Moving on Toward Peace

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I’ve been away from this blog for quite a while as I worked on other projects, and so it seems fitting to post an official “farewell” to this particular site and its readers.

Observant visitors might have noticed a relatively new link up in the menu bar to another site called “Peace at Last.” This relates to the historical novel that I’m currently writing about the intersecting lives of Alfred Nobel (the inventor of dynamite and, at the time, one of the world’s wealthiest yet loneliest individuals) and Bertha von Suttner (one of the 19th century’s most popular writers and the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize). Though the “Peace at Last” web site is, like the book itself, currently under construction, I encourage you to check it out if you’re interested.

I’ll close out this site with a personal comment about my work on Peace at Last. For me, writing the book these past years has become a means to embrace positivism and offset cynicism in a world that too many portray as hopelessly polarized. In this context, the life stories of Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner offer so much insight and inspiration, and I hope to express their mutual idealism as fully as possible in the pages of the novel. This has been no small task, and so I offer my eternal thanks to anyone and everyone who has contributed in whatever way to the project. Truly, you are with me with every word, and it matters. With one word in particular, it matters most of all.

Peace.

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Signal and Noise: A Response to the Newtown Tragedy

SignalNoise

As the nation continues to reel from the news and aftershock of yet another mass shooting, many of us are wrestling with our own thoughts and emotions. We review the facts and details as they become available, and from there we try to create a rational explanation for a monstrous and irrational act. It’s a fool’s errand, really, like trying to negotiate with a madman, and yet we make the attempts. And when we fail, as reasonable people are most likely to do, we look for ways out of the conundrum.

Mostly, we focus on ways to fit this communal tragedy into our own personal understanding of the world, however short-sighted or narrow-minded that understanding may be. In the libraries of our minds, we try to shelve this latest tale of terror under psychology or religion or politics or feminism. “Experts” from all of these disciplines have appeared on a range of talk shows and news broadcasts lately, variously depicting the shooter as a godless gun nut, an insecure young white male, an autistic videogame addict.

I’m normally drawn to literature for explorations of human madness, but this time around, I’m finding more appropriate parallels and metaphors in music, specifically in the science of sound. Maybe this is due to the title of Nate Silver’s recent book, The Signal and the Noise, which looks to mathematics and statistics as they relate to pundits and would-be prognosticators. More specifically, Silver discusses attempts to predict future events, such as elections, and wonders why most of these attempts fail.

At this moment, here’s the future-oriented question most of us struggle to answer definitively: How can we keep something like the Newtown killing from ever happening again?

Such a complex question inevitably inspires a great deal of “noise,” the static and chatter that surrounds and distorts a sensible discussion despite its tangential relevance. For example, we’ve heard many conversations about “mental illness” despite the lack of any confirmed diagnosis in the case of the Newtown shooter. Others have attributed his motives to celebrity-seeking, despite any evidence to that effect, and thereby condemned the media. One person ironically hijacked the persona of a media celebrity (Morgan Freeman) in order to make his own anti-media point more popular in the world of social media.

All of this is noise. When we listen to it and perpetuate it, we lose track of the signal: the clear message buried inside.

Signal and noise have been core components of electronic music for decades now. I grew up during a time in which music was transformed by the appearance of the synthesizer. These electronic devices generate a source tone (for example, discrete sounds like sine waves or random signals like white noise) that is subsequently processed through a series of oscillators, filters, and envelopes to create a final note or sound (helicopter rotors for a Pink Floyd album, for example). The resulting signal can then be amplified and heard through headphones or stereo speakers.

The science of synthesizers may be complicated, but I want to focus on two concepts related to signal and noise: filters and amplifiers.

The goal of a filter is to block and withhold unwanted material, such as a particular range of sound. An equalizing filter, for example, allows you to lessen (or conversely boost) the amount of treble or bass you might hear through your stereo system. Some physical filters, such as a coffee filter, are quite refined and prevent small particles from passing through. In a weird way, a bulletproof vest is a crude sort of filter; its function is to block the passage of ammunition through to the wearer.

Throughout our lives, we develop multiple filters to help us process and understand the world around us. Otherwise, we might feel completely overwhelmed 24/7/365—as if some of us don’t feel that way already. Some of these filters come prepackaged—in academic or religious instruction, for example. We construct and employ others through our own experience, the lessons learned in life. Like the bulletproof vest, these filters shield and protect us; they give us the strength and courage to venture into potentially dangerous situations, both physically and mentally. They help us face up to monstrosities.

