RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gold Coast

“Gold Coast” is a poem that is part of a chapbook I will have coming out from Finishing Line Press in March 2014. The following video features me reading the poem alongside a variety of photos from places around the world. The pictures are not literally connected to the poem content, but are meant to celebrate the beauty of decay and destruction, on one hand, and regeneration and forgiveness, on the other. I am far more grateful for this rhythm of the ups and downs in life than I am for any material objects. Most of all, of course, I am grateful for all the wonderful people in my life, for the opportunity to see all these extraordinary places, and for all the second chances I’ve had.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Best Possible Bad Luck is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press from November 25, 2013 to January 10, 2014. Pre-order here.

Empty Cans in storySouth

Posted on
Sweet potatoes. Photo by Vmenko on Wikimedia Commons.

Sweet potatoes. Photo by Vmenko on Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been a bad blogger lately (“Bad blogger! Go home!” as we say to all strays.) But I just had this essay, “Empty Cans,” come out in storySouth, so thought I would share that.

It’s also inspired a few thoughts on writing process.

First, sometimes you need some help. A year or so ago, I attended a wonderful writing retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I got some feedback on my writing about getting married after the age of 49 (for the first time)–to whit, that I needed to take my subject more seriously. I hadn’t realized that I had been trivializing my own subject matter in the back of my head. Who could write seriously about mid-life marriage? Or about marriage at all? Of course, I know that people have and do, but there was still something of the Ladies Home Journal hanging over the idea. Since then, I have been working to deepen my approach and to extend it to my larger family history. This piece is part of that work.

Some of this material has had previous rough-draft runs on this blog, where facts have been questioned by some of my (family) readers. That’s been one of the great things about trying to blog less than superficially–to at least make some stab at literariness even in the genre known for skimming and ranting. No evaluations there, just a nod to my brother’s wisdom when he told me I should think of everything on my blog as a rough draft. Hard for me to allow everyone to see, but useful nonetheless.

Even though I have been away in textbook-writing land, I also find it still important to make my own creative forays. The textbook has been demanding in a whole different way, and I find that my sanity still depends on my connection to word, image, and narrative. I find that there’s a lot of posturing about the mysteries of being a writer, but one thing I do believe is that writers write more than they promote themselves, more than they pontificate about writing, more than they adopt the pose. That doesn’t mean that every writer writes every day (that’s another pose, though it’s great if you can manage it). And it doesn’t mean that every writer writes for fame or publication (though every write perhaps wants them at least a little bit). It just means we write–to make sense of our world, to make sense of ourselves, to make sense of others. To us there’s no other way.

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.

668px-Gnu_teacher.svg

Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.

Violence_theme

Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

The Paperwork of Loss

My paperwork-overloaded desk, with the green animal license cards.

We all encounter it: the paperwork required to lead a contemporary life. In fact, from the moment we are born, we are subject to paperwork—birth certificates, vaccination records, report cards, drivers licenses. By the time we turn 16 and encounter the DMV, we are thoroughly immersed in bureaucracy. Now that I’m in my 50s, and working at a public university as a state employee, I’m sometimes so overwhelmed by it all that I feel there’s time for little else in work or personal life. (I started to list all the adult forms, but it was so long and boring a list that I just deleted it. You know what I’m talking about.)

Most of all of this paperwork is just deadening. Sometimes, however, it actually connects in poignant ways to what’s important to us.

Last week, I received in the mail three bright green “courtesy” notices that it’s time to pay my Seminole County Animal Licensing fees. I don’t mind paying these modest fees. They go toward supporting Animal Services in my county, and though I’m sure they euthanize far more animals than I’d like, I do support their work in keeping animals from dying on the streets. Even getting these little cards reminds people that they need to vaccinate their pets and be responsible pet owners. The fee is lower when your pet is spayed or neutered. In these ways, they function as an educational tool as well as a tax on pet owners.

This time, of course, I have to send one back with the box checked off that the “Pet is deceased.” Little Cameo is no longer, and the green card with her name stamped on it will go back without a fee.

My grandfather at McFerrin School, c. 1908 or 1909.

