Monday, July 21, 2014

The Mockingbird’s Tale

Boris Kachka looks at the life of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.  What has happened to her in her later years is a tale that is sadder and more harrowing than any novel that could be written about a writer’s legacy and the people who took advantage of her kindness.

She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo”—Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.

I wish people would just leave her in peace and let her writing speak for her.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writers on Writers

This quote from Flannery O’Connor is making the rounds.

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

I can’t top that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

250px-ShakespeareToday, according to the best information we have, is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare.

I’m quick to admit that as a theatre scholar, I’m not as steeped in his works as many of my colleagues.  As an actor, I’ve been in exactly one production of his play Othello, and that was forty years ago.  (I had a small part whose name began with “The.”)  Later on, I worked on several productions of his plays backstage (A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to follow me wherever I go) and I was an assistant director on two productions at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: The Merchant of Venice in 1987 and Hamlet, which starred Val Kilmer (and he was very good), in 1988.  And of course you know of my annual pilgrimages to Stratford, Ontario, to the Shakespeare festival there.  Those began in 1970, and while I missed a couple of years in the 70′s and 80′s, I went almost every year since.

So even if I can no longer recite whole soliloquies from memory* and wouldn’t dare direct a production, and even though my field of study of theatre is largely based on works and writers who lived 400 years after him, there is no doubt that the works and the characters in his plays represent the standard by which most plays are judged, and his words are among the most discussed, debated, and lauded in the English language.  They infiltrate our language to the point that we quote him without knowing it: phrases such as “vanished into thin air” and “foregone conclusion” came from his pen.  His works have been turned into operas, ballets, films, and canvas, and characters from his plays have shown up in new garb with new names.  In short (probably a Shakespeare-ism), his work is everywhere.

There have been debates over the centuries as to whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote all of the plays credited to him; whether or not he was just a front for someone else who was out of favor with the Court; whether or not he was gay or other such idle speculation.  Scholars far more prominent than me have spent their careers on such subjects and who am I to deride them?  But in the end it really doesn’t matter.  We have the works, we have the characters, and we have the insight to the humanity that speaks to us from those days to now.

*

*When I was in college, I was tapped into the honorary society Alpha Psi Omega.  In order to be accepted, I had to recite a speech from Shakespeare, and the one given to me was from Act V, Scene 1 of The Comedy of Errors.  It remains the only long speech of his that I learned and retained for any length of time.

It’s a good rant by Antipholus of Ephesus, and in order to really make it work, you have to recite it all practically in one breath.

My liege, I am advised what I say,
Neither disturbed with the effect of wine,
Nor heady-rash, provoked with raging ire,
Albeit my wrongs might make one wiser mad.
This woman lock’d me out this day from dinner:
That goldsmith there, were he not pack’d with her,
Could witness it, for he was with me then;
Who parted with me to go fetch a chain,
Promising to bring it to the Porpentine,
Where Balthazar and I did dine together.
Our dinner done, and he not coming thither,
I went to seek him: in the street I met him
And in his company that gentleman.
There did this perjured goldsmith swear me down
That I this day of him received the chain,
Which, God he knows, I saw not: for the which
He did arrest me with an officer.
I did obey, and sent my peasant home
For certain ducats: he with none return’d
Then fairly I bespoke the officer
To go in person with me to my house.
By the way we met
My wife, her sister, and a rabble more
Of vile confederates. Along with them
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A dead-looking man: this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as ’twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess’d. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together;
Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,
I gain’d my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your grace; whom I beseech
To give me ample satisfaction
For these deep shames and great indignities.

Whew.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Talking About Writing

Today I have the Scholars Conference where I’ll be presenting my paper.  Unlike the last couple of years, I froze it on Tuesday night and printed it out first thing Wednesday morning before I left for the airport.  I will be delivering it acoustically… that is, I won’t be reading it off the computer as I did before but off the paper at the rostrum.

I spent most of Friday listening to writers talk about writing, so when I came back to the hotel to get rested and ready for the gala dinner, I did a little work on a play that I started a couple of years ago and haven’t gotten past Act I, Scene 2.  Thank you, Arthur Kopit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the writing process, and I don’t plan to launch into a long post about it now (you’re welcome), but coming to Inge always makes me re-evaluate the process I go through when I write.  That covers everything from your average BBWW blog rant to a novel or play.  I’ve had the chance to do that this week, too, and in a lot of ways hearing how really successful and brilliant writers do it has affirmed my own methods.

What a relief.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Reading

Their Pet Words — Brad Leithauser in The New Yorker tells us about some writers’ favorite words and what it tells us about them.

The word “sweet” appears eight hundred and forty times in your complete Shakespeare. Or nearly a thousand times, if you accept close variants (“out-sweeten’d,” “true-sweet,” “sweetheart”). This level of use comes as no surprise to anyone who loves the sonnets and plays: whether in moments of fondest coaxing and chiding (“When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear”) or abject anguish and empathy (“Bless thy sweet eyes—they bleed”), Shakespeare reliably repaired to a sugared lexicon. It’s similarly unsurprising to learn that “flower” and “flowers” bloom on more than a hundred occasions in E. E. Cummings’s poetry; for him, the rotation of the seasons meant that spring followed hard on the heels of spring. Likewise, one might rightly predict that within A. E. Housman’s verses “lad” and “lads” would tabulate more densely than “beauty” or “life” or even “love” or “death.” For him, “lad” was probably the richest word in the language—a modest, slender triad of letters on which he hung his deepest feelings of fascination, lust, exclusion, and (especially when regarding soldiers in uniform) envy and gratitude.

Every poet, every novelist has his or her pet words. Which words these may be dawns on you gradually as you enter the world of a new writer. The deeper you read, the more likely it is that a fresh line in effect becomes an old line, as a signature vocabulary term rings out variations on previous usages. Of course, with many major authors this process of identifying pet words can be hastened and simplified by consulting a concordance. Either way, you’ll likely discover that your author’s personal dictionary contains an abundance of amiable acquaintances, but a select few intimate friends.

I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you’d never actually read—if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably. You might reasonably postulate that Housman was homosexual upon learning that “lad,” “lads,” and “man” together surface roughly two hundred times in his poetry, as opposed to something like twenty appearances of “woman,” “women,” “girl,” and “girls.” Or you might—a deeper challenge—presuppose the existence of an essential temperamental and creative schism between two giants upon learning that “tranquil” and its variants (“tranquility,” “tranquilizing,” etc.) materialize more than fifty times in Wordsworth’s poetry and about a dozen in Byron’s. Doesn’t this statistic present, in stark relief, the posed polarities of the poet as contemplative and the poet as a man of action?