At this point, perhaps a line of poetry is in order:

The heart knows no filter.

If you’re like me, the initial news of the Newtown massacre came as a shock to the system. My first responses were all raw emotion: grief, rage, fear. Heartache, of course, because the heart, not being bulletproof, was wounded.

I might add disbelief to the list, but I can’t. For starters, it would be a lie; Columbine and Aurora and all the previous mass shootings should have already prepared us for this. On top of that, disbelief is a secondary, filtered response. The prefix “dis” serves as the filter, processing the initial state of belief. When we said we couldn’t believe the news of the shooting, what we were really saying was that we didn’t want to believe. The filter acted to block the truth, to deny its passage and place in our world.

Pressing further, I would argue that, due to the intensity of our emotional responses, many of us were rendered temporarily insane by news of the Newtown shooting. This would explain our disbelief, our denial of reality, our futile grasp at adjectives such as “unthinkable,” “unimaginable,” and “inconceivable.” By the very definition of insanity, we “lacked reasonable thought.”

And so began the noise, the procession of unreasonable responses to the tragedy. Despite a nearly total lack of evidence, analysts began offering possible motives and explanations for the violence, many of them tailored to fit their particular areas of expertise or concern. Conversations about gun control gave way to discussions of mental illness and health care, all based on conjecture. One viral essay, a blog post from the mother of a difficult and sometimes violent child, claimed such a deep level of understanding that she equated herself with the shooter’s mother. It was an absurd reduction based on an unknown and complex situation. Such extreme filtration of the facts resulted in one of the most highly illogical and self-centered responses to the shooting, and yet it continues to dominate some discussions today.

Many of these filtered responses were amplified via the media and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Immediately after the event, many of us reached out to family members and friends via phone calls, e-mails, and status updates and expressed our deepest, most sincere thoughts and emotions. Subsequently, we began to pass along the thoughts and feelings of others, mostly those that corresponded closely to our own beliefs. In other words, we filtered out the rest. We began to process the signal and, in some of the more extreme cases, distorted and completely lost it.

I thank our President Barack Obama for providing such a relatively measured and balanced response in the wake of this tragedy. In doing so, he reminded me of the kind of leader the country needs at a time like this, someone more like Mr. Spock than the Incredible Hulk. He did not indulge the vigilante superhero fantasies that preoccupy so much of the American mindset and perhaps contribute to this sort of violence in the first place. (I urge you to read Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for a much more thorough exploration of this.)

As Nate Silver reminds us, logic is a tough, impartial judge. Like the rules of law, facts and statistics are indifferent to your or my personal opinions or beliefs. As filters go, logical analysis is our most reliable option, difficult though it may be. That’s why, in the wake of extreme tragedies like Newtown, we must continue to educate one another and ourselves in the facts of the matter. It’s also why we need to place a renewed emphasis on logic in the education of our children. No tool will be more useful to them in the course of their lives.

With that in mind and by way of example, I offer some attempts at a logical analysis of various reactions to the Newtown massacre below, keeping in mind the question: How do we keep something like this from ever happening again?

We need more, not fewer weapons. Pro-gun people often claim that an armed teacher or principal (or mall shopkeeper, movie theater attendant, member of the clergy, bystander…all of us, really, I guess) could take down hostile trespassers and prevent deaths in situations like this. Studies have shown otherwise. A more fully armed populace might prevent deaths, but it wouldn’t prevent the situations themselves, so this is at best only a partial solution to the question above. It might also have the opposite effect of increasing the number of such incidents, since more weapons would be in circulation and potentially available to would-be shooters.

Let’s say we pass a law (and some politicians have proposed such laws) that mandates weapons for school officials and teachers (and, by extension, shopkeepers and movie theater attendants and so on and so on). By that reasoning, the willingness to carry a weapon and undergo extensive training in its use would become a prerequisite for anyone applying for these jobs. You would need to feel ready and able to shoot and kill another human being when called upon. Pacifists, whether on religious or just plain moral grounds, no longer need apply, at least not until all the discrimination lawsuits have been settled.

Also, if we truly want to prevent any future bloodshed by arming ourselves even more, we have to trust in our ability to act fast and first—probably without time to fully assess a situation, and certainly without time to attempt a diplomatic or talk-down resolution—which means responding with immediate gunfire to any threat, real or perceived. This is the rationale behind the “stand your ground” laws in some states, which, as we have seen in the case of Trayvon Martin, can sometimes result in the death of innocent children.

These pro-gun arguments also conveniently ignore (filter out) the fact that more and more of today’s mass shooters wear bulletproof vests or combat armor on their sprees. Unless we’ve all been trained to be reliable sharpshooters, our chances at taking down an armed maniac before he takes us down are therefore slim. Shooting at him becomes more like kicking at a hornet’s nest.

In a “good-versus-evil” shooting match, there’s also a high probability that innocent bystanders will be wounded and/or killed by “friendly fire,” especially in dark or smoke-filled spaces such as the Aurora movie theater. I suppose that in order for all of us to feel completely safe from potential gunfire, we should be wearing bulletproof armor at all times. Consequently, our country begins to sound less and less like “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We need to restore God in the classroom.  For starters, this argument always seems to focus first on the victims, not the shooter himself. Secondly, it baits an argument about whose God we should all bow down to. Thirdly, this argument conveniently neglects (i.e. filters out) the large number of violent historical events, some described in gruesome detail in the Christian Bible, in which God supposedly commands others to kill on his behalf. These people, some of them respected figures in religious history, dutifully obeyed the voices they heard in their heads. Chew on this: What if the all-knowing God spoke to the Newtown gunman and told him, “There is one and only one way to wake up Americans to the need for gun control. If you go into a kindergarten and kill dozens of small children, I guarantee you that gun laws in your country will change and that thousands more lives will subsequently be saved.” Religious philosophers, discuss.

 We need to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns. For starters, the buyer and owner of the guns used in the Newtown killing was the man’s mother, and she wasn’t mentally ill. By all accounts, her son wasn’t officially diagnosed as “mentally ill,” either. Therefore, this restriction would not have prevented the slaughter in Newtown.

Restrictions that focus on mental illnesses also seem to assume that such conditions are both evident and permanent, that they manifest themselves from birth and remain consistently visible throughout a person’s lifetime. Anyone who has the slightest inkling of knowledge about psychology knows this is hogwash. Do you feel the same amount of mental stability each and every hour of each and every day? Did you feel 100% mentally stable when you first heard the news about the Newtown killing?

If we feel that we must prevent the “mentally ill” from owning guns, then we must establish an “acceptable” level of illness when it comes to owning guns—that level at which a person is at risk of harming either the self or another living creature. One could argue that nearly everyone feels capable of harming the self or another living creature at some point in his or her life, either during a case of severe depression or in a moment of stress-related rage. With that in mind, the “no guns for the mentally ill” proposal could mean, in its most preventative application, no guns for anyone.

Speaking of acceptable levels of mental illness, let’s consider all those people who heard about Newtown and felt compelled to rush out to buy more guns. Some felt sure that they needed these weapons to protect themselves and/or their loved ones from future incidents. Others were afraid that their personal gun rights were about to be stripped away, so it was best to stock up now and hope for a grandfather clause that would protect their stash. Such extreme and self-centered responses to this national tragedy suggest a form of delusional paranoia, itself a mental illness, yet these are the supposedly reasonable folks intent on protecting us all from the irrational gunmen.

Here’s another inconvenient fact related to mental health: In many gun-related incidents (though not, it seems, Newtown), a major factor in the shooting is the consumption of alcohol. If we expand our scope to consider all alcohol-related fatalities, we find many, many more deaths of innocent people and children caused by drunk drivers each year. Grouping these deaths together sends a clear signal; spacing them apart renders them more like noise. That may explain why we see few people either suggesting or rallying around a proposal to ban alcohol in order to prevent deaths, either by gun or by car. Another argument for another time, perhaps.

Stricter background checks will prevent these killings. This is an argument of hindsight, which, as we all know, is 20/20. The purchase of a gun will always precede a criminal’s first armed robbery, rendering a background check ineffective. What we really need is a foreground check. Absent psychic powers of prognostication or the development of software that aggregates all your personal data and predicts whether or not you’ll become a mass murderer, we’re still a few miles shy of the finish line with this proposed solution.

Ban assault weapons. This one makes sense, though once again it’s a partial solution. Even if it can’t stop shooters from doing harm, it can at least limit the amount of damage done. In other words, it saves lives.

Think of it this way: an assault weapon is an amplified version of a single-shot gun. It makes a weak signal stronger. It allows one lonely, unstable voice to send out a disproportionately loud message. Even though that message may be unclear or irrational, it echoes throughout the culture, filtered and amplified by our own voices as we try to make sense of it, voices that are in turn amplified by the many forms of media at our disposal.

What we’re left with is chaos and cacophony. In the world of music, it’s called feedback.

Put more simply, it’s noise.

Hot Flashes

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It has been a hot summer, one of the hottest on record. Drought has destroyed crops throughout America’s farmlands. Many of us on the east coast learned a new weather term, derecho, to describe the brutal line of thunderstorms that knocked out power for days in the region.

Meanwhile, scientists expressed incredulity over the rate and extent of ice melt in Greenland and Earth’s polar regions. In response, some experts warned that their earlier predictions about the pace of climate change had been too optimistic. It’s coming faster than they had feared, they claimed, and this year’s weather-related disasters are just a sneak preview of things to come.

Expressed in that context, many of us probably think that climate change is a meteorological event best measured using thermometers and rainfall gauges. There’s another aspect to rising temperatures, however, that should trouble us far more than that: violence.

Horrific shootings grabbed the headlines far too many times this summer, leaving many of us stunned and feeling helpless. The obvious debate centered around gun control and the easy explanation that firearms were to blame. While access to weapons certainly deserves our continued attention, we also need to consider other factors that might motivate individuals to use weapons against one another.

As it turns out, the weather may be one such factor.

Sociological studies have linked rates of aggression to temperature. Physiological studies have demonstrated connections between heat and increased heart rates, increased testosterone production, and other metabolic changes. We can find traces of this link in our own language: “A hothead wrote a flaming comment about my blog and really got my blood boiling.” Some studies have suggested that higher temperatures not only make us more prone to violence; they make us more tolerant of it as well. In this way, we become too hot to be bothered.

Though I wouldn’t place too much stress on a causal link between the two, I find it interesting that the temper of our political climate seems to be rising along with the temperatures, especially in this, an election year. Even as I’m drawn in like a moth toward the flame, I try to keep my cool, to chill out as often as possible. With all of the hot air being produced by political rhetoric, I look for the socio-psychological equivalent of carbon offsets wherever I can.

Having a puppy in the house seems to help. Reading good books seems to do the trick. Walks through the woods to pick berries provide some relief. These are personal and highly localized solutions, of course. It will be interesting to see what kinds of remedies we might envision on the national or global level as the climate continues to heat up.

For more about this topic, check out this informative article from Wired magazine. It both corroborated and expanded upon some of the ideas I had while writing this post:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/07/hot-weather-violence/

Unimaginable

The 9/11 Memorial always reminded me of a double Bat-signal rising up above Gotham City. (Photo from United States Government Works, public domain)

New York City, September 11, 2001.

After an invigorating morning swim and a walk to the office under clear blue skies, I’m selecting a muffin to go with my morning coffee when a cafeteria worker rushes in from the dining area. Nearly hyperventilating, he tells everyone that a plane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Towers.

We all hustle toward the windows and look to the south. Dense smoke billows out from the irregular shape now punched into the side of the north tower. We grasp at explanations. Our collective imaginations reach this consensus: the pilot of a small plane must have suffered a heart attack and lost control of his aircraft.

Shortly thereafter, in my own department eleven stories higher, I join my coworkers along the south-facing bank of windows. Speculation continues even as a second aircraft appears to the west, coming in low across the Hudson River at high velocity. We theorize that it must be a press-related plane rushing to the scene, but it’s coming in too fast and is too close to the building and, seconds later, slams into the south tower. A fireball erupts as it crashes through the building. The visual force of it shoves us back from the window.

After our many attempts to grasp what has been happening, we now face a more likely yet discomforting fact: We are under attack.

Throughout the morning, as we watch television broadcasts, monitor the Internet, contact friends and relatives, and eventually recoil in horror as the towers collapse one after the other, two dominant yet contradictory themes emerge:

“This is unimaginable.”

“It looks like a scene from a movie.”

Later that afternoon, in our attempts to navigate home through the paralyzed city, my husband and I crowd onto a bus heading uptown, away from the disaster. People sit and stand in silence, some marked as close witnesses by dust, soot, and ash. If we speak at all, we speak in broken whispers. Mostly, we settle into a state of numbness that will haunt us for days, weeks, generations.

When the bus stops to let passengers on and off, I look back toward the plumes of smoke rising above Manhattan. Already I’m exhausted by a sight that will dominate the view from my office window for a period beyond all expectation. I look down at the street, where I see a crumpled and dusty costume being run over repeatedly by buses, cabs, fire trucks, and police cars. I recognize the red-and-blue paneling and its black web motif. It is a Spiderman suit.

Where were the superheroes today? I ask myself.

The answer is obvious. Superheroes are make-believe. They’re fictions, fantasies. Yet somehow, even in the context of such stark realities, they seem entirely imaginable.

• • •

This is unimaginable.

It looks like a scene from a movie.

These comments echoed once again throughout the coverage of the shooting at the recent “Batman” movie premiere in Aurora, Colorado. In this instance, however, the comic-book costume in question was inhabited, come to life.

James Holmes, his hair dyed red like the villain the Joker, a gas mask concealing whatever crazed expression might have been on his face, his body encased in bulletproof armor, fired randomly and repeatedly into a smoke-filled theater and struck 70 people.

In Aurora, the police were quick to apprehend Holmes. With a mixture of luck and skill, they were also able to prevent any further damage that might have resulted from entering his booby-trapped apartment.

Even after capture, Holmes acted like someone “playing a role,” according to one police officer. In other words, he continued to engage in make-believe, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He was acting out a fantasy.

He was imagining things.

• • •

At an early age, I decided that I could and would make a career out of imagining things. I read the fiction of Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, and Donald Barthelme with both appreciation and envy. In order to achieve true and lasting greatness, I would have to dream bigger things than my literary idols and spin from those dreams far greater works of fiction. To do that, I would have to create characters, settings, and situations that no one else had thought of before.

In short, I would have to imagine the unimaginable.

And so, after years spent crafting short stories, novels, and poems, the events of 9/11 left me feeling uneasy and strangely complicit. Hadn’t I created similarly sinister plots for my own antagonists? Truth be told, I saw nothing “unimaginable” about flying an airplane into a building as an act of terrorism. Quite the opposite: It seemed rather simplistic.

In the days and weeks after the attack, I grew annoyed when people in both the media and our government used the word “unimaginable” to describe the events. It seemed a sloppy description, as much a dodge as a denial.

What I found truly unimaginable was that the people in charge of defending against such things hadn’t done their jobs and anticipated this scenario. (In fact, some intelligence agents had, but few people believed enough in their reports to act on them.) I wanted to suggest that the soon-to-be-formed Department of Homeland Security should employ fiction writers like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum—any writers, really—to help them out a bit in the imagination department.

The Aurora shooting incident, however, represents the flip side of this argument. Here, a work of imaginative fiction inspired the assailant. In his twisted state of delusion, James Holmes latched onto the Joker, a character created by comic-book writers in the 1940s, and erased the border between fantasy and reality. He obsessed over the Batman mythology but followed the wrong role model.

Authorities made easy comparisons between Holmes’s behavior and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the film “The Dark Knight,” which earned him a posthumous Academy Award. Critics praised the depth of Ledger’s commitment to the role. Sources on the movie set expressed their astonishment at the intensity of Ledger’s investment in the character. In an interview at the time, Ledger himself described the role as “fun,” adding: “There are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.” (Empire magazine, January 2008)

“Well, I warned him.” According to one report (New York Daily News, January 24, 2008), this was Jack Nicholson’s response on learning about Heath Ledger’s death by overdose a short while later. (Nicholson had taken on the Joker role in Tim Burton’s 1989 film “Batman.”) Nicholson knew the emotional and psychological toll involved in playing the Joker, and Ledger’s subsequent health issues suggested that he had been haunted by the role well after the film had wrapped.

Ledger’s death raises uncomfortable questions for those in the creative arts. Are there some places in the imagination that we shouldn’t go? And even if there are, how do we prevent ourselves from going there? Just because we may refuse to imagine something, does that make it unimaginable?

• • •

“With great power there must also come–great responsibility!”