Perhaps because it’s November again, this has reminded me of the months after my grandfather died on November 2, 1972. My mother, of course, was the main one in our household dealing with the practical implications of her father’s death, as well as the emotional ones. These must have been enormous. My mother was closer geographically than her two siblings to her parents’ home, but was nonetheless more than 400 miles across the state of Tennessee, and her mother had grown fragile and fractious and was soon to enter into nursing-home-land. My mother filed changes of address on numerous accounts from their house to our house, so she could make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. My grandfather had been in the hospital for several weeks, and the lengthy and incomprehensible medical bills kept coming. Other bills had to be paid. The estate had to be settled.

What I remember about this is that we kept on receiving relentless communiques sent to my grandfather months and months after his death. My mother handled the important ones, but somehow I took it upon myself to help handle the subscriptions and other minor stuff. My grandfather had been an avid reader—Newsweek, Life, Look, American Heritage, Smithsonian, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Forbes. The list was large, and these companies kept sending renewal notices relentlessly, long after we had canceled the subscriptions.

Today, of course, I understand that in those times removing someone’s name from a subscription list might take time. No instantaneous computer could make him disappear off the rolls at the touch of one button by one employee. In some ways perhaps we should have taken comfort in this echo of my grandfather’s life, at the difficulty in purging someone from the world. However, it just seemed to us like torture.

I remember the day about eight months after his death when an envelope arrived in the mail from one of these magazines—fortunately, I don’t remember which one. The envelope was thick, not the usual postcard, and I wondered momentarily as I took it out of the mailbox at the end of the driveway if they’d sent an apology for harassing us every week for all these months even though I had sent numerous handwritten notes explaining that Paul Meek had passed on and would not be renewing his subscription. (This was a time when we were far less used to just dumping whole loads of mail in the recycle bin.)

Instead, the letter started off, “Dear Paul,” and went on with the most maudlin and begging kind of diatribe—how he had been such a long-time subscriber that they just couldn’t understand his betrayal now. How if they had done anything to displease him in the pages of their magazine, they hoped to make up for it with the fabulous new content slated for the coming months. How if he continued to care about his own standing in the world based on the insights this magazine gave him, then he would surely re-subscribe NOW! They allowed as how they wouldn’t raise the rates, even though they had the perfect right to do so because he’d let his subscription lapse. This went on for bpth sides of 2 solid, single-spaced pages with red ink used here and there for emphasis. Then came the clincher: They just couldn’t stand to lose someone who had been a member of their x-publication family for so many years!

My little 13-year-old head didn’t exactly explode, but the use of the word family evoked in me a bitter sarcasm about commercial enterprises who made grandiose, even delusional claims to try to guilt people into continuing to buy their products. I envisioned the pained look that crossed my mother’s face every time she took in a pile of this exhausting mail. By now I myself had burdened her further with my two broken bones and a diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, my grandfather’s actual family had enough to deal with and was getting pretty tired of this crap.

I decided that afternoon that hand-written notes would no longer do, and I sat down with my mother’s typewriter. “To Whom It May Concern,” I typed for the first time in my life (though I have typed it many times since then), “my true family has been writing to you for months to explain my lack of desire to renew my subscription to your magazine. Their missives have been ignored, and you continue to bother them, so I now take it upon myself to write you.”

I paused. Then I pressed the keys once more, click-clack, with the tears bulging but not spilling from my eyes.

“I am dead,” I wrote, “and unless you deliver to heaven, nothing you publish will reach me. You are not my family, and I wish you would quit bothering my family. While not on the pages of your magazine, this constant sales harassment is offensive, and none of them will be subscribing.”

Wondering if I were breaking the law and feeling like a rebellious crusader, I signed my grandfather’s name with a childish, girly flourish, and then folded it neatly into the automatic-return, no-postage-required envelope and put this letter out for the mailman. I don’t think I even told my mother about it.

Though I’m relatively sure now that my letter had nothing to do with it, that we had just reached the end of the natural life course of their pleas, we indeed never heard from x-publication again. I patrolled the mailbox for weeks as though I were anticipating a secret love-letter, making sure, feeling vindicated, hoping that someone had been at least embarrassed.

My grandfather with my brother and me, about 1963.

Nowadays, receiving the green card with Cameo’s name on it, I feel a little differently. First, of course, Seminole County will not be sending me missives for months—they provide a check-box for just such circumstances as a regular part of pet ownership. And SC is not a commercial enterprise, so there’s not a matter of them trying to get someone, anyone to just write them a check whether or not there’s anyone there.

