Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Scoop Factory

In the Sixties Andy Warhol grabbed up an abandoned low-rent space in midtown Manhattan and transformed it into a leading influence in the New York art and culture Scene. A hangout, a studio, a cultural center and the ultimate 24/7 unreality show, Warhol’s world was known as The Factory. Famous for his fifteen-minutes-of-fame witticism, he was an astute observer of pop culture and built an empire on the idea of celebrity. His studio was also a silkscreen production facility which was likewise a factory. This unending output of product put Warhol on the map.

Fast forward. I don’t really know if this is what The New Republic and Gabriel Sherman had in the back of their minds by calling their analysis of Politico.com The Scoop Factory. For sure, there are parallels. And like Warhol's Factory scene, some people are raving about it and other despise it.

If you’re not familiar with Politico.com, you might want to check it out. It's become the hottest thing in online D.C. Inside-the-Beltway news coverage. Like Warhol’s Factory in the Big Apple, Politico is influential. And like Warhol’s factory, Politico excels at cranking out product. And finally, like the people in Warhol’s world, celebritydom is also part of the chic mystique.

In reading Sherman’s piece I can't help but wonder how legitimate his concerns are. How serious are the issues Sherman raises?

The key to Politico’s success is speed. In the Washington scoop game, first is always best, as long as it is accurate. The unfortunate thing for daily newspapers is that today’s late news has to wait for tomorrow to find its way to print. At Politico, the news breaks as fast as the journalists can break it.

Sherman details how a story on Politico gets fed into the food chain so as to be propelled to the widest sweep of viewers and listeners, making use of the Huffington Post, Rush Limbaugh and other megaphones to give the stories credence and hopefully enough relevance to bring them into the evening news. One of his concerns is that stories can get reported before they have been adequately analyzed, which I'm sure happens. But doesn't a journalist who repeatedly breaks news that is ultimately unfounded lose his or her cred?

Sherman’s second concern seems to me a canard. He laments the burnout pace Politico’s reporters operate on, as if they are forced into intolerable work conditions for a measly quarter-million dollars. Along with the perks of fortune they also have instant cred for their careers, widespread recognition and a perpetual soapbox. And we’re supposed to feel sorry for these writers? These are not galley slaves who have been abducted into the service of an ignoble captain in exchange for gruel and a rat infested life below deck in a stench filled hole.

When I was starting out as a freelance writer, the first job I was able to land was for an 80 hour work week that paid $180 a week. Below minimum wage. But eventually I would learn how to do the work faster, I was told. I declined the offer.

As I noted Sunday, the power of the newspapers has taken a hit. Politico.com may be untested for the long haul, but its made a mark. Like Facebook and Twitter, who today can honestly say what it will morph into tomorrow.

EdNote: The painting of the ice cream cone at top is not my own work, but a photo I took in a San Francisco art gallery in the spring of 2007. It is used without permission, though if someone locates the artist, I will inquire and give credit where it is due.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Unfinished Stories (Part 8)


Gary Spencer, the last man alive to have read all of Richard Allen Garston's works, changed his name to Father William and now resides at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Father William had agreed to open up a little regarding Garston's writings and life. In this second dialogue, Joe Urban learns of the content of Garston's stories. It's probably my favorite part of the story.

The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston (Part 8)
Dialogue Two

I returned to my room with pen in hand, hastily outlining the details of our conversation. While my record may be imprecise in certain respects, overall it captures the essential elements of our conversation.

Our second conversation was immensely different. We spoke of the stories themselves.

His stories had a strange effect on me. When later I returned to my room it was as if my brain had become benumbed by liquor (though I had had none other than the Kentucky Bourbon which saturates the unique Trappist fudge they manufacture) or that I had fallen into a stupor of some sort. Whereas I spent the first night furiously attempting to reconstruct our dialogue, the second night left me in a state of introspective psycho-emotional inebriation. The first day's dialogue was liberating because I had attained a remarkable sense of self-forgetfulness. The stories of day two, on the other hand, were like a mirror, and ultimately I could not close off my day without attempting to find in myself the causation for this dark resonance.

Now that a measure of time has passed, I have no notes to adequately re-construct the day, or the stories. Here is the best of what I recall.

We began by the garden and walked along a narrow path to a field below the Abbey. I reminded him that he would tell me about the stories, and he began with this.

"Here's one I remember vividly," he said, "about a man who spent his whole life writing and re-writing the same story. The first half of his life it kept getting longer and more complex. The novella became a novel, which subsequently became an epic. The story ultimately grappled with every conceivable theme and the infinite permutations on those themes.

"The second half of his life he began to distill each facet of the story down to its unifying essence. For decades he re-wrote and edited and revised and polished his prose so that it became a lengthy, but finely crafted poem. This he continued to tighten and sharpen until it became ever more pointed, and potent. As the old man's heart weakened, the power of his verse strengthened.

"The last week of his life he attempted to compress all of his life's work into seventeen syllables..."

"A haiku!"


"What happened next?"

"It's unfinished."

This is how the day went. Stories were summarized and apparent meanings attached to them, stories about old people, children, orphans, criminals, natives, Orientals, immigrants, slaves, rich, poor, warriors, powerful, powerless. Stories from all stations of life, all facets of time, all portions of human history. Stories differing as greatly as mountains differ from deserts, rivers from butterflies, mould spores from the sun. Complicated puzzles, plots, games, dazzling wordplay, a hideous monster who had healing powers; a murder, told from the point of view of a piece of furniture, and the incriminating fragment of testimony it offered; a magic stone that made children tell the truth when they touched it; a temple made of daisies that turned men into birds; a stone that gave supernatural knowledge; the man who held the answer to a question no one dared to ask.

The stories were strange, dense, multi-dimensional, yet so simply told.

There was one story about a man whose hands and feet had been cut off during the Spanish Inquisition. He survived the atrocity and, in a story called The Ghost of Isla Rosa, went on to gain revenge on his tormentors.

In another story, Don Quixote, Oedipus and Bertrand Russell become engaged in a debate regarding the thesis "Is it futile to Dream?"

Another story I remember had something to do with time. Evidently it was built around the premise that history is elastic. That is, that future events can change past ones. I'm not sure what it was really about, but I recall being somewhat impressed by the manifold distortions of reality inherent in this concept.

Then there were the innumerable stories about struggle. Struggles with lust, with greed, with the need for freedom, with impulsiveness, the longing for spontaneity... struggles with materialism, solipsism, discontent, passivity, hypersensitivity, futility, austerity, pugnacity, hysteria... and ultimately the struggle for meaning and significance. These latter were difficult for me. They had a pointedness that frightened me.

There were also enigmatic stories, bewildering riddles, ambiguous conundrums and labyrinthine psychological spectacles.

Some of the stories he told in deplorable detail, others he summarized in a few swift sentences, and still others he simply alluded to or implied. He may not have said a word about them but I knew of their existence by the way he avoided speaking of them. I regretted the lack of time, and somehow he felt shortchanged as well.

