The comedy of coping – writing our story together

The comedy of coping – writing our story together

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, New York 2140, presents life in the city after the deluge, icebergs have melted, oceans have risen, the city is under fifty feet of water, and New Yorkers have survived as New Yorkers always survive, with cheerful irritation and down-to-sea ingenuity.  This novel is not dystopian; it rather belongs to the genre of climate fiction and is surprisingly optimistic, as much of Robinson’s fiction has been.

“I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.  But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts.”

I heard Robinson interviewed and was struck by his contention that we live in what is essentially science fiction, a reality changed and changing with such rapidity that we are in a constant state of reaction.  His grace note, however, is that we are writing this science fiction together.

I’ve decided to take up that challenge, live in a comedy of coping, writing the present on a day-by-day basis, not taking myself too seriously, but taking other people seriously and treating them with the decency that co-authors deserve.  Some, I know, are going to write perfectly awful chapters, and I hope to God that someone at some point does some editing, but apparently my notion of how the world should spin is just one of millions of possible spins.

Two other books spring to mind as I consider this reality we are writing.   Both have a great deal to do with family and, although both are truly bizarre, each has left me with insights that may prove useful as I attempt this comedy.

The Swiss Family Robinson (Der Schweizerische Robinson) is a familiar tale of shipwreck, adventure, and ingenuity.  The Disney version offered pirates and a race in which the contestants ride animals that are found we are told on islands near New Guinea, elephants, zebras, ostriches, and monkeys.  The original novel, by Johann David Wyss, a Swiss take on the genre Robinsonade after Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe, is survival fiction mixed with a series of object lessons (It is Swiss, after all).  The narrator, William, is a father who truly does know it all which turns out to be particularly important as the island upon which they wash up is rife with wildlife (wombats, capybaras, platypuses, wolves, walruses, and porcupines, to name but a few) and plant life, allowing the family to feed, clothe, and protect themselves.

So, imagine the worst day possible.  The seas roar, rise, and tear a ship to bits, everything you own is washed into the ocean; gasping, choking, you claw your way to an unknown island, your carefully planned life now nothing but a memory.  And yet.

Day by day the family makes a world.  In the end, when a British ships finds them on the island, some decide to return to the Europe and some stay.  It’s probably more fun to read about than to experience, and not every castaway mom knows how to make a hearty porcupine stew, but the novel presents a model of resilience and invention in the face of disaster, and it is that assurance that is necessary to our current comedic coping.

The second novel, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, is a dark philippic, somewhere between Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini.  Theirs is a family ripped from comfort by a brilliant, charismatic, egomaniacal father who is fed up with an America rotted from within by greed and rapacious consumerism.  So far, ok, we’ve seen that before, but this father pulls his family to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras where his grandiosity and paranoia lead to murderous conflict.

Doesn’t sound like much there for us who attempt this comedy of coping, but the lesson I took away back in 1982 when I read the book as a relatively young father, was not that there is no safe place but that wherever we go, as the saying instructs, there we are, and since we are inescapable, the real terrain to work on, I guess, is ourselves, another one of those “We have met the enemy and he is us” reminders.

I turn back to Kim Stanley Robinson at this point because he has imagined a world in which much of what I fear has taken place, and yet, the human spirit prevails.  I admire the power of Robinson’s speculative imagination but find even greater comfort in his portrait of a world teeming with character and humor, despite change that to us would seem unendurable.  In the interview, Robinson spoke of the work that he does in terms of comfort, quoting Roger Scruton, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”  There is much about Roger Scrutton that was far from consoling, but he identified something important about what novelists such as Robinson and Emily St. John Mandel can do and something equally significant about what we can do in this curious business of writing the present together.

Consolation, empathy, decency – these are not imaginary comforts.


What I wished for … and how that worked out

What I wished for … and how that worked out

Those who scan this blog with any regularity have noticed that the tenor of the site has rambled from whimsy to outrage even as the number of postings has dropped off precipitously.  Some of the inconsistency is to be blamed on the post-election brain fur that has fogged my every thought since last November, but some has also been due to my continuing efforts to find the right medium in which to indulge my ambition as a writer.

Here’s the update:  The two plays I’ve written recently have apparently not rocked the theatrical world.  Languishing.  Languishing.  The last two novels stalled out completely as I continue to read really original and imaginative work written by my betters.  The last unexplored frontier remaining?  Sports writing.

I’d long thought I’d like to write about sports.  I certainly like to read about sports, and, whereas I rarely have anything to say about the condition of the wider world, soul-crushed as I am this year, I find myself holding passionate opinions about the relative strength of SEC football and Big Ten football, the chances of the Dodgers next season as compared to those of the Indians, and the demotion of Eli Manning from franchise quarterback to benched backup, opinions nobody in this household wants to hear.

So, I began writing for Fansided, a network of sports and entertainment related sites ranging from those following the NFL (Dear god, the Browns actually made a good decision) to endless discussion of Game of Thrones (Emilia Clark dyes her hair blonde).