It’s also true that I will be printing out a form from the Internet and filling it out and attaching a fee for a new little cat, the pesky Paka, who has since attached herself to our household. The life cycle is shorter with pets, and we are perhaps more prepared for their loss and their replacement. There is no replacing your grandfather, but while no two pets are ever the same, new ones appear to fill the gaps the gone ones leave behind.

Perhaps it was getting the reminder cards, but yesterday I took up all the cat beds in the house and washed and dried and re-arranged them. A couple of these beds had been used primarily by Cammie in the last weeks of her life, and the other cats haven’t touched them since. They have sat empty in Cammie’s favorite spots, reminding us of her absence. This weekend, I felt ready to have them used by other cats. We’ll see if the other cats are ready, or if they would rather they could send me a letter to the effect that she’s gone and I should get rid of her things.

I’ll try to pay better attention than a bureaucracy would.

How Can We Work Together?

Photo courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The presidential election is over, and one of my enormous stressors has gone with it. We are all relieved, whether our candidate won or not, though I’m sure those of us who supported President Obama are more relieved than Romney-ites. Even now that the election is past, however, there’s been a lot of talk about the “two Americas” we now live in, how divided we remain.

I have searched my mind for a way to extend an olive branch to the many people I know and care about who don’t see eye to eye with me on politics—or who don’t seem to look even in the same direction. While I continue to think very ill of those in power in the Republican Party, and while I do believe that there are many in it who are out-and-out bigots of various sorts, I also know some people who are not this way. It’s hard for me to understand them, but I wish we could find ways to come together somehow. Naïve, perhaps, but sometimes our most naïve hopes are the most necessary.

What I want to say right now to anyone who might have voted for Romney is this: Take heart. No, not because the House remains largely Republican and grid-lock remains a real possibility. Take heart because the Dems’ goal is not to personally harm you.

* You will still benefit from the economic recovery underway now due to changes in policy introduced under the Obama administration.

* You will still be able to worship as you see fit.

* You will still be able to counsel pregnant women. You will still be able to adopt children that might otherwise be unwanted or born to those unable to care for them.

* You will still be able to rest assured that should you develop a chronic health condition (such as the diabetes that I’ve had since age 11), you’ll be able to get or keep health insurance and receive the care that you need all the more.

* You will still be able to hope for a secure retirement through the continued existence of Social Security and Medicare. No one will be expecting you to become your own investment expert or to risk the security of your elder years on vouchers.

* In the next election, the Democrats will still be trying to convince you that their policies are better for the nation than Republican ones, but no one will be trying to keep you from voting based on your demographic profile.

* You will still be able to marry whoever you want to marry. And to divorce legally should you desire to do so, no matter your religion, even though that’s frowned upon in the Bible and by the Pope and many other religions. You’ll still have the ability to remain in a less-than-happy marriage should you so choose.

* You will still be able to join the military and serve our country and receive opportunities for high-level technical training that may support you after you leave the military. You won’t be thrown out of the military because of who you love.

* Even so, you will likely benefit from a foreign policy based on diplomacy that is more likely to keep us out of wars that you or your children or your neighbors would otherwise have to fight and our taxes would have to pay for. You will benefit from the extraction of the U.S. from its current involvements in war where that is possible. You will still be able to welcome our soldiers home, as more of them finally come home.

* Your children will still have educational opportunities that, while not equal across the board by any means, will be supported as a right and need of our citizenry. You will be likely to continue to receive correct change in your transactions at the grocery store because the young man or woman working there will more likely have received well-funded schooling and something to eat to fuel his or her brain for learning when a developing child.

* You might even still have the opportunity to hear a symphony or view great works of art or receive in-depth information through NPR or PBS or work supported by the NEH, NEH, and NIH.

* You will still have access to some of the most reasonably priced, safest, and cleanest publically provided water in the world.

* You will still benefit from all the clean-air, clean-water, and other environmental regulations that protect our basic health and protect the future of our planet. You will benefit from clean energy policies that will combat the global warming that endangers us all.

* And when disaster strikes, FEMA will be there to make sure that you get help as soon as possible in a nationally coordinated effort. FEMA will not be privatized into some crazy quilt of corporations worried about making a profit on your misfortune.

We will keep taking care of you. The thing is that more of the rest of us will be more likely to be taken care of, too.

