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Clio's Temple

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The personal is the political, and vice versa

Posted on May 3, 2018 at 2:44 PM Comments comments ()
Those of us who were around during the 1970s might remember the chant of some critics, "the personal is political." While not true in the sense that such critics intended, I've come to believe that there is a certain amount of enduring truth in this chant. Case in point: my efforts at writing historical fiction.

I've been laboring for five years, off and on, at completing a historical novel with the working title The Vials of Wrath. This work is to be the first in a series of four or five novels exploring some of the titanic changes in the Western world since 1900. I've found that an approach that seems to be working currently is to look at historical events in the light of personal crises. Of the characters introduced so far, each wrestles with events that cause us to wonder, Is it me or is the world going crazy? In fact, there are personal upheavals that prefigure some of the events that were to shape the world in this most destructive of centuries.

I'll keep my readers up to date on how the work is going. I have two other projects underway at the same time, which may have priority, depending on circumstances. Still, I'd like to introduce some of the individuals who've captured my imagination:

* Wilhelm and Friedrich von dem Bruch, young Prussian officers who try to make sense of their brother's suicide, while struggling with their father's harsh morality.
* Egbert Pfeffer, a railroad worker who believes in the brotherhood of man, and who struggles to keep this belief in the face of storms that threaten to sink it forever.
* Martin Salzmann, a clergyman who wonders whether the values that have guided him through life are no longer relevant.
* Alexander Lavrentiyev, a Russian officer whose love of Mother Russia is at war with his belief that the government of Nicholas II has put the country on a path to disaster.
* Raoul Pagès, a French officer whose insider knowledge of his nation's strengths and weaknesses sets him at odds with the "conventional wisdom."

Other players will shortly make their entrance onto the stage. I must confess that my educator's mindset is making it difficult to keep the plot on track, without veering into the trackless wilderness of preachiness or didactic madness. I pledge to make the best effort possible.

A question of values

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 7:01 AM Comments comments ()
In one of life's many ironies, I wound up having a conversation last week with a hospice doctor. The irony lies in the fact that Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my nearly-complete next book, has a hospice doctor as protagonist. He listened with interest to what I told him about the plot and offered some suggestions about "how hospice doctors think." This was a bit of serendipity, as I wasn't there to do research or discuss writing issues. I was there to get shaken up, an expectation that was rewarded.

During our conversation, light poured in through towering windows in a hotel ballroom. The setting: Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada range, just a few miles from Lake Tahoe. The occasion: 2017 Carter Center Weekend. For those who don't know, this is a very popular vacation spot for folks from California and Nevada and the resorts were packed with travelers who were there for the hiking, kayaking, snowboarding and skiing (in late June!). The natural beauty of this area is stunning, which can foster a feeling of tranquility, or perhaps awe. It also breeds a sense of tranquility. At such a place, we stand in awe of wonders that exceed the mightiest works of human hands.

There was tranquility, but also concern. Every year, The Carter Center holds a five-day gathering for donors of both money and professional services. We were among the minority of first-timers; the room was packed with those who've made this event a centerpiece of their travel plans. It might seem odd, therefore, that one of the unspoken purposes of the weekend was to shake us up. In his post-presidential life, Jimmy Carter has poured his energies into a variety of good works, focusing primarily in the areas of peacemaking, promoting free elections, and combatting disease. The presentations yanked us out of the affluent trappings of a mountain resort and transported us to distant lands – Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Guatemala – where The Carter Center has active local organizations battling diseases most of us have never heard of: Guinea worm disease, river blindness, trachoma. These were sobering reminders of how many people still live in conditions most of us would consider primitive.

It's part of the American approach to combat disease by attacking it with massive technological resources. The Carter Center has found that, in societies where poverty prevents the deployment of such resources, relatively simple measures can go a long way. The discussion of battling trachoma, a fly-borne parasitic ailment that can cause both intense pain and total loss of sight, noted with gratitude that pharmaceutical manufacturers have donated hundreds of thousands of doses of antibiotics to fight this malady. At the same time, teams of physician volunteers train local doctors in surgical techniques to prevent blindness and other volunteers dig latrines in places where there have never been sanitation systems.

Occasions like this can cause one to think long and hard about one's values. I'm still wrestling with what I can do, and whether my values are in the right place.

