Copy for the book jacket

I visited the website for Jeanne Safer’s literary agent.   Safer writes insightful, useful books on difficult subjects, how to deal with a toxic sibling, what there is to celebrate at the death of a difficult parent, when not to forgive.   I admire her writing on these taboo subjects and figured her agent might be a good place to start my search for an agent for the difficult book I am wrestling with.   The agency has a query page that reads, in pertinent part: 

We love discovering new talent and welcome your query.

If your project is in keeping with the kinds of books we take on, we want to hear from you. In non-fiction, we represent narrative, popular science, memoir, history, psychology, business, biography, food, and travel.

So far, so good.  But they don’t want me to send them my svelte 1,700 word evocation of the book I’m writing, they have a better idea.

Synopsis (up to two paragraphs).   Briefly pitch your project, indicating what makes it unique and compelling. Imagine writing the jacket copy for your book.

I wrote one the other day, 319 words, two paragraphs (the second actually two paragraphs)  pretty good, but not really the jacket copy they were looking for.   I will try again now.

The Book of Irv is a son’s memoir of his father’s life, a life that ended with terrible regrets.   It is a meditation on anger and the power of reconciliation, even when it arrives tragically late.   Irv Widaen triumphed over a childhood of grinding poverty during the Great Depression to live the American Dream.  He was an idealist with a deep commitment to bending the moral arc of history toward justice.  A specialist in Human Relations, he brought warring gang leaders together.    A man of great empathy and a quick, irreverent wit, he quickly won people over.  His own children referred to him as the Dreaded Unit, or the D.U..

The D.U. saw the world as a battlefield.   He fought his children to the death over dinner every night.  Almost his entire family was massacred back in Europe during World War Two; there were other unspeakable, inescapable terrors in his earlier life.   Heartbroken and desperate, he viewed life as a zero sum game.   He did harm to both of his children by constantly denying their feelings, while imbuing them with the highest ideals about fairness, identification with the oppressed and kindness to animals.  The Book of Irv interweaves his personal story with the turbulent history of his times.  His pessimistic insistence that people cannot fundamentally change is set against his realization, as he was dying, that he should have had more insight.  At the heart of the book is the dialogue the difficult father and troubled son should have been having all along.   The D.U.’s skeleton smiles in his grave to finally have this chance to be heard.

264 words

A Blank Slate

It’s got a cool sound in Latin:  tabula rasa, the writing tablet scraped clean.    They used to theorize that the newborn human was a tabula rasa. The sensory world begins making marks on that blank slate and it matures accordingly.   The Hindus, I was told by American devotees of an Indian guru named Baba Hari Dass, a man who had not spoken for decades, call some of these impressions on the tabula rasa samskaras.   These were like fingerprints in clay, as I was made to understand it.   Samskaras are dispositions, characteristics and themes left over from past lives, as I recall.

Somebody came up with the clever “wherever you go, there you are.” There are some clever bastards out there, really.   Writing in the darkness of night, intent on the words you are putting down, you will find no time to imagine the blank looks.   I speak only for myself, of course.  

I get angry.  At things like brutality, the random fuckings we are all subjected to, fuckings out of the blue, with absolutely no pleasure for ourself, no possibility of pleasure.   We are done this way, at random, for the pleasure of people who, like pedophile priests,  say “fuck mutuality, fuck decency, I see my fellow humans as base coin with which to gratify my passions.   My passions!”   These things are uttered by people who imagine themselves winners, and they do what they do to the rest of us losers feeling wholly justified.   Because they can, you understand.

My grandmother flew into rages, the grandmother I never met.   Her older brother was known to be a rough customer, a man with a formidable temper.   Her nephew was a tough guy with a bad temper too.   You did what they said or you paid the price.   What was the price?   How about I fucking whip you in the face, you like that price, asshole?

My father, a man whose poignant tenderness to animals was always in evidence, often flew into rages.   His mother, I learned very late in his life, whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Basic unfairness scalded him all throughout his life and he would cry out.  There was nothing I could do for him, when I was a tabula rasa.   Nothing but stare at him accusingly, with my big, black eyes.  He would look over from his pillow, with his glasses off and his 20/400 vision, and I would be staring at him through the bars of my crib.   A blank slate, staring without mercy at his own father.    

