In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

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New release: Out of Their Depth, by M.R. Cook

This new fantasy novel is now available in print and e-book. I was developmental and substantive editor.

I had known Mike very long ago, but we had not been in touch for most of our adult lives. We reconnected through a mutual friend from those old days who had also sought writing guidance. They had been part of a long-running fantasy role-playing game (akin to D&D) and were both writing stories based upon their gaming adventures.

Before you judge, know this: the unfolding of any RPG campaign is in essence a story writing itself. It always begins with characters in conflict; always with external forces, and sometimes with each other. Some of it is slapstick, for it is a proven impossibility to form any RPG gaming group without at least including one total gonzo. I was in one group where a player played a necromancer (magician who communicates with and animates the dead). His day job? Funeral director.

There are, of course, IP issues with using mutually generated creative content in a for-profit book. Mike has handled it the way I would do were I to write one: by sharing royalties through written agreements. Just in case you were also thinking of writing stories about your RPG campaign, yes, that is a valid method. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is essential legal protection. Don’t accept “Oh, I don’t mind, just go ahead.” Explain to them that fair is fair and you appreciate their contribution. One can also explain that this will give them a reason to promote the book, if one desires.

Out of Their Depth began life as a novella and evolved into a ms about double the basic novel length. That’s not to say that it is too long; my assessment is that the original story was too much to contain within novella or basic novel length constraints. Its evolution involved great strides in character development, for a typical RPG adventure story can have several protagonists depending on how the author chooses to emphasize and POV them. Mike has gone with a method in which I’d estimate 40% of the book is from the main character’s perspective, but his four comrades divided up the remainder of the time. He has done so very effectively.

As a writer, Mike’s greatest natural talent is descriptive verbiage. Where I didn’t persuade him to dial it back–thus, where I felt it paid its way–this talent goes on full display in the novel. His wartime experiences add a grittiness and realism to scenes and discussion of combat. One talent–or more correctly, one acquired knowledge set that adds great flavor–is Mike’s plentiful vocabulary of now-obsolete medieval terms. I am not, shall we say, accustomed to having to look up many English words unless I’m reading something very technical. (One of my sidelines is technical editing. That doesn’t appear on my credit list for multiple reasons, beginning with NDAs.) By the time the novella morphed into a novel, I’d headed for the dictionary a dozen times. I now can define terms like ‘culet,’ ‘oculus,’ ‘assart,’ and many more.

Since a temple is very prominent in the novel, I wonder how Mike managed to avoid the term ‘narthex.’ He may take that as a challenge. It’s the front sort of reception area of a Lutheran church, as I should know, having been marched to Lutheran churches at parental insistence until I finally realized that I was an exhibit rather than a youngster, and if I exhibited embarrassing behavior, I would no longer be subjected to attendance.

Another aspect Mike has handled well is gender. Most novice writers do not portray the opposite gender well. Though many try, it’s not an easy thing. I hammer on it especially with male clients, because in case they do not know this, they had better learn it: women tend to do more reading than men, and most will readily notice non-credible or derogatory female portrayals. They’re perfectly fine with a variety of female roles, attitudes, and ethical levels, but they will groan and tire when faced with characters and reactions that ring false. On the upside, when women like what they see, they vote for it with loyal pocketbooks. If a male fiction writer wants to succeed, he needs to learn to see and paint the world through her eyes. The story contains several strong yet diverse women, all with important roles to play; in fact, the toughest fighter in the protagonist’s party is a scarred, well-armored (no chainmail bikinis here), blocky ex-sergeant who provides most of their combat leadership. I feel confident that readers will conclude that Mike gets it on gender.

In fact, Mike Cook might be one of the most coachable writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Ever want to know how I size up a client’s potential? About half of it is by coachability. The other half is by the quality of questions asked. Mike was always a bright, articulate guy, and he hasn’t wasted the past three decades. A good client challenges me with great questions. Mike wanted to understand the logic behind my guidance, and where I did not volunteer it (I normally try), he sought it point blank.

