Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Friday, November 23, 2018

If Turkeys Could Speak

As you sit down for dinner this Thanksgiving, pause for a moment to ponder the meaning of the holiday. If you are a Millennial, a recent Pew poll suggests 40 percent of you are clueless as to why we should be thankful this day.

One of the first Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in the American colonies, in Plymouth Colony (now Southeast Massachusetts) in 1621 when the Pilgrims shared an autumn harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians. The Indians brought deer, not turkey, so venison was the main course. But the first true Thanksgiving came two years later, when the Pilgrims’ prayers were answered: rain brought an end to the drought that was destroying their crops, and Captain Miles Standish landed bearing new and much needed supplies.

But who were these Pilgrims who had settled the Plymouth Colony? They were men and women fleeing religious persecution by the English Crown, emigrating first to the Netherlands and then to the American colonies. They sought freedom of religion, which encompasses two other freedoms: the right to express ones’ self and the right to gather with others who share this expression. A century and a half later, the American colonists upon declaring their independence from England would consider all three rights to be necessary, fundamental freedoms and combine them in the First Amendment to the new nation’s Constitution.

The First Amendment is arguably more important and essential to democracy than the other nine amendments comprising the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution itself. It’s all about freedom of expression. It guarantees it through what you say (freedom of speech), what you write (freedom of the press), what you believe and the practice of those beliefs (freedom of religion), and the right to share such expressions with others (freedom of assembly).

Of course, not everyone will agree with what you say, or write, or even how you express yourself. Some may even be offended. That is the cost of, and a necessary corollary of, free expression. While there is an explicit guarantee of the right to free speech in our nation’s Constitution, there is no corresponding right not to be offended by others. Democracy will survive, and even flourish, amidst offensive words – the most bountiful plants flourish when manure is heaped upon them. But democracy cannot survive when speech and other forms of expression are forbidden by the government.

That is why it is so shocking and downright frightening to read the results of the Pew poll in which 40 percent of Millennials – those aged 18-to-34 – say they want the government to censor statements that are offensive to minority groups. America was founded on the concept of fundamental freedoms, and that the government could not be allowed to censor its citizens, in part because the government was “of, by, and for the people.” We are not governed by a dictator or king’s edicts but rather by those we choose from among us. We are our government and therefore shall not censor ourselves. That’s what made America different from all the other nations from which its future citizens would emigrate. Once we allow the government to decide what we may or may not say, we have surrendered our democracy. Once we permit offensive speech to be proscribed, the next question becomes ‘Who decides which words or statements are deemed offensive?’ Our freedom decreases in direct proportion to the expansiveness of the definition of the word “offensive”.

Freedom of speech must not be curtailed in the name of political correctness. Americans should cherish the First Amendment and not carve it up along with their turkey.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why It Matters

I decided to treat myself on my milestone birthday so I bought two books: one by Harlan Ellison and one about him. The first was Harlan’s last book, Can and Can’tankerous, which I noted had an error. The Latin phrase Omne ignotum pro magnifico (“Everything unknown is taken as grand”) was written as Omne ignotum pre magnifico. It was, of course, obviously the publisher’s fault, not Harlan’s. I imagine him turning in his grave, shouting foul epithets at the proofreader for having made the author look illiterate. The second book was A Lit Fuse, a biography of Ellison by journalist Nat Segaloff. I was only 49 pages in when I stumbled across a reference to “Martin O’Dell” whom Segaloff credits as the creator of Green Lantern and an inspiration for Ellison. There’s only one problem: there is no such person as “Martin O’Dell.” Green Lantern was created by a Jew, not an Irishman, and that man’s name was Martin Nodel. I know because Marty Nodel was a friend of mine, just as I know he never received his just due in life and apparently not even now in death.

I was reminded of an interviewer who asked my favorite short story author. I replied O. Henry, which was a pseudonym for William Sidney Porter, a master of the short story form and particularly of the use of irony within it. I was grated to read the piece and see the reporter, who had also claimed to be an author, had turned the American O. Henry into an Irishman named O’Henry. How could any writer be ignorant of O. Henry and then perpetuate that ignorance in print for other readers?

