Monday, September 3, 2018

The Voyage of Discovery

With a new school year approaching, this is an appropriate excerpt from my book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

When we gaze into a classroom, we see the faces of 30 young students endowed with differing innate abilities and skills. They were not all designed to work the same way. Our educational system teaches them as if they were monolithic, or at least fungible entities. But they are not. One might be good with his hands, capable of creating fine pottery or crafts; a second might be a thinker; a third, a strategic planner; yet another, an artist or poet. One might be good with numbers, while another able to conceptualize complex theories.

It is distressing to see our leaders place their entire educational emphasis on science and math, ignoring the importance of history, writing (communication and expression), philosophy, and the arts (art, music, and literature). A society needs citizens grounded in a sense of history, for those ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat its errors. Those citizens need the ability to communicate and express their thoughts and ideas in an articulate, cogent manner, free from emotional argument ad hominem. And as we have learned from the relics of all great civilizations -- from Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome forward -- societies need beauty. From the Great Pyramids, to Michelangelo’s “The David”, to William Shakespeare’s oeuvre, a civilization is inspired by, and defined by, its art.

Science and math have their place. Societies have always needed ship builders and navigators, be it the Greeks to design and pilot their penteconters; the Spanish, their galleons; or the Chinese, their junks. From galleys to spacecrafts, math and science have played an integral role in man’s ability to free himself from landlocked constraints and set forth on voyages of exploration. But while important, science and math are not the only disciplines our children must be taught.

Civilizations need thinkers. Philosophers. Individuals who contemplate, as well as those who plan. The de-emphasis of the disciplines of philosophy, history, and the arts, in both our schools and our culture, explains the sorry state of our society today and the Weltschmerz that permeates us. We live in a culture of corporate greed, where individualistic selfishness has replaced altruism, idealism, and principles. But now more than ever, we need thinkers and philosophers to express their thoughts and communicate their ideas, as much or more than we need a nation of scientists and mathematicians, because while it’s important to build the ships that will take us across vast oceans or galaxies, it's more important to know where we're going and why.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Nosferatu, Inc.

Nosferatu, Inc., the third and final installment of the Fangs & Fur story arc in the Halos & Horns fantasy series, is now available for eBook pre-order (paperback to be published Aug. 31). With the release of Nosferatu, Inc. readers can devour the entire Fangs & Fur story arc in one sitting or even catch up on all seven books (so far) in the Halos & Horns series.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Freedom Isn't Free

The bravest thing I’ve ever seen was when an ordinary citizen in support of democracy and in open defiance of the Communist Chinese government stood up to a tank in Tiananmen Square. Alone and unarmed, in a tense situation in which the government had turned weapons of war on its own citizens to quell dissent, this one man blocked the tank’s path. The military leaders didn’t know what to do. They realized the entire world was watching and they knew what the optics of a 48-ton tank crushing a man on live international television would look like to the world. Finally, the tank commander blinked first, and the tank pivoted to swerve around the man. The man then rushed in front of the tank again.

One man can make a difference. Imagine if he had been joined by millions of others, not just the thousands protesting beside him, but millions willing to actually put their lives on the line for democracy and freedom.

Freedom isn’t free. No one gives you freedom: not the government, not the Founding Fathers, not the truisms you studied in history books in school. It has to be earned, and not just once but repeatedly like a license that must be renewed. Earning means you have to do something, not just sit on your ass, and sometimes it even requires sacrifice. Our generation has forgotten that. Ironically, we’ve had the luxury to forget because of the sacrifices of previous generations.

In the words of Janis Joplin, “Freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice for your liberty.”

It is shameful that members of Congress, and other employees of the federal government, all of whom swore an oath to protect democracy and the Constitution of the United States, are standing by doing nothing while the Constitution is being violated on a daily basis by a mentally unhinged man in the employ of a foreign hostile government.

The rest of us didn’t take an oath of office to protect the Constitution, but we did grow up pledging allegiance every day “to the flag and to the Republic" it represents. The future of that Republic, and democracy itself, is in jeopardy. One man cannot stop what is happening in Washington, DC. Those of us who speak out on public forums are standing in front of the tank. But I have to wonder, as I did watching that brave man in Tiananmen Square back in 1989, where are all the other people? Where are the ordinary citizens willing to stand up and march to Washington, not in protest, but to physically remove any and all threats to democracy? Drag them right out of office and don’t let them back in. 

American Exceptionalism

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Born in the USA

I recently attended a naturalization ceremony. The last time anyone in my family became a naturalized American citizen was four generations ago, back at the turn of the nineteenth century, so this was a unique experience for me. It took place in a government building, in a large room filled with prospective citizens and their guests. A little boy, whose mother was becoming an American citizen, sat next to me in the guest section. Two television monitors were positioned on either side of the stage at the front of the room. A Statue of Liberty replica stared out at us from its perch on the table beside the monitor closest to me, surrounded by dozens of miniature American flags. I smiled at the little boy. “I think you’ll get to bring one of those home with you.” Sure enough, a woman came by, passing out flags to the children.

Music played through the speakers, as we waited for the ceremony to begin. A black man sung an odd rendition of America the Beautiful, off-key and adding his own improvisations. But the strangest song on the playlist was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, perhaps both the most unlikely and inappropriate tune for the occasion. The video monitors displayed an articulate welcoming message from President Barack Obama, followed by an inspiring message from former UN Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She described how she had fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child to escape the Nazis, and returned to her homeland later, only to have to flee again as a teenager when the communists took over. She became an American citizen, earned a PhD, and rose to be one of our country’s most distinguished diplomats.

Her visage was replaced on the monitors by a slideshow while the Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. It was a song filled with great meaning, but as with many songs, people often repeat the words without truly appreciating what they mean. As the crowd around me blindly mouthed the words, I looked down at the little boy next to me. I wanted to explain to him what it was we were hearing. I wanted to tell him how Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner, inspired as he sat aboard a ship in the harbor watching the bombs bursting in the air. It was during the War of 1812. He was aboard the British warship HMS Tonnant to negotiate the release of American prisoners. While they were on board, the British attacked Baltimore, bombarding Fort McHenry. When dawn came, Key saw the resilient American flag waving above the fort. He wrote a poem later set to music that became the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

It means something. It’s not just a bunch of words or a catchy tune. Our young nation was at war, invaded by the mightiest army in the world. A month earlier, in August 1814, the British had set fire to the White House, forcing President James Madison and his wife Dolley to flee the presidential residence, never to return. The capitol had also been set afire, and for the first time since the American Revolution, a foreign power had captured and occupied Washington, DC, the American capital. The Battle of Baltimore could have signaled the end of the American Experience… But “by the dawn's early light” the “broad stripes and bright stars” of an oversized American flag were “gallantly streaming” over Fort McHenry, having replaced the smaller, tattered storm flag that had waved defiantly through the 25-hour “perilous fight”. I wanted the little boy next to me to know that.