After submitting several examples of my sports blathering, I was welcomed to several of the Fansided channels, beginning my sportswriting experiment with GBMWolverine, a site dedicated to University of Michigan athletics and to Michigan football.  In my short tenure there, I wrote something like twenty-four articles, some fulminating as a fan and some analyzing with precision exactly where the fifteen million dollar a year coaching staff had missed the mark.  My last opinion piece is exactly the sort of subject that kills conversations in all but three living rooms in the universe – “Has John O’Korn crushed Jim Harbaugh’s legacy at Michigan?”

You don’t want or need to know.

Eager to spread my sportswriting wings, I have moved on to the Fansided newsdesk, from which assignments reflecting breaking stories are dished out to reporters hovering like harriers over a field filled with scampering rodents.  I’m the lowest of the low, a bottom feeder, dished stories such as “Scott Frost and his staff will coach UCF in the Peach Bowl”, and “Giancarlo Stanton will not be a Giant next season”.

My last piece was “Herm Edwards stunned by size of ASU game jerseys”, an assignment I mangled as I am unfamiliar with the bells and whistles necessary to the publication of a media friendly posting, Search Engine Optimization, and so on.  It was that piece that has convinced me to let other, more savvy digital experts take on stories of that sort.  When assigned, I begged to explore the many and improbable aspects of Herm Edwards’ appointment as head football coach at Arizona State University, but my editor wanted 300 words on jerseys – no less, no more.  Should you wish to know why my fascination with Herm Edwards remains unslaked, please watch this, his first press conference as head coach.

I’ve been swatted when submitting articles with attitude or, as the editors describe my relentless fits of whimsy, “editorial content”, but that’s what I intended to offer in writing about sports.  Real reporters are breaking stories, hoorah, and I’m sitting in my living room in southern Oregon fulminating.

All of which is to explain why an occasional goofy sports piece might wash up in these pages, unwanted as they are in other settings.

Fair Warning!

Army plays Navy this weekend, Tiger’s playing golf again, NHL players won’t appear in the Winter Olympics, Marvin Lewis has to go, Russia is barred from the Winter Olympics,  How can LeBron not be MVP  this year, the US may not participate in the Winter Olympics, Dennis Rodman reports on Kim Jong Un’s true intentions, if Baker Mayfield wins the Heisman Trophy (he will), Oklahoma fans want to erect a statue representing Mayfield’s planting a flag on the Ohio State logo – more than 4000 petitions have already been collected.

And that’s just today’s sports news.

Stay tuned, sports fans, it’s time to explore the wonderful world of sports clichés.  If you got ’em, send ’em my way.  After all, it’s not over until a good defense beats the best offense.

Finally! A truly culturally biased test

Finally! A truly culturally biased test

Several years ago I was an active and reasonably well-regarded college counselor and consultant.  At one point, I was asked to advise the admissions offices at several colleges and universities, wrote several college guides, and sat as a member of the executive committee of the Midwest College Board.  I mention these luminous moments only to explain how it happened that I came to write sample questions for the SAT, a process by which the Educational Testing Service generated new questions, plugged them in the experimental sections of administered SATs, then checked the questions in a lively fashion, determining that the right test takers got the question right and the right test takers got the question wrong.

See, if successful test takers (not necessarily exceptional people – just good at taking tests) got an “easy” question wrong, badda bing, badda bong, it’s dead.  If a not-so-successful test taker (someone clearly not good at taking tests) got a “tough” question right, equally badda whatever.

The sorting process has become notably more sophisticated as ETS had to address charges that what was once known as the SAT Verbal test was less a test of verbal aptitude than a test of cultural familiarity with verbal constructs, heavily biased in the favor of White middle to upper class students.  The current version of “aptitude” testing now presents the Evidence Based Reading and Writing Test, a better test I admit, although those previously advantaged test populations are still more likely to seek and afford paid tutorial preparation, thereby mitigating even the best efforts of the question hounds at ETS.

All of that aside, it strikes me that a quest for the most individually culturally biased test might help reveal so much about the person constructing the test that the entire enterprise might shrink in the harsh light of public scrutiny

1. When stepping from the shower, one should first dry

a.  the back

b.  the shower stall

c.  the shoulders

d.  the face

e.  all of the above

The correct answer, of course, is d -the face.

2.  The best place to order eggs is

a.  a diner

b.  a henhouse

c.  Chez Rudolfo

d.  none of the above or below

e.  my house

Anyone?  Anyone?  Yeah, d – none of the above or below.  The best place is Grains of Montana Restaurant and Bakery in Billings.

3.  If Mares eat oats and does eat oats, what do little lambs eat?

a.  grass

b.  whatever they want

c.  clams casino

d.  ivy

e.  even smaller lambs

No brainer.  Ivy, of course. d.

4.  Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes

a.  they aren’t

b.  euphoniously

c.  tromboneously

d.  erroneously

e.  deciduously

No doubt.  d – erroneously.  See Singin’ in the Rain and try again next year.

