Capsule Biography, Terry Pratchett

An assignment to copy the style of Jorge Luis Borges' capsule biographies of literary figures.

In April of 1948, he was born between an old castle and the world's first model village, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Academically unremarkable by his own enthusiastic admission, he would blame his education on his local library and fail to qualify to be an astronomer. Acquiescing to a career in journalism, he deserted his exams to write children's stories for a local newspaper. Sufficiently disabused of any romantic notions of the human spirit by his work in journalism and press relations, he fell into authorship as a means of coping.

While he was published in 1971, he wrote nothing of present importance until The Color of Magic in '83 — a book whose primary quality is its progeniture of the Discworld series which follows it. He made himself prolific and wrestled inspiration from discipline (in this he is more a craftsman than a poet). He dabbled at first in Satire (The Color of Magic), and progressed in this proclivity to Commentary (Going Postal), which is satire with a point.
He dedicated himself to his wife, his garden, his daughter, and orangutans. With few exceptions, Death features as a character in every one of his published novels, personable and fond of cats, a literary choice made all the more poignant by his eventual, fatal, diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

He juggled between his fingers a menagerie of varied success, writing on filmmaking, Shakesperian and sensible witchcraft, journalism, politics, policing, angry drunken fairies and the cold calculation of an amoral universe. His book, Hogfather, about the mythology of belief should be noted both for its excellent craftsmanship and humorous entertainment, and for its diagnosis of the tragic human animal as being the point where "the falling angel meets the rising ape."

If Pratchett's bibliography were made a person, they would be angry.

The Vendetta of the Fourty-Seven Ronin

(Class assignment. A writing exercise in plotting long-form articles)

In 1702, the samurai Oishi Yoshio lies face-down in the streets of Kyoto. He's drunk out of his mind, unwashed and destitute, freshly returned from another round of running up credit in the whorehouses of the pleasure district. One passer-by, outraged by his disgraceful state, kicks his face and spits on him as he lies there. Two years later, that same passer-by will commit suicide on Oishi's grave, begging the forgiveness of his spirit, and be buried next to the samurai, forever becoming part of the legend of The Fourty-Seven Ronin.


To understand the legend, however, first one must understand what, exactly, the samurai were. The word "samurai" merely means "henchman" or "servant," and was, in ancient times, applied to a leader's warriors the same as to any of his other attendants and subordinates. Simplifying the history greatly, through centuries of near-continuous warrior culture and warfare, the word came to refer exclusively to a specific class of warriors and soldiers, and through that same continuous warfare, this class of people gained complete dominance over the governance and politics of Japan. With time, it became customary for a lord to pay his samurai a regular stipend of rice to subsidize his training, equipment and lifestyle and in return the samurai - at least in theory - were expected to serve their masters with unquestioning, often suicidally protective loyalty. Insulting a samurai's honor or his master could be (and often was) grounds for violent conflict of all kinds.

What is most important to understand about samurai history, however, is that almost everything the samurai did, from the earliest days of their history, was done in service and loyalty to the divine Emperor of Japan. Of course, a samurai's most immediate loyalty was to his own lord, but it was understood that the reason for that loyalty was an understanding that his lord served the will of the Emperor, thus making anything the samurai did in service of their lord an act of service to the Emperor by proxy. The Emperor is, in Japanese history, not just a series of politicians with royal ancestry, but a divine presence whose assumed will or interests were used as pretext for almost every major military and political action in the country's history. The Emperor was so core to samurai identity, in fact, that even when presented with golden opportunities to oust sitting monarchs, samurai preferred to make themselves the Emperor's trusted general and protector - Shogun - and rule in his name, rather than daring to take the throne themselves. It is telling that the most devastating civil wars of samurai history were fought not over the throne of the Emperor, but over who would claim the title of the Emperor's most powerful servant.

The crest of the first shogunate, the Kamakura.

The crest of the first shogunate, the Kamakura.

This is, of course, at least partially a mythology, a story which those in power told themselves and their subjects to legitimize their regimes and justify their actions. Plenty of "samurai" were barely more than countryside bandits and common criminals, and plenty of "loyal Shogun" were, in fact, simply power-mongering usurpers seizing power by any means necessary, however underhanded and cruel. But this mythology of honor through service to the Emperor, while often more fantasy than fact, was a fantasy which most samurai seemed to genuinely believe in, and which informed their behaviour and aspirations in profound ways.