This is very healthy, because I ought to have reasons for everything I advise, and it’s well within a client’s rights to want to understand the reasoning. An editor who cannot stand to be challenged in this way does not plan to teach. An editor who does not plan to teach is more or less hoarding knowledge. I do not believe knowledge workers benefit from hoarding knowledge. If your work is to share your knowledge, then its generous sharing will not only give good value but also signals that you aren’t in danger of running short on knowledges.

(Side note: early in my editing days, I had a client named Shannon D. Jackson who asked the best questions. Even better than Mike’s, because any time questions came up, she would ask me: “What questions should I be asking?” When asked that, it opens the floodgates for me to volunteer everything useful I can think of. She ended up with an outstanding parenting book.)

Mike placed quality and reader experience above all. He engaged artists. He hired a proofreader whose results proved very disappointing; so disappointing that I took the unprecedented step of doing it myself. I can’t ever take money to proofread my own edited work, but I can volunteer to do it simply to assure that justice is done. If there are still any typos, this time I am to blame. Even at the end, he was addressing potential loose ends in the storyline. The overall result of the process is a satisfying story by an author with great writing ability, a refreshing sense for physics and realism, and who progressed as much during the project as anyone I’ve known.

Writing as M.R. Cook, Mike has applied himself with as much diligence as any author with whom I have worked.

So, after a great deal of effort and time invested, it is with pleasure I announce his first novel.

P3: Punishing porch pirates

By now most of you have heard of the new suburban crime: porch piracy. You order stuff from Blue Nile, or Yangtze, or Congo, or Amazon, wherever. In some cases, a postal worker delivers it; in others, a UPSS driver. In others, it’s an obvious meth-head. Either way, they may or may not ring the doorbell before they throw it into the exact spot that will keep you from opening your screen door to retrieve it.

And some amateur porch pirate, following the delivery vehicle around town, pulls up, leaps out, darts up to your porch, steals your parcel, runs back to his/her car, and drives off.

The police aren’t doing much about this. I understand. This doesn’t raise revenue, so it’s not important to them. However, the police will definitely prevent us from doing anything really decisive about this. For example, I’m pretty sure anyone who fills the porch pirate’s ass with 12-gauge rock salt will face much stiffer penalties than will the porch pirate. This falls into line with my view that the basic purpose of policing is to maintain social control while shielding bad people from real consequences. This view is controversial, and is rooted in my personal experiences. I don’t expect other people to agree with it.

But I bet even those who think I just wrote the most horrible thing still don’t themselves much like porch pirates.

Since we can’t really punish them (and this is me going on firm record as strongly advocating that we not really punish them in any illegal way), we’re going to have to get creative.

Do in such a way: wait until your next sizable parcel from a vendor who uses clear plastic packing tape and normal brown cardboard boxes. Turn it over (so that you do not damage the shipping label, which is usually right across the box closure), take a box cutter, and gently slit the tape holding the box bottom together. Take out whatever you ordered.

If you happen to make/receive regular trips to/from Somewhere Else whose resident also wants to punish porch pirates, you can gain added security. Get them to do the same with their boxes, and when you meet up, swap. The porch pirates aren’t going to stare intensely at the label or match it to the target address before they leave; the savviest might merely glance to make sure the label doesn’t show signs of the re-closure you plan to do. When they get home and start opening Santa’s haul, if the one containing the goodness has an address in Bug Tussle (and you do not actually live in Bug Tussle), they will think it was grossly misdelivered or something and open it anyway. They probably won’t remember where they got that one.

Okay, let’s get on with the fun.

