Dictator In Pantyhose

I’ve never been able to resist inserting politics into my stories. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. Political apocalypses have always been popular in fiction, and the farther out they get, the better. But I sometimes ask myself how far authors can reasonably take their nightmare scenarios. For example, how evil can a leader be and still remain plausible?

Try to imagine a President of the United States who exemplifies everything the founding fathers tried to prevent when they established the emoluments clause to the Constitution and other safeguards. In their eighteenth-century wisdom, they foresaw that a sociopath might someday attain the highest office in the land, and turn it into a private fiefdom for his own political and financial benefit. Such a scenario would only be possible if that person corralled a once-respected political party to elevate him, whitewash his flaws, and do his bidding.

Such a president would treat the rule of law as an inconvenience, resist any efforts by the other branches of government to conduct oversight, and fire anybody who dared to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. He would sell out allies and coddle dictators according to his whims. He would be a pathological liar, given to childish tantrums. Worst of all, when faced with a genuine emergency, he would continue to lie to cover up his own incompetence and inadequacy, even if his lies endangered the health and safety of the citizenry. Pretty wild, right? Couldn’t possibly happen here, could it?

Oh, wait …

An alarming realization has struck. There are limits to the effectiveness of speculative fiction if the worst has already happened, or is about to happen. What will possibly be left for us amateur politicos to cook up? Luckily, brave people who resist authoritarianism have always made good heroes and heroines. In the present circumstances, things could definitely get worse, and soon. If Trump is re-elected, he’ll anoint himself dictator, if not emperor of the universe. His corruption will become even more unapologetic than it is now. If he’s defeated, he may well scream “false news” and refuse to leave. His implacable base, many of whom have guns and nothing much to lose, will support him no matter what, perhaps even to the point of civil war.

I’m currently trying to draft yet another novel that features corrupt leaders. Tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, this one is a sequel to Let’s Play Ball (2010). The first story featured a monstrous president, Jeremiah Smith, who facilitates the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer for his own benefit. His actions are covered up by his enablers, enough to maintain plausible deniability, although almost every thinking person knows or suspects that he’s guiltier than sin. He foregoes running for reelection, citing health concerns. He and his supporters are fine with this because his daughter, Deirdre Smith Gordon, is prepared to succeed him.

In Gilded Prisons, Deirdre proves not only as corrupt and venal as her father, but much smarter, which increases the danger. (Think Ivanka in a few years). Deirdre is a lawyer who never practiced law, having chosen to please her father’s conservative base by representing herself as a stay-at-home mom while her children were young. That was always a bit of a ruse, since she has been the driving force behind her husband’s rise to leadership posts in Congress. And now that she has attained the highest office herself, thanks to daddy’s legacy, she plans to change everything about the government that doesn’t directly serve her and her family. As if to prove that no one ever learns from past mistakes or pays for them, the baseball kidnapping caper is repeated. Did she instigate the crime, or merely exploit it after the fact? That has yet to be determined.

I picture Deirdre as a woman with a sweet, flirtatious veneer, who looks especially good in short skirts. This enables her to hoodwink people more efficiently than an equally evil man would. In some ways, she’s Trump in pantyhose. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Trump was an obnoxious but fairly benign reality-show host. Despite his long previous history of business fraud and con-artistry, he didn’t seem that threatening. He lacked a firm ideology when it came to politics, bending whichever way best served his purposes. Had it suited his ego and ambition to come down to the left of Bernie Sanders, he would have done so without a second thought.

My presidential anti-heroine has a similar lack of true convictions apart from her own self-interest. Accordingly, she forms unholy alliances with odd political bedfellows, including right-wing militias at home and Communists abroad, and anyone in between who has the potential to serve her goals. Inevitably, a movement to resist this soulless form of government takes shape. I’m not sure yet whether to plunge my fictional United States into a second civil war, this time perhaps leading to permanent division. Sometimes I feel that the old Confederacy might just as well have won the first Civil War, and saved us all the trouble of trying to build a democracy based at least on the ideals of freedom.

Is this a reasonably original plot, or merely a prediction? What if it really happens, and soon? What’s a writer of political fiction to do?

Such Devoted Sisters

I’ve always been intrigued by catfights. Maybe I don’t have a great opinion of my own sex? My stories seem to be populated with mean girls, their collaborators, and their victims. That has led to a corresponding interest in the dynamics between sisters. My 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball dealt with fraternal twins who were close but competitive. I made some assumptions about sister relationships based on no real world experience, not having a sister of my own. I was guessing that even twin siblings can be very different.

