Saturday, February 06, 2010

One Option: To Be Forgotten

J. D. Salinger once told an interviewer about his many years out of the public eye: "I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself and I want to be left absolutely alone to do it."

For writers, the option always exists to keep what we write to ourselves. We all do this to a certain extent. Not to the lengths that the great Salinger went, perhaps, but all writers share a common river of words: We just branch off in streams both discovered and hidden.

I'm aware of contradicting myself, here and elsewhere, about why I -- or anybody -- writes. Sometimes I say we have to do it. Sometimes I think it is to connect with others. Sometimes it seems as if no audience is necessary or even desirable.

After all, these are only words, and in the most powerful, militaristic, visual culture in all of history, how could mere words possibly matter to anyone?

Heirs will determine whether the public gets much more than a glimpse into Salinger's private writings, or those that survived his death and instructions, that is. From the point of view of the writer himself, that probably never mattered. He'd had his public moments, the fame and remuneration, etc.

There are those who write for these material purposes, and they are to be commended for it. I've often worked for pay; I continue to do so. This spring I have at least two magazine articles coming out -- two that I recall at this moment.

The editors were courteous. The process was professional. The result will be that my voice finds expression in two new titles from the hundreds in my past.

Long ago I stopped keeping track of where my published work resides, not because I don't care, but because I have no idea how to efficiently do so. For the past four years, almost everything has been in blog form, here or elsewhere, so it presumably will live on until the host (in this case, Google) chooses to remove it from the servers.

I don't have copies.

If, as a writer, you choose not to write, or not to publish, that is the option of providing an answer to the local museum promotion in the form of a question that I saw earlier this morning, whilst driving my soccer-playing son to a practice way across town.

I may not get this precisely right but it was something like this: "Is it better to be loved or hated rather than forgotten?"

Only the writer knows.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Refuge From Insanity

That our political/media culture has become intolerably polluted is no longer worth debating. I'll tune in to an occasional report for a few moments, but the obvious biases and disdain for civil conversation are so offensive to my value system that some alternative -- any alternative -- soon seems preferable.

I've been known to watch a Mandarin or Japanese news report for longer than I can tolerate Fox or MSNBC, even though my fluency in those languages rivals that of a three-month-old infant.

President Obama recently suggested, according to a headline I saw but did not click on, that Americans stop watching Cable TV news. Although that would no doubt be good for his fortunes, politically and in policy matters, his advice struck me as wise from a different perspective -- our mental health.

Try to think about this very, very carefully. Breathe deeply. How does listening to bigots like Glenn Beck affect you? Regardless of your political leanings, it is unlikely that his hysteria relaxes you.

Watching a vicious dog fight would be equally useful.

It may sem odd for a journalist to advise people to shut off the "news," except that what these type of people -- Beck, Keith Olbermann, -- do is not related to journalism.

Rather, they are actors who specialize in acting out over the news. They demonize each other and their respective political constituencies. They are doing nothing to heal this country, which as Obama has repeatedly noted is necessary if we are ever to move forward as a united society that addresses its real problems, not the foolish nonsense put forward by modern-day Know-Nothings.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Nature of Truth on a Rainy Thursday

Our City is green only at this time of year, when the rains sweep in off the Pacific, which they continue to do, blessedly, today.

I was at a meeting recently where speakers discussed the nature of "truth." This is a big topic, of course, and serious-minded humans have debated it at least since the time of Plato and Aristotle.

Nevertheless, I continue to be struck by how many around me seem so certain about the nature of their versions of "truth," especially as it pertains to spiritual matters.

Meanwhile, as a journalist, I recall with great clarity the moment when American journalists almost en masse seemed to share an epiphany that there is not one, but many "truths" in this society.

It was in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating by L.A. police almost 20 years ago, and the riots that followed that pivotal incident.

As few incidents ever do, this particular case caused reporters and editors, most of whom were white, to reflect upon the barely suppressed rage of African-Americans who felt that racist assaults by police were routinely ignored by the press until, in the King incident, somebody with a video camera happened to catch the crime on tape.

As obvious as this insight (about multiple truths) might seem to a student of philosophy, few journalists at the time had studied philosophy, and most would have told you, somewhat defensively, that they were most certainly devoted to uncovering the "truth" of whatever topic they wrote about, including police violence.

Many black citizens would have disagreed.

That was 19 years ago.

The larger point, of course, which remains unresolved today, is that one person's "truth" is often another's "lie." Until and unless we all grasp this multi-faceted aspect of social truths, we dwell in separate communities, separate realities, and ignorant of the chasms that continue to divide us from our common humanity.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Father's Pride; Daughter's Love

Watching my youngest daughter recently at a school play, I marveled at her presence among her peers, and at the unconditional love she always extends to me.

I'm not sure if she is aware that I am older than most of her friends' Dads; that my "career" options as an older writer have become increasingly narrow in recent years; or that neither she nor I can count on me living long enough to be a Grandpa for her kids should any significant health issue intervene.

If she is aware of any of these factors, or similar problematic aspects of the structure of our relationship, she never offers any hint of that. As far as she ever expresses her feelings for me, I am made to feel perfect.

The feelings are mutual, of course, but our 51-year-age gap has always worried me terribly. At the time she arrived, I was married to her Mom, with a range of promising career options, and plenty of assets, including savings and real estate.

There was no reason for me to expect anything but an average middle-class future for my daughter, or even perhaps -- if certain moves proved to be as lucrative as they appeared potentially to be at the time -- better than that, a decidedly upper-middle-class life.

I recall comforting myself at her birth, and assuaging my guilt, because despite my relatively advanced age I knew our financial circumstances were such that I would be able to raise her in a manner that mitigated the hazards of age and rewarded her with a much more comfortable future than her older siblings had endured.

That was before dot.bomb.

That was before my divorce.

That was before the recession.

Over a decade after she arrived, I look at her lovely face and her inscrutable expressions, wondering if she knows how much of that potential has evaporated since she was small.

If she perceives what a struggle our day-to-day life has become, relative to my expectations back then, she never lets on.

If she knows how small everything I can provide sometimes feels now, she never lets me stay with that.

She's my main shopping partner. She is always up for a trip to the grocery market or the discount clothes store. We shop for bargains; she is at good at reading labels as I am, easily, and on top of price issues, she is a firm environmentalist, so she often points our various ways we can shop in a more sustainable manner.

At her school, she has proven to be a driving force, despite her still-young age, in an ecology club. She doesn't just mouth these values; she lives them.

She's a vegetarian by her own choice, and has, in general, extremely strong beliefs about a lot of things.

She suffers fools with disdain, and has little time for Republicans or other oldsters who delay action on problems like global warming when she knows it will be her generation -- not theirs -- that will have to deal with the circumstances.

She has no particular sympathy for those who show their age by becoming more hardened in their ways, less tolerant toward others, less open-minded about new initiatives to make the world a more equitable place.

All of this by age 11!

As I gazed from the back of the auditorium during her play, I felt a sense of admiration for her well up inside of me. Plus a gradual awareness that though I may not get that far with her into her own adventures as an adult (after all, I can do the math), I'm confidant that long after I am gone, I will be extremely proud of my youngest child -- for who she is, for how she lives, and for how she will lead by example.


The Writer's Dilemma

The season is approaching when I will begin to visit a few classes here and there, and deliver a few lectures (or interactive discussions) about writing, so naturally, thoughts about the topic creep into my head as I procrastinate about doing what I actually should be doing, which is writing of a different type.

For decades, I've said the hardest thing about writing is getting started, and the second-hardest is keeping going.

But those involve tactics.

Actually, the hardest thing about writing for virtually any writer is believing you have something to say.

Notice that I said "something" to say, not "anything." Of course, once you're experienced, you can string words together in your sleep, with your eyes closed, and your hands tied behind your back -- not that I've tried that particular experiment, and in any event, I'd need a willing partner to do so, which I do not have at present.

"Something" is not necessarily easier to locate with age and experience, though young writers often have it without knowing it.

Self-confidence is, of course, the slender carpet all artists stand on. We stretch, place our feet firmly, look up and out and beyond...and hope.

At that moment, it's time for those tactics to kick in.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Call It What It Is

Perhaps I do not understand.

If what Obama did by creating the stimulus package was such a bad thing, what would have happened otherwise to all of the people who have grasped at the benefits he's provided as a life raft?

I've already discussed in the past how his subsidy of the cost of health insurance for those on Cobra saved people like me, who'd been laid off and refused continued health insurance -- until Obama stepped in.

Now there is the jobs component, which in San Francisco is known as the Jobs Now program.

Hundreds of people with nowhere else to turn are benefiting from this program. Without it, there would be no hope left for the families who depend on these jobs, most of which are modest but are helping to restart a stalled local economy.

So, what would the right-wing ideologues who attack these programs have these people do? The actual unemployment rate is approximately 17 percent, as economists have confirmed. That means one in every six people who wants to work can't work.

These are not lazy people, incompetent people, disloyal Americans. These are the heart and soul of America's working classes.

I've been in the jobs office, seen the faces, spoken with those waiting there. What leave me cold is the lack of respect and concern that comfortable middle-class Americans continue to exhibit toward the unemployed.

There seems to be an unspoken belief on the right that someone without a job deserves to be out of a job. Even though these are the most peaceful, hard-working people in the country.

In fact, there is a horrible evil afoot in this society. It is aided and abetted by dangerous ideologues like Sarah Palin and the current vocal leadership of the Republican Party.

