February 6, 2017
I’m one of the luckier Feds, I guess. I retired from government service in 2014, well before the country elected a president who seems bent on establishing a dictatorship. An essential part of his plan is ravaging as many Federal agencies as he can and subverting their intended missions. All in all, I’m grateful not to be back in my old cubicle at the Department of Labor (OSHA), watching the effects of this first-hand, but it still makes my blood boil.
I wasn’t one of those aging employees who clung to my job once I sensed I was being pushed toward retirement. It was aggravating to see my substantive work start to disappear as my hair went gray. I saw younger employees awarded higher grades to do essentially the same work I used to do. They were pampered far too much with all-expenses-paid junkets, lunches, and “retreats,” and the more benefits they got, the more they complained. I honestly don’t mind seeing some of these high-priced whiners squirm a little in the Trump administration. But the essential, front-line work of agencies like OSHA, which relies on many truly dedicated and hard-working employees, is too important to minimize or discard just because managers have been known to make short-sighted decisions.
Trump is going after the most visible Feds first. These include Inspector Generals, who are supposed to be independent critics of agency practices. He’ll get rid of anyone brave enough to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. Hopefully, before mass firings at the IRS can be accomplished, someone will be brazen enough to leak Trump’s tax returns, which will probably tell us all we need to know about his ties to foreign governments, his corruption, and his phony charity. That bureaucrat will be both lauded and vilified, and may even go to prison, if Trump gets his way.
I was pretty much relegated to mundane tasks in my final years, but now that I look back, it wasn’t all that bad. It means I’m qualified to star in my own proposed non-action-packed movie, “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Grunt work is where the true resistance lies. By grunt work I mean everyday chores like running employment reports, taking head counts of various job classifications, gathering and analyzing performance data, and writing the budget narratives and reports that explain this data. Those are the facts upon which the agency’s work is based and its effectiveness is measured. It is the best possible resistance to “alternative facts.” By any objective measures, there is no doubt that OSHA has been a success since it was launched in 1971. Workplace injuries have gone down, even as employment in dangerous occupations has risen. Onsite inspections have been proven to make hazardous workplaces safer. If Trump decides he wants to abolish the agency, he will no doubt demand falsified statistics to prove his case. How long can the heroic budget analyst hold out, insisting on the truth?
It’s a shame that true courage is not usually cinematic. We can’t all be Victor Laszlo, or even Rick Blaine, the freedom fighters of “Casablanca” who happened to love the same woman. For them, the fight meant taking up arms. The necessity of that finally superseded everything else, even their love for the beautiful Ilsa. How can a mere bureaucrat equal that? It’s not likely many of them will be forced to choose between love and war. Refusing to lie to please a tyrant is a quiet pursuit–until it isn’t.
Can you envision a courageous budget analyst waterboarded until he or she gives in? Even Trump is probably not crazy enough to institute torture for pencil pushers, although the way things are going, you never know. Admittedly, there are not enough dramatic scenes in my theoretical movie to attract big crowds to the theater. However, one image persists in my mind. Even if Trump’s minions succeed in shutting down all the websites that contain data they don’t like, I doubt if they can track down and destroy every offensive document that remains on personal drives, and every hard copy report on which the data is based. I can just see a buxom bureaucrat sneaking out of her office with documents stuffed in her bra and panties, a latter-day Fawn Hall.
The most effective resistance has never been about throwing tomatoes or grenades. The best antidotes to Trump are truth, verifiable facts, and reason. Civil disobedience, in this day and age, means refusing to succumb to lies and doing everything possible to promote the truth. If the guardians of information do this in great enough numbers, victory will be ours.
January 20, 2017
It’s not exactly the Civil War all over again, with opposing homegrown armies battling one another to the death on battlegrounds like Antietam and Gettysburg. Still, with the political climate boiling and differences between factions looking intractable, a hot war isn’t as implausible as it once seemed. These days there seem to be fewer and fewer unthinkable possibilities. We don’t yet know how far President Trump will go in challenging the normal rules of society to enforce his authority. One thing is certain: he didn’t hesitate during the campaign to set his thugs on peaceful demonstrators.