5.  Should it happen that you are made responsible for finding entertainment for a wedding reception, the first call might be made to

a. Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Meyer Davis, etc

b.  Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts

c.  Clean Bandit

d.  Robbie Hart

e.  Dope Calypso

The answer is d – Robbie Hart, of course, a character made famous by Adam Sandler.

At this point, even the most casual of test takers has noticed that the correct answers are always option d.  It’s THAT sort of perspicacity (SAT verbal Oct. 1988) that sets the successful test taker apart from the rest of the herd.

I’m just putting this out in the universe in case ETS is ready to break with tradition, convention, and scientific accuracy in order to make testing more specifically attuned to the test engineer’s experience and imagination.  I’d like to think I’ll be called back into action by the College Board, Berkeley, Brown, and the International School of Paris, but the correct answer, I fear, is none of the above.




Who pulls the plug?

Who pulls the plug?

OK, now I am terrified.

The phrase, “We are entering unchartered territory”, no longer serves to describe the mayhem Donald Trump creates on a daily basis.  He has skidded well beyond insensitive self-promotion, beyond impulsive and petulant posturing, to flat-out mental illness.

Am I suggesting that our president is truly nuts?  Yeah, I’m starting to believe that the President of the United States is bubble buggy gonzo,  never a happy conclusion and downright terrifying in a week that raises the possibility of nuclear war.  The rush of curious initiatives landing without discussion is more than enough to keep most folks off-balance, but the grotesqueries of the last few days should frighten even those who have used the President’s lack of attention to governance to push their own agendas.

Let’s see.  What’s happened this week?

The President once again asked the American people to believe that he will be hurt by the proposed tax reform, and began the public shaming of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who will have the dubious distinction of having served the shortest term as Secretary when Trump jettisons him.  Tillierson probably should not have called the president a moron, but … Trump could use a little help from State as today he tweeted the wrong Teresa May, contacting a woman on the Isle of Wight rather than the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Oh, and Trump  candidly admitted that a government shutdown would help him convince his rabid anti-immigration base, that he won’t play ball with Democrats, He’s assured reporters that he absolutely intends to blame Democrats for the shutdown.

About this shutdown.  The only people hurt are those  dependent on social security, Medicare, Medicaid, recent retirees, those selling homes and those seeking mortgages, government contractors, veterans, retail businesses and the stock market.

So, there’s that, and …

Trump tweeted Egyptian snuff films posted by discredited racist right-wing anti-Muslims in Britain, horrifying Muslims, Prime Minister Teresa May (probably both Teresa Mays) , British Parliament, most of the Western world, and some in the U.S.  The State Department, or what is left of it, will deal with the blowback in the Middle East.

A day earlier the tweet –  “Meeting with ‘Chuck and Nancy’ today about keeping government open and working,  Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!”

This hours before a scheduled meeting with the Democratic leaders, upending a meeting intended to prevent the government shutdown.  We’ve seen this kind of insulting tweet to members of Congress before, but this one was followed by a truly wacky attempt to shame Pelosi and Schumer by holding a press conference with two empty seats.

While the president still refers to Kim Jong Un as Rocket Man, short and fat, citizens in Hawaii test nuclear attack warning sirens, recognizing that the latest ICBM test by North Korea puts them in immediate peril.

In a ceremony honoring the Navajo Code Talkers, Trump drops a leaden crack again referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas.  This following his characterization of those in the NFL who kneel as sons of bitches.  Disrespect is one thing; racial slurs and obscenity from the White House speak to hubris and a disordered mind.

Trump now suggests that the widely viewed Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted that he could grope at will was yet another piece of fake news; apparently, he now contends that the voice on the tape is not his.  This statement is at odds with the public apology he issued at the time of the tape’s release.  At virtually the same moment, Trump gloated over Matt Lauer’s fall from grace while continuing to withhold condemnation of Judge Roy Moore.

All of this accompanies his reanimation of the Obama birther issue and the allegation that former Florida representative Joe Scarborough played some part in the death of Lori Klausutis, an aide who died when an abnormal heart rhythm caused her to fall striking her head. And, we now know, in addition to obsessing about LaVar Ball’s failure to appreciate his efforts to have UCLA shoplifting basketballer released from jail in China, Trump continues to find ways to squash investigations linking his campaign to Russian political operatives.

These gaffes are no longer simply unattractive evidence of narcissistic pique, not simply inappropriate.  They are inexplicable.  The needle has moved for me from disapproval of Trump as a man and as a political leader to the conviction that his presidency is dangerous.

OK, so what will it take, and who pulls the plug?

