Monday, August 6, 2018

What voice can I write in?

In my 52 years I have had 2 short stories published. One was during my senior year of college. It was called “Postcard From the Past” and it appeared in the Bucknell Literary Magazine The Red Wheelbarrow.  The other came out when I was in my early 40s. It was called “Floating” and it appeared in the online literary journal called Quay Journal.

The main character in Postcard From the Past is a 12-year old white suburbanite boy. He is not the narrator, but it is his point of view we are inhabiting. Floating takes the perspective of this same character twenty years later. Both are fictionalized versions of me—a middle class white guy raised in suburbia in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have had an easy life. That’s not to say things haven’t gone bad sometimes, but my baseline has always been a place of security and support and belonging. I have never questioned my value in modern American society. In other words, I was born already on second base and I didn’t even know it.

When I write, it is most often non-fiction and the voice is clearly my own. Sometimes, I am inspired to write fiction. Usually the people I write about are white middle class people very much like me and my family and friends.  But every once in a great while a different voice will come out of my head and onto the page.

Sometimes it is a woman, telling her story. One time, the story was from the perspective of a Yemeni villager. Once, it was a dog. I don’t know where the inspiration comes from when these voices spill out of my head and onto the page. I just know that they are sometimes there and they are insistent.

And when I do write from the perspective of a Yemeni man or a woman who sings at funerals at a small Catholic church in Wilmington, I do not write with a political agenda. The first draft is always a sputtering struggle to find the right voice—the real person—who wants to come out. The story comes first and the character walks around in my head and in the story until they either seem real or they fade away because I couldn’t quite find out who they wanted to be.

I read this week about a man whose poem “How-To” appeared in The Nation. The poet is a white man. Some of the lines in his poem are in Black Vernacular English (BVE.) Some readers were offended by this white author’s use of BVE and he and the poetry editors of The Nation apologized for its publication and any hurt it may have caused.

I have not read the poem. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest. But the incident has gotten me thinking about the job of a writer. A writer’s task is to get at the truth somehow. Sometimes that means a haiku. Sometimes it means a memoir. Sometimes the truth is found in a novel or a short story. The characters who appear in all of these works have a voice and a point of view. For me, sometimes the only way for me to know how I really feel about something is to write it out. Ideas can kick around my head without scrutiny for a long time.

It’s when I see them on the page in front of me that I know if they are true or not.

And the truth of the words doesn’t necessarily depend on a one-to-one correlation between my age/sex/gender and that of my characters.

 If a Yemeni villager were to read the story I wrote telling the story of a Yemeni villager, he might laugh in my face at how wrong it all is. He might want to hit me. And those reactions would be warranted. If a woman were to read my story about the funeral singer and shake her head at how wrong it all is I would want to hear what I got wrong and ask for her help in understanding better.

Some of the value of reading fiction surely comes from the opportunity to get inside the hearts and minds and lives of people other than ourselves. We have a magical chance to become intimate with people we would otherwise never meet. I do not want to be told what books I can read and which characters I am allowed to get to know and which I am not.

I also don’t want to be told who I can write about and who I can’t. That is up to me. If I do a terrible job, tell me. Rip up my story. Tell everyone else how shitty it is and how wrong it gets everything. But don’t tell me I can’t use a different voice. That is what writers do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

This IS Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

I have heard and read some version of this sentence dozens of times in the past two weeks—each time in reference to our actions at the border with Mexico. By “this” the speaker/writer means the separation of families and warehousing of children.

The people making this statement want so badly to feel good about the United States that they are willing to perform some sort of verbal magic by which they sever the things we as a country are doing from the country that we are.

When faced with the cognitive dissonance set off by seeing a country they love and want to feel good about doing something they hate and feel revulsion to, they make it okay for themselves by settling on “This is not who we are.”

I can’t do that verbal magic anymore. This IS who we are. We are a country that takes crying children from their parents thousands of miles from anything they know and places them in holding pens for days on end. In electing Donald Trump President and then allowing of members of Congress to get away with supporting him in his policies and actions, this is what we have become.

I appreciate the feeling behind the wish that this NOT be who we are. But the facts are undeniable. We are a country with a sizeable portion of citizens who LIKE what is happening at the border—who are cheering it on.

For much of our early history we were a country that sanctioned owing human beings, raping them, killing them, working them to death, and separating their children from them and selling those children off, too.

Even after slavery ended, we were a country that ripped Native American children away from their families and warehoused them in boarding schools where they “had the Indian whipped right out of them.”

Taking children away from their parents and siblings seems about as American as apple pie. It is in our DNA.