This insight, currently attributed to Stan Lee and the Spiderman franchise but thought to originate with the French thinker Voltaire, provides a guiding light whenever I have my doubts about writing and the imaginative impulse. It reminds me that any ability, like any tool, can be used for good or bad, to create or destroy. A person can use a hammer to build a home or break a window. Radioactive material can be used to destroy cancerous cells or bring an empire to its knees.

With so much potentially at stake, it becomes tempting to sit out the debates that we need to have—with each other and with ourselves—in the wake of events such as 9/11 and Aurora and countless other acts of violence. In postponing action—or, in some cases, shrugging and offering up a feeble, defeatist “Well, what can you do?” attitude—many of our appointed leaders deny their own power and, as a result, shirk their responsibilities. They fail us, plain and simple.

In the resulting void, opportunists rise to the debate like sharks to bloody chum. Some amplify their pre-existing fears and hatreds, which in turn can incite other acts of violence. (Witness the recent shooting in Wisconsin.) Others cultivate a false sense of security or superiority with cynicism or trendy ironic detachment, a kind of toxic snark. Neither suffices for the level of serious discourse required. Both, in their own ways, risk being irresponsible.

The day before the Aurora incident, I began work on a fictional story about guns and violence inspired by Ishmael Beah’s book Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The day after the shooting, my progress stalled. I could imagine what might happen next in the story, but part of me simply didn’t want to any more. The subject felt too overwhelming, and my efforts to address it seemed insignificant. Like young Peter Parker after his uncle’s murder in the Spiderman origin story, I questioned my own powers and abilities. That superhero suit? An empty costume after all.

Slowly, the paralysis subsided. Silence was no longer an option, nor was surrendering to self-doubt or cynicism. I began to write again, and, in doing so, attempted to create the empathic connection that explores all sides of an issue, not just the easy or most comfortable side.

I could not expect a superhero to swoop in and write that next difficult scene for me, just as we cannot leave our hopes for a more just and peaceful world in the hands of some mythical caped crusader. In the real world, our daily challenges remain ours and ours alone. Luckily, we have the power to respond to those challenges in creative and positive ways. If we can imagine ways to channel that power responsibly, then together we can save the world.

Callings

Hugh Jr. and Hugh Sr. outside Gillette Stadium, one of the last photos taken of my dad

 

“You missed your calling.”

Fathers say perplexing things sometimes, and Fathers’ Day seems like as good a day as any to remember them. In a solemn moment, my father offered the above observation several years ago, and it haunts me the way an echo haunts a canyon—mainly because I’d been turning the same notion over and over in my mind for many years before that.

Some people are born lucky and have but one calling that speaks to them loudly and clearly all their lives. When I see these people—and they show up with a refreshing frequency on reality shows such as “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” the latter being one of my absolute favorite television experiences of all time—I feel stirrings of both kinship and envy. I admire their devotion and dedication to their talents and consider the depth of my own past commitments to the written word. At the same time, I am reminded of how often my loyalty to literature has slipped and faltered. There too, echoes from the past resound.

I grew up in an era when “doctor” or “lawyer” were the two top attainable career goals for one’s children. Sure, “president” got mentioned fairly frequently, but I could always detect a catch in my parents’ voices when they said it. There was realism and practicality—common sense, my father frequently extolled—and then there was the dreamer’s realm of fantasy—those “pie in the sky” aspirations that might tempt us for a while but would ultimately bring us up short. As anyone who grew up playing the game of “Life” knew: you drew the largest paychecks from “doctor” and “lawyer,” and “president” wasn’t a viable option on the game board.

Alas, from an early age, I chose another option that wasn’t on the board: the dreamer’s realm of fiction writing.

When I watch the interviews on talent shows, two types of participants often reduce me to tears: contestants whose family members so fully support their goals that they’ll pack up the minivan and drive across the country together for the auditions, and contestants whose families have abandoned them and left them to follow their artistic aspirations alone (and let’s be honest, when that aspiration is something like dance, there’s more than a little homophobia at play in many of the reactions).

“You’ll never make a decent living at that,” my father warned me when I first mentioned my plans to become a fiction writer. “Do you really think someone would want to publish something like that?” he asked after reading one of my short stories. “I’d be ashamed of myself,” he added—his subjective take on the choice of a front-and-center gay narrator, perhaps.

