Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do your characters grieve?

It occurred to me as I watch the presidential election cycle play out in social and broadcast media that the Republican Party is collectively going through the five (or seven, depending upon whom you reference) cycles of grief. Briefly those are, in order of appearance, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

That observation, in turn led me to wonder if fiction writers are portraying grief (at least with major characters) in their work. It is an open question and would love to hear what fellow ink-stained toilers think. Feel free to leave comments below.

Using the GOP as a model, what can we learn as writers. If you have been watching, it was apparent on election night that the cognoscenti of the right were beyond astonishment that their candidate was losing, and watching Karl Rove desperately deny the math on Fox News was a supreme example of denial.

What has followed has been the backlash of anger among people who dumped so much cash into Super PACs, media types that make a living stirring up their bases, and rank and file flaming on social media. Politicians are already in the bargaining stage where they will likely learn a 'my way or the highway' approach will no longer will have much currency in Washington. Depression will follow along with acceptance. But political parties tend to react more slowly than  individuals so another display of cultural disconnect may come their way in a couple of years.

But how do we translate grief into our fiction? Whether we wish to portray a societal shift such as the one currently occurring or a personal one happening to a character? I would posit that a clear understanding of these stages is paramount and should be represented as action or dialogue rather than exposition. Take the following as an example:

'Dr. Melman saw the disbelief in Audrey's eyes when he explained the diagnosis of breast cancer and, at age thirty-one, she would lose both her breasts and suffer extensive bouts of chemotherapy. What he hadn't yet told her was that it was probably a losing battle.'

It contains all the information, but none of emotion, the shock, that such a revelation should have at its core. Let's look at another stab at the same scenario:

"I'm afraid I have some bad news, Audrey. It's definitely breast cancer and it is a pretty aggressive type. I'm sorry."
"Are your certain, Dr. Melman?" She had reflexively put her hands to her breasts and then touched her silky blonde hair. Her soft blue eyes had widened, with tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "This can't be happening to me, I don't have any family history of cancer." She gulped air reflexively then set her jaw, "There must be some mistake. I can't have cancer."
"I'm sorry, Audrey. There's no mistake. I checked the biopsy report myself." The doctor had seen this reaction countless times before and it still tugged at his heart each time he delivered the news. "On the bright side, you're young and otherwise healthy, so you should tolerate the surgery and chemotherapy pretty well."
"Surgery?" The shock was complete now. "Chemotherapy?" She wiped ineffectually at the tears that now ran freely down her face.
"Yes, and I would suggest a double radical mastectomy as soon as possible. We can't begin chemo until you heal from the surgery." Melman handed her a box of tissues. "I would suggest you have a conversation with your family."
"There's only Joe." The silence hung heavy in the air of the overly warm, claustrophobic exam room. "He's my boyfriend."
"Well, he needs to know and you'll need his help."
"I suppose. Can I ask you one more thing, Doctor?"
"What are my chances?"
Melman appraised his patient; young, beautiful, single trying to gauge his response so it left some hope he didn't really believe was there.
"About fifty percent over five years."
"And if I choose no treatment?"
"Six months, maximum."
"What do you really think?"
Now it was Dr. Melman's turn to gulp down some air. He fought to maintain his professional composure and force the lump back down his throat.
"If it were me, I would enjoy the next few months and call it quits." In his professional career he had never given such advice, but right here, right now, it seemed the only fair thing to do.
Audrey sat up straight, hooked her bra and began buttoning her blouse. The tears had stop flowing now and she stood up, collecting her purse and offered her hand which Melman grasped with both of his.
"Thank you, Dr. Melman. I suppose we probably won't see each other again. I'm planning a vacation to Tuscany."

Okay I just crammed all the stages in a few lines done on the fly without any serious editing and admittedly a serious treatment would be considerably longer than cranking out one paragraph of exposition, but I think it is still a useful exercise. Part of the human condition is grief, and giving an authentic voice to your characters will enrich your fiction and draw your readers deeper into your stories. Try it the next time tragedy is about to befall someone in your work and I think you will be pleased with the result.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It is no accident that technology advances exponentially. We humans are clever in applying learning in novel ways to solve increasingly complex challenges. Perhaps our greatest challenge going forward is learning how to live with this acceleration. Scientists are discovering that our children's brains are being fundamentally rewired in how they learn, what they learn and how they manipulate these new tools into a world I couldn't have imagined as a youngster.