The slideshow sped past an image of the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. The neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor representing the Roman goddess of freedom was a gift from France. It was a magnificent gift, but it was quite large and needed a pedestal on which to be placed. A fundraising effort was started to procure money to construct a pedestal. Jewish poet Emma Lazarus donated a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus” to be auctioned off. In 1903, her poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal’s inner wall. This child of immigrants described the statue: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome…”

The most famous words of Lazarus’ sonnet are: “"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…” Could any words be more meaningful and significant to a room full of immigrants moments away from being granted full citizenship? I wanted to pause the slideshow on that image of the plaque and read the entire sonnet so the little boy next to me, and everyone else, could appreciate the enormity of the sentiment expressed so eloquently by Emma Lazarus.

But the image passed in a fleeting moment, having appeared on the screen before us for only the briefest of instances, in keeping with modern America’s impatient, fast food, finger-on-the-remote-control, limited attention span culture. Each year, Americans celebrate their freedom on the Fourth of July with fireworks and barbecues, seldom pausing to reflect on the origins and meaning of the iconic symbols representing the holiday. Perhaps this year, all Americans, new or as Bruce put it, “Born in the USA”, might ruminate on their significance.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

As the Sun Sets on Mount Kilimanjaro

Harlan Ellison died today. He had written long ago that he wanted his epitaph to be “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” And matter he did. I’m probably not alone when I say I would not be the writer I am today if it were not for Harlan Ellison.

I don’t know how old I was when I read my first Ellison short story. By the time I was ten I had gorged myself on a steady diet of the older science fiction masters: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, C.M. Kornbluth… but somewhere along the way I stumbled onto this young buck, this angry young man: Harlan Ellison. His stories, both in concept and execution, were unlike any I had ever read: “A Boy and His Dog” (later turned into a movie starring a rather young, pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson and Jason Robards); “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman;” “Jeffty Is Five;” “Paladin of the Lost Hour;” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”… Far too many to name, yet all leave a lasting impression.

And of course, there were the TV shows. Although Harlan was never pleased with their final results once all the diverse hands in their production had left their marks, he gave us “The City on the Edge of Forever” - the single best episode of Star Trek ever written; ; “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” for The Outer Limits, and the TV series The Starlost, the final result of which Harlan hated yet one I enjoyed watching at the time; as well as episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Flying Nun.

Harlan was one of the New Wave of science fiction writers -- he bristled at being called a science fiction writer and would always insist he wrote speculative fiction instead – such as Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel “Chip” Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, Theodore Sturgeon and many others who were determined to take the staid space opera we had grown up with to the next level. Harlan helped them do that by editing and publishing a phenomenal anthology of New Wave speculative fiction entitled Dangerous Visions. He followed up with an even more massive, two-volume anthology entitled Again Dangerous Visions. He promised, but never delivered, a final volume The Last Dangerous Visions, A sore point for him and others as he had collected first publication rights from many authors for their stories which languished because the volume never saw print.

I was 15 when I read Dangerous Visions but it changed the way I thought about writing. Harlan  had told his contributors to send him the stories other publishers thought too controversial to publish. It was a permission slip to explore the outer limits of the writers’ creativity unbound by the stifling voices of the editors and publishers in their Brooks Brothers suits in offices in Manhattan skyscrapers who self-assuredly deigned themselves the arbiters of what was or was not good writing. But at 15, it was a lightning bolt charging me with an entirely new form of creative stimulus to push the envelope as Harlan had, as these other New Wave writers had, to boldly go where no author had gone before. Controversy was to be embraced, not eschewed. Writing technique was fluid and an art form itself. Decades later, I published my own attempt at speculative fiction that pushed the boundaries, Shards: The Omnibus Edition. At 750 pages, it was even more massive than Dangerous Visions but before any of the short stories, on the acknowledgments page, I gave special thanks to Harlan Ellison for blazing the trail for myself and all the other writers like me who would also take his permission slip and run with it.

As all writers know, all good stories are about the human condition. Harlan understood the human condition because he had lived it. He described some of the odd jobs he had taken while traveling around the country: cab driver, short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, circus hand, crop-picker, dockworker, tuna fisherman, and even a stint as a truck driver… hauling nitroglycerin. At one point, he even joined a street gang as research for his 1958 novel Rumble (republished as Web of the City).

Harlan was brash and unapologetic. He routinely criticized the television industry as he was writing for it; if he didn’t like what the producers had done to his script he always exercised his contract clause to have his screen credits listed not under his own name but as Cordwainer Bird – as in this is for the birds. He was a champion of creators’ rights as well as human rights. His youthful arrogance and creativity were a wonder to behold, especially when on view during his frequent appearances on the exceptional Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. The 5’2 writer stood up to a bullying Frank Sinatra one evening in a Beverly Hills nightclub, as recounted in Gay Talese’s spellbinding Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Then there are the tales, apocryphal yet most likely true, of Ellison mailing a dead gopher to a publisher who had breached a clause in their contract by printing a cigarette ad in one of his books; and his expulsion from college for his response to an English professor who had criticized his writing. Harlan described that experience:

“There was an English professor named Shedd at Ohio State University in 1954. He told me I had no talent, could not write, ought to forget ever trying to make a living from the craft of writing, and that even if I did manage to eke out some sort of low-level existence through dint of sheer, dogged persistence, I would never write anything of consequence, would never make a name for myself, and would sink into the dust of oblivion justifiably forgotten by lovers of properly constructed literature. I told him to go fuck himself.”

Starting in junior high, I tried to buy everything Harlan Ellison wrote; I got a lot of his books over the following decades, but not all. I don’t know of anyone who could keep up with such a prolific output. I can only think of two men who might own Harlan’s complete works – and I envy them for that – Ellison himself, of course, and Dr. Shedd. You see, Harlan sent every single published story to Dr. Shedd at Ohio State. As he put it, “One should never say ‘fuck you’ unless one is prepared to back it up.”

By 2001, Harlan had written or edited 75 books; had more than 1,700 short stories published in magazines, newspaper columns, and articles; and authored more than three dozen award-winning films and TV scripts. He was nominated for Emmys and Grammys; won P.E.N.‘s Silver Pen for journalism; and won more awards for imaginative literature than any other contemporary author. He was called “one of the great living American short story writers” by The Washington Post and “the 20th century Lewis Carroll” by The Los Angeles Times.