Do you have cats? If you do, great! If you do not, you probably know someone who does. He or she probably talks about them more than you would like, but now comes your reward for enduring it with sainted patience. Pick the person you know that has the most cats, and ask if they have any heavily used litter box contents they could part with. Most people who own litter box contents are generous in spirit and will gladly part with clumps of cat-urine-caked litter and cat turds, especially in a good cause. There are people who hoard cats, but few who voluntarily hoard cat excretions–and that’s golden for your purposes.

You should also get some glitter, preferably a pound or two, and some powdered sugar. Another great tool for this purpose, to anoint what I will call the Goodness, is a Vietnamese anchovy sauce called nuoc-mam (nook-MOM). I put it on my Thai food. It’s very salty and smells very fishy. Do not ever, ever, ever, not even to your worst enemy, squirt this stuff into the heater vents of anyone’s vehicle.

If you grocery shop, you probably have a small collection of flimsy, crappy plastic bags, the absolute cheapest things the store could buy in bulk that stand half a chance of getting your groceries to your car. Now, because you care about climate change and the environment, you are going to do the ecologically friendly thing and repurpose two of the bags while disposing of them in an appropriate way. You are so green. Double the bags and fill them up with as much goodness as you can arrange: cat sanitation disappointments, powdered sugar, any condiments you may care to add, and glitter. Don’t tie up the top.

Now lay the bag on its side and reclose the box bottom around it, without spilling any of the goodness (for safety’s sake, do this outside, especially if you are butterfingered). Re-cover the bottom tape seams with fresh clear packing tape, taking care not to tilt the box. It may help to have an assistant, if you know anyone else who hates porch piracy. Do as good a job as you can at making the tape look professional.

Put it out on your porch and be patient. Sometimes porch pirates rush up and leave behind an empty box, to keep watchers from getting suspicious. Either way, as they walk away, they are almost guaranteed to spill the goodness. When they open it, with luck, it will spill all over their vehicle. Or, if they wait until they get home to open their haul, on the floor. Maybe on the dining room table.

Wherever they spill it will likely never be the same.

And the beauty of this is that you haven’t mailed anything illegal because you haven’t mailed anything to anyone. You put a box on your front porch, one that no one has the right to inspect or abscond with. One great mistake people make in life is answering nosy questions just to “be nice.” Why did you put it there? That’s none of anyone’s business, and they can go to hell for asking. Other people pile tons of stuff on their property and no one asks stupid questions about it, unless it’s the Homeowners’ Stasi.

You can put any legal substance you desire into a box that sits on your own property. Cat urine clumps are illegal to mail, but not to put into outdoor storage on private property in manageable quantities. You have deterred a porch pirate in the only useful way that is safe from the law: by leaving them something not terribly pleasant to steal.

Anyone seeking to report you for this, presumably for being a Big Meany to Poor Downtrodden Criminals, would also have to admit to having stolen the package. While the police would protect them from more direct retaliation by you, I’m pretty sure that if the porch pirates filed a complaint, the police would be laughing almost too hard to arrest them.

Since what they stole had low value, of course, it’s unlikely they would or will get in any trouble. But it is likely they’ll have a bad day and question their choice of careers.

If that’s all the compensation you can get, might as well get it.

A childhood tale: the weirdness of memory

Until I left high school and youth behind, the last happy years of my life were the early elementary school years in Hutchinson, Kansas. (McCandless Elementary School and East 14th Street, represent.) Now, Hutch was at that time known for three things: the Carey salt mines, the state fairgrounds, and either the world’s largest grain elevator or a fair contender for the title. My buddy Hoby’s dad worked at one, and he went to all the trouble to take my parachute-equipped G.I. Joe to the top and drop it off so it could float down to us.

Mr. White, you were a good soul.

One cool aspect of Hutch, for a lad excited about astronomy, was the planetarium. It was a small round building with a sort of domed ceiling, and one lay on the carpet to watch the ceiling projection show. Outside the building on clear nights, volunteers with telescopes would show us the Galilean moons and such. It was fun. I would eventually receive my own telescope, which would provide me many escapist hours in my later youth, and would finally in my fifties part with it. A school needed it more than did I.

