Saturday, November 28, 2009

CNN: National Enquirer of the Air

The Balloon Boy Couple poses giddily with Joe Biden

Once upon a time, there was a 24 hour cable news channel called CNN.  You could go there anytime and find out what was going on in the news.  That is to say, if there was a newsworthy event in the world, you could find out about it there.  I liked it.  You could depend on their reportage to be unbiased and professional, insofar as that is humanly possible.  It was reliable.  It was sometimes even a lifeline, like the time we were up at the cabin in Oregon and Jennifer, 17, was at home alone in San Francisco when a major earthquake hit, taking out the freeways and part of the Bay Bridge.   We  could actually see what was going on, and though it was horrifying, we at least had some idea of what was up.

I guess it still covers things like that, but the rest of the news now seems to have gone somewhere over the moon.  We have endless rehashes of the truly appalling escapades of reality TV wannabes.  We have Rick Sanchez and his twittering -- hours of looking at the news through the tweets of his fans.  As if I care at all what his fans think -- or what he thinks, for that matter.  His questions are often inane and designed to provoke rather than enlighten, though he presents them with an intensity that suggests they are profound.  

There are apparently pretty people who simply hold down the fort there for an hour or two.  There is the business news lady who does not seem to understand that many of us are not in  her tax bracket and therefore, her advice to us is absolute nonsense.  If you're worrying about how you are going to pay for the groceries, you are really not going to be terribly interested in the best place to invest your dividends to get the most bang for your bankroll.   There is the medical report lady who does not seem to know that not all of us are interested in liposuction or the latest food fad news.  Is chocolate really better for you than red wine?  Or was that pomegranates and avocado?

We spent hours chasing Balloon Boy over the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in a toy balloon that anyone with a mind more developed than that of a lizard could tell was not big enough to hold a small boy or carry one any distance at all.  That family was in hot pursuit of a reality TV show. We have now spent several days watching a pair of pseudo-socialites crash the Obama's first ever state dinner party at the White House.  Why?  Didn't you know the answer to that before anyone on TV even said the words out loud?  From the very second you first saw that fatuous pair?  They were, of course,  in pursuit of a reality TV show.  The Balloon Boy Couple. 

Now we've moved on to Tiger Woods, who had a bad fight with his wife and crashed his Escalade into a fire plug and a tree.  (On purpose?  He wasn't drinking. He isn't talking to the Highway Patrol, either.  Could you get away with that?)  His injuries, which actually amounted to a cut lip, were at first said to be  serious.  We have now had two days of that, nearly non-stop. 

There are still a few good reporters left on the CNN payroll.  Fareed Zakaria is outstanding.  Candy Crowley.  Don Lemmon.  Christine Amanpour. 

Back in the days of Bernie Shaw, CNN used to be an all news all the time channel -- serious journalists getting in there and getting the story.  Now we have poor bumbling Wolf Blitzer, who seems embarrassed to even have to ask questions of the people he interviews, or John King with his enormous interactive toy computer which reminds me of the endlessly unfolding war maps that took up whole rooms in Max Shulman's WWII classic satire The Feather Merchants.  At least they finally paid Lou Dobbs a lot of money to go away and stop his obsessive and outrageous racist rants. 

CNN has deteriorated into little more than a gossip rag: the National Enquirer of the Air, I call it. 

photo credit: Huffington Post

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writing lessons

Less than 9,000 words to go on the novel, and I am thinking about some of the things the NaNoWriMo experience has taught me. 

When I started out, I was not sure what I would write about or how I would ever manage to come up with 50,000 words about anything.  I had two basic ideas.  One was a "what if" -- using my mother and her sister as models for the main characters, taking them out of the lives they actually had and setting them free to do what they did best.  The second was more complicated.  Many years ago, I had written a short (and fatally flawed) biography of St. Francis of Assisi (I was a Third Order Franciscan at the time) and something in me was wanting to make him part of the story. 

This was complicated.  I am no longer a Franciscan or even a Christian.  How could I incorporate Francis into the story I had in mind, anyway?  And why on earth would I want to?  So I discarded that idea as idiotic and just started writing.

To my surprise, the story had a mind of its own.  A short way into it, Francis jumped right in and insinuated himself neatly into the story in ways I could never have imagined when I sat down with a pad of paper and tried to plot it out in advance.  My own beliefs were no obstacle, it turns out.  Lesson one: forget plotting it out.  Let the story tell itself.  It's much more interesting that way!

