A Weirdness of Beards

From a newsgroup post dated February 17, 2011:

I have a beard, as anyone who’s met me or seen my picture probably knows. I’ve had it a long, long time.

I started out with just a mustache — and when I say “started out,” I mean I have literally never shaved my upper lip (though it was once, and only once, shaved for me), so by the time I graduated from high school I had a mustache.

That was 1972.

I got kicked out of Princeton in February, 1974, and that was when I grew a beard — a Van Dyke.

Then when I dropped out in 1977, I stopped shaving entirely and grew a full beard. I eventually started shaving again when my neck got excessively fuzzy, but I still have a full beard, and except for two brief interruptions I’ve had it since 1977.

I used to have long hair. I started growing it out in 1969. It got cut back somewhat a couple of times, but basically stayed long until 1984, when I cut it for my youngest sister’s wedding, and so Kyrith, who was then a baby, would stop grabbing and pulling it.

I kept it short for a few years, and honestly, I don’t remember exactly when I grew it back out, but it was long (below my shoulders) through most of the 1990s and well into the 21st century. In 2008, though — I think it was 2008, might have been a year or two earlier — I saw a picture of the back of my head and realized I had a bald spot, and that, combined with the long hair, had me looking uncomfortably like Riff Raff from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” So that October I cut it short, and it’s been fairly short ever since.

There were other variations along the way, such as color, but we won’t go into that right now — the basics, long hair and full beard, were pretty much as described above.

And here’s the weird thing: People don’t see this.

The first time I encountered this was when I was readmitted to Princeton in the fall of 1975. People who hadn’t seen me since February of ’74 got to see me with my new beard.

Some people didn’t notice. Some saw that there was something different about me, but couldn’t place it exactly. The strangest was the girl who exclaimed, “You cut your hair!”

I pointed out that no, I hadn’t, my hair was still halfway down my back, but I’d grown a beard. She stared and said, “Didn’t you always have a beard?”

I never did convince her that I hadn’t.

Then at my sister’s wedding in 1984, nobody noticed that I had cut my hair, that it was at least eight inches shorter than before. I mean, nobody noticed. No one. When I finally mentioned it to someone, he asked, “Didn’t you cut it back in 1972?”

He’d seen me several times between 1972 and 1984. It was long every time.

I mentioned two interruptions in my beard. One of them was when I sold my beard to Gillette, for research, and there aren’t any odd stories about that, but the other one, well, one morning I just decided to experiment, and shaved half of it off, trimming it back down to the old Van Dyke.

No one noticed. It was like the wedding, except that this time even my own kids didn’t notice anything. So I grew the full beard back, because why bother maintaining the trim if nobody notices?

And I bring this all up now because at Capricon this past weekend, someone I hadn’t seen for a few years saw me and exclaimed, “You grew a beard!”

She had never, ever seen me without a full beard. The actual difference was that I’d cut my hair since she last saw me. Well, that, and I’ve gone mostly gray.

But she saw a difference, and somehow that became I’d grown a beard.

I find this phenomenon baffling.

Esprit d’escalier

From a newsgroup post dated December 12, 2009. “Esprit d’escalier” is French for “spirit of the staircase,” and refers to thinking of the perfect comeback only after you’ve left the party or other event.

I completely failed to come up with a suitable comeback this evening.

Situation: We’re going out to dinner, and I’m explaining to Julie about George Smith, and my sudden realization that the first-person narrator is Wayne Ellsworth, who is a weirdness magnet.

“Like you,” Julie said.

“I’m not a weirdness magnet,” I said.

“Sure you are. You attracted me, didn’t you?”

I still haven’t figured out what I should have responded.

Strange Days

From a newsgroup post dated December 11, 2009:

Christmas cards have started arriving.

Two people report that their husbands died in October; a third lost his mother-in-law and a son-in-law. How depressing!

But on the good side, I got the June 1935 issue of The Twilight Patrol, featuring the full-length novel, “Drones of the Ravaging Wind.”

This is, I am not kidding, a friend’s Christmas card; he wrote and edited the issue. He wrote the novel last year, actually, but the rest of the issue (a short story, a poem, miscellaneous art, and a couple of features) is new. The ads are an assortment of the weirdest real ads he could find in his pulp collection. The full-color cover bears the NRA seal.

I wish I could do something like that!