About thirty years passed. I grew to adulthood, finished college, started to grow up for real, got jobs, got laid off, got engaged, broke off engagement, met future wife, moved in together. I decided to drive back home for a visit. I wanted to see family, reconnect with my childhood buddy Jeff and the elementary school teachers who had done me so much good, and most of all, have one last fully lucid visit with my ailing grandfather. The latter didn’t go so well, sadly, though it paid a dividend in that my relatives were angry on my behalf, with him, over the way he had spoken to me. I had no experience with that. I am still processing it.

But that happened after I met back up with Jeff. A great kid, he had grown into a great adult guy. We took our now-fairly-elderly teachers to dinner in Jeff’s family transport pod, and we had a wonderful time. They critiqued my penmanship with mock sternness. So odd it felt, these frail older ladies over whom I now towered, who had once held benign power over my joy or misery. It was so good to be able to let them know what good they had wrought.

The day after that dinner, Jeff took me to the Cosmosphere. The old planetarium, it seemed, had grown into a full-fledged aerospace museum. All right, sounds fine, let’s see what’s new there.

As an old Epinions crony of mine used to say, jeezum crow. In addition to the rocket standing outside, the SR-71 Blackbird on struts just inside the front door let me know that this was not my childhood planetarium, which seemingly had been dozed to make way for this huge modern museum. It had the Apollo 13, with burn pitting still visible. Soviet cosmonaut suits. A V-1. A Me-163 Komet engine. A restored V-2. It had more than you could imagine, including a brand new planetarium with reclining theater seats. Artifacts. Science exhibits.

Jeff suggested we see the rocketry demonstration, called Dr. Goddard’s Laboratory. It was in an insignificant little side room near the main entry hall. A young man used liquefied gases to demonstrate rocketry on a small scale. Kids wowed; we enjoyed. But while we enjoyed, I also had a very creepy, weird, ghostly feeling. I’m not very sensitive to that sort of thing. Something was strange, something I ought to know but could not place.

I looked about the room. It was round.

I looked at the ceiling. It was gently domed.

It was the old planetarium. It hadn’t been dozed. They had built the museum around it, and now used it for science demos.

I had been here, three decades before. I had lain on this carpet, or at least on whatever had covered this floor.

 

Some corner of the mind is eidetic, I think; the problem is that the mental library’s card cataloging and shelving system falls to hell. But it’s still in there, waiting to be jogged.

Campaigny McCampaignface

It is not well known that I have a little sideline selling stuff, on Ebay as well as on retail consignment. In the consignments, which I market in retail establishments, the worst thing that ever happens is that the retail venue hires a cretin who does not grasp that I need to get my tags back. Those enable me to see what sold, determine whether I am making reasonable profit, and (if need be) tell the IRS what I did sell. I can live with the occasional cretinous moment.

That frustration is nothing compared to Ebay, which I have taken to calling “Ebenezer.” Don’t most of us normally assume that major changes to policies and technology that are used by millions of people happen only after various committees and managers review them, think through the potential outcomes, and schedule implementation? Don’t we assume that, on some level, these people are smarter than most of us?

I don’t. I think it’s possible that they really aren’t too bright. My experience-based belief is that the technical changes at Ebenezer are directed by a pointy-haired boss who parlayed a gentleman’s C- at a low-rated business school into a six-figure income managing Ebenezer’s “vendor experience.” I don’t think this PHB answers to anyone, ever. I think he just gets whims in his head, sends his code monkeys* a memo, expects them to work 100-hour weeks implementing his directives, then starts to cook up another memo.