In an article in the Daily Intelligencer, Andrew Sullivan put it more succinctly:

This past week was, in some ways, the most potent distillation of the Trump era we have yet encountered. This is not because any single incident is worse than any previous one over the past year. It’s because the last few days have brought all of them together in a new, concentrated way — a super-storm, as it were, of liberal democratic destruction. We have deranged tweeting; truly surreal lies; mindless GOP tribalism; evangelicals making excuses for the molestation of minors; further assaults on the free press; an unprecedented attack on the most reliable Atlantic ally; the demonization of personal enemies; stupendous tribal hypocrisy with respect to sexual abuse; the White House’s endorsement of a foreign neo-fascist hate group; the vengeful hanging out to dry of a Cabinet member; and the attempt to pass a catastrophic omnibus piece of legislation in one mad, blind rush in order to get a “win.” And all in a few days!

At its center is mental illness. It radiates out of the center like a toxin in the blood. And this, again, is nothing new. On Trump’s first day in office, with respect to the size of his inauguration crowd, he insisted that what was demonstrably, visibly, incontrovertibly false was actually true. At that moment, we learned that all the lies and exaggerations and provocations of the previous year were not just campaign tools, designed to con and distract, but actually constitutive of his core mental health. He was not lying, as lying is usually understood. He was expressing what he believed to be true, because his ego demanded it be true. And for Trump, as we now know, there is no reality outside his own perfervidly narcissistic consciousness.

And yet, apologists continue to scramble to contain the fallout, blaming the hostile media for these scurrilous attacks on the president.

What is happening and why is it happening?  This new normal is more confusing day by day.

A  relatively rudderless and ineffectual Republican majority in the House and Senate appears determined to operate in the interest of corporations and billionaires at the expense of ordinary people, including those who put them in office.  Mean spirited partisan contempt for compromise and paranoia has brought legislation by fiat, the business of government seeping out of closed chambers. Broad changes in Health Care and Tax Reform are apparently the work of a few men operating in secret.  Discussion and debate have been jettisoned; attempts to question the president or Congressional leadership are ignored or squashed.

The Trump administration, operating in reflexive fury against any program tainted by connection with Barack Obama, has gutted the agencies created to protect the public good.  At war with the press, obsessively reacting to what he believes are slights or unfair attacks, the Commander-In-Chief leads his nation by tweeting angry recriminations of Lavar Ball.

Partisan political bullying has been more than dispiriting enough without the antics of an addled Commander-In-Chief.  The work of Congress is now done behind closed doors; political steamrolling has taken the place of debate and compromise.  Presidential appointments continue to undermine the efficacy of the bureaus they now lead.

Net neutrality is about to end.

Loyalist, Thomas Brunell, the author of Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, has been tapped to act as Deputy Director of the Census Bureau.  Brunell is neither qualified for the post or free of political bias.  In running the day-to-day operation of the Census bureau, Brunell has the ability to direct of the resources of the bureau in the collection of census data, an undertaking that has historically under-reported Black and Hispanic citizens as well as other minorities.

Time Magazine is now the property of the Meredith Corporation, a purchase made possible by the “passive” ownership of the Koch brothers who brought six hundred and fifty million dollars to the deal.  Ardent opponents of government regulation of any sort, the Kochs have been eager to purchase the media enterprise, a prospect made more likely by the Justice Department’s determination to clip the AT&T merger with Time Warner, an eighty-five billion dollar merger, arguing that a merger of that size is untenable until AT&T divests some assets, by which, it seems, the Justice Department means Turner Broadcasting, and more particularly, CNN.  Worst case?  Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News would certainly not be permitted to snap up CNN, but the Koch brothers could.  Time Magazine, longtime champion of environmental stewardship could change direction, and CNN, the most annoying thorn in the president’s side, could lose its capacity to report as freely it has.

In this busy week, the administration has decertified the Iran nuclear agreement, repealed the Clean Power Plan which had limited greenhouse gas emissions and introduced a proposal to subsidize the energy sector, particularly power plants dependent on coal.  This only a week after the recently approved Keystone Pipeline spilled 210 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Walt Kelly’s comic creation, Pogo the Possum, passed on that observation as he stood amidst a heap of litter on a poster advertising the first Earth Day back in 1970.  He wasn’t wrong

The election of Donald Trump lifted a veil that had obscured the judgment of liberals and progressives for a very long time.  The assumptions and imperatives that propelled social change over the past two decades are inimical to the convictions of enough people that Trump was elected despite concerns about his character and capacity for leadership.  It is easier to lump all who support Trump into the basket of deplorables, racist, homophobic, conspiracy laden angry White people than it is to consider the possibility that there are differences of culture so divergent that compromise may no longer be possible.

Some of us live a secular life, and some of us live a life of faith, and that reality is one that progressives still fail to acknowledge.  I’ve written elsewhere describing the grievance that many American Christians and all Evangelical Christians felt as they experienced the political consequences of living in an increasingly secular state.  It is their opinion that religious faith is discounted and mocked in a secular society.  They have seen court decisions eliminate prayer in school, the presentation of the Ten Commandments and the celebration of Christian Christmas in public spaces.

But the ten ton elephant in our living room is what people of faith see as the killing of unborn children and what progressives see as the government’s responsibility to ensure that women have a choice in ending pregnancy.