Democrats aren’t interested in taking anything away from most American citizens (though perhaps some more tax money from the wealthiest). We are interested in making sure that we all have basic care and opportunities. That even includes you, even though you might not return all of us the favor if you had won.

Yesterday, as I did my brief volunteer stint at the Obama volunteer coordination office in Casselberry, I really enjoyed myself. Because of my arthritic foot, I no longer feel it possible to torture myself with canvassing (which I have found utterly depleting when I’ve done it in the past), so I was doing data updates, keeping the various files organized, helping prep and send out the canvassers, providing snacks and water bottles, and generally helping out around the office.

As I greeted returning canvassers, I was touched by the reports from the field. We had men and women who came back from neighborhoods with stories of residents who had hugged them and thanked them for still being out there getting the vote out. I knew that my own brother still pounded the pavement in Massachusetts, working hard to re-elect State Representative Carolyn Dykema and helping to support Elizabeth Warren in her senatorial bid. My brother has been passionate about politics for as long as I can remember, and he’s an inspiration to me in his ability to withstand the confrontational nature of it all. I hoped that he was getting as friendly a reception in his last-minute forays as our volunteers were in Orlando.

My father before him maintained long years of involvement in politics—I remember him working at the polls in South Knox County back in Tennessee all those years ago. I remember him working long hours and coming home exhausted. At first I didn’t understand why he felt compelled to do it. But he provided a great example for my brother and me—we both find our ways to participate and to care about the future of our country. Everyone in my family has always felt compelled to understand the issues and to vote at the very least.

Late in the afternoon, I went to drive one voter to the polls who’d had knee surgery and couldn’t get there on her own. She was a funny lady—she was perhaps 65 years old, but it was hard to tell because her face had been altered by too many cosmetic surgeries and her hair dyed a brassy blonde. She was dressed to the nines to make the short foray around the corner to the polling station and had managed to pull on high-heeled black boots. I teased her that they might not be good for her knee as she limped into line, and we hoped together it wouldn’t be too long. With me in my jeans and sneakers, my hair in a frazzled mess, we couldn’t have looked more different. There was one car in her driveway and another sitting on the front lawn, but she told me that her roommate’s car wasn’t working and she didn’t want him to drive hers. The lawn had turned scrubby and long spikes grew up around one car’s wheels. I thought about all the tensions in her life and her dedication nonetheless to voting, and to voting for a candidate who respects the middle-class and the diversity of our country. At least superficially, it didn’t look as though we had much else in common, but we had that. (Well, maybe our poor yard care, too.)

When I got back from this errand, I stood in the office doorway watching the hub-bub and suddenly felt moved by what had surrounded me all day. I tried to imagine the same excitement and camaraderie at the Romney headquarters, and I knew it would be missing a crucial ingredient for me, even if I believed somehow in Romney’s policies (which I don’t). We’ve all seen the photos—at the convention, at the various rallies, at the headquarters around the country, at the concession speech—and The Daily Show has long ago made fun of this—but the uniformity of Romney supporters always stuns me nonetheless.

On the other hand, as I stood in the doorway of the Casselberry Obama office, I felt like a citizen of a great nation built on diversity, built on multiple backgrounds and a celebration of this broad range of humanity. Even in this single small office, we had volunteers young and old, white, Latina and Latino, African-American, East Indian, and various other shades of the human rainbow. We had one lady who swooped in in her Mercedes and others, like me, who showed up in ordinary or beat-up old cars. One woman came without a car at all, and I drove her over to a nearby neighborhood to canvas on foot. One woman sported a large “LGBT Community for Obama” pin on her T-shirt. An older black gentleman loaded provisions to take to those standing in the long lines expected after five p.m. One young mother brought her five-year-old daughter, who filled in with the hi-lighter all the columns that her mother checked off. Then I gave her some paper and she drew us all pictures of little girls beaming from the pages, the sun beaming above them. I taped them on the wall with the pictures of Obama and teased her that maybe one day she would be running for president.

