If Roseanne Were A Novelist

I was a longtime viewer of Roseanne Barr’s original television show, which ran from 1988 to 1997 on ABC.  The early years of the Conner family, with Dan and Roseanne struggling to make a living and raise three kids, were by far the best, in my opinion. The stories were funny and true to life. The parents, besides working various blue-collar jobs, were brave and foolhardy enough to start their own businesses. The two daughters, beginning as an early teenager and a pre-teen, and the younger son, went through all the normal growing pains: dating, social awkwardness, peer pressure, the beginning of menstruation, birth control, and even masturbation. All of it was believable and sensitively done.

In its later years the series began to lose its attraction for me … slowly at first, and then totally. Changes are inevitable in a series as long-running as this one, as the kids grow up, acquire partners, and face more adult issues. Still, I’ve heard speculation that some of the more startling changes corresponded with Roseanne herself acquiring more control over the story lines. She has been very honest over the years about her struggles with mental illness. Reportedly, she spent ten years working with a therapist to integrate her multiple personalities. That was no doubt a courageous battle. But since she was, by her own admission, not always in touch with reality, she might have been smarter to allow the network authorities veto power over some of her more bizarre creative decisions.

The last two years of the series, in particular, could be a case study in how not to wrap up a long-running television show. It was apparently Roseanne’s idea to have the Connors win the lottery and become instantaneously, fabulously wealthy. That’s the development that lost me as a regular viewer. It simply wasn’t realistic, and not something any ordinary person can relate to. Later, the famously weird final episode of the series finished the job of blowing up everything that had been relatable about the early show, and pulling the rug out from under its loyal viewers. That was when the Roseanne character revealed herself as her own creator, and declared that she had taken the liberty of rewriting her life story to make it turn out “right.” She enumerated various “true” facts that she had altered: that Dan Conner had died of the heart attack he had supposedly survived; that the two daughters were actually married to each other’s husbands; and that Roseanne’s mother, who had discovered she was gay in the course of the series, wasn’t the family member who evolved in that way. Instead, it was her sister Jackie, practically a heterosexual nymphomaniac throughout most of the series. All of these were excruciatingly clever twists that made absolutely no sense.

I watched the recent reboot of the series out of curiosity, despite my discomfort with Roseanne’s tendency toward political ranting. Having been an extreme leftist not all that long ago, she took a violent swing in the other direction. Apparently, at some point during the Obama administration, when she was thinking of running for president on the green party ticket, she’d become convinced that the incumbent president was out to get her personally. That outburst of paranoia should have been a clear indication that her mental illness was not entirely under control.

Yet before her latest full plunge into racism, her eccentricities were bearable. Although extreme right-wing views are tough for us progressives to swallow, most of us are willing to listen to them as long as they can be related to real-world events and struggles. Certainly the Conner family continues to have more than its share of such hardships, but is that enough of an explanation? It would have been helpful if Roseanne’s character had explained her views, instead of spouting wild conspiracy theories and insulting those who disagreed, in imitation of a certain president we know all too well. Maybe that more nuanced view would have come to the surface in time, if she had been allowed to survive on the show. Instead, she was fired, and her character was killed off.

My real problem with Roseanne is bad writing. She may have acquired more creative control over her original show, but she never developed the mentality of a novelist. That requires a writer to envision the big picture, and to discard any plot twists, however clever, that don’t serve that purpose. That’s what we have developmental editors for. In order to revive the series (renamed “The Conners” after her departure), she had to blow up much of her original vision, backtracking on many of her questionable creative decisions. For example, Dan didn’t really die, the Conners didn’t really win the lottery, the daughters kept their original husbands, and her sister was not gay.

It’s too bad the imaginary Roseanne had to die. Even at her ornery worst, she was the central character, the one vivid  point around which all the plot craziness swirled. The real Roseanne might have saved her alter ego by apologizing sincerely for her blatant racism, and preferably closing the twitter account that got her in trouble. But her many explanations for her hate-filled diatribes were contradictory, and her attitude finally became defiant instead of apologetic. Hence, the overdose of painkillers that killed off her character.

Those left behind have their interesting points. The two daughters are continuing the combative relationship they had as kids, while repeating many of their parents’ experiences with under-employment, parenthood, addictive behavior, etc. It seems sister Jackie was brought back mostly to serve as Roseanne’s liberal counterpoint, since her backstory from the original series has been ignored so far. DJ, the son, has an inter-racial marriage to a military spouse, which seems to have dramatic potential. Dan’s dry-wall business is still going, barely; his use of immigrant labor has come up as a topical issue. But none of this is as interesting as Roseanne herself. I wanted to learn what became of her in the long run. Would she evolve back to someone more sane, believable, and admirable? Given her volatility in the past, anything would have been possible.

Advertisements

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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

I was perturbed when the American Library Association announced its intention to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The purpose of this action, according to one source, is “to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.”

As far as I know, no one has as yet proposed banning the books themselves from elementary school curriculums. Still, this could prove to be a slippery slope. At the very least, it casts a shadow on these autobiographical novels that gave me endless pleasure as a child, and that I still admire. When it comes to protecting people’s sensitivities at the expense of free speech, I tend to come down on the side of free speech.

It has been pointed out that the third book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, contains the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Obviously, that is an ugly, bigoted statement, but it must be put in context. The remark was made by a new neighbor of the Ingalls family after their move to Kansas, and Laura’s Pa took exception to it. Laura, although still a little girl in this part of the series, was afraid of Indians but also curious. On some level, she sensed the Indians’ anger at having their territory invaded was justifiable. When she asked her parents about it, she was usually shut down quickly. There was no question that Laura’s Ma hated Indians and said so, but Pa had a more nuanced view. Throughout the series, Laura always seemed much closer temperamentally to her father than to her mother. In a later book, Ma made a face as she recalled the smell of the skunk skins that some of the Indians wore. Pa continued to insist that there was much to be learned from the native tribes: “They know things that we don’t know.”

Our understanding of history requires an honest discussion of these issues. We must try to comprehend how pioneers who ventured into what was once designated “Indian territory” actually felt about the challenges they faced. It is not terribly useful for us, in our superior enlightenment, to declare how we think they should have felt. True, it would be useful to know more about this era from the Native American point of view, but that is a whole different story.

Unquestionably, Laura and her family felt a real threat from Indians. Some encounters were friendly, and some were not. They knew they were taking a risk by moving to Kansas when the Federal government opened it up to non-Indian settlers. The fertile land was too tempting for all kinds of pioneers … farmers, hunters, and cowboys … to pass up. Later, the government reversed that decision, but in the meantime, tensions built dangerously between the old and new inhabitants. Laura described the noisy powwows, punctuated by ear-piercing war cries, that often kept her family up all night as the local tribe debated what to do about the invaders. The most dramatic moment in Little House on the Prairie occurs when a French-speaking Osage chief, Soldat du Chene, arrives on the scene by horseback. He persuades his followers, in the nick of time, not to attack the white settlers.

Excessive political correctness in our day and age is as dangerous in its way as Trumpism. Those of us who oppose this vile president, a shameless enabler of racists and neo-Nazis, only play into his hands when we refuse to understand the different context of racial clashes in times past. It is dangerous enough to demand absolute purity of thought in the present; it is futile to demand it from our ancestors.

The “Little House” books provide testimonials of how people handled cultural clashes when they were a life and death matter. A long-running television series, also called Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) provided a more soft-pedaled version, far less jolting to modern sensibilities but far less accurate as well. I would still recommend the books, trusting that most readers would understand that perceptions have changed since the 1870s, and would be able to handle any discomfort that might cause. When I first read these books as a fourth grader, I was capable of understanding that. Why do we think present-day readers, even young ones, must be protected from history?

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?

Character In The White House

Nothing about current times is normal. Something has gone wildly askew in American political life. We elected the worst possible candidate for President in 2016, a man whose asinine behavior and utter lack of knowledge about government should have disqualified him long before he got near the Oval Office. Those of us who expected to be saved by an outbreak of sanity in the lead-up to that election were sadly mistaken. He was an insanely, almost comically bad choice then, and his behavior in office, if anything, has been even worse. Most likely we will be paying the price for many years to come, but one thing we must not do is to accept this state of affairs as the new normal.

Fortunately, we have history to fall back on. There has never been an era of true tranquility in American political life, but most of our presidents have appreciated the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The American Presidency has been filled with a fascinating mixture of extraordinary men, troubled personalities, and some rather ordinary intellects. Even the exceptional occupants of the office have not been free of character flaws and partisan prejudices. Most have at least understood the magnitude of the job they were taking on, even if they couldn’t perform it adequately. A series of weak presidents leading up to the Civil War proved unable or unwilling to do anything to avert the growing emergency; it took Lincoln to do that. In the twentieth century, men who were highly respected and accomplished in other fields, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, nevertheless failed at the presidency. I suspect they were smart enough to realize the job was too much for them. Even presidents who weren’t that smart realized this on some level. Warren G. Harding reportedly confessed to friends that he was in over his head. By contrast, the buffoon who now occupies the Oval Office (when he isn’t too busy partying elsewhere) would never admit to any limitations. The more he blunders, the more he will double down on his own magnificence.

A great president can’t have Trump’s black-and-white, self-centered views. It’s too complicated a world for that. The right man or woman for the job would know how to compromise, to reason, and to see nuances. Opponents would not be dismissed as worthless because they disagree. Last President’s Day, I finally managed to watch all 8.5 hours of HBO’s wonderful series about John Adams, and it was worth it. Adams is unjustly neglected because he was a one-termer. (Trump probably never heard of John Adams, but if he did, he’d no doubt label him a “loser.”) Adams was a loudmouth, often his own worst enemy. But as a young lawyer, he took the courageous and unpopular step of defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre of 1770, winning the acquittal of six of the eight soldiers on the grounds that they acted in self-defense against a mob. The rule of law meant more to Adams than popularity.

He had a complicated relationship with Thomas Jefferson. As young men, they were partners in the struggle for independence, although they differed in their vision of what the young country should become. Then as now, there were disagreements about how strong the central government should be. When Adams became the second president, Jefferson was installed as vice president. It was an uneasy partnership. They agreed on little, and the slavery question was particularly intractable. Adams was adamantly anti-slavery, while Jefferson, who agreed that it was a moral stain on the country, nevertheless professed himself unable to see his way to a solution.

Rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemings were already rampant. The presidential election of 1800 was a close and bitter one, in which Jefferson edged out the incumbent. Adams presumably didn’t do much to broadcast the Hemings story, when it could have helped him most, because he wasn’t sure he believed it. Has Trump ever showed such restraint, once the merest glimmer of a conspiracy theory entered his warped mind?

Adams and Jefferson had a reconciliation of sorts, after both were through with the presidency. They established a correspondence that was still going on when both died, rather weirdly, on the same day, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

There have been other great reconciliations in American history. They came about because the politicians involved, even after a lifetime of disagreements, were able to regard one another as human beings. The brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written at length about a few of these. Her 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, describes Lincoln’s determination to bring on board the three opponents whom he had defeated for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. They were: William Seward, a product of the New York political machine and the frontrunner for most of the race; Salmon Chase, the Ohio governor and the strongest abolitionist among the four; and Edward Bates, Missouri Attorney General and the most conservative of the group.

Imagine how contentious those first cabinet meetings must have been, with the nerves of the campaign still raw. Somehow, those egocentric men found a way to join forces and bring the country through the Civil War. Contrast this with Trump’s handling of his cabinet meetings and briefings. He reportedly can’t sit for them at all unless a chorus of sycophants spends at least the first thirty minutes telling him how great and wonderful he is. They are always on tenterhooks for fear the dear leader will go off the rails if he hears an inconvenient fact that threatens his ego.

The theme of close friends falling out and eventually reconciling seems fairly common in the highest ranks of government. Goodwin’s 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, describes the long, sometimes rocky relationship between back-to-back presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The two met around 1890, when both began working in Washington. Although they were near-opposites in personality, their political philosophies were in tune with the progressive Republican tradition of the time. (Neither, I venture to guess, would be a Republican today.) They enjoyed walking to work together and exchanging ideas, although a streetcar was available. Taft stopped off at the Justice Department where he was solicitor general, and Roosevelt continued ten blocks farther to the Civil Service headquarters where he was Commissioner. The two also enjoyed lunching together. Roosevelt would talk without noticing what he was eating, while the rather rotund Taft was more reticent, and savored his meals. I can imagine what stimulated their discussions. They must have shared plans to rid the government of the corruption that was rampant at that time. Their wives weren’t close, although both were well-educated and literary-minded. Edith Roosevelt was always trying to restrain her impulsive husband, while Nellie Taft’s ambition for her husband exceeded his own.

When Roosevelt became president, Taft served his administration as civilian governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. When Roosevelt left office, he supported Taft in his successful presidential campaign, trusting his own legacy would be continued. It didn’t turn out that way. The two had honest disagreements about how far the progressive movement should go. Taft, a born lawyer and judge, believed that Roosevelt had done harm by trying to bend the Constitution to his will. He didn’t approve of that, even for a good cause. Roosevelt torpedoed Taft’s reelection chances by forming a third party, sending him down to a humiliating defeat. How could anyone be crueler to a former friend?

As in the case of Adams and Jefferson, it took years for the friendship to regenerate, but it finally happened. The first few attempts by Taft to reach out to Roosevelt were not well received. It took a chance meeting at a Chicago hotel, presumably aided by a nice meal, for the two to finally embrace and talk on a person level. Onlookers in the restaurant, understanding the significance of this meeting, reportedly stood and cheered. From then on, the two men enjoyed a lively correspondence until Roosevelt died.

Politicians in America have always argued, debated, and disagreed; the more heated the debates, the more vibrant the democracy. Trump’s pernicious influence is creating a post-democratic system in which well-reasoned disagreements carry less weight than personal attacks. Trump lacks the intellect and character to be president of a democracy, which thrives on honest, well-reasoned differences of opinion. He’d be perfectly cast as the dictator of a banana republic, in which nobody dared to question his perfection and greatness.

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.

Is Fantasy Doing The Trick?

I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.

So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.

I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.

We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.

Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.

Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.

It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.

The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.

Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.

These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.

Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.