Harlan had an attitude: he was a short, Jewish kid from Cleveland and he wasn’t about to take crap from anyone. I can relate. But despite his reputation he was a wonderful man, and undeniably one of unique talent and fecundity. Somewhere, as a teenager, I had read Harlan’s account of meeting his idol, renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He wrote of coming up to him at a public appearance (perhaps a book signing?) and rogitating in an effusive tone, “Are you really Isaac Asimov?” so much  that Asimov blushed and finally admitted he was; at which point Harlan replied, “Eh, you’re not so impressive in person” (or words to that effect). It was a great conversation starter and the two later became the best of friends. With that in mind, when I first met Harlan I asked him when he would be publishing The Last Dangerous Visions, a question tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull. He perused my countenance to discern what sort of alleged fan would have the chutzpah to bring up That Which May Not Be Mentioned and, noting my grin, smiled himself and replied, “Aw, go fuck yourself.” We then spoke for another 25 minutes and he revealed himself to be a down-to-earth, humanistic man. But I’ve always treasured being able to say those were the first words I was able to elicit from Harlan Ellison: not a mundane “hello” or a prosaic “nice to meet you;” I had provoked the quintessential Ellison and somewhere from beyond the grave Isaac Asimov chuckled.

Harlan autographed a copy of his book The Essential Ellison (a 35-year retrospective of his work) which I treasure almost as much as the book that sits beside it, a well-worn copy of Dangerous Visions signed by Harlan and many of the book’s authors, the book that launched my passion for writing short stories. Harlan later published an updated version The Essential Ellison that encompassed stories representing his 50 years as an author. Reading the latter edition in chronological order, one goes through the three stages of Ellison. He bravely includes his first stories written as a teenager and I read them thinking they reminded me of my teenage attempts and how my writing was so much better than this. In the second stage he had clearly mastered his craft, and I thought this is much more like my writing. But then I reached the third stage: Ellison’s later work -- his apotheosis as a writer. “Oh my god!” I whispered softly after each tale, realizing they had been constructed at a level far beyond any I had reached, and possibly beyond my reach. The author had reached the pinnacle of his career and from Mount Kilimanjaro was looking down to see if we readers/writers could make the climb.

Harlan Jay Ellison was born in Cleveland on May 27, 1934. He died on June 28, 2018 at his Los Angeles home in his sleep, presumably dreaming of still more creative thoughts and stories, his last dangerous visions.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Race to the Bottom

There's a lot of talk on the news today about the lack of civility, both in political discourse and in day to day interactions with our fellow citizens. Because if this, I think it's timely to repost this blog essay written in 2012 from my book More Essays of a Reluctant Blogger.

Race to the Bottom  (April 17, 2015):

I usually stick to one or two themes in each of my columns, but no fewer than five distinct themes comprise this week’s column. I’ll be addressing America’s peculiar institution, and by that I don’t mean a euphemism for slavery, although matters of race and racism are certainly pertinent to today’s topic. Our country’s other peculiar institution is that of the position of First Lady of the United States. It’s an odd institution because it’s been with us in one form or another since the founding of the Republic, yet, unlike the presidency, the role of the First Lady is neither defined nor even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The First Lady is not elected and the position brings with it no official duties. Usually, but not always, the role is filled by the wife of the president. The First Lady is granted her own staff, which includes a chief of staff, press secretary, and White House social secretary. She has an unofficial ceremonial role organizing domestic, and attending international, state functions alongside, or in place, of the president.

The First Lady is generally accorded public respect, in part because she is a lady, in part because of the respect due to the office her husband, the president, holds, and because she represents the face of the United States, at home and abroad. When I was a boy, it was considered disrespectful and a sign of ill manners and poor upbringing to insult or denigrate any woman, let alone the First Lady of the United States. In fact, viciously insulting the First Lady would have been viewed as unpatriotic and downright un-American.

Things have changed in my brief lifetime. For one thing, the tone of civil discourse has completely devolved into gutter sniping. We had heated arguments in my day, but we disagreed respectfully and politely. Our arguments were based in reason and not anger or prejudice. We argued with passion, not hatred, in our hearts. Democratic and Republican senators could wage fierce debates on the floor of Congress and then retire together to the local watering hole to quench their parched throats. No more. Today, the animosity spawned by the arguments remains long after the words have faded into silence.

This phenomenon now occurs not only in the hallowed halls of Congress, but throughout American society, around water coolers and dinner tables. Nowhere is it more evident than on the World Wide Web. The Internet is another peculiar institution: a public forum cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity and completely lacking in accountability. Civility is stripped from the tone of civil discourse because the speakers feel no accountability for their words, hidden behind screen names and located many miles from the people who hear them. Few would be shameless enough to say such things in a face-to-face setting.

I came across a Facebook group page this week that posed this query: Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree? Considering that the First Lady is an unofficial position with no official duties, I would say every First Lady would qualify as first class unless they were observed stumbling drunkenly through the White House halls. Granted, some First Ladies have exemplified class and grace. While Jackie Kennedy brought youth and unprecedented glamour to the White House, the nation was awed by the 34-year-old’s inspiring display of grace under pressure as she led the country through the period of mourning and transition following her husband’s brutal assassination, which had taken place as she sat beside him. Unlike Mary Todd Lincoln before her, Jackie Kennedy lived in the age of television, which broadcasted to the entire world every moment, from the shooting itself to the burial and its aftermath. Yet the First Lady maintained her grace and dignity throughout the most difficult circumstances imaginable. But sure, I would agree that more Laura Bush was a lovely First Lady.

“She was a true American patriot first lady,” Mike King wrote on the Facebook page. Yes, I agreed; but then, haven’t all First Ladies been patriotic? Isn't patriotism an attribute that attaches to all of those married to a nation’s leader? Could not the same be said of Eva Braun? Yet, as I read the comments in response to the question, I discerned a disturbing trend. A majority of the responses insisted on contrasting Laura Bush with the current First Lady, Michelle Obama. I’m reprinting a sampling below, unedited. I feel cleaning up the respondents’ poor grammar might aid in legitimizing their demonization of the woman who is presently our country’s First Lady. Likewise, I’m attributing their quotes to their Facebook names because I believe individual should take responsibility for their words. I’ll return in a moment with my thoughts, but first, a sampling of responses to “Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree?”:

Aniano Enrique: “She's a classy lady. Michael Obama on the other hand...”

Charles Johnson Jr.: “And michelle is a low class low life piece of garbage first lady”

Delma Lehnert Pearce: “We went from CLASS to TRASH.”

Reuben Hart: “She is also a female. Something the present first freak can't claim with veracity.”

Sharyn Bell: “I wish we still had a 'lady' in the White House but sadly we have trailer- trash lottery winners there now.”

Sheila Prong: “Unlike the lipstick wearing pig there now”

Lynn Yocham: “Not one single pic of her with hatred spewing from her with her face all twisted in anger. On the black slut you never see a smile always face twisted up in hate.......”

