Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

Origin by Dan Brown: an audiobook review

After a murder in an art museum, Harvard symbolist, Robert Langdon, and a younger woman find themselves on the run from the police, who consider them persons of interest. They are also pursued by members of a shadowy organization who think they know too much. Langdon and his companion must decipher arcane clues to solve a puzzle which will prove their innocence and reveal important truths to the world.

No, I’m not having a flashback to Brown’s breakout novel, The DaVinci Code (2003), a riveting mystery-thriller that had me up until 2:00am on work nights until it was finished. Brown’s recently published Origin uses the same structure to reasonably good effect, though I never stayed up late to finish it.

Somewhere along the line, probably after The Lost Symbol (2009), I stopped reading Brown, finding his “thrills of the chase” could not overcome such glaring liabilities as two-dimensional villains, interminable data-dumps, and his seeming attempts to fuse the genres of thriller and travel guidebook.

For this venture back into Brown’s work, I chose an audiobook (a good move) which Mary and I listened to on a sojourn to Yosemite. Origin was a good listen while driving and during the cold and sometimes rainy evenings. It also posed intriguing questions about this point in history and emerging trends.

(Spoiler Alert)

Continue reading

California Writer’s Club, Sacramento – monthly breakfast meeting this Friday

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club will host a breakfast at Coco’s, in Citrus Heights this Friday, from 9:00 – 1100 am. Featured speaker will be author Barbara Link, who will discuss “Creating Compelling Characters.”

Details are here: CWC First Friday Network

The Day of the Locust at Walmart

Nathanael West (1903-1940), author of “The Day of the Locust.”

USA Today reported that Friday, in a Detroit area Walmart, a woman with a concealed carry permit pulled a gun after two other women started pulling her 20 year old daughter’s hair in scuffle over the last available notebook in a back-to-school-sale.

The gun brought this to national attention, but after I got the snide comment about “well ordered militias” out of my system, I sat with the underlying question, far more mundane and depressing at the same time: why does violence over a notebook come as no surprise in our nation today?

I thought of Nathanael West , a little known author during his lifetime, who worked as a screenwriter on hack movies in Hollywood, and wrote four novels, filled with biting social satire. His friend, the poet, W.H. Auden coined the phrase, “West’s Disease,” for the angst that comes from realizing the spiritual and economic poverty of much of what passes for “the American Dream.” Continue reading

No Is Not Enough

Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough,” will be released on June 13. http://www.naomiklein.org/main

James Hillman (1926-2011), who I regard as a mentor, always sought the fantasy, the imagination that underlies the literalism of what we take as facts. Quoting Jung, he said, “The psyche creates reality,” (Revisioning Psychology).

The Buddhist teachers I’ve met would agree. Here is an important discussion of some of the fantasies which underlie our current climate crisis, from an interview with Naomi Klein called “Capitalism versus Climate,” which appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review.

Klein (b. 1970) is a Canadian author, climate activist, and critic of global capitalism who looks underneath the current climate debate. She was invited to the Vatican to give input during the formulation of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

In the Tricycle interview, Klein traced our current crisis to the western view of nature as an inert resource to be exploited for human convenience and profit, an outlook that emerged from the confluence of the Age of Reason and the first wave of industrialism. Climate change ultimately results from a false narrative, says Klein:

“It turns out that all this time that we were telling ourselves we were in charge, we were burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that were accumulating in the atmosphere. So now comes the earth’s response of climate change, which is a delayed response but a ferocious one that, frankly, puts us in our place. The response is this: ‘You’re just a guest here, and you never were in charge.’”

The vicious cycle that results from our sense of separation creates an insatiable hunger that can never be filled. We see it daily in our headlines. “Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.”

What can turn things around? Only a major shift in values and worldview, says Klein. Climate change is “already a moral catastrophe. We’re already writing off island nations because their GDP isn’t big enough. We’re already basically saying, Sub-Saharan Africa can burn.

Within that sacrifice zone mentality, it’s really easy to imagine the fortressing of our borders. Easy to imagine how our nations will seal themselves off from climate refugees. Climate change is not just about being afraid of sea levels rising. It’s not just about the weather. It’s about how an economic system that glorifies individualism—and one that is based on an often unstated but very real hierarchy of humanity—will respond to heavy weather. And it’s that cocktail that scares me.”

At the same time Klein says she’s hopeful:  “What powerful forces fear most is not what we do as individuals, like changing our lightbulbs or going vegan. They fear what we do when we act together as organized and mobilized groups. As groups we can go after the legitimacy of their profits. This is what the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement is doing, and it has these companies pretty panicked. They care when we come together to block their pipelines. They care when we demand that our governments build the infrastructure that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Naomi Klein

I’ve already pre-ordered her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

I’ve also added Naomi Klein’s website to the FirstGate blogroll – her’s is a voice we need to hear at a time when the ruling party of the United States offers only a steady diet of lies.

