Thursday, June 27, 2013

Writing for Whitey, Part II

She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
That – aside from the appellations of “The American” and “Jig” the girl – is the only character description offered in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” a perfect story to analyze as we take a look at the importance of race in writing.
Of what race are these people? Hemingway doesn’t tell us.
Is it important?
Read the story here.
Hemingway’s story is famous for its understatement – it’s agreed among literary geniuses that the “operation” the two are talking about is an abortion, but the word is never used. Even that is left up to the imagination of the reader, as is whether or not it’s ever done. It’s meant as a recreation of a mundane conversation one could overhear in any public place, the deepest meaning and outcome known only to the two speakers.
But does the story change if the American is, say, white, not black? Or that the woman is also an American – she can’t be a Spaniard; she doesn’t understand the language; another clue we have but a clue so ambiguous it’s nearly useless.
No, the story does not change.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing for Whitey

I have to approach this question carefully.

I’m white as sour cream. So are my kids. So if I say things like “My kids don’t ask about/thinking about/worry about what ethnicity the characters in the books they read are” I can have the “they don’t have to think about it; they’re white” thrown right back in my face.
So this infographic, and the associated report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center are fraught with risk for me.

That’s probably true – my kids don’t have to think about race as they read. As humans – and this is innate, I believe, no matter a person’s ethnic origin – we tend to think of the people we read about resembling ourselves, or people we’re familiar with, as our brain works to process the story we read and to build ideas of the characters based on what we already know and what the author is telling us. Unless an author explicity tells the reader – and reminds them constantly – of a character’s race, the readers are going to create an image of the character along familiar lines.
As are authors – who I believe should only indicate the race or ethnicity of a character if that attribute adds to the story. If it’s there for window-dressing or political correctness, I have to wonder if it’s valuable. You may want to write, for example, about a professional wrestlter whose persona is that of literary genius James Joyce. But it’s gonna go right over most people’s heads.
But again, I’m sour-creamy white. It’s assumed books are written with Whitey in mind.
Or are they? At least by the hand-wringing I’m reading, the PC default seems to be yes.

Do I consciously set out to write books, as a white author, with white characters, or do I sent out to write books, as an author, with interesting characters who can carry the story where I want it to go and who can engage the reader, whether they bear a recognizable ethnicity or race with them or not?
I don’t know. I just know as a reader, I tend to imagine the characters along familiar lines unless the author gives me repeated, explicit instruction to do otherwise. Does that make me a bad person? Or the author a bad person? I’d like to say no.
A few things I have noticed on my own:
I read Virginia Hamilton’s “The House of Dies Drear” after I saw a PBS version of the story. Perhaps that order made it easier for me to imagine her characters as African American as I read the story. Here, race is central to the story. But is central the right word? It's an important factor, yes.
I read John Christopher’s Tripod series both before and after I lived in France for two years. After my experiences in France, the character of Beanpole (Jean-Paul) and Eloise took on different appearances in my mind – but again, this was a story I first “saw” in comic book form in Boys’ Life magazine, so I had a more elaborate mental construct to go with as I read the stories without the aid of drawings or other imagery.
My daughter especially reads books about animals, where for the most part race doesn’t appear to be a factor (unless George Lucas is involved).
Thanks to Rankin-Bass, Hobbits will always be round. Roundy, roundy round. Even the young and skinny ones have a roundness about them. And Aragorn, thanks to Ralph Bakshi (and maybe due to the rotoscoping) will always resemble an American Indian to me, despite what Viggo Mortensen brought to the silver screen.
I’m not saying authors shouldn’t identify their characters by race, or that more books featuring characters other than Whitey shouldn’t be written. But I also think that people who do studies and create infographics like this should also consider that race isn’t the be-all and end-all of storytelling. It’s character and story. It’s character with fitting attributes that often transcend race.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Farming Dragon

NOTE: Here's a new story working its way out.

“Naught to do now but wait,” he said, rain dripping from his hair and nose. He stood in mud and rivulets and puddles of water.

The ox moaned.

With swift strokes he cut the leather thongs and ropes that tied the ox to the plow, mired in the muddy field. With another low moan, the ox stumbled off, slipping in the mud, towards the nearby trees where perhaps it might find shelter from its misery. He’d tried for an hour to unknot the leather, but his weary fingers couldn’t ferret the knots from the wet harnesses.