Now, skipping over about a thousand years of warfare and politics, in the 1600s one clan of samurai - the Tokugawa - took control of the office of the Shogunate. There had, at this point, been many shogunates, all of them ended by successions of wars and civil conflict. But the Tokugawa managed, through clever politics and a system of legally mandated hostage-exchanges with every warlord in the country, to take power so effectively and so absolutely that in the early 1600s, the Shogunate had been able to authoritatively declare: "there will be no more wars." And after more than a thousand years of near-continuous conflict over protectorship of the Imperial throne, that declaration would come to hold true for almost 270 years.


All of this leads us back to 1702, and Oishi Yoshio, disgraced samurai, lying drunk in the streets of Kyoto. Oishi had been the right hand man of a lord named Asano Naganori, master of the minor and remote Ako domain. Lord Asano had been ordered to entertain envoys from the capital, who in turn would instruct him on the manners of the Imperial court, to prepare him to travel to the capital and pay homage to the Shogun. Asano's instructor was a high-ranking Shogunate courtier named Kira Yoshinaka, and to say that he and Asano did not hit it off is putting it mildly. Kira, for his part, was expecting gifts and bribes from Asano, as was customary for any samurai seeking favors from government officials. Asano, on the other hand, was a hard-bitten, country warrior, and expected the respect and deference that should traditionally be afforded to honorable samurai fighting hard to pacify barbarians and secure the borders in the Emperor's name. Over the course of his stay, Kira made snide and disrespectful comments about Asano's heritage and manners at every opportunity, until one day in April of 1701, the tormented Asano could take it no longer. Under a covered walkway at a mansion belonging to the Shogun himself, Asano drew his sword and struck Kira across the face.

"More than the cherry blossoms,
Inviting a wind to blow them away,
I am wondering what to do,
With the remaining springtime."

- Lord Asano's death poem, composed shortly before his suicide

Guards separated the two struggling men immediately, and Kira got away with a nasty scar across his face, but the damage was done: Asano had assaulted an officer of the Shogunate in a house belonging to the Shogun himself. Since the Shogun was the servant of the Emperor's will, and Kira was a servant of the Shogun, attacking Kira was, in the Shogunate's view, the same as rebelling against the Emperor himself. In times past, such an offense would have led to a minor state of civil war — the offending warlord would have gathered his allies to defend himself against the inevitable retribution from the capital — but in the age of No More Wars, no such thing happened. Asano was put under house arrest and ordered to commit honorable suicide — seppuku — in penance for his crime. His lands were seized and redistributed to rival warlords, and every one of his samurai were made "ronin," leaderless and disgraced. What would once have been a martial bloodbath was settled by simple decree from the capital. No-one, whether simple samurai or noble lord, dared to seriously oppose the rule of the Tokugawa.


"Bushido" written out in calligraphy

"Bushido" written out in calligraphy

"Bushido" — or "the way of the warrior" — is a problematic term in Japanese history. It originates sometime in the 1600s as a philosophical revision of samurai history, transforming warlords and their violent henchmen into a class of honourable warriors strictly guided by a set of moral codes prescribing proper behaviour in war and in life. As mentioned earlier, while most samurai did not nearly live up to the principles set forth in texts of Bushido, honor in samurai society DID derive primarily from a samurai's superiors (whether his lord, his Shogun or his Emperor) and whatever actions a samurai undertook to protect that honor. This is why it is so unusual that the Shogunate could settle the dispute between Asano and Kira without further bloodshed, for under the codes and culture of the samurai class, every one of Asano's warriors were honor-bound to kill Kira for his insults or die trying. 

Certainly, this is what Oishi Yoshio believed. For even as he dutifully evacuated his late lord Asano's castle and handed over the keys to government officials, he was plotting honorable revenge. In 1701, soon after Asano's death, he gathered in secret fourty six others of Asano's loyal samurai, now officially dishonoured ronin, and they began to hatch a plan to make Kira pay for his insult. Some became tradesmen and merchants, renouncing their samurai status in order to create equipment and gather resources for the action, while others took to mercenary work and feigned drunkenness. One even went so far as to marry into a family of architects so he could obtain a floor plan of Kira's mansion to help plan the eventual attack. Oishi, for his part, began to drink, gamble his money away and frequent prostitutes. He made sure to be seen in public abandoning every principle of good behaviour, and even divorced his loyal wife of 20 years to ensure that his dishonorable behavior would not reflect poorly on his family.

Oishi had good reason for this deception since Kira, for all his arrogance and confidence, was not a fool. He knew that angry samurai — especially mannerless backwater oafs like Oishi, has been known to take suicidal measures to avenge slights against their lords. Kira had spies and informants monitoring Oishi and a number of Asano's most loyal samurai, and for many months he stayed hidden and fortified within his heavily guarded mansion in anticipation of vengeful stunts exactly like what Oishi was planning. Meanwhile, Oishi kept up the ruse of the harmless, drunken lout, while communicating in secret with his co-conspirators, biding their time for the perfect moment.