Those of us with progressive beliefs are feeling beleaguered. We’re clinging to common sense in the face of a government in which facts and reason have no place. I believe there are few problems in our society that couldn’t be solved, or at least alleviated, if billionaires like Trump and his closest buddies were paying their fair share of taxes. Yet that is absolutely out of the question. To even argue the point is a waste of breath. A President who has been propelled into office on a movement depending on lies, conspiracy theories, and delusion can’t be reasoned with, and neither can his followers. He will never read reputable newspapers or listen to experts who say things he doesn’t want to hear. His only real belief is in his own greatness and his ability to do whatever he wants. The word for that is dictatorship.
With reason flying out the window, so has politics as usual. We once had two major political parties with a core of responsible leaders who saw the necessity of compromising on occasion to get things done. Now one of the parties has mastered every dirty trick in the book to keep itself in power. Thanks to innovations like Citizens United, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, and the tried-but-true Electoral College, the system is so rigged that dislodging the clowns will probably be impossible for years to come. A majority of citizens already opposes them, yet here they are in all their glory, claiming a “mandate.” Most people favor sensible gun control, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, and clean energy, but those are looking like pipe dreams. We might as well call this system by its rightful name: Fascism.
Artists have a long history of standing up to Fascists. Art is only one weapon, but a necessary one. Political fiction has always pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, but lately even the most innovative stories have been overtaken by events. I’ve been looking forward to the fifth season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” but now the incredibly sleazy Underwood administration seems so tame compared to reality. Sleazy doesn’t necessarily equate to Fascist. True, Frank Underwood has murdered people who stood in his way, but he has some sensible ideas for running the country and has implemented a few policies that actually help ordinary people. He’s evil, but he’s smart enough to cover his tracks. His calculating nature and self-control tend to prove he’s not crazy. By contrast, many of Trump’s statements are utterly irrational, and he can’t seem to stop himself from uttering or tweeting them.
If the brutal election and its aftermath produce a Resistance movement, that could turn out to be a silver lining for writers. Many great stories came out of resistance to Nazism before and during World War Two. A truly creative writer could perhaps find a way to adapt one of my favorites, “Casablanca,” to the US landscape. It would involve a love triangle centered on a heroine who thinks her husband, a renowned freedom fighter, has perished in prison. She falls in love with another man, also a freedom fighter in his own more understated way, only to find out that her husband is still alive and is coming back. She must decide: which rebel does she love most?
Admittedly, it wouldn’t have quite the same punch unless there was a real war going on, with troops occupying Washington the way they did Paris. Maybe if Hillary Clinton had won the election, and Trump had instigated the violent insurrection he hinted at numerous times, that would have been the case. Or if he should lose a reelection bid four years from now, he might be unwilling to accept those results peaceably. Even in the absence of a hot war, I can envision one of my favorite scenes replicated: the singing of the Marseillaise at Rick’s café, which joyfully drowned out the German national anthem. To get the flavor of that scene, all we’d have to do is find the nearest gathering of Trumpsters, and blast it with Pete Seeger and other peace songs.
A Resistance story doesn’t necessarily involve actual combat. There are many World War Two-era stories that celebrate non-violent resistance to Nazism. A few examples include “The Book Thief” (which celebrates the reading and preservation of forbidden books during Nazi book-burning campaigns); “Rosenstrasse” (which portrays the silent protests by Christian women that resulted in getting their Jewish husbands released from prison); and “Sophie Scholl” (which depicts the White Rose student resistance movement that encouraged kids to spread leaflets and graffiti throughout Germany).
I was a bureaucrat for forty years in Federal government and quasi-government programs, and was never on the front lines of anything. So what kind of Resistance movie could I produce based on my own experiences? Many budget analysts like me are charged with producing head counts of employees in various job classifications. One of my responsibilities at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was maintaining lists of compliance safety and health officers, known as CSHOs. They were the front-line employees who performed safety and health inspections at worksites.
Now the Trump team has announced its intention to change civil service rules so that career Federal employees can be fired without cause. It can’t be a coincidence that they’ve demanded the names of Energy Department employees who have been involved in designing and implementing clean energy policies. So far, the department has denied the request. Will they be able to continue standing up to the science deniers? I envision a drama with a working title like “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Not exactly an action-packed thriller, it would instead be a tale of organized civil disobedience among pencil pushers.