At the end of the day, when darkness falls, a concordance turns out to be a sort of sky chart to the assembling night. It shows how the poet’s mind constellates. Even if we’d never read Milton, we might surmise something of his vast, magisterial temperament on being told that “law” emerges some fifty times in his complete poems. We might surmise something further on discovering that “Hell” surfaces nearly as often as “love.”

Bullies for Jesus — From James Hamblin in The Atlantic, a high school student feels the wrath of God for complaining about religion in his public school.

Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school’s biology classroom.

Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.

The taste of justice was, for a moment, sweet on Pulliam’s godless tongue. Until students protested . By later in the week, his peers had compiled hundreds of signatures on petitions to save the Commandments plaque. The Muldrow Ministerial Alliance began giving away shirts that bore the Ten Commandments, in support of the protest. Parents got into the fray, too. Denise Armer said taking down the plaque was “going too far … What happened to freedom of religion, and not from religion?”

The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam’s friends–who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High–started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.

Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and “in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her.” Other students “told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him.”

Pulliam’s justification for taking the photo in the first place: “I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is an educational nonprofit advocacy group. They have 393 affiliated student groups on U.S. high school and college campuses. That number has doubled in the last four years. Their stated purpose is to “organize and empower nonreligious students” and “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.” This month they launched a program, primarily in high schools, intended to counter situations like Pulliam’s, which they say are commonplace.

The Secular Safe Zone initiative is designed to create “safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.” That’s done by recruiting “allies” and training them to recognize and respond to anti-atheist bullying. The initiative is modeled off of Gay Alliance’s LGBT Safe Zone program, which was started several years ago, in that it allows mentors at schools to explicitly demarcate spaces where “students know that bullying won’t be tolerated.”

School faculty members who affiliate with the program never have to say a thing; they hang the yellow, green, pink, and blue emblem, and students come to them.

“It’s shocking how often people tell secular students that they don’t belong in America,” Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA told me. “Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists … We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students.” That can include “teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities.”

A Different Party — Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein follow up their book on the dysfunction of the GOP with an assessment of where they’re going now.

A brighter future for politics and policy requires a different Republican Party, one no longer beholden to its hard right and willing to operate within the mainstream of American politics. After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience. The initial post-2012 election assessment by the Republican National Committee took some steps toward frankly acknowledging their problems with the electorate and suggesting a course of action. However, with the striking exception of immigration policy, it moved little beyond message and process and in no way questioned the party’s absolutist position on taxes or crabbed position on the scope and size of government. That failure to move further made it even more difficult for the few problem-solving-oriented House conservatives, along with some of those in the Senate, to ignore the threat of well-financed primary challenges for apostasy from those absolutist causes.

Republicans have reason to believe the 2014 midterm elections will strengthen their position in Congress, even if they continue on the oppositionist course they set in the 112th Congress. Midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party, and if there is disgruntlement over continued dysfunction, voters may take it out on the perceived party in charge. But Republicans also know that there are risks associated with brinksmanship and obstruction, and they could be setting themselves up for a trouncing in 2016. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians and their parties so much as the prospect of electoral defeat and political marginalization.

Doonesbury — Conventional wisdom.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Best Result From Congress — James Fallows in The Atlantic articulates why Congress should vote No on going to Syria.

One week ago at exactly this time — it seems like a year — the political world was on waning-moments countdown for the expected U.S. strike on Syria. Then about an hour later, President Obama took the surprising and highly welcome step of saying he would request approval from Congress.

Let me spell out what was implicit in the items I was putting up just before and after the President’s decision. You can find them all collected here, including the one by William Polk that continues to get a lot of attention. In the past few days, like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates (and for the same reason, the nightmare of actual article-writing), I’ve mainly been off line. Here is how things look to me a week further on:

  1. Obama’s decision to involve Congress is the one clearly positive result of the horrific Syrian civil war. Whatever the reasons for his decision, it will help redress the decades-long distortion in executive and legislative power over military action.
  2. If I had a vote in Congress, I would vote No. I wasn’t sure of that a week ago, as I’ll explain below. But it is how I feel now because of this next reason #3.
  3. The President and many of his supporters have made an ironclad case that something should be done about the disasters and atrocities in Syria. But they have barely even tried to make a case that the right something is U.S. airstrikes without broad international support. Thus:
  4. Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily “humiliating” way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake.

Now the details.

On why Obama’s decision was so valuable: I gave part of my explanation nine days ago. Garrett Epps explained the legal and historical reasoning around the same time. Zachary Karabell talked about the (wholesome) political implications yesterday. Many others have stressed the same thing. Overall: since at least the Vietnam era, people on all sides of American politics have lamented the seemingly unstoppable rise of an Imperial Presidency. Obama may not have had this in mind a month ago or even a week ago, but his decision will help brake (and break) that trend.

On why I was ready to hear his case, once he decided to make it to Congress: I had obviously been skeptical of unilateral military involvement Syria. A week ago we were headed toward action that was unilateral in two ways. One was the absence of UN, NATO, EU, UK, or other broad alliances that have been amassed for nearly all modern military strikes. The other was the domestic unilateralism of Obama’s deciding this all on his own.

For me, the very fact of going to Congress made the plan presumptively more legitimate. If we went ahead, it would be a national decision, not one man’s choice. A broader and more systematic U.S. process might in turn attract wider allied backing — which in its turn could mark any action as a defense of truly international, not just American, norms. And the need to testify and debate in Congress, even this madhouse Congress, would ensure that basic questions about evidence, plans, and contingencies got asked and (presumably) answered. Therefore I thought a week ago that after hearing a case made, in these legitimizing circumstances, I could imagine being convinced that Congress should offer the support that the president, to his credit, had requested rather than assumed. Overall, we might have a least-worst outcome: bipartisan agreement, American leadership, reinforcement of the anti-chemical norm.

On why I would now vote No:  From what I can tell, approximately 100% of the pro-strike arguments have been devoted to proving what no one contests. Namely, that hideous events are underway in Syria, that someone (and most likely Assad) has criminally and horrifically gassed civilians, and that something should be done to reduce the ongoing carnage and punish the war crimes. And approximately 0% of the argument has addressed the main anti-strike concern: whether U.S. military action, minus broad support, any formal international approval, or any clear definition of goal, strategy, or success, is an effective response.