Abbington knew rain. He lived with it. He slept with it. He drank it and from it made his tea and his soup. But never had he seen such rain, and for so long. The runnels swelled to rivers. The rivers boiled with brown muck flecked with bits of log and fence and house and drowned dog. The roads were impassible with mud and the tracks through field and glen sucked boots from the feet.

He sneezed into rain-shriveled hands.

“Even the fish,” he muttered as the rain pelted his already-soaked hat. “Even the fish are tired of the rain.”

“Carn’t plant the portaters, they keep’m floadin’ away,” said Crump. He and other soggy farmers lined the bar at the mud-caked pub. “Nawt the barley, neither. And them carrot seed, why’m they swole up to the size o’radishes, they did.”

The others nodded.

Ain’t seen rain like this since Noah build t’ark,” Stark said.

For more than a month, indeed, nothing but rain. Grey clouds rolled in day after day, like wool from the shearers.

“Ev’rone’s got the rot,” Malcolm said. “Me poor Bessie, her hooves just rotted out from ‘neath her. Had to have the knackers come, she suffered so. Curse this rain and the God that brings it!”

Jeremy was worried. No new beer deliveries to his pub for two weeks, and the cellar was nearly empty, except for the seepage. Seemed the longer the rain lasted, the longer the farmers’ thirst held for beer. And if he ran out, why, these folks were ugly enough drunk; he couldn’t imagine them sober, dripping, clamoring for a pint he couldn’t give them.

“Eh, Abbingdon,” Malcolm said. “Solved that problem of your’n, have ye?” He chuckled.

Abbingdon’s smile faded slightly. Malcom, even in the best weather on the best days, made him weary, but with the weeks of rain he’d grown wearisome with his pecking at everyone’s difficulty.

“No,” Abbingdon said. “But the solution will come. I’m sure of it.”

“Sure’n it will,” Malcom snarled. “Soon as the rain dries up.” He grabbed his tumbler of whisky and swallowed it.

Abbindon stared out the window, through the pub’s wavy glass. The solution will come, he was sure of it. Likely his son Salomon would steal a solution and bring it home to hide in the chicken coop, as he had with the silver form the church, the barrels of whisky from the pub – he was lucky they let him through the doors now, after that episode – and the good tack and plow from the abominable Malcolm, who spat at Salomon every time he saw him.

He sighed. Such troubles, and with the rain making everything wetter than a duck’s bottom,  Abbingdon didn’t need any more troubles.
*             *
"The copse yonder of Woolley Farm is burning," Mikal said.

Abbingdon's eyes rose from the barrow he was pushing through the muck. He was quite pleased with it. He'd removed the wheel and built the front of it on a hinged sledge, so it still bore the weight of the load but slid over the mud rather than sinking into it up to the axle, as the wheeled barrow had done. Now if only he could do the same with his knees.

It was not a smudge of smoke, but a curling billow boiling up into the low-hanging clouds. He frowned. He had often seen smokes and vapors rising from the earth. He was familiar with the clammy vagaries of fog and the biting concealment of blizzards.

"That be Dragon-smoke," he said to the stunned Mikal. Naught else could get this wet world to burn but a Dragon."

"What do we do?" Mikal gulped.

Abbingdon rested his hands on the barrow handles.

"We watch," he said. "And if I'm familiar with the worm, we lose a few sheep, a few cattle, before the men of the village are united and frightened enough to try to chase beasts off. Some few will be burned, returning to their homes in blackened, smoking clothing and dazed expressions. Some few will disappear - some run off, some eaten. Less so if we can hire a knight, or a Hero comes a-wandering through."

"That's all? We're powerless?"

Abbingdon nodded. "Seen it all before, ha'n't I? Grew up in the Wild Wood, where the Worms came to feed. Don't know anyone from the Wild Wood who has his or her eyebrows-" he waggled his bald brow "- or isn't missing a few fingers or a few relatives cause of the Worms."

Mikal looked like a water-wheel jammed by a boulder tossed down in the spring floods. He cast his eyes toward the billow, back towards Abbingdon, next to the village.