To be clear:  There is no convincing a person of faith that human life does not begin at conception and no convincing advocates of choice that a fetus prior to viability. is a person.

So, when accounts of Judge Roy Moore’s dalliance with fourteen year old girls hit the headlines, commentators on MSNBC and CNN, outraged that Moore might become a sitting member of the Senate, asked how anyone would vote for a pedophile rather than vote for a Democrat.  However flawed Moore, or Trump for that matter, might be, for the Evangelical and many other people of faith, Democrats endorse what they see as the murder of children.

That’s the emotional landscape that underlies every attempt to bring contending political forces together.  We can debate the national debt, climate change, crime, terrorism, but there’s no room for discussion about abortion.

We secularists do threaten a Christian nation; they are not wrong.  The closest analogy is with the untenable series of compromises made before the Southern states determined that the Federal government was at war with their way of life.  They too were not wrong; a nation could not long exist half slave and half free.

We’re close to that point today as the mechanism of government and the security of the nation have been placed in the hands of an imperious, vindictive, and disordered president as a last attempt to turn back the hands of time.  It will take extraordinary leadership to paste this experiment in democracy back together.

Who is ready to step up and pull the plug?



Your Resume?

Your Resume?

It doesn’t take much to grab my attention.

For example, I happened to hear an interview on National Public Radio with Peter Rosenberg, apparently notorious in the world of hip hop for his characterization of Nicki Minaj’s “Starship” as pop (read “crap”) rather than authentic hip hop.  Minaj took exception, cancelled her concert, and entered into a heated exchange with Rosenberg over the next few years.

Please understand that not only do I have no dog in that particular fight, but also have absolutely no credibility when it comes to music aired in the last three decades; I’m not stuck on Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity Dog What You Do To Me,” even though I can sing along.  No, I can bust a mean move with “Hey, Mickey, You’re so fine, you’re so fine , you blow my mind, Hey Mickey” It’s got a good beat,” as they used to say on American Bandstand.  You can dance to it.

I absolutely do not know real hip hop.  Rosenberg and Minaj live and work in a climate I cannot understand, but I did understand Minaj’s response to Rosenberg’s assumption of the role of “gatekeeper” to the world of hip hop.

“I don’t know your resume,” she said.  “I don’t know who you are.  What’s your resume?”

By resume she meant with what authority, with what experience, with what right  did Peter Rosenberg take it upon himself to pass judgment on her and her music?  It’s an interesting way of thinking about the judgments we make, similar to the principle underlying the word “warrant”.  Is this action warranted?  Do you have a warrant to search my car?

Peter Rosenberg grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a comfy suburb of Washington, D.C., one of many suburban towns that included restricted covenants with the purchase of property; until the 1960’s, the purchase of a home in Chevy Chase was restricted to White buyers.  Nicki Minaj was born in Trinidad Tobago, was raised in Queens, New York, and has been active in the rap and hip hop scene since 2007. Rosenberg hosts radio shows, a YouTube series, Wrestling With Rosenberg, and considers himself a guardian of authentic hip hop as he expressed in an article in The New Yorker:

“I will go toe to toe with almost anyone in terms of knowledge, trivia, and love of this music.”

What sort of resume would warrant that assertion?  Does a resume in this case demand living experience of the culture that gave birth to hip hop?  Can appreciation, love, mastery of trivia, bring authority?  Minaj thinks not.

I’m thinking about my resume, including professional experience, of course, and a variety of life experiences.  I am a parent, a husband, a brother, a teacher.  I write every day but can’t call myself a writer.  I have studied English literature, medieval history, American film, Native American literature, and nuclear propulsion and engineering.  Not an expert in any of those fields, particularly engineering.  I am male and not much of an expert there either.  I love dogs and cats equally but live with dogs.  I can name every candy bar sold in New England from 1956 – 1967.  Undeserved blessings have come my way.  Unwanted trials have also landed from time to time.  I know something about injury and fear. I have been hired, and I have been fired.  I have lived in every quadrant of the nation and outside the United States.

Mistakes?  I’ve made a few.  I’ve hurt people I love.  More than once.  I’ve missed opportunities and squandered good fortune.  My juvenile record is sealed, so I don’t have to share much about that chapter.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was briefly a lay eucharistic minister, and I sang the National Anthem at a Green Bay Packer’s game in  Chicago. I haven’t been to church or Chicago in decades.  I have walked most of the Upper Yosemite and have hit a bear with a frying pan.  I belong to a fellowship of men and women who share experience, strength, and hope.  I know famous people.  I know homeless people.

“Who are you?  What’s your resume?”

With what authority can I claim the sort of absolute conviction about anything that Rosenberg does with regard to the true nature of hip hop music? I’m  no authority on children even though I love mine extravagantly and can answer trivia questions about each. I know a lot about sports but would not presume to instruct a linebacker in the proper method of bulldogging a two hundred pound running back to the ground.

