Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Walled Garden Redux

To continue the last post's discussion about the absence of walled gardens on the Internet -- places where people can be unfettered and free, Mrs. Lipschitz, and say or post or do whatever they want without fear of consequence, I present this.

Had a reporter working for me posted this, I probably would not have fired her. I would have cautioned her about the fact that her "private life" doesn't exist on the Internet, and that it doesn't matter that she posted what she did on her own time.

No. 10 on her list: "I've stolen mail and then put it back. (maybe)" No. Just no. That's a felony, chickie. And journalistically unethical.

And shallow. But that's par for the course. That she's a rookie reporter who's underpaid, well, welcome to the journalism business. Get some more time under your belt, move to a bigger market, and maybe -- just maybe mind you -- you'll get more money. But when you say you're in the business to make a difference in the world and then turn around and complain about the pay, well, that's unprofessional. But not a firing offense in my eyes.

Admitting to committing a felony by stealing someone else's mail? Dumb. Just dumb.

From the Today Show article, a pertinent quote from Lindsey Pollak, a career and workplace expert: "I think a lot of younger professionals are so used to posting about their lives on social media that maybe they don't have the same filter as those of us who didn't have that option when we started our careers."

I think it's more that they're used to shouting into an empty room and having nobody there to hear it. I'm a blogger -- I know what it's like. Nobody listens. Until everyone does.

I do post gripes about my job on Facebook. I have written about layoff stress on my blog. But it's always with the understanding that eventually the people I work for -- who hold the purse strings -- will see it, so I'm careful.

Share what you want on the Web. Just realize that people out there are reading it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

On the Internet, there are No Walled Gardens

Will Oremus, writing at Slate.com, brings up an interesting reminder of what should by now be an old saw: You can’t control what people do with or think of the stuff you post online once it’s posted.

Oremus writes of the Boston Marathon bombings and an online pursuit of an individual suspected of being the bomber. The rumors were false, of course, but didn’t stop the hurt to a family looking for a missing member who turned up as a suicide a few days after the speculation reached its peak.
Many of those caught actively pursuing the rumor and those who merely passed the rumor on via Reddit upvotes or retweeting someone else’s tweet on the rumor want to evade any moral responsibility for their mistake, hiding behind what they considered to be walled gardens of speculative thought or the idea that retweeting or upvoting the rumor didn’t mean they thought it was true.
Oremus pokes a pretty big hole in that line of thinking:
Redditors see Reddit as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Tweeters see Twitter as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Professional journalists, by and large, recognize that it is their responsibility to verify information before publishing or broadcasting it—but many still view their tweets as immune to such standards.
Problem is, neither Reddit nor Twitter are confined spaces. Those who want to speculate can speculate all they want, but once that speculation is on the net and distilled by upvotes or retweets, the caveats that rested in the so-called walled gardens of speculation did not leave the garden with the rumors. Only the rumors left, and as they left they were granted stamps of veracity by journalists who rebroadcast the information outside of any vetted published space, and by amateurs hoping their actions would help find the perpetrator.
This introduces us to tricky territory – I don’t think cutting the net off from speculative thought is a good idea, because the net’s ability to accumulate thought and inspiration and fact and knowledge is a terrific tool. But we should not blithely post whatever the hell crosses through our minds without giving it some thought – why am I posting this? In the case of a crime, is it going to be helpful? If it’s not going to be helpful – speculate away. But make sure that speculation occurs behind a real walled garden, where those not cued in to the speculative manner of the conversation can’t take things out of context. And if you’ve got tips you think would help, turn to the authorities, not your keyboard or mobile device and the world at large.
New York Times writer Jay Kang has a pretty good blow-by-blow account of what happened when such speculation turned out to be not helpful at all.
To me, the ugliest part of this episode is not the speculation, but that the professional media passed it along. From Kang’s piece:
Several journalists began tweeting out guarded thoughts about Sunil’s involvement. If the family had taken down the Facebook page, the reasoning went, it must mean that the Tripathis had seen their missing son in the grainy photos of Suspect No. 2.
I lost my job in journalism for screwing up on names and details in a court case. As far as I know, nobody involved in smearing Sunil Tripathi has lost his or her job. I’m not bitter about losing my job; I’m glad I’m no longer a journalist. But I know firsthand what can happen to a professional journalist who plays loose with the facts, even by accident or carelessness.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

[Toot]

Got the following email from a student this week:

Hi Brother Davidson,

I noticed my journal was graded before I had to write in it.  I am assuming that was  you way of saying we didn't have to have a journal entry this week.  Thanks! I feel guilty that when I was answering the questions this week, about if I viewed the video's and whatever the other two questions were, I said yes.  I was going to mark them all no, but I said to myself, "That would seem as if I didn't do what I was supposed to do this week."  I think there should have been an added option, like maybe a N/A button.

I want to thank you for being such a great teacher.  I have benefited from this class because you are a natural at encouraging people.  I have tried to figure out exactly what it was you did to set our class at ease without lowering your expectations of us.  Maybe it was the fact you would give points for any errors we found in your work.  Brilliant! It was a way to reinforce lessons we were learning.  I think your teaching style can be compared to a woman's make-up.  If she has done it right, no one will even know she is wearing it.  I cannot pin point exactly what it was that you did. 

I have enjoyed the extra examples you posted for us to watch, helping to clarify the assignments. I think the eye in front of your home was extremely helpful.  All the personal examples you let us read made me feel you were right there with us as we walked the English 106 trek. 

I hope things go well for your son with Asperger's.  We have a grandson with Hyperlexia.  I also hope that your brother will benefit from the letter's you write him. Again, thanks for being such a great teacher!


Now, given this is from one of my English 106 students and they're naturally about the nicest people on the face of the earth, I have to assume she'd send this to put near anyone who crossed her path and didn't scowl at her. Still, it's good to hear that I'm making an impact and helping them see that writing can be a lot of fun if they give it a chance. It makes me look forward to next semester. After the seven-week break, of course.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Speaking of Carl Sagan . . .

No, I haven’t seen anything more of the “updated” Cosmos shows outside of this trailer released earlier this week at San Diego ComiCon.

