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It Happened Here

When clearly a demagogue blustered his way through the 2016 campaign many people chorused, “It can’t happen here,” meaning the electorate in our democracy could not be that stupid to fall for a con-man’s snake oil. To their everlasting dismay, it did happen here. In pointing out the fascistic characteristics of this man’s appeals, commentators often mentioned  Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here along with the apocalyptic or distopian works Brave New World and 1984.  Previously, I had not known that Lewis had written that type of book, so I determined to read it. Hardly a great novel in the usual terms, it does paint a picture of the rise of the  demagogue Berzelius Windrip (Buzz), carrying marked similarities to what just happened in the United States.

Windrip appeals to the masses by promising every citizen a guaranteed income of $5,000 per year and proclaiming white Americans are better than Mexicans or Bolsheviks. The enemy is Mexico that must be attacked. Extreme militarism and nationalism dominate his rhetoric. The protagonist Doremus Jessup appropriately is a small town New England newspaper editor who quickly experiences suppression of the freedom of the press, typically the first move of an authoritarian regime. At the same time there is a rise in militarism in which Minute Men groups begin to patrol the streets and squelch opposition to Windrip’s agenda.  In the same manner, we see attacks on the press and on journalistic integrity emanate almost daily from the current occupant of the White House. Likewise, military action is used to bolster support for his flagging credibility, ineffectual leadership, and vacuity in all areas of domestic and foreign policy.

Doremus accepts some responsibility for the election of a fascist. In many ways he is a self-satisfied, complacent intellectual who felt himself better than the ignorant, economically distressed populace who rally around Windrip. The editor realizes he failed to rub shoulders with the poor and to address their needs. This could be said also of liberals in the aftermath of our recent election. In Doremus’s words, “It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord! Is it too late?”

The descriptions of Berzelius Windrip apply equally well to the winner of the White House last year. Windrip was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.” Doremus further dubs him the Professional Common Man, saying, “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup . . . And in Henry Ford . . . And the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers, and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.” In line with this description, The Donald has appointed more billionaires to his Cabinet and staff positions than any of his predecessors.

Doremus laments that there were not enough principled party members, in this case Democrats,  at their presidential convention to stop Windrip’s nomination, similar to what occurred at the Republican Convention last July.  He asserts that Windrip was chosen “not by the brains and hearts of genuine Democrats but by their temporarily crazed emotions . . . in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water–all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” Substitute The Donald here.

Doremus argues politics with his friend Karl Pascal who tells him:  “Why Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still fermenting in the stomach–quack economists with every sort of economic ptomaine! No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to–the sickness of more than 30 per cent permanently unemployed, and growing larger. Got to cure it!” Pascal pinpoints exactly the problem as it was in the 1930’s and as it remains today–the existence of a permanent underclass. Windrip exploits the fears and economic distress of the underclass in the same way The Donald did with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” President Windrip delivers a speech exhorting, “To you and you only I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs.”

As the authoritarian regime begins to imprison and to torture its political opponents, Doremus joins the underground resistance movement. When the police state threatens to endanger his family, they attempt to escape to Canada but are stopped at the border. How many Americans have considered or are still considering the option to move to Canada? Fortunately, the border is still open–at least until the time when fascist forces coalesce, tighten the screws, consolidate their power, and even begin to build walls to keep dissidents from escaping to freedom.

Windrip is a con-man and rumored to have been a medicine-show doctor before going into politics. He has a vulgar past similar to the real estate salesman who recently sold the American electorate a bill of goods. Doremus is disturbed that his son has bought Windrip’s snake oil. In a debate over the president, his son admits that Windrip is crude and adds “Well, so were Lincoln and Jackson.” And who should The Donald admire? Andrew Jackson. Similarly ignorant and uncouth, Jackson was guilty of genocide and deportation of Native-Americans.

Those who voted for an unfit candidate believed that no political experience whatsover was an asset, that, in fact, business success, although of a dubious nature, qualified one for a government job. In Sinclair Lewis’s novel, this belief holds sway also. The idea arises that anyone can successfully practice statesmanship and international diplomacy. “. . . Though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them; and that if John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford had set his mind to it, he could have become the most distinguished statesman, composer, physicist, or poet in the land.” Those who voted for The Donald apparently thought a billionaire with no experience in government could run the nation.

We are all finding out to our detriment and dismay what billionaires running government can and will do.