Likewise, it bothered me to see Marty not get the recognition and respect he deserved, just as it bothered me to read Bill Maher’s self-absorbed diatribe against the late Stan Lee in particular and comic book readers in general, printed only days after Lee’s death. For God’s sake, he hasn’t even been buried yet. In his column Maher says: “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” Smartass snark may be this comedian’s calling card but there’s a reason for the saying not to speak ill of the dead – primarily because they can no longer defend themselves. But those of us left behind can. “The guy” had a name, Billy-boy – Stan Lee. And he created more than two characters: he was responsible, along with a few other talented artists, for creating dozens of characters that have gone on to spawn a multibillion-dollar franchise that has provided jobs for thousands of people and entertainment for millions. What have you done lately, Billy-boy? 

Maher then perpetuates the myth that “comic are just for kids” writing in his blog “when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” Actually, the comic books Stan Lee wrote in the ‘60s, while also read by children, found their primary audience among college students and young servicemen fighting overseas. The boys getting shot at in Vietnam didn’t have iPhones to watch movies on; they wanted quick disposable entertainment and comic books fit the bill. They didn’t want novels like War and Peace; they wanted something they could read from beginning to end in 20 minutes because they never knew when the next bullet might have their name on it. They wanted escapism from the hell they were living in every moment and Stan Lee gave it to them. I know Maher tours around the country; has he ever entertained our troops overseas, as other comedians like Bob Hope did? Just wondering.

Maher bemoans that “some dumb people got to be professors” and “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He closes by saying “Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Wrong, Billy-boy. Trump could only get elected in a country that doesn’t think reading is important. Now let me tell you why comic books, and other storytelling, are important.

Ellison, Nodel, Lee, and yes I’ll even include myself in this list, all share one thing in common: we’re all creators of fictional worlds and characters. We’re storytellers. We’re purveyors of imagination. The stories we tell — whether in comic books, films, novels, or whatever media we choose to express them in all serve as forms of escapism. They do more than entertain: they also serve a much more important function, especially when they comprise the childhood of so many. Childhood is an informative yet ephemeral period. It’s a finite, brief time in every individual’s life during which the foundation of who that person will become is laid. Children learn values and morals from the stories we tell; values and morals they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Every decision they make, every situation they encounter will be viewed through that prism formed in childhood. The authors who write these stories seldom get the recognition they deserve but their influence is profound and widespread. They deserve to have their name spelled correctly and to be quoted correctly, and for their work to be transcribed accurately; especially when done so by fellow authors and even more so by those who claim the mantle of journalist. Yes, they won’t complain after they’re dead but we owe it to posterity to be accurate and to give them their due so future generations will know who O. Henry was, who really created Green Lantern, and what quotes Harlan Ellison actually wrote.

Ironically, on the back of Segaloff’s biography there’s a quote from Ellison — the one he wanted as his eulogy — “For brief time I was here, and for brief time I mattered.” That’s true of all writers. That’s why accuracy is important. After all, even though the first president of the United States is long deceased we still want future generations to know about President Gregory Washington.

Monday, November 12, 2018

From Excelsior to ‘Nuff Said

Stan Lee died today. I’ll leave it to others to pen his obituary and enumerate all of his accomplishments during his 95 years of creative fecundity. Not since the death of Walt Disney has the entertainment world lost a true giant whose imagination would excite and entertain successive generations during his lifetime and beyond.

Instead, let me tell you about the Stan Lee I knew. Not the 17-year-old who went to work for his cousin’s husband, Timely Comics comic book publisher Martin Goodman and ended up running the company. Not the man who would, along with legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, create a pantheon of superheroes uniquely endowed with human flaws that came to be known as the Marvel Age of Comics. Not the aspiring novelist who ironically ended up at one point writing an entire line of monthly comic books devoted to those creations. Not the man whose comic book characters became known around the world and now fill the screens of televisions and movie theaters. Not the savvy marketer and millionaire businessman attending corporate meetings in a three-piece suit and Italian loafers. No, the Stan Lee I knew wore white sneakers.

Despite his aspirations, Stan was at best a mediocre writer but his true strength was as a marketer. He was the greatest marketing genius since P.T. Barnum and his hyperbole put the 19th century showman to shame. His monthly “bullpen” column in every Marvel Comics publication in the 1960s and 70s began with the phrase “Excelsior” and ended with “’Nuff said.” The catchphrases became Lee’s personal trademarks. But for all the grandiose hyperbole, Stan was a warm, self-deprecating, down-to-earth man. He would show up at comic book conventions in a sweater and sneakers, just like his young readers, and sit on the floor with them. They would ask him questions and he treated both the questions and the questioners with a degree of respect children were not used to hearing from adults. As far Stan was concerned, there were no dumb questions or childish comments: he knew his young audience paid his bills and that he was an ambassador for his brand. If the kids had been Marvel Comics fans before meeting Stan Lee, they became acolytes afterward.

