Category Archives: Politics

Objectifying matters

Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.

It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.

But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.

Actaeon and hounds
In “The Death of Actaeon” by Titian, the goddess Diana has transformed Actaeon into a stag and his own hounds tear him apart.

The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.

The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?

These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.

But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.

First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.

Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral  world out of all the puzzle pieces.

To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.

A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”

But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.

There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)

“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.

 

The huddled masses yearning to be free

In the wake of the election of President Trump, we have to acknowledge that there was great anger on the part of the electorate and great yearning too.

statue_of_liberty-cr
Lady Liberty holds the torch of freedom for all — the high and mighty, the weak and oppressed, the billionaire, the redneck, the wetback, the elite.

I think of the Emma Lazarus lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, think ironically of these lines, for today’s wretched, huddled masses, it seems to me, who may be counted by virtue of my education among the moralists and elitists, are the rednecks and other uneducated white working class (WWC) folks who elected Trump.

Our yearnings are theirs too. Who among us doesn’t want freedom, however we define it? Freedom from fear and want? Freedom from oppression by the government or other institutional forces who may despise and/or underestimate us?

The WWC have long disdained the long arm of the law and government that tells them what to think and how to express themselves. They can’t express their doubt or anger in their limited vocabulary (and whose vocabulary is not limited?), so they vote for the anti-PC candidate.

As Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, Mike Cernovich, whom I profiled last month, became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. “This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,” he told me the day after Trump’s victory. “Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, ‘You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.’ Well, a vote for Trump meant, ‘Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.’ ”

In this yearning for freedom to say what one thinks, whatever one thinks, however “unconscionable,” whatever anyone else thinks of what one thinks, the wretched masses are like artists.

For if the essence of art is the yearning for freedom, so too the votes of the WWC. Now, the WWC may not have the skills or materials to be actual or actualized artists, but they do have human voices and human dignity and are worth listening to. Worth closing our yaps for, just a minute, and listening to. Not to worry, we’ll have our chance to talk again. And we’ll have our chance, again, at the ballot box. Our chance to vote and perhaps to vote for a candidate who’s more to the liking of a greater number of the people as a whole.

Meanwhile, it may be time to learn a little humility and bear up under the weight of what we might think of as our own oppression. For there is art in suffering, too, and learning. We don’t want to end up, after all, like Robert Frost’s runaway boy, in the first poem of his Boy’s Will (1913), who concludes, in perverse, puerile triumph,

They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Syria and freedom of expression

Adonis, Syrian poet
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a French cafe.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Guyer interviews the exiled Syrian poet Adonis (see “‘Now the Writing Starts’: An Interview with Adonis”). Though I had never heard of him before reading this interview, even though he is a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize,  I was intrigued and fascinated by the wise man’s words. He is in Paris because of the civil war going on in Syria since 2011, when the people began to rise up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency, we might say, from his dictator father a few years ago. In other words, Assad is the usual bloody tinhorn dictator in the Middle East, the kind that the people began rising up against throughout the Arab world in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, starting in Tunisia.

In a country with no democracy, no freedom of expression, repression is bound to occur. And the people of Syria were sick and tired of putting up and shutting up. They demonstrated, in the spring of 2011, for basic freedoms, and Assad shot them down, literally, with soldiers and crushed them with tanks. Then all hell broke loose, and a variety of revolutionary groups sprang up, some organized around religion and ideology, others not.

Adonis says among other things that poets and novelists belong to no religion and no institution. They are beyond politics and the identities we forge with specific religions and national states. They are wise men, and how many of them do we have? (He is not talking about writers who are out merely to entertain, but those who are thinkers and worth their weight in gold, in sincerity. Most writers are just trash-mongers, he suggests, and he’s not wasting his time with them.)

Adonis recognizes that religion is the problem in the Middle East. Here’s what the sage says:

Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. [Emphasis mine.] That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.

Imagine that we lived, in the US, in a theocracy, where religion, a state-established religion, was the rule. How free would we be to express our views — that we were atheists? Or agnostics? Or, for that matter, believers of another stripe (say, Catholics or Hindus or Jews)? When we think of our own history of religious utopias, they are just about all transient failures — the Puritans, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and barged into Indian territory; the Transcendentalists’ Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-1846); the Oneida Community in New York (1848-1880), which practiced “Communalism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship”; and such flash-and-fizzle religions as Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult, which ended in the murders and suicides of its followers in 1978.

Even the few utopian movements that survive, like Joseph Smith’s Mormons, can’t be said to be other than aberrations. In the 1830s and 1840s, at founding, Smith and his followers encouraged dissension wherever they resided, and were routed to the deserts of Utah in 1847. Since that time, they’ve had to renounce some of the founding practices, including polygamy, in order to make peace with the United States government and be accepted into the Union. But they are hardly a model of tolerance and plurality. Rather the opposite.