For instance, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, with whom I usually agree, argues powerfullysomething should be done to and for Syria. His case for missile strikes is that they ”just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.” If anyone has seen a defense that says, “These steps, in this way, match means to objective, and have the following path to success,” please let me know.

There is such a thing as too much caution in committing force, often known as McClellanism after the reluctant-warrior Union commander at the start of the Civil War. (Leading of course to the famous line attributed to Lincoln, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”) And nations, like individuals, predictably over-learn the lessons of their most recent mistakes.

But even if the Iraq-war disaster had not happened, even if the tiny handful of Americans who are in the military had not been worn out through a decade-plus of nonstop deployments, any decision about use of force should be accompanied by answers to these most basic questions:

- What, exactly, is its goal?

- How will we know if our plan has succeeded or failed?

- What happens after we make our first move? In this case, suppose the Assad regime, or Iran, or Russia, responds in a way we don’t anticipate. What second- and third-round moves are we allowing for?

- Is our choice really as stark as turning our back, or sending in bombs?

Many past items have gone into one or more of these questions. For instance, on basic questions, please check out this. Maybe Obama and his team have answers. If so, he had better start sharing them. For now he has not come close to making the case that, while “something” should be done, this is the right something. As the young Obama himself said so memorably 11 years ago, “What I am opposed to is dumb wars.”

“They Ripped Him Apart” — From Pauls Toutonghi in Salon, searching for answers in a gay teen’s suicide.  A long read but very well worth it.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, Jadin Bell—the only openly gay student at La Grande High School, in La Grande, Ore.—left his home, on foot, in 20-degree weather. He walked down Walnut Street to the campus of Central Elementary—past the empty bike racks, past four leafless cherry trees and a single, white-barked birch. He sent a text message to his friend, Tara, telling her where to find his suicide note. Then he climbed onto the school’s playground equipment. He hanged himself with a length of rope. He was fifteen years old.

Doctors later told the family that the rope had deprived Jadin of oxygen for roughly nine minutes—nine minutes before a passing stranger had seen him, and taken him down, and begun to administer CPR. Those nine minutes, while not immediately fatal, had been enough to shut down all activity in his brain. Though paramedics had restored his heartbeat during the flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Jadin never regained consciousness. On January 29, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, made the decision to take him off of life support.

“He was having seizures at that point,” Bell later told me. “It made it so he didn’t suffer anymore.”

Still, Jadin lived for five days without food or water. In La Grande, the small logging town in eastern Oregon’s Union County, 200 residents held a candlelight vigil at the library. At a school assembly, students shared stories about Jadin and sang—with a soft, tremulous cadence—“Lean on Me.” Details of Jadin’s story filtered out through the media. He’d been taunted and harassed by his peers—both in person and on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram—because of his sexuality. “He was different from the mainstream,” said family friend Bud Hill, “and they tend to pick on the different ones.”

When he finally died on Feb. 3, Jadin’s suicide became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying. Salon wrote an article about him, as did the Huffington Post. Nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage reiterated his call for parents to home-school their gay teenagers, if home schooling was what the teens, themselves, requested, “because you don’t want to find out the abuse was more than your kid could bear when it’s too fucking late to do anything about it.”

As a recent father of twins, this story wouldn’t leave me alone. It lingered, with granular specificity, in the fabric of my imagination. So much of the joy of the early years of parenting, for me, was the physicality of my kids’ bodies—the way it felt to lift and to hold them, to smell the buttery scent of their skin, to pull them close against me. Now, I imagined the converse of this: Jadin’s parents, watching their son die in his bed in the pediatric ICU, beloved but unreachable, a compression bandage holding the IV in his wrist, his immobile body tucked into the starched cotton sheets of the hospital bed.

Jadin’s death opened a deep reservoir of some kind within me. Because when I was 15 years old, I, too, tried to kill myself. I, too, was a bullied teenager who was unable to fit in, anywhere. And though I survived—though it did, in fact, get better—it wasn’t linear, or quick, or predictable. It took many years for my life to improve. Today, as an adult, I still struggle to overcome the feelings that nearly killed me 20 years ago—and I live in fear of their replication, someday, in my daughter, or my son.

Florida Flails — Fred Grimm at the Miami Herald on Florida fighting yet another losing case in court.

Pam and Rick were hanging out in Tallahassee last week, putting our government priorities in order. They wondered, “What can we do to improve the lives of Floridians?”

Of course, you already know the answer. Couldn’t be more obvious. We’ll trick out 18-year-olds with handguns.

Yes, indeed. We who can not abide the notion of an 18-year-old bellying up to the bar for a Budweiser sure as hell want to spend taxpayer money to insure the same knucklehead can buy himself a Beretta.

So Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has committed state resources to that great cause and joined yet another quixotic lawsuit, this one against the United States government. Bondi added Florida to a list of NRA subsidiary states seeking to overturn a 45-year-old federal law that forbids licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone under 21.

It’s another likely loser of a case. Like Rick and Pam’s futile attempt to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act. Over the last few years, the Scott years, we’ve frittered away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in court defending an ideological agenda. State lawyers and pricey outside law firms have been dispatched to state and federal court to defend, without much success, the privatization of prisons, drug testing of welfare recipients, drug testing of state workers (though not state legislators or the governor) the shifting of pension costs onto state workers, and election laws designed to tamp down turnout among minority voters.

The Story of # — Keith Houston at The New Yorker explains where some of our more obscure punctuation (#, &, >, ¶) comes from.

Octothorpe (#)

01-octothrope.jpgLeft, from the pen of Isaac Newton; right, detail from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698). Courtesy the Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

The story of the hashtag begins sometime around the fourteenth century, with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.” Like many standard abbreviations of that period, “lb” was written with the addition of a horizontal bar, known as a tittle, or tilde (an example is shown above, right, in Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia,” from 1698). And though printers commonly cast this barred abbreviation as a single character, it was the rushed pens of scribes that eventually produced the symbol’s modern form: hurriedly dashed off again and again, the barred “lb” mutated into the abstract #. The symbol shown here on the left, a barred “lb” rendered in Isaac Newton’s elegant scrawl, is a missing link, a now-extinct ancestor of the # that bridges the gap between the symbol’s Latin origins and its familiar modern form. Though it is now referred to by a number of different names—“hash mark,” “number sign,” and even “octothorpe,” a jokey appellation coined by engineers working on the Touch-Tone telephone keypad—the phrase “pound sign” can be traced to the symbol’s ancient origins. For just as “lb” came from libra, so the word “pound” is descended from pondo, making the # a descendent of the Roman term libra pondo in both name and appearance.