Stan Lee changed the comic book medium by writing superhuman characters that nonetheless had human flaws and frailties. They could save the world but still had to pay the rent at the end of the month. The Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Invincible Iron Man – like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Stan created an entire pantheon of gods who nonetheless squabbled like humans. That innovation brought the readers running to Marvel.

My young adult science fiction trilogy, The Adventures of McKenzie Mortimer, reveals the influence of Stan Lee — the alliterative teenage protagonist (think Peter Parker): a nondescript boy gifted with great power who must learn that with it comes great responsibility; and a school bully (think Flash Thompson). I even credited Stan in the acknowledgments.

I’ll close my remembrance of Stan Lee with a personal anecdote. In mid-December 1975, a three-day comic book convention, MiamiCon, was held at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. By the last day, the crowd had thinned and a bunch of us — Stan Lee, artist Jack Kirby, Capt. Marvel creator C.C. Beck, young fan (now artist) Dan Reed, and a younger version of myself were seated around a table, rather bored. Beck, the oldest among us, had brought his guitar with him and someone suggested we sing. Yes, sing. The greatest comic book creators of the 20th century meshed with the voices of the next generation of artists and writers, setting back the music industry by at least 40 years. Too bad no one had the foresight to record this classic moment…

Actually, I did. As a teenage reporter for my college newspaper I was carrying my trusty Panasonic tape recorder to record interviews with comic book creators that later became an award-winning series of articles (which you can read in my book Cub: The Story of a Boy Reporter. Now that’s a plug worthy of Stan himself.) The tape begins with me asking Stan for an introduction to the songfest, which he proceeds to do, introducing all of us in his adjective-laced, bloviated, hyperbole-filled fashion. At the end, 20 minutes later, you can hear Dan and me asking Stan for jobs that Marvel, as an artist and writer respectively. Well, Dan asked to be a page, LOL.

About a dozen years later, I ran into Stan at a convention in Atlanta and told him about the tape. I promised to send it to him. I forgot.

About six years later I ran into Dan Reed, for the first time in 20 years, in Southern California. Dan was now a professional comic book artist, and had even realized his dream of working for Marvel Comics. I told him about the existence of the tape and I promised to send him a copy. I forgot.

In 1993, I bumped into Stan and his wife Joan at the San Diego ComiCon. The topic of the tape came up (Stan had an excellent memory). Chagrined, I promised to mail it to him. This time I actually did send a copy to Stan in New York in care of Marvel Comics and while I was at it, I mailed a copy to Dan. A year later, I got a letter from Marvel Films in California. There was a Spider-Man head drawn on the letterhead with the word balloon reading “Hi Keith!” I thought it was the usual promotional junk mail a lot of us in the industry get. But as I read it, I realized it was a handwritten letter from Stan. It said, “Many, many thanks for the tape you sent me. I got a big kick out of it even if it took a year to get it -- and even if it undoubtedly set music and recording back a few decades! With all my very best wishes -- and much appreciation. Excelsior! Stan.”

Excelsior, Stan Lee. ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peeling the Label

Americans love labels. On the food they buy, on their nametags at gatherings, and apply to themselves: it’s all about identification. Labels are designed to answer the question before it’s asked: What’s on the inside? Who are you? I’m a vegetarian; smoker; non-smoker; German; American; Russian; Southerner; Midwesterner; tourist; citizen; Catholic; Jew; Protestant; white; black; Asian; Latino; teacher; longshoreman; doctor; lawyer; hawk; dove; conservative; liberal; Democrat; Republican. People create their own self-identity based on their sense of who they are -- their beliefs, or what they do, or the culture they come from -- to establish their own sense of individuality and then, ironically and paradoxically, seek others who are like them. This is known as tribalism: a desire to align oneself with others of similar beliefs or backgrounds.