After some time, Kira was convinced that the samurai of Ako no longer posed a threat. Low on funds since his self-imposed isolation had left him unable to collect bribes and tributes as a Shogunate official, Kira finally began to leave the mansion and lowered his guard. Oishi called his conspirators together to ready the attack. It had taken two years of preparation, planning and play-acting to get to this point, and Oishi was determined to get everything right. In late January of 1703, covered by heavy snowfall and the darkness of an early morning, The Fourty-Seven Ronin attacked the mansion of Kira Yoshinaka. Beforehand, they had sent word to Kira's neighbors informing them that this was a matter of honourable revenge, and promising that nobody else would come to any harm if they would only stay out of the affair. In a testament to the unpleasant character of the man, none of Kira's neighbors came to his aid.

1920 souvenir postcard depicting the battle of Kira's mansion

1920 souvenir postcard depicting the battle of Kira's mansion

Four of the Ronin scaled the walls of the house and quietly ushered the porters and servants out of harm's way, while another group of Ronin armed with bows took position on the roofs, ready to kill any messenger attempting to call on the Shogunate for help. When Kira's guards finally caught on to the intrusion, the mansion erupted in savage close-quarters battle. Kira's men were unprepared, but their master was wealthy and had them well-trained and equipped. The Ronin, by contrast, had had to assemble their armor and weapons themselves and in secret, and had not had the rigorous training of professional soldiers in two years. Scattered, brutal skirmishes erupted in bursts across the hallways and courtyards of Kira's mansion, combatants weaving between rice-paper partitions and pillared walk-ways, the Ronin pressing ever harder towards Kira's inner sanctum. As the initial wave of defenders finally gave way to the Ronin's attack, reinforcements from Kira's barracks joined the fray, woken by the sounds of battle. Messengers sent to alert the authorities were shot in the streets by the rooftop archers, but the Ronin, desperate to avenge their master, were well aware that it'd be only a matter of time before the Shogunate finally caught wind of the action and intervened.


After some hours of fighting, sixteen of Kira's men laid dead and another twenty-two wounded, while the Ronin survived to a man. Oishi himself burst into the inner chambers and found Kira's bed still warm, but man himself had fled by a secret passage as the fighting broke out. Renewing their search of the mansion while mopping up the last of Kira's bodyguard, they found a hidden passageway behind a large wall-scroll, leading to a secret garden. Oishi killed two guards in the darkness of a small shed, and by the light of a solitary lantern the Ronin dragged Kira Yoshinaki into the light. And it was here, faced with the hated enemy of his dead lord and master, after two years of dishonor, deception and bitter planning, that Oishi fell to his knees and bowed his head.

Displaying flawless courtesy and respect for Kira's rank and position, Oishi told him, business-like, that he and his men had come to avenge their lord as a matter of honor, and, still bowing, he offered Kira the knife with which lord Asano had committed suicide, and begged him to take his own life in defeat as an honourable samurai should. Kira was a capital city courtier. Theoretically, he was samurai by birth, but his life had been one of luxury, poems and politics. And so he simply sat there, terrified, shivering and silent, as Oishi and his men begged him, again and again, to take his own life with honor. 


The fourty-seven ronin (left) are invited into an establishment for rest and refreshment

The fourty-seven ronin (left) are invited into an establishment for rest and refreshment

As it finally became clear that Kira was not, in fact, going to die in a manner that would satisfy samurai honor codes, the Ronin dragged him up by his hair and severed his head with Asano's dagger. Then, taking great care to extinguish any lamps and fires in the house and properly shutting the gate behind them, they set off for Asano's grave, carrying Kira's head with them. At this point, the sun had finally come up and word had started to spread of what had happened, and as the Ronin made their way to the temple grounds that held Asano's grave, the streets of Kyoto erupted into something approaching a carnival atmosphere. Strangers and merchants flocked to give the Ronin food and souvenirs, people gave them gifts and cheered them on and offered them hospitality. 

Unlike the quiet contempt of his neighbors, this impromptu festival was not born out of dislike for Kira himself, but out of admiration for the way the Ronin had extracted their revenge. In the eyes of the people, at least, the Ronin had stayed painstakingly true to the ideals of samurai honor, fighting and winning a brave battle to avenge their fallen lord with their lives on the line. That their revenge constituted a major breach against the edicts of the authoritarian and often repressive Tokugawa Shogunate may also have helped to secure the Ronin the sympathies of the common man. As the Ronin cleaned and washed Kira's head, and offered it to the grave of their dead lord along with the dagger that had severed it from Kira's body, the Tokugawa authorities debated furiously among themselves how to handle the Ronin's betrayal in the face of overwhelming public support for their actions.

The Ronin further complicated matters by peacefully turning themselves in once their business was concluded, content to await the judgment of the Emperor through the Shogunate, in perfect accordance with samurai codes. The law demanded they be sentenced to death, but in a clever political maneuver, the authorities offered them the chance to be executed by ritual suicide, thus obeying the spirit of the law while also satisfying the public's desire to see the Ronin's honor recognized. Despite the horror and contempt of government officials who had had to watch a party break out in celebration of the killing of another government official, the Ronin's vendetta had the desired effect: to quell the public outcry of support for the Ronin, the Tokugawa shogunate restored the Asano clan's lordship over Ako, and hundreds of previously dispossessed samurai came flocking back to their banner. The Asano clan was weakened, but alive, all thanks to the action and planning of its bravest samurai.


The story of the Fourty Seven Ronin became and has remained one of the most popular samurai stories in Japanse culture, told and retold and reimagined by countless storytellers and chroniclers in the years since it occurred; some of the details of the story are therefore specious. Was Kira truly such an underhanded, irredeemable coward as the story makes him out to be? Were there exactly 47 ronin, or was that an invention of popular puppet theatres who used 47 puppets, each adorned with one of the 47 characters of Japanese kana-writing to identify each character? Was Oishi truly just pretending to be a wastrel drunk while preparing his daring attack on Kira's mansion, or was that a convenient excuse thought up later to make him seem more heroic than he really was?

The temple of sengaku-ji, where the fourty seven ronin are buried.

The temple of sengaku-ji, where the fourty seven ronin are buried.

the graves of the fourty seven ronin remain a popular tourist attraction to this day.

the graves of the fourty seven ronin remain a popular tourist attraction to this day.

Whatever the real truth, the lasting legacy of the Ronin is more than just an action-packed revenge story. Stories and plays about the Ronin are, due to their staggering ubiquity, collectively known as "chushingura", and it was over fourty years before the first one was publicly performed during the Tokugawa reign. To get past government censors, playwrights had to re-frame the story to set it in the distant past under past regimes, so as not to openly reminding the people of such a flagrant rebellion against Tokugawa authority. Stories of the Ronin became vehicles of contemporary reportage through allegory, sometimes voicing dissent, sometimes support for authority, the story being altered and reinterpreted by successions of authors as part of the ever-ongoing Japanese cultural conversation of Duty versus Emotion (giri-ninjo). To know the story of the Fourty-Seven Ronin is to know something about the samurai culture, about its peculiarities and self-contradictions, and thus, in turn, to know something about the ancient soul of Japan which it helped shape.

The Trenches

writing assignment for class, to copy the 'voice' of Michael Herr's Vietnam War reporting

The day shift left early, and gave us looks like escaping pigs taking pity on those still trapped in the abbatoir. Michaelson, scrawny kid barely 19 years old, watched them go with something like hatred in his eyes, and spat at the door as it closed behind them. Sarge woulda busted him for that, usually, but we were all strung like piano wire and needed outlet, any outlet. The whole place was sweaty palms and clenching fists, everyone was on too much caffeine and not enough sleep. Hell, even I had trouble keeping my hand steady on the coffee cup, and I'd been through this before. Plenty of us had. But no-one ever gets used to it.

Back in '03 I'd served at another station with Jackson, a brick shithouse of a man with a smile like knives. I barely remembered the place now, but I remembered the screams when it all came crashing down in the end. Those of us who'd survived had been shipped off, Jackson and me ended up here. He could crush watermelons in one hand, but he flinched at the rattle of a door handle. Everyone's got scars. For me it's the quiet, the sleepy hours. Some perversion of the brain's made it so I can't think straight except when all hell's breaking loose around me. The man in charge, Sarge (he fucking loved that rhyme, the bastard) was working a couple of poor first-time kids down by the barricades. Shoring 'em up with whatever they could find - duct-tape, aluminium tubes from the stores, old cardboard boxes. It wouldn't hold, it never did, but it bought you a bit of time. Usually. 

Some kids walk away from their station heads held high, a fat bonus in their pocket, come home with smiles and move on to better things in better places. Usually they're the kiss-ups, the handsome boys and pretty girls that looks good on posters and showing off the place on inspection day. Usually they get the day-shift. I knew the Willow (named for a tree in some book, nobody ever told me the story) kept a box-cutter in his pocket and fantasized about giving one of those kids a scar or two. He never did it while I was there but I heard stories later. I heard stories about everyone.

Outside our well-lit perimeter it was nothing but blackness. The lights at the station were so bright you couldn't see more than a few feet beyond where they ended. You never saw them coming until they were up close. The Willow freaked out because he thought he spotted one coming by the back way. Sarge had to hold him down while we got the box-cutter off him. Of course there was nothing out there, but we had to reinforce the back door with plywood while he watched just to calm him down. Quietly I was glad of it, it was something to do, distract myself, and... well you never knew if one WOULD think to come that way. And soon as one comes through, they all do.

It was five hours before we saw the first one. Fuck, it started earlier every time. Used to be you'd have the whole night, but now they crept out of the dark by midnight and you barely had time to get ready. It was pacing the perimeter, scraping at the doors and windows with one limb, testing for an opening. Alone they look kinda fine, sometimes even cute. But you learn quickly to always keep a length of metal between you and them. Sarge was trying to teach the new kids how to shield themselves against the first waves, cocky little pricks were just eyeballing him. We were all those cocky little pricks once; so sure, so fucking disaffected; sheep. 

The lone scout had friends now. Well, I say friends, once it gets to more than a dozen they start fighting for the best positions for the stampede. We could see their eyes glitter in the phosphorescent light outside, sometimes we'd hear them calling to each other. Mostly males for now, but the females would come around, probably in a couple of hours. Jackson was fidgeting with his ring. I knew he'd gotten married at some point, but I never met her. Never would. And he didn't talk much about anything except hunting. The crowd outside had swelled to four or five dozen now. Everyone was eyeing the clock, except the Willow who'd snuck off to the bathroom to hit a joint. Another thing Sarge wouldn't bust us for tonight. The new kids were off in the corner lounging and joking. An hour to go became ten minutes and I never knew what happened to the time in between, and it didn't matter. The five dozen outside had become the Horde - every way you looked there was nothing but Them. Waiting. Scenting the air. Hungry.

Sarge dragged the kids behind the barricade, cussed them out, then sighed, and readjusted the extra three layers of protection he had under his uniform. Then he grabbed the PA system and climbed the metal counter.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we here at Wal-Mart are pleased at your excitement for this event. In a few minutes the doors will o--"

Then the hinges gave out, the glass shattered, and Black Friday began.

Drunk Mike Pence

(writing assignment in class, rewrote an AP report to make Mike Pence drunk)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence defended a military mom's right to criticize Donald Trump's comments about the Muslim parents of a slain U.S. Army veteran during a campaign stop in Nevada, and then lashed out at the media's coverage of the controversy at the next.

Pence quieted a crowd that was booing a woman who asked Pence at a town hall meeting in Carson City Monday how he could tolerate Trump's disrespect for American servicemen.

"look the khan guy's alright, alright? he's alright. i love him he's a he's a he's a good guy" Pence told a crowd at a Reno hotel-casino later that evening, emphasizing that Trump shares his view. "and like his kid got murdered and shit and fuck man, that's just... i mean i don't even know y'all should leave him the fuck alone or something because that's like.... fuck, man."

The Republican nominee implied last week that Ghazala Khan, mother of Capt. Humayun Khan, stood silently alongside her husband at the Democratic National Convention because, as a Muslim, she was restricted her from speaking. That comment and others Trump made about the family prompted criticism from fellow Republicans and demands for an apology from the families of fallen soldiers.

During his speech at last week's DNC, Humayun Khan's father, Khizr Khan, questioned whether Trump has read the Constitution, and said the billionaire businessman has "sacrificed nothing and no one," leading Trump to respond.

Pence said he understands and appreciates the attention given to Khan's family. But he doesn't understand "look i don't fucking, why we're all up on this guy on CNN or whatever, when there's this kid, like his mom, y'know the dude who's, he was with the Air Force. Sean Smith, right? His mom is sad. His mom is sad too. 'cause he's dead and nobody talks about that shit though."

Pence said much of the same media criticizing Trump earlier condemned Patricia Smith's speech at the GOP convention about the U.S. information officer killed in the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

"Fucking news people just... fucking respect the dead kids, right? Fuck CNN." he said.

On Tuesday, Trump's son, Eric Trump, said his father's comments have been "blown out of proportion." Speaking Tuesday to CBS This Morning, Eric Trump said his father is "a great patriot," who "doesn't want to see more Americans dead."