Yet I have to wonder.
This Cosmos seems loud. Bassoforte. And dripping with CGI. It’s true the intro to the 1980s Cosmos looks almost Victorian to the modern eye:
But dammit, that’s CARL SAGAN on the BEACH with a TIE. How is Neil deGrasse Tyson going to top that?
Apparently, with lots of bassoforte and CGI.
I don’t deny there may be some science that needs updating, as progress goes forward. But the attraction and charm in the original Cosmos comes in Sagan’s delivery and in the simple methods used to convey the scientific principles he’s teaching. Yes, he could have used animation or slick CGI to illustrate Eratosthenes’ calculations on the Earth’s circumference, but as he does it here you get an immediate, human feel to the concept. You don’t need CGI or animation or anything, just a man, the sun, and a bit of stiff cardboard with two obelisks sticking out of it. You can imagine Eratosthenes doing the same kind of experiment, without having to use a computer to do it. I like the clarity of the explanation. Hopefully Tyson et al can maintain that.
Of course, the CGI is cheap. Cheaper than a trip of Egypt – and given the political climate there right now, certainly safer. But I worry the CGI is going to cheapen things. I love, for example, to look at the raw images sent back by Voyager, by Curiosity, by Cassini. And though I love some of the CGI produced to go along with these images, my fear is that with a top-heavy CGI Cosmos, the raw, the real, is going to get lost. We have so many bells and whistles these days they drown out the whisper of the solar wind, if I can turn a Saganesque bit of phraseology.
And what is cooler than seeing Carl Sagan wander around on a freakin’ SET of the SOLAR SYSTEM, to debunk a nimrod who thought Venus was expelled by Jupiter? When I saw this bit, I wanted a similar set to play around in when I was a kid. I still kinda want one now. A CGI solar system would have taken the human out of the equation. Maybe it would look better, but it would look cheaper.
But that’s our day and age now.

This is Why I Read

Inspirations from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking.”

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed “There goes a Saint-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy Lander.
. . . vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.
You do have to go to the Holy Land.
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again – if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man – then you are ready for a walk.
. . . not the Knight, but Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.
Walker Errant – is what the Hermit calls his little robotic wagon.
Living much out of doors, in the sun and wind, will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character – will cause a thicker cuticle to grow over some of the finer qualities of our nature, as on the face and hands, or as severe manual labor robs the hands of some of their delicacy of touch. So staying in the house, on the other hand, may produce a softness and smoothness, not to say thinness of skin, accompanied by an increased sensibility to certain impressions.
This is why he wanders – to get away from those certain impressions.
I would forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?
Mind should be where the body is.
There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.
Wife says you don’t have to wander farm from home. This is inside the letter in the spacesuit he abandons on the regio.
Politics are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.
To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the enjoyment of it.
More for the letter from his wife.
The outline which would bound my walks would be, not a circle, but a parabola, or rather like one of those cometary orbits which have been thought to be non-returning curves, in this case opening westward, in which my house occupies the place of the sun.
THIS WAS THE HEROIC AGE ITSELF
Graffiti he marks constantly on the surface of Iapetus.
Who but the Evil One has cried “Whoah!” to mankind?
One of the Hermit’s favorite sayings.
Actinism – the power of the sun’s rays to degrade rocks and metal – but that the rock and metal can restore during the nighttime.
The Hermit thinks a lot on this topic.
We are accustomed to say in New England that few and fewer pigeons visit us every year. Our forests furnish no mast for them. So, it would seem, few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste – sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill – and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on.
Our winged thoughts are turned to poultry.
Why he runs – he is fearful is brain is dying, that his life has no meaning, that he has no great thoughts.
When, in doleful dumps, breaking the awful stillness of our wooden sidewalk on a Sunday, or, perchance, a watcher in the house of mourning, I hear a cockerel crow far or near, I think to myself, “There is one of us well, at any rate,” – and with a sudden gush return to my senses.
The Hermit hallucinates the calls of roosters, except during times of crisis? Or especially during crises?
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever ha has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.
Plus a little bit from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street:
The ten thousand Gopher Prairies had no monopoly of greetings and friendly hands. Sam Clark was no more loyal than the girl librarians she knew in St. Paul, the people she had met in Chicago.
“Yump. Fine mess. No sewage, no street cleaning, and the Lutheran minister and the priest represent the arts and sciences. Well, thunder, we submerged tenth down here in Swede Hollow are no worse off than you folks. Thank God, we don’t have to go purr at Juanity Haydock and the Jolly Old Seventeen."
The Hermit calls his favorite refuge Swede Hollow, and there’s some kind of mountain range he calls the Jolly Seventeen.
The greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day.
The Hermit says this to would-be interviewers.
She had fancied that her life might make a story. She knew that there was nothing heroic or obviously dramatic in it, no magic of rare hours, nor valiant challenge, but it seemed to her that she was of some significance because she was commonpalceness, the ordinary life of the age, made articulate and protesting. IT had not occurred to her that there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.

And a little from Carl Sagan:
Carl Sagan says the Earth is the shoreline of the cosmic ocean. I am going for a swim. But not a swim. I am barely standing on the wet sand, among the sticks, seaweed and twigs left behind by the ebb tide. Saturn lays a billion miles from that cosmic shore, but as I stare outwards toward the heliopause, I can see the tide gushing out, gushing out, leaving bare the mud and sand and rocks and sunken treasures of the solar system. The water of the cosmos recedes, welling into a tsunami of stars and dust and heat and cold and dark matter and comets and atoms that ever threatens to crash but always, always recedes until I am dizzy merely watching it, merely feeling the barest bits of moisture on my sand-encrusted toes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I've Entered the One Percent

I got this rather breathless email from Otis at Goodreads today:

On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.
And our community has been growing! We now number more than 20 million members on Goodreads.
Every day readers from all over the world are connecting over a love of books. And our 25 million reviews – including yours – are a big part of that conversation.
Thank you for your support of Goodreads, and keep reading! I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of your next book!
--Otis
Now, everyone who knows me knows I'm rather lacking in the math skills department. So forgive me if I mess this arithmetic up.
Goodreads brags in this email that they have over 20 million members. I am, by their own admission, in the top 1 percent of reviewers, assuming, I mean, that based on the number of reviews I've completed, I have entered that sacrosanct 1 percent territory.
So, how high of a threshold do you have to cross before you get a similar email?
Well, I've done 183 reviews.
This hits upon something familiar in the social networking department: the long tail. Clay Shirky and other internet gurus show that most reviewers fall within the long tail of participants: Offering little by way of input. It's a site's smallest number of contributors that makes up the bulk of the site's contributions. So with only 183 reviews, I've hit the cream of Goodreads' crop.