Miranda and Jessica, the fraternal twins in my story, pursue wildly divergent career paths and love lives. While Miranda establishes a relatively sedate career as a budget analyst in the Department of Homeland Security, and marries a young lawyer, Jessica becomes a freelance journalist and starts her own sports magazine. Her endeavor takes off when she publishes a story about a local baseball star, Cuban-born Manny Chavez, who has pulled off a daring rescue of his young son from his unstable ex-wife. Jessica and Manny become engaged, and then he is kidnapped. Miranda, whose own life is not as picture-perfect as it seems, becomes embroiled in the investigation alongside her sister. In the course of the story, Miranda and Jessica fight and make up a lot, criticize each other’s personal choices, and pursue wholly different suspects.

Speaking of sisters, I’ve streamed the first three seasons of the Netflix series “The Crown,” which chronicles the endlessly melodramatic British royal family. Among many other themes, the series has something to say about sibling relationships, particularly between the Windsor sisters, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. That was a love-hate relationship for the ages. This portrayal of Elizabeth shows her wearing the crown rather uneasily, while Margaret subjects her to frequent jabs about how much better she could have done the job if she’d been the older sister. Since she isn’t, she pursues a rather wild life, giving the sovereign numerous headaches. But that is arguably what Big Sister deserves for all the slights and criticisms she delivers herself, not to mention the constant interference with Margaret’s love life and marriage prospects. Being single longer only keeps Margaret’s dissolute habits going longer, thereby creating even more sovereign headaches. Margaret does take on occasional diplomatic missions for the Crown, although her style of diplomacy is best illustrated by the occasion when she regaled guests at a White House state dinner with dirty jokes. Still, she got the job done.

It’s undeniable that catfights provide some of the best entertainment in the news, as well as in the  history books. Those of us who keep tabs on the current British royal family are aware of a falling out between the princes William and Harry … and few of us doubt that the real source of that tiff is their respective wives. Thankfully, catfights don’t usually lead to murder, but it has been known to happen. The feud between royal cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots ended rather badly. When two such powerful ladies are both determined to have their most dangerous rival silenced, it’s likely that one of them will lose her head.

As I’ve confessed before, I can’t resist the various “Real Housewives” franchises on Bravo TV, even when they make me cringe. The catfights featured on these shows tend to develop between wealthy women over mostly petty differences and first-world issues. The husbands of these “housewives” are a rather henpecked group, often berated by their wives for spending too many hours at work and not enough with them. Once in a while one of these husbands works up the courage to point out that the long hours he puts in earning a living are necessary to sustain his wife’s lifestyle. That usually leads to a full-scale tantrum.

All in all, It’s a little discouraging to realize that no one seems to go broke by underestimating the intelligence of women. Maybe if we started fighting back against the usual female stereotypes, they wouldn’t be so pervasive. In the meantime, we have to face the fact that white woman (largely from the South, admittedly) played a significant role in electing an incompetent moron to the presidency in 2016. Why couldn’t they vote for one of their own, if only because it’s more than time to prove a woman can do the job? Could we really do any worse? Hillary might not have been the most likable candidate ever, but she had intelligence, relevant experience, and competence. I suspect those are the very qualities that seem unwomanly to some women, especially the descendants of southern belles. Is it that they’re jealous?

Back before the 2016 election debacle, I couldn’t help thinking that if only Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel could all be heads of state at the same time, it might make for one of the most entertaining catfights ever. But who knows? Maybe if those three had actually put their heads together, something would have clicked. After seeing the depths that masculine leadership can bring us to, it seems to me that government by sisterhood is worth a try.

Lady Macbeth As Heroine

My 2010 novel, Let’s Play Ball, features a villainess named Guadalupe. She’s an American-born woman of Cuban descent, who throws away a marriage to a Cuban-born major league ballplayer that could have ensured a prosperous life in the United States. She believes she was meant for greater things on a wider stage. She grabs at that more meaningful life by catching the eye of the heir apparent to the presidency of Cuba during a rare state visit. She follows him back to the island to assume the role of first-lady-in-waiting, taking her young son without his father’s permission.