Val D'Gal: “A 1000 times yes, unlike the ghetto rat currently defacing the Peoples' House!”

Cherie Roy: “Absolutely. So was Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy. This one now is a total disgusting mess. She acts like and dresses like she is fresh from the hood.”

Phil Chiachetti: “Not like the ape in the White House now.”

Skip Klinefelter: “Absolutely!! And now we have something that even reporters refer to as an ape!!”

Cynthia Zelene Velasquez: “How about she is a real lady not a transvestite like Michael!!”

Bob Pruyne Sr.: “Real class vs ghetto trash”

Dan Johnston: “As opposed to the pig we have in there now...”

Chatty Kathy: “Unlike the classless piece of crap in the WH now!”

Rebekah Bennett: “The difference is having a lady in the White House or a manly thug.”

Gerardette McCarthy: “yes she was!! not like the black pig!”

Bernie Milot: “WAY better than that ghetto pig shemale we have now!!..”

Jennifer Snyder: “now we have the ghetto infesting OUR WHITE HOUSE. Send in Terminex to get rid of the awful infestation”

Randall Hughes: “What about chewbacca's hairless sister?”

Josh Diles: “I would never call our First Lady an ape.......apes deserve way more respect”

I’m back. Let’s review: “low class low life piece of garbage, trash, first freak, trailer- trash lottery winners, lipstick wearing pig, black slut, ghetto rat, fresh from the hood, an ape, pig, classless piece of crap, manly thug, black pig, ghetto pig shemale, ghetto infesting…” Do you see a trend here? Not a single respondent criticized Michelle Obama for anything she did in her role as First Lady. All of the attacks were personal, filled with racial epithets and vitriol. This isn't about politics. This isn't about Democrats or Republicans. I can’t imagine any partisan making these comments about any previous (i.e., white) First Lady. This is about racism. It’s about bigotry and bigots. It’s about people who wear the American flag as a mantle of their alleged patriotism yet display the ugly racism that is anathema to the precepts of American democracy. What’s worse, is that in doing so, they are attacking their own country’s First Lady, America’s representative to the world. What could be more unpatriotic than that?

I grew up in an era of overt racism, amid segregation, integration, and race riots. I watched our society and our culture change. Black faces appeared in greater number on our television screens and in our neighborhood schools, and the overt racism faded. While there would always be scattered pockets of hatred and bigotry, it appeared as though racism no longer existed. I associated with other progressive, well-educated individuals and in these circles there was no racism to be observed. But the overt racism had become covert; it had never really gone away, it was simply confined to discrete groups and individuals in whose circles I did not travel. Since I rarely encountered it, it appeared to me and others that, except for a few fringe outliers, racism had been banished to the history books along with the KKK, cross burnings, and lynchings. But the Internet allows us to travel outside our circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances, and to see the rest of our society. By cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity while simultaneously removing any notion of accountability, the Internet has both enabled and exposed the ugly racism so prevalent today in America.

The new generation of Americans poised to inherit stewardship of our society’s culture, politics, and laws must address this racism, as well as the lack of decorum in public discourse. 

Civility Cost Nothing and Buys Everything

There's a lot of talk on the news today about the lack of civility, both in political discourse and in day to day interactions with our fellow citizens. Because if this, I think it's timely to repost this blog essay written in 2012 from my book Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger.

Civility Cost Nothing and Buys Everything  (July 11, 2012):

One of the things I miss most from my youth is civility. Civility is defined as politeness or the act of showing regard for others. People were nicer to each other when I was growing up. We never called our elders, including our neighbors, by their first names. As far as we knew, they didn't have first names. Every adult was either Mister, Mrs., or Miss. We, and our parents, did however know the names of our mailman, dry cleaner, pharmacist, newsboy and the store clerk. What's more, they knew our names. They, and we, would take a minute or two each time we met to exchange pleasantries along with conducting business.

Today, people are strangers. The woman at the cash register ringing up your sale is a cypher, a nonentity. If you know her name, it's only because of the nametag she displays on her lapel, like a dog tag on a canine's collar. That makes sense for dogs, who can't talk, but not for humans, who can freely speak their names, if asked. She has no personality, no life, no hobbies, no children, and no opinions. She is a wage earner, and therefore viewed as somehow less human than yourself. If you speak to her, it is only to say "Hello", "Goodbye", and "Do you have change for a ten?"

In my case, the world I live in is populated by real people. For 12 years, every time I passed through Flo's checkout lane at the supermarket, she would ask me how my bird was. We chatted each time I came in and she always recognized me. The man who runs the fish department had lung cancer surgery a few days ago. I'm hoping he'll be back on the job soon and fully recovered. We talked about his surgery a few weeks before he went in. He was understandably frightened but glad the doctors think they caught it in time. I don't think any other customers know about his condition or his operation; I don't think many cared enough about him as a person. To them, he is the fish department guy and they just want their fish. Sal the tailor altered all my suits for years, until I left the job that required me to wear suits every day. About eight years passed before I stepped back into his shop. I was saddened to learn Sal had died and I wondered if his wife would even remember me. I needn't have wondered. Maria saw me and asked how my dogs were. She remembered me, not just as a customer, but as a person, because that's how I had always treated them.

So, I was surprised by what happened at Walmart, today. For the past two years, a Pakistani man has been the greeter at the entrance. Instead of ignoring him as I walk past, I always pause to say hello and ask how he is. He's always been pleased by the attention, and usually rushes toward me when he sees me enter, extends his hand, and sometimes gives me an effusive hug, asking "How are you my friend?" I always assumed he was pleased to see a customer who didn't pass by him as if he didn't exist. But today, I noticed him in the aisle I was in. As much as I detest shaking hands, especially when I'm buying produce, I felt I couldn't ignore him, so I said "Hello." He muttered something back, and turned to the shelf. I stepped closer and replied, "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you from where I was standing." He turned back to me, explained it was his day off, and turned away again. It took me a second to realize what had occurred. He was a Walmart greeter. Greeting people was his job. It was his day off, so he didn't have to talk to me.

It's a sad society when you have to pay people to be civil.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." Or, as writer Mary Wortley Montagu put it, " Civility costs nothing and buys everything."

Monday, June 25, 2018

Baby Jails – How Donald Trump is Keeping Us Safe from Infants in Diapers

Depraved is the word I’d use to describe the Trump administration and its recent actions. Ripping infants and children from their mothers’ arms without even giving them a chance to say goodbye; shipping immigrant children to secret black sites set up across the nation where the American public, journalists, and even U.S. senators are denied access to see what is going on inside these makeshift internment camps, where credible reports have surfaced of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children; the permanent separation of children from their parents. This is not my America. But it is Donald Trump’s America and for the first time in my lifetime I’m ashamed to be an American.