But that number doesn't make sense. Because the email also says they've got more than 25 million reviews from those 20 million users. That means an average of about 2.5 reviews per person. If 183 reviews or thereabouts is the threshold to enter the 1 percent, that would mean that 1 percent would have written 36 million reviews. So there are more variable and unknowns here than I'm aware of. Or I'm just that bad at math and really should stick to English major stuff like this.
Social networks have to gather hundreds of thousands of readers in order to amass the numbers they need to get the content they need to keep their site going. So of that 20 million membership, 200,000 are in the top 1 percent -- and the threshold of reviews is, well, not high.
So I'll soldier on. Reading and writing little weenie reviews is something I can do. Hopefully, I'll be reviewing one of my own books there soon enough.

Monday, July 22, 2013

3-Minute Follow-Up

So I’ve finished reading Gary Raymond’s 3-Minute JRR Tolkien.

It didn’t get any better. In fact, it got worse.

The segments on the Peter Jackson films and on LOTR-related games, both in the physical and digital world, seemed utterly useless, dry repetitions of fact adding nothing to the story of Tolkien. Yes, he spawned a lot of imitators and hangers-on and slightly odd people dressing up in costumes and working along in basements trying to come up with new ways to make elves disappear. How is any of that information going to make me an “instant expert” on Tolkien?
Forget this book. The best of it could be summed up in a tweet, penned by Raymond himself:
You’ll have to read Tolkien’s own works to fully appreciate and enjoy his genius.
None of anything else in this book is necessary, interesting, or particularly enlightening. So I’ll step out of the way. Enjoy.

Edit, don't Analyze



As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot about the “art” and “craft” of writing. I tend to like the simpler, Neil Gaimanesque advice that basically says if you want to be a writer, start writing. Start writing words down on paper, one after the other.

It’s rare to find editing advice that’s as valuable and pithy as that. May have found some today, in the form of a letter sent from historian Bernard deVoto, sent to H.G. Merriman, a University of Montana professor, concerning the craft of editing.
Here’s the pithy bit:
I suppose a born editor has a faculty of judgment that is not analytical.
That really seems counterintuitive, given what most of us think about editing, and, indeed, given what Mr. deVoto himself writes about the craft in this same letter. He does offer a few tidbits into what he means, however:
[A good editor] must know good stuff when he sees it, and good not only absolutely but also relatively to the magazine he works for and its audience. What is more important, he must be able to see the good elements in a manuscript that may be obscured by the bad elements or by inexpert writing. He must be fertile in suggesting areas and subject which are topical, or which can be interestingly written up, and he must eventually develop skill, or perhaps intuition, at knowing who can write about them or get interested in them.
Yes, absolutely there is a lot of the analytical in this passage. But I like what he says and what he intones about intuition – a good editor, like a good writer, just knows what works and what doesn’t, and aims his or her craft at winnowing out what doesn’t work and preserving what does.
He also says this:
People who talk a hell of a lot about writing, and especially those who talk about exquisite perceptions, style, or, in general, “the esthetic” are likely to be neither [a writer nor an editor], and are pretty certain to fail if they try to be editors.
Interesting, interesting. He sees writer-editors as separate beings – indeed, cautioning would-be editors not to associate with would-be writers, but rather with musicians, artists, the learned, and “important passersby from the great world” where they can hear and interpret the news and the world not through the eyes of writers which, I have to confess, are typically accompanied with blinders the size of Dumbo’s ears.
This, of course, makes sense. Writers tend to congregate, as do artists and musicians, but that tends to bring us into echo chambers where the mediocre continue to wallow in mediocrity (unless you can find that rare group, such as the Tolkien/Lewis Inklings where brutal honesty is the norm). So. Wide and broad associations.

3-Minute Joking

Part of me is disappointed in Gary Raymond’s “unauthorized biography” 3-Minute JRR Tolkien. As of this writing (and I will update this as I go along) I’m about halfway through, and frankly wonder why Raymond bothered.

I’m guessing his target audience isn’t the die-hard Tolkien fan because none of them would think much of this book (though, as a semi-professional fan, I do commend its collection of Tolkien, Hobbit, and LOTR-related illustrations and photographs up until Peter Jackson’s movies are mentioned, though I’m curious to know why much of the art and photographs go unannotated, offering no clues to their origin or significance). Of particular uselessness to Tolkien die-hards are Raymond’s plot summaries of The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings.
So the audience is the Tolkien virgin, those looking for a compendium of Tolkiengalia in order to form the basest of understandings of what the hell their obsessed friends are talking about. But even at that, this book fails – Tolkein’s Wikipedia article has more breadth and depth as an autobiography as this collection possesses.
Even John Howe’s introduction to the book is patently useless, as he drones on about how myths are central to our being as humans except that we don’t tell myths any more, blah blah blah which is, of course, the Big Lie in Tolkien fandom – there is plenty of myth-making and myth-telling in literature, movie-making, and general story-telling beyond the Time of Tolkien, they just choose to turn their toffee noses up at it in order to hold their lord of the rings up on that highest rung. (I will concede Tolkien has no equal in creating his mythological backstory, but to claim modern myth-making as Tolkien’s sovereign territory is unquestionably false.)
Raymond seems to think presenting this basic information in a way in which it is digestible and cross-linked and easily ponderable is more important than the information presented. In his own introduction 9under the heading “Instant Expert,” he writes:
The structure of the book means that each of the three chapters will take about an hour to digest and that the whole book will furnish you with a solid understanding of the life history, literary highlights, and important of JRR Tolkien in about three hours. In addition to all that, each chapter concludes with a timeline and glossary to help you keep your thoughts in order. You’ll have to read Tolkien’s own works to fully appreciate and enjoy his genius, but this is the quickest way to discover the man behind the magic and the real-world experiences that helped shape the most fully realized fantasy landscape in literature.
In other words, go read the books. But buy this one, because, well, it’ll give you all that. It’ll look good on the shelf. And won’t impress your Tolkien-soaked friends one bit, since they’ve watched the DVD extras on Peter Jackson’s films, which offer a lot more information than this book does, and know the related Wikipedia entries by heart. (Side note: The book’s British publisher, Ivy Press, seems to make a go at producing such 3-minute biographies (they’ve done Stephen Hawking, for example).  A tell-tale tell of the weight of these books: “Each topic divided into 3-minute bites that you can absorb almost without pausing for thought” in the description of the Hawking book. NOT a good sign, folks. (Neither is the appellation of “instant expert.” I learned time and again as a journalist that the line between instant expert and instant asshole is razor thin.)
But is this a book? It’s odd in that in some ways this biography resembles an HTML page, with odd snatches of text bolded as if they were meant to be hyperlinks. I keep wanting to click on them, for example, to see what the author’s own worries had to do with crafting of The Hobbit. But, alas, the page is dead. Raymond does cross reference this biography lightly, on each page offering us related thoughts if we want to pursue banal previous or future sections of the book as we read the banal page we’re on now.
This book is likely doomed to the same fate of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” of which Lewis himself said is the kind of book that gravitates to guest bedrooms or ends up being read because of the three or so “scholarly” works offered to reading circles, it’s the shortest. It reads, frankly, like one of the papers offered in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota’s Thanatopsis Club in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (more on this particular Lewis later). Lewis mocked the intellectual shallowness of GP’s leading citizens in seeking out the birth and death dates of famous writers, covering all of English poetry, say, in one day, and leaving feeling educated about them.
I do concede I have learned one new thing by reading this book – that Tolkien found some inspiration in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt in naming the Hobbits, and that many professional English-language babblers have made much hay of that connection since. But otherwise this book as a biography and as a collection of Tolkien tokens is a disappointment.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Main Streeted



