Twitter feeds and mainstream media home pages have started to read like teasers for the latest post-apocalyptic Netflix series. No wonder there is a glut of fiction with themes of disruption, chaos and war brought on by unruly, destructive weather, fires and flooding; epidemics; economic collapse; civil wars; displaced populations; oppression; or [fill in the blank]. To explain this trend, as well as its appeal, literary critics have had to come up with some glib theories.
The latest comes from Sam Sacks, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s “Books” section for April 8-9, 2017. He assures readers that “vogues for dystopian literature are usually a sign of national health.” As evidence, he cites the mid-20th-century anxiety about nuclear weapons and the Cold War that produced works like “On the Beach,” and says “they were also the fruits of widespread prosperity.” He wraps up his argument with two neat aphorisms:
“The more people have, the more frightened they are of losing it all.”
“These novels are what happens when a comfortable culture has a midlife crisis.”
This is a shallow, unimaginative diagnosis. It’s like a doctor recommending NyQuil as a treatment for lung cancer. Continue reading
I was glad to see that the organizers of the Women’s March have issued a position paper. It’s good to have a better sense of the energy bubbling up within and around this event. If the bus parking applications are any indication, this is going to be big. It’s fair to assume that people are coming for many, many personal reasons. The position paper helps us to recognize a shared purpose. And from there, who knows what’s possible?
So it was with a growing feeling of unease that I read down the four PDF pages, point by point, wondering when—and then if—the environment would get a mention. Here we have gender justice, freedom from violence against our bodies, an end to—and accountability for—police brutality, and the end of racial profiling. Here we have dismantling gender and racial inequities within the criminal justice system, Reproductive Freedom, Gender Justice, LGBTQIA rights, and a fair, secure, equitable economy. Here we have equal pay for equal work, the dignity and fair treatment of care workers, the right to organize, the living wage, Civil Rights as birthright, passing the ERA, and immigrant and refugee dignity and rights.
Finally, the last point at the end of page 4, is this: Continue reading
A wise friend taught me something yesterday that is so profound, simple, and fun that I couldn’t wait to share it. Her lesson came in two parts. First, we each have a superpower. This is a talent or predilection that comes so effortlessly, we might overlook it, or assume that everyone has the same ability. It’s a familiar idea. Michael Meade, for example, calls this our genius, that spark inside that each of us is born with. It fuels our work and allows us to offer our gifts to the world.
What my friend said next surprised and delighted me. She said, think of when you were a kid and you kept doing that thing that you couldn’t help doing, to the point of driving everyone around you crazy. Your most annoying habit. Your mom, dad, siblings, and peers would tell you—beg you—to stop. But you couldn’t help yourself. That’s your superpower. Continue reading
This morning, spin class started with mash-up song of Kennedy’s 1962 Rice University speech about expanding the space program. We sprinted up a hill, fueled by these rousing words:
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
I resolved on the spot to listen to this every morning before starting work. What better way to get psyched up for the day’s challenges? It does make me wonder why our politicians don’t talk to us like that anymore. It’s become unpopular to tell people the truth about anything, or to promise that something will be hard. Ever since President Carter’s 1977 “MEOW” (“moral equivalent of war”) talk during the energy crisis, our leaders have been skittish to tell us the truth.
And no wonder. Carter’s talk opens with: “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you, about a problem that’s unprecedented in our history. . . . It’s a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years, and it’s likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.” Man! Talk about a downer! He should have studied Kennedy’s oratorical techniques. President Kennedy spun his dazzling vision and inspired people to hurl themselves into the unknown, with only the promise of a lot of hard work and no guarantee of success. Continue reading
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke
In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.
I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs. Continue reading
There are so many TED talks that inspire and amaze me, I forget that the “T” stands for “technology.” I am no luddite, but this conversation has me spooked. Martine Rothblatt founded Sirius XM and generally has a Midas touch with business. As the highest paid CEO in the country, s/he’s also an articulate spokesperson for gender fluidity, having embraced her female identity at age 40 while remaining married to her soulmate for over 30 years. Her story includes a heartstrings-tugging foray into the pharmaceutical industry. Determined to help their daughter survive a fatal diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension, Rothblatt bought a drug patent from Glaxo and set up manufacture herself.
One thing led to another and now s/he and her wife are working with genetic scientists to alter the DNA of pigs, so they can “grow” human lungs for transplant. This is straight out of Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam Trilogy, except Atwood’s animals were “pigoons,” crosses of pigs with baboons. It’s so similar, I do wonder who got the idea from whom. Rothblatt also has a foundation that researches the uploading of human consciousness into computers, and implanting the data into robots that can “learn.” S/he and her wife plan to be cryogenically frozen together. S/he calls herself a “transhumanist.” In the vein of Ray Kurzweil and Singularity, these people are after nothing short of human immortality through technology. Continue reading
Sunil Yapa’s novel has a strong structure: a ensemble cast—seven different points of view plus a narrator’s voice–weaving around an actual event with vivid details that rise to the level of mythic symbolism. A billy club stands for the brutality of all authority wielded in violence; a police horse evokes intelligence beyond the petty human; a facial scar suggests menace or heroism; the misty rain sets a theatrical atmosphere. Details like PVC pipe, apple cider vinegar-soaked pink bandanas, swim goggles, and a riot helmet reflecting clouds passing overhead work together in an ominous concert of impending doom.
The story at times feels like passages of the Mahabarata, Greek myths of fathers and sons, Shakespearean drama of mistaken identity, or the Bible’s story of the Prodigal son returning. Perennial activist John Henry is a Moses character, bringing his people to freedom through the desert. Even the simple mention of stores at an intersection—the Gap, Banana Republic, a bank—takes on an End-of Empire feel. Yes, they are actual stores, but they also stand for something far greater, beyond any one individual. They are part of a vast capitalist network of exploitation of material resources and people’s lives and livelihoods. Continue reading
I am closing in on that age noted by my parents years ago as one entry point into elderhood: when the U.S. President is younger than me. With Obama, I’ve just squeaked by: he is sixteen months older than me. If Hillary or Bernie win this one, I may be okay at least for another four years. That does seem part of either of their appeal—the wisdom and equanimity they must have accumulated during long, eventful lives.
In general, though, we seem to lack positive archetypes for older people, especially women. NPR’s Ina Jaffe has reported about issues facing older Americans for years, and even she doesn’t have a good word to refer to them. Polls are inconclusive: most older people don’t like any of the usual words. But the problem is more than skin deep: Continue reading
I’m not in the same league of erudition and wisdom as Aldous Huxley, nor as full in experience (not yet, anyway). I don’t have his masterful wit, nor have I taken mescaline, about which he wrote beautifully in 1954’s The Doors of Perception. In an odd way, his final novel, 1962’s Island, is the book I was trying to write for three years. And would have written, had I not found wise teachers of Story craft and other guides and critics who came along at just the right time to ask questions like, “Do you want other people to read this?”
For all its density, I did love Island as an intellectual exercise. I learned a great deal about Eastern philosophy, especially appreciating the mash-up concocted by Huxley with the best of modern Western scientific inquiry and intellectual rigor. In his fictional island of Pala, over 100 years, the residents have built their culture out of the best of all worlds, picking and choosing from Buddhism, Tantric philosophy, Enlightenment skepticism, and scientific method to name a few of the influences that go into the Pala stew. Continue reading
In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.
Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by. Continue reading