In the year I’ve been doing us, the list of Ebenezer’s f-bomberies is long and monthly. Every month, every single month, it’s some fresh hell. I can live with the fact that it’s always pitched as though it’s to our advantage, when in fact it’s the opposite, because I expect that of all corporations. The key phrase is “to serve you better, we are…” That’s b-speak for “because we can screw you, we are…” What are most irritating are the petty stupidities, and those are what convince me there is no oversight here, no management. I think it’s just some PHB with a Word memo template and a deficient intellect.

Here’s an example. When you sell stuff on Ebenezer for a fixed price, there are a couple of ways you can push it. You can set up to entertain offers, and you can set auto-accept or auto-reject amounts (or choose to listen to any offer at all, which I think is smarter, because you can then counter with something rational). You can also use promoted listings. In these, you agree to pay Ebenezer an extra fee if the item sells because they shoved it in someone’s face. This, in my experience, gets rid of more stuff than does considering offers.

Now, sometime in the past, the PHB determined that it would be nice if sellers could name and track promotional campaigns. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? What’s to complain about? It even defaulted to creating a campaign named (in my case) something like “US Campaign [date]”. Sounded so official, so markety, so businessy. It made me want to ramp up my solutioning of problems, my verbing of nouns, and my total quality management to get to the client delight level. Okay, whatever. I accepted the default name, and thereafter that was the default campaign for promoted listings. About three months later on, it decided to start a new one for me, similar rubric. Okay, fine, don’t see how this is going to hurt me.

This meant that when I was relisting, say, a hundred items, I didn’t have to make a choice on that dropdown box unless I had some reason to assign a given promotion to a given campaign. Lacking such reason, I plowed through, accepting the default. Until one day the default changed without notice.

No longer was the default campaign an existing campaign. Now the default was to begin a new campaign. If I didn’t make a dropdown choice, every single item I chose to have promoted would be assigned its own new, special, unique campaign. I would eventually run up against some limit of total campaign listings.

Now, because a PHB (in my supposition, which I admit is based mostly on outcomes and plausible explanation based on having worked for a number of PHBs) told a code monkey to change something–or, perhaps, simply failed to review a code monkey’s work–all of a sudden there was an extra step necessary. Just one more step, where there wasn’t one before. I only created three new campaigns by mistake before I realized what was happening.

I also learned that I couldn’t just reassign existing listings to a given campaign, the better to clean up the mess. The choices were greyed out. I could delete a campaign, but that would remove the promotion from any listings currently live that were using that campaign. A feature that was nothing to me, transformed into an unannounced pain in the rectum: that’s Ebenezer and its vendor experience PHB.

So I got annoyed. When I get annoyed with a corporation, which is not infrequent, I find a creative way to mock it. Even if I am the only one who gets a laugh, that’s the candle I light rather than cursing the darkness. More accurately, I light it while cussing the darkness pretty hard; fair enough. But I do light it.

I needed a campaign name that would sort to the top of the list, that I would recognize, and that would reflect my opinion of the PHB and his (in my experience, men are more likely to be PHBs) vendor experience management.

Campaigny McCampaignface was born.

Now, at least, I get a laugh every time I relist an item and choose to have Ebenezer ram it in people’s faces promote it.

 

*I get the term “code monkey” from one of my cousins, who posted a video long ago to explain what his work was like. It is not meant to disparage those who write code, but to highlight how management uses those coders’ skill sets.

Unpacking religion and its associates

It’s an ongoing problem. Someone blurts out something about a religion. Someone else blurts out that they know people of that religion and it’s not true of them. A third person makes an analogy to a different religion and muddies the waters further.

They are arguing, and they can’t even agree on their terms and definitions. That’s no way to do this.

Maybe I can help. At least, I can describe the way I unpack and analyze religious movements and outlooks. It seems to serve me well.

