The truth about polenta

What’s so good about polenta? In no particular order: it’s inexpensive, easy to cook, versatile, tastes good, and doesn’t sit in your stomach like a rock the way so many other foods do. Also, it’s comforting not just when it’s freshly cooked and still has that gruel-like consistency, but also when you let it cool and then steam, fry, grill, or broil it with whatever vegetables and fruits and sauces you like. When it’s good, polenta transports you to a home where things are almost simple, you can get by without cruelty, and people’s lives complement each other without needless friction. It’s a dream, but nonetheless enjoyable and possibly worth looking for.

Finally, polenta reminds me of the millet gruel my grandmother used to cook when I was little. It was a summer dish, usually served with fruit, and one of the few things that remained edible even after she was done with it. When she made this, she was usually in a good mood, unless she overcooked it, which meant it burnt and stuck to the pot, and it took lots of work to clean up. When she felt serene, she didn’t want to talk, didn’t bother me, didn’t make me go on a boring walk with her, but spent the afternoon looking at her magazines and leaving me alone. Just what I wanted.

In North American grocery stores, pre-cooked polenta in plastic casings that make it look like a fat yellow sausage has been available for many years. It is usually bland, but can acquire a kind of burned-rubber taste that goes well with the dull, mealy texture. Sometimes, these polenta products are flavored with basil, specks of “sundried” tomato, pistachios, or other things. Those add some visual appeal, but never any flavor. The only flavor in these polenta products apart from the residual plastic taste is salt. Don’t waste your money on them. The plastic can’t be recycled, so it hangs around your trash can and then piles up in the landfill.

Dry cornmeal—which is what polenta is—can be bought in many of the same places that will sell you these lame polenta rolls. Several food companies produce it in North America, and you also find it imported from Italy. At least one type of polenta by a U.S. supplier always turns out gritty and never quite sticks together, unless you cook it for a very long time and use a lot of water. You can get what’s said to be instant polenta, which is supposedly ready in a few minutes. It’s edible at that point, but not as good as when you cook it a little longer. So there’s no real advantage to purchasing the instant versions.

Standard polenta, every cookbook tells you, has to be prepared in boiling, salted water. You pour it in slowly and stir, so it doesn’t clump. Then you keep watching and stirring it until you’re happy with it. The part about the boiling water, sure, that’s true. Stirring for an eternity, like the half hour or whatever the experts insist on, no, that’s totally unnecessary. Stir it for a few minutes, cover it and let it sit over low heat, then maybe add some broth or water to be absorbed, stir it again, and so forth. You can do other kitchen work while you cook polenta. Or, read. Or do nothing. When polenta gets hot, it likes to spit little flecks of itself onto your arms and hands. You might want to stir it with a long-handled tool.

After about twenty minutes or so, the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and then some, and it has a pleasant, slightly foamy, resilient, gruel texture. You can serve it as a side dish with whatever vegetables or salad you’ve prepared. You can also pour it into a container to stand and cool before you do more with it.

Or, do this: When you like the state of the polenta and before it’s quite ready to either cool off or be consumed, you toss in the cherries, blueberries, soaked raisins, chocolate chips, thin-sliced leeks, diced Brussels sprouts, olives, capers, roasted peppers, grated cheese, small-cut greens, herbs, and additional seasonings of your preference, and give it all a good stir. Then you let the mixture cook over low heat for about five to ten more minutes. A couple of days ago, I made cherry polenta this way.

Homemade cherry polenta

The overnight-cooled block of cherry polenta before it was cut up into sections to be fried.

I removed the pits from the cherries while the polenta was cooking, and threw them in when it was ready. I added cinnamon and honey for flavor and depth. I poured the mix into a flat glass bowl to cool. The following day, I cut it into wedges, which I fried with a little butter and cinnamon, and served with a cold mix of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, seasoned with a little mango chutney.

When you let the polenta cool, it’s best to do it at room temperature and without a lid over it. In the refrigerator, the texture may turn sort of brittle and any flavor can fade away. And, if you put a lid over it, evaporating liquid will gather on that and drip back onto the polenta, where you don’t really want it.

Your additions should remain mostly intact even while their flavor pervades the polenta. Thus, raspberries are probably not good to use, but little chunks of pineapple, cherries, or blueberries, sure. Their juice infuses the polenta. If you add vegetables, keep the pieces or slices very small, because the dish will be more flavorful that way, and it will remain more manageable. Also, you need to watch the proportions. If you add too much fruit or vegetable matter, the cooling polenta won’t hold together nicely and will be a pain to cut, fry or otherwise reheat, and serve. Your polenta mix should probably not have more than about one fifth to a quarter of whatever foods that are not boiled cornmeal. And, be careful with the salt, especially when you make a savory polenta. Saltiness tends to become more intense as the polenta cools and is reheated, something you will not always want.

You can add cream or yogurt to fruity polenta right at the end, if you want it to have a very rich texture and flavors. If you do that, the polenta should have cooked at the lowest heat for a while, or else the cream or yogurt will simply vanish in it and leave barely a trace, but will make it harder to clean up the cooking pot. Similarly, if you add grated cheese to polenta with vegetables, do it when just before you let it cool.

Ideally, whatever you add to polenta should harmonize with it. Let it be simple. Clean flavors, not more than one or two different things. Later, if you reheat and serve the polenta with other foods, you can expand a little. But its simplicity is why polenta remains comforting. I know people cook it with expensive cheeses and other high-grade additions, and one commercial product is pre-flavored with truffles. To me, that strays too much from polenta’s origins in the plain kitchens of Italian cucina povera, and they add calories which most people won’t need.

