How I Came to Be Adopted by a Cambodian Family (Part I)

Vantha (l.) and Vanthy in 1981.

(This is the first part of a two-part story. I will post the second part next week.)

I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania when the Cambodian Holocaust took place, from 1975 to 1979, and the nightmare in that country filled me with an impotent outrage. I can’t explain why, even now. I’m not Cambodian myself; I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and two more distant cultures are difficult to imagine. I didn’t know any Cambodians. I scarcely knew what a Cambodian was. All I knew was what I had read: that the Khmer Rouge insurgents who had seized control of that country in April of 1975 had turned the entire nation into a huge concentration camp. They allowed no foreigner to enter the country, no Cambodian to leave. They’d emptied the cities, forcing everyone into subsistence agriculture in the countryside. Cambodia had no motor vehicles, no post office, no television or radio, no schools, no doctors or hospitals. Just endless days of backbreaking labor in the fields under the burning sun and the watchful eye of the Khmer Rouge soldiers with their AK-47 rifles.

If you were too weak to work, they killed you. If you complained, they killed you. If you tried to eat anything more than the starvation rations they allotted, they killed you. If you had worked for the former government, they killed you. If you had an education, they killed you. If you knew how to read and write, or wore glasses, or knew how to drive a car, they killed you. And many more who weren’t killed starved to death.

Estimates of the number of victims were in the millions. All this information was available in the U.S. in the 1970s, if you knew where to look for it. I felt outrage at what was surely the worst crime since the Allies had shut down the Nazi death camps. And I felt impotence because no one around me seemed to care. In the late 1970s, the last thing Americans wanted to think about was Indochina. We spent far more time and attention debating whether disco was the best thing that had ever happened to popular music or the worst. Whether Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had overshadowed George Lucas’s Star Wars, or vice versa.

Meanwhile, then Senator George McGovern, noted for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, called for a United Nations force to invade Cambodia and oust the Khmer Rouge. Everyone laughed. “Now George McGovern wants to go to war in Indochina.” I thought he had a good idea.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. I remember trying to explain to one of my friends at Penn that this was a good thing. “But now the communists will be running the country,” she said.
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Boy Meets World

My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George.

My Side of the Mountain was a very special book for me. I read it when I was eleven years old, and I suppose that was the perfect age. A few months afterward, Paramount Pictures released a film adaptation, and I begged my dad to take me to see it. I have thoughts about the film version, but I will save them for a separate post. Here I want to talk about the book. I recently re-read it, 49 years later, to see how it held up. I’m pleased to report that I think it holds up very well.

From what I can tell, noodling around on the internet, the book is still well regarded in many quarters. It has won many awards. It’s the sort of book that teachers and librarians are apt to recommend to young people. It’s the story of Sam Gribley, an adolescent boy, perhaps fourteen years old, give or take a year, and the novel opens with Sam living on his own in the Catskill Mountains in December, hunkered down against a big snowstorm as he tells his story. He lived in what must have been a very crowded New York City apartment with his parents and eight (!) brothers and sisters. You won’t be surprised that Sam finds it stifling. He dreams of the outdoors, a dream shared by no one else in his family. When he hears from his father that his Gribley forefathers once owned a farm somewhere near Delhi, New York, Sam resolves to run off and live on his own at the old Gribley farm. His father indulges his fantasy, expecting Sam to return home chastened after a day or two on his own.

Surprise! Sam not only survives in the Catskills wilderness, he thrives, after a rocky start. December blizzard Sam recounts (with some embarrassment) how May tenderfoot Sam struggled to survive his first night in the wild. He whittled a fishhook out of twigs and cried after a trout broke it. He finally succeeded in catching a few fish, but utterly failed to start a fire and spent the night hungry, cold, frightened, and miserable.

But Sam learns and from this inauspicious beginning builds a life for himself alone in the forest. Most of the story is Sam solving the problems of keeping himself fed, clothed, and sheltered and storing up food for the coming winter and his occasional interactions with other people who stumble across him. Among his accomplishments, two stand out. First, he burns out the inside of a huge hemlock tree to build himself a shelter, complete with storage niches for his provender and a clay fireplace so he can keep himself warm. (He is inspired by stories of Native Americans using this technique to make dugout canoes.) Second, he steals a falcon chick, which he names Frightful after the experience of capturing her, and raises her as a hunting bird, with guidance from the local library.