The voter rolls we were updating were filled with names indicating all kinds of origins—plenty of Johnsons and Joneses mixed in with Rodriguezes and Garcias. I noticed names that were Greek, Arab, Indian, Russian, French, and African. I felt glad that immigrants to the U.S. no longer feel a need to Anglicize their names, and glad that I couldn’t even assume that these names were those of first-generation Americans. Decades ago, the country was conceived of as a melting pot, where we all were to blend in—that was the time when my ancestors came here from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and France. That was one kind of diversity, but also the time when people tended to change their names to something more “American” soon after they landed here in order to “fit in.” I wondered about names that might hide negative parts of our history—slavery and Native American displacement. Nowadays, however, instead of the melting pot, we use the metaphor of the salad bowl—in which we mix but don’t have to blend to the point of disappearance or uniformity. And this is the country I love—one based on a mixture of people, both those who came before and those who continue to come as well as to be born into this rich amalgam.

At the Obama volunteer office, we were not all the same, and yet there we were, all working together. The challenges remain enormous, in spite of Obama’s fortuitous reelection and some fabulous wins in the Senate. I hope we can meet these challenges all together as a nation, even though we are not all the same. There’s a model for doing so in the Democratic party, and I hope the Republicans can join us in that.

Self-Help

Snowflake obsidian, with its supposed healing powers. Even if for me those are symbolic, it soothes.

Today, I want to offer my version of a self-help project. I had to laugh when this idea came to me last week because it resembles in some ways the same kind of saccharine self-help project that all the fake happiness gurus promote. Once again, I find myself making what is perhaps a narrow distinction: my self-help project, I believe, is different in that it acknowledges the full power of negative things in my life. It simply is an attempt to create a space, albeit small, where I can retreat from some of those negative things.

This all came about because several people suggested strategies for coping with my return to campus from my lovely year of sabbatical—my trainer suggested that I spend time between classes going through my assigned stretching exercises—“It will be more crucial now more than ever,” she said, “in order to keep the stress from making you seize up again.” One friend noted that I should make a common practice of shutting my office door. And my dear friend Gigi said I needed to fill up my pockets with snowflake obsidian and create an altar in the corner of my office.

I liked all of these ideas, but dwelt a little bit on the last one. To what could I make an altar that would transcend the moment? And would I want one that everyone who walked in my door could peruse and comment on?

I decided instead that I would make a sabbatical-in-a-drawer.

Note that I am still in the idea stage of this project. I have cleaned out a desk drawer at work and started collecting things to put into it—photos of Bruce and the cats, little tchotchkes that remind me of far-off places and people, beautiful fabric, and, yes, bits of snowflake obsidian, that healing gem. I’m also planning to buy a calligraphy pen and some nice paper for a list of my stretches and some little reminders, such as “Think about what you want versus what your ego wants” and “What’s different now?” Maybe I will even include a small frame to remind me to keep shifting my attention from the unhealthy scene right in front of me to the wider horizon or the inner landscape.

One of the things I really like about this idea is that it won’t be out for everyone to see. Rather, when I have a few minutes and need a little rest, I can simply close my door and open the drawer. In it I hope to create a little magic and a lot of distance from the day to day that so often burns me out. It may be a little like the wardrobe in the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yes, these worlds of the imagination have their own dangers, but they are ones we can confront, ones we long for.

My desire to keep it private makes it a little odd for me to write about it here on the blog, but one of my friends said she really wanted to share the idea with another friend of hers, and we started talking about the whole concept of sabbatical and how we could import that into our daily work lives. People in most walks of life, after all, don’t have the option of official sabbaticals, though I did find some web resources for those wishing to negotiate one in other professions. I heartily recommend you do so if you can. At any rate, even for those who have the possibility, there are few of them and they are very far between.

Many of us also live with heavy workloads and a lot of stress, even when we love what we do. And many of us work nearly non-stop, seven days a week. Few of us any longer have a designated day of rest, much less any longer period of time when we can pause and reflect on our work.

Until I looked up the word in the dictionary, I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between the words “Sabbath” and “sabbatical” (duh). But the idea of sabbatical goes back to the Bible and Leviticus 25:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,

“Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: ‘When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard and gather in the fruit thereof,

but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land, a Sabbath for the Lord; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard.”

And, of course, to Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had made.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.

This ancient acknowledgement of the need for rest and refreshment after labor is one that is increasingly lost. Even in academia, sabbatical no longer really means “rest”; rather, it means working independently outside of the classroom. (We are required both to submit a plan of work in applying for one and to send in a report on our accomplishments when we are finished.) So, in one sense, my transition back to the classroom has not been difficult—it isn’t as though I have gotten used to doing nothing much. I have simply shifted my attention back to student work and less toward my writing, but the fact of work has remained continual.