My villainess is not the type to sit back and watch from afar as her ex-husband, Manny, finds happiness with his second wife, Jessica, a glamorous sportswriter, and maneuvers to get his son back. She suffers international humiliation when the child is snatched from his nanny in a daring raid, and returned to the U.S. In revenge, she plots Manny’s kidnapping, bringing in a wide range of accomplices.

Guadalupe is far from the only evil character in the story, since it takes a rather large conspiracy to pull off the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer from his own ballpark. Is she worse than all the others, being the ultimate instigator of a crime against the man she once professed to love? Is she not only un-womanly but un-maternal, since the revenge factor seems to play a bigger role in her plotting than the custody issue?

Certain critics have pointed out that my other female characters don’t come off so great, either. Jessica and her fraternal twin sister Miranda, a homeland security bureaucrat, are the ostensible heroines as they set out to investigate the kidnapping. Although they make progress, their contentious relationship threatens to derail their efforts. They disagree, argue, and snipe at each other a lot along the way. In fact, catfights are a motif in this story. Certain powerful women come to the twins’ attention as suspects, and they, in turn, are fighting with each other. Come to think of it, catfights pop up fairly often in all of my stories. Don’t I like my own sex?

Guadalupe proves to be the lead villainess, the undeniable catalyst of all the mischief. Now I’m writing a sequel in which she becomes something of a heroine, at least in her own mind. Her evil ways continue as she instigates yet another kidnapping of a ballplayer, with less personal justification than before. Yet she feels driven by a higher purpose, a long-range goal that even she can’t define at first. She may be delusional, but she may be onto something.

Can an unapologetic villain possibly be sympathetic? And can people who seem to entertain grandiose ideas make themselves understood by rational minds? For that matter, is it necessary as authors to root for our viewpoint characters every minute?

While researching the subject of sympathetic villainesses, I came across an alternative take on Lady Macbeth. In Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth: A Novel (2009), Shakespeare’s most wicked woman is given a rich backstory that helps to explain, if not justify, her wickedness. She was widowed while pregnant, and forced to marry the Scottish warlord Macbeth, her husband’s murderer. Although she initially despises this unnatural partner, the brutal world she inhabits forces her to join with him and share his plans. There are threats coming at the uneasy couple from all directions, including Vikings, Saxons, and competing warlords. Her own royal blood has given Lady Macbeth an imperious bearing and an awareness of her special destiny. Her twin goals of advancing her son and forging a united Scotland are not for the weak-hearted.

To find a more modern villain-hero, we can turn to the Star Wars universe. It seems that Kylo Ren, son of the original icons Hans Solo and Leia Organa, somehow turned evil. Given his parentage, he must have felt pressured from childhood to become the very embodiment of Jedi righteousness. Instead, in an extreme case of adolescent rebellion, he ends up leading an army against his heroic parents, even killing his dad. A analysis in Rolling Stone of the final Star Wars installment seems to relate this angst to modern times: “A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat.”

Adam Driver, who portrays Kylo Ren, explains the nuances of his role: “There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.” He goes on to explain further that although his character is the villain “in some ways,” his actions can also be seen as heroic. This is one mixed-up universe, where a mass murderer is deemed “vulnerable” because he hesitated a moment, with pain in his eyes, before he wiped out an entire regiment of righteous warriors.

I haven’t seen “The Rise of Skywalker,” but it was widely speculated in advance that Ren must be headed toward some sort of redemption. That would seem to be necessary if the chemistry between him and Rey, his warrior-heroine opponent, is ever to develop. That would be the most predictable plot arc, although writers of sagas have been known to surprise us.

So that brings me back to my own Guadalupe, who will not live “happily ever after,” no matter where she ends up. She has never found contentment, either as a baseball wife in the U.S. or in her “Cuban first lady” pose. Nor will she ever settle for being a mere decoration, when she “knows” she’s destined to make her own unique mark on history. Is she a little bit crazy? No doubt, but she may just prove to be a little bit right.

Anger Trumps Everything

I wake up most mornings in a decent mood, but things often go downhill within minutes.  Despite having retired from the Federal government over five years ago, I still get my wake-up call from Federal News Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to snuggle in bed and listen to reports of office struggles and piles of work that no longer concern me. That part is nice, although it tends to remind me of the way I used to have loads of stuff piled on me, often while certain pampered prima donnas were off on taxpayer-funded junkets or “retreats” (Retreat from what? I used to ask myself). As if that weren’t perfect for getting me off on the wrong foot, the Federal news is usually followed by the latest presidential twitter outburst, yet another ignorant rant or blatant lie from that twisted mind. Despite the current impeachment talk, I know in my heart that Trump will never be held accountable for anything, because he never has been, despite a lifetime of personal and business sleaze, followed by a corrupt-to-the bones presidency.