A wide-scale resistance movement in the Federal bureaucracy could take the form of refusing to divulge the names of employees who are doing the regulatory and scientific jobs they were hired to do, such as establishing environmental protection laws and enforcing safety and health rules in hazardous workplaces. Presumably, if they can’t be identified, they can’t be fired. If their identities eventually come to light, human resources offices could refuse to do the paperwork required to terminate their employment. The prospect of firing whole departments might stump even the great and magnificent Donald Trump.
Nazi Germany was reputed to be a bureaucratic society, with the complicated administrative structure of the Third Reich existing parallel to and competitive with the Nazi Party. It seemed that everything, even genocide, had to be done by the book. Maybe it would be a good thing if the Trumpsters turned out to resemble the Nazis in that regard. We could build barricades with paperwork, and hopefully they’d smother in it.
October 1, 2016
I’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.
Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.
Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.
Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”
Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”
The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).
Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.
July 3, 2016
I first became acquainted with George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in high school during the LBJ and Nixon eras. Although first published in 1949, the book resonated with us baby boomers because of our generational grievances and distrust of authority. It resonated all the more because it was not a mere political treatise. At the center of it was an illicit, passionate love affair, something that our adolescent hormonal selves could relate to.
The question that each succeeding generation has to ask itself anew is whether the horrors of 1984 could happen here and now. Orwell’s world was divided into three regions, and Oceania, which included the former England, had become a marriage of high technology and totalitarianism. Now that we’re living in a high tech world that few could have foreseen a generation ago, does it make us more or less likely to succumb to dictators?
LBJ and Nixon engendered plenty of mistrust, but we now have a presidential candidate who leaves them in the dust. Not only is he impervious to facts and reason, a trait which many ideological politicians share, but he gets many of his “facts” from the least reliable and most easily inflamed social media outlets. Furthermore, he insists that whatever he proclaims to be a fact is irrefutable, even if our own observations tell us otherwise. On his say-so, he expects us to deny the evidence of our own senses, a concept called “denial of objective reality” in Orwell’s world. As Winston Smith wailed to his overseer O’Brien while in prison, “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” Not always, O’Brien replies. Sometimes they are three and sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are all of them at once.
In the end, Nixon couldn’t get beyond the evidence that was preserved on his Oval Office tapes. What we heard couldn’t be unheard. That doesn’t seem to matter to Donald Trump. He has left a long, irrefutable record of unbelievably stupid statements and provocations, but if any of them become inconvenient to his election chances, he simply denies them. If he says something didn’t happen, it literally didn’t happen. He claims to have evidence that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and that thousands of Muslims celebrated on 9-11. So where is this evidence? We just have to trust that his investigators found some fantastic stuff along these lines. If he denies that one of his goons assaulted a reporter, the video of that event must be lying. Just throw it down the memory hole. He’s also mastered the art of taking contradictory positions at the same time: classic doublethink. He whips his followers into a Two Minutes Hate, so that they never have the time or inclination to think for themselves.
It’s worth considering what happened to art and literature in Orwell’s 1984. As in all totalitarian societies, it still has its uses, but only for purposes that serve the Party. Winston Smith is an intellectual, buttoned-down type who can’t wait to get his hands on a forbidden book that will explain how and why the society he’s living in came about, and how it might be destroyed. His lover, Julia, is a much younger, more sensuous person who only cares about sleeping with him, not probing his mind or considering the political ramifications of their lovemaking. Winston’s job involves rewriting and falsifying the public record when necessary to make the Party look good. Julia works in the Fiction Department, but her skills are best suited to the non-literary part of the job, servicing the machinery used to mass-produce books. She describes the process of composing a novel: “from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product … books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.” There is also a subsection of the Fiction Department that produces pornography, based on six recurring plots. The sealed booklets are targeted to proletarian youths (the “poorly educated” in Trump’s endearing terminology), to give them the illusion that they are doing something slightly illegal.
