Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Our Year in 2013" Wish List and Blues

    It’s the end of the year.  So I look to the miracle workers: the popes, the priests, the rabbis, the imams. 

(Note: neither I, nor anyone else I know, count the pushy entrepreneurial elites of Silicon Valley or Big Pharma as joining this crowd of miraclists – sisters of mercy, pounders of swords into plowshears, the answerers of our prayers.) 

    I ask why humans who communicate so directly with the deities never insure we get the answers we universally pray for?  Even more obvious, given their eternal connectivity, why don’t they think to ask for things we have not thought of, things that could serve as a substitute given that our dreams will not be fulfilled.  Not that I am a believer.  But certainly those high and mighty clergy must know the miracles we pray for, the outcomes we desire. 

    We boomers lived our dreams in the sixties, watched as our dreams were distilled into the sour mash of recipes of drinks, drugs, and delectations.  Now it is time to take lessons from the youngsters among us: the lettered generations.  It is the X’s, Y’s and Z’s that must now lead.  Enter the opposites of the angels – the pushy bastards of enterprise.  At the head of that parade appears Mark, or Mr. Zuckerberg as you may know him. 

    Santa Zuckerberg stuffed my stocking this year, as – according to the Washington Post – he has so many of the Boomers.  But the Post identified his gift being that of connectivity of the aged with our distant friends, our lost children, and our never to be found grandchildren.  This isn’t his main gift.  That was the great gift of instant history that he gave each of us. 

    Zuckerberg the great historian is writing more history every day than the entire tribe of academic historians has written since the time of the first agrarian settlements.  How does he accomplish this great power to redefine our days?  How has he indirectly coronated himself ‘Historian in Chief?’  It’s all done via hidden algorithms (i.e., a secret step by step recipe).

    Where does all this history get written?  If it’s Dr. Z, it must to be on your Facebook page.  But isn’t everything there written by you and your friends – not by Mr. Z?  Not quite.

    The great historian Zuckerberg gives you your history that is just a click away.  His option is “Seeing Your 2013 Year in Review.”  This review is derived via some algorithm that seems to harness Dale Carnegie’s idea To Win Friends Is to Earn Profits and to Influence People.  The algorithm appears to be informed by Norman Vincent Peale’s notion that one gets power from ‘thinking positively.’ 

    Or was it just my experience that clicking on the damn big and bold 2013 generated my year devoid of all the doldrums I experienced during the last 12 months? 

    And, “Is that bad?” I ask myself.  This is my official history, the one that I, and my friends and children, will go back to over and over again.  Doesn’t that make this history the right one?  The one I prayed for?  No illness.  No death. 

    Yes, the Zuckerbergs of industry have listened to us and delivered - answering our prayers.  They couldn’t rid us of the wars, the poverty, the injustices.  But they could edit it out.  Which leads me to my wish for you, my friends: may your actual New Year reflect that great dream you had for justice, health, wealth, peace and love.  May the algorithms of happiness have nothing to edit out when they summarize your experiences next December!

    Which leads me to my end of the year blues.  My cynicism leads me to forecast that we will have at least as many problems at the end of next year as we do now.  But may I be proven wrong - forever wrong.  If I am unfortunately not wrong, may the algorithm that Dr. Z uses continue to edit away the wrinkles and warts that the new year may come to hold so we may look back at next year with the rose colored lenses that he gives us.      

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finishing a novel

    Finished Flotsam a few minutes ago.  Nice way to end the year!

    What began with a kernel of an idea, while swinging my computer case into the baggage rack on a plane going from Moscow to London in 2009, is finally a novel – shaped and done. 

    The task of writing a novel is so much more than just writing.  Obviously, it begins before writing: in the imagination.  The construction of characters, relations, places, happenings.  Such an effort in imagining: so much and yet so far from a whole slice of the world.  It is rather an imagined reduction of a possible world.  What one leaves out is far more important than what one puts in.

    In any case, the creating of these elements begins the trip.  Then one writes it down.  But the characters talk back and take over.  They can’t be wrested passively from the mind to the page.  And as they take shape, these characters morph the plot, the stopping points, and perhaps even try to change the endpoint.  They are continually moving from those imagined things to points not previously conceived.

    But eventually one feels that the real creative work is done: the book’s spine and cadence is fixed.  The ‘story’ and characters seem to be quite complete.  One reads the pages.  But immediately shortcomings become seriously obvious.  And so reconstruction and manipulation began.