Finally there were the suicide notes.

"Emma shared with me the introduction to one of these," I said.

"Emma?" he said. The way he said it threw me off because I couldn't tell if he were indicating he knew her, or didn't know her.

"Garston's sister-in-law. Wife of the brother, you know, the one who burned his work."

"I know, yes, I know."

Father William took an inordinate amount of time composing his thoughts. Eventually he continued to tell me of the thousand and one suicide notes.

"Ironic, isn't it?" I asked.

"What's that?"

"Well, all that energy spent attempting to keep his characters alive. But no one was able to help keep him alive."

"Yessssss," said he, enunciating it with a prolonged hiss.

I thought of the fragment. I thought of Emma. And I wondered now what I was really looking for.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Demise of Newspapers: What Does It Mean?

One of the recurring questions over the past fifteen years has been this one: What will be the impact of the Internet. I've heard some folks lament that it will destroy the English language as we know it. Michael Crichton, among others, predicted that network television would become extinct like the Jurassic period dinosaurs he wrote about. Others, upon seeing what is happening in print media -- magazines and newspapers -- have begun ringing alarm bells about the demise of democracy. Without an informed electorate, where will we be then? The questions are being raised. The only point of agreement is that things have been changing.

While in the Flagstaff B&N last week I picked up a copy of The New Republic (TNR) because it had several articles pertaining to this theme as it related to newspapers. One of these especially caught my eye, written by Paul Starr, a professor of communications and public affairs at Princeton. In Paul Starr's view, the diminished strength of our nation's newspapers will have serious ramifications in our culture, politics and our experience of democracy. In his article Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption) Starr writes, "More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt."

That newspapers are shrinking in size is self-evident. Our local Duluth News-Tribune is half what it used to be, if that. And all across the country journalists are being ushered into early retirement or alternative careers, many in the Public Relations sphere. Declining ad revenues are the chief culprit as well as declining circulation numbers. The newspapers can't support the staff.

Starr states that Internet bloggers and writers excel at sharing their opinions but that Watergate scandals do not get unearthed without rigorous research and tedious fact-checking. I would counter that we have all seen the power of the blogosphere to bring down the likes of Dan Rather and Trent Lott. Such anecdotes do not entirely dismantle the force of his arguments. In my opinion it is a worthwhile debate.

According to Dean Baker, Co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "Newspapers are vital, but they have failed us." The title of his article, posted at Politico.com,says it all. Will you (unlike most Americans polled) miss your newspaper when its gone? How much will the decline of the paper hurt our democracy?

There's no hand-wringing in Baker's piece, which begins, "Newspapers have a vital role to play in a democracy, but unfortunately they have largely failed in filling this role in recent decades. For this reason, their passing is hardly a tragedy." Taking an optimist's view, the news and information business is being liberated and democratized by the demise of newspapers and the Internet's rise.

In that self-same issue of TNR which shared Starr's concerns we can find an intriguing dissection of Politico.com, the soapbox from which Baker delivers his salvos. The Scoop Factory bores down on the "brave new world of post-print journalism." I'll give my take on that story another day.

What do you think? Are newspapers going to die altogether? It's hard for me to envision that scenario. Some people once thought television would replace radio, but that never happened, though talkies did pretty much eliminate silent pictures. Four weeks ago former Superior Telegram editor Ron Brochu made some illuminating observations pertaining to this theme during an interview for Ennyman's Territory. Maybe you'd like to contribute something to this dialogue.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Three Mile Island

According to a U.S. NRC Fact Sheet, it happened like this. "The accident began about 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non‑nuclear section of the plant. The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, the pilot-operated relief valve (a valve located at the top of the pressurizer) opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure decreased by a certain amount, but it did not. Signals available to the operator failed to show that the valve was still open. As a result, cooling water poured out of the stuck-open valve and caused the core of the reactor to overheat."

The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania was the most serious in nuclear power plant history. Though the physical damage to the two million inhabitants of the region who received toxic exposure was the equivalent of one third of a chest x-ray, the psychological damage was such that no amount of PR spin could heal the injured nuclear power industry.

In reflecting on this occasion, I wanted to share a few memories which are as yet unrecorded in magazines or book. If you are interested in the full account of what happened, read the NRC Fact Sheet.

Nuclear Anecdote #1
I used to be a security guard at Research Cottrell back in 1973-76. Research-Cottrell was the company that built the cooling towers for nuclear power plants like Three Mile Island. This was a very hot business and people were making a lot of money building these things. I actually did not know much about the company or what it did. I simply clocked in at four p.m. and went home at midnight, or clocked in at midnight and went home at eight in the morning.

The company had several facilities in area which I lived in New Jersey. My duties were at first performed in the plant in Bound Brook (or rim of Bridgewater) and later at the company's corporate headquarters on Route 202-206 just North of Pluckemin. It was a minimum wage position, perhaps two dollars or two-and-a-quarter an hour. Punctual, breathing human beings were all that was required evidently.

During my time in the Bound Brook plant, I was still a young hippie in college. Occasionally guards toked on the job, inhaling of course. (I was unaware of any other way to smoke pot at the time.) I knew a guard who did acid there. The job was not demanding. Security guards in those days essentially took an hourly walk about the facility and punched a time clock which kept a record of the guard's movements throughout the night. And on one occasion, while seated alone at the front desk preparing to make my next early morning round, a phone rang.

I wasn't sure just what to do, so I answered it. The voice was near hysterical. There was an emergency at the Connecticut power plant and no one knew what to do.

Well, like, dude, what am I supposed to do about it?

I get the phone number and promise to call back. I call Captain Loupas, head of the security guards, who notifies me that there is probably a list of emergency phone numbers in the drawer at the front desk where I am seated. Sure enough, there is.

After reading through the list, I select the most likely person to call and dial the number. It is somewhere between four and five a.m. "Who the ^%$^* is this? Do you %$^%$^ know what time it is?"

I explain that things are out of control in Connecticut. "No, I don't have the name of the person I spoke with, only a number." He says they will deal with it in the morning and hangs up on me.

Evidently, the situation got resolved because Three Mile Island didn't happen till five years later.

Nuclear Anecdote #2
After graduating from college in 1974 I continued to do security guard work at night and volunteer work during the day. But at this point I had received a promotion and a 25 cent raise. In addition, I'd been relocated to the corporate headquarters.

The following summer while down near Sunset Lake just off Washington Valley Road I got into a conversation with a man who, upon learning I worked at Research-Cottrell, expressed grave concerns about the way they build these nuclear reactors today. I asked for details, which he bitterly provided.