You can let a thin film of polenta cool on a baking sheet, or slice your polenta loaf or other shape that way. Then you can use those polenta layers as the strata in lasagna-style dishes. Those, too, are best when you keep them simple. Portobello and other mushrooms together with spinach can work well in this. The mushroom juice can soak into the polenta, which could make for great flavor, or, if it’s too much, cause it to fall apart. You just have to experiment.

Another thing that’s satisfying about polenta: when it’s well-cooked, it comes cleanly off the sides of the pot, and washing the dish and the utensils is a minor chore. Some people love washing dishes and other cleaning tasks, but for those of us who want to minimize them, polenta is perfect.

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A letter to Alaska Airlines: Do right by your Spanish-speaking passengers!

Earlier this week, I was on Alaska flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles. Spanish-speaking passengers were treated poorly and unprofessionally. Below is the letter I’m sending to the company.


May 18, 2018

Dear Alaska Airlines leadership,

Your airline flies to several locations in Mexico, including Mexico City, the capital, Cancun, Loreto, Puerto Vallarta, and other destinations. I assume you are aware of the business value of transporting people from the U.S. to Mexico and from Mexico to the U.S. Our recent flight experience, however, made me wonder about your understanding of what it takes to deliver this international service and provide an excellent customer experience.

On May 16, 2018, my wife and I were on flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles, where we would change planes to fly home to Seattle. The Alaska representatives at the check-in desk, all of them Latinos, were professional and friendly. They spoke to passengers – a mix of Mexican and U.S. travelers – in Spanish and English, according to their preferences. They took time to respond to questions and provide helpful information regarding how to find the right gate and what customs and immigration processing in LA would be like. They did an outstanding job with an increasingly impatient group of passengers, who had been queuing up for quite some time before the check-in counters opened.

In contrast, the Alaska team members on the flight itself could politely be described as abrupt, unpolished, and disrespectful. They spoke to passengers only and always in English, even when they asked questions or made comments in Spanish, and were unable or at the least challenged to understand English. This is extremely rude behavior. Even the security briefing was only given in English. On international flights, one usually gets the briefing in the native language of most passengers as well as in English, so this was an obvious lapse. Cabin announcements throughout the flight were also only delivered in English.

As far as I’m concerned, you owe all of your Spanish-speaking passengers on that flight at the very least an apology. They were treated miserably. Speakers of Spanish missed critical safety information and were not able to learn from the cabin crew how arrival and customs checks would play out. The family sitting in front of us had problems with the English version of the U.S. customs form and asked for a Spanish one, which they never received. The Alaska flight attendant treated them in a curt, patronizing manner that would have made most anybody bristle. It’s possible that they did not understand all of her unhelpful remarks because they were in English only.

Imagine if this happened to you – you are on a flight, need to understand important safety, customs-related, or connecting-gate information, and you cannot, because it’s not being provided in your language. Now, imagine that your language is not just spoken by a small population, but by hundreds of millions of people in Spain and Latin America. Would you feel disrespected, unappreciated, or slighted? I noticed that Spanish-speaking passengers on our flight were confused and unhappy. I don’t know if any of them complained.

As you know, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest urban centers, home to millions of potential travelers, both professional and for leisure, as well as a range of leading universities, medical research organizations, and global and Mexican businesses. Mexico is a close and vital neighbor of the U.S., and Alaska Airlines needs to serve passengers well or lose business to Delta and other airlines nipping at its heels. You simply can’t have people working for you who treat Mexican travelers as if they were not worthy of respect, as if they were problems, not passengers. After my experience on flight 3403, I’m not at all sure that Alaska Airlines understands what it takes to serve a sophisticated, international audience.

I have lived and traveled in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, when we had excellent service from Mexican airlines providing direct flights from Seattle to Mexico City. I have never seen that any English-speaking passenger was treated as condescendingly then as the Spanish-speaking guests on your flight 3403 last week. It’s a delicate time in relations between Mexico and the U.S. and anything that can help people connect and build bridges among their families, companies, and cultures is of great value. Your cabin crew did us all a disservice in that regard.

All the best –

Chris Lemoine


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A perfect, eternal winter evening, thanks to Alban Berg

My parents made many efforts to connect with me, the distant, fear-plagued son they loved and appreciated, but just could not reach. I did not notice or understand their efforts then, but much later, long after they were gone.

Because, as a child and a very young person, I tended to avoid my father and find him difficult to relate to, they sometimes tried to bridge the chasm between us. It was awkward for both him and me, and for me it was also puzzling. As I saw it, we found each other strange and not particularly interesting or likable, so why did they insist on changing this?

When I was fourteen or fifteen, maybe the last attempt of this kind took place. I don’t remember how the conversations went or whether I was even part of them, but, right after New Year’s Day, my father and I took a regional train into the hilly region east of Cologne and spent most of a week in a small guest house, on a back alley in a tiny village. The train let us off in a town called Gummersbach, and from there we took a bus to our destination. It was deep winter, and the more I think about it, the year must have been 1968.

The previous summer, my father had spent five or six weeks in a clinic in the area. His doctor had sent him there to participate in controlled weight-loss and exercise programs. He did not cheat like the other men, who went to grocery stores and pubs to enhance their diet, but he did not lose any weight at all. Later I heard that my mother took him butter and other favorite things to eat when she and I visited every few days. I didn’t even notice. We were in a rustic, not very clean bed-and-breakfast not far away. Who lost weight during those weeks was I – unplanned, but very lucky for me.

My parents had probably found the guest house through recommendations from customers. The trip would have been my mother’s idea, and I’m sure she also bought our train tickets at the travel agency around the corner from the shoe store she owned and ran with my father. Then she packed both our suitcases. Maybe she even took the tram with us to the station and see us off. If we left on a Sunday, the store would have been closed. January was generally a quiet month, so she could easily handle the shop on her own with help from the one or two saleswomen who worked there. Until 1976, when my father had a heart attack while I was living in London, these would be the only days she had entirely to herself.