We all want to feel unique and special, which is why we strive to express our individualism. Yet subconsciously we realize the insecurity that comes from standing apart from the crowd. So while we want to be unique, we need the support and validation from others like us. Maybe I’m a vegetarian while most people aren’t, so that makes a statement about me and makes me somewhat more special or unique among others, yet I can still point to millions of vegetarians to prove choosing to be one does not make me weird or completely outside the mainstream. I can wear labels that establish my individuality while at the same time validating their legitimacy by pointing to all the others wearing the same labels.

This works so long as the label accurately represents the contents. If the label says “beef” but the package contains chicken, then obviously the label is worthless because it doesn’t accurately describe the contents. The same is true if the label changes from “salmon” to “seafood” to “something that came out of the ocean.” In this case, the label may be so vague that it encompasses things you wouldn’t want to include had they been specified.

While we think of physical labels as being attached adhesively to products, the opposite is true when it comes to the descriptive labels people apply to themselves. The problem is, people become emotionally attached to the labels they have chosen to describe themselves and their beliefs. If your religion, political party, or nation moves away from the values you previously shared with it, you’ll most likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from the label. “My country right or wrong,” “My party right or wrong,” “My faith right or wrong.” The flaw with tribalism is that we feel compelled to stick with the tribe, no matter what the tribe does.

This is where morality must trump tribalism. We know right from wrong. If someone in your family commits murder your first instinct is to protect them. The family member is part of your tribe: you stick together because of loyalty derived from familial love. But then you must confront the moral dilemma because you know murder is wrong and aiding and abetting murder is not the right thing to do. Yet many people would find themselves unable to walk away, just as they might be unable to walk away from a religion accused of pedophilia, or their own nation accused of war crimes or other atrocities. They are so invested in that label, and the tribalism behind it, that they turn a blind eye or rationalize the fact that label no longer represents the once shared values.

Compared with other countries, the two major political parties in America until recently have been relatively indistinct. Both parties were centrist parties, albeit the Democrats slightly to the left of center and the Republicans slightly to the right. In the 1976 presidential election, there was little to distinguish conservative Democrat Jimmy Carter from liberal Republican Gerald Ford. In succeeding elections, as the Republican Party moved more to the right so did the Democrats, still leaving little sunlight between the two major parties. Both Democrats and Republicans believed in and supported American ideals -- free speech; freedom of the press; democracy; the rule of law; the Constitution; and the sanctity of the electoral process. The fundamental bedrock precepts of American democracy were never held to be political issues by either party.

That changed in 2016  with the election of Donald Trump. But because of tribalism, Americans who wear the Republican label identify with Trump as he is the leader of their party, and take any criticism of Trump as a personal attack on themselves. “My party right or wrong.” But Americans who call themselves Republicans have to ask if the label still fits. We all know what the Republican label once stood for, just as we know it never represented trillion-dollar budget deficits; trade wars; nationalism; xenophobia; fascism; racism; anti-Semitism; misogyny; putting children in cages; or expanding executive authority to include the power to repeal constitutional amendments by executive order. The Republican label has always stood behind America’s intelligence agencies, including the FBI and CIA, and has been the political party most suspicious of, and confrontational with, America’s longtime Cold War enemy Russia. The Republican brand of years past would never sully itself by conspiring with Russians; by giving secret intelligence to Russian agents in the Oval Office; or by supporting Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence services, as Donald Trump did in Helsinki. As Donald Trump leads the Republican Party further and further from the American ideals and beliefs upon which it was built, Americans who have long identified themselves as Republicans must ask if they can continue to wear that label when it no longer accurately describes their own beliefs.

When the label changes from “salmon” to “something that came out of the ocean,” you can continue buying it but you’re not eating salmon. And there are a lot of scummy, really sickening things on the ocean floor. It’s hard to walk away but there are times when you have to. Times when you must put the label aside and examine if what someone is selling you matches your ideals and beliefs, regardless of the name they slap on it. You’re not abandoning the Republican Party; they’ve already left you. Now you must decide: Do you vote them out of office and then form a new party that more accurately represents your beliefs, or do you vote for a party that now preaches hatred toward your fellow citizens and seeks to divide Americans? Are you willing to put country before party? Or will you wear the label to the grave no matter what it may come to represent, or how far it may stray from your own beliefs and ideals?