He told me that eight years earlier he had been a foreman for one of these building projects. There was an exceedingly high amount of importance placed on every detail. He said that a pipe or girder or any facet of the building had to be so precise that it could not be off by more than one inch in 100 meters. "But now..." he lamented eight years later, he was on another building project as a worker, not foreman, and some of these things were off by eighteen inches. He said the sloppy workmanship and careless attitudes scared him.

I never knew where the plants were that he worked on. I only recall his concern. He did not like what he saw, but he was told to either be quiet or lose his job. In this light, it may be easy to understand the why of how Three Mile Island happened.

According to Michael Grunwald at Time.com, "If the Three Mile Island atomic reactor near Harrisburg hadn't melted down 30 years ago today... well, there probably would have been an accident somewhere else. The entire U.S. nuclear industry was melting down in the 1970s, irradiated by spectacular cost overruns, interminable delays and public outrage. Forbes later called its collapse 'the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.'" ~Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power's Pitfalls

Am I a believer in the power of nuclear energy? Yes, I am a believer in the science and technology. But these anecdotes reveal a dark side that concerns me as well. How about you?

Here's a interesting slide show on
the ten worst nuclear disasters of history

Friday, March 27, 2009

Juarez: City of Blood

The first time that I saw it, the violence in the Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men had a certain unreality about it that was hard to easily accept. Can this many people really be killed in such a short period of time?

I’d read the book, and accepted the story line. But seeing it on film made the bloodletting seem an over-the-top Hollywood horrorshow. That is, until I became aware of the realities taking place just South o’ the border these days. The film was apparently no exaggeration.

Currently one of the bloodiest hot spots on the Rio Grande is the city of Juarez, just across from El Paso. I remember my first trip to Mexico in December 1977 almost as if it were yesterday. On that occasion we crossed at El Paso, into Juarez, a sleepy little town with dry, dusty streets and slow moving border agents just corrupt enough to make sure they got a little “tip” for being nice enough not to notice anything you shouldn’t be bringing into the country. Nothing too exorbitant. Just a border ritual you either participated in or didn’t. Whatever the consequences were for not paying the graft, I never found out. The town itself was alive, with streets filled with Americanos who crossed over for the day to shop or whatever. (No visas required for that small step, only for heading deeper inside.) In short, there was nothing ominous as far as I could tell.

If you follow the news at all, it’s apparent things have changed.

Granted, our Southern border has always been porous. Drug trafficking is nothing new. What’s new is the level of violence. In Chihuahua, the state where Juarez resides, murders rose from 600 in 2007 to more than 2700 in 2008. The problem is messy enough that medical students in El Paso are being advised not to go into Mexico at all to do the humanitarian work many have been performing there for years. News accounts tell of beheadings, shootings and burnt bodies in ever escalating quantities.

Ironically, explanations regarding the violence are being given a new twist. It is not the drug dealers who are the problem, it is the smuggling of arms into Mexico from the U.S. side that is being identified as the root cause. According to a March 26 CBS World Watch story by Cami McCormick, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Mexico, said Wednesday that America's inability to prevent weapons being smuggled across the border is causing the deaths of Mexican police officers, soldiers and civilians.” The article notes that arms dealers are attending Texas gun shows to accumulate assault rifles and other deadly weaponry for their arsenals. Special Agent Michael Golson of the Dallas Field Division likewise places the blame on “firearms trafficking.”

Selling firearms to Mexico is nothing new, mind you. There’s a poignant scene in Viva Zapata in which Marlon Brando, leading the peasant revolt against the injustices of the landowners in Southern Mexico, expresses his revulsion at having to do business with the businessman bringing arms across the border from the North. His friend consoles him by noting that if people only did business with people they like, there would be no business. Brando concedes the point and the guns arrive to help the revolutionaries achieve their aims. The armaments poured in for the next ten years till the new order was finally established in 1920.

Today, it’s a new kind of lawlessness, but the same old game.

As for smuggling arms across the border, well, I did some border smuggling myself way back when, and it isn’t really that difficult. Having said this, I’d best elaborate.

There were two primary instances. The first was when we brought our housing items into the country in 1980. We’d gone to be missionaries at an orphanage in Monterrey. Americans are not supposed to move to Mexico and take Mexican jobs, so you are only given a “tourist visa” which lasts six months max. If you bring pots and pans and everything else for setting up house, it's a signal that you're aiming to settle down and stay a while, which violates both the intent and spirit of the law. We didn’t need a kitchen sink, but we did bring plywood for building cabinets to hold one up, plus tools, and all the condiments, containers, clothes for taking up a long term residence. These things were set up inside a motor home in such a fashion as to appear to be a couch. Under the cushions and couch cover were all our boxes of goods. Additional metal army containers were welded underneath and filled with items for the orphanage. The border crossing guards were very happy to not see anything when we slipped them a fivespot. One guard asked if we could help him buy glasses, meaning, “I have bad eyesight if you give me a little money not to see very well.”

On another occasion during that year we worked at the orphanage, I was sent to the U.S. border to retrieve a very large transformer. Evidently, someone thought that a building in the back forty of the property could get electricity from the power lines if they had a transformer. I dutifully headed north. To bring it across, I conceived the following plan based on Houdini’s trick of making an elephant disappear in Madison Square Gardens.

We took a very large, empty van and lay the transformer on its side between the middle seats. We then placed a couple bags of cat food or something similar on the floor so that looking in from the back the only thing you saw under the seats were a couple bags, clearly identified. From the front view the transformer was similarly blocked by a few small items, and maybe a suitcase. There was nothing on any of the seats. In short, a cursory glance would lead someone to conclude the van was utterly empty. Another fivespot helped insure the same conclusion was drawn.

In short, do you really believe that drug dealers with millions of dollars on the line don’t have sufficient resources to open those borders as wide as they please? On the other hand, do you really think that gun legislation in Texas or a re-configured Brady bill is going to make the violence disappear like Houdini's elephant? What do you think?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Editor Gordon Lish

While doing research on Gordon Lish I came across a very interesting discovery. This guy, former editor for Esquire magazine from 1969 to 1977, completely changed writers' works. So much so that the original, when compared to the stripped down finish, might conceivably be unrecognizable.

An October 2007 New York Times article, When We Talk About Editing, revealing the deep cuts Lish made in Raymond Carver's work is eye opening. Astounding, actually.

What is especially interesting to me is that when I was first writing fiction, a New York friend in the publishing business said my work was O.K. but to see what great writing really looked like I should read Raymond Carver who exemplified the new minimalism in literature.

Now, more than two decades later, I discover Carver is not what everyone thought he was. Or rather, the Carver that critics called "great" was actually Gordon Lish. How can this be?

Editors do play several important roles when it comes to writers. I am grateful for having had some very good editors massage my work at times. A takes a second set of eyes to see that two ideas in a paragraph may not be linked very well, or that a meaning is ambiguous, or that a sentence is clumsy. Young writers are more likely to get repeat jobs if they don't mind this attention to detail by a second pen.

Here's the opening paragraph of the Times piece.