Abbingdon laughed. "Young Mikal," he chortled, "calm yourself. I'm filling yew full of stories. Again. Yonder is a billow from the Colby mine, which sends up a stack ever so often on the days when the rain is lighter and the wind just right. It will be gone, yon cloud, by nightfall, and you may sleep tight, no Worms descending to nibble yer toes."

Mikal smiled. "One if these days, I'logically see you're talking through your hat." He glanced up at the clouds, blackening on the horizon. "Think it'll rain?"

It was Abbingdon's turn to smile. "If it don't, I'm a lizard."

Out, Damned Spot

Many of you know that at this blog, we’re sideliners when it comes to the Great Smartphone Storm of the aughts and not aughts.
While nearly everyone around us enjoys poking all day long at their tiny little screens that bring the world to their palm while the rest of the world evolves around them, we’re limited to streaking from place to place, trying to find inadequately powered public wi-fi to which we can connect our tablets and remain connected to the world at large. Ah, first-world problems abound . . .
But my wife is now facing five weeks at scout camp, and though she has our trusty T-mobile pay-as-you-go brick to take with her, she’d dearly love to be able to send the occasional email, check Facebook, and otherwise stay connected while she’s doling out starch from the commissary.
Alas, it is not to be.
A year ago, we were given a Virgin Wireless wi-fi hot spot. Turns out it’s not so hot in the boonies where the scout camp is located. So I got to looking at other options and after a few hours of poking through phones and plans, I have to wonder: How do the rest of you afford all this?
Verizon, which has the best signals at Island Park Scout Camp, is ridiculously overpriced. For a simple wi-fi hot spot, they want $50 for the device (that I could swallow) plus $30 a month for 4GB of data, on a month-to-month basis. That in of itself I can also swallow. I can also eat the one-time $35 activation fee, because those Activation Fairies have to be paid too, you know. But they also want another $20 a month for the privilege of having the device. Ostensibly, it’s so we could connect it to up to ten other wireless devices, but with limited data, why would you want to? So $50 a month, that’s a no-go.
I thought, well, maybe a Verizon phone would be cheaper. No. That bumps the price up to $100 a month for less data, and for a “you’re privileged to have this device” fee of $40 a month.
So because I’m a cheap bastard, I next went to Wal-Mart, where I found, for $45 a month, I could offer her an Iphone 4 (yes, two models back, but no biggie) with unlimited data and talk, month-to-month. All we need is the $449 beans to pay for the obsolete phone, and whammo, we’ve got, well, a big crater in our budget.
T-mobile has spoiled us. We have a basic phone that for as little as $50 a year, we can make calls and play an annoying little bowling game. That’s it. But because that’s all we’ve needed for so long, it’s hard to pry open the checkbook to lay out, well, gobs of money a month for something we’d use only occasionally. I know there are other wi-fi hot spot devices out there, but every one I’ve investigated is best geared towards cities, not rural areas like, say, scout camps. So we go wanting.
Are we not yet to the point this service is so ubiquitous it should start sliding down the expense scale? Our home internet, to which we’ve tethered a multitude of devices, isn’t nearly that expensive. Why do cell phones have to be? Yes, there are arguments about bandwidth and exponential explosions in the use of cell phones for data, and bottlenecks and all other types of excises. But come on. These prices have been high for years. Certainly some of that money has gone into infrastructure?
Wired presents some eye-blistering charts that discuss price comparisons between the US and other countries here. But they don’t answer my question – but a quick internet search shows that folks have been asking questions like this since the smartphone explosion, without relief.
Shills try to explain that plans are more expensive in the US because most US carriers subsidize the cost of the phone, whereas in other countries where plans are cheaper, folks buy their phones outright. My Wal-Mart experience proves otherwise, so keep on shilling, folks. And even if I buy the phone or hot spot device outright from Verizon, the month-to-month prices are still the same. Don’t believe the shills.

And, yes, I have looked at Republic Wireless. They’re still in Virgin territory, coverage-wise. No good for us.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Guess What? More Nixon!

I'm reading a book (Surprise! It's about Richard Nixon!) that in the first 50 pages -- heck, by the introduction -- I could tell should be read by any political aspirant and anyone who thinks they have the damn right to vote.