"The circle time parade of changes" (2)

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 4:45 PM Comments comments ()
Many of us have seen photographs of "ghost towns," most of them out West, where they flourished during the heyday of mining or cattle ranching, but subsequently lost their economic vitality and now are reduced to empty buildings. These are the kind of places that can give one the creeps, if we meditate on the sources of community vitality.
When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had the occasion to drive through Centralia, a town in the anthracite belt that had been depopulated over almost a quarter-century because of an unquenchable mine fire. At different spots, you could see vents drilled into the mine to ventilate the exhaust gases in the hope of preventing explosions or cave-ins. It was as unnerving as if one walked across a long-ago battlefield and found no bodies, but discarded weapons and ammunition. Even in this desolation, Centralia still had a few diehards, mostly older folks whose families had lived there for generations and who preferred to stay on familiar ground.

"A Dirge for Maxwell" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters is an account of how a diehard community loses its vital ésprit as the result of a series of disasters. Maxwell continued to be a vibrant community through two World Wars and the Great Depression. It comes undone as its textile mill loses ground to foreign competition. A rail disaster starts the town on an inexorable slide that, over a decade, drains most of its life-force.

In my old hometown, some of the ambitious could find the means to hang on, by getting a job at the state department of transportation office, or by running a successful business. Most of those of us lucky enough to go to college left and now return only for high school class reunions, or to visit the graves of our parents. In the last years of my father's life, he became increasingly puzzled at why so many of us left. What he only admitted reluctantly was that he had declined several promotional opportunities with his company, opportunities that would have taken him to Jacksonville, Atlanta, or Charlotte. He passed on these chances because my mother only felt at home in the small town where she'd spent her whole life.

We need both kinds of people – the movers and shakers, and the stabilizers – to have a healthy diversity of lifestyles in our land. The sad fate of Maxwell is a parable for the progressive loss of that diversity.

"The circle time parade of changes" (1)

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 7:03 AM Comments comments ()
This line, from Phil Ochs' "Changes", has long been one of my favorites in summing up what life's about. Now that I'm closer to being an old man than a young man, I try to look at my life and see what's been lasting and what's been impermanent.

I suspect that many of us, remembering our childhoods, might recall a time when we thought our grandparents had always been the same age as when we first knew them. That may account for the sense of wonder we sometimes feel when we see pictures of our elders as "youngers." As we age, as we wrestle with the changes and challenges of life, as we welcome children and grandchildren to the world, how many of us can truly recapture the emotions of small children when they meet the elderly?

Likewise, I suspect that most of us remember our hometowns as permanently preserved in the amber of memory. In the rural deep South where I grew up, my hometown didn't change a lot from the early 50s until the mid-1970s, when I-10 was built, passing just a couple miles south of town. In my boyhood, the Victorian railroad station, the downtown commercial blocks, the churches as I remember them looked a lot like the pictures taken twenty or thirty years earlier. In the case of my hometown, one passenger train still made a daily stop there until 1964, after which the depot in the heart of town turned into a mostly empty monument to better days. The nearest McDonald's was twenty miles away, and didn't open until 1965. Nowadays, there is a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the interstate exit, whose square footage is about the same as the whole downtown shopping district of sixty years ago.

It does a disservice to any place to limit ourselves to surface impressions. Just as every old person was once young, everyone town in decline was once a town on the rise. In the South, railroads, cash-crop agriculture, forestry, and industries such as textiles were major agents of change in the decades after the Civil War. Such is the case for the fictional north Georgia town of Maxwell, whose sad fate unrolls in the last half of Tangled Woods and Dark Waters. A railroad and a dam across a creek, built to provide power to a textile mill, turned a forest primeval into a place that was "home" to several generations of citizens.

The demographic indices of our nation shown an increasing divergence between major urban centers, their suburbs/exurbs, and the large swatches of land in between these centers. In the former, there is progress and prosperity, at least for some; in the latter, there is often a sense of desperation as economic prospects dwindle. Small wonder, then, that many people feel disoriented and angry as hometowns once vibrant and (relatively) comfortable become landscapes of deprivation.

I'm afraid the story of Maxwell is repeated across the length and breadth of our land. This is not a good omen for the future.

Survivor's guilt

Posted on June 15, 2017 at 6:59 AM Comments comments ()
Of all the war veterans I've known, the majority of those who saw combat had a least a minimal degree of survivor's guilt. That is, the gratitude for being alive was challenged by the knowledge of friends who didn't return from the battlefield. The more morally attuned often report wondering "why did ____ die and why did I live? I wasn't any better as a person."

Lincoln addressed this, at least obliquely, in the Gettysburg Address, when he referred to "the brave men, living and dead" who had fought there, as a bridge to his exposition on why they fought. Gore Vidal puts in the mouth of one of his characters the speculation that Lincoln willed his own death at war's end, as payment for the awful suffering the war had inflicted on the nation. This may be a stretch, although Lincoln's moral sensitivity, sharpened by the loss of two of his own sons from illness, plus his lapses into melancholia, makes this seem not quite as preposterous as it sounds.

