Weak Eulogies

A close friend of mine, a warm and lovely girl whom I first knew during our college days in the early 1970s, committed suicide in 2004. She was one of the most level-headed people I knew in college, someone I could count on for sensible advice. She did the act in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. During her spring break from teaching at a small-town college, she drove from her home to a reservoir and set herself on fire. Passing motorists spotted the flames and called the police.

A few days later, two brief newspaper articles about the incident appeared, one in the town where she was teaching, and the other in her original hometown. One of the articles listed her many accomplishments: master’s degree in teaching and doctorate in education; college professor for twelve years; founder and first dean of the graduate program; chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee; Sunday school teacher and ordained deacon at her church; aunt to seven nieces and nephews. The other article was much more terse, sticking to the facts. A police officer explained, “Apparently the victim drove to a remote place, dumped a can of gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.” The woman was described as someone with a history of mental problems who was seeing a caseworker.

Nothing about the girl I knew would have led me to believe that that she was capable of such an act. In college she was a political rebel in a small way, a Young Republican in a sea of Democrats. That put her in the minority, but it hardly made her a freak. As an educator, she expressed opposition to the “no child left behind” system that was in force during much of her career. But again, that hardly made her a unique crusader. If her self-immolation was supposed to make a political point or some other big impression, it failed spectacularly.

Her family set up an online memorial to celebrate her life and call attention to the scourge of suicide. Sadly, her former students barely responded. Probably the consensus was that she let them down. At the point around mid-semester when she left them, many must have felt abandoned as they tried to finish theses or prepare for graduation and subsequent job searches. Not that she intended to hurt them, but the few eulogies I read struck me as weak.

Why, then, did she do it, and why did she choose that method? I’m aware there are often hereditary components to depression. She told me once about a grandfather of hers, a Presbyterian minister, who succumbed to the disease. In view of that, her return to the church relatively late in life seem a little ominous. There had been a previous breakdown three years before, requiring hospitalization. That might have created obstacles to purchasing a firearm.

I can tell from my blog-reading that many people are dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as more clearly diagnosed conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, yet no one has to suffer alone. Many full and productive lives are being lived in spite of, or maybe even because of, these issues. The compassion for others that tough times can produce is in itself a worthy life skill.

Self-destructive behavior among writers is a fairly common phenomenon. For example, the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became acquainted in 1958, while auditing a course in poetry writing at Boston University. Both had attempted suicide in the past, and would succeed in the future. After class, they often went out for martinis with another poet, George Starbuck, who was rumored to be having an affair with Sexton. Their conversations reportedly centered around their flirtations with death, and the restrictions imposed by marriage, especially on women. Plath was married to the British poet Ted Hughes, a more accomplished writer than she was at that time. Plath did not yet have children, but intended to. Sexton, four years older, represented what Plath wanted to be … a successful poet who was also raising a family.

When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton wrote a poem eulogizing her friend. Later, she flippantly called the act “a good career move.” True, Plath’s bitter end eventually stimulated interest in The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel about her first suicide attempt, but she wasn’t around to enjoy it. The novel trashed the very people who had done the most to help her through that crisis. Her children benefited financially from her posthumous success, but they didn’t have their mother. In fact, her act exposed them to a “wicked stepmother” figure, the woman Hughes had been seeing and who sparked the rage that was evident in Plath’s final poems. That woman eventually committed suicide as well, taking her young child with her. Sexton herself followed in 1974, as if determined to duplicate that “good career move.”

Plath didn’t aspire to become a poster child for depressive writers, but that was how it turned out. When she was at her happiest, as when she first met Ted Hughes while studying at Cambridge University, she declared her intention to become a joyous, life-affirming writer. Within weeks, she determined to marry him and transform him into her vision of the best man he could be. In a letter to her mother, she declared, “ … having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long. I shall praise the lord and the crooked creatures he has made. My life shall be a constant finding of new ways and words in which to do this … my whole life will be a saying of poems and a loving of people and giving of my best fiber to them.”

If her desperate act was a good career move, it was a terrible life move. It darkens and stains every eulogy she inspires. The same can be said for Sexton, whose daughters, far from remembering her lovingly, accused her of abusing them. Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, a noted marine biologist, killed himself in 2009. Suicide does not enhance a legacy, or enrich someone’s story. It is as destructive to those left behind as to the perpetrator.

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Using Our Powers For Good

A skillful writer has the power to change things, for better or for worse. Assuming we’re all getting more skillful at this process through obsessive practice, how are we using that power? Are we writing sagas that mesmerize the world, or exposés that shake up the establishment? Not too likely, although it would be nice. Most of us have to settle for entertaining a few readers or sharing some of our hard-earned wisdom once in a while. Even such modest efforts should be based on reason and intellect. Hopefully, like doctors, we “first do no harm.”