Emotionally, however, sabbatical was indeed a vacation—I didn’t have to deal with the office politics that eat up so much energy and create such feelings of despair in me. And so I find that I can create a sabbatical-in-a-drawer—a little free zone of emotional sustenance and beauty in a sometimes challenging world.

I would love to hear about other sabbaticals-in-drawers that any of you make or similar ideas that help you keep your sanity and find moments of rest and emotional nourishment. These are, after all, requirements of life.

Best of Times, Worst of Times

Posted on

You may have noticed that I’ve gotten a little flaky lately. It happens to the best of us bloggers, though I have managed for more than a year to be fairly consistent in my twice-a-week schedule. It’s frustrating to go to a blog that sounds exciting or that is promoted on another blog or website only to find that its author has only ever posted once or twice ever or spends more time promising to “get back to it” than saying anything else.

But, as those bumper stickers used to say, Shit Happens.

I can’t feel too badly about it, either. One of the things about a rich life is that it is full of “so many things that we should all be as happy as kings” (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson). Or, at any rate, we should all be as overwhelmed with options and decisions and demands as kings, kings that are more than decorative anyway.

It’s been a wildly rich time around here—some of it wonderful, some of it just the painful maintenance of life and home. What has been great about it for me is that I’ve been able to keep some kind of productivity throughout, even if it hasn’t always been Joyous Crybaby. This is new for me—usually I am easily derailed. But this week, in spite of having our entire house re-piped, with its concomitant chaos of workmen and about thirty holes in our house’s walls; in spite of having to move all my clothes out of the closet and empty two tall, six-shelf bookcases in my study (still not restored); in spite of late-breaking announcements of class-size increases at my university and the requisite revamping of syllabi; in spite of whole new episodes of politicking over UCF issues; in spite of Jupiter’s cancer being back and him often to the vet again—I have kept working, on both the Oxford project and a new essay that I finally sent off on Monday.

I’ve tried to think about what has made this difference for me. One thing was a simple suggestion made by my therapist—when I started freaking out about the same old crap coming my way compliments of my employer, she said to me, “Try thinking about what’s different now, not just what’s the same.”

This has been a great strategy for me. Although I love my career choice and being a professor of creative writing, I have a frankly sometimes lousy employment situation. (Most of us do at least from time to time or in some ways. It is not a good era for workers of any type, professional or otherwise.) For a while, I didn’t think I would be able to tolerate it much longer, and one of the things that I’ve worked on this year is to change my ways of dealing with this work-related stress. I had to quit letting my university define me, and I have made great strides in that regard—expanding my community outside UCF, re-focusing on my writing rather than my service to the university in the way of curricular and course development, committee work, and other thankless and frankly mostly ultimately useless tasks.

Many things in my work life have changed for the better over the past year, and so I keep thinking about those things, not the same-old-same-old things. Many new opportunities have opened up, and I am sorry only that I won’t be able to do everything.

This blog has been a part of those good changes. Bruce told me this morning that I now have 322 subscribers, and I said, “Wow. Last time I checked it was just 50!” That’s exciting to me.

I also added a few new features to Joyous Crybaby this past week—I added an “About Lisa Roney” page—for those people who find the blog without knowing me already—and I set up pages to list the art, songs, movies & TV, and writing that I sometimes feature in posts. About this last—I would love to hear from my readers with more suggestions about that feature. I can at first just list artists or particular works, songs, movies, TV episodes, and particular pieces of writing or authors—and then later, if you want to do a guest post on them, great, or maybe I will incorporate more commentary later on—and then I can link them on the lists. So let me have suggestions, via the comments section or email at roney dot lisa at gmail dot com.

Bruce quibbled with me about this last—he said, “But ‘All Along the Watchtower’ doesn’t make me cry. I think of it as more of an angry song.” Indeed, I am terrible at titles and had a hard time figuring out how to succinctly label those pages. Any suggestions are welcome.

Another thing that Bruce pointed out is that there might be room for yet another one of those pages that would include a list of a different kind of writing—that is, more analytical stuff as opposed to the experiential literature currently listed. This might include analyses of happiness, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided or Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria or of sadness in relation to the arts, such as James Elkin’s Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. There’s even a new book out by Adam Brent Houghtaling called This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music. I’m going to have to look that up, but I want to be careful not to try to become too much of an archivist.