Bonus Video — If you have been paying attention to the New York City mayoral race, the one thing that stands out — so to speak — is the spectacular demise of former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s campaign.  Stateless Media put together a short documentary on how the race went from being about the issues and the state of the city to being about anything except that.

Doonesbury — Fire, dude.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Reading

Leonard Pitts, Jr. — Living in a time of moral cowardice.

Martin Luther King“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

This is “tomorrow.”

Meaning that unknowable future whose unknowable difficulties Martin Luther King invoked half a century ago when he told America about his dream. If you could somehow magically bring him here, that tomorrow would likely seem miraculous to him, faced as he was with a time when segregation, police brutality, employment discrimination and voter suppression were widely and openly practiced.

Here in tomorrow, after all, the president is black. The business mogul is black. The movie star is black. The sports icon is black. The reporter, the scholar, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, all of them are black. And King might think for a moment that he was wrong about tomorrow and its troubles.

It would not take long for him to see the grimy truth beneath the shiny surface, to learn that the perpetual suspect is also black. As are the indigent woman, the dropout, the fatherless child, the suppressed voter, and the boy lying dead in the grass with candy and iced tea in his pocket.

King would see that for all the progress we have made, we live in a time of proud ignorance and moral cowardice wherein some white people — not all — smugly but incorrectly pronounce all racial problems solved. More galling, it is an era of such cognitive incoherence that conservatives — acolytes of the ideology against which King struggled all his life — now routinely claim ownership of his movement and kinship with his cause.

When he was under fire for questioning the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul wanted it known that he’d have marched with King had he been of age. And he probably believes that.

But what people like Paul fail to grasp is that the issues against which African Americans railed in 1963 were just as invisible to some of us back then as the issues of 2013 are to some of us right now. They did not see the evil of police brutality in ’63 any more than some of us can see the evil of mass incarceration now. They did not see how poll taxes rigged democracy against black people then any more than some of us can see how Voter ID laws do the same thing now.

So there’s fake courage in saying, “I would have been with Martin then.” Especially while ignoring issues that would press Martin now.

No, being there took — and still takes — real courage, beginning with the courage to do what some of us are too cowardly, hateful, stubborn or stupid to do: see what is right in front of your face.

Because when Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” he was not, contrary to what some of us seem to believe, calling people to co-sign some vague, airy vision of eventual utopia. No, he was calling people to work, work until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” This was not a sermon about the someday and the eventual. “Now is the time,” said King repeatedly. So it was. And so it is.

We live in King’s “tomorrow” and what he preached in that great rolling baritone at the temple of Lincoln 50 summers ago ought to inspire us anew in this post-Trayvon, post-Jena 6, post-Voting Rights Act, post-birther nonsense era. It ought to make us organize, agitate, educate and work with fresh determination.

It ought to challenge you to ask yourself: What have you chosen not to see? And now, having seen it, what will you do to make it right?

Because, we face tomorrows of our own.

Thankfully, we move into them with the same elusive hope — and towering dream — of which King spoke, the one that has always driven African-American people even in the valley of deepest despair.

Free at last!

Free. At last.

Also: A photo album from the March in 1963.

Software Error — Why Steve Ballmer failed at Microsoft, according to Nicholas Thompson at The New Yorker.

Windows_XP_BSODSteve Ballmer, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, finally figured out a way to make some money for himself: he quit. This morning, Ballmer announced that he will retire within the next twelve months. The company’s stock surged; Ballmer is now worth about a billion dollars more than he was on Thursday.

Ballmer is roughly the tech industry’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev, without the coup and the tanks and Red Square. When he took control, in 2000, Microsoft was one of the most powerful and feared companies in the world. It had a market capitalization of around five hundred billion dollars, the highest of any company on earth. Developers referred to it as an “evil empire.” As he leaves, it’s a sprawling shadow. It still has cash—but that matters little.

What has gone wrong? For starters, Ballmer proved to be the anti-Steve Jobs. He missed every major trend in technology. His innovations alienated people. When he tried something new, like Windows Vista, the public lined up around the block to trade it in. Microsoft missed social networking. It completely misjudged the iPhone and the iPad. It embraced complexity in product design just as everyone was turning toward simplicity. It entered growing markets too late. When was the last time you used Bing? In 2000, Microsoft made most of its money selling Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows. Today, it still makes its money that way. Ballmer’s reign has done more to defang Microsoft than the Justice Department could ever have hoped to do.

The company suffered from the classic innovator’s dilemma. It built extraordinary software that you run on your desktop. And as we moved away from our desktops and into the cloud and onto mobile devices, Microsoft trundled slowly and tentatively. It hesitated to embrace the cloud, and it hesitated to build anything that didn’t work with Windows. In 2005, it brought in a legendary coder, Ray Ozzie, to solve this problem. In 2010, he left. The company has built a technically brilliant gaming system, and the recently launched Xbox One is fully cloud-based—and almost totally separate from the parts of the company that bring in cash.

Ballmer, manic and sweat-stained once too often, failed to be a great manager, or even a tolerable one. As Kurt Eichenwald wrote, devastatingly, in Vanity Fair, the company long utilized a system called “stack rating,” whereby every member of the company was judged relative to his peers. If you worked on a team of ten, you knew that two of your colleagues would get great ratings, seven would pass, and one would fail. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft,” Eichenwald wrote.

What comes next for Ballmer? He’s just fifty-seven, a couple years younger than Gorbachev was when he left. But I think he’ll be quiet: doing good deeds, giving away his fortune, and popping up his head from time to time. The more important question is what comes next for Microsoft—an American company, founded by a skinny nerd, that provides software used around the world. Reversing the company’s decline, in an industry that transforms itself by the day, won’t be easy; Microsoft needs someone who can attract brilliant developers as well as she anticipates trends. They need someone very different from Ballmer. In his memo to Microsoft employees, he wrote, “I cherish my Microsoft ownership, and look forward to continuing as one of Microsoft’s largest owners.” Given the size of his financial stake in the company, there’s almost no one who should want a better C.E.O. for Microsoft than Ballmer himself.

Also, see Roger Kay at Forbes.

Being Literal — Merriam-Webster caves in — figuratively — to the overuse of a word.  By Dana Coleman at Salon.

Much has been made of the use, misuse and overuse of the word “literally.”

Literally, of course, means something that is actually true: “Literally every pair of shoes I own was ruined when my apartment flooded.”

When we use words not in their normal literal meaning but in a way that makes a description more impressive or interesting, the correct word, of course, is “figuratively.”