''One More Thing'' is the final story in both ''What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,'' Raymond Carver's breakthrough collection from 1981, and ''Beginners,'' a proposed volume of what Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, and some scholars, consider Carver's original versions of the same stories. They were later trimmed and sometimes reshaped by Gordon Lish, Carver's first editor. In the story L. D. is threatening to walk out on his wife and family.

Check out these two versions of the end of one of Raymond Carver's more famous stories, revealing how the piece was originally submitted and what readers saw after Dr. Lish applied the scalpel.

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

As The World Turns

“When you look back on your life 30 years from now you won’t believe how different it is from what you expected.”

I've recently found myself making the above statement to young people now and then. Young people have ideals, which is good. But many of those ideals have been absorbed uncritically from the culture around them and they have not been tested in the fires of life. A picture was formed in their minds as to how life was going to be but upon exiting adolescence and entering adulthood, the lighting shifts. As years go by the lighting shifts still further. By mid-life the picture may not look the same at all.

Sooner or later every one of us hits a wall and everything we have believed is shaken. Through this testing we discover what we really believe at our core. How we respond to these tests reveals who we are, and helps us reset our personal foundations.

One of the biggest challenges we face in life is change. Not only do we ourselves change over time, the world we live in is changing. At an ever accelerating rate as shown in this YouTube video that a friend of mine emailed to me this a.m. What will the implications be?
On this subject much more can be said, but I need to run a catch a plane! Be sure to watch this vid so we can talk about it later.

EDNOTE: There are no words in the soundtrack, so you won't miss anything if you watch it in the office with the sound off... or with your own favorite piece of music playing, whether Miles or Dylan or Ludwig Van.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Leonardo Interview

This weekend I was interviewed for the ezine Leonardo, which dubs itself as the Virtual Voice of the iRenaissance. The topic was blogging.

Leonardo: How do you view your blogging? Is it a job or a hobby?
ennyman: I've never considered it in those terms. Definitely not a job, though I feel a certain responsibility about it, much like one who has a job considers it important to show up every day. It's more of an exploration driven by passion.

Leonardo: How has Ennyman's Territory changed since you first began this blog.
ennyman: Initially the blog was simply an exploration of what blogging is and how it could be used. My content consisted primarily of extracts from 30-plus years of journal writing, with pictures of my art to illustrate each entry. The journal notes and quotes would be elaborated on with current feedback to what I had written in the past, amplifying or elaborating upon the initial entry.

Leonardo: What is the origin of your blog address, Pioneer Productions?
ennyman: Being a descendant of Daniel Boone, I have always identified with pioneers. Boone was a "long hunter" or what Minnesotans call Voyageurs. He would go out for a while and return with the goods that provided for his family.

Leonardo: Your visual art seems to go in a lot of directions. Do you consider the source of your creative energy to be hyperkinetic or a living spring?
ennyman: Well, to some extent it's both. I believe there's a well in each of us which we can tap into and draw from, a living spring. But yes, there are times when a catalyst sets off a burst of ideas and it does feel a bit hyperkinetic as you put it.

Leonardo: Do you have an aim with Ennyman's Territory?
ennyman: Several. I like to challenge people to look at things from a new angle and to think. Also, the artist in me is always in search of an audience, I think. For example, when I built my first website in the mid-90's it was in part to place to showcase my stories which I had poured myself into, but continually failed to get published. Putting them online not only gained them readers, it resulted in one being made into a short film, and three being translated into foreign languages -- Russian, Croatian and French. Two of my daughters short stories which I'd posted got published as well, in California and New Zealand. Ultimately, it is my aim to leave the world a better place than I found it, which I believe everyone should be striving to do.

Leonardo: What are some things your want to write about that you don't currently have time for?
ennyman: The list is endless. Infinite, really. Here's a quick skim of the first ten things that come to mind.
1. Interview my father-in-law in more depth, possibly place it on YouTube. He was the second Minnesotan drafted in World War II, and is currently 89.
2. Explore in more depth our fascination with stats. Internet stats, population stats, baseball stats, astronomical stats, economic financial stats, number of fights Rocky Marciano had without a defeat, etc.
3. Explore the notion that organized power can only be restrained by organized power based on the idea that Einstein was a pacifist who became non-pacifist due to Hitler.
4. The Owens-Blevins shootout in Holbrook during the 1880s.
5. Why does beauty make us cry? The Grand Canyon… Chopin… the Corn Palace in Mitchell South Dakota.
6. SWAT Team abuse. Who pays for the damage after the wreckage? How much of this goes on that we don't know about?
7. Tina Mion
8. Gordon Lish
9. The crippled newspaper industry. How serious is it? What difference will it make if we lose our local newspapers? The numbers speak for themselves.
10. Life On Mars, the David Bowie song from his Hunky Dory album, not the actual Red Planet.

Leonardo: We'll look forward to what comes next.
ennyman: Yes, it's one day at a time here. Today, sunrise in Sedona... tomorrow, back to the ranch in Minnesota.

Leonardo: Thanks for your time.
ennyman: And for your interest.

EDNOTE: The Leonardo ezine referred to here is not to be confused with the MIT publication of the same name at www.leonardo.info. It is a fabrication germinated in the mind of ennyman.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Unfinished Stories (Part 7)


This is the completion of the first dialogue between Gary Spencer and Joe Urban, our narrator. Spencer, the last man alive who had read all of Richard Allen Garston's works, changed his name to Father William and now resides at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Father William had agreed to open up a little regarding Garston's writings and life.

Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston
(Part 7)
Dialogue One, continued

"Listen, John," and this was the first time he had called me by name, "there are some things better left unsaid. Otherwise I shall be as open as I feel my conscience will permit." But he flinched when he said this, and I was left with a curious impression that there was some kind of concealment going on here.

Father William abruptly turned from me and began walking slowly back toward the Abbey.

"Here is how it was," he said . "When Richard was a young man he had a tremendous facility for language and a lot of natural ability. What he lacked was original ideas. He had a strong desire to write, to achieve significance as a writer. He believed that his stories, however, while well crafted were continually lacking in depth, were underdeveloped. His skills were adequate, but his well was dry. You might say he felt out of touch with his soul."

"I understand." I knew that feeling only too well.

"He'd gotten the notion that there was an inner spring from which eternal waters might flow. I'm not sure where this notion came from. Perhaps that verse, 'The Kingdom of God is within you,' was playing around inside him. In various ways he attempted to dig down within himself to make contact with those vast reserves, but it was all exploration. He was never able to tap that inner pool."

"Then you're saying his problem was a lack of authentic ideas."

"Yes, that's right. Ideas are an easy thing really. Look around. Ideas are everywhere. Places, people, books -- each has a history, an essence, ten thousand seeds each capable of reproducing ten thousand more. Ideas were not what Richard Allen Garston lacked per se. Ideas were as easy for him as picking ripe berries from a berry bush. His problem was the perpetual feeling of arbitrariness in it all. If he occupied himself picking berries from this tree, why not that tree? Perhaps this branch yielded good fruit, yet why was it better than that branch?"