I knew of this phenomenon in the abstract, since I'm not a veteran. It became a reality to me in 1983. That year, my father's wartime unit went for a reunion at their wartime station, Grafton Underwood, England. One of the highlights of the reunion was the dedication of a memorial to the unit. This was done with appropriate pomp and solemnity, including salutes from U.S. forces stationed in the U.K. They engaged professionals to make a commemorative video. During the dedication ceremony, the camera panned across the ranks of the assembled veterans. On almost every face, there were tears evident. The waterworks had nothing to do with the English rains common at that time of year.
Memories of loss can cut with particular sharpness when they're fresh. When a friend or loved one dies, something as mundane as hearing that person's favorite song can make us cry. Over time, these memories lose their sharp edge and become part of what we remember with affection. They never completely lose their sting.

The story "Gold Stars" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters is about the return of a young veteran from the European Theater in 1945 and how a visit to his boyhood church gives him the sense of being "a stranger in a strange land." It was originally written as part of a novel titled Kilroy's Shadow, which I've shelved as an active project. I'd be interested in hearing from any war veterans as to how it stacks up against their experiences on returning from a war.

Wounds, visible and invisible

Posted on June 12, 2017 at 6:50 AM Comments comments ()
My father, my father-in-law, and my uncle were all combat veterans of World War II. The stories Dad told when I was growing up were in the vein of Twelve O'Clock High, colored (or perhaps discolored) by Hollywood's inevitable falling-short of the ugly realities of battle. When my father-in-law was stationed in Munich from 1960 to 1962, my wife and mother-in-law had the chance to take a tour of the Dachau concentration camp. My father-in-law drove them to the tour, but refused to go in. When my mother-in-law asked him why, he said, "I've seen this before." Having confronted the horrors in real life, he had no need to replay them. It's perhaps natural to shy away from such things, at least until they come calling at one's door.

I'm one of the lucky members of the Vietnam generation, as my draft number was high enough to spare me the need to spend two years as a guest of Uncle Sam. Many of my friends, however, spent time there and I've drawn as much information from them as I dare. How they handled those experiences ranges from, "I was young and knew nothing could kill me" to remaining close-mouthed. One incident which impressed itself on my mind was back in 1980. My wife and I were newlyweds and celebrating Independence Day in our first house. We invited two friends from our church to a cookout. While Harry (not my friend's real name) and I were tending the grill, the kids next door started setting off strings of firecrackers. When the pop-pop-pop-pop of the first string sounded, Harry went straight for the ground. It was a protective reaction so deeply ingrained ten years hadn't wrung it out of him.

I have an outline for a novel with the working title Down a Lonely Street. The protagonist is a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran named Roger Davenport. When he and his bride take a tour of the D-Day beaches during their honeymoon, a chance meeting with an elderly Dutchman yields an invitation to visit Nijmegen, a city heavily damaged during Operation Market-Garden (think A Bridge Too Far). I've excerpted this episode in the form of a story titled "Woman in Light, Man in Shadow" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters. It's a case of a man confronting demons that have been his constant companions for years.

What demons do you and I need to face down?

Wounded people

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 2:59 PM Comments comments ()
Most of us have (I suspect) at one time or another said something out of ignorance, anger, or other quick emotional reactions that wound up calling us acute embarrassment. Perhaps it was making a comment about a third party to someone who, unbeknownst to us, was a friend of said party. I've often spoken in haste without asking questions that would've spared me some humiliation.

Anyone who's take a class in communications knows there are three basic parties to any communication: sender, receiver, and method of communication. We've recently had to get used to Twitter being used as an official means of communicating information, whether or not 140-character tweets do an adequate job of getting the intended message across. Those of us who have a sentimental streak may yearn for the days when official announcements from the White House were delivered from a press secretary speaking from behind a podium. However, it's unlikely that we'll see those days return any time soon. It appears that life is accelerating, in the pace of change and especially in the speed with which we can send messages. Forethought and personal consideration sometimes get lost in the process. While I can write some of this off to my advancing age, I suspect there are many others who forget, "speak in haste, repent at leisure."

I created a character some years ago named Roy Prater. He's an emotionally wounded warrior in the corporate world and he's never been honest about the depth of his wounds. He meets a physically wounded young woman under circumstances that cause him no small amount of anxiety. In fact, it's his tendency to rush to judgment and speak thoughtlessly that puts him in the doghouse. It's only when he reveals himself over a period of weeks to her that their relationship settles onto a solid foundation.

"Take Five" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters shows how music can become a Proustian vehicle that revives memories of an earlier, more innocent time in the life of a wounded man.