The first characters who showed up were not the ones based on my mother and aunt at all -- they were two women who probably grew out of a number of women, both living and fictional, that I have known over the years.  They turned out to be more important to the plot than I could have guessed when I started.  Lesson two: It may seem irrelevant to the plot when it first appears, but it will be neatly tied in by the end.  Trust me.

I started out just letting the story tell itself in a non-linear way, writing what came to me.  I had no idea what the book was about, or if it would have a central theme at all.  the disparate parts sometimes seemed totally unrelated and I often wondered how I would ever tie them together.  At one point I was convinced I was actually writing two or three entirely different stories that would never mesh, but the whole thing has come together as if I knew where I was going in the first place.   Lesson three: don't worry about the theme.  There is a clear message in there, shining sharp as a laser through the whole thing. 

Maybe my advice to would-be first time novelists should be "Don't worry, be happy," but I know how much Bobby McFerrin hated that song.  It started out as a fun thing he made up for his beloved kids and ended up distracting people from what he was actually trying to accomplish with his music.   You will worry and that's part of the creative stew.  The solutions you need are in the worrying.  They flow out of it and onto the page.  The pain you feel birthing it will be transformed into a better story.

Which leads me to lesson five:  when you create characters, best not to model them on people you actually love a lot because you will have to do things to them that will make you literally weep.  Much easier to do those things to a total stranger you just made up for the purpose!  However much fun it might seem to give your mother a new life she would have loved, no story worth its salt simply skates along on happiness.  Kurt Vonnegut's advice to novelists to write characters people will love and then do the worst thing you can imagine to them will be hard to follow when that character is based on your mom. 

The other thing I have learned is that I can do something I originally felt was impossible.  I took on a dare from good friends and I am so glad I did!  I am not the same person I was before I started writing this story, and I have a new confidence in my ability to follow through on a task, meet a deadline, and come up with something better than I expected. 

Less than 9,000 words to go, and a week to write them.  Three weeks ago that would have seemed an insurmountable task.  Now?  Piece of cake.  Can't wait to see how it ends...

photo credit: MAJ

Monday, November 16, 2009

Church and State and the Stupak Amendment

The healthcare bill recently passed by the House of Representatives carried a very disturbing addition, the Stupak amendment.  It might slide by unnoticed, but enough people who are vocal about these things did notice and so it is being talked about on the the news and in the papers and, most certainly, in an email inbox near you. 

The reason this amendment is so disturbing is that it allows the government to interfere in such a way with something that is legal in the U.S. that it is made unavailable to all but the wealthy.  Oh, the conservatives warned us, didn't they, that this new health care bill would have the government intervening between a doctor and a patient, and they were right.  They were right, because they are the ones who saw to it that this nice little amendment got in there.  Those who protest the most about too much government interference in our lives are too often at the head of the line in promoting exactly that.

The Stupak amendment makes all funding of abortions illegal -- not just government sponsored, but also through your own private health insurance.  The only way to pay for one is out of pocket .  I repeat, no insurance coverage of any kind.  So, if you are pregnant and continuing the pregnancy is about to kill you, say good bye to your existing kids and your husband because if this bill passes the senate with the Stupak amendment still in it, the government has just condemned you to death.   And you better not plan on using your tax refund to pay for that abortion, either.  Or even your salary, I suspect, if you work for the government or the government subsidizes your business in any way -- schools?  Hospitals?  Research facilities?  Highway construction?  Public television?  No government funded income of any kind can be used.  Welcome to Big Brother World.

Ah, it won't effect you because you weren't planning on having an abortion anyway?  Perhaps so, but it will kill women just the same.  It will bring back the pre Roe v. Wade coathanger and back alley abortions that caused deaths by the carload.  If you think the "life" of an unformed bit of protoplasm has more value than that of a woman who has an established foothold on life and ties to the community and people who care about her,  I believe you need to think a bit further. 

And who is at the base of this?  The Church.  The Catholic Church --and others -- are now dictating our laws.  Never mind that those are not your beliefs, even if you belong to those churches -- they have bought and paid for the souls of the legislators.  If a Catholic legislator -- 25% of the total membership -- does not vote the Vatican policy, he or she is excommunicated.  That is a terrifying prospect to a devout Catholic.  The more conservative protestant churches, like the Southern Baptists, also play a strong political role, actually preaching sermons pre-written by the church hierarchy, instructing their congregations on how to vote and who to vote for. 

Both the Catholics and the Mormons, and the conservative mega-churches like Saddleback, also played a huge role in passing Prop 8 in California and in repealing GLBT right to marry legislation in Maine recently.  Think of it: a church you do not belong to can dictate who you may or may not marry in a civil ceremony, as well as the health care decisions once left to you and your doctor. 