But people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

Indeed, Ragan’s PR Daily reported last week that Webster, Macmillan Dictionary and Google have added this latter informal use of “literally” as part of the word’s official definition. The Cambridge Dictionary has also jumped on board.

How did this come to be? Mainstream use of “literally” to provide emphasis to a statement was aided in recent years, perhaps, with the help of a couple of popular sitcoms. Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) extends his liberties with the word even further with his pronunciation (LIT-rally) and the frequent misuses of the word in “How I Met Your Mother” even helped inspire a drinking game. But I digress…

Webster’s first definition of literally is, “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” Its second definition is, “in effect; virtually.” In addressing this seeming contradiction, its authors comment:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

So it’s okay to use literally to mean figuratively as long as you really, really, really need to do so? Hmph.

Doonesbury — Worthy.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard — 1925-2013

So long, Elmore Leonard.  A very nice perspective on his writing by Laura Miller at Salon.

Even people who don’t read crime fiction have felt Leonard’s legacy, which can be detected in everything from the films of Quentin Tarantino to the novels of David Foster Wallace. He wrote bestsellers and got called a “literary genius” by that notoriously tough critic, Martin Amis. He was renowned for his dialogue, but even his exposition has the syncopated delivery of a bar-stool raconteur.

[...]

You’d think Leonard’s work would have had better luck in Hollywood; with his celebrated economy, he did most of the work for his screenwriters in advance. Only two movie adaptations of his books were much good: “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Get Shorty” (1995). But then again, once television, that writer’s medium, came into its own as a vehicle for grown-up entertainment, we got “Justified.” The loping rhythms of serialized drama turned out to be a better fit for Leonard’s fiction because some of its best moments come when his characters are just jawing. The interchange above sounds like a snippet of repartee from the marshal’s office in “Justified.”

But even those unfortunate enough to have never seen “Justified” and to have never read Leonard’s books will, if they write at all, have come across perhaps the single most circulated text he ever produced: “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” otherwise known as “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers,” originally published in the New York Times in 2001. The world is full of readers (not to mention reviewers) who’d like to see this list distributed to every aspiring novelist on the planet.

Leonard wrote that his 10 rules can be summed up as a single dictum: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” (More specifically, he includes imprecations against opening a novel with descriptions of the weather, the use of the adverb “suddenly” and fancy variations on the word “said.”) My favorite on the list is Rule No. 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Leonard’s 10 rules are not quite a manifesto for the porch-steps strain of American prose, but they are a corrective to the pulpit crowd, to the speechifying and clotted lyricism that passes for “beautiful” writing in too much literary fiction. “If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you … you can skip the rules,” Leonard noted politely. “Still, you might look them over.” Yes, you might.

I did and I hope I learned from him.  Rest in peace.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Doing the Write Thing, Day 2

citywrights logoIt’s the second day of the CityWrights playwriting conference here in Miami. We did a cold reading of my short play “Last Exit” and it came off very well for not having any rehearsal time, and I may have found an actor for my other short play going up next month at New Theatre.

Today is all about writers rights and representation and how to protect yourself against predatory producers.  So far that hasn’t been a problem for me… the people who have taken on my work have been great to work with.  But it looks like I’m going to have to find an agent, and that should be interesting.

Oh, and apparently the Miami team won some big basketball game. That would explain the light traffic this morning in downtown Miami.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Doing The Write Thing

citywrights logoI am participating in the City Theatre’s CityWrights playwriting conference for the rest of the week, so blogging is going to be light and variable through Sunday.

This is my second year of attending the confab.  Last year the guest artist was Christopher Durang, who just won the Tony Award for Best Play, so maybe there’s some connection.  This year the guest of honor is Tina Howe, who was the honoree at the William Inge Festival in 2005.  This should be fun.

Oh, and in other theatre news, my play Ask Me Anything has been selected for the New Theatre’s Miami 1-Act Festival taking place on July 5-7.  This is the same play that was done last month up at Short Cuts 3 in Lake Worth, so it’s getting some legs.  More on that later.

I’ll have my laptop with me so I’ll be keeping up with the news, and if the Supreme Court hands down the ruling on DOMA and/or Prop 8, I’ll be here.

Meanwhile, write on.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Reading

Going to Extremes — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on profiling the dangerous ones among us.

“I know this sounds racist, but . . . ”

So goes the subject line on last week’s email from Bill, a reader. It seems Bill has an idea. Given that “all of the radical terrorists have been Muslims,” he wants the government to mount a program to surveil every follower of Islam who immigrates to these shores. We are, claims reader Bill, “faced with a population who swears an oath to God to kill Americans — not Canadians, not Mexicans, but Americans.” It is, he says, “time we protect ourselves.”

Well.

For our purposes today, we will ignore the fact that Islam is not a race, so animus toward Muslims is not, strictly speaking, “racist.” Bill’s point is clear enough. And his anger is understandable, coming as it does after the Boston Marathon bombing and the savage butchering of a British soldier by Islamic extremists. Predictably, the UK has suffered a rash of right-wing demonstrations and attacks on mosques ever since Lee Rigby’s death. One suspects there’d be no shortage of sympathy for Bill’s suggestion — and for measures even more draconian — both there and here.

But I find myself thinking about white boys.

Consider: This nation’s recent history is stained by repeated acts of school violence. From Newtown, Conn., to West Paducah, Ky., to Santee, Calif., to Eugene, Ore., to Conyers, Ga., to Pearl, Miss., to Jonesboro, Ark. to DeKalb, Ill., to Littleton, Colo., we have seen scores of people killed and injured. The violence has been random, large scale and indiscriminate, identical to terrorism except that it has no political motive. And the profile of the assailants is virtually always the same: white boys and young men from suburban, small town or rural communities.

Small wonder Chris Rock got such a huge laugh when he joked about diving off the elevator when two high school age white kids got on. “I am scared of young white boys,” cracked Rock in 1999.

Writing on Teaching Writing — Jon Reiner: All of a sudden, everyone’s taking or teaching a class on writing.

There have long been three kinds of writers: writers who write for readers (novelists, poets, memoirists, essayists, journalists, etc.); writers who write for other writers (students); and writers who write for themselves (diarists, shipwreck survivors). The digital age has screwed with the dynamics of that trilogy by turning writing from a solitary, exclusive, private act into a collaborative, inclusive, public one. Anyone with a WordPress account can write for readers, and the mushrooming of the number and type of writing programs has been a field crop for that revolution. If you’re going to be a writer, you might as well know something about how to do it, right?