Naturally, that leads to a host of other annoyances, until I find myself mad at the entire country. How could the electorate let this happen? It must be a failure of the educational system. I see evidence of that every day. I don’t like to flaunt too much baby boomer superiority, but I gotta ask, when did they stop teaching history and civics in schools? I couldn’t have gotten out of high school without knowing something about the history of my country and the form of government I live under. Are these subjects too controversial these days? Are teachers being instructed to avoid any topics touching on politics for fear of offending somebody?  How, then, is a student ever going to be intellectually challenged? When a large part of the electorate appears to embrace a wannabe dictator, it points to a lack of both critical thinking ability and historical perspective.

This is not strictly the fault of right-wingers, in my opinion. So-called progressives are often guilty of closed-mindedness. For example, there have been battles in local school districts over Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest classic of American literature. Some authorities would like to sanitize it, if not ban it entirely, because some of the language is rough on delicate sensibilities. Today’s snowflakes cringe at anything that sounds racist to the modern ear, so they miss the point of the story, which is an eloquent indictment of racism. This inability to put things in context is both startling and alarming.

I also rail against the general loosening of grammatical rules, as if it foretold a barbarian invasion. Not that I’m grammatically perfect myself, but I have particular trouble with the current fad for disguising gender by using a plural pronoun. Something like this often pops up in popular advice columns: “After my partner had tried to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I was.” Unless the writer is actually dealing with multiple partners, this is simply incorrect. I want to shout out: For the love of the English language, people, pick a gender and stick to it. It’s not going to blow your cover. So what if you happen to reveal that your spouse is a man? The world is full of male spouses.

I realize, of course, that there are times when the plural pronoun is being used to make a political point, especially when the subject’s gender is undetermined or in transition. Still, in most instances, that person identifies as either male or female, or closer to one gender than the other. Why not use the preferred gender pronoun, even if a transition is underway and is not yet complete? The Washington Post recently published an intriguing article entitled “A Mother, But Not A Woman.” The subject of the article intended to become male, yet didn’t want to lose the chance to give birth. The sentence “He is a mother” might sound peculiar, but it would underscore that such things are possible in this day and age. And while I’m at it, I’d like to squelch the indiscriminate use of apostrophes when a possessive is not involved, as in “To all artists and writer’s, welcome.” And please, let’s deep-six  “alright” for good.

When anger intrudes on our entertainment, it’s time to chill. For me, baseball has long provided an escape from more serious worries, but sometimes it makes for more aggravation. Sports fans, by definition, are unreasonable, and even those rooting for the same team fight like cats and dogs over every point of strategy. I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my team, the Washington Nationals, that regularly turns into a battle ground. If the team loses, it has to be someone’s fault; it can’t just be that the other team was better or luckier that day.

The group’s primary punching bag is the beleaguered second-year manager, Davey Martinez. This Davey-hatred has abated a little recently, in view of the team’s recent success, but I have no doubt it will rev up again as soon as the Nats fail to win the World Series. Many fans declare that the wins come about in spite of Davey’s stupidity, not because he could possibly have done something right for a change. There is a serious lack of perspective whenever one game goes wrong. In the course of a 162-game regular season, they demand that the manager go for broke and fire all his bullets every time out. That simply isn’t possible, unless it really is an elimination game and there’s no tomorrow to consider.

This strikes me as another form of Trumpism, which boils down to overly simplistic thinking. Second-guessing fans tend to forget that they have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, which the manager didn’t have when he made whatever decision blew up in his face. I’ve given up trying to convince some people that a bad play, or a blown save, or a missed offensive opportunity could be the result of a player’s failure to execute. Maybe it looks like Martinez put the wrong guy in the wrong situation, but it’s not like he had a ton of better options. Since managers and coaches don’t rise to the level of hero worship that players do, it’s easier to call for their heads. We’d all like to think that if the decision-makers could be replaced, every player would instantly find his inner Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson, and joy would reign throughout Nats Land. I don’t claim to be a fount of wisdom all the time, but I do value reason and intellect, even as a fan. It may take me twenty-four hours or so after a painful loss, but at some point I try to develop some perspective, remind myself it’s just a game, and stop cursing the baseball gods.