    Then the act of editing forces the writer to get out of the ‘big picture’ and into the nitty gritty.  I had to concentrate on particular sentences, words, tenses, descriptive elements.  For me, these were often such minor details as not to be previously imagined.  But of course at this point, the moment of initial creativity has passed.  I must make some choices.  But in making each of these choices one must get back ‘into’ each of the characters.  Is the word correct?  Have I changed the character for the better with this edited phrase?  If so, what does this imply for all of the character’s other appearances, relations, and utterances?  How do the implications of this word choice change the structure? 

    Soon it is apparent that there is always an undiscovered butterfly flapping her wings in a new manner chaotically creating an unforeseen storm half way around one’s imagined world.  Chaos is always happening; it can never be fully controlled.  Every reading reveals new shortcomings that were seriously obvious but not seen before.  And so reconstruction and manipulation begin, restarting the chaotic nature of editing.

    Some 10 months into the project and it was mid 2011.  About then my son Joshua and his husband, Shu, wondered if I would enjoy editing the drafts.  Fortunately I did: for I found that editing has taken much more time than the original writing.  Knowing the story and the characters doesn’t stop with the writing.  Proper editing required that I followed an idea espoused by Amin Ahmad: sit down with the character.  Interview her.  Discover the details that I did not know previously – details that now lead to this change.  How many sittings must your poor subject endure? Luckily the characters are fictitious and in this I could be their cruel master.  This back and forth could be endless, perhaps.  But it has a natural ending as the characters tire and reveal less and less, reflecting my own limited imagination.

    Indeed, it is this very limitation of self that allows the manuscript to be done - to satisfy me. 

   And then all that is left is to thank the many who helped me arrive at this point.  I begin with my main editor, wife and supporter, Bonnie.  She sat through so many readings, and questions that I begin to wonder why she didn’t run out of patience.  Others in my family also helped greatly.  Upon reading some early pages, Rob blessed me with two books on writing.  This was much better than just telling me that I needed to improve or call it quits.  My son-in-law Shusaku Harada’s ideas regarding structure, plot development, and relationship with my readers greatly improved early drafts of the manuscript.  His husband (who is also my son) Joshua’s comments determined a number of twists in the final structure of the novel.  My daughter, Sarah, made a few telling comments that I have certainly not properly addressed. 

   But then again, that must be true for the criticisms that others have given as well.  I can’t leave out thanking my excellent writing teacher, Amin Ahmad.  His many – always constructive, but not always subtle – criticisms included such telling phrases as “You mean I’ve been reading for all this time and all that happened is that your guy parked the car?”  Hopefully, he will continue to judge my work destructively.  Two other friends who have been particularly generously supportive and unsparing in their criticism must be named: Robert Bein and Barbara Cristy.  Numerous others including all the knowledgeable members of our neighborhood book group, have read and criticized one or another of the many previous drafts of this novel.  I thank them for their input. 

    Finally, I must mention the support I have received from the Washington Creative Writers Club – perhaps better known as A Table in the Back – the writers’ group that meets at Bread and Chocolate.  David Hutto, Tina Manousakis, Jerry Karn, Kat Tennermann, each, a member of the group, has been exceptionally helpful.  But all the members have been very supportive and collectively they formed a community that has given me confidence. 

    I could not have written it without this village of support.  I wish, however, that I could blame these wonderful companions for the shortcomings that are still contained in the manuscript.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Progress in America:

(4) Guidelines for Citizens and Bike Riders

    Aren’t we lucky that we live in interesting times?  Who knows when our government will open? Who knows whether our bills will be paid?  Times when our pols shut down the government and scream that we must not close the very monuments they have just closed.  Times when we can watch the government’s shenanigans unsettle our faith in our Patria.  Times when some imagined cabal threatens Socialism / Communism / Bolshevism along with evolution to undermine the very ‘exceptional foundations’ of our country’s destiny.  Fortunately so much of this theater is a rerun.  But in this rerun, are we sure the actors haven’t changed the ending?