The only label you should wear this Tuesday on election day is the sticker that says “I voted.” And when you enter the voting booth, the only label you should bring with you is not “Republican” or “Democrat” but rather “American.” And when you pull the lever it should be because the candidate shares your beliefs and morality, not because he or she slapped an “R” label on their back.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Privileges Versus Rights

Shortly after I had posted my previous column, a neighbor walking his dog approached me and we struck up a friendly conversation. He’s a friendly man, an animal lover and, although he just turned 40, he looks 30, having an athletic physique and always being well-dressed. In our conversations I’ve found him to be an articulate and compassionate individual. This day, our conversation turned to the state of our country, specifically the increasing amount of hatred and virulent racism and anti-Semitism being spread by right-wing individuals and groups, and more shockingly and disturbingly condoned if not outright supported by many of our leaders in government. We were both experiencing Weltschmerz – a general state of sadness or pessimism over the suffering of the world.

I mentioned the incident with my cable repairman that I described in my blog last time. He nodded. “It happens all the time. It happens to me regularly. I’ve been pulled over at least fifteen times. Ordered out of the car, frisked, sometimes made to lie face down on the ground. No reason; they never arrested me. I’ve never done anything wrong.”

Did I mention he was black? I keep forgetting to do that. I’ve heard similar stories now from other people— other black people. Obviously, there’s something going on in this country in the way black people are treated that most white people do not see. Unfortunately, some on the left have labeled this “white privilege.” As you know from my previous columns I, and many other whites, find that term offensive. As a white man who has lived a difficult life far from the privileged lives of the many black actors, rappers, comedians, television commentators, and other black celebrities so prominent in America today, the phrase “white privilege” is galling. I didn’t have any privilege growing up simply because I was white; to the contrary, I entered college and the workforce during the time of affirmative action and quotas and was denied positions due to the fact that I was not a minority. Dare to use that phrase in my presence and I’ll tell you about the recruiter from a Fortune 500 company who admitted during an interview at my school that they would love to hire someone with my resume (which included an MBA and a law degree from a Top 20 University) but had a quota to fill and if only I were “black or a woman or named Gonzales” the job would be mine, adding they were only interviewing a few white students as a courtesy to the school. No, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth; I didn’t come from a rich family; and I didn’t get the breaks many do (in fact, more often the opposite). So yes, it grates me to hear my life experience described as one of “white privilege.”

This is an issue of semantics; one in which a poor choice of words is creating a miscommunication that interferes with the ability of well-intentioned white people to address this legitimate and significant issue of concern for black people. The situations I’ve described are not examples of so-called “white privilege” but rather instances of the denial of civil rights. Described properly, the incidents become even more egregious. We’re not talking about people being granted privileges; what is at the heart of these incidents is the denial of basic human and civil rights to which all citizens are entitled. A right is something to which every individual citizen is entitled and which cannot be taken away absent exceptional circumstances; whereas a privilege is a conditional grant to a discrete group that can be easily rescinded. Instead of redefining the concept of privilege to bear politically correct racial overtones, and thereby alienating the very people needed to address a real and serious issue of discriminatory treatment, it is more advisable to focus on what is occurring and to refer to it by what it is: an improper denial of rights, by both government actors and society at large.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Black Cable

 I spent the afternoon at my mother’s house waiting for the cable guy to arrive. He did. His name was Andre, a polite young man – he later told me he was a mere 20 years old. He had a major rewiring job ahead of him, but before he could begin he needed to locate the cable junction box outside. He asked me where it was and I confessed I was clueless. “It’s not my home,” I averred, joining him as we searched the grounds for the elusive box. After circling the house five times, examining various junction boxes and switches and crawling through bushes and sedge, I was ready to admit defeat. But Andre explained the nearby neighbors were likely also plugged into the box, which could be up to 100 feet from the main house. So we began peering through the backyards of the adjoining houses.

A few minutes later, Andre called out, “I’ve found it!” I was sweating under the midday heat of the glaring, unforgiving sun and those were joyous words indeed. Now the job would not have to be rescheduled and I could return to the comfort of air-conditioning. But the look on Andre’s face told me there was a problem. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s behind that fence.” He pointed to a chain-link fence abutting the property line. The junction box sat four feet away. “I’ll need to go onto your neighbor’s property.”

“That’s not a problem,” I said. “As a utility worker, you have an easement to enter the property to service the device. You won’t be trespassing.”

He still looked worried. “I know that. But I’ll have to climb the fence.”