At that time, most people living in the city wore the same clothes for almost everything they did. If they participated in a sport, like soccer or running, they wore what went with that. But for hiking, bicycling, kicking a ball around, shopping, visiting family, running an errand to a government office, attending church – you wore respectable, clean clothes, not too dressy and certainly not shabby. Unless you were a mountain climber or dedicated to a sport, outdoor gear and specialized clothing for certain activities didn’t come into use until much later. Day in, day out, my father dressed in a white shirt and tie, a grey or brown suit, and an overcoat and hat when it was cold. We both would have had plain leather shoes, maybe with riffled rubber soles to make it easier to walk in snow and ice, but still useless for any more ambitious hikes. He had a hat. I didn’t.

Winters in Cologne were chilly, with temperatures close to freezing for many weeks. Sometimes, it snowed, but never for longer than a day or two, and within a few more days it was all melted. But as soon as the bus let us off, we were in a white country, where snow would have begun fallen sometime in October and kept coming since then. Main roads had been cleared, but fields and buildings were covered with a couple of feet of firm, old snow. Within a few steps, our feet were wet and freezing, our pant legs soaked, and our hands frozen, because we also lacked gloves.

I don’t remember how we found the unmarked guest house. My father must have had good directions. It was a small single-family home with just a handful of rentable rooms. We were the only guests. The Christmas tree was still in the living room, and seasonal cookies and pastries piled in a large plate on a table next to it. It smelled nice and felt most comfortable. We had separate rooms, and I’m sure we shared a bathroom.

Of those days, I don’t recall any conversations. We took all our meals at the house; there was no restaurant or café in the small village. I remember the silent, dark-haired woman who sometimes spoke with my father and ran the place.

We took endless walks in the snow, with our miserable shoes and thin clothing. The hills all looked alike, and within a few steps you lost sight of the village. There were hardly any people out and about, cattle and horses were in their barns, cars and trucks coming through were few. We walked slowly, because we did not want to slip and fall. Once or twice we got lost and did not find our way back to the house until after dark.

There was no newspaper, radio, nor TV for the guests. We did find a current issue of Hör Zu, a weekly magazine with a detailed program for all the major radio stations as well as the two or three German TV broadcasters operating then. A concert listing interested me. I asked my father for an evening’s loan of his portable radio, which he used to listen to political and sports news at 8 p.m. The program started after that, so we didn’t clash.

The reception was terrible. I was fully dressed and under the sheets in my bed, because it was freezing in the room. However, I had to keep moving around to adjust the antenna and improve the placement of the radio. I forget what the first piece played by the orchestra was, but I spent most of the time tweaking the frequency dial and repositioning radio and antenna


When the second program item began, I was used to the static and had achieved some sort of stability. The steady rushing sound was acceptable, and I’d gotten rid of the annoying chirping and whistling. I could give my full attention to the violin concerto by Alban Berg.

This was one of the best listening experiences in my whole life. Some detail was obliterated because of the poor transmission quality, but what remained was lovely, heartbreaking, amazing music. It touched me in a way few things ever did, and until that moment, probably nothing. I clearly remember the surprise and amazement when I heard the last section, where Berg weaves a Bach chorale into his music. The piece only takes a little over twenty minutes, but my felt experience time amounted to several hours. Berg’s violin concerto was a perfect match for the dry, cold, black January evening in this room, in this January, in this life. It made for an unforgettable moment. This happened almost fifty years ago, but I can still hear the barely-there ending. I knew then that this hearing of the Berg concerto would never leave me, and it hasn’t. It will be part of me until I leave this world.

I’m sure I listened to the symphony or whatever came next, but don’t remember what it was. Maybe I wrote in my journal, or read in my book. The following morning, I returned the radio to my father and thanked him. We spent another day or two in the snow before taking the bus and train home. I don’t recall going to church during out time in snow land – the village did not have a church, but we would have made our way to another village or town to go to mass. That means we were home before Sunday. My school started again on Monday. My father returned to the store. I don’t think we ever talked about these frozen, beautiful days together.

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A beam of light shed on 1867 improves your present

As you know, 1867 was a very memorable year. If you read Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind, you already know a little about the main event, the public reveal of the bjoite aliens. After visiting Earth for thousands of years, they chose to end the secrecy and doubt. Their landing craft touched down in London, the visitors shook hands with Queen Victoria, and the First Ambassador soon took up residence.

One of the greatest explorers, linguists, and adventurers of the age, Captain Richard Francis Burton, was at that time posted in Santos, Brazil, where he served as the British Consul. For Burton, 1867 was a downturn. He had very little to do and was not at all pleased about having been shafted to a remote corner of the empire, where British interests were hazy and he had next to no visibility or influence. For his superiors, this virtual exile eliminated any of the past problems with Burton, who did not get along well with the men who ran the Foreign Office.

Captain Richard Francis Burton

Captain Richard Francis Burton

For the first time in their marriage, Burton and his wife Isabel had endless time to themselves. Soon, Burton became bored and despondent. In most biographies, this period and his subsequent aimless travels in Latin America are given telegraphic treatment. He drank too much and was difficult to be around. He wrote little, and there is no documentation for much of that sad episode.

Recent findings allow us to shed light on Burton’s prolonged ‘lost weekend’ and what happened in his two brief encounters with the bjoite. Maybe the aliens saved Captain Burton’s life by urging him to write a book about them, but you will likely agree that he paid a high price for this. As you probably know, Burton’s book appeared very shortly before their spectacular appearance in London, but he did not make it clear that he had actually spoken to them and was fulfilling their request in writing it.