And I have been eager to re-post this item so I could point out that now you, too, can read The Twilight Patrol 1: Drones of the Ravaging Wind! There’s even a sequel, The Twilight Patrol 2: Maggot Czar of the Everglades. These aren’t in Christmas card/pulp magazine format with the additional material, but still…

The Summer of Sixty-Nine

From a newsgroup post dated August 14, 2009:

Julie and I attended a 40th anniversary Woodstock tribute at the Strathmore Music Hall in Rockville tonight. It was really good. An outfit called Bandhouse Gigs put it together, using a lot of local talent and a few not-so-local folks.

We were impressed enough to buy CDs by two of them, blues singer Patty Reese (who did the Janis Joplin numbers) and a band called GHz (who did the Hendrix segment). I already had a CD by Bill Kirchen, who covered John Fogarty’s role in the Creedence Clearwater Revival medley.

(Yes, they sold CDs in the lobby — and why not? Capitalism isn’t that weird.)

Several acts were covered by made-for-the-occasion bands, mixing and matching musicians; the group they put together for Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” was really, really good, and the Sly and the Family Stone set had the audience on their feet and dancing.

There was a fair bit of overlap with the movie and the albums, but they did try to include some other stuff, so for example there was a Bert Sommer tribute (Paul Simon’s “America”), and Joan Baez was represented by both “Joe Hill” and “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos,” the latter of which I had never heard before.

There were songs I hadn’t heard in many, many years, like John Sebastian’s “Younger Generation.”

It was a three-hour show — but that’s counting a twenty-minute intermission. Still, we felt we got our money’s worth.

Been awhile since we’d seen as much tie-dye as that, or as many peace signs.

Besides acts already mentioned, I’ll want to check out the Cravin’ Dogs, Crimestoppers, and the Tone Rangers.

The Decline of Civilizations

From a newsgroup post dated April 23, 2009:

Over on rec.arts.sf.written there’s currently a discussion (in a monster thread entitled “Socialism in SF” that’s 90% crap) about the decline of the West as evidenced by the sorry state of the fine arts.

That’s a subject I find interesting, even though I think 90% of everything everyone says on the subject is wrong — not the alleged sorry state of the fine arts, but what it says about the state of our civilization.

I’m trying to give shape here to a bunch of complicated and conflicting ideas on the subject, and I’m not finding the words. Instead, let me ask everyone out there for opinions:

Are the fine arts in a state of decline?

Does it matter that opera and ballet are now largely the province of a tiny faction of old-fashioned elitists, given that we have movies and other new media?

Does it mean anything for the health of civilization as a whole if the arts are in a state of decline?

Does it mean anything for the health of civilization as a whole if people think the arts are in a state of decline?

Feel free to bring up historical examples like Ming pottery and Byzantine literary forms.


This did not yield any discussion. I suppose I misjudged my audience.

The Wooden Heads

From a series of newsgroup posts dated July 14, 2008:

My mother’s parents were British. They wound up on this side of the Atlantic by accident when a series of flukes stranded my grandfather in Halifax, and they wound up in the U.S. when Halifax Harbor blew up and the closest place Grandpa could find work in his field (he was, at that point, a naval architect) was Baltimore. They did not come to America seeking a new life. They had no objection to anything in Britain. They only got here more or less by mistake, and would happily have gone back if circumstances had made it practical.

My mother therefore had a rather Anglophilic upbringing. Part of this — well, when she was a little girl in Chester, my grandmother loved a British children’s magazine called Chatterbox. Chatterbox was a monthly, and ran serialized stories, as well as a lot of other stuff, and always concluded every serial in the December issue. They would then take the original printing plates for all twelve issues and print a collected Chatterbox Annual, which was simply the twelve issues put together in hardcover. The Annuals made great Christmas presents for British kids.1925 Chatterbox Annual

And when they had finished printing the British annuals, the publisher shipped the printing plates to Boston, where an American publisher printed a U.S. edition of the Chatterbox Annual. I think it appeared one year after the British edition, rather than simultaneously.

When my grandmother discovered that the American edition existed, it became inflexibly ordained that my mother would receive the Chatterbox Annual every Christmas, starting at age two and continuing as long as they could be found.

Mother liked Chatterbox a lot, despite it being thoroughly British and a bit stodgy, and saved all those Annuals, and when she had her own kids we all got to read them. I liked them a lot. In particular, I liked some of the serials from the early 1920s — “Bushranger’s Gold,” “The Dim Red Dawn,” “Dragons At Home,” etc.