Adieu to 2016 and All Hail to 2017

On the last day of this momentous year when the fragility of American democracy and the danger of not directing the existence and the problems of an underclass in a nation purported to be the richest and most equal in the world were displayed, I mark its end by posting the very same meditation I wrote at the close of 2015. Those ideas remain pertinent and uppermost in  my mind. I contemplate the issue of the reality of progress and philosophize over the possibility of peace. I lament the continuing violence at home and abroad and view with alarm the rise of a demagogue on our soil. Today these concerns and ominous clouds persist. Nevertheless, as the sonnet sequence in the concluding sections presents, hope also still endures. Saints, heroes, and courageous spokesmen for love, justice, and peace continue to speak out.

I wonder if the activism of my generation, the anti-war demonstrations of the sixties, and the civil rights movement made significant differences in our politics. My generation came to power with the elections of Bill Clinton and George Bush. The baby-boomer generation has its last hurrah to make a significant difference in the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency. I have no doubt it will be significant, but I doubt it will be a beneficial one. Too late I admire the prescience of a Lyndon Baines Johnson, who recognized the cancer a permanently depressed poor class poses in a supposedly egalitarian society. Sadly, his vision to fulfill the American dream for all citizens has not been realized to this day. Yet it was a vision that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, sons of wealth and privilege, first presented to the American people.

Fifteen to End the Year 2015

I
Another shooting, the innocent slain,
The slaughter mounts upon the screen
As it was in the past rings the refrain
So must it be that laws can’t vaccine
The insane from seizing a guiltless gun
And empty upon strangers rounds of rage;
So the rampage will recompose and re-run
Until minds imagine a better age
When gun ownership is restricted
And the surplus turned in and thrown
Upon the pyre, the metal conscripted
For purposes far from the killing zone.
So sing, we, in the silent, serene brain
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain.

II
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain
I dream, abiding still in Fantasia
For the very hour I sing the refrain
I falter, stricken by strange aphasia;
On December second, fourteen are dead
And twenty-one innocents are wounded.
I stagger to retrieve language that’s fled,
Its syntax ripped and torn, all sense shredded
While nabobs hold the right to a firearm
Untouchable, ensconced in sacred space.
If, as they say, guns keep us from harm,
The United States is the safest place.
Shall I go to Christmas-shop at the mall
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall?

III
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall
Because walls indeed protect (don’t they?)
As of late many say they do, from illegal
Aliens, refugees or Muslims who may
Conceal in backpacks bombs or bacillus
For who knows what other peril or plot
They could concoct as soon as sneeze at us;
Thus mind the mindless ranter’s godless rot.
But if a higher road than wall is sought,
Ascend the Mount where the vista is wide,
The one where the Master blessed and taught
The truth, the vulnerable at his side.
There hear the angels sing “Be not afraid;
For fear is the monger we must upbraid.”

IV
For fear is the monger we must upbraid
Like a dirty joke at a wedding feast
Although panderers of hate would trade
Every draft of love for the feckless beast
That fear unleashed wreaks upon the earth.
For fear is to be feared because it feeds
Upon itself, enlarging its reach and girth
While seas separate and brotherhood recedes.
Yet if the breach is to be sealed, then reach
To the elixir still sitting upon the shelf
In pure vials, undefiled, for each
To drink a toast for others and himself.
When mongers hawk fearsome wares of war,
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear.

V
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear
Though I worry if progress has been made
At all upwards on history’s tortured stair,
Questionable, when corpses are displayed.
Homo sapiens brain is the same since men
Of the steppe broke horses and rode to war
Ever now the ingenious devise the engine
To multiply a faceless gunner’s gore,
Even when they chorused “the end to horror”
After spitfires, trenches, mud and gases
Yet others aren’t loathed less or loved more
Than when captains killed with cutlasses;
Where have the sixties flower children gone?
The wind wails: gone to graveyards every one.

VI
The wind wails gone to graveyards every one
And three-pronged pitchforks mark the gate,
Upside down peace symbols the war hawks won,
All devil’s due for those who make hay of hate;
Yet gusts uproot as well as disperse seeds
That will weave fair flowers in children’s hair
Anew like happy hippies, decked in love beads,
Proposing love less exotic in the open air
Though peace is scarcer than yesterday when
The folk songs stopped and guitarists fell
Asleep the second the shot hit Lennon,
Whose music imagined better gospel.
The drones buzz on; dumb to loads they drop,
Regardless robots without minds to stop.