This all crystallized for me when I saw the reaction to an essay I wrote for TheAtlantic.com last month. In it, I used the case of a student writer placing an unexceptionally written but promising piece in The New Yorker online to exemplify the movement of publishers and readers privileging “story” over the craft of writing. That cultural shift has felt like a door blown open to people bursting with tales to tell, and a freshly dug grave for writers who tear at their flesh trying to sculpt perfect sentences (to invoke Truman Capote) while the digital world zips by.

Part of the essay focused on my dissenting view of the University of Michigan’s MFA “Zellowships,” annual $26k stipends that fund students for a year after graduation, endowed by a historic $50 million dollar gift from Helen Zell. I thought the students would be better served getting out of the academy and into the world, and that the money would be better spent supporting publications that paid writers for work that would be read by real readers. In response, Michael Byers, the director of the Michigan program, blasted me online and, impressively, recruited an army of Wolverines to bare their claws. Byers called me “witless” and my writing “horse puckey.” One of his students, in an online magazine essay, referred to me and my ideas as “stupid.” Other readers, however, replied more thoughtfully—agreeing, disagreeing, even apologizing for the Michigan robohate, and sharing their personal stories about why they study writing and what led them to it. Many of the writers were people years beyond the age of traditional writing students, with mortgages and dependents. Why were they moonlighting from or quitting their day jobs to pay someone else to teach them to write?

All writing, all creative work, on some level, is about confirmation. (I still send new work to my old teachers.) The sprouting of writing programs indicates that the lure of having people read and applaud your work still outweighs the fears student writers may have about the pain and aggravation of being called “witless” in a public forum. What’s changed now is the payoff. The monetary rewards for writing are smaller than in the pre-Internet age. Even if every writing program in the country had a Zell grant to float the post-grads, there’s no way that number of writers could enter the profession and sustain the day-to-day of eating and staying dry. But the psychic rewards, the seduction of an audience discovering you right now, have never been greater. Writing classes, which operate with the collaborative-inclusive-public M.O. of Internet writing, are the first step.

Not-So-Ancient History — Frank Rich on the recent past and the future of gay rights, woven into his own past.

In a new century dominated by terrorism and recession, few would deny two big bright spots: the election of an African-American president and the expansion of gay civil rights. The first arrived nearly 150 years after the Civil War. The second happened with the speed of a fever dream. The modern gay-rights movement only got going in 1969, after the Stonewall riots. Now a dozen states have legalized same-sex marriage, a concept unknown in political discourse a mere quarter-century ago. More astounding is the likelihood that a conservative-leaning Supreme Court will expand those marital rights, however incompletely, next month—it took more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation to end all bans on interracial marriage.

As we just learned, a man can still be murdered for being gay a few blocks away from the Stonewall Inn. But the rapidity of change has been stunning. The world only spins forward, as Tony Kushner wrote. And yet as we celebrate the forward velocity of gay rights, I think we must glance backward as well. History is being lost in this shuffle—that of those gay men and women who experienced little or none of today’s freedoms. Whatever the other distinctions between the struggles of black Americans and gay Americans for equality under the law—starting with the overarching horror of slavery—one difference is intrinsic. Black people couldn’t (for the most part) hide their identity in an America that treated them cruelly. Gay people could hide and, out of self-protection, often did. That’s why their stories were cloaked in silence and are at risk of being forgotten.

This history is not ancient. My own concern about its preservation comes not from some abstract sense of social justice but from my personal experience. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., of the sixties, where the impact of racism was visible everywhere, front and center in my political education. But gays—what gays? No one I knew ever saw them or mentioned them. Not until the eighties—when, like many Americans of that time, I was finally forced by the rampaging AIDS crisis to think seriously about gay people—did I fully recognize that a gay man had been my surrogate parent in high school, when I needed one most. Not that I ever thought to thank him for it.

For younger Americans, straight and gay, the old amnesia gene, the most durable in our national DNA, has already kicked in. Larry Kramer was driven to hand out flyers at the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, his 1986 play about the AIDS epidemic, to remind theatergoers that everything onstage actually happened. Similar handbills may soon be required for The Laramie Project, the play about the 1998 murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard. A new Broadway drama, The Nance, excavates an even older chapter in this chronicle: Nathan Lane plays a gay burlesque comic of 1937 who is hounded and imprisoned by Fiorello La Guardia’s vice cops. Douglas Carter Beane, its 53-year-old gay author, is flabbergasted by how many young gay theatergoers have no idea “it was ever that way.”

Clayton Coots, the gay man who changed my life, fell somewhere between The Nance and The Normal Heart on this time line. He was one of countless gay people who were hiding back then, sometimes in plain sight, from their friends, neighbors, relatives, students, and colleagues. In historical terms, back then was only yesterday. Yet much as we might want to reclaim these invisible men and women from the shadows, they continue to slip away. It’s one thing to retrieve the story of a gay American from the pre-AIDS era who was famous or notorious. It’s quite another to track down a closeted gay American of no renown who lived shortly before the gay-rights revolution took hold. I have spent more than twenty years off and on trying to piece together Clayton’s life. Even in death he is still in hiding.

Doonesbury — Make room for Daddy.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On This Date

In fiction, on Sunday, May 25, 1980, Richard Barlow met Bobby Cramer for the first time.  It was at the country club Memorial Day tea dance.

I’ll let you know what happens as soon as I finish writing the story.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Quote of the Day

Ernest Hemingway in his 1954 Nobel Prize speech:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

You got that right, Papa.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Catching Up

I’ve spent some time this morning catching up on some of the news I’ve missed while I’ve been a little out of it, what with this little cold that I had that kept me away from work on Thursday and having Friday as one of my scheduled vacation days.  (Can’t wait to get to the office and see what’s stacked up there….)  I also spent most of yesterday at a car show in Coconut Grove.  That makes three car show weekends in three weeks.

I’ve also been invited to join an informal writing group that meets once a week to share their work.  My first meeting with them is tonight, so I’ll be sharing some of my non-blog/non-theatre writing with them.  Then this coming Saturday in Fort Lauderdale there will be a coffee house at the World and Eye Art Center.  I’ve been asked to contribute works to that, so two of my short plays — Here’s Your Sandwich and Last Exit — will be staged with the help of some very good friends, Bill and Terri.  Oh, and I’m also working on getting ready for the 31st annual Inge Festival in May celebrating the 100th birthday of William Inge, and looking forward to the premiere of my short play Ask Me Anything at Short Cuts 3 at the Lake Worth Playhouse on May 4.

I’m really looking forward to spring break in two weeks.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

But I’m Not a Recluse

Julie sent me this fun new toy that analyzes a paragraph or two of your writing and tells you what famous author you write like.  So I plugged in a couple of paragraphs of Bobby Cramer and came up with…

I write like
J. D. Salinger

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

 

On my first attempt with another paragraph from another chapter, I came up with Cory Doctorow.

Give it a shot and see how you do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Poem

Richard Blanco, son of Cuban exiles (as the Miami Herald is noting), read a poem at the inauguration yesterday.

 

The tradition of reading a poem at the inauguration goes back at least to Robert Frost in 1961 at the ceremony for John F. Kennedy.  As a creative writer, it is nice to see that the tradition is continued, giving the words of the poet the same stage as the prayers, the music, and the official oration.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Reading

Maybe Baby — Lauren Collins comments on where babies come from.

Ross Douthat’s column lamenting the declining American birthrate struck me as creepy when I read it, but I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps as a childless thirty-two-year-old woman—not only an evolutionary dead end, but also a moral zero, in Douthat’s eyes—I failed to produce a response, as I have failed to produce a baby, as result of “late-modern exhaustion—a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies across the globe.” I wanted to tell Ross Douthat that there are many reasons that American women of my generation lag in both time and space, giving birth to fewer children than both our foremothers and our peers in countries such as France and the United Kingdom. Douthat is right that our government’s lack of interest in developing an infrastructure to help working mothers is a large part of the problem, if it is a problem. But so is the moralization of motherhood, which, as writers from Élisabeth Badinter to Pamela Druckerman and Katie Roiphe have recently pointed out, is rife in American society. As Badinter explains in “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines Women,” people have more babies in France, where breast-feeding is a fifty-fifty proposition and ninety-nine per cent of young children are enrolled in free, state-run daycare, precisely because having a baby in France is not such a freighted ordeal. (By the way, Douthat’s notion that the declining birthrate is linked to “a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage” is undermined by the fertile, cohabiting French.)

That’s what I wanted to tell Ross Douthat, but I had just gone for a walk, sapping myself of energy that probably would have been better used in childbearing.

The next day, I read that the Duchess of Cambridge was expecting a child, and that she had been admitted to the hospital with hyperemesis gravidarum. She was very early in her pregnancy, and it felt invasive, hearing such intimate news. The way that commentators felt entitled to have an opinion about her womb, and the way they were rooting for her to reproduce, in the name of God and country, gave me a queasy feeling. Douthat wrote that a sagging population is the result of a society that “embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity,” but might not women also be hesitating to have children, or struggling to find a way to do so, in a culture whose conception of family life is so primitive?

Carl Hiaasen has some advice for the GOP.

Based on the grim exit polls, you’d think Republican leaders would comprehend the futility of sucking up to the beet-faced Limbaugh fringe and pushing an agenda that most Americans viewed as extreme, exclusive and intrusive.

That tone had been set in the primaries by the lamest, flakiest set of candidates in modern memory. The only one who ever stood a chance was Romney, who veered so hard to the right that he couldn’t ever find his way back.

Want a sure-fire recipe for blowing another national election?

1. Keep badmouthing the poor, and bowing to the rich. This is an especially clever strategy while the country is clawing out of a recession.

2. To drive away as many women voters as possible, keep talking about banning abortions and cutting off funds for birth control.

3. Another brilliant campaign topic: Outlawing gay marriage. Keep that one on the front burner if you’re keen on alienating millions of highly motivated voters.

4. Don’t forget to bash big government every chance you get — just pray that a major hurricane doesn’t hit, and the whole country doesn’t get reminded of the importance of FEMA, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and other tax-gobbling slackers.

5. Finally, keeping pushing for laws that would allow anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic to be pulled over in their cars and frisked for citizenship documents. This is how you keep your “base electorate” fired up, your base being angry, white, old and dwindling by the day.

Marco Rubio can’t avoid Iowa with its freakishly homogenous demographics (91 percent white), but he can certainly avoid coming off like a jabbering loon. He’s already separated himself from the likes of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann by stating that he actually believes in science.

Now we’ll see if the GOP can evolve enough to let him lead the party out of its cave.

An Unexpected Party — Jon Michaud on why he thinks The Hobbit is a better book than its sequel.

With the imminent release of the first of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of “The Hobbit,” I revisited J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, which I had not opened since I was a teen-ager. Re-reading “The Hobbit” turned out to be something of a revelation. Formerly, I’d seen it as nothing more than an appetizer for the big feast of “The Lord of the Rings.” Now, I realized, it was a perfecly balanced meal of its own—one that left you feeling sated rather than gorged. A good case can be made that “The Hobbit” is a better and more satisfying read than its gargantuan successor. Herewith, some arguments in the little book’s favor:

1. Only one hobbit.

There’s a reason Tolkien begins both novels by getting his hobbit protagonists out of the Shire. Hobbits, though possessed of many admirable traits, can be kind of a drag, especially in large numbers. One is plenty. Four is too many. After twelve hundred pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” I’d had just about enough of the hobbits’ endless pining for home and their tiresome whingeing about not having a second breakfast. Particularly grating is Sam Gamgee, the loyal, kind-hearted servant who accompanies Frodo all the way to Mt. Doom—and insists on calling him “Mr. Frodo” the entire time. Mindlessly devoted and masochistically self-denying, he is held up as the truest expression of hobbithood. No thanks. I find Bilbo, the hero of the earlier book, a far more engaging character. While he does yearn for the comforts of the Shire during his journey to the Lonely Mountain, he is no straight arrow. He’s an opportunist, willing to fudge the rules when it suits him. He outwits Gollum with a not-quite-kosher riddle. He steals the Arkenstone from Smaug’s hoard and uses it as a bargaining chip; and he hides the magic ring from his companions as long as he can. Next time I re-read “The Lord of the Rings,” I am sure to ask myself, What would Bilbo do?