We also share some observations from the boyhood of Burton protégé Augusto Verjeiro, the only human known to have visited the bjoite home planet. Verjeiro, of course, became famous when he returned from that world into the Europe of the early 1970s. We are still trying to substantiate some of his claims regarding his experience.

If you appreciate Burton’s legendary courage and curiosity, and maybe enjoyed his travelogues and translations, A Gateway to the Ash Dragon’s Walled Garden helps you understand the man and that time in history better. The story is now available at for reading on your Kindle or the free Kindle app on your tablet or laptop. Your feedback and questions are most welcome!

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Saints, heroes, villains, lost souls (9): Broken teachers

One of the oldest and best songs by Jeffrey Gaines is called Headmasters of Mine. It was the closing song on his first, eponymous album. As wrong-headed as the headmasters and teachers in the song are, they are angels compared to some of the people who taught when I went to school. Some of them were so improbable and awful, it’s worth remembering them along with other lost souls in my life.

I attended a few schools in Cologne, Germany. As my mother explained later, I developed slowly and was held back from starting first grade for a year. When she had to take me to some sort of official evaluation, I brought a stuffed animal with me and apparently acted child-like and fragile enough to cause concern, even without understanding what the scrutiny was all about.

A warning to start

When no further delay was possible, I was registered at one of Cologne’s public schools. In April 1961, on the eve of the first day in first grade (back then, the school year started the Easter break), my father gave me a discouraging talk. He sat on a chair next to our sink, in his undershirt, smelling of sweat. “Tomorrow begins the serious part of life,” he said. “Your childhood is over and you have to study and work hard. If you do well, you get good grades and that’s very important. You will make friends with other boys, and will know some of them for many years.” Having heard that, I probably hid somewhere to cry a few tears, because I could no longer be at home, playing with the cat and my stuffed animals, enjoying the company of my grandmother. She had raised me, because my parents were always in their shop, selling shoes. I knew I would hate school.

The following day, my grandmother took me to the school. It was only about ten minutes to walk from our apartment building and I had been past it many times with her, but it was expected that new students be escorted and handed over to the school on their first day. I remember it was over very quickly—I sat in a classroom with about 40 other boys at 10 a.m., and shortly after noon, I was back home for lunch.

Almost unbelievably, the first school I went to in Cologne still exists.

Almost unbelievably, the first school I went to in Cologne still exists.

Mourning with Mary

Ernst Eul was probably in his early thirties, but his demeanor, dark brown suits, and baldness made him look—to me, at least—much older. I did not know that was unusual; later, we all spent hours trying to guess what a certain teacher’s first name was, because they usually never disclosed it. Maybe Eul introduced himself with his full name because his last name was so short.

Eul taught us how to write, how to read (or pretend to read what we had memorized), and how to perform simple manipulations with numbers. Twice a week he made us run around the schoolyard. The structured environment and being made to learn things appealed to me; I did reasonably well except for the running around, of course. Day after day, from 8 a.m. until noon and sometimes until 1 p.m., there was Eul. He was sometimes angry with pupils who were absent-minded or loud, but he mostly seemed uncomfortable, as if he could not breathe well.

With one exception: religion. At that time, everybody I knew was Catholic and went to church on Sundays. At home, we prayed before and at the end of meals, and I also prayed before I went to bed. Our school was public, part of the city’s school district, but it was a Catholic school. There were Lutheran schools as well, and, later, I spent some time at a school where a white line across the schoolyard separated Catholics and Lutherans.

Eul lived and breathed a certain aspect of Catholic religion: The agonies of Mary, mother of Jesus, when her son was arrested, whipped, nailed to the cross, pierced with a spear, taken down, and laid in a tomb donated by a disciple. Sure, he talked about the manger and the shepherds and Jesus’ miracles and the Sermon on the Mount, but he always got back to Mary and how she suffered along with her son. Nothing could withstand Mary’s miseries. From something as joyful as the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he would be back in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, within a handful of words. He was so skilled at manipulating our emotions that most of us were in tears when he went on about Mary. He usually closed out the school day this way, which meant most of us were sad and sniffling when we left. He covered the same territory from many different angles. He explained how betrayed and disappointed Mary, too, felt when Peter denied knowing Jesus. Or, he would make up a story about Pontius Pilate and how she prayed for him. As the school year went on and we became used to his Mary stories, he kept returning to her standing under the cross, watching her son die. When every other element of the narrative was sucked dry, this still had the power to make at least a few boys cry. I was not among them. I quickly tired of Mary and was glad when Eul was no longer our teacher in second grade.

A grouchy drunk

When I was in third grade, we moved and I went to a different school. One of the teachers there was an older man with teary eyes who kept using idioms that were not common in our area. Much of the time, we had no idea what he was telling us. My grandmother translated them for me at home. He came from the southwest of the country, not far from the Black Forest, where she had spent her childhood. This man, Knauf was his last name, was very moody. He never seemed to like anybody. When he was fed up with us, he stopped the class ten minutes early and kept us in the room, so we could think about our shortcomings. He also had a habit of disappearing during class while we were supposed to read, write, or draw something. Much later, it occurred to me that he was probably an alcoholic who had to get his drug from somewhere. Knauf was unpleasant, but harmless. One almost felt sorry for him.

Raging screamer

Far more dramatic were a few characters who taught at the Realschule I visited in grades five through nine. This type of school was meant to prepare you for specialized professional colleges, and after that it was work. My parents didn’t feel the Gymnasium or high school was right for me. They wanted me to take over the shoe store, and learning Latin and other useless knowledge was not required for that.