VII
Regardless robots without minds to stop
The garbage-mouthed mogul in obvious lies,
Who name-calls and insults his way to top
The polls even though his success relies
On utter absence of critical thought
In favor of ad hominem ad nauseam,
Heated harangue witless voters have bought
From dealer quite adept at trumping them
That dolts don’t detect the cards are marked
Against their winning a millionaire’s game;
Yet “Deal me in,” deluded dogs barked,
The pack that fear makes rabid—Il Duce’s aim.
The dens of madness and mayhem grow still
When mercy enters in hand with good will.

VIII
When mercy enters in hand with good will
The two tiptoe, at first they’re dimly seen
Then mankind is chiseled with keener skill
Like saints with huge heart, empty of spleen,
Like the seven sleepers roused from the cave
Into light angled to grasp peace and give it,
As Christ, defenseless, unjudging, forgave
The thieves, non-germane if they deserved it,
Awake to where love is, there is no fear
Or vengeance vying to meet blow for blow
Even though we reap what we sow is clear:
The law levying love on supposed foe.
Down through the ages, history has shown,
It signifies naught who threw the first stone.

IX
It signifies naught who threw the first stone;
What matters is who throws away the sling,
Opening arms to fling wide love alone,
For blessed are the peacemakers who bring
An end to blame, who forbid heads to roll
Emboldened by truth as old as it’s true
That eye for eye only blackens the soul,
While guilt demands penance jurists argue.
The sage rebuts with dictum there’s no crime
So foul to warrant the electric chair
Since error is mere blindness over time
To bonds of blood and brotherhood we share
Even though the injured choose to insist
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist.

X
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist
Conjures Pyrrhic victories dependent on
Memorized line that the delvers resist,
Those in radiant white robes who reason
They must halt the vicious wheel in its spin
Before no patch of earth is clean of gore
Where bands of brothers, singing, can march in,
The jubilee commenced to fight no more.
Is peace but read as romance, far-fetched dream,
Moonbeam and fairy dust pragmatists scorn
And all timid rowers against the stream,
Those hecklers of magic and unicorn?
In teen-aged century tattooed and proud
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud.

XI
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud
Because at times it seems minds are mired
In muck of sophists and bigots who becloud
Ideals the enlightened choir inspired;
But other times the sun pierces through
The murk when spokesmen arise who awake
Those better angels guiding us to do
Unto our brothers for salvation’s sake,
If not virtue, what the sane prove is right
Unless in circles, like the mad, we run
Endlessly in pursuit of the next fight
Then, the lunatic fringe indeed has won.
Of those today who awaken that hope,
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope.

XII
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope,
The Francis of benediction and of peace,
Whose correctness lifts the spirit to hope
The incessant fear-monger’s rant will cease
For milder speech is heard amid the din
Of kinder hands and gentler tones that mend
Divisions recognizing we are all kin,
Deceived by ego, saved when we extend
Empathy and compassion as he bids
In Congress, Liberty Hall and skid row,
Regardless, he picks up and kisses kids
Then turns and blesses the grotesque also.
Even amid violence, violets will bloom
With delicate pastel lips defying doom.

XIII
With delicate pastel lips defying doom,
Their gifts of spirit evaporate hate,
Their virtues set off lanterns in the gloom
Making way to declare war out-of-date
Because writers and artists still survive
Revealing emperors who wear no clothes
In nations where the free press is alive
So I strew roses on words they compose,
Their clear prose, unadulterated truth,
Their harmony and logic sound a note
Quieting cant of politics’ uncouth,
On wings of morning aloft from dovecote.
All praise and homage to thinkers like them
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn.

XIV
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn
And no pipe organ of dreams to conceive
Possible, if hearts filled to the brim
Overflow with compassion and receive
In turn the same measure of other’s store;
For let it be known here and now that I
Do not succumb to argument for more
Personal arsenals for those who cry
They’ll shoot the man who dares to take away
Their armaments—their divine right of guns.
Illogic of mass shootings serves to lay
In premature graves more daughters and sons.
The mind that devises deadlier slings
As well from chaos makes loftier things.

XV
As well from chaos makes loftier things
For intellect yet formulates the great
Society gilded with fellow feelings
And artists impelled by paint create
A venue for truth and beauty to meld
Even now when crazy rhetoric rules—
No small solace to view unparalleled
Creations, graphic and written jewels,
Genesis and genius of divine urge,
Superior imprint of man’s sterling coin
In which all finer impulses converge,
Trinity of faith, hope and love conjoin.
The art consoles after killings by Cain:
Another shooting, the innocent slain.