Under the general banner of religion, I detect four subcategories of activity/belief/endeavor. Not all religions include all four; one may wonder whether that disqualifies a belief system from the label of ‘religion’ in the first place. Rational people could differ on that. My four:

  • Spirituality: views on the unseen, supernatural, and the afterlife–things relating to supreme or superior beings. Gods, spirits, souls…all of that. Into this category I also put interactions with supreme beings where there is no intent to influence an outcome. “Dear mighty Cthulhu: I am fine. I hope you are fine too. I hope you are sleeping well with minimal bathroom interruptions as I know you are greatly ancient. I praise you with a massive praising.”
  • Magic: views on mortal people influencing the world. In some religions this is done through prayer; in others, through ritual and/or meditation. Trying to learn the future, change outcomes, gain assistance–all the ways people attempt to shape events. “Dear mighty Cthulhu: please slip my sister-in-law a strong laxative, so that she does not sleep well and has maximum bathroom interruptions.”
  • Philosophy: views on morality and ethics, whatever their source–ancient books, tradition, common sense. What is right or wrong? Encouraged or discouraged? Fair or foul? Obligatory or contraindicated? How should we live?
  • Culture: each movement that is religious necessarily spawns a culture, or cultures, that influence even non-members or those less involved. It may involve ethnic heritage, even merge into same. A Jew, for example, might profess atheism yet remain associated with the cultural aspects of her upbringing’s faith, and insist upon having her son circumcised.

Once I began to look at the arguments this way, it helped me to send the combatants to neutral corners long enough to hush and listen. When one labels or generalizes based on religion, it helps to identify which aspects are in play. If one is going to say that Latter-Day Saints do not drink coffee, for example, very well; this is philosophical and to some degree cultural. (I’m not aware of anything in LDS scriptures specifically forbidding coffee, though I have read up on their applied rationale.) The boundaries will not always be strict, as we can see in this example; culture may be a lens through which people interpret and act upon philosophy.

Many examples exist and I have experienced some. Is there a Wiccan culture? Certainly there is. I never fit into it, but I understand it. I grew up in a Lutheran culture that could best be described as grim, threatening, cruel, and comfortless. I didn’t know of kinder, gentler Lutherans until I grew up, went to college, and learned that I had been raised by religious fanatics in an extremist group. The kinder, gentler Lutherans were the first to say: “oh, yeah, those folks–no wonder.”

Are Satanists religious? Well, I guess that depends on which specific Satanists. Most, I understand, do not believe in a Satanic godhead. They do have philosophies, and at least some engage in magic. I don’t know enough about left-hand path culture to say whether any generalization about that is possible. I’m not sure how seriously the Satanic Temple folks take the religious aspect, if at all, but their actions suggest a culture (and certainly a philosophy) of challenging the majority.

I am definitely not part of that majority. Since I have rather few co-religionists, and am a loner among them, most of my conversations about religion occur with people not of my belief system. In order to process that fact in respectful ways, I need this organization. Perhaps others will find it helpful.

Scumbag studies: Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS Bronislav Kaminski

When one sets out to find the worst unit attached to the Waffen-SS during World War II, it usually comes down to Dirlewanger’s or Kaminski’s. As evil as were the units that culminated in the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS “Dirlewanger,” there were at least moments where portions of those units delivered some credible military competency.

Not so the Kaminski Brigade, a.k.a. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA (stood for Russian National Liberation Army in Latin-transliterated Russian; in Cyrillic it looked like POHA). It had little function but atrocity, few tactics save thievery and murder, no use but evil. In that, it was a reflection of its founder.

Of Polish and German descent, Kaminski had done time in the USSR’s infamous gulags during Stalin’s paranoid 1930s. Seems he had been a vocal critic of farm collectivization, which–fair’s fair–was a disastrous policy. In this case, Stalin made an enemy that would have terrible consequences for his own people; not that Stalin was notorious for empathy. When the German Army took over the Bryansk area where Kaminski lived, he signed up with the local German collaborationist anti-partisan unit. When partisans killed its commander, Kaminski stepped in.