At the Realschule, some teachers appeared to be mad, or at least in permanent distress. I remember Mr. Palutke, a short, broad-shouldered math instructor who always dressed in blue suits, silver and gray ties, and shiny black shoes. He had wavy brown hair and a large, almost cube-shaped head. His small, grey eyes peered out of an always tanned face that we found puzzling—how did he manage to look this way? Palutke was always impatient when students did not catch on immediately; when he was impatient, he often became very angry; when he was angry, he would scream. His words were unremarkable: He told us we were stupid, useless, a waste of resources. But his delivery was extraordinary. Palutke shouted so loud that in summer, when the windows were open, you could hear him rage in a classroom at the other end of the building and two floors up or down. His face turned fiery red, his voice broke, and often he stormed out at that point, sometimes throwing a book or a ruler or a box of chalk against the wall. We were all afraid of him, but he never hit anybody. However, when he marched up and down the aisles between our two-person desks and scream at the top of his lungs, he was frightening. We didn’t learn much from him, because he was too distracting. Rumor had it that he ranked quite high in the Nazi military and spent many years as a prisoner of war.

Tossing books, eating animals

A teacher named Reuter, another short, but fat man with white, yellowing hair, always in the same rumpled-looking gray suit, also had an anger problem. He taught biology, or rather, he had us read aloud or copy from the textbook. To us, he was a comical figure, and we were bored. We talked amongst ourselves, played games, or read comics. We quickly figured out how we could set him off to prompt one of his displays. He did not scream, but he waddled through the classroom, grabbed books and pencils and fountain pens and whatever he could find on our desks, and tossed them around the room. Sometimes, he threw books and stationery out of the windows, and we picked them up in the schoolyard afterwards. “Be quiet, just all be quiet,” he sometimes moaned, but often he did not speak at all. He just threw things.

After one of these episodes, Reuter would become quite friendly, giggle to himself, and tell anecdotes from when he was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. The equivalent of his suffering Mary was a train ride through Poland and Ukraine that he described dozens of times. The prisoners were extremely hungry during that transport. Sometimes, that brought Reuter back to his subject, biology, as long as the creatures being discussed were edible. In that case, he would go on at great length about the joys of preparing and eating carp, boar, lobster, deer, or other animals that were mentioned in the textbook.


I have often wondered how war-broken men like Reuter and Palutke maintained themselves in their jobs, but they were civil servants, which, at that time in Germany, meant lifelong job security unless you committed a serious crime. Also, the principal at that school was in no position to reign them in. He was close to 80, a fragile, trembling, sometimes incoherent man who for some reason had not retired and still taught math. After Palutke, he was a relief. But he had a nasty way of calling on individual students and calling them names when they did not perform well. “You are a bushman,” he would say—that was the worst insult he could muster, and our nickname for him. He never did this to me, and some of the mental calculation tricks and shortcuts he taught us I still recall. But I don’t remember his name.

Slow, drunk, distant

These were the extremes, but there were others. The English teacher who only got through five of the year’s 24 textbook lessons, morbidly going over the same matters. The arts teacher who was often so drunk that she reeked, could not stand up in front of the class, and sat at her desk napping after she told us to draw whatever we liked. The English teacher who preferred to leave her fur coat on and never looked at anybody. All of these people were clearly unhappy and did not enjoy the company of their students. Why did they teach in schools? I believe they enjoyed a highly structured environment with a level of control over other people, and they felt they had a certain skill they could rely on. They probably never were fired, and eventually retired from teaching without finding a replacement for the activity of so many years.

Later, I did go to a Gymnasium and graduated with Abitur at the end of grade 13. Fewer truly awful teachers were on the loose in the higher grades. In fact, some of them were extraordinary, resourceful people. I will write about them another time.

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Springtime is great for travel. The bjoite are on the move.

I finally finished, rewrote, rewrote, revised, rewrote, and published the third bjoiteria story. Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind is the first time my historical research into those aliens finds its way into a story. There will be more historical episodes, because there’s a lot to discover. I also still think that well-written, literary science fiction is having a moment.

Clockmaker Johannes Rinzerberg, who opens his Baden-Baden workshop in 1867, comes into contact with them and enjoys decades of visits and conversations. It didn’t happen to Dostoyevsky and other famous gamblers and society figures in Baden-Baden, but Rinzerberg was lucky. And he knew how to keep a secret. He never talked about his alien encounters, but left several volumes of journals full of rapturous descriptions and recollections of exalted states. His grandson Paul Rinzerberg tracks the journeys of the bjoite to Santa Barbara, California. Paul, also a clockmaker, settles there shortly before the 1925 earthquake. As his grandfather already learned, bjoite shuttles often touch down in the Santa Ynez Mountains behind the city. The local Chumash Indians have oral traditions about them that go thousands of years into the past. Paul is particularly curious about an incident in 1251, when a bjoite shuttle crashed into the Pacific Ocean and all travelers died. When he finally makes contact with the aliens, his bjoite mentor directs his explorations of Chumash art and helps him understand how the bjoite experience death and life. Paul is not given to raptures, but finds himself changing through his risky explorations. With the help of the bjoite and a woman he loves, Paul overcomes barriers imposed by his deafness and muteness, meets his future wife, and finds himself connected to a far larger world, full of miraculous awareness and bewildering, vibrant life.transformations cover 1

Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind finally opens the curtain on the aliens’ inner world and sense of reality at least a little. If you have not read the earlier bjoite stories, this is as good a place as any to start learning about our guests.

Transformations costs $1.99 plus tax. Speaking of, I just paid my annual and quarterly income tax, so I need the money. I’m sure you’ll understand.

