Archive for the ‘Delayed Reaction’ Category

Satire

Those who take themselves too seriously will not like satire. Those who cannot laugh at themselves will not understand satire. Those who believe they have a hotline to truth cannot appreciate life’s ambiguities and absurdities as well as individual foibles, inconsistencies and peculiarities that make up human personality. The human condition is a carnival. This is the way cartoonists, who above all are satirists, view men and events.  Laughter is healthy for body and soul.

Although they claimed to kill in the name of the prophet Mohammed, the fundamentalists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris on January 7, did not comprehend the essence of the religious spirit inherent in all cultures. On top of their lack of understanding of the religion they claimed to profess and the religious impulse in general, they lacked a sense of humor. Satire uses comedic techniques such as irony, parody, caricature, and exaggeration. Hypocrisy is one of satire’s favorite targets. Consequently, satirists lampoon politicians, celebrities, clerics and anyone else who needs his mask uncovered. When others are too afraid to expose deceit or corruption, satirists state the emperor wears no clothes.

Writers such as Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 2007) and Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason, 2008) have pointed out the danger of fundamentalist thinking (or rather I should say non-thinking) to democracy. Authoritarianism, intolerance, xenophobia, and self-righteousness characterize fundamentalism. These characteristics undermine democracy. With the rise in fundamentalism a virulent nationalism can flourish in which no value is seen in other societies or ethnic groups. From that can flow racism and ethnic cleansing. In short, fundamentalism is unhealthy in the way the inability to laugh at oneself is unhealthy; or indeed, the inability to self-examine, to examine one’s premises, to scrutinize one’s society so that real change is facilitated. Satire does this. Satire forces us to examine our cherished beliefs and perceptions. Satire must jar sensibilities and shake perceptions. Those who cannot abide having their cage rattled stick to material that supports their prejudices and preconceptions.

In the past few years fundamentalism has been a subject of my fictional writing. In my novel Delayed Reaction I satirize the Christian brand of fundamentalism. When I wrote it, I feared it would offend Church-going friends. In poking fun at fundamentalism I aimed to illustrate that the examined life is worth living. Is it any wonder that the terrorist deals death and then chooses death for himself?  The life-giving choices are to love and to forgive.  These choices set us free and grant us peace.

 

 

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Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

From Conception to Realization: Jacob Wherly in Delayed Reaction

There are individuals who from an early age know exactly what they want to do with their lives and pursue it without deviation from their plan. They amaze me. They single-mindedly follow a career path to achieve their goals. They don’t change their college major five times before they finally decide what they really want to do.  They amaze me because I am not one of those people. My character Jacob Wherly is not one of those either.

A large part of the value of a higher education is to discover there are multiple world views other than the one we grew up with by virtue of being born in a particular time, place, culture, or religion.  When we leave the bosom of the family, we discover other ways of thinking and undergo experiences that call into question the givens of birth. Jake follows the norms of his society until an event in later life triggers his awakening.  Young men have always marched off to fight the wars older men claim are necessary. Jake was one of those men who blindly followed the expectations of society. Until age 32, I was one of those who let things happen to me instead of consciously making choices.  Jake wants to instill into the teenage boy Lenny a desire to pursue knowledge and to form a philosophy of life free of the prejudices, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness into which he was born. He wants Lenny not to delay a genuine spiritual awakening until later life. He prefers that Lenny not have his coming of age at the butt end of a rifle in a jungle as he did in Vietnam.

I created Jake as a counterpoint to the religious fundamentalism that I believe poses today the greatest danger to a democracy. I did not want my novel to be a heavy-handed, vitriolic diatribe against fundamentalists, but to poke fun in a lighter manner at the absurdity of their teachings and the simple-mindedness of their adherents who abdicate their power to think, letting “fancy-pants” preachers who are more showmen than men of God hand them a pre-packaged belief system devoid of logical thought.  To allow demigods to do our thinking for us is to pave the way for a Nazi-like leader who will waste no time undermining the underpinnings of democracy: religious and ethnic toleration, free elections, freedom of speech and the press. This Nazi demigod/haranguer will tell the masses that multiculturalism is a danger; he will preach “fear your neighbor; don’t love your neighbor as yourself. The Other is your Enemy.”

These are a few of the concepts that were operating consciously in my mind when I wrote Delayed Reaction. I wanted to explore what wisdom my generation–people who came of age and had been forged in the furnace of the Vietnam War era and the civil rights movement–could pass on to their grandchildren. It is that leap over one generation where the wisdom is stored and handed down. That communication link between grandparents and grandchildren is where the lessons are told and where they are listened to. Parents are too close to their children to always have the time or the courage to tell them the truth.  Their emotional investment in their children interferes sometimes with communication. In contrast, a grandparent is removed enough to know that the welfare of the world is at stake and not just the success parents usually understand for their children in terms of educational, financial, professional and social achievement.

In Delayed Reaction I created Jacob Wherly as a comic character, a bit of a buffoon, who could evince these themes in a light-hearted manner while serving as a grandfatherly mentor role for Lenny Dickerson. He is the non-conformist juxtaposed against the conformists in a materialistic society. The women in the novel, Shelley and Gloria, do not question their assumptions; and therefore, they do not change. The male characters do grow and develop. I thought this is a refreshing change from the denouement in many of the contemporary novels I have read.  In writing Delayed Reaction I wanted men to be drawn into the story and to identify with the characters.  Although it treats of serious themes, this novel was fun to write and was also meant to be fun to read.  Writers must leave the judgment to the juror–the readers.

Cover Delayed Reaction: Jake Wherly & his Harley Davidson