"His problem, ultimately, became an issue of meaning," I said. "His stories were good, but they felt meaningless."

"Exactly. So much so that it became unbearable for him. He could not begin another sentence without knowing it was authentically his own and simultaneously part of a larger whole."

"He was an idealist. What's the big deal? Most young artists are idealists."

"And most of them ultimately compromise their ideals. Richard couldn't do that."

I thought about my own compromises. At a certain point in time I compromised my dreams and chose a career. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but I gave up certain dreams that had profoundly stirred me when a younger man. The past two years my wife has allowed me to take some of that back again, but I'm more tentative now. It is easier to risk everything when you have nothing to lose. "So, he made a deal with the devil," I said dismissively.

"You're still mocking, but yes, he did this terrible thing."

"But why?"

"Why do birds sing? Why do writers write? Why do people ask questions that have no answers?"

"Come off it now. It’s a perfectly good question."

"I don't really think people go off looking to make deals with the devil. It's just that when people want something badly enough, badly enough that they are willing to pay any price to get it... well, let's just say we don't always recognize the devil's face when we see it at first." Father William looked at me with a stern eye. "It was late spring and he had gone off into the mountains alone, vowing not to return until he had found what he was looking for. When he came back he was a changed man. He somehow seemed as if he had been wounded, like something had been cut out of him, though there were no scars as far as I could tell. He wouldn't talk about it at first. Eventually, when I learned he was writing again I asked what had happened. He had found his Voice, he said, though it seemed a joyless declaration."

During the course of our discussion a curtain of clouds consumed the sun which had been slowly descending to the west. Little eddies of cool evening air swept through the garden and I suddenly realized how swiftly the day was passing.

"We're not making much progress it seems to me," I said.

Without looking at me he replied, "What is it you really want to learn?"

"I'm not sure. I had hoped that by meeting you I would have some inkling of that myself. Perhaps we should talk about the stories he wrote."

"We can do that. How many days will you be here?"

"I leave Thursday. So that leaves us Tuesday and Wednesday," I said.

Father William then turned things around on me and began asking questions about myself, my writing, and eventually about the writer's group. He seemed genuinely interested in my novel, asking questions about the motivations of my characters, how I stayed motivated to keep writing when things didn't flow, and things like that. He wasn't surprised that I had difficulty marketing it to a publisher, seeing that my topic was neither trendy nor popular. He said he remembered Willson Willis as a young writer and seemed delighted that he had become successful, even famous. "He wrote the kinds of things people wanted to read. It didn't hurt any that his family was well connected, if you know what I mean."

"So you have followed his career," I asserted. "Have you been staying in touch then?"

"No, no. Just see a write up now and then."

"You almost sound jealous," I laughed.

He didn't laugh and I returned to the primary subject of my inquiry. "Here’s how it was," he said. "Richard was promised an endless flow of ideas, on the condition that he would never complete anything. If he attempted to finish a story, everything he wrote up to that point in time would be destroyed."

"That's it?"

"More or less."

"And just like that, he had an endless stream of stories to write," I said.

"Oh yes," Father William said. "Just like that. He began to hear voices. He began to see visions. He began to dream dreams. And he began to write. He became a conduit of inspiration."

"But why couldn't he complete anything? Was it that the ideas had no endings? Or that he was unable to finish a piece? How did that work?"

"If he wanted to write a complete story, to finish something, he could have done that. What happened was this. He wrote like a madman for nearly three days, an intense complicated story about who knows what. Probably passion. He wrote like a man possessed, and when the story was finished he was literally in awe at what he had produced. He was amazed not only at what he had produced, but by the reality that he had been able to complete it. He had thought the devil would keep him from finishing his work.

"Then, the next day, when he re-read it he was filled with revulsion, tore the manuscript to shreds and burned it. As soon as the story was destroyed, his memory of his compact was triggered. If he finished anything, all his work would be destroyed. He finished one thing and it was gone."

"Interesting," I said.

"While trying to sleep his thoughts were crammed with seeds for new stories which kept him from finding the rest he craved. He rose from his bed to write notes, jot down images, phrases, names, and a host of details from the parade of ideas that marched through his mind. The morning sun found him assembling all these pieces together into a multi-layered story of such remarkable density of meanings that he could not cease lest he lose the vision. Within days he completed his second story."


Father William winced. "He made two copies of the story intending to send the story to two magazines while keeping the original. The one was placed in the mail that same day, but the original and second copy were stolen before he could do anything else with them."

"Stolen from his apartment?"

"No. He had them in his book bag on the bus. As he was returning from the library someone grabbed it and jumped off the bus before he could say boo. New story ideas flowed out of the incident and he pursued the next story and the next, all the while comforted that at least one story of his had survived. Within the week a corner of the manuscript was returned from the post office in a plastic bag with an apology. The envelope had gotten caught in a machine and the contents shredded. This portion was all that remained. Richard began to sense the way things were now going to be.

"For a long time he determined not to finish any of his stories, out of fear. But at last there came a story that demanded an ending, and Richard dared to complete it." Father William's arms dropped to his sides in a gesture similar to resignation. "That night a series of thunderheads swept across Central Jersey, hurling lightning bolts from on high, one of them striking Richard Garston's apartment building, turning it into a flaming tinderbox. Everything he had ever written in his whole life was burned. Then he began to be afraid."

"So it looked like this was no coincidence," I said."It was no coincidence."

"Yet, it could have been a coincidence, couldn't it? It could have been, right?"

"He knew what it meant. For Richard, these were not coincidences."

For a short time there were no more words. Then finally I asked, "And you? Do you still write?"

"It's time to go in. We can talk about Gary Spencer Wednesday."

After a few peripheral pieties we parted for the night.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Yes, It Is Grand

Finally saw the Grand Canyon. Yes, it is grand.

The Facts
Length: 277 river miles
Length of the Park: 212 miles as the crow flies.
Width: Minimum at Marble Canyon, 600 yards
Average width, rim to rim: 10 miles
Maximum rim to rim: 18 miles
Value: Priceless
Average depth: 1 mile
Rim elevations
South rim: 7,000 feet
North rim: 8,100 feet
Lake Mead boundary: 1,200 feet

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca wrote this about the park: "Ninety years after it was established as the country's 17th national park, the Grand Canyon still invokes feelings of astonishment and wonder among the 4.5 million people who visit each year. Known for its immense size, beauty and rugged landscape, it has become an icon of the National Park System."

The Grand Canyon, as a national park, is ninety years old. The actual age of the gorge is anyone's guess.

The word that Susie and I kept repeating all the way out here as we came across New Mexico and Arizona was "vast." Everything out here is so vast, the canyon being no exception. It is to be seen and felt and experienced. It cannot be expressed in words and photos are only reminders of it, but fail to capture it.