We see the threat of religion today in American life especially in the influence of conservative Christians. They seek to impose their own version of sharia (a strict, literal religious law) on the US, and would outlaw abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, you name it. These righteous prigs would have everyone believe and be like them. No thanks. If push came to shove — let’s hope it never does — would we stand up against this tyranny? Would we rise in arms, even as Syrians and Arabs have risen again Bashar al-Assad?

American freedom is founded not on the belief of the Founding Fathers in Christianity but, rather, on the fundamental separate of church and state. The state will not sponsor any religion, nor will it oppose any. Many of the Founders were doubters and skeptics, or theists, who believed in an Enlightenment version of the Universe, run by a benevolent but withdrawn God, who ordered Earth and the planets to move like clockwork.

Adonis despairs of those revolutionaries in Syria who would oust al-Assad but establish, in his place, another institution, religious or bureaucratic.

Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?

We need our markets, our museums, our way of life. If you’re not interested in the market, don’t shop there. If you have no respect for museums, don’t go. But you have no right to blow these things up because of a religious belief or any other insane ideology.

Concrete vs. abstract

big ball
This ball is big! (What the hell are we going to do with it?)

Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.

I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)

I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?

Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.

We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.

A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.

He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”

Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.

But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.

But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!

Age of ignorance

This is the season of political choices, as we all know. The presidential primaries are hard upon us, and here in Arkansas we also vote for judges and other lesser offices.

Last night my wife watched the Republican debate, in which Sens. Rubio and Cruz lit into the front runner Donald Trump. There was plenty of sound and fury in the debate, evidently, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch, as I loathe all of the candidates. Disgusting to see them all pander to popular taste, Cruz and Rubio trying to outdo each other in claiming the mantle of true conservatism, Trump continuing to insult his opponents as well as the intelligence of viewers in general.

Read an article in The New York Review of Books by the poet Charles Simic, who was born, in 1938, in the former Yugoslavia, where I taught one year (1979–1980). Simic writes about what he calls the “Age of Ignorance”:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth:

We are less and less able, as a nation, Simic suggests, to distinguish critically between idiot candidates and intelligent ones. Those who appeal most to our passions, fan the flames of our ignorance are those who stand the best chance. Trump has a huge lead in his bid precisely because he “tells it as it is,” that is, resists the pressure to be “politically correct” by spewing out all his venom toward women and non-whites. He will build a wall to shut out all Mexicans. He will deport all Muslims. He will call all women cunts.

Ah, such refreshing views. They are not correct, true, true. They are not true, either. But they fan the flames, and here is Herr Trump, like a new mini-Hitler, perched on the edge of securing the Republican nomination. That ought to do in the Republican party for a good, long while, but if Simic is right our popular ignorance is not about to go away.

As an English teacher, who’s tried to teach critical thinking for a long time, I too am appalled by the lack of clear and logical thought. But apparently it’s way too much to ask of an ignorant electorate, besotted by TV and the mass media, duped by corporate interests, intent only on feeding their fat faces and the fat faces of their children. Oh Founding Fathers, thou should be with us at this hour!

Wingnuts

Yesterday, at the gym, I deliberately avoided 2-3 people I know. The common denominator? They’re all politically conservatives: one of them quite nice and understated (X, the trainer); one of them big and stupid (Y, the sportsman); and one easy to talk to (he talks a lot) except when you talk politics, when he foams at the mouth (Z).

Usually, I mean, I say hello, at least, to everyone I know, but I saw these three gents standing together talking, and I determined to skirt them and remain silent.

X who’s about 40, well built, prematurely balding, is easy to talk to, a really nice guy, smiling and helpful to all, especially the old ladies, whose blood pulse he takes (and raises, no doubt) and with whom he chats; but he has the habits of the average Joe — common sense and not much reflection. We’ve talked once or twice about racial concerns, and he seems set in his ways against expressions of political protest, as for the Black Lives Matter protesters.

Z, retired like me and maybe 65, is garrulous, talks all the time, and I kid him that he spends more time on the “mandible machine” (jawing) than all the others combined. He can talk about anything — what we did on the weekend, hobbies, women, travel — but when it comes to politics, look out, for he’s a raving wingnut (right-winger). He loudly, proudly supports the NRA (National Rifle Association), a collection of hard-core gun defenders and promoters, and gets very upset if I say something, even mild, against them. When I say something wild (like “Fuck the NRA!”), he goes berserk, and then starts frothing about the coming hard times when I, and fellow liberals, will go to Walmart and find the food shelves empty! Ha ha! I respond. Ha ha ha! And then say, circling my ear with my finger, Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Y is another case altogether — a big former U of A basketball player. He’s probably 6’4” or 6’5” and about as dumb as they come. His sole topic of conversation is guns. Though he works, even at his age (mid-40s) as a clerk in a liquor store, he has a piece of property in the country on which he’s erected a tree stand. There he takes up arms, on the weekends, and blasts any animals that come near — deer or whatever. He has multiple guns available, he tells me, so that he doesn’t run out of ammo or miss a kill because of an ill-suited weapon. Aside from this proclivity for guns, and violence, Y is something of a bully. The inevitable refrain I hear when he sees me is, “Hasn’t that deer run over you yet?” For when I told him last summer that I’d bought a new bike and was taking long bike rides, he got it into his dunderhead that it would be funny to see me brought down by a mad deer. (There are videos available online that show bikers being knocked down by deer or antelope.) “Hasn’t that deer twisted you apart yet?”