I leave you with a hallmark quote from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is, after all, the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and I think he would understand perfectly the relevant bumper sticker, though a man of his times would likely have resorted to the minced oath of “Stuff Happens.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the meantime, thanks for hanging in there during further blog evolutions. And happy crying!

Bloody Thursday

Posted on

Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.

Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)

On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.

The ILWU’s “Why We Continue to Honor Bloody Thursday”
A Washington State history site on the overall West Coast strikes of 1934
Trailer for a PBS film on Bloody Thursday

When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.

It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.

The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)

I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.

In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”

Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”

She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.

Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.

Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:

If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.

Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.

Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?

In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.

Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.

I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.

Terrorized by the Supreme Court on Healthcare

Posted on

“Death of a Sinner,” part of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1500. The Four Last Things are death, judgment, hell, and heaven. I know not everyone agrees, but I’ve always thought that leaving folks to die by the roadside is a sure turn toward hell.

Update: I’m so happy to report that I was wrong, and that today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. I feel hugely relieved. Good analysis by MSNBC here.

I’m writing this with the fearful expectation that the Supreme Court will rule tomorrow that the health-care reform law is unconstitutional. After all, they’ve once again affirmed their ridiculous and absurd assertion that corporations are people and that, therefore, elections are for sale.

There are, as usual, much greater and more knowledgeable minds than mine that have weighed in on these issues in ways vastly subtle and complex. That’s fine, but I need to express my own sheer terror at what is coming. I am afraid, very afraid.

The main issue that the radical right has trotted out to argue that the Affordable Care Act is problematic is that it requires people to purchase a “product” they may not want, or else pay a fine. As usual, the Republicans turn logic on its head in order to make many of the people this Act would help most think it will harm them or is unfair to them. The Republicans have a real knack for that.

That certain elements in the Republican Party can sucker some of the public into believing their upside-down story is one thing. But that a Supreme Court judge might do so, much less the five that are likely to rule along ideological lines against the health care law, makes me frantic.

Usually, I speak out about health care reform as something beneficial to people who, unlike me, do not have health insurance and who suffer, potentially even losing their lives, because of this situation. Usually, I present my support as a matter of compassion and fairness to those less well off than I am, less protected from the vicissitudes of health.

Homeless and Cold by Ed Yourdon. This man is our stereotype of a person who needs charity healthcare. I’m fine with contributing to the care of such people, but unfortunately far more people besides those living on the streets are dying due to lack of healthcare. They’re just more hidden from view.

By no means are all of these people homeless, shiftless, or undeserving of care (if anyone is). I tell the stories of a few people I know:

* One of my former undergraduate students, a brilliant young man now in graduate school at NYU, suddenly in his senior year of college began having seizures. His working class parents had no health insurance coverage for him. I helped him find the resources to obtain health insurance, but he still carries the debt from a couple of hospitalizations and will carry it for many years to come. His entire future will be affected by this debt—his ability to buy a house, to provide for his children and their education, to start a business, etc., etc. He is not yet 25 years old.

* One friend who worked independently as a hairdresser was suddenly struck with cervical cancer in her thirties. Because she had other well-educated and persistent friends who helped her navigate the system, she got help, but she will be paying the hospital off for the rest of her life.

* My friend, a sweet and talented young woman who worked on an academic project with me—on grant funding without benefits—suddenly deteriorated into a psychotic state over a period of a few weeks. Several friends and her boyfriend rallied around and got her committed to the charity mental health hospital, where the only expertise anyone seemed to have related to drug and alcohol addiction. After her premature release due to a lack of health insurance, her boyfriend and brother took twelve-hour shifts watching her, but one night she managed to slip away. She went to a friend’s house—one who didn’t quite understand her state of mind—and after everyone went to bed, she tied a concrete block around her waist and drowned herself in a swimming pool. She should have still been in the hospital.

* In November 2009, a man walked into an office building here in Orlando and shot six people, killing one young father. His mental illness had responded to treatment in the past, but, as his mother-in-law reported, after he lost his job and his health insurance, he couldn’t afford to pay for his medications and treatment.