While walking about the various lookout spots on the South Rim we could hear languages from the world over as we mingled with the canyon-gazers yesterday afternoon. Scandinavian tongues, Oriental languages, Hispanic, German and among others. For the most part, no matter language you spoke when you arrived, when you left you were speechless.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Southwest Sorrows: Making Memories on Old Route 66

We left Albuquerque yesterday morning with the aim of driving West across Old Route 66 to Holbrook, inspired in part by the 2006 Pixar movie Cars. Lightning McQueen is a NASCAR-type racer who awakens from being a self-centered jerk to thinking of others. The Tom Cruise films Rain Man and A Few Good Men come to mind. But the story beneath the story is his side adventure in a forgotten town on Route 66 called Radiator Springs.

Route 66 used to run from Chicago to the Santa Monica pier. It a a highway with a history, popularized by TV shows, films and all the memories that have been recorded in hearts and minds of those who have travelled it. The bloom is off the rose as they say. The towns which dotted this old highway once thrived commercially, creating wealth for many and sustainable incomes for many more. Then the superhighways came, and all these routes have been relegated to back roads.

The same probably happened everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree. Destinations are what it is all about on a superhighway. The places in between become a mist.

Christopher, here at Joe & Aggie's where I am writing this entry, says that Radiator Springs is based on the section of Route 66 from Gallup to the east and Winslow to the west. We're here in the WigWam at Holbrook, a town with a history.

But the trip left us with mixed feelings. The vastness of the high plains is incredible, but must have been exceedingly tiring for the families and early settlers who had to cross this land in Conestoga wagon trains less than two centuries ago. Barren desert stretches far as eye can see.

And we did not anticipate the poverty we saw along the way. Much of Old Route 66 crosses through reservation lands in New Mexico and Arizona. A sign asked us not to take pictures on the rez. I can see why. The dilapidated and abandoned homes, trailers, buildings could not have been a source of pride for these peoples.

We were also struck by the innumerable souvenir shops selling Indian Pottery and miscellaneous Native American goods which seemed the same in every one. We stopped at one near midday which appeared to have had no business yet. A woman turned on some music when we unexpectedly walked in.

The Navajo reservations cover 27-thousand square miles of territory here in the Southwest, about the size of West Virginia with a population of more than 300,000. But where are the jobs? What do the people do? Unemployment is an estimated 50 percent, I have heard. Poverty numbers are abstract, but the images vivid, and depressing.

The Petrified Forest National Park, encompassing the Painted Desert, is recommended to anyone passing through these parts. The petrified trees hail from the Triassic Period, whenever that was. There are no trees in site today, and many of the ones lying here look like large Tootsie Rolls that someone cut up into bit sized logs. The scenes in this park are amazing. The abundance of petroglyphs indicated to me that the natives here two thousand years ago were fascinated with the region as well.

My grandparents drove out west in the Fifties on this route and I remember Grandma being impressed with what they saw here. Kudos to Teddy Roosevelt for preserving these splendors by creating National Parks.

For the record, Gallup was also a depressing town. Hard to envision its former glory. Holbrook is cute, has some character, but feels lost in time.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Layoff... Anybody Want To Play

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” ~ Kris Kristofferson

Yesterday I noticed that there’s been a lot of buzz about a new game called Layoff. So much so that it was numero uno on the Yahoo! Buzz chart.

If you aren’t familiar with it, it is evidently a variation of a number of similar video games where you try to line up circles or spheres of the same color, which then causes them to ignite and disappear. In this case, instead of random colors, the game pieces represent employees with varying responsibilities. Theoretically (and I have only read about it, not played because it took too long to download) you, the game player, are a person in management who is downsizing his or her company by eliminating duplicate positions.

Like the other games, when you line up three or four of the pieces of the same color, they disappear. Unlike the other game, each individual marker is a real person with a real set of financial and familial needs. You didn’t just make a game piece go poof. That was George, the financially strapped disabled vet.

Several thoughts come to mind simultaneously at this point, but I’ll elaborate on one.

Is it an educational experience or is it exploitation? If the people in the game are not “real” real people but only examples of people in different types of circumstances, that might soften the jaundiced edge here a bit. Still, there is something a bit perverse about a game in which “winning” means getting as many people laid off as possible so that you only have the bankers left.

Arundhati Roy, in her essay Public Power in the Age of Empire notes how Hollywood and the U.S. news media specialize in exploiting the suffering of others. For profit. From her vantage point in India, it seems to her that when tragedy strikes our news cameras are Johnny-on-the-spot to keep ratings up so they networks can sell those commercial spots that fuel these infosystems with dollars. And Hollywood is seldom far behind.

Two powerful films about horrors in Africa that have won awards in recent years include Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland. Both films were powerful. Both films gave Americans a brief glance at the hard realities of the suffering that has taken place in two places in our lifetimes. It would be very easy to defend these films as informational, but I can also see Ms. Roy’s point of view: exploitation for entertainment purposes, and profits.

On the other hand, if writers don’t tell their stories, who will hear? It takes money to publish books like The Last King of Scotland. The publisher spends money to promote it because it is a story worth telling, in fact, remarkable. Selling film rights to the book motivates others to tell their stories, which increases our understanding. Life is hard. There is much suffering in our world.

I myself don’t know what to think. I once knew a man who survived Idi Amin’s brutal slaughter by hiding under a pile of dead bodies that once was his family. What would he have thought of the Forrest Whitaker film based on these selfsame events? Where is the line between informing and exploiting?

If you think I’m being too serious here, feel free to send me a note: Ed, lighten up.

Since last weekend I've been blogging while on vacation. We flew to a wedding in Dallas initially. Wednesday we rented a car and have been heading west toward the Grand Canyon. Yesterday we spent time in Old Town Albuquerque, where this shot was taken. Today, it will be Old Route 66 to Holbrook.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Few Chirps and a Tweet

If the advent of the Internet can be compared to the A-Bomb, with what do we compare Web 2.0 applications like Twitter?

Since joining the Twitter network last year I have to pause now and then to take a reading. What is really going on here?

Many people are fascinated with trying to make comprehensible things that are incomprehensible. This obsessive curiosity is the driver behind archeologists seeking to comprehend forgotten cultures, efforts to understand hieroglyphics, magic, mysteries of nature, astronomical wonders, UFOs, psychological phenomena and the abundant natural wonders of our world.

Social media is likewise a somewhat foreign culture, and many people participate in it simply out of a natural curiosity. What is happening here?

It recently struck me that many Facebookers and Tweeters are a little like folks who bought a citizen band radio as part of the CB Radio craze in the 70’s, popularize in part by films like Convoy and Smoky and the Bandit. The pop media puts these things on the map and everyone wants to see what the buzz is all about.