Notes from 2017 – William Stafford

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

Some poems are prophetic, though readers and the poet alike discover this only after the passage of time. William Stafford (1914-1993) wrote poems like this. Of his process, he said, “It’s like fishing,” and “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” (1)

Stafford was born and raised in Kansas. During WWII, as a contentious objector, he served in Civilian Public Service camps from 1942 t0 1946 for $2.50 a month. In 1947, he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College, a post he held for 30 years. He was a late bloomer, who did not publish the first of his 57 volumes of poetry until he was 46.

William Stafford was named “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” in 1970, a position now called Poet Laureate of the US. He was Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-1990. James Dickey said William Stafford was one of those poets”who pour out rivers of ink, all on good poems.” He wrote 22,000 of these in his lifetime, and published 3,000 of those.

He left an unfinished poem, “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” on August 28, 1993, the day he died of a heart attack, containing these lines:

“You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.”

In an article in the New York Times Review of Books, Ralph J. Mills Jr. said, “Stafford’s work and attitudes say a good deal indirectly about contemporary modes of living that have lost touch with the earth and what it has to teach. He uncovers and keeps alive strata of experience and knowledge that his readers are in grave danger of losing, and without which, Stafford keeps saying, they will forget how ‘To walk anywhere in the world, to live / now, to speak, to breathe a harmless / breath.'”(1)

All these are reasons why Stafford’s work remains fresh, and seems even more timely as time goes on. One of my favorite poems, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” was published in 1962. It seems to me that out of time, he is speaking to us directly, urgently, pointedly at this solstice season of 2016:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford, (from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems)

Timely quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for 30 years. Among his most acclaimed books are, Moral Man and Immoral Society, and The Nature and Destiny of Man, which Modern Library named as one of the 20 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Neibuhr’s  best known work, however, is the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In the wake of this year’s election cycle, his musings on history and politics have a special poignancy and relevance:

“The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.”

“Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure. ”

“Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

“Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Neibuhr’s most haunting observation to me is this, which implies that not a single one of the countless empires that have risen and fallen before ours made much of their greatness until it was gone:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

Drinking in America

The Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower were headed toward Virginia, where they had a land grant from King James.  Instead, they landed illegally in Massachusetts because they were running out of beer.  So says historian, Susan Cheever in her just-released Drinking in America: Our Secret History.  Cheever, a sober alcoholic, documents the pendulum swings of our national love-hate relationship with alcohol as she explores an important but little-known aspect of our past.

Alchohol was a factor at critical turning points in American history.  It is likely that the shot heard round the world was fired by one of the seventy militiamen awakened by Paul Revere, who passed the time while waiting three hours for British troops at the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green.

According to Cheever, for all the volumes written on the civil war, no one has documented the considerable effect of alcohol on this conflict.  General George McClellan wrote, in February, 1862, “No one evil so much obstructs this army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness.”  McClellan, who did not drink, was relieved of command for indecisiveness in battle – or sanity, as Cheever suggests, while “His colleagues who succeeded on the battlefield – Grant, Meager, and Hooker, for example – were drinkers whose performance was often affected by their whiskey intake.” 

Most who have studied the war know about Grant, but not as many realize that because of the riotous condition of his camps, some credited General Hooker for lending his name as an epithet for prostitute.  General Thomas Meager fell off his horse while drunk as he led his troops into action at Antietam.  He drowned in 1867, after drunkenly falling off a riverboat in Montana.

Grant managed to sober up before his election as president, while Richard Nixon is revealed as an angry blackout drinker whom National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had to protect from his own drunken rages.  They “danced around the president’s homicidal, drunken orders to bomb the shit out of this or nuke the shit out of that – orders usually not even remembered the next morning.  ‘If the president had his way,’ Kissinger told his aides, ‘there would be a nuclear war each week.‘”

Cheever’s survey not only covers political and military history, for drinking plays a part in our folklore and arts as well. John Chapman, aka, Johnny Appleseed, did not tramp around the countryside planting apples for pies, but for cider, and five of the seven 20th century American writers who won the nobel prize – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck – were alcoholics. That there is no inherent connection between writing and alchohol is shown by a similar list of 19th century literary greats who did not drink to excess: “Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, the Alcotts, and…Whitman.”

This underscores the paradox of the poles in our cultural history:  “temperance and intemperance, drinking and abstinence, liquor and sobriety, addiction and recovery.  Our country has been, at times, the drunkest country in the world; our country has been, at times, one of the least drunk countries in the world.”

As she sums up the “objective” view of modern historical authors, Susan Cheever notes that the “broad, dispassionate view,” often misses the “moments that make up our lives.” One of those things often missed by American historians is the effect of drinking on our history and national character.

“What is history?: a way to sift through the past in an effort to comprehend the world we live in; a way to understand ourselves; a way to make meaning of our lives by finding meaning in the past. How can we do that without acknowledging something many of us do every day, the thing that we use to punctuate our lives in celebrations and in sadness; how can we do it without acknowledging that glass of wine or whiskey neat or dry martini that has been such a powerful and invisible part of our life as a nation?”