Soon Kaminski’s force was keeping the Bryansk region relatively clear of partisan attacks, and the occupiers took notice. By mid-1943 he commanded a brigade known to his overlords as the Kaminski Brigade, but titled by him the Russian Army of National Liberation. At about that time, the Germans begin to sick their collaborating attack dogs on partisans in and around the region. The tactics were brutal and the troops undisciplined. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, as it became known, killed tens of thousands of its own countrypeople, exceeding even the considerable ruthlessness of partisan reprisals against collaborators.

Having lost its locality to the Soviet advance, the SS-Sturmbrigade RONA fell back toward Poland. Whatever else may have been true of Kaminski, he wasn’t suicidally stupid enough to stick around long enough to explain his recent past to the NKGB. By 1944 Kaminski held the rank of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS, a rank held by no one else and equivalent to a brigadier general.

The German high command had two competitors for the mantle of chief Russian collaborator: General Vlasov, who had defected in captivity, and Kaminski. Hitler didn’t trust Vlasov even a little bit, probably because Vlasov seemed intelligent and rational enough to develop a significant military force if permitted. Kaminski was a thug leading thugs, and useful enough from a Nazi standpoint in that limited context. It was not reasonable to suppose Kaminski might ever raise and lead a force large enough to give the Nazi regime trouble.

Before it was all over, Kaminski’s men perpetrated one last atrocity. In July 1944, the Polish Home Army (underground) used its long-husbanded weapons to revolt against Nazi occupation and take back Warsaw. The logic was that the Soviet Army would press forward to liberate the city. Nothing doing; Stalin was delighted to let the Nazis kill off tens of thousands of potential nationalist rebels, and if that meant the deaths of over a hundred thousand civilians along with the flattening of their city, to Stalin that was no great loss. A rogues’ gallery of SS and anti-partisan units moved to crush the rising, including a detachment from Kaminski’s RONA, which was in the process of being raised to SS divisional status.

The surface version of what happened was that Kaminski’s men exceeded even Nazi boundaries for atrocity. While this was true–they cut a swath of indiscriminate rape, arson, torture, and murder through any area they visited–there’s no good reason to believe that his fall came as a result of Himmler clutching his pearls. Another story was that Kaminski’s troops mistakenly killed a couple of German girls; probably true, but unlikely to result in his downfall. Yet another goes that he was accused of disobedience and theft; again likely true but unlikely to lead to a wall. So why did the SS liquidate Kaminski?

It seems that by mid-1944, the Nazis were rethinking the value of Vlasov relative to Kaminski. To me it seems like a day late and a dollar short, with most former Soviet territory now in Soviet hands once again. Whatever the reason or reasons, on 19 August 1944 the local SS chief, von dem Bach-Zelewski, summoned Kaminski and his staff to a meeting. Some say that they were put on trial, then shot; others that the SS simply lined them up against a wall and shot them. Kaminski’s men were told that he had died in a Polish partisan attack.

However it happened, everyone at least agrees that this was the violent end of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS Bronislav Kaminski. The Nazis sent his demoralized unit north to dig trenches, then assigned the remainder to Vlasov’s command. One supposes that they tried very hard not to surrender to the Soviet Union. Of whatever RONA prisoners Soviet forces might have taken, one supposes they bad outcomes.

As bad as Dirlewanger was, one could make the argument that Kaminski was worse. Unfortunately, in this realm of scumbag studies, comparisons are elusive and creepy. Which is worse, pulmonary anthrax or pneumonic plague? Most people would respond that neither one sounds very pleasant.

In fact, the Nazi regime spawned many little Kaminskis. Every ethnicity that had once felt like (and perhaps been in fact) an oppressed minority had its collaborators, and many were all too ready to vent their rage as tools of the occupation regime. Some became more infamous than others. In fact, if all the truth were known, one could probably write a book just detailing all the deeds of Nazi collaborators.

A complete reference would be elusive, but any such book would be an incomplete joke without a section on Kaminski. He was one of the very worst.

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