Fellow travelers

Posted on June 7, 2017 at 3:08 PM Comments comments ()
Some of you may have seen the movie Quo Vadis, a 50s-era Biblical epic featuring Peter Ustinov, camping it up as the Emperor Nero. The movie (and the novel on which it was based) derived from a tradition that St. Peter, escaping a death sentence in Rome, met Jesus on the Appian Way. When Peter recognized who his fellow traveler was, he asked, "Quo vadis, Domine?" ("Where are you going, Lord?") Jesus replied, "To Rome, to be crucified again." Peter fell on his face, unable to face the fact that he had denied Jesus yet again. When he arose, Jesus was gone. Peter turned around and returned to Rome to accept martyrdom.

Few of us can expect any encounter so dramatic in our travels down the roads of life. Nonetheless, we may have moments when a meeting forces us to confront something about ourselves. Perhaps it's an occasion when we recognize something unfulfilled in ourselves. Perhaps it's a dream that we never dared admit, for fear of being thought ridiculous. Or maybe it's a moment when we must confront our own helplessness in the face of a wrong we can't correct.

"Quo Vadis?" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters is a story I originally wrote for an anthology of "road stories" that our local SCWA chapter put together. Of course, like many other literary creations, it requires the willing suspension of disbelief. How many of us would stop to pick up a hitchhiker at nightfall? In the story, Peter Berckmann (a clergyman) answers the demands of Christian charity and finds himself in the presence of something spiritually much heavier than he anticipated.

What roads have you taken that took you somewhere you didn't expect to go?

Memories and promises of an old man

Posted on June 2, 2017 at 1:57 PM Comments comments ()
The Pygmalion myth is an enduring one. Given new life by Shaw in 1914's Pygmalion, it received its apotheosis in My Fair Lady. These latter-day takes on a very old tale speak to some deep truth in the relationship between artist and creation, between teacher and student. Is it love or folly to cherish an excessive admiration for one's creation?

As some of you may know, I taught as an adjunct instructor at Piedmont Technical College for several years. One danger that became real to me is what I would call "the Pygmalion effect." That is, every semester, I had one or two students who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the class. It required close attention not to succumb to the illusion that I was uniquely responsible for how well these students did, not to confuse my role as instructor with their formation as students. I may have had some positive influence on them; I doubt it was a decisive factor in their intellectual growth.

As a not-yet-old man (I'm 67), I've tried to be as analytical as possible in my observation of human behavior. This is mostly because I am sometimes subject to strong emotional reactions to particular situations and trying to stand away from my own reactions and responses seems psychologically healthier than nurturing lingering anger, self-pity, or self-justification. One unfortunate result is that my writing sometimes seems too left-brained to be effective in portraying people in all their flawed glory. This is a flaw which, I suspect, will take me a long time to eradicate.

One of my characters is a retired college professor called Gunther Niebel. The backstory is that he is the only surviving member of his immediate family. He's outlived two wives and all his children. His response is to pour himself into trying to shape the minds of his students. This leads him into an intellectual infatuation to a young woman who, as it happens, is dying. Her death leaves him clinging to memories, yet haunted by an unfulfilled promise he made to her on her deathbed. "Offerings" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters shows the outcome of these memories and promises.

When is it enough?

Posted on May 30, 2017 at 6:25 AM Comments comments ()
I once heard a story in which two well-known writers were invited to a party in The Hamptons, given by some ludicrously-wealthy Wall Street whiz kid. If memory serves, they were Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. As they toured the house and listened to the host brag about all the costly architectural details and furnishings, Kurt turned to Joseph and asked, "You wrote Catch-22. Why is this guy bragging about how successful he is?" Joseph said, "Unlike him, I know when I have enough."

Most of us have some level of intuitive understanding of human motivation, whether or not we believe in Maslow's hierarchy or some other theory of motivation. It seems to be a universal truth that we don't truly know when we have "enough." For 2015, government statistics give us a median U.S. household income of just over $ 55,000; whether such an income makes us feel "satisfied" is a question that can't be answered "Yes" or "No." In some less fortunate parts of this country, the median income would seem like a small fortune. Trying to live on the median income in Manhattan or Silicon Valley would most likely be a source of extreme discontent.

Of course, it isn't about just wealth. However, wealth or income is such a strong motivator that, probably, few of us would decline a monthly income twice what we make. At some point, if we've been successful enough, we may accumulate such wealth that it can immobilize us with the fear that it may go away. Alternatively, a certain level of affluence may just cause us to say, "I could be worth a lot more, if only . . ." My short story "Vulture Capitalist," in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, looks at success from the standpoint of what can happen when we don't say, "This is enough." Perhaps we humans aren't quite as rational as we imagine.

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