These days, thanks to unfettered social media, the power of expression is becoming more and more of a high-stakes game. The freedom to impart and receive information is the foundation of our democracy, yet that democracy is being buffeted by an equally strong freedom to spread misinformation. If the public doesn’t have sufficient knowledge or judgment to distinguish one from the other, we’re all in trouble. To make things worse, we have a president who believes he has the power to decide what reality is. Anything that doesn’t pamper his ego or confirm his greatness is “false news.” He has sufficient enablers in high places to bring the United States perilously close to his ultimate dream, a Fascist dictatorship under his control. For this reason, it has never been more important for writers to speak truth to power. That means using their own powers to promote decency and truth, to counteract the poison that is emanating from the top and pervading everything.

Unfortunately, dangerous extremists are often skilled at talking or wielding a pen. For example, Alex Jones, the main voice of Infowars Network, is a crackpot but also an effective communicator. He combines wild imagination with political hatred, and feeds it to gullible followers who add fuel to the fire as they pass it along. Here is a verbatim quote: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped … yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” He paints a vivid picture for a receptive audience that is predisposed to believe the worst about someone they hate.

We know of at least one idiot who took action based on this report. Not for a minute, it appears, did he stop to think how plausible it would be for a former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State to operate a child sex ring in plain sight for many years without being detected. He never asked himself why a woman who is a mother and grandmother herself would want to murder children. He located the pizza restaurant where Clinton’s nefarious operation was supposedly going on. Armed to the teeth, he burst into the place, and confronted … employees who were busy making pizza for their customers. Even now, he and many others reportedly still believe the sex ring he expected to find is operating in a diabolically subtle way among the pasta-spinners.

The times are so perilous that we might be excused for thinking fiction-writing is too trivial and takes too long. But stories that illustrate timeless verities tend to last longer than the headlines. It would be great if we could all find a way to convey the great truths of our times. Admittedly, we’re more likely to indulge in petty vindictiveness than earth-shattering revelations. What fiction writer hasn’t used thinly-disguised characters to satirize people who have slighted him or her? Yet those personal slights are injustices, all the same.

One of the story lines in Sycophants, my current novel-in-progress, makes use of an old friendship from my college days. We were drawn together as fellow English majors and aspiring writers, although she was the aggressive type and I was not. While I dabbled in poetry and the literary magazine, she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I was conscientious about my studies, while she concentrated on her extra-curricular life and barely graduated. Still, I admired her greatly. It was the Watergate era, and many young journalists fancied themselves a budding Woodward and/or Bernstein.

The ambitious editor made a big splash with one particular piece, a student survey of professors’ competence and popularity. The survey was particularly cruel to one of our English teachers. This man was my honors thesis adviser for a paper about Sylvia Plath, the poet and author of The Bell Jar, who famously attempted suicide as a college student, and succeeded in the act about ten years later. After the survey appeared, my friend was ostracized by the English department, and denied any chance for future references.

A few years after we graduated, we learned that my former adviser had committed suicide. Without knowing the exact circumstances, I can only speculate about what led to the tragedy. It was rumored that he had failed to get tenure, and that his wife had left him. My friend is a good person at heart, and she certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. No one can prove a direct connection between what she wrote and the tragedy. Still, I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience. It could be that Karma, or the writing gods, have repaid her in some ways. She eventually went to work for a small mid-west newspaper, writing some great investigative stuff but for very little pay, constantly plagued by online trolls who belittled her progressive views.

I typically turn to sports when real life gets too heavy. We sports fans should be able to insulate ourselves from the worst of the daily news by watching and analyzing games, since they don’t have life and death implications. Unfortunately, some fans treat them as if they did. Many of the debates that rage on my favorite baseball sites these days devolve too easily into the ugly and personal. That in turn leads to writing that is highly imaginative, but not particularly informed or analytical.

Predictably, my Washington Nationals are coming off yet another bitter playoff disappointment, leading to widespread recriminations that have yet to subside three months later. It’s risky to defend, for example, a catcher (Matt Wieters) or a manager (Dusty Baker) who is presumed to have made the boneheaded plays or decisions that torpedoed the team. Someone is sure to question your sanity or your morals. A “humorist” will write that the person you’re defending must have some major dirt on you. (Nude photos are the most popular choice). Many fans think they’re mind-readers, and can judge by a player’s demeanor that he just isn’t into it, or is only doing it for the money. Urban legends about players’ personal lives abound on social media. It’s almost a given that when a star player leaves a team, he had to get out of town quickly because he was having an affair with another star’s wife, and it was about to be revealed in all its sordidness.

Does this style of debate remind you of anyone prominent in the news these days? Even in sports, we could benefit by sticking to substantive issues and having informed discussions, but that wouldn’t be Trumpian. It’s easier to insult someone than to actually know what you’re talking about. All in all, social media spreads democracy with one hand and chokes it with the other. A reader has as much responsibility as the writer, perhaps more, to distinguish wheat from chaff.

Trump And Baseball

The Trump effect is invading my space. I see it every time I leave my house, especially when I venture out on the roadways. Jerks have always been abundant behind the wheel, but unless it’s my imagination, I’m seeing more and more Trumpian behavior out there. My personal favorites are the motorists who drift over to your lane, nearly sideswipe you, and then have the nerve to honk at you. That is one of Trump’s tried and true methods … to attack others where he is weakest himself. If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be comical to hear the most famous con man and pathological liar in the country attempt to smear others as crooks and liars.

We should consider ourselves lucky if his antics and babbling don’t get us all blown up, which at this writing seems possible. But now the Trump effect is threatening to invade my summertime entertainment. At least the president did us the favor, here in the nation’s capital, of declining to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. He was invited to, like every other president, but he may have had an inkling he’d be booed in super-blue DC, with its super-blue surrounding suburbs. That might have upset him momentarily, although I have no doubt his fantasy-prone mind would soon have converted that to a ten-minute standing ovation.

Baseball fans, with their penchant for gobbling up wild rumors and conspiracy theories, are particularly susceptible to Trumpian thinking. It’s like that wall that will someday rise up magically on our southern border, while the country that objects to it ends up paying for it. Fans expect their teams to put forth maximum effort and play great every day, while the other team lies down and lets it happen. That’s why fans often lack appreciation of how demanding the game is. Sports forums on Facebook lend themselves to snap judgments. Whenever a relief pitcher blows a lead, he must be sent packing. Never mind that up to that point, he may have had one of the best ERAs of any reliever on the team. Bring in somebody else, anybody else. There must be a budding Mariano Rivera down on the farm. Likewise, fans have a way of noticing that a traded player is doing well with his new team, and cussing out the general manager for letting him go. But do they want to give up the players that the team obtained in that trade? No way.

Fans at Nats Park recently had to sit through a three-hour rain delay. Embarrassingly for team officials, it didn’t rain during those three hours. At about ten pm the storm finally did arrive, and the game was officially postponed, but it seemed obvious that the game could have been played. There were conflicting weather forecasts that night, and the decision makers went with the one that predicted heavy weather would arrive early. Both teams, the Nats and the Atlanta Braves, wanted to avoid the possibility of shutting down their starting pitchers once they were warmed up. It proved to be a mistake, but the Braves management, as well as many commentators in other cities, couldn’t leave it at that. It must have been a conspiracy to play “mind games” with the opposing players. Never mind that the delay created the exact same “mind games” for the home team players. In other social media gems, someone seriously theorized several few weeks back that the Nationals’ bullpen was being bribed to throw games, so that the Nats wouldn’t make the playoffs. Crazy, you say? No crazier than some of Trump’s biggest hits on Twitter.

Someone on a Nats Facebook forum recently posted a picture of a pile of manure to describe Blake Treinen, the recently traded pitcher who was an effective setup reliever last season, but who struggled in the more pressurized closer role this season. Treinen is by all accounts a fine, serious-minded young man who had trouble shaking off his failures, which probably compounded his problems. He did not deserve to be depicted in such a nasty way, but it’s another example of what our level of discourse has come to. Who do we know in high office who might resort to such a tactic? Perhaps a man who, lacking any knowledge of policy, history, or government, and with no interest in educating himself, prefers to hurl insults at anybody who questions him. Understanding baseball, as well as public policy, requires a certain amount of nuanced thinking. Neither lends itself well to black and white judgments.

Second-guessing the manager is part of being a fan. We all think we know better than he does, especially when we have the benefit of perfect hindsight. There have been several recent editions in Nationals chat forums of “Has Dusty Baker lost his mind?” Some of us have been known to pull out our hair when he sends inexperienced players to bat in the late innings, with the game on the line. No doubt the most costly instance of this occurred in last season’s divisional playoff series when the rookie Wilmer Difo, with almost no experience, was sent up to save the day against one of the league’s elite pitchers, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Predictably, Difo struck out.

In the heat of the moment, hardly anybody, myself included, considered the series of difficult decisions that led to that moment. As usual, it took Thomas Boswell, Washington Post sports columnist and unfailing voice of reason, to explain how situations like this happen, and why the manager sometimes has no other choice. Boswell explained, “He used all his fire power at earlier points in the game, when he had good match-ups for his bench players to do their best work, and still had one position player held back just in case everything worked out so that — for the last at bat of the game — he had somebody, besides a pitcher, to send to bat.” Of course, most of us will keep berating the Nats for lacking the foresight to have a better hitter, perhaps a budding Mickey Mantle, as a secret, last-minute weapon.

Baseball fans need someone like Boswell to explain the tough realities of baseball, just as we need political commentators to explain the nuances of democracy. The Washington Post publishes the opinions of quite a few long-time conservative columnists who have lately taken to bemoaning the ruin of their GOP. Voices like Jennifer Rubin, Kathleen Parker, George Will, Michael Gerson, and Charles Krauthammer, who may have supported Trump initially or cherished some hopes for his growth, are in the best position to see this man for what he actually is: a president who has illusions of being a dictator, who has never heard of checks and balances or the emoluments clause and cares even less. This is a 71-year-old with less knowledge of United States history than the average elementary school student. After seeing a museum exhibit recently, he apparently had a revelation that “slavery was really bad!” Unfortunately, he has no inclination to take that a step farther and repudiate those who fought to sustain the system. Worse, he has thrown his support behind those determined to re-ignite battles that should have been settled generations ago.

No doubt a solid 35 percent of the populace will continue to believe Trump walks on water. They’re entitled to their worship. Just like we Nats fans believe our team deserves to win the World Series every year, and that it would have happened already but for some nefarious plot concocted by a combination of cheaters, incompetent team officials, and cruel fate.

How’s Social Media Treating You?

0403161113Social media is supposed to be fun, and it usually is. I grew up in a pre-high tech era, and I can never be sure I’m doing any of this stuff right. But I do know that if you live a fairly solitary life like me, the interaction is enjoyable if not necessary. The “friends” you make are certainly better than no friends, and sometimes easier to deal with than flesh and blood people. But does social media work as a business endeavor for authors? In other words, does it sell books, or is it mainly a distraction from more productive work?

Twitter is easily the most active of my accounts. It requires no deep thought to knock out a message of 140 characters or less on any conceivable subject, or to “like” and re-tweet the musings of others. Twitter is the social media outlet that most resembles a cacophony. It reminds me of mingling in a ballpark crowd and becoming instant friends with hundreds of people, all cheering for the same cause, high-fiving like mad when we all “win.” Twitter messages come along so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Some days I see the notification “32 new tweets” before I’ve have a chance to look at the ones already on my feed. I impulsively follow everybody who follows me, even if the contacts have drifted far from my original purpose. Are there terrorists and perverts in the crowd? I wouldn’t know, since I don’t really screen them.

Twitter is the one place where I feel comfortable about relentless advertising. I have a recurring ad for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock, and it gets numerous likes, comments, and re-tweets. That’s somewhat flattering, even if there’s no evidence anybody looks beyond the cover. At least people seem attracted to the three hippie girls from the early 1970s, posing in a grove of trees, one of them strumming a guitar. One tweeter asked if the acoustic guitar was really suitable for a rock band. I explained that the scene depicts a temporary sojourn in a commune. Although the story has violent episodes befitting that era, the cover represents the chill-out part of it. I’m guessing that ads like this seem a little less obnoxious and intrusive than the constant pop-ups on other media sites.  At least the accompanying tweets are short and to the point, not long synopses.

Blogging tends to be a much slower and lonelier process. I use it to sound off about a variety of topics in essay form, which hopefully keeps alive the part of my brain that no longer relies on work or school to do it. That is not to say that bloggers are required to be any more thoughtful than tweeters. Many stick literally to the “online journal” idea, chronicling their daily activities and feelings in detail. I’m too squeamish for that level of confession, but these diarists must be on to something, since they tend to write more often and therefore make more friends than I do.

When authors blog, the endless “traditional vs. self-publishing” debate gets aired over and over. But again, pieces like that tend to get read. I read them myself, just in case they’ve managed to come up with some new argument, although that’s rarely the case. Since it takes time and effort to read and comment on essays, you can’t expect the same explosion of reactions and frenetic be-friending that Twitter provides. My efforts to “like” and comment on others’ blogs are sometimes but not always reciprocated, which is probably my fault. I tend to get long-winded on subjects I care about, so it’s up to me to write shorter and snappier pieces that won’t put my prospective readers to sleep.

Facebook for me falls somewhere in between these two extremes. It can serve as an expanded Twitter or an abbreviated blog. I like to alternate my Facebook comments between sports (lighthearted) and politics (serious). Lots of fights break out in both areas, sometimes bordering on nastiness, but those who get out of hand are usually called out by others who are protective of their own groups or feeds. Many authors consider their Facebook ads, and the number of “likes” they attract, as serious business. As for Instagram and Pinterest, these strike me as fun vanity sites, where authors can put up pictures, book covers, book trailers, and scenes from book trailers, hoping to give their projects some flattering exposure.

All in all, I prefer to regard social media as mostly social, with a few business benefits mixed in. One of the best comments I ever got for one of my posts was: “Thanks for the opportunity to not feel so alone.”