On CNN this morning, I listened to Kyra Phillips interviewing a man from on the issue.  She's a spunky woman, and also a devoted Christian.  She said, "No matter what your beliefs are, abortion is a medical procedure.   Why are religious groups being allowed to infuence health care legislation?  We're looking at a right to medical care versus religious beliefs, so what happened to the separation of church and state?"

That division seems to exist less and less.  I believe church interference in politics is so pervasive and so insidious that it is time to revoke tax exempt status not only for the Catholics and the Mormons, but for all churches.  If the separation between the two is not going to observed by either side, then we need to stop giving the churches a tax break.  No more subsidizing organizations that do not play by the rules.  By giving them continued tax-exempt status,we are actually subsidizing lobbyists. 

Maybe there should be an oath taken when members of congress are sworn in that promises that their allegiance to the country and their constituents as a whole will take precedence over their allegiance to religious hierarchy.  If they can't promise it, they should not be allowed to take office. 

Our government is based on the rule of law, not the tyranny of religion.  Or at least, it used to be.

photo credit: Flickr

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shabbat Vayenafash

When we lit the candles last night, I felt it.  I could feel the tangible embrace of Shabbat.  A presence in the room.  When we do the little Havdalah service at the end of Shabbat on Saturday night, I just as tangibly feel it leave.  There is an emptiness, like a person has left the house.  The Shabbath Bride has departed.

Sometimes just as I wake in the morning, there will be a little message in my mind -- a sentence or a few words that are meaningful in some way.  Maybe a leftover fragment of a dream.  One morning I awoke with a sentence: "It's the vayenafash that really makes Shabbat." 

My hebrew is so limited, I can't translate that with surety, but it is the final part of the V'shamru, which, translated by others, says

"And the Children of Israel observed the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, that in six days did G-d make the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day G-d rested and was refreshed."
Vayenafash translates here as was rested and refreshed, but "nefesh" means soul, so basically, a more literal translation might say that G-d rested and became ensouled on the seventh day.  What!  G-d became ensouled!  That really gives me something to think about. 
I become refreshed and ensouled when we observe Shabbat, that I know.  Twenty-five hours with no business, no reading the mail, no paying bills, no dealing with this or that, no work or worrying about work, nothing jangling, Shalom bayit, peace in the home, peace faithfully kept, hospitality toward one another, behaving as though there were an honored guest in the house.  The Sabbath Bride is in residence until we can see three stars in the night sky. 
And then, she leaves.  You can feel her go as surely as if she were a living person.  When the braided Havdalah candle is extinguished in the dregs of the wine, we have separated the sacred from the ordinary and are back to our everyday lives.  Our guest has left us. But the lessons learned in keeping the peace and maintaing hospitality stay with us.  Over years of practice, they become who we are every day and not simply on Shabbos. 
It is said we are given an extra soul for the day, a Shabbat soul, and that is what vayenafesh refers to. 

Whatever it refers to, it's the thing that makes it work.  This I know, with or without my waking revelation. 
photo credit: flickr

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lucy gets Halfway There

A little after 2 pm today, I hit, and passed, the momentous halfway point in the NaNoWriMo scramble.  I logged in over 25,000 words.  This whole experience has been really good for me.  It is accomplishing my original goal for this blog, which was making me write every single day. 

I am not a naturally disciplined person, if there is such a beast.  I am the polar opposite of organized, rebellious by nature when it comes to hard and fast rules, and though I have tried to make my psyche fit into a more orderly package for over 70 years, it has been a truly dismal failure.  To borrow a direct quote from the original Creative Person, it seems that "I will be who I will be."

But little by little, plugging away at it every day, I am becoming more of what I already am.  I am becoming a writer.  Well, no, I was already a writer.  It's just that the whole NaNoWriMo experience has made me truly believe it. 

It could be that The Lucy Redfish is just an exercise in the discipline of writing.  It could be it goes nowhere -- most books people write go exactly nowhere, though electronic publishing has upped the odds a little bit there -- or maybe somone will actually want to read it.  (I already know two people who want to read it so in some sense that is already true.)  It could die aborning in some unforseen way.  I could serialize it on the blog.  Who knows its fate? 