I sometimes wonder whether more people read these stories than is generally known. To me, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear looks a lot like “The Dim Red Dawn” with added sex and a lot more verbiage. Some of the ads for the movie “Night At the Museum” look like scenes from the last part of “Dragons At Home.”

“Bushranger’s Gold” (to name the example I best remember; there were others) starts out as a boarding-school story before sending the protagonist brothers off to adventure in the Australian Outback, so the school scenes in Harry Potter felt very familiar to me.

Nothing, however, looks like “The Wooden Heads,” my favorite Chatterbox story of all.

People sometimes ask me what the major influences on my writing are, and I usually cite several stories, but the fact is, the single work with the greatest influence was “The Wooden Heads.” It warped me for life.

The author’s name was C.L. Hales; as far as I’ve been able to determine, he only ever published two works under that name, “The Wooden Heads” circa 1924, and more than a decade later something I’ve never seen called, if I remember correctly, “Bats in the Belfry.” (Note, 2017: I have since acquired and read a copy of Bats in the Belfry; it was severely disappointing, as it’s a badly-dated attempt at socio-political humor.) There was apparently a book edition of The Wooden Heads, but I’ve never seen a copy and it appears to be quite rare. (I’d love a copy.)

So what’s it about?

The story opens with the Sidhill family awakening one morning in their home in London and discovering that the world is strangely quiet. Their own household — mother, father, five kids [well, six, it turns out — I forgot preschooler Beatrice], housekeeper, dog — is completely intact, but everyone else in London has vanished.

They try to go on with normal life on the assumption that everything will right itself in time, but that gradually becomes less and less possible. What’s more, they find they’re being watched by mysterious creatures they dub “the wooden heads,” who are apparently responsible for the disappearances, and who are now trying to pick off the Sidhills, as well.Mr. Sidhill vs. the Wooden Heads

For the most part the story focuses on the two oldest Sidhill children, Rolfe and Chad, though their two sisters and their father get some attention. (The mother and baby are left utterly undeveloped, unfortunately, and the housekeeper’s few appearances are mostly comic relief; I think Tim, the dog, gets more attention.)

The Sidhills respond with English pluck, first figuring out how to defend themselves, and then going on the offensive, eventually defeating the Wooden Heads and bringing the rest of London back from limbo — but the story doesn’t end there; it follows through the aftermath, as the Sidhills try to convince the world what actually happened.

I loved that. I had never seen any other story where defeating the big menace wasn’t the end of the adventure. (I didn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” until a few years later.)

Another thing I loved was the changes in mood; “The Wooden Heads” is genuinely creepy in some scenes, funny in others, touching in others. The heroes are brave and clever but never superhuman; when I was eight I wanted to grow up to be Chad Sidhill. (Rolfe was a bit too cocky for me; Chad was the clever one.)

The thing is, no one outside my immediate family seemed to have ever heard of the story.

All my life, I’ve found that frustrating. I wanted to talk about the story with other readers! I wanted to share this treasure.

So many years ago, I began trying to track down its history, to find out whether there was some way to make it more widely known.

Before the net, getting information was almost impossible unless I wanted to devote far more time and money than it was worth. I made inquiries with used-book dealers. When I was in England in 1993 I did try to find out more, and couldn’t uncover much. I even tried to track down Hale’s heirs, completely without success. As the web has developed, I’ve periodically researched Hales and “The Wooden Heads,” with very little result.

Recently, though, I discovered that someone has transferred all the U.S. Copyright Office renewal records to electronic form — the Copyright Office itself never did this because they were never given the budget for it, but academic researchers tackled the job, and earlier this year the data finally came online.

I downloaded the entire database in late June, but at 380 megabytes of XML, I didn’t have the capacity to actually use it on Chloe.

Today, though, I’ve discovered that there are university webservers that can run a 380-meg database just fine, and they’re available to the public, so I’ve searched on “Chatterbox” and “Hales” and “Wooden Heads,” and have concluded that the copyright was never renewed.

“The Wooden Heads” is in the public domain in the U.S.

(Best evidence is that it’s still got about five years left in Britain, though.)

So — it’s public domain. I can do whatever I want with it. I have a copy of that Chatterbox Annual.

And the question, the reason I’m posting this, is: What should I do with it?


From a newsgroup post dated January 14, 2014 that was inexplicably pinned out of order, hence the six-years-plus jump. Will be dropping back next time:

So I’ve never had a checklist (I guess the usual term these days is “bucket list”), but I find myself looking back at various cool things I’ve done that I didn’t really expect to ever do.

(At least, I think they’re cool.)