It’s a charming story of a smart, kindly, persistent boy taking on the challenge of living in the wilderness and not only surviving, but doing it in style. Some of this may seem implausible, and that’s the biggest rap the book’s detractors have against it. Sam not only copes in the wilderness, he begins to make it look easy. Do not mistake this story for a gritty, realistic portrayal of what it would mean to be alone in the forest, surviving on your own wits. Still, Sam does dispense good advice, even if it is doubtful he could have learned all this reading in the New York Public Library, as he claims.

Even harder to swallow is the idea that Sam’s parents would let him run away, then not search for him frantically. Not when he doesn’t return home in a day or two; not even after he’s gone for months and winter sets into the Catskills. This was only marginally plausible in 1959; today, these parents should expect a visit from a social worker with some hard and awkward questions.

I could understand if these difficulties are too much for some modern readers, though I found the book as delightful at the age of sixty as I did at eleven, and would counsel 21st century readers to overlook the plausibility issues—think of My Side of the Mountain as an historical novel, or a fantasy, if you must—and focus instead on the deeper emotional truth at the heart of the book.

Adolescent kids—especially boys—feel the call to separate from their parents and make their own way in the world. It’s a scary moment, torn as they are between the child’s yearning for familial security and the budding adult desire to stand on one’s own two feet and find a place in the world. The message of My Side of the Mountain is this: the world may sometimes be cold, or lonely, or frightening, but you are capable of more than you realize. You have it in you not only to survive, but to thrive.

That is reason enough to love this book, and to recommend it to today’s crop of young readers, who need its message as much as kids ever did.


Do We Really Need an Amazing Stories TV Reboot?

Amazing Stories
was a science fiction magazine that began publication in 1926. No, strike that. It was not a science fiction magazine, it was the science fiction magazine, as in, the first of its kind. It was founded by Hugo Gernsback, who coined the term “science fiction.” (Originally, “scientific fiction” and then the unhappy portmanteau “scientifiction,” before settling on the solid, if somewhat limiting, term “science fiction.”) Gernsback’s name was imortalized in the “Hugo Awards,” given annually to the best science fiction of the year.

Amazing Stories was the first magazine dedicated to science fiction, but others soon followed, and the sad truth is, once Astounding and later Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction appeared on the scene, Amazing Stories got left behind. It ceased to be the premier SF magazine as soon as it ceased to be the only SF magazine. There were occasional periods when it reached a respectable level of quality; sadly, there were other times when it was regarded in the field as a joke or embarrassment. Nevertheless, over eighty years, most of the biggest names in science fiction appeared in the pages of Amazing: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Murray Leinster, Jack Williamson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett, I could go on and on.

For two years in the 1980s, Steven Spielberg produced an Amazing Stories TV series, an anthology show in the vein of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It was…not very good. It got mediocre ratings and was quickly cancelled. Now comes the news that Apple is paying big bucks to reboot Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. I can only conclude that Apple has more unused cash lying around than it has brains.

The original series was highly anticipated when it was first announced because Spielberg was, if anything, hotter then than now, having just come off Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The ABC TV network made a highly unusual 2-year commitment to the show, sight unseen, mostly on the strength of Spielberg’s reputation. And brother, did he let them down. They ran the two years they had already committed themselves to, then unceremoniously dropped the project as soon as they could. I don’t recall many tears shed when Amazing Stories went off the air.

The production values of the show were quite good—you expect nothing less from Steven Spielberg—but the stories were disappointing. Which seems strange. You would think, with (at the time) sixty years’ worth of story inventory from the magazine, hundreds and hundreds of stories from some of the greatest SF writers of all time (admittedly, not their best work, but still), Spielberg could have pulled out 48 good stories for a two-year TV run.

But in fact, he didn’t even try. Amazing Stories, the TV series, purchased the name from Amazing Stories, the magazine, but that was all they took. In a colossal act of arrogance that staggered me in 1985 and still staggers me today, almost every story the show produced came from Spielberg himself. The man literally sat down at a typewriter one afternoon and cranked out 48 one-page story treatments. These were handed out to other writers to develop into scripts, and that was how Amazing Stories was born.