You can buy and download the story from two resources:

You may have seen the earlier blog entries about the other bjoite stories. The first bjoiteria story is The Ambassador’s Last Recital, available for Kindle or the Kindle App and for the Nook or the Nook App. The second one, Return from the Hunt, you can also read on your Kindle and in the Kindle App, or on the Nook and in the Nook App.

Thanks to each of you who read and reviewed any of the stories. You are the best! Because of you, I can believe that my continuing research is worth the effort. I hope you enjoy this episode; your feedback and questions are welcome.

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Enjoy a fine new SF story for Christmas: Fast-forward to December 2036, when a former huntress may get another chance and relations between us and the bjoite are much improved

Earlier today, I published the second story in the bjoiteria series after a few people read it, provided feedback, and I made some adjustments to it. Return from the Hunt is thematically related to The Ambassador’s Last Recital, which you might have heard about or even read, but these stories are really designed to stand on their own. I’m still confident that it’s a good time for literary, high-quality science fiction. Some of what’s been published this year by SF as well as mainstream literary authors is excellent.

Return takes us to December 2036, which—doesn’t time fly—comes very quickly. That’s when Ruth Polyansky stands in a long soup line in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, graced by an automated Christmas tree. Ruth is a former nurse, a one-time resident of Olympia, Washington. She’s hungry, it’s cold, and homelessness doesn’t get any easier after two decades. Finally, when she’s almost about to get her meal, Ruth sees that the volunteer serving the homeless is one of the hated, disgusting bjoite aliens. She can’t stomach that. She’d rather starve.

Ruth’s shadows are catching up with her, and she must relive memories from a time when she bow-hunted and killed, passionately and skillfully. Ducks, rabbits, bjoite. Her recollections focus on a dinner she cooked and served one long-ago evening. That fateful meal also meant the end of the line for her husband, a bus driver.

Other aliens approach. They seem intent on confronting Ruth. She’s not looking forward to this, but she’s unable to tear herself away. Ruth is in a by now permanent fog and cannot even recall what started it. Can she make a new beginning in a time when humans and bjoite get along so much better than today? Where will the next meal come from?

Find out in Return from the Hunt, the second story in the bjoiteria adventures. It’s available as an e-book from these sources, at the sensationally low cost of $1.99:

As ever, your correspondent needs cash. Especially at this time of the year. Remember, you don’t need a Kindle or Nook reader to enjoy fine fiction. You can simply download the free apps from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and away you go!Return from the Hunt cover 4

You can find the first bjoite episode, The Ambassador’s Last Recital, in the same channels. It’s on Amazon at and in the Nook store at

In future reporting, we will also investigate past events involving the bjoite, who have been on Earth for many centuries. They revealed themselves to us for the most time in the late 19th century, when they approached a well-known celebrity of those days. More about that later.

Enjoy the story and your holidays.


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Journeys into the alien minds among us: Beginning the bjoite series

The bjoite have been here for hundreds of years and revealed themselves well over a century ago, but my stories about them are new. I just recently published the first one in three e-book venues. There will be more to come. People have been asking about the back story and other details. Also, I think it’s a good time for literary science fiction. Or SF-extended literary writing.

Humans and bjoite have not had an easy time together. In some parts of the world, especially where overfishing has depleted marine life, bjoite are still being killed and eaten in what used to be traditional seafood dishes. In the United States, they have the same status as farm animals in most states—not to be abused, but fine to slaughter and exploit.amb cover 2

The fourteenth bjoite ambassador, stationed in San Francisco like all of his predecessors, really wants to do nothing more than play the piano and enjoy classical music, the one thing he likes best about our culture. Instead, he has to fend off assassination attempts, listen to insults, get distracted by pop tunes, and waste time with bureaucratic busywork. Still, he manages to organize for himself one last piano performance in San Francisco’s Symphony Hall and prepare for it. The concert will happen just a couple of days before the ambassador ends his assignment and leaves our planet. Fully aware of the danger to his life, he looks forward to playing some of his favorite compositions. He even invites a special guest.

Will the ambassador survive and get to go home? Who is after him this time, and why? What are bjoite like, anyway? Find out in the first of the bjoite stories, The Ambassador’s Last Recital. I promise it’s unlike anything else you’re reading this year. Also, it’s only $1.99, and your correspondent needs cash to continue his research and documentation of all matters bjoite.

I didn’t much like the SF magazines I explored or else the story just didn’t seem like a good fit. You can find it as an ebook in different formats:

If I add any publishing venues I will post about that on the usual social media and might add to this blog post as well.

If you give the story a good review or rating, thank you, that is very helpful. If it’s truthful, even better. No, I won’t tell you how it ends. Enjoy a couple of hours of time off from your regular day!

I’ve been busy doing lots of other writing in addition to what I do for paying clients. But this is not the huge big, reality-swapping, murder-happy kitsch extravaganza that some of you heard about. That’s currently being queried to a number of agents. I’m still hoping that one of them might be totally disgusted with the sample materials, loathes the whole thing after reviewing it, and sells it to a publisher because it will surely appeal to certain people.

To be continued. Thanks for listening!

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Saints, heroes, villains, lost souls (8): Cruel man of mystery

Late in the 19th century, Hans Schaefer was born in the Saarland region of Germany, an industrial and coal-mining region where many people spoke French as well as German. As a young man and World War I veteran, shortly after the war, he had a brief relationship with a young woman who hired herself out as a nanny and house cleaner. I wrote about Maria Kohler elsewhere in this blog. That affair didn’t last. It was obvious that Hans and Maria had nothing in common. As he later told everybody who would listen, he was glad to be rid of her when he moved to Cologne for a job in a cable factory, where he spent twenty years or more.