These cases have had a local impact on me, but they are not at all unusual. They happen on a daily basis all over the country. In a 2009 study by Harvard Medical School, researchers estimated that 45,000 deaths a year occur in the U.S. due to a lack of health insurance. That’s one every 12 minutes, and it doesn’t even count the ones like the young father who was murdered. These are my motivation for supporting universal healthcare and, short of that, Obamacare.

However, as I have contemplated the purported unconstitutionality of the “individual mandate” for most Americans to purchase health insurance, I must admit that I see where the right wing is going now, and it makes me tremble with even more fear.

The only way, in fact, that I can see the health care system as being something that “consumers” should be able to opt out of is that they will agree or be forced to opt out of it in a very dramatic and severe way. This article notes that the Justice Department countered the arguments about health insurance being a “product” that some might not want by saying “that since every American will need medical care at some point in their lives, individuals do not ‘choose’ whether to participate in the health care market.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope this logic will prevail. Lately, when I have one of those right-wingers get in my face and say, “Just don’t force me to buy insurance,” I now counter, “Then just don’t force me to pay your emergency room bills.”

I don’t really feel this way, but I could also add that I am very tired of having my own medical bills inflated to cover the costs of people who never pay theirs and who don’t carry health insurance to help them do so when it would be possible for them to do so. In other words, all of those people walking around with no health insurance are being carried by those of us who more regularly participate in the health care system. We have been paying for them for a long time.

Democrats don’t emphasize this side of the argument, because they can see, I’m guessing, exactly what I’m seeing in the future. There are also plenty of Republicans who do have health insurance and what they say often is, “Just don’t force me to pay for someone else’s health care.” If the Affordable Care Act is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, then we are really opening ourselves up to a kind of divide that will allow more and more people to die. We are opening ourselves more and more to those who believe that if you don’t have health insurance, it must be your own “responsibility,” and that if you get sick that is somehow your own fault as well. Would that we could sort out those at fault and those not. But the Tea Partiers who don’t have health insurance are insane, that much I know.

The 45,000 a year estimated to die from lack of health insurance will continue to rise. That number is already up from an estimated 18,000 deaths in 2002 due to drops in the rates of the insured. Nearly a million lost their health insurance between 2007 and 2008 alone, and “public hospitals and clinics are shuttering or scaling back across the country.”

In other words, those radical elements in the Republican Party who have expressed their willingness just to allow the sick to die are going to get their way. That our high court may be laying the groundwork for this abandonment of the public good is appalling. I don’t know how anyone can support this political agenda. It is cruel, immoral, stupid, and Dark-Ages-like. I hardly recognize my own country in this debate. I’m a dedicated American, but this issue more than anything makes me wonder if I will always continue to feel that I belong here. It is far more subtle than the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide, but we are being set up for a slaughter nonetheless.

Tea Party march on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, 2009, by Patriot Room. One woman sports a sign that says, “Hello Obamacare, Goodby Grandma,” an example of the kind of mischaracterizations (lies) so common on the right. Maybe we should determine admission to the ER without insurance based on voting records. I’m reaching the point where I’m ready for these folks to put their money where their mouth is and not receive healthcare if they don’t have insurance or the cash to cover it.

Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

Posted on

Louis Bouquet, La Mort d’Orphee, 1925-1939. Orpheus, torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, a sad symbol of what havoc jealousies and distractions can wreak on artists.

My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.

The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.

The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.

Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:

Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”

“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]

In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]

“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]

“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]

Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”

“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]

“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]

“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]

Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”

De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.

“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY

“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]

“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]

“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]

“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]

“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]

“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]

“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]

“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT

“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]

“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]

“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]

Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”

This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.

“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]

The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.

Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”

* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]

* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]

* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]

Comments on Deresiewicz

“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]

“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]

“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]

Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”

Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.

* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]

* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]

* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]

Comments on Gunn

Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.

I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:

“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct

George Cruikshank, Old Blucher Beating the Corsican Big Drum, 1814. Gebhard von Blucher, a Prussian field marshal, carried an irrational degree of hatred for the French and over and over again flogged the populace and its leaders to go to war.

In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:

* MFA vs. no academic support for writers

* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction

* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction

* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir

These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”

I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:

* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.

* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?

* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.

* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”

Would that the squabblers would hear my song.

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus, 1894. Orpheus before everyone started fighting over him. Better days, no doubt.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 355 other followers