Whenever talk of reparations for African-Americans comes up in the national conversation I hear a million versions of “I am not the one who owned slaves, why should I pay for it?” When tribes push for an official national apology for the treatment of native children I hear “I didn’t have anything to do with that—it was 100 years ago.”

Right now---this very morning--=something is being done in your name at the US-Mexico border. If it is something you support then you should simply carry on. But if you are one of the people saying “this is not who we are,” open your eyes. Yes. This is who a chunk of us are. And while that chunk is in charge these are the things they are doing IN YOUR  NAME.
If you are outraged, show some outrage. If you live in a House district with a Republican representative, call their office and let them know this policy is unacceptable. Put the pressure on Congress. Donald Trump is proving to be as feckless and mean as I feared. He won’t change. The place to apply the pressure is Congress.

If you don’t know who your Representative is, click here  and you can find out. If that person is a Republican, call her/him and tell them this policy of separating families is not okay and you will hold them accountable in November. They fear losing elections more than anything. Hold them accountable today.

Do it now. It might take a little time to get through, but it is worth it. This is who we are, but it does not have to be who we are tomorrow. We can make it stop by letting Congress know there are more of us then there are of the people who support this heartless policy.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I think I make a good douchebag

My acting class had our end-of-semester showcase Saturday night.  We have been practicing for weeks, starting with simply memorizing lines without emotion or inflection and then slowly adding in actions and looks and pauses and shifts in tone. The process is fun and fascinating to be a part of.

The scene I shared with a very talented performer named Jess Dreiling was pretty straightforward on first read. But then as we started to think about the characters as actual people with actual histories and feelings and fears and motives, the number of choices we had to make as actors multiplied exponentially.

I did not get to see the final performance, which might sound weird, since I was IN it. But once I sat in my chair and the lights came up I simply switched into character and played the scene, reacting in the moment. I wasn’t aware of trying to elicit any particular reaction from the audience and I don’t know how it went.

I do know that I felt good about it when the scene was over. People clapped, my classmates said it went well, and I felt relieved. But I haven’t seen it yet, so I really have no idea what it looked like to the audience. I am finding that acting is funny that way—my experience of the moment is very different from the audience’s experience of the moment.

My experience of the moment, when things are working, is calm and almost quiet. Most of my brain powers down to Stand-by mode as the part of me that is the character powers up and takes over.  I rarely experience that kind of inner quiet in my regular life. Normally my brain is going a mile a minute, gauging every look, every word, every change in posture of the people in the room and of myself. I have a lot of social anxiety and for this reason being out in the world interacting with people tires me out.

I am finding that acting gives me a chance to short-circuit that endless loop of self-judgment and hyper-awareness that flood my head much of the time. I can step into a character and allow him to be out in the world while I am simply along for the ride. It is oddly freeing to be on stage in front of a whole bunch of strangers but to not really care what they think of me, since it’s not really me that is up there.

I think the guy that was up there, sitting in that chair with a black eye and the douchey attitude, had a good time being a real prick. I’ll have to watch the video to know for sure.

Then, once the showcase ended and I went to the cast party, all of my social unease kicked right back in and I left after 15 minutes of short, awkward conversations with people I don’t know very well.

Ah well, I guess THAT might be my next challenge. How do I take what I am learning in acting class and apply it to real life?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"If I don't make it, I love you"

A parent in Florida yesterday got the text message no parent ever wants to get: “If I don’t make it, I love you.”

I saw these words in a newspaper story this morning. At the safety of my dining room table, drinking a cup of coffee, they hit me like a kick to the stomach. Imagine how they hit the mom who actually received that text.

Her daughter did indeed make it. But 17 other people did not. They went to school yesterday as students and teachers and they left school in body bags as grim statistics.

How many times will we have to go through this same scenario before we as a country of voters exert our will and force somebody to do something about this? Which gun massacre will be the one that makes us all stop wringing our hands and offering our thoughts and prayers and writing impassioned letters to the editor about guns and instead band together, raise our voices, and use the one real power we do have.

We can vote.

And we can overwhelm anyone running for office at any level with demands that they work to get a grip on gun violence in our schools, in our towns, in our cities, in our counties, in our states, and in our country.

No single law or policy will end this uniquely American epidemic. It is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of focus at each of the levels listed—from the hyper-local to the national; from the local school board to the House, Senate, and Presidency.

I sometimes ridicule single-interest voters who hold candidates to purity tests on a single issue. But I think nothing in this gun-loving, violence-worshiping country will change until enough of us become single-issue voters and force the issue.