This was presented to the news media at the time as evidence of Spielberg’s genius, but really. One guy sitting in front of a typewriters and brainstorming can’t possibly come up with 40 story ideas, every one of which was better than anything that ever appeared in the magazine. But Spielberg somehow convinced himself that he could. I suppose he believed too much of his own hype.

I can’t help noticing that even the news article I linked to above dances around the topic of whether the original Amazing Stories was actually worth watching. It wasn’t. A good story can still shine through, even in a mediocre production, but a mediocre story is never going to be compelling, not even if Steven Spielberg produces it.

Other than as a case study in the creative dangers of an inflated ego, Amazing Stories has nothing left to offer. Better to create something original, and let this unhappy experiment rest in peace.

Remembering The Book Mart

I’ve been thinking about The Book Mart lately. It was a bookstore on the corner of Sixth and Court Streets in Reading, PA from 1935 to 1998. When I was a kid, I practically haunted the place. It was the biggest and best bookstore in the area and during my adolescence was my private nirvana. I searched around recently and came up with the above picture, which was taken in the store on Boxing Day 1972, which was exactly the time I was hanging out there. (But I’m not in the picture.) It was in an old building, with linoleum floors that weren’t always level, funny lighting, and cluttered with old book racks stuffed to the ceilings with books. I loved the place.

And it had a science fiction section! And I was there so often the clerks knew me and knew my tastes and often had some newly published book ready to show me when I walked in. I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien at this store. Tolkien’s works were shelved with the science fiction in those days, because there was no such thing as a “fantasy” section in a bookstore in the 1970s. They bagged your books in heavy plastic bags with a cotton drawstring. The bags were printed with the slogan “Our bag is books.”

(For the benefit of you young people, that was because in the early 1970s, when you said something was your “bag,” that meant you were like, way into it, man. So they printed “Our bag is books” on the bags they put your books in. Get it?)

I was way into books. But in time, I moved, and later the store closed. A Vietnamese restaurant that I was fond of moved into the space, and that was great because I could still go there and look around the space. I would reconstruct in my mind how it looked when it was The Book Mart as I was chowing down on my fried frogs’ legs. It was great for me, but not so much for my dining companions, who would have to listen to me reminisce.

The restaurant recently moved to a new location, so as I write this the space is vacant, which makes me sad. It’s too much to hope for a bookstore, I guess, but I’m hoping some business moves in there soon. I want to go hang out there some more.

I Voted, In Spite of Everything

Yes, I know. But I voted anyway!

Last October, two weeks out from the election, I noticed there were horrible racist comments being posted on this site that were coming from Russia. I posted about it here, and laughed it off as a silly attempt to sell junk jewelry.

Stupid me. We now know it was a lot bigger than that. Even in my small corner of the internet, the Russians were busy hacking the election. The Associated Press just published the results of their own investigation of Russian hacking of the Democratic Party.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the Russian tampering and the degree to which Americans worked with them, but the broad outlines of the attack on our election are no longer controvertible:

  • There was a large-scale effort by hackers probably working for the Russian government to hack confidential information from the Democratic Party and from important party figures. Hundreds of them.
  • This information was released in a way to maximize the damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign as well as Democratic candidates for Senate and Congress around the country.
  • Russians probably aligned with their government also operated, and continue to operate, thousands of social media accounts designed to look American, for the purpose of surreptitiously sowing misinformation and discord into American political debate, to the benefit of Donald Trump’s campaign.
  • Russian money was spent to influence US elections in violation of US law. Facebook, and perhaps other websites, took this money in violation of US law.
  • Russian hackers also attempted to gain access to American election systems and electronic voting systems. Whether they had any success with this is not clear, but they definitely attempted it, and when asked about it, American election officials are strangely reticent. There is at least one case of the wiping of server logs for no good reason.

All of this is pretty horrifying, even if you restrict yourself to what we know for certain. It sounds like a science fiction novel. In fact, I was sketching out an outline for a novel that looked something like this, but I’ve had to abandon it now. (Thanks a lot, Vladimir!)

But far more horrifying is this:

  • The Republicans who control our government are showing no interest in doing anything about any of this.

Now, I’m so old I remember the Cold War days when you could count on a Republican to blame anything from bad weather to the New York Yankees on Russian meddling. I can remember how conservative Republicans would whip up this huge historical conspiracy argument about how the Russian state has represented authoritarianism and repression for a thousand years, and has been at war with Western values of freedom, enlightenment, and self-government all this time, and that the Cold War was just the latest phase of a Thousand Year Clash of Civilizations.