Our country is in danger of casting aside its precious, hard-won democracy and embracing a real-life Big Brother. Donald Trump has already demonstrated his dictatorial bent. He responds to any hint of criticism with threats, insults, and tantrums. In fact, he expects nothing short of nonstop adulation. Could such a president seriously compromise our freedom to read and write what we choose? His threats to “loosen up” existing libel laws, so that he can sue media outlets that are mean to him, is already having a chilling effect. We can only hope it will prove more difficult than he expects to remake America into a place he can rule with an iron fist, but there is no doubt he intends to try. It’s the responsibility of rational people to do everything legally possible to stop him. America is not a place where the Thought Police should hold sway.
May 2, 2016
I’ve spent my entire life living in a suburban cocoon, sheltered from the world’s harshest realities. I always knew that the famines, decades-long civil wars, and military coups that regularly decimate foreign countries can’t possibly happen here. Lucky me, I was born in the United States in a time of relative prosperity, although the political landscape has never been what you could call tranquil. I’m a baby boomer, by definition the child of a World War Two veteran. The Greatest Generation, my parents’ generation, fought the most virulent forms of Fascism in Germany and Japan to ensure that those scourges couldn’t invade our lives. True, we lived our entire lives under a nuclear cloud, practicing futile remedies like duck-and-cover when we were kids, but we could count on Mutually Assured Destruction to keep us safe. It seemed the Soviets, like us, weren’t totally crazy.
There have been many books and movies that plausibly envision all sorts of nightmare scenarios. Some of the “what-ifs” that have made the greatest impression on me include 1984 (what a high-tech totalitarian society would look like), It Happened Here (if England had lost the Battle of Britain and been conquered by Hitler), Seven Days In May (if the US military attempted to overthrow the president), and most chilling of all, Level Seven (total nuclear annihilation). After imagining the worst, I feel relieved that it hasn’t happened yet. I have an urge to step outside and breathe in the sights and sounds of my own lawn, where life persists, unaware of any existential threat.
Nobody in the US could claim at any time that Fascism had been totally defeated. It has always been present, at least beneath the surface, in our national political life. Lately, it has begun to get alarmingly obvious. It’s not necessarily a good sign that we see more and more fictional presidents who are either totalitarian wannabes or buffoons. I was criticized for portraying an over-the-top president in my own novel, Let’s Play Ball, but he was small potatoes. All he did was have adulterous sex in the oval office (real sex, not just oral) and hatch a plot to kidnap a ballplayer. What I wrote can’t hold a candle to appalling but undeniably entertaining shows like “House of Cards.”
How believable is Frank Underwood, the fictional president of this series? As of this date, he’s already murdered two people by his own hand, and has an equally thuggish chief of staff doing dirty work for him on the side. In one recent scene with his own Secretary of Defense, a potential political rival, he seems to confess to his previous murders and threaten her with the same fate, only to back off and say he’s kidding. As he obviously intends, she is left unsure whether she’s really in danger or just paranoid. Yet if Underwood were real, I would vote for him over several of the current presidential candidates. I’d even vote for his wife Claire, who has maneuvered herself into a spot on his ticket. The Underwoods at least take some reasonable positions, if only for expediency’s sake.
When I studied Political Science in graduate school over thirty years ago, I thought I had acquired a decent grasp of “what can’t happen here” in the political realm. But in 2016, we might as well shred those rules. There are practically no limits now to what certain candidates can say or do and remain beloved by their fans. I suspect that deep down, many of these politicians know how unreasonable their positions are, but they have gotten into the habit of pandering to an uninformed electorate instead of trying to educate their followers. Since there’s no point in agonizing over what I can’t control, I amuse myself these days by pretending that the ongoing election is a novel, and the candidates are colorful if implausible characters. Only what self-respecting editor wouldn’t red-ink characters like these? Honestly, I don’t think I have enough imagination to make up Donald Trump.