You might think I hate guns and want to take them all away. That would be an incorrect assumption. I believe the Second Amendment gives law-abiding citizens the right to own guns and I do not want them all taken away. I also believe the Constitution allows local jurisdictions to pass and enforce restrictions on gun ownership. Justice Antonin Scalia said it best when he wrote

“We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. ‘Miller’ said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”

One of the most conservative justices in American history has argued that it is reasonable for jurisdictions to prohibit the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. As voters, we need to elect only those candidates who agree that AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons that are not traditionally used for hunting are indeed “dangerous and unusual” weapons. We need to write laws that say this. And then we need to pass these laws.

The worship of the strict gun rights interpretation of the Second Amendment can no longer hold sway over the politicians of this country. It has led to too many dead children and teachers.

Many Americans will argue that this is not a gun issue. To that, I ask a simple question: Why are Americans more violently, homicidally deranged than the people of any other country, then? If it’s NOT a gun issue then it must mean that we are a disproportionately violent people.

In either case, if enough of us become single-issue voters we can change things. Let’s vote only for candidates who are willing to devote resources to mental health services and violence prevention programs in our schools and towns.

Maybe the term “single-issue voter” is wrong in this case. “Double-issue voter” might be more apt. The twin issues of gun restrictions and mental health need to be what we focus on as voters if we are ever going to reverse this horrific and tragic trend of mass shootings in America.

Arguments that it is “too soon” to talk about this in the wake of yet another slaughter at a school ring hollow. With mass shootings happening with disgusting regularity, there would never be an appropriate time to talk about what we can do to simply become more like every other country in the world that DOESN’T have this same problem.

Arguments that any single proposal would not have stopped this particular massacre of innocent people and, therefore, any single law would be useless, need to be shown as the bullshit they are. Of course no single law will change things. It is going to take a fully-formed array of public policies to stop angry Americans from killing other Americans in large numbers with guns.

To say that this problem of gun violence in America is too complicated to fix with a single law is to condemn more children to death in their schools and more parents to receiving text messages like the one a mom got in Florida yesterday.

I hear on the radio the latest reports of yet another mass shooting and part of me is numb. I read the story online and some growing part of my brain and my heart have scarred over and it affects me a little bit less.

Seeing the text message that mother received yesterday broke through the callous and made me re-see what a uniquely violent culture we are right now in America. I refuse to give up. I am going to be a double-issue voter from now on.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Call for Congressional Competence

If ever there was a chance for the legislative Branch of The United States Government to assert itself, that time is now.

The Oval Office is occupied by a man with no deeply-held policy positions. That same man is advised by people with little-to-none legislative experience. In the run-up to this weekend’s government shutdown, President Trump made it clear to all that he has no idea how to actually govern.

Congress has made this same fact clear for the past 9 years.

It does not have to be this way.

The next three years could be a golden era of bipartisanship if the rational middles from both sides of the aisle work together to craft moderate, reasonable legislative proposals. The bomb-throwers on the left and the right can vote against these proposals, but if 67 Senators and 291 representatives stay together, they can accomplish a lot in three years.

Once Moderation forces a seat at the table for itself, it cannot be beat. There are things most Americans agree on, even in this highly polarized age. Here are a few things that would have overwhelming support across the country:
  • ·         Rebuilding America’s infrastructure
  • ·         Reforming America’s immigration policies to recognize the need for a country to control its own borders AND, at the same time, acknowledge that immigration makes us a stronger country
  • ·         Agreeing to a process for creating legislative districts that is independent of political parties
  • ·         Addressing the looming crisis in both Social Security and Medicare in a way that sets both programs on firm footing for fifty more years.

The thing is, to really address these issues, members of Congress would have to actually sit down together and talk. They would also need to truly listen. And be willing to compromise. They would need to deliberate.

Government by, of, and for the Base is not really working. It is not sustainable. We, the voters, would have to stop making everything a purity test. We would have to accept that real legislators compromise.

As a whacko Leftist Liberal, it would mean that I would have to stop demonizing anyone who is opposed to single-payer healthcare. I would also have to understand that reasonable people can disagree on the idea of mandating an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It would mean that my Whacko Rightist Conservative brother would have to make room for the idea that the Second Amendment allows for states to craft rational gun control measures. He would need to make mental room for the thought that not all regulations are bad.

President Trump has shown himself to be inconsistent in his policy stances—from month to month, week to week, and even hour to hour. If there is a solid contingent of Senators and Representatives willing to take a huge risk and step into the policy void left by an oddly uninformed Executive, Congress could reassert itself and make some things happen.

A little bit of competence demonstrated by at least one branch of the government would be really welcome right about now.