It was the last time I would show him any of my work. Years later, after that story had been published along with several others, he summed up his feelings by unknowingly paraphrasing the final line of a James Wright poem that has haunted many an aspiring writer:

 

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

 (from “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”)

 

My father may have been drunk when he informed me that I had wasted my life; after all, he rarely called me when he was sober. Even so, his feelings were made quite clear when he demanded that I forego my own graduate-school commencement ceremony in order to come home and attend my sister’s graduation from medical school. At the party following that event, my father mentioned matter-of-factly to a friend that I, too, had just graduated from school, the University of Idaho. The only problem with that was that I had just received—in absentia, of course—my MFA degree from the University of Iowa, the premiere writing program in the country.

All water under the bridge, I told myself as I headed back to my hometown a year ago to spend extended periods of time with my father in his final months. During those stays, the inevitable questions arose: “Why didn’t you become a doctor?” “Did you ever think of becoming a lawyer?”

I answered them dutifully and honestly, in order: “I can’t stand the sight of blood,” and “Yes, and I haven’t ruled it out entirely just yet.”

These questions about medicine and law were, in their own way, high compliments. He acknowledged that I had done well enough in school to pursue and excel in either one. By then, however, my father understood that neither career option reflected my true calling. He still wasn’t completely sold on the idea of writing, and I confessed that there were far too many days when I wasn’t, either.

Even so, my father had one request to make. He asked if I would write something exclusively for him: his eulogy.

My father did not ask me to do this because of some deathbed epiphany that his son was, indeed, a writer. He was harking back to his final words in that conversation from years earlier: “You have missed your calling.”

At the time, we had been discussing matters of the soul and spirit, and my father was suddenly filled with the belief that I should have gone into the ministry. “That’s your true calling,” he said. “You should be writing sermons instead of short stories.”

Now, nearly a year after his death, I reply: “Dad, at their best, they are one in the same, just like us.”

Dark Feed

 

 

In honor of Earth Day and National Poetry Month, here’s a change of pace, a poem about where we might find ourselves if the 24/7 news cycle shut down.

 

Dark Feed

 

A snap of light, a blight of static,

and the dimming plasma screen stares back

at them dumbly in their darkened den.

 

Perhaps some small animal has crawled

into the basement and gnawed through the cable

to render them disconnected this early spring night.

TV, wifi, phone: all dead. How will they deal

with this deprivation, this break in their continuous

loop of news and commentary?

 

They sit for a moment in silence, worry about

the freshness of batteries in flashlights, the locations

of candles and where they might find

a book of matches.

 

She comments on the recent string

of unseasonable storms.

He reminds her of last week’s solar flares.

Together, they circumnavigate what they falsely call

unimaginables: the terrorist plots and hacker conspiracies,

the evolving world they struggle to ignore.

 

In the dark outside, the crickets rub

their legs together and maintain their trill.

From that prompt she recalls

a bit of country wisdom

rediscovered in an almanac,

a formula to determine the temperature outside.

 

They count and do the math in their heads:

chirps per 14 seconds plus 40—

75, 75, 76, 77.

 

 

Book Value

When I was young, I borrowed most of the books I read from the local library. My public high school provided dog-eared copies of the classics in my college-prep literature classes. To further satisfy my growing reading appetite, I would ride my bicycle downtown to a local hardware store that kept a few ramshackle shelves of coverless remaindered paperbacks near the front door. For forty cents each (or three for a buck), I could pedal home with a combination of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the not-quite-latest collection of greatest Mad magazine gags (stupid answers to stupid questions, anyone?).

To this day, I continue to haunt second-hand bookshops, yard sales, and the remainder bins at big-box stores in search of bargains. At the end of the semiannual book sale at our local library, I came home with two brown paper shopping bags full of wonderful finds, including the collected poems of Stanley Kunitz, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Tab Hunter’s Confidential, and a couple of titles by Bill O’Reilly (stupid answers to stupid questions, anyone?). I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the bookcases in which those books now reside cost substantially more than the books themselves.

In each one of the instances noted above, my reading experience provided absolutely no compensation to the authors of the books themselves.

This is why I wince a little every time fellow lovers of literature rhapsodize about the beauty and allure of used bookshops. I cringe a bit when poets, novelists, and journalists extol the value and necessity of public libraries. I wince and cringe with the heart of a co-conspirator, for I, too, value and support these institutions. And yet by patronizing both of them, readers rob the arts to a greater extent than purchases made at the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles of the world. Access to free, remaindered, or used books may boost readership, but each one deprives writers of compensation for their work. Seen another way, they literally lower the value of the written word.