But I'm half-way there.  I feel like breaking out the champagne!  But not yet.  I may have to bake up one of the Lucy's famous chicken pies tonight, just to celebrate.  Those pies are my mother's pies, and their baker in the story, Alice, is based on my mother.  The whole book is based on a what if.  What if my mother and her sister had run off and escaped the lives they actually had and lived a whole different scenario entirely, in a different place, with different outcomes?  So though two of the characters are loosely based on my family,  they are not the same people and the lives they live are not the ones my mother and aunt lived.  The Lucy Redfish never existed in real life, though the two of them were in the bar business for years in another locale.  Alice's daughter in the book is not based on me, except that I drew heavily on my own experiences of growing up gay in an alien-feeling society as background for her childhood.  A lesbian friend of mine told me she arrived at her job as a high school librarian every morning feeling like she just got off the spaceship from Mars.  That pretty much describes what it's like.

So I am playing with the what ifs, but that's not all.  The book has a life of its own and is telling me the story as I go.  There is a lot of fantasy in it.  I'm in love with the Latin American writers who fill their work with a constant blend of surreal overlap between fantasy and reality -- Love in the Time of Cholera; Like Water for Chocolate; Isabelle Allende's work -- and some of that is incorporated in the book, too.  In my own perverse way,of course. 

So now I am on to the second half, and it doesn't look half as scary as the first one did.  And I'm no longer wondering how I can stretch the story out to fill a whole book.  Maybe there's even a sequal coming, next November...

photo credit: MAJ

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Roomful of Heroes

This is my partner, Laura.  She is a retired Fire Captain, and her retirement job is teacing Freshman English at a community college.  One of her classes is made up of students of mixed ages and backgrounds, including a special forces soldier returning to civilian life after serving in Iraq, a young man who is technically still in high school but allowed to take a college English course at the school (I don't know why),  a young man who had worked as an actor at Disney for a long time, and twenty or so assorted others. 

It's a mixed and interesting group and they do their work, and participate freely in class discussions.  Friday, Laura handed out their weekend reading and writing assignment, and the high schooler hissed "Damn F***ing Jew!" under his breath.

He had the good fortune to be seated just behind the special forces guy, who was up and on him faster than he could get the last syllable out.  Laura asked what the problem was and the young man said "nothing."  The special forces guy was not having it and told him to tell the class what he had said, or else.  He still refused, so the soldier told them.  Everyone was horrified.  Laura sent him directly to the dean and if things had gone according to school policy and rules, that would have ended his career at the school.

However, the department head was away and did not hear what had happened, and the young man apparently told the dean a very different story.  Whatever ensued, and we really don't know, he was back at school today (Monday). 

The other students had seen him and warned Laura.  The students got together in the cafeteria and planned something, unbeknownst to her.   She went into the classroom, and just before the class began, at the last possible second, the student sauntered in.  The other students were waiting for him.  The Disney kid had choreographed the whole thing.  As the anti-semitic student took a seat in the center of the classroom, the Disney guy moved his desk immediately in front of him.   On cue, the entire class surrounded him with their desks in a tight circle,  protecting their teacher. 

That student learned a very important lesson today.  Educated people do not support hate. 

When Laura told me what they did today, it made me cry.  It does as I write it.

It makes me sad that the school did nothing about the kid's original behavior.  I hope that will change.  Teachers need support in the classroom.  I would think that young man has no business in a college setting until he grows up quite a bit.   

Sometimes people are total jerks, and sometimes they are absolutely amazing.   And sometimes there is a whole room full of heroes. 

photo credit: MAJ

NaNoWriMo NoNo

I am at the stage where I am roaring away at writing the impossible novel and also running away from it by getting distracted as frequently as possiible.  I write for an hour or two, then do something else.  Eat.  Go on Facebook.  Knit.  Blog.  Fiddle with gadgets, like a counter for my blog which will prove to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody, not even my own children or mate reads the thing.  Well, Laura does read it, because she leaves comments. 

I have added another couple of thousand words to the novel today, so far, and a few inches to the slipper sock pictured at the top.  It now has nine rows of color on the end where the needles are, and about an inch of solid red and a half-inch of what will be a heel flap.

The heel is my favorite part of the sock.  Most of a sock is pretty much knitting around and around, following the same sequence of stitiches until the piece is long enough.  The heel, however, is fun.  You make a flap about two inches square, and then you start knitting back and forth in short rows until there is a little curved pocket at the bottom of the flap.  That's called turning the heel.  Then you pick up stitches along the edges of the flap on either side and knit all the way around the whole sock again, decreasing the number of stitches at either side of the heel flap until you have the same number of stitches you you started out with.  And then you're back to knitting a tube again until you "toe off."  It's a form of engineering, and a form of sculpture, and it makes something practical.  I love knitting. 