How insane is this arrangement?   It is hard to put it into words.   It is also good to try to put it into words, speaking only for myself, of course.    I heard that David Foster Wallace believed a good book made you feel less alone, less lonely.   There is a certain pain, familiar to most people, of feeling isolated, apart, removed from the community.   This pain is big business, a huge driver of our highly competitive economy.  

The anodyne business itself, huge, vast mountains of money.  People die behind that stuff every day, take enough of it and you will no longer need any pain killer.  The entertainment business, which lets us forget, while moved by an artfully told tale, that we are essentially, blank slates or slates scribbled with a hundred layers of glyphs, here in the darkness by ourselves, destined each of us to our own end.    A good book connects us with another mind, helps us forget all that.   The same can be said of music that stirs us, transports us, or visual art that evokes feelings that leave us in some kind of awe.

You will meet a few people in your life who are familiar, become more familiar. They put their fingerprints on you in the right way.   You learn things you need to know from such people.   They are rare, and precious.   Not everyone has the luck to meet them, and if they do meet them, not every two of us have the ability to hit it off.  Not every two notes make good music.   Where there is noise only, there is no soothing of the savage beast [1].

I’m thinking about this blank slate because of the empty page, the white screen.   Some people look at that expanse and say “shit…”    I always have a certain excitement when I see that empty canvas.   It can become literally anything you can imagine, speaking only for myself, of course.


[1] OK, fine, “savage breast”.

The phrase was coined by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697: Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

Totalitarian Tendencies

Of course, it’s always problematic to make comparisons between current events and infamous low points in human history, no matter how emotionally vexing those current events may be.   I call for an end (until it becomes undeniable, at which point I’ll be unable to post calls for anything) to the comparisons of brutal policymakers to Nazis or other totalitarian regimes.

Taking young children from their mothers’ arms is not the same, clearly, as wrenching a baby from the mother and smashing a rifle butt against its tiny head.   Putting a crying child in a cage for indefinite detention is not anywhere near as horrific as putting a child in a gas chamber.  You can’t even fairly compare those two things, caging and murdering.   So calling a government policy that dehumanizes certain classes of children and designates them for this kind of inhumane treatment “Nazi-like” sounds like hyperbole and is easily enough dismissed by the hard pragmatists who believe that this kind of harsh, tough, zero-tolerance policy that makes parents pay a brutally high price, their connection with their children, will deter desperate people from coming to our borders.

It is easy to condemn this sort of policy as the terroristic tactic of people consumed by unreasoning hatred of the objects of their policy.   The people coming to the US southern border are portrayed by proponents of these harsh policies as criminals, rapists, terrorists, a hoard posing untold dangers to our eternally threatened nation, incredible dangers, unbelievably bad dangers, really dangerous dangers.   That many of them are running from terrors directly produced by, say, our own imbecilic ninety year selective drug prohibition regime, our eternal War on Drugs, is beside the point.  Those violent drug gangs are the problem, not the ongoing American law enforcement idiocy that has only produced a massively lucrative product for these increasingly violent foreign (and domestic) criminals to peddle.    

Fleeing gang violence, says our tiny, racist top law enforcement official, is no longer grounds for political asylum, it’s your goddamn problem, deal with it, you brown, non-English speaking losers.  Neither is fleeing a spouse who beats the living shit out of you and threatens to kill you.   Nothing to see here!  No longer America’s role, to provide a haven for women and children who will otherwise be killed in their home countries, or teenagers facing death if they refuse to join a drug cartel’s street gang.

We cannot underestimate the vital role that terrorism and the threat of violent physical force plays in human affairs.  By terrorism and violent force, I refer to the routinized violence threatened or visited on citizens by states, by nations and coalitions of nations.  This state violence causes the vast majority of deaths by terrorism (though it is rarely referred to as terrorism, for obvious reasons).  Deadly violence, and the terrifying threat of its instant deployment, and more recently fear of non-government terrorism, and the need for extreme measures to protect the populace from Terror with a capital T,  is always used by the status quo to maintain order and to influence political relations.  