The book is Nixon's Shadow, The History of an Image, by David Greenberg. It's more than just another study of Richard Nixon, but a study of his image, and how imagecraft, especially that accomplished by Nixon and presidents who succeeded him has, with other factors, led to increased cynicism and distrust of government and politicians.

From the preface:

I also want to trace a story of how American political culture in the last half century has become consumed by concerns about image making and authenticity. We now live in a culture that's hyperaware of the construction and manipulation of images in politics. Nixon provides a vehicle for tracking the rise of this new hyperawareness, since, perhaps uniquely among late twentieth-politicians, he both reflected and contributed to it. Indeed, his historical importance lies partly in having helped foster our current image-obsessed political culture. Hence, this book is also a study in political image making.

Greenberg goes on to say that since Nixon, with each successive administration, the image making has continued, successively, with some success and with some failure, tried new things, building upon the successful image making of those who've gone on before. The voting public, no ninnies we, have seep the image making and, with each successful campaign, grown more aware of the act, and more cynical towards it. Thus Greenberg's thesis, as I get into it, is that successive elections are going to call for more image making which, in turn, will make voters more cynical and distrustful. It's a negative reinforcement loop.

So why should politicians be aware of this? Well, because even when Nixon tried to appear as a common guy, his opponents saw through the image craft. Any politician trying to appear normal (Obama bowling or Mitt Romney singing "Who Let the Dogs Out") is setting himself or herself on fire, even if the effort is sincere, because generally voters are so cynical they doubt even the most sincere among us.

So why should voters need to know this? Maybe to be able to tell politicians we can see the man behind the curtain. And maybe to tell ourselves that, once in a while, a politician might be sincere and authentic and actually mean it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fergetful Jones

NOTE: Something for my ENG 101 students.

Some of this is my fault.

I’ve been writing for so long sometimes I forget how much I’ve had to learn – and how much of the writing I do now is a natural reflex, rather than a concerted effort. I get reminded of that when I work on my novels. And, sometimes, when I’m in class. Here’s to hoping I can correct my error.
Details. A common thread I’m seeing in about half of the profile essays I’m reading is a lack of details. Details are different from facts. Facts, I’m getting. I get, for example, the basics: Who the person is you’re writing about, why you chose to write about them, and how their presence in your life affected you. But I’m not getting details. Details are the quotes, the stories, the philosophizing, that bring those mere facts to life.
Here’s a little of what I mean. I’m going to tell you a little about my Dad.
My Dad, Marinus Jacob Davidson, grew up in the little village of Santpoort, Holland. He and his older brother Sjaak were always up to mischevious little things that tested their mother’s patience, as any normal boys do. Their Dad Albertus worked at many jobs, delivering milk, and once as a merchant marine.
Here, I’ve given you the facts. Re-read that paragraph. There’s a lot there. But is there enough? You know a little about him, but, truthfully, not all that much. I’ve given you the facts, but not the details. I’ll try again.
“Oh, Frau Davidson, you must come with me!”
At the door, the postmistress, in distress. Frau Davidson followed. The postmistress talked loudly as she walked, Frau Davidson almost running to keep up. “They’ve locked themselves in the phone booth, and they won’t come out. I’m responsible to answer the phone if it rings. I can’t get in to the phone! You’ll have to get them out.”
Now Frau Davidson walked faster than the postmistress. She knew where her missing boys were.
She could hear them shouting.
“Pularubia! Pularubia!”
The name of their father’s boat. She’d called him from that phone booth this morning, catching him before he boarded the ship, where he worked as a merchant marine. The boys talked briefly to their father, amazed at the technology that let them talk to him in Amsterdam, miles and miles from home. She knew they hadn’t followed her home when the phone call was over, but she hadn’t worried too much. Having them out of the house for a while would be a good thing.
Or not.
“What will your father think?” she hissed at the boys. “And the Pularubia –“
“Pularubia! Pularubia!” the boys shouted.
“ – has left, and I can’t call him to deal with you. Come out. NOW!”
Frau Davidson was small. But Frau Davidson was not meek. The smiles faded from her boys’ faces. They pulled the door open and slunk outside, the postmistress brushing past them to put the receiver back on the hook.
Okay – are there still facts there? Check. But now there are details. There’s a story. There’s something more to read. Something, hopefully, to capture the reader’s eye and imagination. I don’t have to tell you they’re miscreants. I’ve shown that.
Effective writing does have facts. But even more effective writing has facts and details – especially when you’re trying to tell someone else’s story.
Here’s an exercise: Try to explain what color is to a blind man.
Or ponder what it’s like for a blind man to dream.
Bonus points for those who can create an awesome description to help a blind person understand what a color is.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mind NOT Blown

Now wait a second.