I keep hearing the refrain “This is not America” on TV, but it is. This is not the America we know and love, the land of liberty and democracy we grew up in, but it is indeed the America of 2018: Trump’s America. We have begun the slide into an undemocratic authoritarian regime, flamed by propaganda to incite hatred among each of us, filled with disinformation and distractions, and an unprecedented level of corruption by members of the Trump administration seeking personal financial gain from taxpayers’ dollars.

This is not about politics, it’s about morality. Placing children in cages is not a political issue. Neither is taking a breastfeeding infant from her mother and sending the baby across the country to a secret “baby jail.” That mother will never see her infant again: When the separated baby is asked her mother’s name, the nine-month old infant can only reply with a gurgle. She hasn’t learned to speak. She doesn’t know her mother’s name or where she lives… and now she never will.

The permanent psychological damage to the children will follow them their entire lives. But it gets worse than being ripped from your mother’s arms. It gets worse than hearing your mother tell you what the guards have told her – that they’re just taking you off for a shower and you’ll come right back. The last thing these children heard from their mothers was an inadvertent lie – their last memory will be of the (unintentional) lie their mothers told them… as they spend weeks and months, maybe years and possibly a lifetime waiting to see their mother’s face again.

For some, it gets worse. Children have been assigned numbers pinned to their chests and arms: reminiscent of Jews tattooed with numbers by their Nazi captors upon arriving in concentration camps. There are reports of children being stripped naked, tied to a chair with a paper bag over their head and left there for two days; and at least one case of a guard accused of sexually abusing a child. Children have been drugged to placate them (obviously without their parents’ knowledge or consent). What else goes on in these secret black sites located in the desert and other places far from view? We may never know unless the press and congressmen are allowed access to these facilities. The Trump administration has handed out photos to the press rather than let the press in to see for itself. That’s what authoritarian despots do. What are they hiding?

Two Florida lawmakers were blocked from entering the Homestead, Florida internment facility. Sen. Bill Nelson accused the Trump administration of a “cover-up” after not being allowed to survey the living conditions. ”It is an affront as the senior senator of this state that an agency head would tell me that I do not have entrance into a federally funded facility where the lives and health of children are at stake,” Nelson said. Nelson was one of many senators attempting to make surprise visits to immigration detention centers in recent weeks. In response, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a directive requiring lawmakers give two weeks’ notice before traveling to an immigrant detention center. Why do they need time to hide what they’re doing?

When the government takes children from their parents it is acting in loco parentis – a legal Latin phrase meaning the government stands legally in place of the parents. The U.S. government is now responsible for the safety and well-being of these children it has confiscated. What happens when they are injured… or the first one dies in custody?

“(We’ve) seen some of these children in cages – cages,” Maria Teresa Kumar, founding executive director of Voto Latino, said. “Some of these children will never see their parents again. Whatever the American government is doing, they’ve gone rogue. This is not acceptable. Not on our watch.” MSNBC reporter Stephanie Ruhle said, “(This is an) assault on humanity.”

It’s official: the United States of America no longer supports the concept of human rights. At the same time the American president has set up concentration camps to hold immigrant children separated from their parents, many of whom have already been deported without their children, Donald Trump also announced the United States is withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

I have two questions for President Trump: (1) What do you plan to do with the thousands of children left behind by the parents you have deported? And (2) Once these concentration camps are finally emptied who do you plan to fill them with next?

The parallels are striking. One of Trump’s child detention centers has a sign written in Spanish: “If you work hard, good things will happen to you.” Sound familiar? The gates of Auschwitz had a similar sign above the entrance: “Arbeit macht frei” or translated from German “Work will set you free.”

If Trump’s people build concentration camps in America (as they have now done), they will fill them. What goes on inside will be kept from the public. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg: baby jails, drugging children, torturing children and sexual assault -- and that’s just from the news articles I’ve read this week. Worse things are going on behind closed doors, where children forcibly kidnapped from their parents are being held in cages. And they will ship more and more immigrants to these camps which will one day cause people to wonder why they never run out of room.

Unless we put a stop to it now. America is no longer at a crossroads. It has gone down the wrong path, a well-trodden path of authoritarianism, fascism, and evil and we know where it leads. Meanwhile, we wait for our leaders in Congress, and the financial and business community, and the entertainment industry to be profiles in courage, but almost all by their tacit or lackluster response have instead demonstrated profiles in cowardice. But as another author, Elie Wiesel, himself an Auschwitz survivor said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Why You Should Care About Due Processs

Today President Donald Trump tweeted he wants to eliminate due process so he can deport illegal immigrants without notice (to have time to obtain legal counsel) or an opportunity to be heard at a court hearing to explain why they are seeking asylum: usually because they face death if returning to the country they've fled (or even allowed a "credible fear hearing" with an asylum officer).

This offends and concerns me, both as an American citizen, as an attorney who swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, and as a former U.S. government employee because it is blatantly unconstitutional. More importantly, we have a president who doesn't care --  as his wife's jacket stated succinctly on her visit to an immigrant child detention center this week  -- and who thinks he's above the law. Donald Trump does not believe in the rule of law, which is the foundation of American democracy. Melania Trump's jacket asked, "I don't care. Do U?" Yes, I do... and here's why you should too.

Due process is the single most important right we have as individuals living in a free society and Donald Trump wants to eliminate it. Due process was literally created to be a check on the unlimited powers of an authoritative king. The elimination of due process will mean the end of democracy.

In England, King John like all the kings before him, had absolute unilateral power. As you know, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In 1215, the British subjects had had enough of tyranny and forced King John to accept the Magna Carta, a 3,500 word document written in Latin. In English, Magna Carta means Great Charter -- an agreement between the government and the governed. The Magna Carta's most important provision was the concept of due process ensuring no one would be deprived of certain rights except “by the judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

The Magna Carta prevented the king from levying taxes without the consent of the kingdom. it declared “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or diseised [dispossessed], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” The Magna Carta was a document that for the first time demanded a nation be ruled by a set of laws fairly apply to everyone and not by the arbitrary and capricious whims of its ruler. This is what the talking heads on TV mean when they talk about the "Rule of Law".

America's founding fathers drew upon the Magna Carta when they drafted the U.S. Constitution. Two of the most important amendments to the Constitution were the Fifth Amendment which holds the federal government shall not deprive any person "of life, liberty or property without due process of law." and the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This introduced to fundamental concepts of freedom and democracy: the right to due process and equal protection under the law.