Another bad trend I’ve noticed lately is that everyday unpleasantness is getting worse. For the most part, I’ve learned to walk away from rude people, rather than to let a situation escalate. Similarly, I scroll through screeds from Facebook “friends” that I know are full of right-wing nonsense and crazy conspiracy conspiracies. I haven’t “un-friended” anybody over that; I simply refuse to engage.

Still, I don’t think it’s advisable to zone out entirely. Anger can certainly motivate a writer. Looking back, I find that my novels are full of scenes plucked from real life, many of which gave me serious heartburn at the time. My stories deal with turbulent marriages, clueless bosses, workplace cliques, snobbish schoolmates, jealousy, desire for revenge, and many bad situations I’ve dealt with at some time or other. I also like to write about politics, and have always been most roused by politicians I find abhorrent. Now I’m being treated to a daily smorgasbord of stupidity, corruption, incompetence, and cruelty, all wrapped up in one person. I say, don’t sanitize it. Use it.

Rewriting Tragedy

I get frustrated easily. It’s a flaw I keep trying to work on, but it’s been a lifelong battle. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for anger, but there are also many “small stuff” things that you’re not supposed to sweat so much. Those include slights and conflicts far in the past that can’t be altered now, but that continue to generate grudges. Add to that the trivial day-to-day things that I take too seriously, and can do very little to alleviate, like the bumbling of my incompetent sports teams, and the inevitable stupidity of politicians. These feelings are silly, self-destructive, useless … unless you happen to be a writer.

Writers can make use of everything. We have our best fun re-imagining things that went sour and turning them into something quite the opposite. Almost anything can be rewritten to give it a satisfactory resolution. A sports fan like me can transform disappointments into triumphs like magic. I can make my team win, even if their real-life performance fell short. Baseball is my favorite sport, not only because of the athleticism and skill it requires to play at a high level, but because each individual game is full of mini-dramas and seemingly little things that can turn a result around. Games lost in this way are no tragedy for a fan, but sometimes a capricious turn of events can shadow an individual career forever after.

As a Washington Nationals fan, I’ve never quite recovered from the “tragedy” of Drew Storen, the one-time closer who “should” have salted away a victory in the National League divisional playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He would have done so, if he had gotten the benefit of the doubt on two borderline pitches that could have been called third strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5. After failing to get the calls, he went on to lose the game, and the Nats lost the series in a year when they were arguably the best team in baseball, all primed to win a championship. The shadow of that loss seemed to stay with Storen, and history repeated itself eerily in another divisional series two years later. I’m convinced his whole career, at least in DC, would have taken a different course if he hadn’t been “cheated” in 2012 by an umpire who inexplicably narrowed his strike zone at the end of the game. As it is, Storen became a something of a punching bag, a symbol of failure in local sports lore. He was cut loose from the Nationals, and has been mostly wandering around in the wilderness ever since. The Nationals lost two more divisional series after his departure, and some of us still find a way to blame him, as if the stench of failure he left behind still hangs over us.

That sports tragedy is nothing compared to that perpetrated by (and on) Bill Buckner, who played for five Major League teams from 1969 to 1990, won a batting title in 1980, was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981, yet continues to be a national joke owing to a single fielding error he made while playing for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, he picked the worst possible time to commit that outrage. According to Wikipedia, Buckner is “best remembered for a ground ball fielding error in the tenth inning that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, a play that has since become prominently entrenched in American baseball lore. Buckner’s error epitomized the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ of Red Sox fans, and he soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base.”

Overall in his career, Buckner was a reliable contact hitter and wasn’t prone to making fielding errors. The importance of his mistake was exaggerated; it did not, in fact, cost the Red Sox the World Series that year, although many fans believe to this day that it did. Buckner’s chronic ankle problems might have hindered him in getting to the ball in question, and the fast runner who had hit it might have beaten it out anyway. Untimely injuries, and opponents who happen to be a little luckier or better at a given time, are frequent hazards in baseball. It should also be noted that the Red Sox went on to blow a lead in game 7 of that World Series, so there should have been enough blame to spread around.