One day, Maria appeared on his doorstep. She was pregnant, broke, and hoping he would take her in. She had left her home in Bühlerthal, in the Black Forest region of Germany, under a cloud. This was her first visit to a big city. Her dialect would definitely have made her a figure of ridicule, and her 8th-grade education would not have helped.

Maria and Hans were married. “I was sorry for her,” he told me. “She had nobody and nothing else.” In 1927, Maria gave birth to my mother, who spoke often about her father when I was growing up and both she and I had our problems with Maria, my grandmother. She adored Hans Schaefer, who was also her best friend. According to my mother, Hans was a genial, kind, good-looking, cultured man who spent most of his free time with his daughter. He took her on walks around the city, taught her how to roller-skate, helped her understand and appreciate classical music, and removed her from the vicious confusion of her mother’s furious, violently changing moods. Sometime in the second half of the 1930s, Hans and Maria were divorced, and you can read about Maria’s story in the other blog post. Hans, who had already started another relationship, was out of the picture. My mother grieved and never heard from him. Through people who knew others who knew him she heard that he was not drafted into the military to fight in World War II because of an injury from the first war. He remarried. He left the cable factory and ran a greengrocery store together with his wife. During the first years after World War II, my mother tried to contact him through the mail, but was never sure she had the right address. She never received a response, and eventually concluded that Hans Schaefer was no longer living. He had probably been killed in a bombing in the spring of 1945, just before the war ended.

That’s how she left it until the spring of 1971, keeping her father alive in her stories. But then, after decades without contact with my mother, one spring afternoon Hans Schaefer walked into the shoe shop she and my father owned and where they worked six days a week. My father greeted him and asked how he could help him. “I am here to see my daughter,” Hans said. My father called his wife. “I almost lost consciousness,” she told me. “He had cut off all contact, never responded to a Christmas card or anything else, and I had stopped hoping for him to get in touch with me many years ago. I thought he had passed away, and remembered him as I remembered him from before he divorced my mother.”

Apparently, she asked Hans a few questions to make sure he was who he said he was, because she did not trust her eyes nor his words. She was still in shock when she came home that night and told me about the encounter. Hans had asked for her forgiveness and given some hazy explanation, something to do with him thinking his ex-wife had turned his daughter against him and he would not be welcome. “But you sent him all those cards,” my father said. “I know, it doesn’t’ make any sense,” my mother answered.

Still, she tried to make the best of it. For several months, she visited him every other week or so, usually on Saturday afternoons. She took the bus to his part of town when the shop closed at two, and came home around eight p.m. or so, which was quite late for her. She never said much about these visits, but she seemed happy to be able to have a relationship with her father.

One Saturday, she gave her time with Hans Schaefer to me. She had arranged for me to visit him. I couldn’t tell you if that was her idea or prompted by his request. I had no idea what to expect. I remember the long walk through wealthy, green neighborhoods on that early summer day. My grandfather lived in a small row house off a busy arterial. He was small, limped, wore thick glasses, smiled much, and made me feel at home. He talked about his ex-wife, my grandmother, and how disgusted he was when he learned she had come out as a lesbian. He was down on the Catholic church and religion in general, which mortified my mother. He had cooked some chicken and vegetables, cut a couple of baguettes into slices, and told me the French were so healthy because they always ate bread with their meals. At an age when I knew most of everything, I found him naïve and poorly informed, but I enjoyed his company. Except for when he talked about my grandmother, whom he despised, he was funny and warm. I could imagine that Hans Schaefer had been a wonderful dad to my mother when she was a child. He made coffee. We ate some dry cake, even drank a little wine. When I left him, I felt I had made a good friend and looked forward to seeing him again. At the time, he was no longer working; the greengrocery business had been closed or sold.

My mother saw him the following week and reported that he had also enjoyed meeting me. Some of his ideas and opinions were a strange mixture of Marxist and nationalist concepts, and his judgment of current affairs and the state of the world was clouded. There were no books in his house, and no classical records, either. He only read a sleazy tabloid paper, nothing else. But so what. I liked him and thought of him as a good man.

When another Saturday visit came around, my mother was greeted by a young woman who said she had been Hans’ girlfriend. Indeed, Hans had mentioned a girlfriend and how proud he was to have met her. His wife had left him or maybe was no longer living, I can’t recall. The girlfriend told my mother that Hans had suddenly died a couple of days ago. She did not let my mother into the house, because he had instructed her not to. She even produced a note in pencil, written by Hans hours before he died, telling her urgently not to let his daughter inside the house, not to give her anything of his, not to engage in conversation with her, and not to invite her to the funeral. My mother recognized his handwriting. She left, devastated and in tears.

When my mother was sad, the turned very quiet, pale, and distant. It took days and days before she was ready to tell me about that last visit. She was horribly confused by her father’s note, and offended that the girlfriend would have followed his wishes without any compassion for her. Something broke in her then. Her memories of the good, kind, caring father had been obliterated. Soon, Hans was no longer talked about. But I don’t think she was ever able to forget him. Soon after, I went my own way and was estranged from my parents for some years, so I don’t know how she dealt with what had been done to her.

I can imagine why Hans sought his daughter out, that day in the shop. But why he saw fit to cause her such pain when his end was near, I have no idea. I remember him as a cruel man who could be very loving and friendly when he wished to. You can argue whether it would have been better for my mother never to have seen him again. She learned some sort of truth about him and maybe herself and the world, but at enormous cost.

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How to write badly (6): Creating a terrible case study

Back in June 2012, I started an informal series of blog posts about the skill of writing badly. Given all the effort so many writers invest in ensuring a dismal outcome, it is unfortunate that there is only very little helpful guidance available to them. Most of the resources available single-mindedly and with a degree of thoughtlessness focus on making writing better. Two comments: They work as well as the bumper stickers that advocate for “Free Tibet” or other good causes. Also, very few people want that. Evidence shows that far more writers have an interest in truly awful results and would benefit from practical support in achieving them, especially in the fields of corporate and technology writing.