I’m not sure I have a specific cultural identity; I have certainly been guilty of cultural appropriation as I’m not always sure when appreciation slides into appropriation.  As a young man, back when Bill Cosby was funny, I copied his delivery.  As a storyteller, I told tales from West Africa, from the Aroostook band of Micmacs; I told stories told by Jews in Eastern Europe and stories told by Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania.  I’ve told Appalachian stories and Lithuanian stories.

Because I loved them.

But, told them with what warrant?  What in my resume allowed me to attempt a dialect not my own?  I’m embarrassed now to think of the chutzpah I summoned to use words such as chutzpah (It’s somehow less egregious in print).

The universe delights in keeping me off-balance as was proved yet again as I began working on this piece.  The next time I turned on the radio, I caught the tail end of a conversation between Black authors describing the impact of stories collected by journalist Joel Chandler Harris (a White Georgian) and presented in Uncle Remus, His songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation.  The stories are presented in the dialect that Harris attributed to the slaves who had told the stories when Harris had worked on plantations as a boy.  Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox came from animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, Aunt Crissy on the plantation, closely related to stories told in Africa.

Widely admired when published, the stories were favorites of Mark Twain who read them to his children.  By the 1920’s, however, they were seen as stereotyping and demeaning the African-American experience of slavery.  The Disney version (Song of the South) made plantation life seem downright jolly (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) and Uncle Remus appeared to delight in spending his days entertaining White children:  “Chillens! We’s all a-gwine home.”   Needless to say, Disney has buried the film in its archives, unwilling to add it to the cycle of films to be re-released in a regular rotation.

But the authors who spoke were grateful to have heard the stories told as they were.  The stories might have been lost had Harris not put them into print, and the dialect as well.  One author had heard the stories as read by his father and hears them in his father’s voice still. Harris did not own those stories, but perhaps at that moment they were his to protect.  We don’t know if Harris considered himself an expert on plantation stories; it’s unlikely that he thought of himself as a gatekeeper.

In closing I am reminded of yet another interview on NPR, this one with Johan Kugelberg.  Kugelberg is the creator of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, the largest assemblage of artifacts associated with hip hop music.  Kugelberg, a former record executive and observer of pop culture, had sought the earliest artifacts of hip hop from its start in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s and donated that collection to Cornell University which has added to the collection in order to present the history of hip hop as it spread from New York City.  And, how it has changed.

Kugelberg grew up with skateboards and punk music.  He describes himself as an essayist on subculture; in an article describing his collection, the New York Post called him, “The Indiana Jones of Punk and Hip Hop”.

“In just a few minutes, the Swedish archivist and author produces an original manuscript of John Coltrane’s music dated from the 1950s; a 1982 Danceteria poster for one of REM’s earliest New York City shows; a 1984 invite to an advanced playback of Madonna’s second album, “Like a Virgin,” at a Chelsea strip club; a first-edition copy of Robert Frank’s seminal photography book, “The Americans” (signed to his publisher Barney Rosset); and a sweat shirt worn by Afrika Bambaataa during his early DJ gigs in the 1970s.”

So, Swedish punk skater travels to Cornell on a regular basis to work with others on the collection’s advisory board – Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, MC Sha-Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and Zuu Queen MC Lisa Lee – on expanding the collection and preserving the history of the culture(s).  Kugelberg began this work in response to those who thought hip hop was unimportant.  As the Post reported, Kugelberg took a longer view.

“My only response was that it was like being in 1925 and saying country-blues isn’t worthwhile, or being in 1947 and saying that Charlie Parker is not worthwhile. Beginnings are always humble.”

The difference, I think, between Johan Kugelberg and Peter Rosenberg is that Kugelberg celebrates a culture and Rosenberg seems to claim ownership of a culture not his own.

Humility.  That’s a pretty good resume.







Save the Cat

Save the Cat

Sorry, cat lovers, no actual cat content in this piece, but the title is bound to attract readers who are fond of cats (or who definitely are not) and those who just want to know what kind of mess into which this cat has managed to stumble.

I’m writing about titles this time because I’ve come to believe that a writer without a title is a writer without a plot.  Successful writers seem to be able to invent a compelling narrative from which a title is bound to emerge.  Pride and Prejudice, for example, or Gone With the Wind.  Lots happens, characters bounce vividly from page to page, scenes and setting take the reader from the armchair to a different world, and, at the end, the author looks back and says, “Ah, this book is about the ways in which pride and prejudice play themselves out in a complicated romance,”  or, “Huh, an entire culture and way of life is no more.  It’s almost as if it has just gone with the wind.”

I, on the other hand, work backwards.  I start with a title and see what happens.  What happens is that I end up with a reasonably compelling title and a jumbled narrative contriving somehow to attach itself to the title I’ve chosen.  Had I started with Gone With the Wind, I might have ended up with a novel about tornadoes or gastric distress.  I had written one or two ungainly novels now securely tucked out of sight before finding a title that pulled me into trying to publish the book.  The Christmas Quilt was about a woman whose life had flattened.  She becomes a fabric artist, is befriended by an older and very wise woman, deals with lots of life stuff, and finally overcomes her family-of-origin issues in order to create a Christmas quilt for her mentor.  Memory’s Door was about a schoolmaster returning to the school he had attended.  Opening up memory … you get it.