You know. The kind of stuff they say about Muslims now.

So you’ll forgive me if I have trouble wrapping my head around this. Because the same political movement, and in many cases the very same people, are watching all this happen without saying a word. And if you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, that’s just because they’re benefiting from it and don’t want to spoil a good thing,” well, then allow me to remind you that a) our incumbent President is a corrupt, incompetent stumblebum, b) he got into office even though his opponent got 3,000,000 more votes than he did, and c) Russian meddling in our election is certainly responsible, given how narrowly he squeaked by. This should outrage any American, even the ones who voted for the stumblebum.

A hostile foreign power imposing a President on us against the wishes of the American people is a existential crisis for American democracy. Don’t think just because Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote some clever words down on big brown pieces of paper 250 years ago, they’ve got it covered and you have nothing to worry about. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are not going to save American democracy. The people who actually can save American democracy, the Republicans who run our government, aren’t lifting a finger, because they are benefiting from it personally.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than the final collapse of the American experiment.

That being said, I voted today, even though it’s a stupid, off-year election. And you should, too. Because if you don’t care either, then you are also part of the problem. In fact, I feel pretty sure that if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were part of this discussion, they would say, “Hey, this is your responsibility, not ours.”

If nothing else, imagine yourself forty years from now, telling your grandchildren about the days when we actually had elections that mattered. Then think about how stupid you’re going to feel, when they ask you “Did you vote when you had the chance?” and you have to tell them, “No, I didn’t think it was worth the trouble.”

Did CGI Change Animated Storytelling?

It’s an interesting question. The thesis of this video is that hand-drawn animation, by its nature, wants to tell stories about small numbers of characters in an isolated setting, because that kind of story is easy and less expensive to draw, whereas the nature of CGI and its ability to animate large numbers of objects at once pushes animation in the direction of telling stories in a larger, more cosmopolitan setting, like a big city. As a result, hand-drawn animation works well with traditional fairy tales, in which the old order is corrupted and it is the hero’s task to restore the status quo, whereas CGI pushes storytelling in the direction of a more complex society, one with injustices that the hero is called upon to redress.

It’s worth watching, because the video makes a convincing case, though I would quibble with the use of the words “conservative” and “liberal” to describe these two types of stories, as those two words harbor political implications that have nothing to do with the thesis and therefore muddy the waters. I would have described the two kinds of stories as “restorative” and “transformative.” Still, an insightful video, well worth watching if you’re interested in feature film animation, but try not to get hung up on the conservative/liberal thing.

“The Boy Who Didn’t Know How to Recognize a King” Announcement

I am happy to announce that my fantasy short story, “The Boy Who Didn’t Know How to Recognize a King” will be published by Aliterate magazine!

Aliterate describes itself as a magazine of “literary genre fiction,” and I have been told the story is tentatively scheduled for publication in the Spring 2018 issue. It may also be posted online, although I can’t tell you that for sure, yet. So stay tuned; I’ll be able to give you more solid information when we get closer to the date.

“The Boy Who Didn’t Know How to Recognize a King” is based upon an authentic Khmer folk tale, “The King and the Buffalo Boy.” Of course, I have elaborated significantly on the original story.

I hope you like it!

My Thoughts on National Coming Out Day

I went to the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s. One of my classmates was a guy named Steven A. Marquez.

I met Steve at a summer job, and we became pretty friendly. We didn’t have any classes in common, but we stayed in touch for the rest of our time at Penn. I can’t say we were really close; we never went out for beers together or anything like that, but I thought of him as my friend.

And I envied him a little. He wanted to be a newspaper reporter; I had dreams of becoming a writer. But while my dreams were just dreams, he was a positive zealot about becoming a newspaper reporter and was working hard to make it happen. And the paper he dreamed of writing for was the Philadelphia Daily News. He took English and journalism courses and was Managing Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the school newspaper. When a Daily News editor came to Penn to teach a journalism class, Steve was so there. He wrote a story for that course that moved the instructor to say that he wished the reporters working for him at the Daily News could produce work that good.

But it was tough to get work in journalism, even then. Steve told me senior year that he had mailed out his first batch of 100 resumes (that’s how we did it then) and gotten zero responses. (Today it’s much worse for journalists, of course, but still, that was pretty tough.) Just before graduation, he told me he had landed a job at the St. Petersburg Times. I wished him well, and we parted ways.