And yet I did imagine it, and so did others. Twenty years ago I wondered aloud one day where were all those 'cars of the future' I saw in Popular Mechanics. Now I look around and see them everywhere (okay, I still don't have my flying car, but I remain optimistic). In fiction, Captain Nemo, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy preceded Gene Roddenberry's Kirk and Spock, predicting 4G cell phones, medical diagnostics, voice actuated equipment, satellite navigation systems, e books, tablet computers. These were delivered by scientists inspired as children to ask, 'why not?' and refusing to take no for an answer.

The problem is that all these quantum advances scientifically aren't designed to work well with the linear evolution of us as human animals. We've transmogrified from hunter-gathers of food, shelter and clothing into hunter-gatherers of data, comfort and entertainment. Our girth (physically and in our credit card statements) reflects our appetites both literally and figuratively and the trends aren't showing much chance of improvement anytime soon.

It may be that this political election season just concluded is illustrative of the disconnect between the linear and the quantum side of human evolution. The majority of voting citizens re-elected a liberal, multi-ethnic president with Hussein as a middle name over a conservative, rich, white, Mormon. Convincingly in the electoral college, marginally in the popular vote, but substantially in the direction in which the country is headed culturally. That the Grand Old Party is on the verge of becoming the Grand Obsolete Party is startling to  the party faithful mainly because they simply could not (and for many still do not) see the forest for the trees. The signs of change have been apparent to demographers for decades, but the mostly old, white, rich men that direct the party have sequestered themselves in an isolated echo chamber where they hear only what they wish to hear as told to them by only those to whom they wish to listen. (An excellent analysis of this phenomenon can be found here.)

Personally, I think the tipping point has been reached, and the brittle rhetoric of theocratic underpinnings for governance is increasingly rejected as harsh, doctrinaire and unresponsive to the greater needs of a plural society. A society that was founded on the absence of church doctrine in governance, and a system of justice blind (and therefore not beholden) to race, religion, social status and financial means. In the two plus centuries since our Founders cobbled together this nation, each step toward the perfection of the union has been a struggle. In the beginning they couldn't even agree to outlaw slavery and it took over two hundred years for a person of color to ascend to the highest office, and we have yet to elect a woman. Women's rights, voting rights, LGBT rights, and whatever oppressive practices we continue to fight were, and are, ongoing struggles to adapt to change. The reins of power are changing from the Baby Boomers to the Next Gen, and each transition meets resistance and disbelief from the old guards.

Coming to grips with the velocity of change, reexamining our basic assumptions about who and what we are as a nation, and stepping back from the hollow grandiloquence of insisting the old ways are the only ways will be essential moving forward. Wallowing in self-pity and bemoaning the fate of the Union at the election results is delusional. Each time we come together to vote as a nation we tell our leaders where and how we wish to advance our grand experiment called the United States. To the extent our leaders cling to broken models and irrelevant posturing forestalls the inevitable. Conservatives wishing to have a seat at the table going forward need new leadership that understands function must drive form, that making reasonable compromises doesn't equate to 'my way or the highway', nor does it equal moral equivocation. Not even the church still thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, so let's roll up our sleeves and get to work on what needs to be done to plan for the future, for however much some among us might wish it, the past has passed and a new paradigm calls for fresh thinking. As my fourth grade teacher used to say, "Let's put our thinking caps on, shall we?"

Monday, July 2, 2012

Are You Ever Coming Home?

 An admittedly long dry spell since last I posted. What can I say? Stuff happens. Here is a sample of what has come to be known as flash fiction, usually 500 words or less, and often done in response to a writing challenge. In this case the challenge was to create a complete story starting with the first line, which is given. With economies world wide still in the doldrums, this is what I came up with, and I hope you enjoy my effort. Fair warning, this is not for young children.