In the midst of writing these, I turned to Save the Cat, a book by Blake Snyder intended to help screenwriters shape their work so that a likeable character does something likeable in the process of moving through key stages of plot development.  Snyder was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and suggested that audiences respond to what he called primal themes.  The Snyder school of screenwriting presents a version of an outline known as a beat sheet (The opening, the hook, the first plot point, the first “pinch point, mid-point,the second pinch point, the “lull”, second plot point).

Sounds relatively easy.

Yeah, but no.

I’m can come up with an opening:  Guy walks into a shoe store, tries on a shoe, and is transported to a land of unicorns and ogres.

That’s it.  That is as far as I get.  The truth is that I don’t want to read about the adventures of this imagined customer jarred out of a conventional life.  It’s dumb.  Even if this ostensible hero saves a unicorn, I’m not sure I care.  Would I buy a book entitled, Save the Unicorn?  Would anyone?

My eldest son generates narratives by the score.  He grabs a genre, immediately figures out what the beat sheet would look like, adds some snappy patter and a few highly original plot twists, and is off and running.  His screenplays actually work.  After listening to me waffle and complain time and again, he offered what ought to have been a slam dunk piece of advice:  Just use the plot structure of The Maltese Falcon.  Apparently lots of writers do, making use of the Falcon’s plot and following the often quoted advice given writers like Dashiell Hammett, “When in doubt, throw a body at them.”

So, I read the book, look at the movie and get completely sidetracked by “what’s it”, the Macguffin, the goofy undescribed something that sets the plot in motion.  Hammett’s book has an object known as the Maltese Falcon, but it could have as easily been the Nebraskan Gopher.  The “what’s it” doesn’t matter.

But it does to me … because it is the title of the book, and against the laws of God and man, I start with the title.  No traction, no beat sheet, no novel.  My version?  The Real Rothko, in which ill described characters get hot and bothered about a forged painting.  It’s not a bad title as Macguffin titles go, but who, what, where, and why?

Here are the titles currently under consideration should I find the chutzpah to try a novel again:  The Lone Gunman (obvious plot, angst, ammunition), Eating My Best Friend (plane crash/bus crash/crash of some sort, survival,ethical quandary, cooking) Queen of the Dairy (Coming-of-Age set in a Dairy Queen), Long Throw From Third (Rookie makes the Big League), The Forgotten (superheroes that didn’t make it), Too Close (claustrophobic tries to work on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), The Dick Kazmaier Story (Heisman Trophy winner from Princeton who decided NOT to play in the NFL), Don’t Do That! (open to suggestion).

I explained all of this to a friend, and in the explaining came to the conclusion that I don’t seem to be able to tell a story, which is ok in writing non fiction or this blog or even plays. but not ok in writing a novel or for film. I’ve done three plays and feel ok about them, although they lack the kind of inciting situations that drives narrative; nothing much happens.  I can do voices, however, so conversation suits me pretty well.

Reunion pulls characters to a college reunion.  Years have gone by.  They have changed.  They talk, nothing much happens.  Oh, I guess the guy whose marriage is in trouble does not have an affair.  Plot hinges on something NOT happening.  Changelings brings a room full of transnational adoptees together.  If I could compose, it could be a series of vignettes, a musical like A Chorus Line.  But I can’t, so it’s still a series of conversations about growing up with curious notions of identity.

With a final apology to cat people who have inadvertently wandered into this confession, I return to the kind of writing I seem to be able to manage – conversational, mildly whimsical, and far, far from narrative fiction.

Like this article.



An Alternative Canon

An Alternative Canon

I used to think I wanted to be a writer.  I love words, love to play with language.  I’m whimsical and occasionally thoughtful.  And, there’s the word thing – love ’em.

But … and this has been clear to me for quite a while, I’m not much of a story-teller. Not so great with characterization either.  So, when I read three original novels in the last few weeks, each packed with gripping narrative pull, vivid characterization, and brain-bending structure, I just erased the limp,vapid, obvious first draft of a very conventional novel and sat down to read in admiration.  It happens that both authors (Eleanor Catton and Jennifer Egan) are women who have won major awards, but they have come to prominence in the years since I last held students hostage in a classroom.

“Where are women in our curriculum?”  It’s a more than fair question and one that appeared weekly as the English Department met to sort out other less momentous affairs such as the determination of the angle at which classroom projectors were to be mounted.  Personalities largely overwhelmed principles in these discussions, so much so that I recall slipping into what I call my thousand yard stare.