When has such an ignorant buffoon come so close to the presidency, even in fiction? Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film “The Great Dictator” satirized characters such as Adenoid Hynkel of Tomainia and Benzino Napaloni of Bacteria, who tragically had real-life counterparts. Is the present situation so different? Here is a man who accepts Nazi-like salutes from his followers, has expressed admiration for Mussolini, has reportedly studied Hitler’s speeches, and encourages his goons to beat up any detractors. He refuses to repudiate the support of white supremacists, and threatens media outlets that criticize him. But let’s jump ahead and contemplate what President Trump would be like. Since candidate Trump has yet to show the slightest grasp of how the US government works, we must assume he would expect to enter office wielding dictatorial powers. How would he react when he discovers the concept of checks and balances? Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA director, has said that some of the orders Trump intends to issue as commander-in-chief would be illegal, and could well trigger a coup. His signature policy initiative would start at least a trade war with Mexico, our largest trading partner, if not a hot war. Meanwhile, if he follows through on his promise to deport 11 million immigrants, he would create all the necessary ingredients for a civil war.
Would Trump last even a year in office? I can see him quitting in frustration when he finds the job more difficult than he imagined. Certainly some of his actions, if he tried to carry them out, would be impeachable. Like Chaplin’s dictators, he’s extremely childish, given to temper tantrums if he doesn’t receive the adulation he thinks he deserves or otherwise fails to get his way. Imagine putting someone with the temperament of a five-year-old in charge of the military and the nuclear codes. He might blow us off the map before we had a chance to impeach him.
This is really nothing new for Republican candidates, many of whom have demonstrated an appalling ignorance of our national history. Trump himself was recently asked in an in-depth interview what he thought of Lincoln’s accomplishments. After he had rambled for several minutes, it was clear to the interviewers that he had no idea what Lincoln did. He touts an “America First” foreign policy, showing no awareness of what that phrase meant in the late 1930s. Sarah Palin, former Republican VP candidate, didn’t know that World Wars One and Two were fought in the twentieth century. And then there’s my personal favorite, former Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann congratulating the founding fathers for their great courage and fortitude in abolishing slavery.
American history is a great story in itself, and really needs no exaggeration or enhancement. It has all the drama, vivid characters, crises, and triumphs that anyone could want. Even some of the duller personalities that populate our history were interesting in their own plodding way. Maybe that’s why we crave over-the-top scenarios in fiction that portray our leaders as criminals, clowns or worse. Authors must do all they can to keep up with reality.
December 5, 2015
These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.
My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.
It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.
My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.
Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.
In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.
My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.
Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.
I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”
I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.
September 15, 2015
When I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.
I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.
The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.
The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?
Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?
July 2, 2015
Several months ago, The Washington Post carried a heartbreaking story by Cynthia McCabe about a struggling writer, Dennis Williams (alternate name: Katry Rain) who became despondent and suicidal when he concluded that his writing life, and consequently his entire life, were finished. Williams published one book with a small press, had one play produced, and self-published several “philosophical” works and novels based on that philosophy. He was also a teacher of English in Japan, apparently popular with his students, and had garnered some press attention many years earlier with a stunt to protest the Nixon administration.
But the writing success that he longed for wasn’t forthcoming. In a heartbreaking “give-up” gesture, he dumped a load of his unsold books on the doorstep of a used bookstore under cover of darkness one night. Eventually, he planned his death and announced it in advance, e-mailing several prominent journalists, all strangers to him, one day in advance. Was this a ploy to get the attention he’d never had? If so, it was somewhat successful, but he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. He threw himself off a building, exactly as he said he would. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it (although at least one of the journalists sincerely tried to). Nor was he forcing anybody to read his work. He was just “done.”
Can struggling writers learn anything from this sad story? I don’t believe “struggling” has to mean “despondent.” Most of us learn to embrace the struggle. If our wildest dreams are punctured, we settle for more modest success. Williams seemed to have failed even with his forays into social media, which in my opinion should be nothing but fun. He had very few “likes” on his pages, much less “friends.” I suspect he was desperately seeking the approval of followers instead of trying to get to know them.
As for his novels, Cynthia McCabe tried to read them sympathetically, only to pronounce them didactic and boring. He must have cared more about lecturing readers about the “truth” than entertaining them. A writer has to decide which is more important. If we’re not mesmerizing as many readers as we would like, can’t we at least entertain ourselves? And why should we ever consider ourselves through with writing as long as we’re alive and there are still stories to tell? My advice, if you ever feel devoid of ideas, is to check out the daily newspaper. It’s depressing as hell most of the time, but it’s a panorama of life, full of all the agony and ecstasy you’ll ever need for inspiration.