Due process is what protects you from the government knocking on your door in the middle of the night and carting you off to prison and leaving you there indefinitely. The Supreme Court has ruled due process requires the government to afford you two things: notice of any charges against you and an opportunity to be heard. Under due process, the government can't simply haul you away and throw you in some dark hole to be forgotten. Instead, due process gives you the right to know about such charges in order to find legal representation to defend against them and it gives you the right to your day in court to present your defense. No single right anywhere else in the Constitution is more important. For President Donald Trump to seek to eliminate this right is to go against the U.S. Constitution, every previous American president, every previous U.S. Congress, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and the American people. Trump's call is unAmerican and unconstitutional, and as such an impeachable offense.

And yes, the Constitution does guarantee due process rights to illegal aliens present in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue more than a century ago and reiterated in Zadvydas v. Davis (2001) that "due process" of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to all aliens in the United States whose presence maybe or is "unlawful, involuntary or transitory." But one need look no further than to U.S. President James Madison, one of the men who wrote the Constitution, who also wrote "that as they [aliens], owe, on the one hand, a temporary obedience, they are entitled, in return, to their [constitutional] protection and advantage." That's what a real American president sounds like, not an ersatz TV reality version. Trump is wrong and dangerous and threatening to take away your rights one by one by disingenuously making it appear as these actions only apply to a specific group. Wrong: when a constitutional right is eliminated it's taken away from everyone, forever.

It's not about politics; it's about morality. It's not about Democrats or Republicans; it's about saving democracy and preserving our republic. This man is calling for violating the U.S. Constitution he swore to uphold when he was inaugurated, an impeachable offense. It is one of multiple illegal and or immoral acts he has committed. He has already proven himself a lackey of a hostile foreign government and has committed treason. He has deliberately harmed our economy with unnecessary and destructive trade wars, our alliances with other nations, and the security of our nation, including giving top-secret information to our enemies. Each day, as with this attempt to eliminate due process, he is attacking the very foundations of our democratic government and of democracy itself. It is the obligation of each and every American to take action to remove this man before he commits further crimes and attacks against our democratic institutions.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Pinocchio President

I’ve been concerned about the Orwellian nature of the language espoused by Donald Trump and his administration and subsequently regurgitated by the media. If George Washington was the president who could not tell a lie, then Donald Trump is the president who cannot tell the truth. Trump’s lies as president began with his inauguration, a sparsely attended event compared to previous presidential inaugurations, which he described as having crowds that “looked like a million-and-a-half people”(there weren’t) and “went all the way back to the Washington Monument” (they didn’t). Trump sent his beleaguered press secretary Sean Spicer to launch the opening salvo in what was to become a never-ending attack on the press in an attempt to discredit the news media by arguing the press had deliberately misrepresented the size of the inauguration crowd and that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” It wasn’t. Not even close.

The media brought out photos of Trump’s inauguration’s sparse crowd and compared them to the jam-packed crowd at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Who are you going to believe, Trump or your lying eyes? On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway why President Trump would send his press secretary out to tell such an obvious “falsehood”. The ghost of George Orwell stirred in its coffin at the use of the word falsehood. For months, the news media employed every euphemism it could to avoid saying one simple three-letter word: LIE. The president of the United States lied. He did it repeatedly and compulsively. Donald Trump is a serial liar. He is a compulsive liar. Yet the media were slow to tell the truth about the liar-in-chief.

Kellyanne Conway’s response was “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.” Truth in the Trump Era was no longer absolute. A fact used to be something that was incontrovertibly true; under Trumpspeak, there are facts and there are “alternative facts.” George Washington did not have to lie about chopping down the cherry tree; he could merely have stated an alternative fact. The Washington Post reported President Donald Trump told more than 3,000 lies in his first 466 days as president — Which means on average Trump lies more often each day than he brushes his teeth. CNN reporter Chris Cillizza calculated Trump tells between six and nine lies per day.

Yet many in the media still resort to tired euphemisms to sugarcoat the Trumpspeak. “The president’s statement was factually inaccurate.” No, he lied. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman wrote “Trump told two demonstrable falsehoods.” No, he lied. The New York Times also referred to Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories as “unconfirmed accusations.” It’s time to call a spade a spade. Lies must be labeled as such or else many people will not accept them for what they are. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important to the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.” Words of wisdom from Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister.

The Pinocchio president uses his lies strategically to discredit the press, the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, the American court system, and any other American institutions that serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism. And unfortunately the media have fallen into his Orwellian trap by adopting the Trump lexicon. Perhaps the Pinocchio president’s most famous phrase — even more famous than Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook”— is “There was no collusion.” Trump is referring to allegations that he and/or his campaign conspired with the Russian government to fix the election in his favor. Trump continually uses the word collusion and the media talking heads argue over whether or not Trump is guilty of collusion — thus allowing Trump to frame the question in his terms. Trump knows he can never be found guilty of collusion because there is no such thing as the crime of collusion. So argue about whether or not there was “collusion” all you want; in the end, even if there had been, collusion is not a crime. But conspiracy is a crime and there is ample evidence to conclude reasonably that Donald Trump and his campaign team conspired with Russians to affect the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election. But no one is talking about conspiracy because Trump has phrased the issue as one of “collusion”… Thus proving Donald Trump is not only a liar, but a crafty liar. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Return of the Reluctant Blogger

My new book, Return of the Reluctant Blogger, has just been published (look for it on Amazon - It's the third book in my "Reluctant Blogger" series, a collection of social commentary and humor drawn from my blog essays. This volume focuses on the problems with modern American business, the first year of the Trump administration, and assorted humorous anecdotes.

About the cover:

He showed up at my door one day along with his sister. Both Muscovy ducks, the hen with a pretty, smooth red face looked as though she were wearing a colorful mask, while the drake’s red caruncles looked more like scarlet carbuncles. Frankly, he was ugly. So every day when they appeared at my doorstep I would feed the beautiful hen, who I named Red, and try to discourage her brother. But the drake was not to be dissuaded. He coaxed me into giving him food as well, and unlike his sister, even ate straight from my hand. He would stay with me on the porch to keep me company long after his sister had departed. His bumpy red face reminded me of a cobblestone road and I named him Cobblestone. He had a warm and friendly personality, and as time passed he didn’t seem quite so ugly. They both became daily visitors for the next three years. I’ve come to see Cobblestone is as beautiful on the outside as he is on the inside. And that’s as good a reason as any for him to grace the cover of this book.