A healthy, prosperous, and hope-filled New Year to my “How Public Like a Frog” readers!

What is Oratory?

The glaring absence of this art in the political arena today gives cause for reflection on how its presence is immediately recognizable to listeners. We know we heard it in Martin Luther King’s speeches; we know we heard it in John Kennedy’s speeches; the world heard it in Winston Churchill’s speeches, but we don’t hear oratory in the GOP presidential candidates of 2016 and maybe just little glimmers in Bernie Sanders; none in Hillary Clinton’s because her words fail to aspire.

Oratory is formal speaking, although at points in an address an orator may modulate his key from a lofty to a folksy tone for greater intimacy with his audience. Franklin Roosevelt did this in his fireside chats. The Latin root ars conveys the meaning that oratory is the art of eloquence, of eloquent speech. Then what is eloquence? How is eloquence recognized? Eloquence is fluid, forcible, filled with crafted sentences, analogy, metaphor, and colorful language. It is rhythmic, musical, and paced like carefully placed rests in a musical measure. What about the speaker? He is confident; his gestures are graceful and purposeful. He is not wooden or robotic.  He enunciates his words, varies his pitch, volume, and tone consistent with his meaning.  He avoids perpetual shouting and the canning of lines he delivered hundred of times before.  He chooses the precise word, in fact, every word deepens and broadens understanding of his argument. He does not have to resort to vulgar language in a weak ploy to add force to his speech, which only appeals to the baser instincts of his audience.

There is substance to oratory in contrast to the platitudes that comprise the usual political speech. Substance is achieved through a well-organized speech that has been written out and planned in advance but delivered as if it were extemporaneous. Good orators know how to read from a text naturally. Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm format. “The Finest Hour” speech appears like typed lines of poetry on the page.Finest hourEach line builds upon the other. Progression is paramount, thus enabling the audience to follow the argument easily. Repetition is used meaningfully.  Contrast the orator’s organized speech to the ramblings of our current candidates or the jumbled blather of Sarah Palin.

Oratory is an art form because it encompasses many disciplines: knowledge of literature, history, the ability to construct balanced sentences, an ear for rhythm and harmony, control of voice and body movement. Great orators are great readers. They are conversant with the world’s literature and with the sacred texts of the world, including the Bible. They would not be stumped to quote a favorite passage from the Book of Proverbs or elsewhere in the New or Old Testaments. Forgive me, if I cannot conceive of any of our candidates reading more than a few books of any substance since they graduated from college.

But a stump speech can be oratory if it demonstrates these qualities of eloquence. Unfortunately, what I am hearing on the campaign trail is harangue. What distinguishes harangue from oratory? Often Adolf Hitler is given credit for oratorical skills, but his was the talent of the haranguer. The haranguer is a great shouter. The emotions the haranguer stirs up are fear and hatred while the orator inspires the audience with nobler qualities of faith, hope, courage, love, and the brotherhood of man. He is encouraging his audience to believe and to act better than they have previously thought they were capable of doing.

Often cited as the presidents who possessed oratorical skills to one degree or another are John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. One of the reasons attributed for the election of a junior senator like Obama was his oratory. Similarly, Ronald Reagan greatly benefited from his early days as a radio announcer and his acting career. He won also because his speeches inspired the country to believe that the United States was that shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem.

I look for inspiration with substance backed up with sound reasoning, precision of language, and coherence of argument. Bombast is not oratory. A grocery list of platitudes is not oratory. Senseless repetition is not oratory. Oratory is inseparable from the speaker; for the speaker must be confident, truthful, sincere, principled, and dedicated to ideals beyond glorification of self.

 

Writing Book Reviews

After reading the lists of notable books of 2015 that major newspapers publish, I’ve discovered that I have not read any of the titles on their lists. During the past year, I was too busy reading the notable books of the last century. I like the dust to settle on the dust jackets of the currently acclaimed books before reading them. Now, in my sixth decade of life and having stood the test of time myself to some degree,  I prefer to devote my time to reading books that have also shown some staying power.  However, I do like to read reviews of current books, and I will store those titles that strike my fancy away in my memory bank for future reference. Thankfully, my memory bank still has some resilience.