2. Lots of dwarves.

I propose a rule: the ratio of dwarves to hobbits is directly proportional to the quality of the tale. Wagner and Walt Disney understood this. Pompous and irritable, industrious yet bumbling, dwarves are much more enjoyable to read about than hobbits. Though motivated always by gold, they are makers as well as takers. Skilled blacksmiths, miners, and engineers, they are responsible for many of the wonders of Middle Earth. Moria is to a hobbit hole as the Pyramids are to a thatched-roof cottage. There is just one dwarf in “The Lord of the Rings”: Gimli. He is the son of Gloin, one of Bilbo’s companions in “The Hobbit.” (Gloin does make a brief appearance at the Council of Elrond, but that hardly counts.) Having one dwarf in your epic fantasy novel is like having one acrobat in a circus. You need a troupe! Poor Gimli is charged not only with protecting the ringbearer, but also with providing much of the comic relief in the trilogy. By contrast, “The Hobbit” features a dozen dwarves and is the richer for it. Who can’t sympathize with a group of grumpy, bearded refugees who have been evicted from their homeland by a greedy despot? The fact that they squabble, refuse to listen to directions, and end up starting a war only makes them more fun to read about.

Doonesbury — Then what?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Reading

Putting Down the Pen — Philip Roth retires from fiction writing.

On the computer in Philip Roth’s Upper West Side apartment these days is a Post-it note that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” It’s a reminder to himself that Mr. Roth,who will be 80 in March and who has enjoyed one of the longest and most celebrated careers in American letters, has retired from writing fiction — 31 books since he started in 1959. “I look at that note every morning,” he said the other day, “and it gives me such strength.”

To his friends the notion of Mr. Roth not writing is like Mr. Roth not breathing. It sometimes seemed as if writing were all he did. He worked alone for weeks at a time at his house in Connecticut, reporting every morning to a nearby studio where he wrote standing up, and often going back there in the evening. At an age when most novelists slow down, he got a second wind and wrote some of his best books: “Sabbath’s Theater,”“American Pastoral,”“The Human Stain” and “The Plot Against America.”Well into his 70s, the books, though shorter, came uninterruptedly, practically one a year.But over the course of a three-hour interview — his last, he said — Mr. Roth seemed cheerful, relaxed and at peace with himself and his decision, which was first announced last month in the French magazine Les InRocks. He joked and reminisced, talked about writers and writing, and looked back at his career with apparent satisfaction and few regrets. Last spring he appointed Blake Bailey as his biographer and has been working closely with him ever since.

Mr. Roth said he actually made the decision to stop writing in 2010, a few months after finishing his novel “Nemesis,” about a 1944 polio epidemic in his hometown, Newark.

“I didn’t say anything about it because I wanted to be sure it was true,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, don’t announce your retirement and then come out of it.’ I’m not Frank Sinatra. So I didn’t say anything to anyone, just to see if it was so.”

On a table in his living room was a stack of photographs he had just been sent by a cousin: his mother in her bridal gown, the veil trailing down a flight of stairs; a very young Mr. Roth with his parents and his older brother, Sandy, outside their home in Newark; a handsome teenage Roth sitting on a sofa with his first serious girlfriend; Private P. Roth in his Army uniform and helmet.

Nearby was an iPhone he had bought recently. “Why?” he said. “Because I’m free. Every morning I study a chapter in ‘iPhone for Dummies,’ and now I’m proficient. I haven’t read a word for two months. I pull this thing out and play with it.”

Then he corrected himself: “I haven’t read during the day. At night I read. I read for two hours. I just finished a marvelous book by Louise Erdrich, ‘The Round House.’ But mostly I read 20th-century history and biography. I lived then. I was either a child or at school or at work. It’s time I caught up.”

Free Stuff — Ta-Nehisi Coates on what everyone wants.

There was a great deal of talk after the election of the “fever” breaking around the GOP, and the party coming to their senses. Perhaps Bobby Jindal’s aggressive rebuttal evidences some of this.

At any rate, I think it’s worth noting that all political parties organize around their interests, around pay-outs, as Romney calls them. Mitt Romney, for instance, represented a coalition whose stated interests lay in expanding the policies of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, outlawing national protection for abortion, doing nothing about climate change, and decreasing the tax burden on the “makers.”

This is interest-group politics. It is not a nefarious evil. It is the practice of American democracy. At least that’s what it is when taken up by interest groups who are predominantly white, predominantly male, and rooted, electorally, in the old Confederacy. When the practice is taken up by a coalition of women, gays, the young and people of color, many of them tax-payers, it is suddenly deemed a “pay-out” or “stuff,” as it was so recently put.

But they too want “stuff.” They want the right to discriminate against gay families. They want the right to enact poll-taxing. They want the law to force all pregnant women into labor. That many Americans disagree can only be the result of Chicago-style bribery. I win or you cheated.

Who Killed the Twinkie?  — James Surowiecki on the struggle for labor and management to adapt.

Hostess’s management certainly bears some of the blame for its failure to successfully adapt, though the company made numerous (and failed) attempts to introduce healthier products. But the simple truth is that this kind of failure is endemic to the system—there are always going to be companies that are unable to change in response to the marketplace. And those companies are supposed to go out of business. Not to be too clichéd about it, but this is what creative destruction is all about.

The problem, of course, is that that destruction is going to upend the lives of thousands of workers. And to the extent, then, that Hostess’s demise shows us something important about the plight of organized labor today, it’s not that greedy workers have precipitated their own demise. It’s rather that one of organized labor’s biggest challenges over the past four decades has been that union strength was concentrated in industries and among companies that, though once dominant players in the postwar American economy, have often ended up in a slow slide to obsolescence, employing fewer and fewer workers and having less and less money to pay them with. In theory, unions could have made up for this by organizing those companies and industries that have become ascendant since the nineteen-seventies, but for a variety of reasons (including a tougher corporate approach to union-busting, a less friendly legal climate, the difficulty of organizing many small enterprises as opposed to a few big factories, and a tendency to protect existing members rather than put real money into organizing) they haven’t. And the paradox is that as unions have gotten smaller and less influential, they’ve also gotten less popular. That’s why it’s so easy for Hostess’s management to spin the anti-union narrative.

The real issue here is that people’s image of unions, and their sense that doing something like going on strike is legitimate, seems to depend quite a bit, in the U.S., on how common unions are in the workforce. When organized labor represented more than a third of American workers, it was easy for unions to send the message that in agitating for their own interests, union members were also helping improve conditions for workers in general. But as unions have shrunk, and have become increasingly concentrated in the public sector, it’s become easier for people to dismiss them as just another special interest, looking to hold onto perks that no one else gets. Perhaps the most striking response to the Hostess news, in that sense, was the tweet from conservative John Nolte, who wrote “Hostess strikers had pension. PENSIONS! What is this 1962?” It was once taken for granted that an industrial worker who worked for a big company for many years would get a solid middle-class lifestyle, and would be taken care of in retirement. Today, that concept seems to many like a relic. Just as Wonder Bread does.

Doonesbury — Invisible Men.