Most of the commentary I’ve read on Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” focuses on the nastiness of small-town life: The parochialism, the gossiping, back-biting, sniping and overall unfriendliness that makes Carol Kennicot’s life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the hell that it is.
I’ve yet to read commentary that focuses on the second theme of the book: Carol’s overall lack of put near anything to feel superior about.
Liberals champion Lewis’ Main Street for focusing on the stifling effects conservatism has on anything progressive. What they miss is that Carol, in her own naïve way, is as uneducated, misinformed, petty, and small as the conservatives most readers love to hate in this book. That’s the reason I love reading this book – because Lewis sincerely presents a balanced look at a town resistant to reform pushed by a woman too uneducated and naïve to reform it.
How can I say Carol is uneducated, her of Blodgett College, her of the library of the metropolis of St. Paul, her of the lofty ideals and strong ambitions? She’s not very good at what she tries to do.
From Vida Sherwin (Page 210) emphasis mine:
If you must know, you’re not a sound reformer at all. You’re an impossiblist. And you give up too easily. You gave up on the new city hall, the anti-fly campaign, club papers, the library-board, the dramatic association – just because we didn’t graduate into Ibsen the very first thing. You want perfection all at once. Do you know what the finest thing you’ve done is – aside from bringing Hugh into the world? It was the help you gave Dr. Will during baby-welfare week. You didn’t demand that each baby be a philosopher and artist before you weighted him, as you do with the rest of us.
And now I’m afraid perhaps I’ll hurt you. We’re going to have a new schoolbuilding in this town – in just a few years – and we’ll have it without one bit of help or interest from you.

Professor Mott and I and some others have been dinging away at the moneyed men for years. We didn’t call on you because you would never stand the pound-pound-pounding year after year without one bit of encouragement. And we’ve won!
Yes, Carol comes back with a rejoinder:

I’m glad. And I’m ashamed I haven’t had any part in getting it. But – Please don’t think I’m unsympathetic if I ask one question: Will the teachers in the hygienic new building go on informing the children that Persia is a yellow spot on the map and Caesar is the title of a book of grammatical puzzles?
Carol Kennicott begins the story unsympathetically, and ends it the same way – never satisfied, smug that her way is the best way – the same feeling she resents in the townsfolk.
Any reform, any progressivism, is going to go slowly. Over time. When you try to get reform all at once, you get things like the French Revolution, the revolt against the Czar, and other unpleasantness. Even the odious “reforms” of Nazi Germany took time – years, not months.

Would-be reformers are too impatient most of the time to get the reform they want. That doesn’t mean the blind stubbornness that clings to the present is any better, but progress and progressivism ought to have the intelligence to stick things out and be patient.
This is likely not what Lewis intended in creating this story – but it’s what I see in it. And I see it twice, because in the character of Erik Valborg, we see the same insistence that genius is there behind the innate naivete. Valborg, the local yearning artiste, knows what he wants to do: Go east to art school, so he can learn to design ladies’ clothing. But like Archie Bunker’s Meathead, he ain’t got no brains nor no ambition – he’s content to work in the local flour mill because it’s easier than pursuing his dreams, which go unpursued because they’d be too much hard work. Even when Valborg is eventually driven out of town, he shows up again acting in a Hollywood movie, much to Carol’s chagrin:

(Page 340) On the screen, in the role of a composer, appeared an actor called Eric Valour.
She was started, incredulous, then wretched. Looking straight out at her, wearing a beret and a velvet jacket, was Erik Valborg.
He had a pale part, which he played neither well nor badly. She speculated “I could have made so much of him – “ she did not finish her speculation.
She went home and read Kennicott’s letters. They had seemed stiff and undetailed, but now there strode from them a personality, a personality unlike that of the languishing young man in the velvet jacket playing a dummy piano in a canvas room.
Again, Carol Kennicott fails – and sees that the things she wished to “reform” – including her husband – mean more to her, have more to them than she ever supposed, than the reformed, the artistic, the phonies who feel they’re free but are playing dummy pianos in a canvas room.
The only character who succeeds at reform in Gopher Prairie is the luckless Miles Bjornstam, who defied everything held holy in the town and dared to live the life he wanted to live. He succeeded by reforming himself. So he says:
(page 108)I never thought I’d be agreeing with Old Man Dawson, the penny-pinching old land-thief – and a fine briber he is too. But you got the wrong slant. You aren’t one of the people – yet. You want to do something for the town. I don’t! I want the town to do something for itself. We don’t want old Dawson’s money – not if it’s a gift, with a string. We’ll take it away from him, because it belongs to us. You got to get more iron and cussedness into you. Come join us cheerful bums, and some day – when we educate ourselves and quit being bums – we’ll take things and run ‘em straight.
He had changed from her friend to a cynical man in overalls. She could not relish the autocracy of “cheerful bums.”