I loathe meetings in virtually any setting and to almost every purpose which says more about me than about meetings or their purposes.  Here are the some of the weaknesses of my character that emerge in meetings:  pettiness, impatience, self-aggrandizement, sloth, an inclination to gossip, incessant fiddling, irresponsible doodling, and the ever-present temptation to play class clown, and many, many more.

All of which came to play as I sat listening to good-hearted people argue that the classics we taught were inherently valuable and other good hearted people argue that the canon did not include voices that ought to be heard.  At the time, I taught Shakespeare and Homer, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Louise Erdrich and Jane Austen.  My electives gave me room to introduce Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Kelly Link, Heidi Julavits, Alison Bechdel, Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Patricia Highsmith, Molly Gloss, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Margaret Atwood, but there was a large and wonderful world of astounding books written by women that I had yet to discover.

Having left the classroom, free to read anything I like, I continued to read my favorites and happily stumbled into the realization that we live in a golden age of literature written by women, so happily that for the most part, I’ve read nothing but fiction written by astounding female authors.  I did lose a few months getting  through Infinite Jest, but quickly returned to reading authors I had not known.

I’ve written elsewhere about Emily St. John’s Station Eleven, the most moving and probably prescient dystopian novel I know, and I’ve filled pages in tribute to Louise Erdrich, starting with my appreciation of Blood Medicine and continuing with my fascination with the entire connected series of books following Love Medicine, from Tracks to The Painted Drum.  Margaret Atwood is back in favor as The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived on-screen, but inventive novels such as The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace are far less widely read than they ought to be, especially as The Blind Assassin won the Mann Booker Prize in 2000 and is one of the 100 best novels identified by Time Magazine.  Atwood defies description, writing within and beyond genre. I found her short story, “Death by Landscape”, just dark enough, just clouded enough to use with my honors sophomores.  They puzzled at the right level of uncertainty.

I’ve also written about Heidi Julavits, an author I admire so completely that I follow her on Instagram, hoping I’ll find she’s written another novel.  She’s busy, I know, editing The Believer Magazine and teaching at Columbia, but the The Uses of Enchantment came out in 2006 and The Vanishers in 2012, and I am growing restive.  Donna Tartt hit pay dirt with The Goldfinch, but Tartties (that may not be a real thing) are longing for a darker, quirkier, novel similar to her Secret History.  She is also a deliberate writer, having taken ten years between novels.

This article emerges, however, because  I’ve been locked in a dark room with Jennifer Egan and Eleanor Catton, well, with their work.  Each has written books that confound description.  Janet Maslin’s review of Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad attempted to evoke a sense of the novel:  “…spiky, shape-shifting … tough … uncategorizable.”

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal drew similarly cryptic description from Adam Ross:

“Enter the New Zealander Eleanor Catton, stage left, delivering a wildly brilliant and precocious first novel (she’s in her mid-20s) that’s not easy to describe. Nonlinear and occasionally tricky to follow, it’s a series of plays within plays; and as in a piece of experimental theater, its characters often break mid-dialogue to confess in startlingly honest asides or snatch at one another’s thoughts, with lighting and music added during moments of high drama or hushed intimacy. The play’s not just the thing, it’s everything.”

Catton followed up The Rehearsal with The Luminaries, the novel that won her the Mann Booker Prize at the age of 28.  Equally indescribable and equally inventive in structure, The Luminaries reflects Catton’s fondness for tales of action and adventure, for Philip Pullman, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Avi, authors who so entranced her that she knew she was meant to be a writer.  So, rollicking and thick with historical texture, teeming with vivid characters, the novel is more than impressive enough at eight hundred and twenty two pages of scams, confidence schemes, puzzle and mystery set in the gold fields of mid Nineteenth Century New Zealand.  And then … as Catton describes the genesis of the book:

“This phase of reading and researching lasted for nearly two years, but it wasn’t until the very end of it that the idea for the novel was really born. As a lark I had been learning to read Tarot cards, and I chanced on a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the plot of which is patterned on a Tarot spread. I found the book a terrible struggle, despite it being very slim, and, while struggling through it, I wondered why it was that novels of high structural complexity were so often inert, and why it was that structural patterning so often stood in the way of the reader’s entertainment and pleasure. Did structure have to come at the expense of plot? Or could it be possible for a novel to be structurally ornate and actively plotted at the same time? I thought about the novel that I wished The Castle of Crossed Destinies had been – and this, at last, was my negative-charge influence, defiant rather than imitative, longed-for rather than loved.”

Negative-charged, defiant, rife with crossed destinies, supported by extensive astrological charting, packed with shipwrecks, gold fever, Chinese murders, a delicious array of dialects, and intricate plotting, all eight hundred pages flew by.  The hallmark of an exceptional book is that I envy those who read it from the first time, and this is one I intend to pick up again, reading it again as if I had no idea how this marvelous Tarot clockwork will inevitably pull me into many, many lost hours again.

I may not have the classroom I once knew, but I can offer an adult ed course in something like, “Wait!  You haven’t read these authors?”  We’ll see who signs up.