The old debate over who is the terrorist is now all the rage, in our terrified of terror Post-9-11 world.  Those illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are TERRORISTS, we are told by American law enforcement.   The protesters in Gaza, every one of them according to the Israeli Minister of Defense, down to the medics and members of the international press:  TERRORISTS!   When you’re fighting terror, the gloves must come off, obviously.

The I.C.E. agents who forcibly take the kids from their potential terrorist parents are only protecting law abiding citizens from criminals and terrorists, the worst of the worst, shameless terrorists using their own babies as human shields!    Those terrorists in Gaza?   We have every right to kill as many as we need to in order to make them stop hating our freedom!    Israeli leaders, particularly the extreme nationalistic right wing ones, are fond of reminding the world that Israel is the region’s only real democracy.   Therefore any means needed will be employed to defend it from haters, including opening fire on unarmed protesters, with special bullets designed to do maximum damage on impact.

The moral battle is won by the most skilled story-tellers, the people who can make us empathize the most with their point of view.  With that in mind, Israeli lawmakers are considering a law making it illegal to photograph Israeli soldiers in a way that could potentially harm Israeli military morale.  Showing a photo of an Israeli soldier cuffing a belligerent Palestinian teenager could really harm the morale of the sorely tested Israeli army.   Five years in prison for the photographer who has caused this harm to Israeli democracy, ten if the photograph, according to the law, undermines the security of the state.  They are voting on this important measure as I type these words.  Nothing to see here!  

The motto of every great democracy– Nothing to see here!   Criminalize those who take pictures of things that are nobody’s business, merely the democratic sausage we all love being made.  We are no slouches in this department, here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  Dubya Bush’s daddy made it illegal to photograph and broadcast images of the coffins of dead American soldiers.  How bad was it for morale to see, day after day, those dead Americans coming home from war zones?!   No more of that shit, citizens of a democracy do not need that kind of incredibly depressing shit, it only creates prejudice.  It sets our people against lawful war as the solution to every business-related foreign problem our leaders seek to solve by violent means. 

Recently our perpetually petulant president withdrew the U.S. from the the Human Rights Council in the United Nations.  Who needs fake fucking Human Rights from a bunch of self-righteous loser hypocrites?  This sudden departure from the council did not come out of nowhere.  First the council unfairly condemned Israel for having snipers shoot countless protesters, killing scores, hospitalizing thousands.   Next they attacked us directly!     The UN Council on Human Rights is poised to release a report about the extent and conditions of extreme poverty in the United States.

“It’s patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America,” U.S. Ambassador Haley Barber said in response to the Special Rapporteur’s report.   Fair enough, Ms. Barber, if you say so.   Just because the U.S. has vast numbers of citizens,  an estimated 5.3 million (out of 40 million in poverty), living in desperate Third World type poverty is none of anyone’s damn business.  Making a big deal about falling American life expectancy, an infant mortality rate as high as in many very poor countries, America’s informed choice not to recognize the human rights of children,  outrageous meddling!   It is no business of a bunch of Socialist America haters to “impartially” investigate and write preposterous, hateful, patently ridiculous reports about us.   They’re our fucking poor people and we’ll deal with those selfish parasites, including the 13 million so-called children in poverty, as we fucking see fit, Sir.  We’ve got your Human Rights Council right here (grab crotch), bitches!

It’s not right to call them Nazis, I’ll be the first to remind you.  Assholes, yes, vicious assholes, sure, but Nazis… not quite yet.   Still, this administration is taking steady, consistent steps toward a kind of American authoritarianism.   The destruction of critical thought is the first thing that must be achieved, to allow incoherent partisan buzzwords to carry every argument.  