I am hardly a knee-jerk Democrat, a liberal, or any other kind of label that these hate-filled monsters love to vilify. I, too, am a hard-working, loyal, decent person who is struggling to support his family.

Add in a serious illness, and age discrimination, and it is proving nearly impossible for someone like me to survive in this economy.

In fact, except for Obama's stimulus package, I too might soon be finished, unable to keep living where I live (in a modest apartment in an inexpensive end of town) and perhaps unable to support my children going forward.

Although I hope and intend to avoid this fate, the longer the recession is prolonged, and the more my debts pile up, I must recognize what the future may hold for me, much like the scenarios others are currently facing.

This is not a kind society for one whose luck has run low, which from my life experiences I well understand.

Therefore, I take these baseless attacks on the stimulus package personally. Obama is literally saving lives; those who denounce his sincere efforts on our behalf are fools at best; at worst, they are something far more dangerous.

Something very much like what we saw in Germany in the 1930s.


Monday, February 01, 2010

Suburban Travels

San Francisco, like any big city, has suburbs, yes it does. You have to cross bridges and drive through tunnels to get to most of them, which may make them feel rather more remote than other cities' suburbs, but they are suburbs, nonetheless.

Recently, we took our city boys way out to one of these areas, where a beautiful, million-dollar soccer field sits amidst green hills and trees, almost floating in space. By the end of the match, after a short rain, my rakishly handsome and bruised son looked like the battle-hardened athlete he truly is.

This is his off-season soccer team, a special unit of players pulled together from various schools throughout the city, and still learning how to work together as a unit. But the coach is skilled and he is blending them into a winning team. In this contest, they were playing a team that has played together for years, and it showed.

I overheard one of our kids at halftime say of their opponents, "Those guys are so white. They talk white!"

Be that as it may, they played the better game, though it was a close match in the second half, and our boys almost pulled out an upset. As he always does, afterward my kid said, "That was fun." He never seems to react to wins or losses, specifically, but just to the experience of competing.

He loves to compete, plain and simple. I love watching him. He is like a warrior on the pitch, especially when his hair gets plastered down from a combination of rain and sweat, and he is covered with mud.

Driving back into our more familiar environment, he anticipating a warm bath and me a hot cup of tea, I found myself wondering whether we are "white" people any longer. We certainly are, if by that term you mean skin color, but when it comes to attitude, perhaps not.

Then again, where he goes to school, my kid is a minority, since the student population is composed of 94 percent what American considers "minorities." Or, as he puts it, "I'm a minority -- there are only three redheads in the whole school!"


Sunday, January 31, 2010

Polarized America: Life in the Echo-Chamber (2010)

Anyone viewing our national spectacle from the outside would easily confirm that this country's political culture has deteriorated markedly in the past year.

Blame President Obama, if you will.

One can conclude our young President has been far from perfect in office so far. He has made tactical mistakes, and endorsed some policy ideas that may have sincerely offended the occasional conservative lawmaker.

I use terms like sincerely and occasional because the type of responsible legislators implied are increasingly rare in the new American political context, one that is built on a polarized base of radicalism and ignorance.

Ignorance thrives where anyone listens only to other extreme voices that validate his or her worst impulses. This type of person lives in an echo-chamber. Unless you break out of that self-reinforcing loop, you will fall victim to the disease of self-imposed ignorance.

This is as true of the left as the right. It is the reality now for many national American politicians, and for their constituencies.

As much as I have been a champion of technology and new media the past 15 years, I see how this phenomenon of customized news and opinion is contributing to the breakdown of civility and common ground in our political dialogue.

I experienced it myself right here in this blog during the run-up to Obama's election in 2008, when many readers from the right attacked me relentlessly.

But I welcomed those attacks because I've never considered being walled-off in a garden of similar thinkers to be an attractive prospect. The comfort of being "politically correct" is not one I aspire to; it's never attracted me.

I'd rather be disagreed with than ignored. Why writes to silence?

As we lose the great journalistic institutions that, whatever their many flaws, attempted to provide us with well-rounded coverage of political issues, we ourselves have grown narrower in scope and purpose.

We, as a people, have become less than we were.

Politics evolves with the times and changing conditions. Although his State of the Union speech disappointed me, Obama's single-handed attempt to engage 140 Republican lawmakers later in the week inspired me.

Not a Congressman in that room could compete with the President; he vanquished them all.

Why? Because they have shrunken themselves to the type of narrow ideologues described above, and therefore could not recognize a good chance to grow in stature when it was handed to them on a silver platter.

Rather, wallowing in the self-imposed ignorance common to dwellers in a right-wing echo-chamber, they missed their opportunity to engage our centrist, pragmatic President on the higher plane of compromise and national progress he offered them.

In the process, each Republican protected his right flank in an election year. Collectively, however, the GOP just revealed itself to be far less than a "grand" old party...sadly, a petty old party is all that remains in its ruins.