Cobblestone has nothing to do with any of the essays within these pages. The Reluctant Blogger series, of which this is the third volume, aggregates disparate posts from my blog on a variety of topics ranging from social commentary to humorous anecdotes. Each essay has been deliberately penned to be read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette so that non-smokers will finally have something to do during their cigarette breaks.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May is National Short Story Month

Did you know that May is National Short Story Month? Amber Book Company plans to celebrate by releasing a new volume of my short stories entitled Shards: The Omnibus Edition. Many of you know me from my social commentary posts appearing on my blog, while others are familiar with my young adult science fiction series The Adventures of Mackenzie Mortimer. Still others think of me as a novelist or epic storyteller, pointing to my four-book fantasy series Halos & Horns and my current ongoing fantasy series, Fangs & Fur. There are even some readers who think of me primarily as a nonfiction author because of my internationally top-selling book Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, my two Web design books, and my Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger and More Essays of a Reluctant Blogger books. But the truth is, above all else, I’m a short story writer.

Shards may sound familiar to you. My first short story collection was entitled Randoms. It was lovingly crafted, published in a hardcover edition with a dust jacket. Unfortunately, the printer had tremendous difficulty printing the dust jacket. Every copy rolled off the printing press with a slightly different hue, making each book and instant collectible and the source of much aggravation and vexation. Ultimately, and with great reluctance, we replaced the hardcover edition with a paperback. My second short story collection, Careywood, was a charitable effort published in a limited print run to raise money to restore a historic mansion. Then, in 2011, almost all of my short stories were collected in a giant 450-page paperback entitled Shards. This mammoth collection included the best of Randoms, the stories from the limited edition Careywood, and a host of new short stories, many of which had been shared in public readings but never collected in print. Shards was to stand as my oeuvre: the complete collection of my short story output.

At the time, it was the largest book I had ever written… Ironically composed of the shortest of stories. But with each new edition over the course of 10 years, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law grew to 680 pages. After I completed the four-book Halos & Horns series, the saga was collected in a single omnibus edition, The Halos & Horns Omnibuswhich clocked in at a whopping 904 pages. Suddenly, the 450-page Shards didn’t seem so big any more. And in the five years since its publication, I had written a few more short stories. I wanted to gather these new short stories into a brand-new collection but the Halos & Horns Omnibus had gone over so well that it was decided to create a short story omnibus.

We began with the original 450-page Shards and reorganized the stories by theme. Then we added 300 pages of new material. That’s right, 750 pages of short stories between two covers. Or 191,523 words if you’re counting. We kept the original front and back cover to Shards and christened it Shards: The Omnibus Edition. The themes in Shards: The Omnibus Edition include man’s inhumanity to man; technology in society run amok; freedom; conformity; slice of life; fear; prejudice; revenge; the inevitability of death; sadness and depression; darkness and light; lust; love; regret; repentance; pity; debauchery and selfishness; hubris; obsession; fusion fiction; Christmas; the quest; the trickster; discovery and wonder; alienation (stranger in a strange land); and farewell.

Admittedly Shards: The Omnibus Edition is a mixed bag. Some of the tales are downright hilarious. Some are frightening. And a few are disturbing. There are stories within this volume you will treasure… and others you may wish you had never read. Good writing isn’t about repeating hackneyed memes; it’s about pushing the envelope and extending the boundaries until the reader finds himself well outside his comfort zone. In Shards: The Omnibus Edition you’ll find stories that make you laugh and make you cry; stories you’ll want to share with your children; and stories so horrifying you’ll banish them to the deepest recesses of your mind. So join me in celebrating national short story month with Shards: The Omnibus Edition.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Why Do You Write?

My friend Stallion and I were having one of our marathon discussions on the art of writing when he posed the question, Why do you write?

Reflexively, I turned the question back at him, in part to allow me time to compose a satisfactory answer. “To explore ideas,” Stallion said. Bookmark that response; we’ll come back to it. “What about you?” he asked.

My time up, I countered, “To explore, or describe, the human condition.”

“Interesting,” Stallion said. “You added the word describe, which implies you already know; unlike the word explore, which implies uncertainty.”

“That’s because sometimes I’m writing a dynamic character who’s growing throughout the story and I’m exploring his characterization as we go, uncertain where his development will lead us; and other times I’m writing a static character who does not grow and thus I’m merely describing established aspects of his characterization.”

But I found Stallion’s answer intriguing. Let’s go back to that bookmark. Stallion and I have had a long-running debate over the question What is the most important element of a story: plot or characterization? Stallion is a plot-driven writer whereas I’m a character- based writer. With that in mind, our responses make perfect sense. Plot-driven writers naturally write to explore ideas and concepts; character-based writers write to describe and explore the human condition.

Stallion’s stories feature imaginatively intricate (often science fiction) plots populated by admittedly two-dimensional characters, whereas mine rely on deep and complex characterization overlaid on a threadbare plot. Since I’m focusing on the human condition, the setting and even the genre are secondary to my story. For Stallion, the setting may be an essential element of the plot.

Stallion pointed out our approaches may converge with the introduction of the theme. Many individuals confuse plot with theme, but theme actually correlates more with characterization and the human condition. The plot is the storyline; it’s the road map of what happens to the characters and how they get from Point A to Point B. The theme is what the story is about, for example: betrayal, revenge, unrequited love, jealousy, man’s inhumanity to man, or the danger of technology. The way we as people (personified as characters within a story) experience and respond to these often emotional situations showcase the quintessential human condition. Yet, theme may be dependent on plot to describe how the characters arrived at this point: e.g., What caused the betrayal? Why is she seeking revenge?

So why do you write? Are you plot-driven or character-driven?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Looking for love in All the Wrong Places

Now that everyone is connected to the Internet and it’s become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, people are shopping for everything online. Take me, for example. This week alone, I've bought shoes, toothpaste, a calendar, and a set of dining room chairs, all purchased online. But many people are taking it one step further and shopping for their significant other in cyberspace.

Dating – or at least the quest for Mr./Miss Right – (or Mr./ Miss Right Now) has moved online for the same reasons everything else has: it’s quicker, easier, and you can do it at 2 a.m. in your pajamas. Typically, dating sites feature a prospective match’s profile (Unless you’re on the prowl for Mr./ Miss Right Now, in which case, you can use the one-paragraph short form, known as Craigslist, and list the acronyms – NSA, SWF, D&DF, etc. – you’re looking for. Don’t put too much thought into this process, because it doesn't matter what you list; Craigslist readers will ignore your criteria and contact you anyway).

In addition to the profile, date seekers usually post a photo of themselves. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, they post pictures of their dogs. Depending on the breed, it may be hard to tell the date seeker from the dog. About a third of the time, the dog turns out to be the better choice. Beware of photos in which the date seeker is hiding his/her face: either not facing the camera, wearing dark glasses, or in costume, or where the thumbnail photo cuts off the head (Alfred E. Neuman lookalike) or body (Sea World reports a whale escaped) … Or where there is no photo at all. There’s a reason why he/she didn't want you to see the hidden feature.