Book reviews whether of books that first appeared years ago or of ones recently published can be valuable in deciding to read the book now or never.  Sometimes the review helps me make the decision. Reviews that either overpraise or harshly criticize are not helpful. They are suspect. Understandably, who would want to review in the first place I book that he did not enjoy reading? Reviewers want to share a good experience, which accounts for the rave review. Is there a way to write a neutral book review in which the reviewer did not indicate his dislike, indifference or outright distaste for the book? Granted, a literary critic has a responsibility to point out flaws in execution, but this can be done without excoriation.  Thus, I tend to give more credence to the review that maintains a less effusive and more objective tone, tacitly acknowledging that literary judgments are subject to the tastes and proclivities of the reviewer.

I like a book review that is written with the prospective reader in mind. My method of writing a book review concentrates on identifying the reasons why anyone would want to read this particular book in the first place. I describe what themes are developed and what insights are offered on the subject. I examine the elements of fiction and of style so that the potential reader can decide whether this book deserves eight or more hours of his life. I state whether the book is plot-driven and action-oriented for those who dislike lengthy descriptions, drawn-out development of setting, and paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If the writing style distinguishes the book, I cite this for those who love playfulness with language, poetical prose, and rich sensory detail. Book reviews that concentrate on plot and character summaries do not interest me. I want only tidbits of information about conflict and main character to whet my curiosity, and I certainly do not want the resolution of the conflict revealed. Basically, I want these questions answered: what kind of reader would read this book and why.  The short, sweet review of approximately 500 words or less can do the job. This review of my taste in book reviews runs to 497 words.

 

Adult Coloring Books

Animal KingdomI received an adult coloring book for Christmas; otherwise, I would not have ventured into this trend that is sweeping the book market. I am overloaded with hobbies, and I feared that one more activity in my current repertory would leave me with five remaining hours of sleep per night. I opened the first page to a very detailed octopus, a fantastical creature with eight winding, intricate, highly stylized feet in my gift book Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom. Marotta has several other nature-oriented adult coloring books: Secret Garden, Lost Ocean, Enchanted Forest.

Initially, I questioned whether coloring is a creative activity. Certainly, it is a cut above paint-by-number, because the colorist still retains the decision-making power of what color to fill in where on a drawing someone else designed. I derived a great deal of pleasure from making these color choices. A lot of experimentation was involved, and I was not always pleased with the results of my combinations and contrasts; yet some turned out well, causing me to lean back in my chair and admire my handiwork. I used felt-tip fine markers on this first foray. Although the colors are bright, the fine details make colored pencils better for filling in these drawings. I went to the store to buy a box. While I was browsing another woman was also searching for a large box of colored pencils for her adult coloring book, demonstrating I am not the only old lady to have received a coloring book for Christmas. We excitedly exchanged notes about our experience and the coloring books we were using.

Others who have delved into the intricacies of adult coloring books have reported on its relaxing, meditative DSCN0742quality, producing the same effect that knitting does while watching films or television programs. Like knitting, there is something to show for the unproductive hours of sedentary viewing.  Some recommend coloring for those who have been unsuccessful at meditative practices.  Undoubtedly, coloring can serve as a stress reliever.

The creative aspect and the element of relaxation in the activity relate to color itself.  Specific colors are associated with the chakras or auras around the body. Their different hues represent emotional energy fields.  Color choices reflect moods and levels of energy. Color plays a significant role in dress, home decoration, and gardening. Personality is reflected in the colors we pick in these activities also. This transfers to coloring, because in the process, we are connecting with our inner self.  I found it very satisfying to choose colors and to realize that no two people would color the drawing in the exact same way, and consequently, I was creating something unique to myself. In addition, it was unique to the moment, to the dynamics of the specific time I was coloring, and if I colored the same drawing another day, it would turn out completely different.

The last discovery I made from my adventure into adult coloring was its mystery. By this, I mean not knowing what the drawing would look like in the end. As I colored, a world of possibilities opened before me. That mystery kept me coloring in the same way I would keep reading a detective novel to find out how the crime would be solved.  This is the draw, the wonderful mesmerizing quality of continuing to clothe those empty white spaces as I would dress a naked baby in a cute outfit.

The adult coloring book, as others have widely commented, awakens childhood memories. That is true, yet the reasons coloring gave so much pleasure in childhood are the same reasons that as an adult I find it so pleasurable. Coloring is creative; colors relate to our energy fields; coloring is like solving a mystery.