I learned at an early age that writers should expect little, if anything, in the way of recognition or remuneration for their efforts. Mostly one should expect rejection—either in the form of “thank you, but not for us” letters from potential publishers or “nice try, but not for me” comments from readers. Many literary writers still subscribe to the somewhat romantic “starving artist” archetype, envisioning themselves in tiny, unheated lofts subsisting entirely on grilled cheese sandwiches, flat soda, and watered-down tomato soup as they churn out page after page of unappreciated brilliance.

One might expect that things would have improved over the past few decades, but they haven’t, at least not in the publishing industry. In fact, the situation has become even more psychologically unhealthy. These days, many magazines and journals require hopeful writers to pay a “reading fee” for the opportunity to be considered for publication. In a number of instances, specious contests have replaced the normal submission process. The literary world has become more like a lottery in more ways than one. What was once called the “table of contents” in some books and journals might now be better referred to as a “list of winners.”

Editors and publishers will tell you that reading fees and contest are necessary evils in order to meet their financial demands. After all, there are bills to pay: editorial staff, office assistants, designers, printers, distributors, and so on. On top of that, one must pay for electricity, water, heat, telephone, and so on.

Now consider that for many literary journals, the person who provides the actual content, the writer, is often paid very little, if at all. Despite having potentially invested in college tuition, workshop or residency costs, and all those reading/entry fees, publication rarely means “hitting the jackpot.” A poem that took fifteen to twenty hours to write might net ten dollars. A historical piece that required months of research, writing, and revising might reward you with three or four copies of the obscure journal that accepted it.

With that in mind, you might wonder why anyone in his or her right mind would pursue a literary career in the first place. Perhaps this explains why so many writers place their full and earnest faith in the metaphorical value of writing. In this scenario, writers are akin to mystics who channel universal truths onto the page. This probably explains why some writers’ conferences can seem like cults to non-bookish outsiders—and why some attendees can come across as desperate martyrs. I’m reminded of a lighthearted quip a fellow writer once told me on sharing his latest piece: “I suffer for my art; now you can suffer, too.”

I worry that this kind of attitude—this self-indulgent elevation of “literature”—further devalues the entire creative enterprise. It fosters a disconnect between the writer on high and the lowly reader, which in turn leads to dwindling book sales and meager showings at readings. Many of us who remain committed to the written word nonetheless felt a twinge of recognition and understanding when someone posted on Facebook: “April is National Poetry Month, that time of year when we should all force ourselves to attend dozens of readings and pretend to be enjoying ourselves.”

So you see, in some ways I’m still a terrible supporter of the arts. I read the latest articles about the financial struggles in the publishing world and can’t escape the sinking feeling that, in some ways, we brought this on ourselves. For decades, writers have accepted disproportionate compensation for their work without much complaint. As readers, we became more and more accustomed to paying little—if anything—for the works we’ve consumed. And in a bizarre twist of hypocrisy, we voiced our strongest support for those institutions that hurt writers the most. With that in mind, the crumbling nature of the publishing world today shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Still, I hold onto a shred of optimism about the future. Here are a few final thoughts and suggestions, and I welcome others:

  • Don’t be deluded—and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Stop buying into harmful myths like the “starving artist” I mentioned earlier. Demand that writers be paid for their work, and if it has to be a small amount, at least ensure that it’s not an insulting or demeaning amount. If a magazine or journal can come up with a business plan that covers the costs of printing and production, it should also account for the value of the content itself—the author’s compensation.
  • Do what you can to help publishers meet these increased financial challenges by subscribing to those magazines and journals whose work you respect and admire. (I know, I know: Once again, it’s up to the writers to cough up more money in the hopes of supporting their own potential paychecks. Maybe you can get friends and family members to subscribe as well, or convince some rich benefactor to bequeath millions to the journal in question.)
  • Support your local library not only by checking out books but by getting out your checkbook. That way they can purchase more books and journal subscriptions.
  •  Realize that free public readings aren’t really “free” and support both the presenter and the host bookstore by purchasing book(s).
  •  Enjoy your bargain book from the remainder bin, but support the writer with a full-price purchase of another title if you liked his or her work.
  •  Most of all, value what you do, whether you read or write. If literature does indeed have worth, then we should all be ready and willing to pay for it.