“If a homeowner is blocking access to an easement, you have the right to remove the blockage. You could even cut a hole in the fence, if need be.” All those years of law school were not wasted on me after all. Yet I saw he was still troubled. “What’s the problem? Don’t tell me you’ve never hopped a fence before.”

“It’s my skin color.” Did I mention Andre was black? It hadn’t seemed relevant… Until now.

I felt the bile rising within me: disgust, followed by anger, which settled into lingering heartfelt disappointment… With all the people who looked like me who had either perpetrated, or allowed to continue, such a toxic environment that would instill fear -- even fear for his life -- into an innocent young man who was merely trying to do his job.

“They see me in their backyard, or climbing the fence…” He didn’t need to continue. I got it. “I might get shot.” He suggested rescheduling the appointment. The cable company would send a different repairman. He meant a white one.

“No, I’m not rescheduling. Let’s do this. I’ve got your back. They’ll have to shoot me first.” We walked to the house behind us and knocked on the door. There were four cars in the driveway but no one answered. I’d never met these neighbors; I hoped our first meeting wouldn’t be when we were on the wrong side of their fence.

Andre scaled the fence and tried to open the junction box. “It’s stuck. I need my hammer from the truck.” He looked at me with pleading eyes. “Could you get it for me?” He didn’t have to explain any further: I understood why he would not want to be a young black man with a hammer cutting through the backyards of an upper-middle-class white neighborhood.

“Sure,” I replied. “No problem.” And it was no problem… For me. The thought that it might have been would never have occurred to me; yet the same thought haunted Andre’s mind on every service call he made.

I stayed with him, outside in the broiling midday sun, while he worked on the junction box, like a loyal canine protecting his master. My presence provided a sense of security for him, while leaving me sickened that it would be necessary, here in America, in the 21st century.

Andre reattached the coaxial cable to the junction box. It was white; all the cables were white. At that moment, the junction box became a metaphor for our society: all the white cables plugged in neatly in place: it’s only the black cable that would feel out of place.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Justice For All

The midterm elections are here and voters are heading to the polls. But Sylvia Likens won’t be among them. When Sylvia was 16, her parents -- itinerant carnival workers -- left her and her younger sister Jenny (crippled by polio) in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman with seven children of her own to look after. For $20 a week, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time; as it turns out, it was one of the worst decisions any parents have ever made.

Sylvia and Jenny joined Baniszewski’s children: Paula, 17; Stephanie, 15; John,12; Marie, 11; Shirley,10; James, 8; and baby Dennis. The technical term to describe Sylvia is “a sick fuck.” Perhaps a more apt description would be “the most evil woman in history.” If there’s anyone else who comes close to vying for that title, I’m unaware of her. And if there truly is such a thing as a “bad seed,” then Baniszewski had sown an entire garden within her household.

Whenever the weekly $20 support payment arrived late, Baniszewski took it out on Sylvia and Jenny, paddling their bare buttocks. But eventually Baniszewski targeted her abuse solely on Sylvia. Baniszewski accused Sylvia of being pregnant (she wasn’t; she was a virgin) and kicked her in the genitals. Later, she encouraged her older children to beat Sylvia routinely and repeatedly push her down the stairs... For fun. She force-fed Sylvia a hot dog loaded with condiments, and when Sylvia threw up, forced the young girl to eat her own vomit.

Paula’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, 15, later joined the Baniszewski children in their routine beatings of Sylvia. He would even frequently bring his friends to the Baniszewski home where, with Baniszewski’s encouragement, Sylvia would be beaten; forced to eat feces and drink urine; and used as a practice dummy in violent judo sessions. During these assaults, Sylvia’s body was cut multiple times, she was burned with cigarettes more than 100 times, and her genitals were mutilated. Sylvia was forced to strip naked in the living room and insert an empty Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina to entertain the Baniszewski children and their friends.

Baniszewski forced Jenny to beat her own sister, threatening to beat her if she didn’t. Paula beat Sylvia’s face so hard that she broke her wrist but that didn’t stop her from later using her plaster cast to bludgeon Sylvia. Baniszewski burned Sylvia’s fingers with matches and frequently whipped her. Baniszewski and her children routinely bound Sylvia’s wrists and ankles and placed her in a bathtub filled with scalding hot water, rubbing salt into her wounds afterwards. You may not wish to read further, but you should because there’s a reason I’m telling you this. All you have to do is sit back and read a few paragraphs; 16-year-old Sylvia had to endure this. Repeatedly.