Then there are the misleading photos. The Technically Honest One: it is a photo of the date seeker, however it was taken 10 years ago; The Best Friend: the date seeker with his/her much better looking friend, whom you’ll be disappointed to learn is already taken; The Guess Who: see if you can pick out the date seeker from a group photo shot. Finally, there’s The Glamour Shot: a stunningly beautiful photo that makes you think the date seeker should be a model – it turns out, she is a model and some scammer has used her photo on a fake profile. A word of caution: if it looks too good to be true, Google Image Search the photo.

Avoid profiles that are too short. If the date seeker is continually answering essay questions with “ask me anything you want to know” or “we can talk about that later” it shows he/she has put less thought and effort into meeting you than into writing the weekly grocery list. At the other extreme, if the date seeker has indeed written a long grocery list of specific qualities, characteristics, or other requirements a prospective match must meet, then this person is too picky and shallow to become involved with.

Peruse other date seekers’ profiles to learn what they do right, and more importantly, what they do wrong. I found three examples on one site in the first five minutes, this morning. In response to the question “What are you doing with your life?” she wrote: “Studying hard to become a charter accountant.” Obviously, she wasn't studying hard enough, because if she had been, she would've known her chosen occupation was a chartered accountant. If you’re too stupid to know what you are studying to become (or worse, so careless that you don’t check what you've written before you post it … not a good idea, by the way, for detail-oriented professions like accounting), then you’re not dating material (and I certainly don’t want you doing my taxes, either).

The second profile I saw today featured a chubby girl in a string bikini. Now, health concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with a potential match being a bit overweight. We can’t all look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But when marketing yourself, you should always lead with your strongest features, not highlight your weakest attributes.

The third profile began – and ended –  by stating the woman was “Not interested in casual sex”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being upfront about what you are, or are not, looking for in a relationship. But don’t send mixed messages by labeling the same profile with the username “Cutie2PlayWith”.

Remember, online dating is all about marketing yourself. You are the promoter, as well as the product. Prospective daters will assume whatever image your profile conveys is the image of yourself that you've carefully chosen to present. While the zombie costume may have won raves at a Halloween party, it’s not a good choice for your dating profile photo. Your rant about your ex might be justified, but is your dating profile the right place for it… is that the first thing you want a potential date to read?

Successful marketing begins with truth in advertising. Don’t lie or mislead. Be upfront about your weaknesses, but lead with your strengths. Put the time and effort into writing a profile that shows that you think finding the right relationship is important. And if all else fails, at least you can still buy shoes and toothpaste on the Internet.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Nightstalkers! Coming in One Week!

Next week, the vampires and werewolves you only thought you knew return in a brand new adventure! First introduced in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga, these vampires and lycanthropes have their own stories to tell. Pandora's a carefree party girl who just happens to be a vampire. With her best friend Sharon Mordecai, a hybrid vampire; her boyfriend Cody Fenris, a werewolf; and Cody's sister Lupe, who transforms into a wolf, they run Nightstalkers, Inc., a private detective agency in Las Vegas. Pandora and Sharon also belong to Nosferatu, Inc., a worldwide corporation set up to provide relocation services for vampires, who cannot remain in one place indefinitely, lest the “breathers” question why they never age.

Nightstalkers is the second novel in the Fangs & Fur series, Previously, in Flashbacks (Book 1), readers learned the origins of the vampires and lycanthropes they'd come to love in the Halos & Horns series. Now, they're back in a brand new tale packed with action, adventure, drama, and laughs. When a Grigori unwittingly entrusts trouble-prone vampire Pandora with an ancient leather-bound box containing primordial evil, what could possibly go wrong? At least Pandora doesn't know her best friend slept with her boyfriend. Or that her werewolf beau has been targeted for revenge by one of his victims. Meanwhile, Sharon — the hybrid vampire infused with an angelic life force — has enough to worry about now that a deranged scientist/occultist is creating his own Frankenstein monster and requires an angelic life force to animate it. He's resurrected the spirit of Jack the Ripper to supply the body parts he needs from Las Vegas hookers. Should our beloved prostitute Kennedy be worried to walk the city streets? And after a Valkyrie whisks the Nightstalkers, Inc. team of private eyes — vampires Sharon and Pandora, and lycanthrope siblings Cody and Lupe Fenris — off to the Otherworld dimension of the Fae to recover Thor’s golden gauntlets from the Dark Fae's leader, the Morrigan, the team will be forever changed.

I had a lot of fun writing this new book, especially introducing two new characters: casino owner and landlord Kitty Bast (who also happens to be the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet) and Bartholomew J. Ruggles, who may turn out to be two of the most amusing characters I've ever created. Ever since I introduced the trouble-prone vampire Pandora seven years ago back in Paved with Good Intentions – in which Sharon chided her BFF that trouble followed her like a shadow and soon she’d need a box to carry her troubles around – readers have been asking me when will Pandora get her box? All I can say is be careful what you wish for!

So pre-order your copy now!



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Hair - the Age of Aquarius

I was at the barber shop the other day and I ran into a guy who...  what's that? OK, you're right. I admit it: I haven't been to a barber shop since I turned 14 and had my last 50-cent haircut. The Vitalis, greased back wet look was on the way out and the blown-dry "dry look" was in vogue, so with the start of junior high, I convinced my mother to do what all the cool kids at school were doing and have my hair not cut by Sam the barber but instead coiffed by a men's hair stylist.

The storefront bay was dimly lit and filled with the scent of burning incense. Jimi Hendrix's guitar reverberated through the eight-track system's carefully arranged speakers. Blacklights eerily illuminated posters on the walls and lava lamps adorned the reception desk and several coffee tables. Copies of Rolling Stone magazine, Zap Comix, and the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper the local hippies hawked on street corners for a quarter) were scattered across the tables, along with a few roach clips. I didn't think my mother knew what a roach clip was, but I nonchalantly covered them with the newspaper anyway. Why take a chance of getting barred from such a cool place?

My hairstylist introduced himself as Mister Lucky, or Lucky for short. I never knew his real name. Not that it mattered. He was a persona, not a person. That's how he wanted it: a virtuoso coiffeur, larger than life. He had ego, he had flair, and he had panache.  More importantly, he had talent when it came to cutting hair, so I traded in the Opie Taylor look for the David Cassidy style. It cost $10 and even Mister Lucky’s tip was twice the cost of a barber shop haircut, but when I look back on those days and recall my tie-dyed shirt, bell-bottom slacks, and Peter Max sneakers, I can thank Mister Lucky that at least he made my hair look cool.

I found another gray hair today. I keep pulling them out, but they’re like hydras: for every one I yank, two more sprout elsewhere. Mister Lucky would know what to do. I guess I’ll just have to accept aging gracefully. The years go by so quickly as you get older. And now, another has passed. Happy New Year.