Buckner didn’t last much longer in Boston, as the fans continued to act ugly in 1987 although he was playing well. He and his family were harassed with death threats, and the news media was making too much hay from the incident to let it go. It took years for the fans and Buckner himself to develop some perspective on it. When he returned to Boston’s Fenway Park as a free agent near the end of his career, most fans seemed ready to “forgive” him. After his playing days ended, he involved himself in several businesses, did some coaching, and made television appearances in which he willingly remained the butt of that eternal joke. It seems that one fluky error defines him more than a respectable major league career spanning 22 years.

Baseball fans are particularly prone to heartache, since there are so many close-call losses. Sometimes the loss is so gut-wrenching, a matter of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory at the last second, that it seems impossible to move on. We declare that this is the worst defeat ever, that we’ll never recover, that we must shun our favorite players until they rouse themselves and give us a reason to watch again. Luckily, unless the fan in question is the kind of nut case who spews death threats, perspective tends to return by the next day. That’s fortunate, since it gives us time to prepare for the next heartbreak that is no doubt just around the corner.

So why do I stick with something that causes so much “pain”? Well, the wins can be euphoric, and the losses can be rewritten. I attempted something like this in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, in which the long-awaited championship run of the local baseball team parallels the blossoming lives and loves of the fraternal twin sisters whose fortunes are entwined with the team’s.

How I wish political realities could be rewritten as easily. The results of the 2016 US presidential election are difficult to put into perspective as yet. Rewriting the results seems next to impossible while we’re still experiencing the tumultuous aftermath, and have no way of knowing how much stranger it might get in the next two years. But as the lies and outrages multiply daily, some form of escape seems necessary. I long to see a work of fiction that portrays a Trump-like figure and his abhorrent enablers finally plummeting to the humiliating defeat that they so richly deserve. In fact, I’m half inclined to give it a try.

Scaling The Border Wall Of Publishing

 

If you consider yourself a writer, you must have experienced a few breakthrough moments. Once in a while there are magical times, hard to come by but worth all the previous struggle, when the words begin to flow and a previously thick stew of ideas coheres into a real story. In years past, that euphoria never lasted long because it was next to impossible to take it any farther. That fleeting sense of accomplishment was inevitably followed by the hopeless feeling of running up against a border wall. Patrols were stationed there to keep you from entering the promised land where your stories might take root and flourish. Obtaining a passport to gain entry into that realm wasn’t totally impossible, but there were dozens of hoops to jump through, and endless waits for the decision-makers to pronounce you worthy.

Then a revolution of sorts arrived on the scene. The self-publishing industry rose up, almost overnight, to blow down that barrier as if it were the Bastille. How liberating was that? We could say good riddance to those endless rules of proper storytelling that applied to newbies like us, but that established authors ignored with impunity. No more waiting six months to hear an agent or publisher say “not for us,” if they bothered to reply at all. No more of their arrogant demands, like the right to view our pieces exclusively so that we wouldn’t waste their precious time, when they had no regrets at all about wasting ours. No more spending years revising one story to suit numerous “expert” and often contradictory specifications, years that could have been filled with countless other stories and boundless creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, none of us has to take no for an answer without knowing why. Even if every agent on earth declares, “I can’t sell it,” that no longer has to be the final word. If we believe in our own work, we can sell it ourselves. Once I’ve given my best effort to my own manuscript, I can put professional editors, proofreaders, and graphic designers on the job. A hired team works to make it as professional as it can be without stomping on my original vision. There are plenty of books out there that are not particularly commercial, and certainly not destined to be best-sellers, but that are good enough for me.

Those would include my own four self-published novels. If I were to pick up one of them and skim it as if it had been written by somebody else, I would at least be tempted to buy it. It would speak to me on numerous levels. No industry expert can convince me that the first paragraph has to grab me with blood and gore. Slow but steady character development is what I like. The most liberating part of this revolution is the ability to produce the kind of writing that interests me. I might be in the minority when it comes to literary taste, but I can’t be the only reader in the world who likes chick-lit minus the predictable, happily-ever-after endings. I must be able to believe it myself. My favorite heroines aren’t all that different from me.

Back in the old days, some experts advised aspiring authors to concentrate on popular genres where the markets were relatively receptive. They mentioned children’s stories and science fiction as possibilities. Certainly those genres have popular appeal, but I was never able to get a spark of an idea from them. My stories tend to take a political or sexual turn, which is hardly ideal for children.  Science fiction presents too many plausibility issues. My real interest is writing about the struggles of more-or-less ordinary women who will never be Wonder Woman, or even the first female president of the US, but who can nevertheless triumph in their own journeys.