The reality is, Twitter can be a powerful tool, especially for writers, journalists and information driven occupations. But the 140 character box with the question, “What are you doing?” makes it seem more like a toy than a tool.

I am reminded of my first 512Ke Mac. The mouse was a novelty, the box seemed like cheap plastic. Yet it was an incredibly powerful tool, even before it had a hard drive. So, at first blush you may not think much of the Twitter scene, but it has its place, just as CB Radios have had theirs. Truckers continued to use them for decades after the public craze subsided, though new technologies like cell phones have diminished their use somewhat.

In short, Twitter will probably continue long after the buzz subsides... if, or when... or whatever. In case you missed it, here's a pretty cool ABC News story which aired last month.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Strange Numbers

In a Buster McNutt article titled Ring-Toning in the Holiday Season, Buster McNutt noted that American spent four billion dollars last year on their cell phone ring tones. Like, whoa! What if we had NOT been in a recession?

A second number immediately came to mind. Yesterday, the news wires were abuzz with the revelation that 73 people at the American Insurance Group (AIG) received bonuses of one million dollars or more. I heard this via a CNN feed, but only caught the headline.

AIG was, of course, the nation's largest insurance company who so desperately needed a bailout from our government in order to survive the housing collapse. And what I have subsequently learned is that the bonus money was actually a "retention bonus" to keep these folks on the payroll through thick and thin. (Nice incentive.) Even so, eleven jumped shipped but pocketed the money. Our tax dollars at work.

Does this make us angry? Or is our government so big and our fat cats so fat that we're numbed by it all.

A third set of numbers that comes to mind... the number of people living in slums worldwide with inadequate food and often unsafe water: one billion. Nearly 200 million in China alone. More than 35 million in Pakistan.

At this point, I don't even know what to say, except... if we could take all those ring tone dollars and send them to the real needy of this world, as opposed to those who feel they absolutely must express themselves with an ultra-personalized ring tone... I dunno. Or is that like telling your child to finish his plate because there are children starving in India?

As for those fat cats living the high life off government largess, our tax dollars at work, my prescription for you today is an 89 cent packet of Tums, and a two day break from reading the news. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and listen to some music.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Miscellaneous Observations from the Road

“There are no short cuts to any place worth going.” ~ Beverly Sills

I just watched an interesting scene play out. I had just finished booting up my laptop here at a Starbucks inside a Dallas grocery store when I overheard the very last portion of job interview. The interviewee, a light-skinned Hispanic looking woman, had just finished gushing that she was so excited because she had always wanted to work in this grocery store. My first thought was that her words sounded so coached and scripted as if they were directly lifted from a job-interview manual, How To Get The Job You've Always Wanted or Interviewing 101.

The interviewer, a tall, middle-aged Caucasian with slender build, then said that she had the job, upon which she became exceedingly enthused as if she won the big prize on a game show. He then added, as if bring a little reality into the picture, a reminder that she was starting in an entry level position at minimum wage, which played out like a scene from Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. (Sure enough, the drug test discussion was next.)

It's a buyer's market for employers. That is, a buyers market for those companies which are remaining solvent. In Texas this year it is now estimated that nearly 300,000 jobs will be lost, pushing the unemployment rate up to 8%. These stats remind me of the line from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi, "Don't it always go to show, you don't know what you've got till its gone."

Personally, I am grateful for my own position, and doing everything in my power to help my company remain strong and to grow. You don't have to be in the sales or marketing to help your company grow. You can make a contribution wherever you sit, or stand. Accurate accounting, responsive customer service, attention to product quality... every part contributes to the whole.

I'm happy for the young woman who got the job here today. (She's still celebrating.) And if you're employed, getting a regular paycheck, I am happy for you, too. Give thanks.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Unfinished Stories (Part 6)


To re-cap: Joe Urban, our determined narrator has located Gary Spencer, the last man alive who had read all of Richard Allen Garston's works. Spencer has changed his name to Father William and now resides at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, the same one that Thomas Merton is buried at incidentally. Father William has agreed to open up a little with Joe regarding the writings and life of R. A. Garston. This is the first of several dialgues between the seeker and the source.

Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston (Part 6)

We stood on a patio facing the road. Father William glanced up the hill toward the neat rows of crosses where the Abbey's many monks have been laid in their final repose and my eyes followed to the cemetery there where I had spent my previous day's contemplation. Strange, to me, was the notion that earthly celebrity had gained for Brother Louis Merton a more distinctively decorated plot than his fellows.

My eyes strayed back to the road, and to the hills beyond. Father William suggested we walk. I found the idea appealing and we were soon down the stairs, down the drive and across to the other side. My thoughts flew to the object of my quest.

"So why all the mystery?" I asked. "Why all the different explanations for not finishing anything?"

"Sometimes you don't feel free to tell the truth. People won't believe it or don't want to believe it or ask too many questions."

"And you believe he made a compact with the devil."

"I'm certain of it."

"Why's that?"

"I knew Richard better than anyone. He had to share with someone. I was there for him. I didn't condemn him. I listened, and he trusted me."

"So how did it happen? How does one go about making a compact with the devil? This is something you read about, but -- "

"I can't really answer that."

"But you said --"

"That isn't something he would have shared."

"But -- "

"It's like the frogs near here. If you walk about in the early evening you hear their chorus, each striving with all its heart to be heard. Now, you go to find one of these frogs and as soon as you step remotely near, no sound whatsoever. One minute, they seem ever so desirous to be discovered, yet in the next they conceal. Seldom will you find one in these marshes, because their intent is to remain hidden. Richard Allen Garston hid himself masterfully."

I began again to ask my question, and once more he re-directed. "I would still like to know --" I said.

"Let's begin with a different question. Where does fiction come from? You think there was no original Faust? In the case of Faust, of course, the real Faust was only accused of having been in league with the devil because the wonders of technology, at that time, had no explanation other than a supernatural one. Since they did not believe it from God, then it must be the devil. In other words, the truth was rejected, and a fiction was believed. Fear and ignorance were all around. Fiction is often rooted in fear. It is a counterfeit that hides the truth."

I assented.

Father William continued. "Yet while it is true that things are ascribed to the devil that are entirely undevilish, there are other instances when it is very much the devil that traps people. Entices, then snares, and every good Christian knows that we need to be on our guard against the devil because he is ever prowling the earth, a liar and a deceiver...."

"Yes, yes, go on, go on. I attended Sunday school."
"But you don't believe in the devil."

"Does it matter? Sarte wrote --"

"Listen, you don't have to tell me what other people say or think or write. I was only noting that you don't believe in the devil."

"You're right. I was --"

"You were defending your position by obscuring the truth and quoting someone famous. It matters not a whit to me what you believe and do not believe, though ultimately, you'll find that it will matter very much for you." He looked at me in an uncondemning way, his eyes sad and open in a manner that invited me to peer inside his soul, but I evaded his look.