April 2, 2015
For an introvert like me, public speaking is torture. I hated giving oral presentations at school and work, and usually bombed unless I kept carefully prepared notes close at hand. But nowadays, publicity opportunities for self-published authors are expanding. To take full advantage of these, there are times when a shy author must try to overcome his or her reticence and learn to speak in front of more than one person without babbling.
I recently got a chance to give a couple of radio interviews as part of a publicity campaign for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock. There are music stations here and there that will give a few minutes of exposure to an author whose subject is rock and roll. Being a mediocre speaker, I filled in a questionnaire ahead of time with basic talking points. You’d think I’d know by now what my own book is about, but it’s surprisingly difficult to sum up in a few words. It’s easier to describe what inspired the book, since I can point to numerous things. For me, playing classic rock radio during the writing process was as important as keeping ink in the printer. Certain songs formed the soundtrack of my growing-up scenes, including falling in love and many less pleasant struggles. Some songs still manage to deliver sheer joy. How can you hear Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate,” and not remember how good it was back then just to be alive?
I was pegged as a “rock wife expert” by an innovative publicist. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, although I did spend some of my youthful years hanging around local bands that were talented but volatile. That instability extended to the musicians’ love relationships. There were many sad stories primed to turn into sad songs, only to be lost because the bands didn’t stay together long enough to make themselves heard beyond the local clubs. I comforted one close friend who suffered through a marriage with a rock musician that was fruitful in terms of children, but sadly enough, ended up producing one more broken home.
We baby boomers are reaping some rewards for our long-standing loyalty to the music of our generation. Many of the truly famous classic rock groups somehow survived their growing pains and emerged as mature acts, revitalized with sidemen who in some cases appear to be a whole generation younger. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Four Seasons, Rod Stewart, and two versions of the Beach Boys in Atlantic City, a favorite stop on their circuit. Frankie Valli, who goes back the farthest of anyone I’ve seen, was almost 78 when I caught his new act. He had surrounded himself with “Four Seasons” who could not only harmonize like the old group, but could dance like the kids they were. This second act for classic rock still has the power to inspire. I sang along to “Rag Doll” and “Dawn,” and relived the many ups and downs of 1964.
January 9, 2015
A free society thrives on controversy. Writers and artists must have the ability to express themselves without fear or restraint, regardless of whom they might offend. The public is equally entitled to take offense at what they see and read, and to say so forcefully. The ensuing debate, if respectfully conducted, is a healthy thing.
The more controversial the subject, however, the more difficult it seems to achieve a balanced debate. One of the riskier challenges a fiction writer faces is portraying villains as real people. I grappled with this in a small way in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball when I put bigoted opinions in the mouth of a character whom the heroine nevertheless found attractive enough to sleep with. The topic has come up in a much more threatening way in attempts by some school districts to censor the greatest of American classics, Huckleberry Finn, because much of its language reflects the racial prejudices of its time. This is a blatant example of people policing what they read, instead of attempting to understand it. They are not reading the book, but only reacting.
That said, there are some works of art that are so explosive that they put the most ardent anti-censorship advocate to the test. One example is The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera depicting the 1985 attack by the Palestine Liberation Front on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the brutal murder of a Jewish-American passenger. It has been controversial ever since it debuted in 1991, and efforts are continuing to this day to suppress it. At one point, revisions were made to the opera in an effort to stem some of the criticism. In the opinion of some critics, the revisions actually made matters worse by robbing the piece of important depth and context.
There is no easy way to portray both sides of an issue as intractable as the Israel-Palestinian divide. It would be easier, and even understandable, to regard the terrorists as sub-human. However, in that case, they might as well be portrayed as comic-strip villains, evil just because they are. My sympathies in this debate tend overwhelmingly toward Israel, and I abhor brutal attacks on unarmed civilians, no matter what the cause. But the terrorists are not raging in a vacuum. If they are to be portrayed in a work of art, they must be three-dimensional characters with an understandable mission. Free expression must be given the benefit of the doubt. Any attempt to limit it is troubling.