Sometimes Baniszewski would force Sylvia to eat her own feces and urine, as well as that from her infant son’s diaper. Baniszewski charged certain neighborhood children a nickel each to visit her basement and see the naked Sylvia on display, and to take turns tying, beating, burning, and mutilating her. Sylvia was constantly kept naked and often deprived of food and water as she became a prisoner in the Baniszewski home. Once, after forcing Sylvia to masturbate in front of her children, Baniszewski used a heated needle to carve the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s body. One of the neighborhood children in attendance, Richard Hobbs, 15, finished the job aided by 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski and a nearby hot iron poker. Baniszewski taunted Sylvia telling her no man would ever want her after that.

Baniszewski forced Sylvia to write a note claiming she planned to run away; in reality, Baniszewski was plotting to have her eldest children dump Sylvia’s beaten body in a nearby forest and leave her to die. Sylvia overheard the plan and tried to escape. Her desperate effort failed. Baniszewski and Hubbard beat her into unconsciousness with a curtain rod and a broomstick. Sylvia regained consciousness and tried to leave the basement but collapsed. Baniszewski stomped on her head, crushing it. Brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition were listed as the causes of Sylvia Liken’s death. She died on October 26, 1965 at the age of 16. She would have been 69 this year. Sylvia never had a Sweet 16 party, nor did she ever have the chance to vote in an election.

Sylvia’s story was used as the basis for several books and movies, including The Girl Next Door and Let’s Go Play at the Adams.’ I read the latter when it was first published being then only a few years older than Sylvia when she died. It was an exceptionally well-written novel because the author, Mendal W. Johnson, had the uncanny ability to place the reader inside the minds and motivations of the young torturers, and yet reading it was nonetheless a disturbing experience, the literary version of snuff film. Like a train wreck, you can’t look away and you can’t forget what you’ve seen. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door was made into a movie with brilliant spot-on casting which, while lacking the depth of characterization of Johnson’s novel, nonetheless portrayed the actual crime more accurately than Johnson’s earlier novel. Yet in either fictionalized account, the reader or viewer is left with some slight satisfaction as the police arrive, too late to save poor Sylvia, but to see that justice is done to Gertrude Baniszewski, her children, and the neighborhood kids who had participated in the abuse.

But was justice done? When the last reel of the movie plays and the last page of the book is turned, Sylvia Liken’s story may have ended but what of those who tortured and murdered her? The injury-to-person charges against the younger children were dismissed. The two 15-year-olds – Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs – along with 12-year-old John Baniszewski, Jr. served a whopping two years in reform school. That’s half the time 16-year-old Sylvia might have spent in college, had she lived. John went on to become a deacon in his church. Paula pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released from prison three years later; she subsequently worked as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years. Stephanie turned state’s evidence and the charges against her were dismissed; she became a schoolteacher. Gertrude Baniszewski was sentenced to life in prison… And paroled in 1985. Yes, everyone involved served little or no time in prison and some ended up in positions involving daily contact with children. Despite having been called “the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana’s history” and spawning fictionalized movies and novels that read like the Cinderella story as told by the Marquis de Sade, there was no justice for the deceased victim or her family. Society and the law place the focus on the rights of the defendant, not on those of the victims.

On October 26, 2018 (and for several days thereafter) – 53 years to the day Sylvia Likens was murdered – Florida voters will have the opportunity to pass Amendment 6 which “would provide crime victims, their families, and their lawful representatives with specific rights, including a right to due process and to be treated with fairness and respect; a right to be free from intimidation, harassment, and abuse; a right to have the victim's welfare considered when setting bail; a right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay, among others.” It comes a half-century too late for Sylvia’s family – Jenny Likens after learning of Gertrude’s Baniszewski death from cancer, was quoted as saying, “We wanted her to get the electric chair” – but it may allow future victims and their families to have some input into the ultimate fate of those evil perpetrators of unspeakable acts society is too frequently willing to forgive and forget.

Florida voters should pass Amendment 6; citizens of other states that don’t already have a similar law should lobby their respective legislatures for one to be enacted or at least placed on the ballot. As a society we should always try to prevent horrific crimes but in those instances where we cannot, we must ensure justice prevails for the survivors. I think Sylvia would approve of that.

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."