Friday, April 30, 2010

An American Story

Caveat Lector: If you are not interested in my opinion about something that has nothing to do with writing... you'll want to read a different post.


At the mouth of New York harbor, at the confluence of the Hudson and the Atlantic stands the tiny island of Ellis. This sandbar in the mouth of a tidal estuary might go unnoticed save the giant copper statue that adorns her, a modern-day Colossus standing athwart the harbor of America's most celebrated city.  At the base of this statue once stood the entry point through which millions of immigrants passed, their names changed seemingly at random into something that sounded 'more American'. But not all were subjected to this treatment.

But some of them went around...

I can speak of one man who did not pass through those hallowed and infamous halls. He passed the statue hidden in a barrel in the hold of a ship, on which he had stowed away with the assistance of a friend. Thereafter he was nicknamed "Trommel" which means Barrel in the German dialect he spoke. This man disappeared into the rapidly industrializing heartland of America and eventually settled in Missouri.

So I sit with this man in mind as I listen to the debate rage around me on the subject of immigration. As I ponder the xenophobia and isolationism and try to separate it from the genuine fear of what lies 'over there' and how we are to keep it from coming 'over here'. I listen to the language that frames the debate. I can tell the person's leanings by their vernacular ere they ever voice an opinion. 'Illegal alien' is a message that invokes fear. 'Undocumented worker' is a message that implies that they had their documents a moment ago and merely misplaced them... The unallied speak a mishmash of both and the professionally unaligned (or perhaps misaligned) media waffles as it always does trying to please all while really pleasing none.

The arguments are familiar... They come here and refuse to assimilate. They don't speak our language. They drive down wages and burden our schools and our health system. They are an undocumented underclass doing jobs no American would do for a wage no American would accept.

They cook our food, they clean the hotel rooms, nanny our children and grow the vegetables and fruits that nourish our bodies. The sweat of their low-wage brows keeps the price of our food low, their toil means that even the poorest legal citizen can afford California oranges and Washington apples. They are here, a genie out of the bottle and they will never go away. They are the veritable serfs of the agri-business overlords, with no recourse to the law because they live beyond the law. A blight on our national conscience. An outlaw band of misfits and miscreants.

Huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Wretched refuse of the teeming shore...

"They won't assimilate! They speak their own language and won't learn ours."

Trommel never spoke English within his own family. I think he eventually learned English, but in the kitchens and dining rooms they spoke German. They celebrated Sundays in their Lutheran churches, the sermons and hymns sung in their language. His children attended American schools and were treated by American doctors. It was they that learned to speak our language. And they were proud and loyal Americans.

Trommel and his family didn't assimilate to what they found in America, America assimilated what they found in Trommel. From this illegal immigrant from Germany, America found the strong back and die-hard work ethic of the Teutonic peoples that spawned him. They found the warrior spirit that sustained him in an arduous sea voyage, self-incarcerated in the hold of a ship. And when America declared war on his homeland, they found him and his sons ready to take up arms and defend the ideal they came seeking. But they never assimilated.

"The times were different..."

Were they? I don't think they were. Nothing is new in what we are experiencing now. On 16 September 1920, a terrorist detonated a horse-drawn carriage laden with explosives (the first car bomb?) at the steps of the Morgan bank in the heart of Wall Street. 38 people were killed and 400 wounded. Anarchists were the Al Quaeda of their time. We fought an endless war against the Huns that began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Bosnian separatists until Hitler died in his bunker and the Russians marched through the streets of Berlin in the 1940's. And in both wars, Trommel and his sons were there. The "Sedition Act" had the post office reading our mail. Roosevelt had us imprisoning loyal Japanese citizens without the benefit of habeas corpus and Joe McCarthy had us looking under our beds for communists.

Tell me again how times are different? The names are strange, the tanks roll against an enemy without a uniform, but the fight hasn't changed. We're shadow-boxing with ghosts of our own creation, just as we did throughout the 20th century. Going to war with enemies we armed. Looking for an easy way to feel safe and secure in frightening times.

"At some point you have to turn off the tap or the melting pot overflows..."

"We're a nation of laws, no one should be allowed to break the law with impunity..."

Both of these are true. Both of these statements - if made in the interest of honest and earnest debate - would be perfectly viable positions to fortify and defend. But what really would the ramparts be built from save our own fears?

I look across this vast land and see a patchwork of fields and cities as diverse as the people who tilled their soil, planted the fence rows, built and worked the factories. I see a country that is the third most populous in the world but has the slowest rate of population growth of the top three. I see troubled storms on the horizon and I see a need for unity of purpose even if we retain our bickering, tumultuous political system. Real change is possible, real solutions are called for. It is possible that some of the solutions will be painful both for us and for the immigrants who are the grist in the millstones of our rhetoric. And some entrenched positions must be sacrificed in order to achieve victory, which will require real heroism, real leadership, and a real commitment from all sides to solving the problems. It will also require an understanding that no solution will be bloodless.

As most of you have probably surmised already, Trommel was my great-great-grandfather.

All of you come here periodically of your own free will.  Google tells me that a lot of you do.  Some of you read my various blogs week after week to see what I have to say. I have no idea why, but I try to make it worth your while. I hope to make you smile, or think, or think about smiling, and I hope that your lives are at least a little bit better for knowing me as I know mine is for knowing you.

Would your lives be better if Trommel had been sent back? The wars of the 20th century and the course of the industrial revolution would not have changed for the lack of one more German immigrant, but how would your life be different if Scott wasn't a part of it? The question sounds arrogant on my part, but what I really want to do is ask you to simply humanize the greater question that faces us.

If your life is indifferent to my presence, my ego can take that. If you would miss having me around, but still think we need a wall between us and Mexico, I can respect that too. I have never sought to surround myself with only friends that agree with me. If I did, I would be a lonely man indeed. And I never ask of others what I do not already demand of myself. I can't and won't dissuade you from an informed decision I disagree with, but I cannot abide an uninformed opinion created from ignorance and fear.

This debate will not end with this legislative session or the bill currently before congress. It has been going on since before the first brick was laid on Ellis island. But it should be civil and it should be informed. It should be the sort of debate our children's children are glad we undertook and thus it should encompass all sides, and it should be a challenge we are willing and able to overcome or no true republic are we. Pulling the covers over our heads will not benefit us. And so shall we fade as past empires have faded down through the mists of time, prey to their own arrogance, torn apart by internal strife, victims of their own refusal to meet the challenges of the changing times.

When I wrote this it was 2005. Nothing has changed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Can a device save an industry?

Great interview!  Read Ken Auletta's full column at the New Yorker's website.

Thanks Todd Presley at Iced Tea & Sarcasm for pointing me toward this.  I'm usually out of reach when this show is on so if I don't catch it online, I miss it!
"Not to write, for many of us, is to die.  We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout.  The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day a sort of victory."

-Ray Bradbury from Zen In the Art of Writing

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What are you afraid of?

I had a conversation recently with someone who holds a master's degree in a writing discipline but doesn't write.  She tells me that - among other reasons I'm sure - she stopped writing when she read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and realized she couldn't match him.

Wow.  That's a hard mark to hit.

I'm not going to make fun of her.  None of my reasons for writing or not writing are any better or worse than hers.  But it got me to thinking about intimidation and the fears that keep us from writing.  Whether it is fear of rejection (by family, readers, agents, publishers or anyone else), fear of being challenged for what we wrote, or fear that we cannot match the prose of Jonathan Franzen, it's all in our heads.

Some writers compensate for this by retreating into an arrogant defensive posture in which everything everyone else writes is crap compared to your mighty prose.  Personally, I prefer to be aware that I have shelves and shelves of books in my home that were written by writers far more skillfull and gifted than I.  I love all of them and simultaneously I don't care.

Honest.  It doesn't bother me a whit.

Agent blogs and writing books spend a lot of time telling aspiring writers to devote part of their time to market research, reading and comparing yourself to what else is out there and finding where you fit.  Which is well and good as far as it goes.  By all means, read what you want to write and vice-versa -- you certainly don't want to write the sort of book you wouldn't want to read.  I've seen plenty of people try it and it's never pretty.  But I think (as my friend illustrates) that there's a hidden danger there if you're going to get run aground on the shoals of someone else's prose.  Understand what you're doing and how it will eventually be sold.  (I recommend doing some time as a bookseller, there's no better schooling to be had in this regard.) 

The one thing that every author on the shelves of your local bookseller has in common is that they set aside those other authors and wrote the books you are now comparing yourself to.  Maybe we're all arrogant in that way.  There's certainly a bit of ego involved in thinking your daydreams are so cool that everyone else will want to hear about them.

In the end, you must write to your own standard and set that standard at an achievable level.  Raise it on the next one and the one after that, but never so high nor so quickly that you cannot write for the want of attaining your goal of exceeding the latest Pulitzer Prizewinner.

I don't have to write like Isabel Allende or Michael Chabon because I'm not Isabelle Allende any more than I am Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers or Jonathan Franzen.  Nor am I Jane Austen, Earnest Hemingway, Jack London or any of the rest.  I write like me.  I believe the things that I believe, I use the words that I know and the sentence structure that seems natural to me and tell the stories that occur to me in a way I think others will enjoy reading. 

I will always strive to write better, but never to be the next John Updike.  Being the next Scott Perkins is hard enough.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My week in review...

Last week was National Library Week. A belated happy NLW to all my librarian friends out there (and for good measure, those I haven't met yet but I'm sure will be my friend if ever we do meet). I hope Neil Gaiman behaved himself, or at least misbehaved in an interesting manner.

In related news, I didn't set foot in a library (including the one I work in) all week. Why? Stomach flu. Terrible, awful, very bad, no good stomach flu. If someone offers it to you, thank them and politely refuse.  Or better yet, club them over the head and run away.

Which also explains why I've been scarce the past week or so and grumpy when I was here.  Sorry about that.  I've been working on my novel by writing longhand because fever and typing don't mix well for me.

So this week has become all about transferring the things I wrote in my notebook into my netbook and catching up on social duties and yes, blogging.  Also, I must sift through the ideas I jotted down in a feverish daze (as I tend to do) and figure out either what the scrawls mean and/or whether they're as clever as they seemed at the time.  Best of the bunch has to be to refit one of my old typewriters to double as a keyboard... or at least has an ersatz keylogger in place, giving me the tactile relationship with my writing that I crave but also negating the need to retype the thing into a computer later. 

I have my best research team (aka my Facebook friends list) hashing this out as we speak.

Otherwise, blogging returns as usual tomorrow!  And I have a lot of writing (and transcribing) to do so I should get back to it.  Happy Tuesday, everyone!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm going slightly mad...

I've been sick with a flu that just won't go away and it occurred to me that my last post here was on a somewhat cranky note.  Which I don't like to do.  I was only joking anyway... well, mostly.  But I'm not mad!  Not entirely.  Just feverish and worn a bit thin.

Since I've been home and largely at loose ends, I've been actually paying attention to the emails filling my inbox and I've been largely disheartened by what I find there and by how little of it was written by or indeed vetted by the people who sent it to me.

So allow me this curmudgeonly moment and an open missive to the people of the United States of America:

Benjamin Disraeli once said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." He has since been quoted in this context by everyone from Mark Twain to the writers of West Wing. In modern parlance, I would add one to Mr. Disraeli's list... "Lies, damn lies, statistics... and chain emails." I might eventually go so far as to add a fifth "Political bloggers" but that's not what this is about.

I commend to all thinking people of this benighted country the following article from, written back in 2008 and as true today as it was then.

That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously.

The most pernicious part of this trend in American political mudslinging isn't that there are lies being told about issues, or bills or candidates, it's that they are a cynical abuse of friendship and filial devotion.  We are inclined to believe a story simply because we love, respect and trust the person telling it to us. It is made even more of a sin because it's not consonant with chatting with your neighbor over the garden fence about the latest rumors out of the DC cesspit, it's about the widespread and largely innocent spreading of lies among loved ones at the behest of a hidden author.

This is nothing more than an abuse of the Great American Grapevine by some venal cur hiding in a bunker deep underneath a white marble facade in Washington DC. It is about taking those closest to you along in the grand and sweeping lies promulgated by the extreme wings of some political party. And it needs to stop.

For heaven's sake, people, it's time to make up your own mind based on something other than internet rumors. This is an important moment in American history.  Things are happening around us and we need to know our minds and our decisions aren't based upon rumors and innuendo, but upon facts and the reality of our situation.  Not doctored photos and out of context quotes.  You need to be thinking clearly, not loading yourselves and your loved ones up with lies.

There are lies we cannot avoid from people we know are likely lying to us.  Politicians, used car salesmen, lawyers, political bloggers and talk radio calumniators...  Why in God's name would you want to add yourself to that list?  Please think for yourself and stop lying to those who love you.

That is all.
Thank you.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Does the iPad Free Us from the Tyranny of Creation?

or: Is the iPad Really the Evolution of the Personal Computer or Is It the Advent of a More Interactive TV Set?

As you all know by now, I'm sort of a tech guy.  Not in the sense that I have to own every new wireless widget to come down the pike.  Far from it, in fact. But I make it my business to know what's going on so I can have an informed opinion on exactly how it's sucking the souls out of our lives...

Of course, I'm just kidding.  (Sort of.)

So over the weekend, the age of the iPad dawned . . . on the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.  (I don't know that this is significant, but it's worth noting all the same.)  And as usual, I think the press surrounding the thing missed the real story.

This morning's story on NPR made the iPad sound like the death knell of the free internet.  The spark that sets alight a million free-content websites.  As the masses swarm to the "gated community" afforded by Apple's restrictive content controls and the industry adopts its usual posture of chasing Apple... where does that leave us?

That depends upon how you view media.  In other words, are you a creator or a consumer?  Let's face it, Lev Grossman's assessment of the iPad in this Time Magazine article is pretty dead-on: the iPad is purpose-built for consumption of media, not the creation of media.

I take exception to all the many articles and news stories (seriously, could there be more hype?) that call it the evolution of the laptop computer, or even the "end" of the laptop.  This is just a platform for delivery, as many people describe it it's basically just an enormous iPod Touch.  In my view it's the newest incarnation of the television or radio, not the latest evolution of the laptop.  You've spent your entire life with such devices and Apple's new device just makes the things interactive.  I don't know a single author, blogger or other sort of "content creator" (as we are now called) that is ditching his or her Macbook or PC in favor of the iPad.

Why?  Because typing on a big sheet of glass that won't or can't multitask sucks.

But I think that's just fine.  Seriously, there's not a darn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because without consumers, what are we creating content for?  Whether it's a more interactive e-reader or a delivery system for cleaner HD NetFlix downloads or just a way to read the digital newspaper, this device isn't a disruptive technology.  Far from it.  NPR is right, this is a device that harkens back to the era of hardcopy, a chance to preserve the old paradigm of "We create, you read" that has seen us through the centuries since before Gutenberg went out and MacGyvered a winepress and started printing Bibles.

I know a lot of people see the wild and woolly, freewheeling internet as the height of human social development.  Those are generally the same people who complain about all the "clueless n00bs" clogging the pipeline and generally getting in their way.  The wild west is great as long as you're one of the gunslingers, but all those pesky civilians just get in the way.

The simple fact is, there are too many content creators already.   Andre Codrescue once warned that we are a nation of exhibitionists that is running desperately short of voyeurs.  The iPad is tailor-made for voyeurs.  (As long as the exhibitionist isn't using Flash) and I say more power to it.  The iPad gives content creators the chance to create content and it relieves those who would rather consume than create relief from the tyranny of that keyboard that seems to haunt far too many with the imaginary onus to do something with it.

I posit that there are those in the world who shouldn't have a keyboard handy.  I'm sorry if that sounds elitest or not at all the PC thing to say (pun intended) but there are simply too many people who feel that they HAVE to tell their story and get out there only to find that they don't actually have a story to tell.  These are the people who Tweet their every bowel movement.

The iPad is a gated community.  It takes away the keyboard, along with its implicit exhortation to type something even if you don't have anything to type, and it restricts what you can view to Apple-approved content.  With all the constraints that Apple puts on their devices, don't be surprised if the Federal Trace Commission eventually tells them to knock it off.  The things they got away with when their market share was too small to create waves that way will eventually get them in trouble just as it did Microsoft.

But in the meantime, I think this device is going to ultimately clear the pipeline of a lot of people who would rather not have the QWERTY keyboard staring them in the face, tempting them with all the banality they can Tweet about.  The iPad creates audiences and if you're one of the exhibitionists... more voyeurs is good.

Anyway, this sense of the iPad as either the beginning or end of something new and frightening is nonsensical.  We've had gated communities on the internet before or have we forgotten AOL?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Spring Cleaning (Or Not...)

So, I read the New York Times almost every morning as part of my daily ritual of going through the rooms and corridors of my brain, flipping switches and powering-up the machinery.  (There's also some coffee involved.)  And sometimes I don't like what I read.  Sometimes it forces me to think about stuff I'd just as soon ignore.

The problem with "thinking too much" (a fault I've often been accused of) is that sometimes you think about something awful, something you never EVER want to think about.  And the friggin New York Times has a reputation for 'asking those tough questions' which often translates into 'making us think about the things we want to ignore'.

And now those rotten jerks did it again.  I've tried to ignore the story but it keeps cropping up in the lower corner.  They. Just.  Won't.  Let. It.  Rest.

Well, it's Easter morning and one of the rites of spring is supposed to be cleaning and getting your house in order.  So I guess it's high time I dealt with this uncomfortable subject.  Confronted those shadowy corners of my subconscious...

Those jerks at the New York Times posited that one might actually want to... much less actually have to... (deep breath) occasionally get rid of some books.  Those sick, awful journalists asked a bunch of authors about culling their personal libraries and what books they absolutely could not part with.

The horror!

So in the event of a library fire -- assuming the safety of loved ones, pets, irreplaceable antiques, photos and the family Bible -- what do you grab on the way out the door?

I suppose that it would too ironic to grab A Gentle Madness, Nicholas Basbanes ode to book collecting, or Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, though I re-read both of them all the time.  I have some signed first editions that would not be so easily replaced and some children's books both antique and modern that I adore and someday hope to share.  Poe and Tolkien and Conan Doyle all have their place on the tops of my lists as do the more modern voices of Zalazny, Chabon, Eggers, Newson, Lehane and Gaiman...  but any of those could still be replaced at your local bookstore.

The book that taught me most has to have been my Complete Works of William Shakespeare. No library should be considered complete without it and there is precious little about storytelling that you cannot learn from those hallowed pages.  But my Riverside Shakespeare can be replaced at any used bookstore and anyway, it's too easy.

And by the bye, anyone who tops their desert island list with Robinson Caruso should be horsewhipped on principle (I'm sure Defoe would back me on that).  Anyone who doesn't top that list with a stack of survival guides probably isn't going to live long enough to sit back and enjoy reading Ulysses while sipping homemade rum from a hollow coconut.

So what would I grab?  Doesn't my hypothetical library have a fire extinguisher?

Maybe a better way to tackle this is the way they did, as a meditation on spring cleaning.  What books could I - at least theoretically - do without?

The home improvement books would free up a shelf or two and in digital formats dictionaries are easier to handle, if less satisfying on a tactile level.  I have a lot of detective novels and miscellaneous paperbacks that I'll probably never read again.  My wife and I have been going through those and slowly donating them or shipping them off to good homes where they'll have a second life.

No.  I give up.  This is too hard.
Bring me a fire extinguisher and call the fire brigade, I'm going in...
Published: December 27, 2009
Six authors read favorite passages from books they would never discard. What would you throw out and what you would keep?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The rebirth of soliloquy

or: It's William Shakespeare's World & I'm Just Living In It...

Once upon a time in a high school English class far away, the subject of Hamlet and his propensity for talking to himself was on the table.  The teacher, the right honorable Anonymous Archetype, gavelled the session into order and  the first to speak was a much younger, beardless version of the bloke in the hat you see to the right.
Scottie: "I hate this play, it doesn't make any sense."
Mrs. AA: "What don't you like about it?"
Scottie: "You keep asking me to read Polonius and he gets stabbed."
Mrs. AA: "You do such a nice doddering old goat voice, Scottie.  What else?"
Scottie: "And last semester I was Cassius."
Mrs. AA: "And a decent backstabbing fiend as well.  Is there anything you object to other than my casting choices?
Scottie: "Well, for one thing, people never turn to an invisible audience and just start jabbering."
Mrs. AA: "You just wait for the invention of Twitter and YouTube."
Scottie: "What?"
Mrs. AA: "Nevermind."

I always wondered by she had a blue police box in the cupboard.

Anyway, I forgot all about this little exchange until a few days ago when someone asked me a question online and I turned to this anonymous audience and started talking.  Well, I was typing, actually, but I most assuredly was not talking to myself and I owe that unnamed English teacher an apology.

It began with an essay by Michael Chabon (as such thing often do) called "Trickster In a Suit of Lights" which I opined should be read by, well, everyone who reads.  This prompted a young reader to ask me what else he should be reading and my response grew and grew bit by bit until it became a 1,300 word soliloquy on the nature of reading and writing and the constraints of genre (which amounts to a sort of deconstruction of the Chabon essay).

Yes, everyone talks to themselves whether they admit it or not.  Most of those ramblings happen inside our heads, our "internal dialogue" and for some of us (myself included) it occasionally emerges and steps blinking into the sun.  At which point, my wife usually turns to me and says "I'm, sorry, did you just say something about robots and goblins?"  Because when I externalize my internal processes, they tend to emerge mid-stream and malformed.  I think that most real life soliloquies have had that quality for most of history.

I'm put in mind of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead where they wander through the events of Hamlet and periodically encounter the mad prince of Denmark mumbling nonsensically to himself.

Enter the Twitterverse and it's ready supply of audience members to listen to our externalized ramblings and re-enter the soliloquy into our daily experiences.  Each day millions and millions of people turn to their screens and on blogs and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, they launch into soliloquy those things that might have in past days remained internalized.

So I apologize to all the English teachers.  For the soliloquy thing, not the complaining about being cast as Polonius thing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010