Several years ago I wrote a poem about coloring, which is in my book Playground, a collection of poems on the childhood activities that my generation loved. Here it is:

Coloring

Open the jumbo box for the first time.

See four rows of sixteen sharpened tips.

Inhale the smell of crayons fresh to smudge

Bright swaths upon the coloring book page.

 

The Walt Disney one fat with cartoons calls.

Who to color: Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck?

Shade with olive and forest green the trees;

Add turquoise tones and aquamarine skies.

 

Stay within the lines and when finished

Admire the masterpiece then start another.

Hours of Crayola fun inside on rainy days

Spent coloring on the kitchen table.

 

A few dot-to-dots scattered through the book.

Follow the numbers; a drawing is exposed.

Too much pressure on periwinkle breaks

The crayon in two; switch to cadet blue.

 

Carnation pink is worn to a blunted stub.

Boo-hoo! It’s our favorite color, more than

Mulberry, red-orange, or burnt sienna;

Give me the flesh crayon for Fudd’s face.

 

We shade, pressing darker along the lines

In grades that mark an artist’s genius.

The orange and green Binney and Smith box

Holds a few tips still sharp for tomorrow.

 

Many more pages to color, many more days,

Some sunshiny, some dull as used crayolas

Whose smell lingers on fingertips long after

The lid is closed on rows of rounded heads.

 

Broken crayons, some without their paper,

Tossed into cigar box, their luster lost

Until Roger comes up with the bright idea

To melt them down to a model volcano.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cyberspace Book Club

Cat_on_a_Book

Living twenty-five miles from the nearest town, I don’t attend many meetings and social gatherings of any kind. I communicate with many book-loving friends across the country through email and the telephone to discuss our latest good reads. This got me to thinking about how a viable cyberspace book club could be constituted and how I could incorporate my ideas on the way to choose books and facilitate productive discussion.

For such a long-distance book club, I first considered using a real-time chat room, Skype, or a conference call. I discarded these ideas because some potential members might be technologically challenged and might need training on use of these tools or have to acquire them. Email is now universally used, so I began to conceive ways in which it could be the viable mode of discussion and could even yield livelier exchanges than in live meetings.

A recognized facilitator is necessary to plan and to keep discussion on track. I appoint myself. An annual list of ten books would be selected for the reading year, which would run from September to June. The reading list will be given to members in June so that they can read the books in the order and at the rate they wish. An advance list also enables members to get a jumpstart on the reading of the books during July and August while also affording plenty of time to re-read portions of a book before a book is scheduled to be discussed.

Each member establishes a mailing list in their email program for the book club. The discussion opens on the first day of the month that a particular book is scheduled to be discussed. Members begin to pose questions or write comments about the book and continue to discuss that book throughout that month. Members set their email messages to not include the message to which they are responding. This is important to prevent the generation of long messages with every attached message ever made about that comment included in the latest message. Comments will be controlled through the subject line. When responding to a comment, the responder uses the same subject line as the one to which he is responding. When starting a new line of discussion, the member writes that topic in the subject line. Discussion of the book continues throughout the month–day or night.  I believe written discussion will generate thorough-going and thoughtful commentary, because it allows time for readers to formulate ideas and responses and to find pertinent references in the book. I’d have members set up subfolders by book title in their email under the main folder Book Club in which they can easily find and read comments by subject line.

How will the books be chosen? Suggestions can be solicited from all members, but the facilitator/directress/Autocrat of the Cyber Book Club–ME– -makes the final selection from the suggestions. The criteria for proposed books: 1) published at least twenty years ago. I want books that have demonstrated some staying power. There are already plenty of clubs that focus on currently much talked-about books. 2) the author has received some recognition in the form of a National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Booker Award, or another prestigious award, and not necessarily the book for which they won the award. 3) inclusion of authors not writing in English where good translations exist and whose books have international recognition. 4) inclusion of some “classics”  from prior centuries. 5) inclusion of some significant non-fiction–biography, autobiography, memoir, etc.  As an example, here’s one possible calendar: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Book of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Lastly, I’d like a span of age groups and a mix of men and women in the book club; but I’m stumped on how to achieve this diversity. There are many factors at work that tend to make book clubs rather homogenous. It’s not my purpose here to explore the reasons for this, only to state my preferences.  Differences in age and in gender provide a range of perspectives and insights that will enhance the liveliness of the Cyberspace Book Club.

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.