Slate’s Matt Yglesias purports to tell the tubes that an Idaho man’s lawsuit against Buzzfeed for using one of his photos in one of their made-for-virality posts without his permission is supposed to “kill my faith” in intellectual property law.
The umbrage is there. But my faith in intellectual property law has come out alive.
Yglesias seems to have trouble with photographer Kai Eiselein’s charges of “contributory infringement” against Buzzfeed, since their lifting of his clearly copyrighted photograph from his Flickr account has now been featured on many other websites without his permission and without remuneration. He says this claim is dubious, without really offering any proof. (To be fair, he also knocks Buzzfeed’s claim that their use of his photo is “transformative” and thus allowed under fair use rules as just as dubious. That dubiousness I understand. The dubiousness of the contributory infringement claim I do not.)

Yglesias theorizes about copyright law, but doesn’t explain his reasoning but seems to think the solution lies in creative commons licensing (which is great for folks like Buzzfeed, who obviously don’t want to pay for the photos they use) but not for Eiselein and his ilk, who might possibly want to be paid for the photos they take.
I don’t see much difference between what Buzzfeed does and what Judith Griggs did, and Griggs got a righteous intertubes whacking for what she did. Where’s the rage? Just because a popular website is lifting content without remuneration (and, as far as I can tell, without even offering credit to the artists whose work they’re stealing) does that make it okay?
Others like Andrew Beaujon at Poynter points to “the common etiquette of the internet” not being reflected in intellectual property law. Huh?
Here’s what Beaujon says about Buzzfeed in general, which makes a bit more sense to me (There’s more on the etiquette of the internet remark here as well):
The thing is, Buzzfeed regularly helps itself to photos from other awesome, creative people for sponsored posts. And that sponsored content [Buzzfeed founder Jonah] Peretti told [Guardian writer Heidi] Moore, accounts for “nearly all the company’s revenues,” she writes.
So Buzzfeed gets eyeballs with their viral posts (they’ve had mine from time to time) yet are just plucking stuff from the internet, whether they have permission to use it or not, and, in some cases, is making money off the stuff. No wonder Eiselein is upset, and litigious. (Why, explains at The Guardian; can someone explain to me why I had to go to a UK website to find a first direct quote from Eiselein.)
I’m just as guilty as the next fat person. Even though I make no money with this blog, I do search the internet for images to go along with my posts and use copious amounts of stuff that’s probably copyrighted somewhere. That’s a violation of copyright law; I don’t have to make money when I steal someone else’s stuff to be guilty. That doesn’t make what Buzzfeed is doing right. And they’re getting paid for stealing.

Monday, June 17, 2013

G. Gordon Good Lord . . .

Anyone who Godwins themselves twice in the first ten pages of his autobiography, you know they’re a badass. And knowing that I’m currently reading “Will,” the autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, well, the badassery just continues apace.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Watergate Era, something I blame on Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men.” I’ve long since read many a good book (and much better books that W&B’s, by the way) on the topic (or on Richard Nixon) and continue to be fascinated by the characters that populate these intertwining stories. Liddy is perhaps the most blunt and the most unapologetic I’ve read thusfar.
A few interesting things:

Given current flurry of worry over NSA spying on us all, it’s interesting to read how unapologetic Liddy is for wanting to stamp out leaks. I’m just to the first inklings of the Plumbers in Liddy’s book, but it’s already clear where he stands on leakers – mostly on their necks.

I admit to some ambivalence on the subject. Reading that the New York Times at the time leaked current US standings on a strategic arms limitation treaty being negotiated at the point seems over the top (though I concur that leaking of the Pentagon Papers likely wasn’t as damaging to US interests as the Nixon White House believed). Treating all leakers the same way seems extreme, but I suppose that’s a way some think to control them all, or at least put the fear of The Man on them. As if that even exists today.