    Helen Epstein’s wonderful article in a recent NY Review of Books describing Sara Josephine Baker, a public health pioneer in New York City shows just how repetitive some of this is:

     “Articles about Baker’s lifesaving campaigns appeared in newspapers from Oklahoma to Michigan to California. In the late 1910s, she and other reformers drafted a bill to create a nationwide network of home-visiting programs and maternal and child health clinics modeled on the programs in New York. But the American Medical Association (AMA)—backed by powerful Republicans averse to spending money on social welfare—claimed the program was tantamount to Bolshevism. Baker was in Washington the day a young New England doctor explained the AMA’s position to a congressional committee:
            We oppose this bill because, if you are going to save the lives of all these women and children at public expense, what inducement will there be for young men to study medicine?” Senator Sheppard, the chairman, stiffened and leaned forward: “Perhaps I didn’t understand you correctly,” he said: “You surely don’t mean that you want women and children to die unnecessarily or live in constant danger of sickness so there will be something for young doctors to do?” “Why not?” said the New England doctor, who did at least have the courage to admit the issue: “That’s the will of God, isn’t it?”

    So Obamacare isn’t the first, or second, or even fifth or sixth sequel of this Republican repulsion to help the needy.  Rather it is all a class B rerun, so stale as even to being projected after the threat of Bolshevism has disappeared from the world scene. 

    If knee-jerk Republican opposition is formulaic, what is far more difficult to predict is how this shut down will play out in the end.  And as we citizens hang on for what could be a very rough ride, perhaps there are some lessons from experienced bike riders worth thinking about.  Here are some that come to mind:

1.    When you ride over rough roads, loosen the grip on the handlebars and raise yourself a bit off the saddle.  And we are being driven on very rough roads.  Americans hold onto the credo that we have the best democracy in the world.  We believe our constitution was given to our ‘wise founding fathers’ almost as the 10 commandments were to Moses.  We hold onto our constitution much as a religious fundamentalist grasps her bible.  Perhaps it is time to loosen one’s grip and think and raise up out of our saddles to think about designing a new constitution with institutions that serve us better.

2.    Though a bike in motion is quite stable, standing still while on the saddle requires serious skill. This is something to consider in your own planning when our government’s stops are so crazy. 

3.    The bike rider, like the individual citizen needs to be defensive.  A good defense is essential because you are rarely the biggest moving structure on the block.  So it is with the citizen - faced by the juggernaut of the state.  

4.    Appearance has little or nothing to do with performance.  All those fancy cyclist uniforms that cost a pretty penny have little to do with success on a bike ride.  No ride is successful without staying power: grit.  Similarly all those slick political ads our candidates and parties run.  Don’t trust the cyclist by the shirt, or the politician by their promises.

5.    Finally, it is becoming clear, that just like the biker, it is imperative for the citizen to have a strategy for the breakdowns.  No long term  ride can protect one from the unpredictable glass shard or sharp edge to a crack in the pavement.  Apparently we citizens must expect our political system to breakdown.  This requires a two prong strategy: plan your trips with that in mind, and think about redesigned, better gear.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Two Cries while Serving Tea in an 18th Century Miniature

    I.  To My Master

Caught, I am, in servitude
Miniaturized as one
in Orient’s multitude
I am your slave to serve tea.

“Tread quietly!  Do not disturb!”
So you command.
Color given only to my shoes.
Only my outline given form,
My self to disappear into the paper

You have had me framed
in colors gay and floral
But your heavy black vines
are placed to imprison me.

I shall protest once more.

II. To my Creator

You, with the power to create a universe
as God have drawn me into servitude
yet pretending to art’s neutrality.
Giving color to the flowers and even
the lowly shoes on my feet
you drew me caught and bland,
to blend as ochre
into the paper as if I, a woman
am to disappear, becoming wall paper
for life’s passings by.  What have you
caught with the heavy vines,
if not man’s oppression?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Progress in America:

(3) A Book, A Movie and A Beautiful Day

    Ben Fountain sharply criticizes the militaristic, commercial patriotism of American society in his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk.  Echoing the tones of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s mining of the absurdist vein of America’s celebration of its military, Fountain’s novel takes place during the halftime of a Thanksgiving Day Cowboys-Bears game in Dallas.
    Billy Lynn and his ‘Bravo Company’ had fought with great heroics in Iraq.  The battle was caught on camera and televised on FOX news.  The Bravo Marines form an over the top collection of heroic and skeptical warriors flown home for a short cross country tour to boost support for Bush’s Great Fiasco.  Wherever their tour brings them, they hear the same patriotic and religious drivel: They are ‘protecting our civilization’ by ‘fighting the terrorists,’ by their ‘honor,’ ‘great sacrifice,’ and ‘Christianity.’  They are doing ‘God’s work’ and bringing ‘civilization’ to Iraq.  They however have a much finer grid of experience and these words don’t have much purchase in their experience. 
    Having lost his best friend in the action caught by the cameras, Billy Lynn is a 19 year old virgin Marine.  The author tells the story from Billy’s point of view: utilizing a third person stream of consciousness.  Coming from a hard scrabble American family, Billy remains philosophically detached from the celebrations of American Militarism, Materialism and Patriotism.  Events cascade both in his mind and in the stadium as the NFL’s celebration of the Bravo Company escalates.
    Strangely, the criticism of American militarism echoes the action in Aida.  I saw a fabulous filmed performance of the opera by La Scala.  This performance is directed the great Franco Zeffirelli and captures the drama of Verdi's great opera on the big screen.  In the first two acts, Verdi portrays a heady celebration of war and warriors in ancient Egypt.  The celebration involves the same basic ingredients (religion, sex, and patriotism) that Fountain employs.  And the warriors’ concerns, at the center of both dramas are, though verbally supported, are abandoned by the civilian authorities and spectators.  Both end up using the warriors for their own purposes. 
    And how strange it was to exit the movie on a beautiful day to enter a car where war was still the central topic on the news.  The disbelief was only heightened by the publication of a column by Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post.  Cohen, a great neo-con renowned for his support of Bush’s crazy venture into Iraq, admonishes America and it’s President, ‘you have no cause to be war-weary.’  The war is distant for you.  You aren’t overseas fighting.  And Mr. President you must be able to lead the country to war, not celebrating the weariness of its population for war. 
    People have long had art to reflect on these all too human horrors.  But, hey, we humans have come along way.  We’ve got the internal combustion engine, unmanned remote control bombers and we’re even all connected.  Now let us try to invent institutions fit for the future - allowing us to have a chance to solve our shared problems as we share their consequences.  Only that way are we likely to survive this tumultuous century without great costs. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lucky Retirement - a labor day poem

Lucky Retirement

Labor Day 2013 - draft

- (eventually for publication in Faculty Voice)

Can’t believe I’m retired now,
rather than in ’67 when,
being sent to heaven
care of the USN was the option.

Can’t imagine I retired instead
of dying on one of those hospital beds
when they had no meds
in boot camp.  They’d sent
all supplies  to Nam.
We wiped our shit on walls
for lack of paper in the stalls.

How’d I retire when
my company was sent
to the USS Liberty
to be blown up at sea
by planes - each flown
by an Israeli?

Can’t see how I retired when
so many lost their home
and fortune and now spend
days as greeters in some
K-Mart, Wal-Mart nothing place
perpetually owning a smiling face.

The dice were nice
in the roll for me. 
Friends say ‘you deserved it.’
Others say ‘that bastard’s lucky.’

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Progress in America:

(2) Suburban Wildlife

    A few years ago the first warning signs of the invasion occurred.  Woken up by early morning buzzing, I tried to discover what was creating havoc outside my bedroom.  Kneeling in my altogethers to peer out the window above my bed, I saw nothing.  Unencumbered by more clothing, I stood and went to the back window where I found the culprits: a tiny army of mowers had invaded my neighbor’s back yard. 
    There they were, a small lawn tractor, accompanied by two gas burning self-propelled choppers in a skirmish with the grass.  Spewing noise and pollution worthy of a NASCAR race.  Gobbling the tops of the grass blades in his tiny backyard.  NASCAR quality – employed on a lawn that had, till recently, been mowed by my kind neighbor - a recently retired Episcopal minister.  I closed my windows and blearily looked at the time: 7:08.   Thus began my weekly wake ups on Wednesdays during the grass mowing season.  A season that I would discover would soon be extended from March through November.
    Once-a-week wake ups to mechanized fury was bad enough.  But other neighbors rushed to keep up with the friendly, unassuming minister.  Signing lawn care contracts they quickly altered my once quiet piece of the American Dream: first across the street, then behind my house and finally on the other side of my house.  All too soon I was woken up a second, third, and then a fourth day of the week: the disease became a plague. 
    Enjoying the decent exercise I got mowing my lawn with my corded electric mower I was becoming isolated and suspect - probably even targetable by the NSA or the FBI - if they are still distinct entities - as the holdout - the sole person in my corner of suburbia who doesn’t support the patriotic, emerging army of corporate lawn care. 
    Neighbors began to remark (always in the form of rhetorical questions): 
  • ‘Don’t you find the cord bothersome?’  
  • ‘Isn’t this mowing your own lawn very inefficient?’  
  • ‘Wouldn’t you prefer to be inside on such a muggy morning?’  
  • ‘Having financial problems?’  
  • ‘Are your retirement plans being ruined by the downturn?’ 
  • ‘Are you going to be foreclosed?’
     During this same historical period, biking through the neighborhood to do errands became ever more challenging.  Streets were increasingly clogged by the messengers of the growing lawn care industry.  Originally served by a couple of smaller pickups, these had to be replaced by bigger pickups to haul trailers to transport the ever fatter lawn tractors to their destinations.   Even these pickups were replaced by medium sized trucks with large cargo boxes or stake beds filled with lawn care equipment: tractors, mowers, trimmers, and such, each requiring tanks of gasoline to fuel their many-horse-powered motors. 
    Soon truly large trucks appeared.   Each filled and even sometimes hauling a large trailer as the new generations of SUV-sized lawn tractors took over the race to create the aspirations of homeowners for the more utopian lawn.  Of course, such equipment requires massive investments, and hence national franchises.  A new growth industry being born, spawning trucks with corporate names, promising a greener yard, a more perfect horticultural environment.  Trucks delivering more noise, more pollution, closing our streets, leaving the homeowner more time to push the buttons on their remotes, to sit in their Lazyboys, to fume against Obama’s handling of Katrina, and to watch NFL players knock their brains about.  Progress in America. 
    No longer able to move through the blocked streets on my bicycle I have become accepting of the country’s need to support economic growth and surveillance of the unusual.  So I am once again at ease plugging in my Black and Decker and grooming my segment of Paradise. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Progress in America:

(1) The March, The Butler & The Future

    50 years on, sitting in front of TV watching the commemoration of the March on Washington.  Listening to the reverberation of those heroes after 50 years.  King’s daughter.  Imagine her strength.  Imagine the Kennedy’s deciding to have her father spied upon as the most dangerous Negro in America.  Imagine her strength after having her father shot.  For supporting Sanitation Workers in Tennessee.  The march in 1963.  I didn’t go because I was moving to Michigan for graduate school I think it was.  Had to be there and find an apartment before Labor Day.  But I’m not really sure.  Anyhow, what a sorry choice it seems after 50 years. 
    Same day, later: went to see The Butler.  A great portrayal of the struggle through the eyes of one black man who saw so much.  His memory squares with mine.  I had less than a bit part in the ‘movement.’  I worked with NSM (the Northern Student Movement).  We were sort of an ally of SNCC, but mainly we worked on education in the inner cities of the North.  I was in DC, tutoring kids in math for summer of ‘63. 
    But don’t kid yourself, I went to an organizing meeting for the Freedom Rides in Spring 1961.  But even though I found the issue of race at the top of my agenda, Freedom Rides were too scary for me.  I didn’t have the backbone.  And I felt shame because I knew that was the reason - being chicken.  Signing up with the NSM was easier.  Something I learned about myself.  It allowed me to appreciate the strength and bravery of others and let me grow to take on more responsibility as time went on. 
    But seeing the story of Cecil and Gloria Gaines’ growth into accepting the importance of the struggle for justice squared with my memories.  I recall that doing that bit for NSM, and later, raising some money for SNCC, I found whites and blacks both equally apprehensive - and enthusiastic - about supporting ‘the cause.’  Many felt the movement ‘didn’t touch them.’  Many felt they ‘weren’t called to be involved.’  Many felt it was best left to others.  But the few that did mobilize made a huge difference here - and elsewhere in the world.  Through their example of accomplishment it was easier - much easier - to mobilize individuals to march against the war and then for women’s rights, for rights for the disabled, and for equal treatment of gay and lesbian relations. 
    But as we sit and reflect on the accomplishments, the agenda that is left undone in this country is appalling.  We are the country without universal medical coverage, with millions incarcerated, with exclusionary laws governing voting rights, a large part of the public denying global warming, environmental responsibility, the lack of economic opportunity for more than half our population, and much more.  We sit in a sea of glorified ignorance where so many citizens are proud to presume our President wasn’t born in the United States, is a Muslim, evolution is a myth, and the proliferation of guns doesn’t threaten individual safety. 
    Democracy without education is like machinery without lubricant.  It grinds to a halt.  Where we have come from is clear and a thing to celebrate.  Where we are choosing to go is another matter entirely. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013