Bjornstam found joy in his “reforms” – a wife and a child, a growing, prospering dairy – for which he did not exchange a single cent of his cynicism, his freedom. He found defeat not from the town, but from the deaths of his wife and child from typhoid. The town gloats in his defeat, but it is not their defeatism that sends him packing – it is the thought of looking at his house, the little chariot he built for his son, and seeing only memories, memories the ugliness of Gopher Prairie could not take form him, nor ease.
And Carol – Carol learns she doesn’t have the patience to get more iron and cussedness – the same virtues Vida Sherwin says she lacks – in order to run things straight. She can’t get educated and stop being a bum – for doing that is simply too hard, or too hard for her yet.
Need more evidence? Consider Will Kennicott’s speech to Carol after he catches Carol and Erik out for a soggy walk:
(Page 312) Wait, wait, wait now! Hold up! You’re assuming that your Erik will make good. As a matter of fact, at my age he’ll be running a one-man tailor shop in some burg about the size of Schoenstrom.
He will not!
That’s what he’s headed for now, all right, and he’s twenty-five or –six and – What he done to make you think he’ll ever be anything but a pants-presser?
He has sensitivities and talent –
Wait now! What has he actually done in the art line? Has he done one first-class picture or – sketch, d’you call it? Or one poem, or played the piano, or anything except gas about what he’s going to do?
She looked thoughtful.
Then it’s a hundred to one shot that he never will. Way I understand it, even these fellows that do something pretty good at home and get to go to art school, there ain’t more than one out of ten of ‘em maybe out of a hundred that ever get above grinding out a bum living – about as artistic as plumbing. And when it comes down to this tailor, why, can’ t you see – you that take on so about psychology – can’t you see that it’s just by contrast with folks like Doc McGanum or Lym Cass that this fellow seems artistic? Suppose you’d met up with him first in one of these reg’lar New York studios! You wouldn’t notice him any more ‘n a rabbit!
This is preceded by a plea from him to recognize him for his skills, his science – (Page 311)  “You that ‘re always speiling about how scientists ought to rule the world, instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians – can’t you see that I’m all the science there is here?” Carol Kennicott can’t see the trees of competence, of skill, of artistry, for the forest of inadequacy she populates in Gopher Prairie, and with which Gopher Prairie is rightly populated.
It’s interesting that so many people say Main Street is a novel without a plot – but to me, the plot is clear: Witness the life of Carol Kennicott, would-be reformer, too lazy to become educated enough to be an effective reformer, because she’s too lazy to put in the work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Alone with Eggs

Bluish smoke sorted from the wizard’s chimney.

The thought of being turned into a toad gave Isaac momentary hesitation. But he’d robbed vicars and constables and merchants who slept lightly and had itchy trigger fingers. He may have come close a few times to being caught, but it was his experience that even the most vigilant clinger to earth’s possessions relaxed a bit when the sun set and the hearth was warm and everyone was quietly nodding off.
He’d wait a bit longer. Dusk would shortly come. The wizard would eat his omelette, then doze the late evening naps of the elderly.
The wizard was alone.
Alone with eggs. He could see at the hearth a small frying pan crusted with egg, and over the banked fire a pot boiled in a gentle roll, a pot filled with eggs and water. But on the makeshift settee, the tables, the floors and benches and nooks in the rocks, wrapped in gunny and linens and other oddemtns of cloth, were eggs. Rather largish eggs. Some nearly round, glistening of mother-of-pearl, others elongated, shiny, like leather loaves of bread.
The room, despite the banked fire, was stiflingly hot. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw in other corners the glow of embers. The reek of coal met his nostrils. As the wizard dozed in a snumbling rumble, smoke and heat, invisible in the twilight except for the waves of distortion they put out, seeped from nearly every crack in the rocks. Yet the wizard was wrapped tightly in robe and blanket, from which seeped hints of a cool blue glow. Enchantment, perhaps.
Quietly, Isaac thrust an arm through the crack. The heat within enveloped his arm as a clap of thunder. Beastly, worse than any summer mugginess, and wet as a sow’s mouth.
It had to be enchantment that kept the wizard cool. Inside the ruin, an oven.
Isaac crept around the dwelling, probing here and there, until he found a slab of rock, cleverly mounted on a pivot, which swung outward as he pulled on it. He quickly darted inside and shut the door, then cowered in the darkness behind a pile of baskets and sacks.
“Who’s there?”
The wizard.
Isaac was right to think the opening and closing of the door would be noted – those who enjoyed baking in such heat felt every draft of cool air.
The cool blue glow from beneath the wizard’s robe was brighter. The wizard walked, flapping folds of the rope so strobes of blue flashed amid the prickly heat.
Behind the baskets, Isaac began to sweat. He gulped silently at the stifling air and sweat coruscated off his brow. The wizard would have to settle quickly, or he’d have to leave, the heat was so oppressive.
“Chickadees,” the wizard muttered.
Instantly the dull red of the fire and the scattered coals burst forth new light – but, mercifully, no extra heat. The wizard, far from resembling the bedraggled soul who bought eggs off his father, looked menacing, probing the darker corners of the rubble pile with the end of his evil-looking walking-stick. He struck the pile of baskets with his stick, and the pile began to whirl and dance, buffeting Isaac with hot blasts of searching air. But because he was a skinny lad, able to clamber into a cleft in the rocks, and because the wizard was still dozy and the baskets whirling in his vision, he went unseen.
“Must be the chinking,” the wizard muttered as the baskets settled once again into their disorderly pile. “Or the damn squirrels sneaking in again. Nothing frightens the brainless things!”
As Isaac’s heart skipped a beat or two, the wizard, mollified, went back to his chair, wrapped his robe more tightly around him, sighed, and settled back to sleep.
Isaac remained in the crack where he hid, listening.
The wizard’s dwelling was quietly noisy, noisy enough for careful sneaking, he decided. He identified the sounds, one by one:
Crackling of the fire.
Boiling of the egg-filled water.
The quiet, easy breathing of the wizard.
Here and there, a gust of wind from outside which, mysteriously, never seemed to work in through the cracks, no matter what the wizard said about chinking.
And something else.
A few something elses.
Teacups rattling on the shelf as if a heavy cart pulled by a pair of oxen were trundling outside.
The sqirmy flap of soggy leather.
And beyond the bubbling at the hearth, another, deeper bubbling, as of a dog slumbering soundly underwater, its breath passing through a vast cauldron of hot, hot water.
He noted different timbres, as his ears got more attuned to the sounds. Many squirmings. Many rattlings.
One squirming close at hand.
Nestled in a basket, wrapped in rough sacking, an egg. But what an egg – an egg the size of a hen. A bald, leathery hen.
As he watched it, the egg squirmed.
Isaac was repulsed. The egg resembled not an egg, but a weevil, a weevil like the ones he discovered once in his oatmeal when he complained to his mother that the currants she put in were putrid.
“No currants to put in, love,” he recalled her saying. “Just oatmeal and a bit of milk.”
The wizard shifted in his seat, snorted.
Isaac saw the basket had handles on it.
He grasped them.
“No use getting caught looking for treasures,” he thought to himself as he backed towards the slab-door. “I’ll come back for a better poke-about when the wizard’s not here, and find his treasure. In the meantime, I’ll see what we’ve got here.” He pulled the slab open, darted out, and swiftly shut it. As he darted into the cover of the brambles alongside the road, he fancied, over his shoulder, he felt a blue glow diffuse the white of the stars above.
Isaac had to keep shifting the basket from one hand to the other, as the heat of the wizard’s dwelling seemed to have accompanied the baggage he carried.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How Good Is Your Book?

I’m a big believer in writing something, then setting it aside for a while before I go back to it to see if it’s any good.

A recent Goodreads infographic shows this system, favored by many writers, bears paying attention to.


We as writers have a lot of competition – and that’s just with other writers, forgetting the competition that comes from television, movies, the Internet and other sources of information and entertainment. What this graphic tells me is that for about 44 percent of average readers, we have less than 100 pages to snag their interest or we’re going to lose them.

And if we lose them, chances are that 44 percent isn’t going to pick us up ever again.

I have only anecdotal evidence for this – but I think it’s pretty persuasive.

Though I generally fall into the “I Always Finish, No Matter What” category (that 38 % of respondents to the Goodreads poll say they fall into) I have abandoned a few books when I was less than 50 pages into them. I don’t remember the titles – but I do remember the authors: Jules Feiffer (Ackroyd, I had to look it up) and Piers Anthony. I tried reading these books, just couldn’t get comfortable with them, and literally threw them away. That’s a pretty shocking thing, considering what a book hoarder I am.

There’s a third book that stands out and gives me hope, though, and that is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2061. I started reading it shortly after it came out and just gave up because it was so terrible. Years later, however, I picked it up again and read it, start to finish.

Then there are the other books: Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama II – which I finished but shouldn’t have, because they were terrible. They were less about the awe of discovery and more about the kaboom and flash of a Hollywood thriller.

Also in that category is Alexandre Dumas fils’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I recall reading that book in high school and really enjoying it. Earlier this year, however, I tried reading it again and gave up more than 300 pages into it, it was just that bad.

Thing is, of these four authors I mention, I’ve only read multiple books by one of them (Clarke) and only then because I’d read many of his books before I stumbled over Rama II and 2061. The other three authors just may as well not exist for me. And that’s probably a shame, because maybe they’ve written better stuff than what I started with. But I may never know. There are plenty of books to read out there, and why go through the pain of reading an author who has stung us before?

So as I look at my own writing now, I pay strict attention (well, stricter attention) to how I grab the readers in the first 50 pages – preferably, in the first chapter, yes. Haven’t written a keeper yet.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Wizard

Not far from the village lay a ruin. It might have been a keep or castle of some sort, but most who saw it mistook it for a pile of rocks and rubble. Not even the monsignor at the church in Asheville could tell anyone what the ruin once was.

But from the ruin, from time to time, passersby could see columns of smoke, sometimes thick and black, and other times willowy white. A few of the more foolish boys dared each other to approach the ruins at night, when the vapors were accompanied by strange lights, blue one moment, green-red the next. Those who got close said the rocks were swarmed with frogs who lived in the marsh near the pile. Their eerie croaking filled the night, filled their ears, and they, in turn, filled the ears of the more cowardly with stories of a wizard changing those foolish enough to intrude on his solitude into the croaking beasts.

There was indeed a man living in the ruins. Abbingdon himself had seen him. He seemed strange, yes, hermetic, closed in, unwilling to communicate. But he occasionally came to the farm to buy fresh eggs, betimes with coils of sausage and strings of onion over his other arm. Wizard or not, becharmer of frogs or not, he was mortal enough to be hungry.

“Good morning to you, Richard,” Abbingdon said as the wizard approached the farm gate.

“It’s still raining,” the wizard said.

“Hadn’t noticed,” Abbingdon said, rain dripping off the end of his nose. “Eggs?”

“Yes. Several dozen, if you have them.”

Abbingdon’s eyebrows arched. “That many? You have guests, or a sudden urge for omelettes?”

Richard laughed. “Guests you might say, who like an omelette.”

“I’ll go poke the hens. I have some eggs, perhaps they have more.”

He and Richard walked to the henhouse. They gathered about a dozen eggs, adding them to the basket of five dozen Abbingdon had collected earlier that morning.

“I’ll have some disappointed customers,” Abbingdon said as Richard hoisted the full basket. “But the price is right.” He jingled a heavy handful of coins.

Isaac heard the jingling, from a hideout in the stables. He peered through a thin bit of thatch and saw his father talking to the wizard, who squelched off with his basket of eggs.

He could not steal from his father. He knew the money he jingled would go to buy food for the family and for the animals that fed them when there was no purse to jingle. Stealing from his father would be stealing from himself, taking food from his mouth and clothes off his back. “I have developed ethics, father, despite what you think of me,” he said, grinning.

But the wizard. If the wizard had that kind of money to spend on eggs, he must have more.

Much more. For wizards could turn lead into gold, he knew. Wizards earned fortunes for casting spells, for potions. That they lived in pokey huts or in the ruins of ancient buildings belied their wealth – of that Isaac was sure.

“The best time to go is now, while the fool is preoccupied with his eggs in the daylight, not expecting to be followed,” Isaac said to himself as he slid out of the thatch and into the muddy farmyard.

Though the rain muffled his steps, and though he was quick to stay out of sight, Isaac found following the wizard taxing. The wizard was suspicious, turning suddenly about, muttering, talking to himself, tripping over roots and lurching from side to side as he struggled around the mud and puddles. Once, dismayed at the mire the path had become, he looked quickly about and, spotting no one, snapped his fingers. Instantly he levitated about a foot in the air and, walking as if on invisible stilts, traversed the muck without further staining the bottom of his green robe.

Isaac was forced to run to keep pace. He felt the sting of nettles and thorns as he pushed through the brush and bloodied his nose when an errant branch snapped back and hit him in the face.

“This wizard had better have something worth stealing,” he muttered, blotting at the blood mixing with rainwater on his upper lip and chin.

It's Groundhog Day, Woodchuck Chuckers

Some days I feel like I’m failing my students.

And by failing, I don’t mean handing out Fs left and right. I mean failing as in I’m not a very good instructor.

And by some days, I mean most days.

I need to help them connect the dots.

They’re not dummies. Many of them are intelligent, with a lot of stuff going on in their heads that shows they’re just as smart – and smarter – than I am. I only have one edge on them: I’ve been around. So I need to help them connect the dots.

Example: One of the first assignments we do in FDENG 101 is a podcast in which students speak about a cherished belief, be it that they can succeed at something if they work really hard at it, or that to be a good friend, you have to be a great listener. We then move on to other assignments, including  a personality profile where they’re called on to interview someone and to use that interview to tell a story about that person.

This should lead, if I helped them connect the dots, to a final research paper that integrates personal opinion backed up by research, missed with some storytelling, evidence of interviews and such; into a lively paper. But what I get mostly are the stodgy research papers they wrote in high school. Because I’m not helping them connect the dots.

Writing can be learned. I have to remind myself of this. I don’t see that writing can be learned because the journey I’ve taken to become the somewhat passable writer I am today has been subtle, gradual, and taken over a long period of time. That’s the edge I’ve got: I’ve been around.

I’m not THE God, but I am A god, as Bill Murray might say.




“He’s just been around so long, he just knows everything.”

But helping my students connect the dots will take effort. You know, work. And I’ve never been good at that. I’ve got some errands to do.




So here’s my plan: Got to help students connect the dots. By working backwards a bit. I’ll start, first off, with the text for my “This I Believe” podcast, in which I outline the start of my own journey through writing, demonstrating my belief that by writing and taking lots of time to do it, I’m getting better. That’ll move into a personality profile of someone else making a writing journey – who that will be right now, I don’t know – but I’ve got a few friends on Facebook who like to write, so it shouldn’t be all that hard. That’ll culminate in a research project/presentation in which I research the habits of successful writers, and see how I could apply them in my own life. All the elements of the podcast and the profile will be included, in order to show how one writing exercise builds upon the other, and how my students can connect the dots between them.

I’ll even use Groundhog Day to help illustrate the idea.

So here’s to work. Gotta make today tomorrow.







First step, research.

Stephen King. Writing is self-hypnosis.

Elmore Leonard. Writing cinematically.

Elmore Leonard. Know Your Stuff.

Ray Bradbury. Writing persistently.

“All of my stories that are worth anything are based on some sort of personal metaphor.”

“After ten years, I’d written something beautiful.”

This is the story Bradbury speaks of.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Your Government, Serving You

The good news is, your government is wasting just as much time on Facebook as you are.

Bad news is, you don’t have $630,000, like the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International information Programs, to drop buying Facebook likes from the likes of insignificant scum like yourself.

Read that in a little report at foreignpolicy.com.

Diplopundit.net has longer excerpts of the report, including this gem:

Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as “buying fans” who may have once clicked on an ad or liked a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further. Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility.

I guess I have to agree with the latter. I mean, when I want to interact with my government – or, hell, the government of any country – I’m going to turn to Facebook and do a quickie search to see if there are any representatives of that government there – aside from the NSA, to be sure – with whom I can exchange movie lines from The ‘Burbs or whom I can encourage to like posts featuring my nightly song (Last night: “If I Only Had A Brain” from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. And Facebook’s searches make it nigh on impossible. Of course, it’s also hard when governments make their “foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau” have names like the Bureau of International Information Programs.

So why was the IIP buying all these Facebook thingies? Back to the report:

In September 2012, Facebook changed the way it displays items in its users’ news feeds. If a user does not interact with a site’s postings, after a time these postings will no longer appear in the user’s news feed unless the site buys sponsored story ads to ensure their appearance. This change sharply reduced the value of having large numbers of marginally interested fans and means that IIP must continually spend money on sponsored story ads or else its reach statistics will plummet. For example, a posting on cyber censorship in March 2013 reached 234,000 Facebook users on its first day; only about 20,000 would have received the item on their news feed without advertising.

I’ve seen this. I have a few Facebook sites that’ve sent me this warning: Interact with us or you’ll no longer see our posts in your feed. And I have to think, well, a few things:

1) Meh.

2) Probably time to do some Facebook maintenance and get rid of a few of these likes.

204) Wow. I should interact with these guys more.

So yeah. This is money well-spent.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tricky Dick


(Above image, no joke)

In "The Hermit of Iapetus," a book for which I've completed the first draft, the hermit, wandering alone on the icy surface of Saturn's moon Iapetus, meets Richard Nixon. The hermit and the former president of the United States share one thing in common: They've famous for their famousness. Both are hounded (Nixon beyond the grave, obviously) by people who want to be near them or associated with them or to hate them merely because they are well-known, while the fawners and haters are not.

David Greenberg, in his superb "Nison's Shadow, The History of An Image," has this to say about Nixon's "famousness":

People wanted to hear [Nixon's] views because he was America's chief villain, or at best a figure of bewitching inscrutability, but not because they expected or wanted him to solve the world's ills. Many who interviewed or dined with Nixon felt similarly. David Frost called him "the most intriguing man in the world." Bob Greene of the Chicago Sun-Times, who landed one of the early post-resignation interviews, wanted to talk to him for the same reason "en eight-year-old wants to go to Disney World." Nixon had become a celebrity, well known for his well-knownness, a human pseudo-event. Nixon himself accepted this fact. Of his audiences, he said to Newsweek, "They're here because they want to hear what I have to say, but they're [also] here because they say, 'What makes this guy tick?'" To Nixon, what mattered was that they wanted to hear from him. Toward the end of his life he was heard to ask anxiously, "Do you think interest in me is down?"

After reading Greenberg's book, I can tell I need to augment the hermit's commiseration with Nixon much more than I have. What a fascinating character.

Greenberg's book is written compellingly, never feeling like a dry bit of history -- of course, given the subject matter, how could it be dry? Also valuable is Greenberg's assessment of other Nixon books, many of which I've read.

This book is an essential read for many reasons:

1) For voters, it's a good peek into the history of the first modern image-conscious president, and how we've come to depend on imagery, rather than substance, to choose our leaders. If you thought Obama and Romney were all image and no substance, well, here's the guy who started it all. Not to say any of these people are without substance -- but it's that lack of substance that we choose to pay attention to now as we select our leaders.

2) For politicians, it's an excellent study on the futility of doing anything but present an image -- because when a message of authenticity is sent, thanks to the cynicism that bubbled over in politics in the era of Nixon, we doubt even the most authentic and sincere images our politicians present, figuring it's all part of the show.

The Farming Dragon, Another Part

Isaac liked the rain. Though he had to be cautious about footprints and certainly about tracking mud, the friendly rain also obscured tracks after a time and made his footprints across the meadows nearly indistinguishable from that of the cattle.

He liked the fog even better, because not only did the fog conceal, it also distorted sound and warped distance and made those searching for him stumble.

Fog and rain were friendly.

“Not so, Father, not so,” he said.

Isaac sat on a pile of firewood. His father leaned on his axe.

“You’re smiling so, Isaac,” Abbingdon said. “You must be lying!”

“Oh, Father, can a boy not smile at his father upon seeing him of a morning?”