These days it looks like we’ve blown down the border wall by sheer numbers, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of us will prosper on the other side. It’s our job to cultivate the promised land, not overcrowd it with junk and take up resources without contributing enough. Who knows how long it will take us to feel like full citizens of that rich country? A satisfying life can only be built one day at a time. It’s our job to spread our seeds, cultivate them, and then wait patiently for the desert to bloom.

If Trump Were A Novelist

Sometimes when the daily news gets too grim for me, I play a trick on myself. I pretend it’s all part of a serialized narrative concocted by the news media for my entertainment. I’m not suggesting it’s “false news.” I’m just using my imagination to pretend it’s less serious than it really is. With this technique I can imagine that the president isn’t necessarily the pathological liar and delusional idiot he appears to be, but more of a creative genius who has fashioned a unique presidential character, barely believable but endlessly amusing.

Such creativity, if that’s what it is, makes me jealous. I’ve written two novels, Secretarial Wars and Let’s Play Ball, in which lousy presidents play a part, but this Trump creation blows them both away. My presidents were morally challenged manipulators, but I never envisioned what we appear to have now, a full-blown Fascist who not only aspires to be a dictator, but seems to believe he already is one. How is this possible in America, with its 230-year-old constitution? It’s got to be a fantasy, right?

This raises the question of whether Trump is aware of his own creativity. His lying is so constant and shameless that it seems to be a reflex action. Does he realize that most of what he spouts is garbage, or is he able to convince himself, at least in the moment, that he’s speaking the truth? Does he really believe he got a great deal with North Korea, or that he makes our NATO allies and trading partners respect us with his empty bluster? Has he convinced himself he actually cares about struggling people? Does he see himself as the caped crusader who saved the country from the Islamic threat posed by Barack Obama? Or that he has the power to make inconvenient statements and actions from his past go away, no matter how well documented they are?

This running show will continue as long as his political base holds strong and continues to lap it all up. That percentage of the electorate sometimes scarily approaches, or even exceeds, forty percent. As long as these folks believe everything their hero says, he can say and do anything. A strong contingent within the base reportedly believes, quite literally, that Obama is the anti-Christ. That would seem to imply that Trump himself is Christ, or a Christ-like figure, despite his demonstrated inability to name a single Bible verse or to identify a communion wafer when he saw one. His most powerful enablers, including the bulk of Congressional Republicans, will stand by and watch this show continue to unfold without interfering with it, as long as it continues to benefit their interests. Now and then a few betray some discomfort with the sham, but not enough to stop it.

The one thing Trump can’t do, if he is to preserve his heroic narrative, is to lose his bid for reelection. If this appears possible in the final days of the 2020 campaign, he’ll at least make noises about tearing up the constitution, always an obstacle to achieving his full greatness, and canceling the election. Polls seem to indicate his base would be more than fine with this. Or if he goes through with the election and loses, he’ll declare it false news and demand that the results be thrown out, which would make his base ecstatic. Thus, in one blow, he will rewrite both history and reality.

If I’d been asleep for over two years and had just awoken to the daily news, I’d think comedians had taken over traditional outlets. It’s the perfect setup for a satirical political comedy with a catchy logline: an adversarial country sabotages our electoral process and installs their own choice as president, an ignorant buffoon who makes us the laughing stock of the world. He’s a brilliant caricature, worthy of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. His own glorification is all that matters. If it could be passed off as comedy, his Nazi-like speeches to his most ardent supporters would be less scary and more like performance art.

Trump reaches new heights of comic genius when he accuses others of what he’s guilty of himself, thus deflecting attention from his own actions. All of his opponents are crooks and liars, and the investigations surrounding his associates are witch hunts. Most recently, he turned the tables brilliantly when he accused Obama of being a patsy for Russia. He went on to declare, with a straight face, that the Russians are bent on helping Democrats win the 2018 mid-terms. The question remains: Is this man crazy? Or is he just ribbing us all, with the twinkle of a gifted comic in his eye?