He continued. "My point is this. In fiction there are countless stories about devils, demons, darkness. And there are countless stories of love, heroism, courage, inner conflict, personal valor, human achievement, human stupidity. When you convince me that there is no such thing as love, courage, heroism, human achievement or stupidity, I will then be persuaded that there is no such thing as the devil. Fiction is a mirror, reflecting the way things really are." He looked off and away. "There is a devil and Richard Garston made a pact with him. As with everything, there is always a price."

"How did it come about? What kind of pact? What did the devil look like?"

We had climbed a hill and I found myself winded. Father William graciously paused to let me catch my breath. He looked skyward and whistled. I believe it possible that he allowed a smirk to crease his face though to smirk would have been a signal of pride for he was many years my senior. He did not, however, make comment. Instead, he kept to our theme. "My brother," he said, placing his hand on my shoulder, "you are asking me to divulge things which have been long buried. I'm not sure what good it will do to open these old graves."

"I don't know why it matters so much," I said. "For some reason, and I don't know why, I've felt compelled to learn more about this man. You have no idea how much sleep I've lost over it. Yet, it seems no small wonder that we are standing here talking today when I had already given up hope of ever finding you."

"So, what is it you wish to learn from me?"

"There was this writer who wrote for almost two decades. Hardly a word of what he has written remains. The writers with whom he shared portions of his work all acknowledge his genius, yet only two men have ever read the full body of his work. One of these quit life and devoted himself wholly to God; the other burned it all and said it was from the devil. I want to know how this happened. How did you see God where Garston's brother saw only darkness?"

"It's a common phenomenon," he said. "Look at the world where we live. In the 1930's Hitler was lauded by the London Times as a courageous and heroic figure. He instilled a renewed vigor and hope to the Fatherland. Others rightly deplored him. Two interpretations, one man. Marxist Socialist ideals have swept away hundreds of thousands of hearts in its tide. Never mind the millions who disappeared in Siberia. 'How can men's hearts be so blind?' one might ask. But the ideals of brotherhood and fraternity and community have deep roots in Scripture, and the echo reverberates in men's souls. Ayn Rand denounced altruism, but is Selfishness really a higher ideal? Where is the truth and where the fiction?"

I tried to sum up. "If I hear you correctly, it is possible that Garston's writings could lead one man to God and another away from Him."

He winced, took a deep breath. "Forgive me. Chest pains."

"I'm sorry. If this is--"

"That's all right. Nothing to do with our discussion. "

"Yet you said he made a compact with the devil."

"Yes, this is true."

"So explain to me how --"

"Come now. You've seen that silly optical illusion with the faces and the lamp. Some people see the faces, others the lamp. It's really not that difficult."

"Are you suggesting..." I didn't know how to articulate it and my words tapered off.

"Richard said it was like this. His writing was a form of combat. I can't explain it exactly, but the best I gathered was that he would create a character and that character was in a situation. The devil would then interfere, would paint the character into a corner, would utilize circumstances and the character's own weaknesses to destroy his or her confidence. Richard strove to give his characters a reason to go on, to pursue their ideals or dreams or whatever. They were battling for hope."

I rubbed my lower lip with my forefinger. It was sore and somewhat raw because I had been chewing on it.

"Your expression tells me you expect more than this."

I nodded."

If you believe, as I do, that the Bible could be written by men who were inspired, breathed into, by the Spirit of God, Espiritu Santo, then it is only a small step to accept the reality of a dark spirit writing words through human agency."

"I want to know how it happened."

"Scripture teaches us not to dwell on these things. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, it is shameful to even mention what the disobedient do in secret."

"You must have been curious yourself."

"This is not the purpose of your visit, is it?" he asked. His piercing eyes turned to slits, then widened again.
I wasn't really sure.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Here's At Least One Facet Of Finding Your Own Voice

“It’s better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” ~ Herman Melville

The novel is a classic of American literature. The high seas, Moby Dick and Ahab’s quest… and a narrator named Ishmael. Interesting name. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, the one birthed when he attempted to produce an offspring without faith in God. A son conceived with his servant woman. A son conceived illegitimately.

And years later when Isaac, the true product of faith, was born, the animosity between the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael became a perpetual conflict, still unrelenting.

As for this story, what is the meaning behind Ishmael’s name? Is it a commentary on the futility of Captain Ahab’s insane quest? The pursuit of this great white whale destroys not only Ahab but the lives of nearly everyone involved in the mad mission. So it is that in the wake of Abraham’s actions, finding a means to father a son without God’s aid results in massive suffering and loss of life.

Abraham, according to the book of Genesis, was asked to attempt something impossible. Only God could do this impossible thing. How does that translate into Moby Dick and Captain Ahab? Should Ahab have quit the pursuit and trusted God to beach this great white whale somewhere on an island? Or have it go up a river and get stuck somewhere that it could not turn around as the whale two years ago that got itself in a mess near Sacramento?

If you have not read Moby Dick, it would make a worthy addition to your list sometime. I plowed through it when a literary friend insisted it was the greatest American novel and one of the top twenty of all time. It turned out to be a worthwhile read indeed. (In the past several days this phrase Great American Novel has already been applied to The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby in The Big Read series I’ve been listening to, so take it with a grain of salt.)

Woody Allen pays tribute to Melville’s masterpiece in the film Zelig. The film is a sparkling demonstration of Allen’s genius. When the main character, Zelig, is undergoing therapy, he confides that he has never ready Melville’s classic, but covered it up in order to “fit in,” the film’s theme (our chameleon nature) and Zelig’s root problem.

In literature and the arts, originality is the great quest. In mathematics and science, the great men are likewise driven by the quest for an original idea. Einstein’s theory of relativity reverberated throughout the culture, the power of an original idea. John Nash, in A Beautiful Mind, is mad with the passion to find and capture his own White Whale without which a Nobel prize is surely out of reach.

Back to Mr. Allen… His film making career is a perfect example of the Melville quote that opened this stream of conscious exploration. His films have repeatedly shown a fluid originality that is uniquely his own. Yet he wasn’t afraid to take chances. Sometimes the comic elements didn’t pan out, and sometimes the medium got the best of him, but when you look at the range of things he attempted, you can see he never settled for imitation or formulaic devices. He made the movies he wished to make and many have been gems with real takeaway value.

The key is finding your own voice, whether as a writer, film maker, economist or just a human being. Who are you and what is your life message?

I used to think that it was the young who need to be dedicated to originality, that youth was a time of exploration. But why limit yourself? As long as you are breathing the mind should be in inquiry mode. Life itself is a creative act. When it ceases to be so, you have ceased from really being alive.

Maybe this was Ahab's fear: To stop pursuing the dream would be to cease from living. He decided not to be a boring old hack story teller at a port town pub reliving the life he once lived. Instead, he mustered all he had and gave it another shot. Winston Churchill put it this way:

“Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

If the dream is worthy, go for it.

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