I also love writing, so I think of what I'm going to write while I knit.  Sometimes I'm surprised to find that I write something I had not intention of writing or my story takes a turn I never foresaw.  I have no idea where this novel is taking me, but I can see a few clear patterns.  There are two children born "out of wedlock" (as if that were meaningful anymore) who turn out to have a very heavy impact on each other's lives without knowing it.  There are at least four people running away from something -- themselves, marriage, potential physical harm, from existentially repeating a life others see as a model and they no longer see as useful.   There are cooks.  Three, at least, and I think one of them hasn't realized it yet.  There are gay people, straight people, kids, a former saint, a talking raven, even a kitchen sink or two.  Plenty of clams and chicken pie for everybody. 

What a mess.  Guess I'd better get back to it.

photo credit:MAJ's camera phone

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I am voting on your rights

I read where Pastor Rick Warren, personable preacher of the mega Saddleback church in California, and who spoke at President Obama's innauguration, is not going to say anything in opposition to Uganda making it a crime punishable by death to be born gay.

A true Christian, in the least true sense of the word.  Not at all a Christian, I mean, or a man of any moral backbone.  Because if they would make it a death penalty offense to have blue eyes, he would probably be very upset.  He himself or one of his family might have blue eyes.  Or if it were a death-penalty offense to be born could happen to anyone, to any family.  But to  be born gay?   No, that would be just criminal.  Those gays.  They are just the same as people who sleep with corpses, they say, or with dogs.  Or their inlaws. 

Just let the innate difference involve one's sexuality and all bets are off. 

I have followed the news lately about the voting on rescinding people's marriage rights -- not granting them new ones, taking away those that were already granted.  It makes the people who do it feel very moral.  They have saved the family.  Preserved the family, one woman said, and I'm assuming she means she has safely stored one away in a Mason jar with the lid on and and plenty of vinegar.   What families are these people talking about?

Mine is not included in that pickling bath, because she has just voted away my rights to have one at all.  So how, exactly, is she saving it?  What exactly is she saving?

Lady, if you can vote away my rights to have a legal, committed partnership with the person I love, to build a future together, to build a family, to share a roof and pay taxes together and get a say in how she is treated when she is ill, or what happens to me when I die, then I can do the same for you.  Fair enough?  I say if you have been divorced, you can't marry again.  Your second marriage is null and void.  And your third and fourth, as well.  I can do that to you if you do this to me.  This will mean one of my own children will not have been legally married to either of the mothers of his children due to a previous ill-thought-out engagement. Well, too bad for them.  And all those joint tax returns?  Look out, honey, the IRS is gunning for you. 

"How does it feeeeel," sang Bob Dylan so long ago.... "How does it feeeeel, to be on your own, no direction home, just like a rolling stone..." 

And you -- the couple over there with no offspring?  So sorry,  but you're no longer married.  I don't care if it's a physical problem or you're saving the planet or you both carry the Tay Sachs gene -- you're single again.  Marriage, according to some who claim authority on the subject, is only for people who procreate.  So you're out.  And by the way, you'll have to stay celibate now.  None of that out of wedlock hanky-panky allowed.  It's only for the marrieds. 

What?  It's not legal for unrelated adults to share a house in your town or village?  Oh, so sorry.  Life is just like that sometimes. 

I voted on your rights and now you don't have any.

How does it feel? 

Shall I tell you? 

photo credit: Flickr

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Novel in a Nutshell

Hard at work on my novel this morning.  I'm having an absolute ball doing this! I have no idea why I didn't try it before.  Thanks, Anthony and Andrew, for nudging me into it.  I have three sets of diverse characters moving along the road to a date with destiny.  I do hope it doesn't turn out to be total literary tripe, but it is a lot of fun getting them there.  I have no idea what is going to happen to them, either along the way or once they arrive at their destination.  They have already brought in characters of their own which I didn't know about when I started, as well as situations I would never have suspected. 

I just read one passage to Laura and it was powerful enough to make her cry.  That was amazing.  

An animal character has appeared and I have no idea what her plans are, either  She's shadowing a guy named Frank who has hit the road in a camper after some serious personal disappointments.  She was definitely not in my original plans.  I have no clue what she's up to, but I think she's got his best interests at heart. There is an element of magic in the book, and she is most likely connected to it.  She's a raven. 

One of the other characters has a friend I was not aware of when I started, who has just become a major player, much to my surprise.  I guess she's on her way to the Lucy Redfish, too. 

Our regional version of NaNoWriMo, the Nashville group, has decided we will all incorporate something about pirates into our novels.  I already have mine in there -- just worked its way right in at the right spot.

My blogs will be short this month until the magnum opus is finished, and then December will be for editing. 

What's new?  Not much,  I'm writing a novel...

photo credit: