Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 424, July 1, 2007

"Cathy Smith Special Anniversary Edition"


Cathy L.Z. Smith

My Lily of the West
by L. Neil Smith

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

I take keyboard in hand in order to abuse my position as publisher of The Libertarian Enterprise by writing this essay about my lovely and talented wife of 24 years this coming July 2nd, Cathy Lynn Zike Smith.

Those of my readers who are aware that Cathy was recently found to have breast cancer should understand that this essay is not about that. Cathy continues to have the best prognosis a person could have, short of actually not having cancer, and her therapy so far has gone very well. Cathy will outlive me and I will die in her arms. So this is not about her possible demise, but in celebration and praise of her life, and something that I should have undertaken a long, long time ago.

Whatever else you may think of voting as a political act (trust me, this is not a digression), it cannot be denied that, not so very long ago in the history of the United States of America, being allowed to vote signified that you were an adult, full-grown, autonymous human being, and a paid member in good standing of that club called Western Civilization

An Old Boys Only club.

The smoke-filled rooms of those days reeked of big fat cigars, not Virginia Slims. "Women and children" was a category of cherished and protected entities—they got into lifeboats first, and carried out of raging fires—who nevertheless had not achieved true adulthood, and, with the exception of the little boys, could never expect to. In those days, little girls and women (there wasn't that much difference between the two in practice) were told that they mustn't bother their pretty little heads over such ponderous matters as politics and economics.

That's why I've always found it interesting—and as a westerner, gratifying—that although the Suffragette movement was largely an eastern (and British) phenomenon, with angry women marching, getting arrested, padlocking themselves to porch railings and carriages of male politicos or even throwing themselves beneath the hooves of the Queen's horses, the first state to confer the franchise on women was Wyoming.

Where my wife was born and raised.

Interesting, gratifying, but hardly any mystery. What was it that Robert Heinlein had Lazarus Long tell us, now? "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly."

I could be wrong, but I believe Heinlein had women principally in mind when he wrote that. Being from rural Missouri—and especially being married to Ginny Gerstenfeld—he had much the same experience with tough, smart, competent western-type women that I've had all my life. Lucy Kropotkin, the character from The Probability Broach, was based in part on my great grandmother who ran a hotel in Walden, Colorado.

In any case, out here in the Old West, women were scarce to begin with, uniquely valued, and greatly deferred to. They either had to possess a range of aptitudes consistent with that Heinlein quote or to acquire it damn fast. If they couldn't—or wouldn't—there were a thousand ways they and their families could die in the Great American desert.

The clearest exposition of that process, short of the writings of Walter Prescott Webb, is a song performed by Dan McRimmon and Steve Fromholtz—a folk duo known in the 60s as Frummocks—"Bosque County Romance", which tells the story of a Texas teenager who marries her high school sweetheart and spends her long, hard life struggling to keep the family cattle ranch going while raising a big family. The line I remember best is "And Mary and a shotgun kept the rattlesnakes away". My own maternal grandmother once killed a rattlesnake on her back porch in Arizona with a shovel, and didn't think much of it at all.

Cathy is a direct genetic inheritor of that brief era of western natural selection, as am I. We both understand it and respect it—it's also a theme that shows up repeatedly in many of my novels—and it no doubt played a huge part in getting us together in the first place.

With one or two weird exceptions, everybody who knows Cathy comes to adore her, although most men seem a bit afraid of her—one of my friends once said to me, "Not everybody can be married to Wonder Woman"—and I've often thought that perhaps she fell in love with me because I wasn't afraid of her. She can be infuriatingly stubborn when it comes to solving a problem (or finding something that's been lost around the house) and capable of succeeding at absolutely anything she tries.

She makes beautiful lamps and other lovely things with stained glass, and dabbles, when she can find the time, with the guitar and mandolin. She's recently learned to knit, and has become a regular machine.

We were into computers much earlier than most people (our first modem was a 300-baud acoustic-coupled device) thanks to the lead she took. She absorbed so much, and became so familiar with the systems at home and at work, that she often serves as a sort of backup geek in her department at the university when the real geeks aren't around to help.

Without a college degree of any kind, she began at Colorado State University, when we were first married, as a telephone-answerer and receptionist for the Department of Electrical Engineering, and is now the Director of Pre-Award Services (read grant applications) for the College of Engineering, where she has won the respect and admiration of everybody around her—as well as in many other divisions of the whole university—along with an unprecedented number of formal awards.

Cathy didn't start figure skating until she was 40 years old, but in only a few years, became a rink-guard and then a certified coach, specializing in teaching tiny little kids and adults. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Fort Collins ice skating club (this followed a stint on the board of our local shooting range) and almost single-handedly rebuilt one of our local competitions into a national event.

The first time I took her shooting, she had never handled a center fire handgun before. She took my four-inch barrelled Ruger Security Six revolver, loaded with full-power .357 magnum Norma cartridges, and kept every single shot inside a human silhouette target at twenty-five yards. Later, when we took up 100-yard NRA Hunter's Pistol, she won an enormous number of ribbons that hang on a corkboard in my office next to mine. She was better at NRA Falling Plates competition than I ever was.

I knew I was done for when, early in our relationship, she watched me idly disassembling an M1 Carbine one evening—not field-stripping it, mind you, but taking it right down "to the pins"—while watching TV. When I'd finished putting it back together, she said, "Let me see that," and repeated exactly what I'd done in about the same amount of time.

All in all, Cathy has the quickest mind, is the fastest learner, the brightest human, and consistently the most interesting person I've ever met. She's the most honest—especially with herself. She is remarkably pretty (no one ever believes her real age), astonishingly sexy, imbued with a natural grace and dignity that has always left me breathless. She isn't perfect—when we first met, she had about the same sense of humor as Mr. Spock or Temperance Brennan—but like I said, she learns fast. She's always taken the universe very seriously and personally. When I first told her all about the famous "double slit experiment" in quantum physics (look it up), it made her mad for days.

Cathy's is the first face I see every morning and the last I see every night. This suits me perfectly, and has done for two and a half decades during which I've never felt a need to look closely at another woman.

Don't get the impression that we never disagree or fight. We're two extremely strong personalities living in a tiny little house. (Our daughter Rylla is a third strong personality, but that's a story for another time.) Sometimes, around here, it gets what Rex Stout called "sparky", and it's often loud enough that I wonder what the neighbors think.

Nevertheless (or "because of that") Cathy is almost literally the light of my life. I know that, among other things, because there have been two occasions when I thought the light had gone out, or was about to.

The first time, I'd gotten up in the middle of the night to check the plumbing, then decided to check my e-mail too (yes, I know that's a warning sign of something or other) when I heard Cathy get up for the same reason, presumably. Some cue made me decide that something was wrong. When I got to the bathroom, she was lying on the floor, unconscious. Her skin was gray, her lips and fingernails purple. She felt cold to the touch. Black blood had spilled from her mouth across the carpet. For a moment too horrible to describe, I thought I'd lost her.

After all the fuss with paramedics, ambulances, emergency rooms, and surgeons was over, it turned out she'd burned the inside of her stomach with aspirin—the same thing had ultimately killed one of her grandmothers—and, after some rest and medicine, was going to be okay.

But I was never quite the same again.

I should have known better. Once, some years ago, while helping to conduct the rehearsal of our annual ice show, Winter Wishes, Cathy fell face-first on the ice and broke a front tooth in half. She was semiconscious for a while as she was taken off the ice in one of those wire-framed lobby chairs that work just like a sled. Rylla and friends found her tooth, and a bright coach dropped it into a cup of melted ice cream. Cathy went to the dentist who Crazy-Glued it back in place (where it remains today) and she was back on the ice in under two hours.

She was also mostly healed from her cancer surgery (a lumpectomy which went perfectly and was followed by perfect lab results) and back at work within a week. Note to social and literary critics: don't try to convince me that the "Heinlein Woman" doesn't exit—I married her.

Cathy's politics are identical to mine, only she's more radical. We met when she wrote a letter to a local paper, disemboweling a moron who was taking it on himself to explain what Milton and Rose Friedman really meant with their TV series Free to Choose. (Hint: it was about Jesus.) She's always said she's not interested in the womens' movement because she's more interested in the "Cathy Movement". Although she's a talented writer herself (that's another another story) she's chosen to work for the cause of liberty by keeping me alive whenever necessary, so that I could write twenty-seven books so far.

On top of that, some of "my" best ideas were first articulated by my lovely spouse, for example, that in any compromise between good and evil, evil automatically wins. If you doubt that, simply consider the following:

EVIL: "I'm gonna kill six millions Jews."

GOOD: "Oh, no, you're not!"

EVIL: "Okay, let's compromise—I'll only kill three million."

GOOD: "Er. . . ah. . . okay."

So if you like what I do (or even better, it makes you madder than hell that I do it) to an enormous extent, you have the lovely and talented Cathy L.Z. Smith to thank. She is my muse, my partner, my love, and my best friend. Our life together has been bumpy—mostly on account of money—but it has never been boring, and each of us has known from the start that the other would be there and always will be.

And yes, I know exactly how lucky I am.

Happy Anniversary, Cathy.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.

A decensored, e-published version of Neil's 1984 novel, TOM PAINE MARU is available at: Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May.

The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press has recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, at, or at


Same-Day Delivery!

Help Support TLE by patronizing our advertisers and affiliates.
We cheerfully accept donations!

  Table of Contents
to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 424, July 1, 2007

Big Head Press