I never saw him again. I thought of him from time to time; I imagined him in sunny Florida, criss-crossing the Tampa Bay region, uncovering scandals. Then, eight years later, in 1987, I picked up a newspaper and read his obituary.

I was shocked. At the age of 29, you may have experienced the deaths of people much older than you, but that is way too early to be losing your peers. As I read the obituary, I learned that Steve had eventually landed his dream job at the Daily News and had returned to Philadelphia, where I was also living. He was making quite a name for himself at the paper (no surprise there), but then he had contracted a long and painful illness. He’d spent months in the hospital, slowly wasting away, until at last it took his life. He was 29, the same age I was.

He had died of complications from an HIV infection. He was mourned at the Daily News, and The Daily Pennsylvanian now has an annual journalism conference named after him.

Steve was gay. And I never knew it. He was dying nearby, and I never knew it. My wife and I had our first child in the same hospital where Steve was dying at the same time. And I never knew it.

The pain of his death, and the strange and roundabout way I learned of it, never left me. I am shaking right now, as I type these words. The shock of losing such a young friend is part of it. The regret I feel that I never got the chance to visit him in the hospital during his illness—which I certainly would have done, had I known—never diminished.

But the biggest shock of all was that Steve was gay and I had had no idea.

I had thought we were friends. I had thought I knew him fairly well. But only after his death did I learn that there was a whole side of his life I knew nothing about. And I didn’t know because Steve was afraid to tell me. He was afraid of what I might think. He was afraid I wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore. He was afraid of what would happen if his sexual orientation became common knowledge.

It was that fear that led to his not telling, which led to my not knowing, which led to my not being there at his side when he needed love and support, which led to the shock of my finding out about his death in a newspaper.

If you had told me, Steve, I would have been okay about it. Yes, the 1970s were very different, and I was a churchgoing young man from a rural community who had zero experience with LGBT people, and I probably would have freaked a little. But I wouldn’t have hated you. I wouldn’t have rejected you. I would have learned. I would have grown. I would have become a better person sooner, and a better friend to you. And I most certainly would have sat with you in the hospital, even held your hand.

But I don’t blame you. You had hard choices to make in the 1970s and you had career ambitions that were important to you. You wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of that, and I fully understand. I blame the society that put you in that hard place. Sadly, both of us suffered for it.

And that brings me to #NationalComingOutDay. Coming out isn’t nearly the big deal it used to be. Times have changed quite a bit, as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you. Coming out is easier, except perhaps for young people and people within certain communities.

But I share this story in the hope that it might reach someone who is still not yet “out.” I understand that you may be silent for good reasons. Your own safety and well-being may be at stake, just as it was for Steve. But I bet you also know someone in your life like me. Someone who might freak a little at first, but will not hate or reject you. Someone who will learn and grow from the experience, just as you will, and will stand with you when you need a friend.

Tell them.

If there is no such person in your life, then contact me. You can message me or email me or drop a note in the comments, and we’ll talk. i promise I won’t freak. I know it’s scary, but it’s the first step toward making it better. For both of us. For all of us.

It’s National Coming Out Day.

“This Is Not Going to Go the Way You Think!”

I hope not.

So there’s a new trailer out for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and it looks pretty cool:

But do I have qualms? Of course I do!

The Force Awakens wasn’t bad—it had much to like, in fact—but it seemed an awful lot like a rehash of the original 1977 Star Wars. Similarly, this trailer suggests a film that rehashes The Empire Strikes Back. It seems a safe bet that Kylo Ren and Rey are related in some way. Siblings? Cousins? This is Star Wars after all. The trailer is hinting at an “I am your brother” moment. The loving shot of a line of classic AT-ATs does nothing to ease my fear. Please, please, please, can you do something new and not keep rehashing the original trilogy? Thanks.

It could be just the way the trailer is edited. If you watch it closely, you can see it’s mashing up moments from different scenes to make you think things are happening that aren’t really happening. So maybe the trailer editor just thought it would be fun to mess with us.

Also, the last time Star Wars did something new, it was Jar-Jar Binks, which is a pretty good argument that rehashing the original trilogy is maybe not the worst idea.

We’ll find out soon enough.