“Not when the boy is prone to smiling whenever he’s caught in a lie. You must take back the Widow Provost’s ladder.”

“But I told you, Father, I do not have it.” Isaac smiled.

Abbingdon gave a small sigh. “Don’t play me with technicalities, boy. I see you do not have it. So I will rephrase my request: Go to where you’ve hidden the Widow Provost’s ladder, then return it to her.”

Isaac’s smile widened. “I have not hidden her ladder, Father. Nor do I have it.”

The games were wearying. He had to credit the boy with inventiveness, and took a stubborn pride in his son’s natural intelligence, though the pride never strayed into justifying his thievery. If only there were a school nearby, a good school, where this boy could learn, Abbingdon thought many a time. He could put that mind to good use. But the monastery school wouldn’t take him because of his past, and there was nowhere else to go. He chafed at life on the farm. He stole from the businesses where  he could apprentice.

Abbingdon gave another sigh, leaned the axe against a fence, and gently grabbed Isaac by the ear.

Isaac protested. “I’m not a child, father. Do not punish me like one.”

“To punish you as an adult would be to turn you over to the undersheriff, next time he comes,” Abbingdon said. He marched Isaac behind the stable where a ladder unfamiliar to Abbingdon lay propped against the wall. He released Isaac’s ear and nodded toward the ladder. “Pick it up,” he said.

Isaac scowled, but did as he was told. “What does she need the ladder for,” he mumbled to himself almost as he shouldered the ladder and started to walk toward the Widow Provost’s hut. “She’s too old and fat to climb it.”

“No matter, that,” Abbingdon said. “What matters is that it is hers, not yours, to do with as she pleases.”

Thunder rumbled as they both crossed the meadow and entered the wood, following the meandering path that le to the village outliers. Ordinarily, Abbingdon liked the thunder. It made him feel dozy, as it reminded him of late afternoons resting between chores. But this was morning thunder, not to be trifled with, meaning heavier rain was on the way and likely to cause more rot in the haystacks.

They walked in silence, slipping on piles of wet fallen leaves and splashing through puddles on the path. More thunder rolled as birds an squirrels scampered around or flew through the gathering mist, trying to find a morsel of breakfast before the storm of the day set in.

“What do you need the ladder for,” Abbingdon asked as they walked.

“There are two-story houses now in Asheville,” Isaac said. “I cannot reach the upper windows.”

“Brazen you are,” Abbingdon said.

“Bored I am,” Isaac said. He then shut his ears to his father and concentrated on walking. So he had to return the ladder. Hers was not the only ladder he could lay a finger on. Hers had just been the first, and likely easiest to seize. There would be others.

God in heaven, Abbingdon said to himself as they walked, the rain now coming down heavier, soaking the gunny he used as a cloak. God in heaven, how can I make my son see he walks on the path of error? He’ll end up on the gallows in Asheville, though he himself does not see it. He’ll hang if he continues down that path. I told him that once, when we stood at the foot of the gallows. He laughed and ran up the gallows stairs and swung on the rope hanging there, the rope that bobs and weaves in the night as the ghosts of those hung by it fly through. He jumped up and down on the trap door, pulled in vain at the locked release lever.

“Immortal, Father,” he said. “Immortal. I will never die. Never!”

He continued to steal. He continued to lie. He continued to sullenly return what was stolen which, for the time being, mollified the residents of their village, who knew him, who knew his father, who knew if anything was missing it was best to find Isaac and shake him until the missing item fell out of his cloak.

But they did not know him at Asheville. To them, he would be another fresh-faced thief, ready for the rope.

Monday, July 1, 2013

An Older Boy Made Him Do It


Speaking in Tanzania today, President Barack Obama had this to say about spying:

I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That is how intelligence services operate.
Well, yeah.
So while there’s outrage in Europe that the US bugged the US headquarters for the European Union as well as tapping into EU offices in Belgium, as reported by Der Spiegel today, I’m sure there’s an equal amount of embarrassed shuffling of feet by those very spies Obama says aren’t interested in his breakfast menu.
But does that make spying right? The other guy’s doing it, so we may as well?
More importantly, how inured are we to such stuff?
David Greenberg, writing in “Nixon’s Shadow,” speaks quite a bit about how the scandals of the Nixon era kind of led us to believe and accept that as far as government is concerned, skullduggery is afoot:
[T]he culture’s absorption of conspiracist thought would nourish in the years ahead a general, offhand indifference among Americans. Politics no longer seemed a realm in which we could expect to find anything authentic at all. (P. 125)
And
[W]hile the press might be running wild over third-rate Watergates, the public – inured by Nixonism and subsequent scandals – no longer expected consistency or even integrity from its leaders. (P. 211)
In other words, we expect our government to act like a bunch of prepubescent boys trying to stare at the sunbathing lady through the knothole in the fence. And while umbrage at this point might be great, it will fade – even that of the European Union. Because, first of all, they know what Obama said is right – they’re spying on us. And also, since the public expects this kind of nonsense and will continue to make cell phone calls, use the Internet and such without changing their habits one iota, the government surveillance will go on, unimpeded (except for via a few loud attempts from the fringes and from the more active legislators or members of the judiciary) until we all forget about it.
Is that right?

No. But that’s how it’ll play out.
The “other guys are doing it” argument is just as spurious to me as is the argument that states if we aren’t doing anything wrong, we have nothing to fear. (Just as dubious is the claim that surveillance under Obama is somehow more "domesticated" than under Bush. That may be. But surveillance is surveillance.)
Who defines wrong? And who can tell when that definition will shift to the point it includes something we’re doing on the wrong side of the question? And given government proclivities to abuse information it has for political purposes, it’s clear that doing nothing just leaves us on a potentially slippery slope to worse things than knowing we have nothing to fear from our government since they’re looking for the bad guys (see, there’s that expectation of the worst from our government, just as Greenberg says).
But will that be the lasting attitude?
Yeah.
Because it’s happened before. Back in 1975, the Senate Church Committee revealed a massive NSA spying effort in which the agency read telegrams sent by US citizens. Outrage ensued for a tiny bit, then we all went on our merry way.
I hear talk today of a rising generation of individuals who are pushing back against this freewheeling invasion of our privacy. But I don’t see it myself. The vast majority, I’m sure, are upset, but, in the end of all things, won’t do anything about their anger. Those making waves today are just like those making waves back then; there’s nothing generational about that. In what reading I’ve done, I know the political and social landscape in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were far more toxic than they are today, which is why we saw people like Daniel Ellsberg. Edward Snowden is following in his footsteps. I see no signs that Snowden’s generation is doing the same.