Think of the incoherent messages about this policy of taking children from their parents, the citing of biblical scripture to justify it, the denials about the policy, the indignant objection to cages being referred to as cages, the blaming of Democrats for the policy, the sudden reversal of the policy by executive order.  None of that really matters, if we are really ready for the end of our democracy.   The silencing of all thoughtful criticism leads to the acceptance of incoherent narratives.  This process is crucial for anyone seeking absolute control over a population.  Silence the critics and you’re most of the way home.  The lying media, enemy of the people, knows this too.  Those bastards need to be made to fall into line, by hook or by crook.

Once the possibility of  coherent public discussion is eliminated, the rest is pretty much downhill for any motherfucker, already in the highest position in our government, who would become Supreme Leader.   The test of American democracy is upon us all.  The good news is that’s its a pass/fail exam, which is also, sadly, the bad news.


Infinite and Finite

In our finite world scarcity and competition for limited resources are facts of nature, taken for granted.   We are hard-pressed to see the world we live in except in terms of winning and losing.   Most drama in our world centers on the burning question of who will take the lion’s share and be safe in their home and property and who will starve or die young of preventable diseases or violence.    Most live anxiously in between, taking distraction and pleasure where they can, and there are people who will kill you for the money in your pocket.

Other things in this world are infinite and as precious as clean water.   Empathy is infinite, if allowed to flourish, and it saves lives.   The gift of being listened to, heard and understood, having someone take the time to understand — a sadly rare gift that costs nothing to give and is potentially infinite.  Imagine the pain and violence that could be spared, if a person on the edge of rage had only had someone to hear how much they were suffering and ready to give even a small comfort.

I heard a great radio interview a few weeks ago with a woman who worked in an office in a school.  A distraught maniac came into the school with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammo, ready to kill and then, as the maddening saying goes, “turn the gun on himself” or commit “suicide by police”.  She was the first person he encountered there, and she was in the midst of a day of great personal trouble already when he walked in.   She saw his agony and spoke to him kindly, told him he was loved, called him sweetie, assured him that his life was going to be better than it felt in this terrible moment.  She wound up calming him enough that he didn’t shoot anybody, didn’t turn the gun on himself.  

Many gun-toting maniacs who barge into schools are far past the point of hearing anything, the kindest words in the world will be cut off by their gun shots.  But her actions that day saved many lives, including her own.  They don’t make a movie about her, but she’s a greater hero than most that movies are written about. Antoinette Tuff is this hero’s name.  In looking her up just now I read that a few days ago they sentenced the 21 year-old with the AK-47, who shot at police before Tuff talked him down.   Looking at the photo of the beautiful Ms. Tuff, and reading about her hard life before her heroic moment, they might very well make a movie about her.   She has a book out now and is doing the interview circuit.

Also infinite, the violence rage produces.  It is as inevitable as the “fuck you” many in a hurry, or dealing with their own troubles with no time left, might feel reading something like this on some fool’s blahg.  Abstract bullshit with rose colored shades on, where is the actual content?  Oh, wait:  it’s better to be amazingly kind than to be a common fucking bastard, eh?  Deep.

Our minds create the world we live in, it is said.  The organ of mass media plays upon our senses, all the time, selling without rest, pulsating in our pockets, on a billion screens, it’s echoed by the crickets chirping in the darkness.  All of human genius is focused on perfecting this ever more incredibly sophisticated sales machine.  We cannot see our world without seeing the inevitable — war, competition, violence, hatred, revenge, infuriating piety.  Infuriating piety is as bad as the rest of the plagues, it’s maddening to listen to someone piously announce the difficult truth, presented with a pious idiot’s simple mindedness, leaving no room for discussion.  The certainty of pious people can be maddening, that’s understood.

Picture two kids and their prospects for a happy life and I’ll duck back behind the curtain.  One child, when she wakes afraid in the dark, has an adult who comes, puts a soft hand out, speaks quietly, listens and reassures. The other child wakes afraid in the dark and is met by an angry adult who waits for the child’s wailing to get out of control and then barges in snarling “you’d better shut up or I’ll give you something to really cry about!”  

That this goes as well for adults as for children is too self-evident to even try to show.  It is even more important for children, clearly, and for the future of life here.