Here are a few:
Flew a small plane.
Climbed the Great Wall.
Had a drink with Mickey Spillane
Dined with Leonard Nimoy at his home.
Scripted a comic book story with Alex Ross art.
Chatted with Roger Zelazny.
Shook hands with Isaac Asimov.
Went skiing. (Didn’t like it.)
Walked through the Circus Maximus.
Watched a storm blow in while standing atop the Eiffel Tower.
Dickered with a silk merchant in Shanghai’s Old Town.
Shot skeet off the tail of a cruise ship.
Drove a ’57 DeSoto up the Jersey Turnpike at 115 MPH.
Pegged the speedometer on a ’69 VW bus.
Handled a Byzantine manuscript that used crushed rubies for its red ink.
Had my stories reprinted in textbooks ranging from fifth grade to college level.
Climbed the dome of St. Peter’s.
Visited the crypts of St. Paul’s.
Rode a maglev train.
Sailed through a big Atlantic storm.
Got drunk with a girl in the Latin Quarter in Paris, and wound up married to her.
Crewed on the America’s Cup yacht Canada II in a race. Admittedly, a meaningless three-boat race staged as a tourist attraction, but still. I was starboard backstay grinder.)

Life of A Salesman

From a newsgroup post dated October 17, 2007:

Elsewhere there’s a discussion of a very annoyingly condescending salesclerk someone dealt with recently; I remarked there that such salespeople are fools, because you sell more stuff with flattery than condescension.

Which reminded me of an incident, lo these many years ago, which I didn’t post there because it wasn’t relevant, so I’m posting it here. Not that it’s relevant here, either, but it’s my newsgroup, so I can post it anyway.

I was in the audio department somewhere, I think at Circuit City, considering whether to replace all or part of the stereo system I bought back in 1973. I was chatting with a salesman, who was doing a pretty good job of ingratiating himself without being pushy or condescending, and I had explained that I maybe wanted to upgrade my twenty-year-old system.

He asked what I had.

“A Sansui 661 receiver,” I said.

He nodded. “A decent unit in its day,” he said, “but you can do better. What have you got for speakers?”

“MicroAcoustic FRM-1s,” I said.

“Well, you aren’t going to replace those,” he said. “There isn’t anything better.”

Whereupon he managed to flatter me immensely, and impress me with his knowledge, at the same time he lost the sale. He was the first salesman I’d met since 1975 who’d ever heard of the MicroAcoustic FRM-1, and if he said that no one had improved on it, I believed him, so I didn’t buy new speakers.

I did spend a pleasant half-hour chatting about audio equipment with him, though.

Trailer Park

(All new!)

So we saw “The Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2” Monday afternoon (and had a lovely time, thanks). It has long been my custom to assess the trailers accompanying any movie we see in the theater, so here we go:

There were eight trailers. This is excessive. It hasn’t been that long since five was the norm.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” looks big and loud and stupid. I am so not interested.

The remake of “The Mummy” does not look very promising, either. Both these first two trailers were so loud that I was beginning to worry the whole feature would be unpleasant and ear-tiring, but fortunately that did not turn out to be the case.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” was the first trailer that was not just a barrage of noise and CGI. It had moments of character, bits of humor, and generally lots of stuff to indicate that the film is not just a noisefest and lightshow. I expect to see and enjoy this one.

“Alien: Covenant”… I dunno. It looks better than the last couple of Alien movies, but that’s saying depressingly little. I think I’ll pass.

“Dunkirk”: It’s a war movie. It looks as if it’s a well-made one, with some good characters, but I’m not much on war movies these days (with exceptions for superhero war movies). If the word of mouth sings enough hosannas, I might check it out.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” looks pretty good, and I still plan on seeing every feature in the series. It would take a real stinker to make me stop. The three prequels were building up a significant amount of suckage, but the Disney takeover has cleansed my palate and renewed my enthusiasm.

The trailer for “Thor: Ragnarok” has a little more CGI than I really wanted, but the line “I know him from work!” sold me — I wanna see it. In general, the Thor series has not been at the top of my Marvel list (not that they suck, they just aren’t as good as some of the others), but this one has promise.

And finally, the next Pirates of the Caribbean film — does it even have a definite title yet? — capped off the previews. I regret to say that even though I loved the first one and it’s always a delight to watch Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, I think the series has outlasted its sell-by date. Zombie sharks are one of those ideas that sounds great in a late-night conversation but should probably not actually be used.

All in all, it was a very loud set of trailers.