Take the time to prepare and don't shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

Take the time to prepare and don’t shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

It might be helpful to treat some typical output formats more thoroughly. Consider the business case study (as opposed to the medically flavored alternate, which has its own opportunities for badness). Go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re familiar with the darn things. Companies spend many millions to produce case studies. Most often they are the result of a writer’s intuitive misapplication, although there is also a burgeoning video channel for them. For the most part, a case study is intended to impress upon readers that real customers use a company’s products or services to their advantage. Project managers and writers work hard to identify and interview willing customers, shepherd them through an interview, obtain approval for the drafts, publish them online, print them on paper if their budgets are too large, and try to keep them alive before they become obsolete. Case study writers often obsess over representing the authentic voice of the customer and truthfully portraying how a service or product helps a company achieve something worthwhile.

As regards infernal writing, the case study industry is generally in fine shape. Many of the stories companies publish—usually expensive and requiring lots of effort—are terrible. They sound alike and canned, are not convincing, show redundant repetitiveness, and insult readers by patronizing them. Many writers, however, are not aware of the many worst practices available to them, which needlessly restricts their effectiveness. Here are some tips and tricks you might want to try.

Misdirection. Many writers send their respondents a list of questions or even a full-fledged questionnaire to prepare for the interview. To make sure the interview does not become overly productive, let them have the questions beforehand. But don’t mention them in the conversation. Ask your respondents about other topics and hope they did not prepare for them.

Stuffing. Boring the reader to tears gets you well on the way to abysmal awfulness. Good for you that case studies offer lots of opportunities to do just that. Many case study writers already know that blatantly bland statements about industries and markets are very effective. “Like many businesses in its industry, XYZ Company found it needed to grow through change in order not to lose customers and market share.” You can get much worse by discussing the people you interview and quote. Nobody cares where they went to school, which degrees they have, what organizations they belong to, how old they are, what they wear, where they worked before, and whether they like Zinfandel better than Zappa. As the born bad storyteller you are, you can make use of all that padding. If you’re really clever, you sneak it under a section heading that promises more relevant content, and readers won’t even know what happened to them as they pass out.

Aggressive foreshadowing. In an early part of the story, you talk about issues and challenges the company faced. Later, you repeat the same content, but now you modify the statements to say that they achieved or resolved these things with your client’s product or service. If you stay as close as you can to the original description, nobody will believe a word, because they know you’re tailoring your facts. Perfect!

Uninteresting and unhelpful quotes. When you quote people, try not to make them sound too real or specific, because that would add credibility and interest to the case study. You can go over the top in at least a couple of ways, by including overly enthusiastic as well as negatively trending statements.

Too positive assertions are annoying to read, make company and customer look silly, and prompt readers to groan. So use them. Some customers have natural talent for this. All you have to do is make their words sound a little more pretentious. If, “The new accounting software helps us avoid errors and stops us from losing money, which means we won’t go bankrupt,” is too mild, tart it up: “At the end of the day, our magnificent new accounting solution enables the company’s strategic viability for the long term by facilitating comprehensive error prevention and eliminating the dramatic losses we experienced in the past. People simply love working with this product.”

If you feel like adding a dash of sobriety to such excessive enthusing, you get bonus points for having quoted parties insinuate that the product or service wasn’t all that. “We believe the product helped us become more effective in our customer outreach, although we were not able to measure any results,” is not bad. Something like, “We gave the service a try and it delivered well for a while, but then our needs changed and we dropped it,” also has its attractions. If you are more of a risk-taker, try to incorporate some outright negativity. “The cost of the software was quite high, and some people never got the hang of it, but it gave us much of what we looked for.” Or: “The asset maintenance service was often prompt, but we still had a few unexpected breakdowns.”

Badmouthing competitors. Few things ruin a company’s and its customer’s standing and credibility faster than a complete misstatement regarding a competing offering. If the customer discusses a leading financial software product and you can get away with a quote to the tune of, “We considered [name of competitor product, but found it couldn’t do many of the complex calculations we need,” that’s golden.

Frivolous descriptions. If you want to beef up the word count and make the story a little less interesting, you can always describe random details of the product or service the customer used. It helps make things worse if they are not in any obvious relationship to the customer’s issues or achievements. If a software or hardware product was deployed, you can create some additional confusion around the process, how long it took, and how well users took to the new tools.

Horrendous results. Some good customers spend their budget on an expensive product or service and cannot point out that anything meaningful has changed. These case studies practically write themselves. However, most companies accomplish something or other. You may need to get creative here, because this might be the most interesting and convincing part of your story. What works well to achieve a bad outcome is if you can highlight minor achievements, such as small savings of time or money. “We save a couple of hours every quarter using this product,” will do nicely, for example. Also, try to direct attention toward irritating, irrelevant aspects of the story. “The outsource IT service employees wear elegant, branded shirts, which helps identify them to employees, and they have created mostly positive relationships with our people,” is reasonably bad. If you cannot get around pointing out significant improvements, you should try to temper them. “We achieved 100% return on investment in six months, although not everybody agrees with that—some people always resist change,” shows the right touch. “We found many new efficiencies in our processes, although many of those were well underway before we got [product]”: nice job. If the customer did not need certain employees anymore because of the fabulous new efficiencies, don’t worry about “reassigning resources” or the like. The case study will be much worse if you simply say people were fired.

If you follow all or most of these simple worst practices, your customer success stories will always be bad enough to infuriate readers. Promise!

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