Liddy is probably a libertarian. I’m not sure, as an example, whether he despised Robert Kennedy’s breakup of mob activity in Gary, Indiana, because it was a Kennedy/Democrat operation, or because it upset so-called civil liberties so much. From his book:

Robert Kennedy wrote a book including his experience in Gary called The Enemy Within. Not long after he finished his work there, the Gary I knew was gone. Half the public officials had been convicted, and the old way of life – in which the victimless crimes of gambling and prostitution were tolerated and controlled and numerous ethnic groups coexisted, each with a slice of the pie – had been destroyed. Whether the current state of affairs in Gary is an improvement, I’ll leave it to the judgment of those who live there today.

Liberterian leanings here, yes, but also the leanings of someone who is pretty amoral. Given what I’ve read of mob involvement in gambling and prostitution and ethnic relations in Capone, by John Kober, that idyll Liddy seems to missing Gary was maintained by fear, extortion, abuse of unions, and violence, with the complicity of politicians and police on the take and likely ready for any other kinds of handouts they could get from the mob or otherwise. Not really idyllic to my point of view, and Liddy makes it all sound like beer and skittles.

Liddy’s admiration – and there’s no other word really to describe it – of some Nazi elements, repeated throughout the book, also fascinates. This is a man not worried about whose toes and sensitivities he’s going to step on. His first task as part of a secret group to investigate Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellensberg? Organize the group along the lines of ODESSA, the secret society of former SS members that terrorized many a repentant SSer for years following World War II.
Obviously, I’ll continue reading. This guy is nuts. But compelling nuts.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Vacation Footprint

ith revelations on National Security Agency snooping into our everyday lives hitting as we were on vacation, I pause to wonder, for a moment, how we did in not leaving a trail for the ordinary citizen and the US government to follow as we completed a near-3,000 mile voyage through three states (Idaho, Montana, Washington) and two Canadian provinces (British Columbia and Alberta).

I confess to two Facebook breaches: I made one comment mentioning our presence in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, just a day into our vacation, followed up a week later with a more vague yet telling mention that we were waiting at a Blackball Ferry loading dock in Washington state.
I also made one post concerning my ongoing ability to attract crazy homeless ladies, though I did not mention the city in which that occurred (Vancouver, BC).
So I could call my indiscretions minor, but enough for the casual thief to surmise that I was not home at the moment, leaving our house ripe for the plucking.
As far as the US government goes, we gave them a lot more information – right down to a PDF of our planned itinerary, which my wife emailed to me at work. Whether or not any of it was read is likely not in question, though the potential certainly was there, given the NSA-related revelations of earlier this week.
Who officially knew we were gone?
Three people in our immediate neighborhood, whom I told.
Our automobile insurance company. I called them to ask whether we needed any special insurance while traveling in Canada.
Our credit union. We let them know where we’d be going in vague terms so when charges started showing up on our credit card, we wouldn’t be flagged as having a stolen card.
Various relatives, some of whom tended our dog while we were gone, and who stayed at our house for a time, and one other who came over to ensure things got watered properly.
Two full classes of students at Brigham Young University-Idaho. I teach them. I let them know we’d be on the road so they wouldn’t try to call me at work.
So, yeah, the whole world had to know our business.
But let’s not forget the electronic footprint, which is enormous.
Credit card receipts and bank transactions will be the most telling for any NSA folks looking in to what we did. We also crossed the US/Canadian border, though at this point I’m not sure if any electronic records were taken – or if indeed any records were taken at all; in neither case did the border agents have our paperwork long enough to do any recording, though I’m sure there’s video evidence, complete with our license plate number, recorded for posterity.
We also sent emails. Me, mostly to my students. My wife, to her relatives keeping an eye on the place. Were any of them read? Don’t know. (That’s the worst part of this NSA thing; we can only trust that they’re not reading things. Yet.)
A few cell phone calls – we’re not big callers, but there were some made. And across an international border. Surely they were recorded.
We came home to find all well here. But we came home not really knowing who knew we’d left.