The Illiterate President

American history is a long, absorbing tale made up of countless episodes and intriguing characters. The republic began as a radical dream of economic freedom and political independence, cooked up by a handful of East Coast intellectuals who were exuberantly aware that they were committing treason against the British Empire. These ideas spread until they became a cause that enough citizens (although nowhere near a majority) were willing to fight for. The story continued to unfold on a landscape that encouraged westward expansion, a movement that seemed inevitable, yet presented many obstacles and challenges. Several decades after its founding, the young republic was put to the ultimate test when it became plain that two diametrically opposed economic systems, one based on slavery and the other on paid labor, could not remain one. A long, bloody civil war was fought to settle this issue in favor of freedom.

The story never stops unfolding. Democracy is continually threatened by both internal and external forces. In the present day, an unfortunate set of circumstances has elevated to the presidency a kleptomaniac with an untreated mental illness. He was assisted by an anachronism known as the Electoral College, a system originally designed to ensure that under-populated areas of the country would be given a voice. It has served this purpose, but in the present day, long after the nation has ceased to be predominantly rural, it continues to give these areas inordinate power. The electoral process in 2016 was further disrupted by interference from a foreign adversary, probably with the full cooperation of the winning candidate and his campaign. Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to install a Fascist dictatorship, answerable only to him. Our place in history will depend on how well we resist this threat.

One of Trump’s worst qualities, apart from his extreme narcissism, is his ignorance. These traits are actually two sides of the same coin. His lack of knowledge is something that could have been remedied in school, or by reading books. But how can you educate someone who seems to think he was born knowing everything there is to know? He must have been a nightmare to his teachers. This man is emphatically not a reader. That would require a level of concentration, and an ability to immerse himself in another person’s ideas, that seems beyond him. The American story reads like a novel, with its twists and turns and nuances. It takes real effort to absorb all of its moving parts and get it whole.

Trump recently exclaimed over his incredible discovery that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Does anybody else know that? I bet nobody else knows that!” Actually, that is a fact well known to any halfway attentive school child. He wonders why “nobody” has thought about the causes of the Civil War, which must be the subject of millions of books. Has he ever cracked one open in his life?

Abraham Lincoln was indeed a founding member of the Republican Party. The newly minted party of the 1850s took in both abolitionists and the more moderate proponents of “free soil,” a movement to stop the spread of slavery into territories that were yet to become states. Lincoln at first adhered to the free soil platform, and only gradually became a full-fledged abolitionist. As president, he held back until it suited his military strategy to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democrats of that time were generally a pro-slavery party. They continued to hold the south through Reconstruction, and for many years after that, until a gradual realignment began to take place. This movement picked up speed just before and during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and included a major shift in the alliance of African American voters.

The idea of party realignments that unfolded over a period of more than a century would make Trump’s eyes glaze over, if someone were foolhardy enough to try to explain it to him. How to make him understand that the Republican Party has evolved into something that Lincoln wouldn’t recognize? That would be beyond the capability of an extreme narcissist who doesn’t believe in anything except his own life story, suitably embellished to remove any fault.

I like the idea of a president who values the truth that can be found in books, including novels that don’t claim to be the literal truth. When I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father shortly after his election to the presidency in 2008, I thought it read like a novel. Some critics have gone so far as to call it historical fiction. It’s a youthful autobiography, first attempted after Obama’s election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. By his own admission, it gained only modest attention and lukewarm reviews. A second edition came out during his campaign for the Senate in Illinois. In the foreword, he admitted that some of his writing in the first edition made him cringe in retrospect. Judging by that statement, he showed more self-awareness in his thirties than Trump has ever shown in 70 years.

Obama admitted in that foreword that he occasionally used fictional elements. “There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work; the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory … I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully … the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Again, Obama acknowledges falling short of perfection, something that Trump seems incapable of doing.

Can you even imagine Trump reading a novel? That would require him to embrace a world not his own. He’d need to exert some imagination, to develop an attention span of longer than five minutes, to stick with a narrative that stretches beyond 140 characters. Trump is too busy reigning over a fantasy world in which he is the unquestioned supreme dictator of the United States, if not the galaxy. He is Superman and Batman rolled into one, a godlike creature who ordered the sun to come out at his inauguration. Soon he will command the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace one another, and ISIS to disband and give us all their oil. How can they not obey? He is the all-knowing, all-powerful Trump, who surpasses any hero in fact or fiction.

Going Hollywood In Maryland

My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:

The Resistance For Writers: Part Two

250px-principal_cast_in_casablanca_trailer_cropI’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.