Are you ever coming home?
 One question; scrawled awkwardly in pencil.  Off to the right, in neat script, was my name and current address. A stamp adorned the top right corner.  The postcard felt heavy, like the words had been carved in granite and delivered on the slab instead of this tiny slip of stiff paper.  The picture on the reverse was of the Grand Canyon taken from the south rim.
She must have chosen the card.  A blunt statement about just how small I was in the universe.  A black hole would have been better, but where would she find it on the card rack at Wal-Mart?
Are you ever coming home?  I stared at the sentence.  Was it hopeful, or indignant, or resigned?  No way to tell for sure.  Hopeful, I suppose, in having been sent.  Not indignant.  The boy wouldn't be indignant, like his mother.  Not resigned yet either, I haven't been gone that long.  Who am I kidding?  Its twenty-seven days.  I glanced at my watch; plus fourteen hours and twenty-three minutes.
In two days the mortgage was due.  I didn't have it—wouldn't have it.  Since the plant closed down eight months ago our savings got wiped out and our credit cards maxed.  Bad economy, they said.  Nobody can afford our goods, they said.  We'll help you get another job, they said.  Another job meant slinging refried beans and ground meat into greasy taco shells.  No bennies, no vacation, no future and not nearly enough to care for my family. 
When I went there years ago, the Grand Canyon gave me vertigo.  An abyss sprawling before me so immense I couldn't find a frame of reference in my mind.  I felt like that again, staring at the card in my hand.
Are you ever coming home?  Just a month I said.  I'll take a month and find another job.  Maybe they're hiring in Spring Hill.  I'll check around and see what I can find.  This is the last payment I can make on my old life insurance policy without a job.  Here's two hundred bucks I borrowed from Stan for food.  Mom and Pop sent enough to cover the car payment and some gas.  Just give me a month to work something out.  I'll get something, I promise.
Use the internet she said.  Don't leave me alone with the boy.  I need your help. Don't go, you can't help that way.  But I went anyway.  I would get something for sure, I would figure out a way.
I sat on the edge of the bed and reached into the drawer of the worn bedside hotel nightstand and removed the frayed Gideon Bible and my Special.  I read a few chapters in the Bible.  I am not the prodigal son returned.
            Are you ever coming home?  I placed the insurance policy in the Bible and put it on the night stand, placed the Special against my temple.
            No, son.  I'm not coming home.  But I am sending money.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Confederacy of Hermits

Writing fiction is a solitary pursuit. Even if you write collaboratively the actual creation of the work still originates entirely in your mind. Good writing is an extension of your soul, an intimation of originality, a piece of who you are creatively. Whether literary works that become masterpieces, or thrillers that titillate for a season, the words--and the sweat it takes to create them--are the pound of flesh sacrificed to the art.

Having said that, none of us work in a vacuum. We have experts we consult for depth and accuracy, editors that help show us the error of our ways and shape our words to maximum effect, publishers (for some of us) that help get the words printed and exposed to the reading public and friends and trusted writer friends to act as beta readers. These latter are our best hope of bringing a good story forward, for they tell us the truth, which is far more valuable than the pat on the back from well-meaning relatives.

Here in the Pacific Northwest writers also have another precious resource; other gifted writers who generously share their time, talent and insight with each other. Aspiring and veteran authors alike glean invaluable tips at seminars, trade shows, writers groups and online connections. Smart novices go to group book signings. They introduce themselves and get to know people laboring in the same field. We cheer each other on and rejoice at the success of our compatriots.

If you are a writer, or aspire to become one, come out of your cave once in a while and look around at the resources available to you. Join the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, become a supporter of the Seattle 7 Writers group or the Idaho Authors Association Facebook page. If you can muster the dough, the Idaho group is having a conference May 3-5, and PNWA is having their conference July 19-22. These are fantastic opportunities to meet successful authors, attend rewarding seminars on all aspects of the craft and connect with others at all stages of their careers. I save money all year just so I can attend at least one conference. If you attend the PNWA Conference, look for me, I'll be there and would love to share war stories. The Seattle 7 Writers also sponsor more intimate seminars that focus with laser sharpness on the art and science of writers.

Despite our solitary labor, there is a vibrant community of authors all around us anxious to exchange ideas, commiserate with our woes and urge us on to better writing and greater success. It is this community of hermits that help me thrive, keep me going and applaud my effort even as they temper the steel. I admire the dedication and openness and enjoy my small contributions. In the end we all do what we do to honor the words and the story.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'The Confession' by Robert Dugoni Book Review

          The jury is back and the verdict is unanimous. Robert Dugoni is not the ‘next’ anyone in legal thrillers, he’s the new standard against which others will now be judged. If Murder One was his Master’s thesis, then his latest David Sloane thriller, The Conviction, is his PhD; a dissertation in deception.
Sloane, the lawyer that never loses, finds himself reliving a horror from his recent past through the behavior of his step-son, who is suffering his own crisis of self-destruction brought on by witnessing his mother’s brutal murder and coming perilously close to his own. In a last ditch effort to reconnect—and keep Jake out of jail—Sloane accepts an invitation to go camping with an old friend and his son.
Jake, reluctantly followed by the younger boy, runs afoul of local law enforcement in a small town in California’s Gold Country. Whisked away, tried and convicted in a kangaroo court, the boys find themselves on the way to a juvenile detention center from Hell before the dads fully realize they are missing.
          Now, the law Sloane has manipulated to his advantage for so long, becomes a ponderous impediment, and he must decide if he can do whatever it takes—legal or not—to rescue the boys before time runs out.
          The Conviction, due out June 12th from Touchstone, is a taut, riveting Tilt-A-Wheel ride that builds to a white-knuckle climax for readers. Dugoni is fully in command of his craft and does not disappoint. This book makes a compelling case that Robert Dugoni deserves a place atop the bestseller throne. All hail the new King of legal thrillers!

Robert Dugoni
The Conviction   ISBN: 978-1-4516-0672-0
Touchstone  Due for release June 12, 2012

R L Pace received an advance copy of this book, gratis, for review purposes, but purchased a pre-release copy at full price before reading ‘The Confession’ or writing this review.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Terrified" by Kevin O'Brien. A Book Review

There is a creepy feeling out there, past the darkened window in the somnolence of the night. Someone is watching. You have something to conceal and no one to whom you may turn.

Lisa has two deadly problems. One from which she is hiding and another she doesn’t even imagine. Fleeing an abusive husband after faking her own suicide, Lisa escapes to Seattle armed only with a new identity and a moral dilemma. Her spouse, back in Chicago, has been charged with the brutal killing of his wife, which the press has dubbed ‘the trash bag murder’, and the evidence seems overwhelming. Should Lisa reveal she is alive to save the ego-maniacal sadist, or hunker down and let him take the fall even as she carries his unborn son?

‘Terrified’, the riveting new thriller from the pen of NYT bestselling author Kevin O’Brien, took me on a throat-tightening, gut-festering journey into depravity, darkness and lethality. From the neighborhoods of metropolitan Seattle to the hospitals and homes of Chicago’s elite, I guarantee you’ll be closing the drapes with all the lights blazing as you are drawn into Lisa’s descent into Hell-on-Earth. She struggles to survive and protect her child against a past that is catching up, a present that is lurking just out of sight—and out of control—to a future agonizingly desperate. Where do you go when there is no place to hide? You go where you are told and you pray.

The more you know, the more you fear. And the less you understand. That translates into a crackerjack novel I enjoyed until the last page. Thriller fans will be satiated briefly with this latest offering.  But after gobbling up this meal, we won’t be satisfied until Kevin once again leaves us terrified.

Just released, this reviewer purchased a copy, but also received a gratis copy for review purposes.

Terrified by Kevin O'Brien
ISBN: 978-0-7860-2138-3 link here 
Barnes & Noble link here

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Recipe for Creating a Progressive

First, a list of ingredients:

1.   One Moderate Republican
2.   A dose of inattention
3.   Three decades of being taken for granted
4.   A heaping helping of hypocrisy
5.   Spice with fanaticism as required to purge all who are not 'true believers'.

The first vote I cast in a presidential campaign was for Richard Nixon. Before Watergate had broken widely, before the eighteen minute gap in the tape stretched credulity with a ludicrous re-enactment featuring his secretary, before the Enemies List was widely known and while Deep Throat was still just a porn movie. 

Nixon was drawing the Vietnam war to a close, he was going to China, the economy was pretty good and his opponent, Eugene McCarthy, was seen as all about 'abortion, acid and amnesty' and had unceremoniously dumped his first running mate, Tom Eagleton, when it was revealed he had been treated for depression. Nixon prevailed in a landslide. He formed the Environmental Protection Agency, supported the Clean Air Act and OSHA and he even supported the Equal Rights Amendment and talked with the first men to set foot on the moon.

The subsequent scandal forcing him from office (and the one preceding it, forcing his VP, Spiro Agnew, out for crimes committed while in state office) tarnished his legacy, but did not erase his accomplishments. If he were alive today and running for President, it would have to be as a Democrat, for surely his heart would not be pure by today's conservative metric.

After the pardon (the correct decision--in retrospect) Gerald Ford effectively killed his chance of election, and I voted for the last Democrat I would support for the presidency until 2008. Jimmy Carter was a nice guy wholly out of his depth. His style was to immerse himself in minutiae which led him to constantly second-guess himself. The first Arab oil crisis, when OPEC began to flex its muscle with an embargo, left him in a sweater by the fireplace asking us to turn down the thermostat and drive less. Not a popular idea in gas guzzling, car-crazy America. The hostage drama in Iran, (the effects of which still echo in our foreign policy decisions nearly four decades later) and rescue debacle doomed his re-election.

In 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan, and every Republican that followed him for twenty-eight years.

I felt pretty good about it, too. The hostages cleared Iranian airspace in time for a dramatic announcement during his inaugural address. Reagan out-dueled the Soviets by calling them out and spending them into a bankruptcy that would emerge with the fall of the Berlin Wall in George the First's term. He initiated negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons and saw them through. We felt better about ourselves as a nation. He stood up to a union when it staged an illegal strike by firing the entire striking membership of  PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) and barring them from future civil service. Like it, or not, he did presidential things in a presidential way, and if he seemed a little disengaged the last couple of years, that was okay, his team was doing just fine. I was a happy Republican. I voted for George Bush in 1988 and 1992. It seemed to me that raising taxes (even when he promised not to) made practical sense in balancing budgets, but, alas, Bill Clinton prevailed in '92. Neither Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush could be elected as Republicans in this current cycle.

I loathed Clinton and his cocky arrogance. His casual acquaintance with marital fidelity and then putting the (unelected) First Lady in charge of health care reform (crafted behind closed doors) set my teeth on edge. There was Travelgate and Troopergate. The Whitewater Land affair, the mysterious suicide of Vincent Foster, the FBI files fiasco and of course his transformation of an intern named Monica Lewinsky into a verb, which led to his impeachment. There was just an air of insolence and scandal that was unbecoming of a United States President.

I suffered mightily in those years, but in my disenchantment I failed to notice the signs that my party was changing. The 1994 Contract With America seemed mostly reasonable. After all, more than half of it had been lifted from Reagan's '85 inaugural address. What I missed were the tactical methods of achieving strategic goals. By now the Christian Coalition led by Ralph Reed and other uber-conservative religious figures like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and American Center for Law and Justice had succeeded in making abortion, gay rights and 'traditional' marriage hot-button issues. Like-minded conservatives swept into office by the tactics introduced by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich of scorched-earth demonization of political opponents were already poisoning public discourse.

Into this mix came conservative talk radio. With the FCC's elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the airwaves suddenly became ripe to be overtaken by pontificating blowhards under no obligation to be truthful or allow countervailing opinions. Rush Limbaugh went into syndication in 1991, just in time to position himself as a mouthpiece for the ultra-conservative re-visioning of America by calling for the dismantling of most of the reforms of the last century.

Seemingly overnight my party--that had championed clean air and workplace safety, that had destroyed the Soviets without firing a shot, stood up for voting rights and equal rights for women--had an agenda I didn't recognize-or like. Worse, they didn't care. In their new paradigm moderation was a sin to be converted or expunged, and I was an unrepentant sinner. I didn't understand gays and lesbians, but I didn't fear them. I had been in the arts, many were friends and co-workers. Vietnam had schooled me (not as a participant, but as an observer) that foreign military interventions were risky and apt to fail. Respecting religious liberty meant leaving people alone to practice their faith, not asking the State to impose mine. Still, I believed this was a short-term aberration. It would pass into the dustbin of history, leaving only a footnote. In 2000 I voted for George W. Bush. I was no longer a happy conservative. I was defending positions with which I was uneasy. But I was compliant, perhaps even complicit.

When 9/11 suddenly reshaped the world, and after some initial disorganization, George the Second seemed to take command of the reins of power. We were all focused on national unity and at some level, revenge. Taking down the Taliban in Afghanistan was dangerous, but probably necessary to deny safe haven to terrorists. Notwithstanding the experience of the Russians a generation earlier, superior technology and training would prevail, there would be no morass like Southeast Asia. Dick Cheney, a former White House Chief of Staff, Congressman and Secretary of Defense to George the First during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, was the Vice-President.

Donald H. Rumsfeld was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of Defense on January 20, 2001. Before assuming that post, the former Navy pilot had also served as the 13th Secretary of Defense, White House Chief of Staff (both under Ford), U.S. Ambassador to NATO, U.S. Congressman and chief executive officer of two Fortune 500 companies. 

Colin Powell was the Secretary of State. Retired four star Army General, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Adviser, Vietnam veteran and the man I really wanted to run for the presidency in 2000. This was a dream-team. All the right people were in just the right places at the crossroads of history. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, as we now know. The Veep goes off his rocker, the SecDef tries to reshape the military as it is deployed, the SecState gets spoon-fed bogus information by the Veep and mission creep sends us into a two-front war for a phantom threat. George fiddles while Baghdad burns.

Meanwhile, Republicans (my guys, remember?) are systematically disassembling controls on banking and investment (to be fair, this got underway during the Reagan administration), while bankers and money manipulators are conflating bad loans into can't miss vehicles for financial ruin.  Additionally, my team is slashing taxes on the domestic front while spending at a calamitous rate on the war front. Entire pallets of one-hundred-dollar U.S. greenbacks, lost or stolen from military cargo planes disappear into the desert. Soldiers of fortune posing as private contractors run riot. The privatizing of war turns out not to be a good strategy. A decade later we are still trying to extricate ourselves from a war longer that Vietnam. Longer. Almost inconceivable. Still, much of this was yet to be exposed in 2004, so I voted to re-elect George. You don't change presidents during wartime.

By 2006 the cracks in the foundation were apparent. Moderate conservatives, Reagan Democrats and right-leaning Independents  began abandoning the party. Apologists were trying to shore up support, but talk radio and Fox News on cable TV had staked out their territory with the ideologues to the far right wing with no intention of ceding any ground back toward the center. Little of the common sense and calm demeanor of the likes of William F. Buckley remained. Venomous rhetoric and reprehensible personal attacks dominated what passed for discussion. Politics was no longer an honorable profession of service and sacrifice to country; it was a warped version of reality television. It was professional wrestling in suits and ties. It was take no prisoners, manipulate voters, strangle dissent. It was time for a change.

 When the Republican nominee, John McCain and his Straight-Talk Express began kowtowing to the basest elements of the party and then selected arguably the least qualified running mate in U.S. history, I wasn't just unhappy as a member, I was disillusioned as well. For the first time in my life I began to actively campaign for a candidate. I donated money, went to rallies, exhorted college students a third my age to get involved. My family was astonished. I was astonished. But more than that, I was desperate. The country I loved was foundering on shoals of shame. Self-inflicted, cynical seeds of hypocrisy, class warfare, sexism and racism were battering our shoreline, and they were coming from where I once stood. I was mad as hell, and I wasn't going to take it anymore.

In 2008, thirty two years after the last time I supported a Democrat for the office of POTUS, I voted for Barack Obama. I had become an Obama-can, caucused for him, and wept unabashedly on election night.

The long knives have since truly come out, the TEA Party (Taxed enough? For the rich, the tax rate is one-third what it was in the golden era of Saint Reagan) has moved the Republican party so far right that it is now actually passing state laws (while doing absolutely nothing in Congress) trying to repeal the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act of 1964, deny basic health care to women on religious grounds, send abortion providers into back alleys again, demonize illegal immigrants, gays, lesbians, and even women using contraceptives. For good measure, while they are at it, they would like to eviscerate Medicare and Social Security. Their jobs program seems to be firing as many government employees as possible, allowing the once mighty infrastructure of this country-the backbone of interstate commerce and largely started and built during Republican administrations--to fall to ruin, and continue to reward corporations to send work offshore.

It took three decades in the stew pot, but I am finally fully cooked. When I started as a conservative, well-run government was our priority, civil liberties were on our agenda. Conservative values meant properly managed; preservation of resources, clean air and water and moderate taxes, steady economic growth with enough regulation to ensure fair play but not so much as to strangle innovation. 

Privacy and the dignity to make our own decisions about our life meant something. Equal access to voting and education and justice were ideals for which we strived. Now all is dross. When I started, those were conservative values, now they find a home with Progressives. I am a happy progressive now. Can you guess how I might vote this November?

I'll close by re-interpreting a comment made by Ronald Reagan. I didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Defense of Arts

Try, for a moment, to imagine a world without music. Okay, that's unfair, you say, and almost impossible. Fine, let's try an easier one: Conjure up what life might be without literature. How drab an existence without the Bible or Shakespeare, Keats, Synge, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen or Anton Chekov. Dickens reduced to writing pamphlets for patent medicines. Jules Verne never creates Captain Nemo or the Nautilaus. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics never enter the vernacular. Dracula never meets Frankenstein in the movies. Inconceivable.

Let's pile on and strip away visual arts. Painting now consists of covering every surface with the same shade of gray. There are no statues, because there are no carvers to hew away the unnecessary bits of stone to reveal an inspiration.
All buildings are square. There is one font in your word program. All cars look the same (alright, bad example).

The point here is obvious. There is no modern civilization without the arts--all of them--and yet, whenever times are tough and education budgets are stretched past the breaking point, the razor sharp knives of the politicians know just what they want to slash; the arts.

Nationwide, schools eviscerate music, art and drama programs routinely. It's harder to slice away at English, but not so difficult to manipulate what is taught. Locally these cuts are seldom made because a majority wishes the programs gone, but instead because rules imposed from afar reward test scores, not learning. This ill-conceived, slavish devotion to better math and science rankings misses the bigger picture. The arts inform the sciences.

Music education does more than teach tunes. It conveys rhythm, structure, discipline and abstract thinking. It's learning an entirely new language, complete with its own special set of symbols, rules and nuances.

Visual arts satisfy that urge to comprehend and understand what we see around us. A sense of space, color and even time. An urge as ancient as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, an opportunity to say to future generation "I was here and this is how I saw the world".

The engineers and astronauts that took us to the moon, invented computers and cell phones, created Teflon and Tang and freeze-dried ice cream were not novelists or writers of fiction. But they were inspired to make real the science fiction fantasies they surreptitiously read with a flashlight beneath their bed covers as children.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury stoked the fires of imagination, and when that was coupled to the broader world of math and reading and science, the synergy opened floodgates of practical accomplishment.
A world without the arts is a barren place, and we suffer not just the loss of our unique culture and the essence of being human, but the very tools some think should be the only skills taught. The subtraction of one is the erosion of the other. We need to encourage, expand and value arts education because it serves the entire community and lifts us all, technician or dreamer.

In truth, the great leaps in science and technology have always been partnered with starry-eyed visionaries--in the arts--showing us what might yet be.