not expect to hear back, but I did, a handwritten two-page letter from Leonard himself. His writing and outlook were consistent with what I had come to know about him: a man perhaps willing to fight if provoked, otherwise peaceable, but who would never cease to struggle for Native rights. The tribes get bullied any time a corporation learns that it can make money by stealing their resources, or whenever they try to assert treaty rights.

Like Kathryn Janeway, I don’t like bullies. Many of my interactions with our judicial apparatus and its various arms have shown me that bully culture is at the heart of our national character, and that government’s tendency to bully represents the soul of the nation. It’s just what they do; what we do. It disgusts me, and I’ll call it what it is.

Leonard recommended I read this book, and I have. I find it persuasive, honest in its basic bias (I trust that more than I trust anyone calling him or herself objective), and well researched. Matthiessen hit some brick walls, but mostly on the governmental side. I believe that his Native sources were in the main truthful, with the caveat that they wouldn’t tell him anything that might get any of their own in trouble. I respect that. I wouldn’t either. Matthiessen eventually met someone, name not provided nor known to him, who accepted responsibility for the agents’ killings. The account reads credible, and the man was not Leonard Peltier.

The most telling aspect of the episode that led to Leonard’s show trial and railroading, to my mind, is the degree to which the American Indian Movement was portrayed as a domestic terror movement with backing from overseas Commies. If you believed the government, this might be the next Cuban- or Soviet-sponsored insurgency, and we should all be Very Afraid. In 1976, at 13 and very much indoctrinated in the toxic nationalism that has now consumed (and will ultimately ruin) my country, I might have bought that. Now I don’t. All my life, there have been demon words used to whip up hatred and fear against those we are ordered to rejected. I don’t take those orders well; I prefer to decide for myself who deserves those emotions of me. Native Americans insisting upon their rights, and resenting/resisting abrogation and violation of those rights, do not deserve my hostility. This country will never heal until we do them justice. I will not live to see it, but I hope later generations will. Maybe then we will cease to be Bully Nation.

I recommend Matthiessen’s book. I thank Leonard for recommending it to me.

Blogging freelance editing, writing, and life in general. You can also Like my Facebook page for more frequent updates: J.K. Kelley, Editor.