At a certain point, it’s neither wise nor practical to talk with certain people. If you know, for example, that your ideas are inalienably opposed to theirs, that there’s very little possibility of your talking amicably about things that matter, why bother? Anything that passes between you would be mere time-of-day chitchat.

Americans abroad

ice cream vendor
Jen on malecon, with ice cream vendor.

Last month, during Jen’s and my visit to Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, we ate at the highly rated Angelina’s Latin Kitchen. All around us were gringos, almost only gringos, the only ones able to afford the food. A lumpy and unlovely lot we were, we over-60s, feeding our faces, drowning our livers. And then a 15-16 year old girl, dragging her toddler, comes among us selling roses. No one buys. Everybody too busy biting, imbibing. The girl and her kid shuffle out.

Oh my countrymen, my lumpy countrymen, if I were (more) righteous I’d say that before the girl spread her sheets, she should have opened a spreadsheet and planned her future. But I am mad at our privilege, while enjoying it, and mad at the Mexican government, ruled by elites, for not doing anything to help its people, especially with education. Sure, it’s warm down there, and everybody’s outside, swarming, like flies, in the informal economy, trying to figure out, on the spur of the moment, what it’s all about and how to live another day hand to mouth.

red roses
Red red roses, the kind you’d like to give to your lady love …

My gringo friend, who with his wife owns a B &B  in Mazatlan, says that this is the way the Mexicans like it. We can’t look at things totally through our own over-sympathetic, or socialist, lenses, I acknowledge. Or through rose-colored lenses, either. “These people,” as my friend put it, like to be outdoors, like not to be tied to a desk, like to do what their forbears have done for generations before them. So let them wander at 10 pm or midnight, brats in tow, among the indifferent and guzzling gringos, no skin off our behinds.

The Mexicans merely do what their family has done, my friend says, for a long time. It’s not that the government doesn’t support them. It’s that they don’t want to be in school. It’s that they have the short-term, not long-term, view of things. (Kind of like American corporate shareholders.)

God knows many of us suffer from this same disposition — our plan is for the hour at hand, for what we enjoy now, for what’s to be had. Yes, we might have an education. And then have jobs. And money in the bank. But where are we today, and tomorrow, and then the day after? Maybe not on the beach selling knick-knacks or bric-a-brac, but, could be, neither here nor there, wondering where am I, what am I doing, where is all of this going?

The normal impulse is to look away when approached by vendors. We don’t need their stuff, gods know, and don’t want it, however much we feel their need.

Holiday letter to the world

Reflections (through a mirror darkly)

This last year has offered many lessons, or opportunities for same, on the civic virtues. Or, more basically, the virtues of civilization, if they still exist.

Without getting into the unseemly mess of American politics, and no doubt annoying the conservative brethren among us, I’ll just say that rowing the boat together seems to me not a bad idea, since we’re in it together and it’s leaking. We might try pulling together in the same direction more than we have, and arguing less over who’s working too hard and who hasn’t worked a lick, and who’s to blame and who gets to steer the craft.

Emily Dickinson
Poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who wrote lots of letters to the world but didn’t get many back.

Off by ourselves in a reflective corner, we might, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, begin to dwell a bit less on our own misery, real or imagined, and more on that of people who don’t have nearly what we do, or have lost what they had. We might think of Syria, for example, which has seen untold suffering lately, and Iraq, and any number of other places on the globe where our action, or inaction, might have contributed to suffering.

Thankful for our comfort, ease, and affluence, we hold up a holiday candle to the world and send bright thoughts and a bit of money, if we can, to those near and far who suffer privation, want, cold, and hunger. (International Rescue Committee is one good choice. Doctors without Borders is another.) Jennifer gives to Bridge of Peace Syria, a charity headquartered in our home city, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and working even now inside that wartorn, miserable country.

And charity is the greatest of these

And we think of St Paul, could be, who, though no merry old soul like King Cole, was a droll boy in his own right. That line about better marry than burn, for example! Was the gent never married? Did he never marry AND burn? (Jen and I have been married, and burning, 45 years as of this Dec. 19!)

And what about his Paul’s riff on faith, hope, and charity?

For if faith is lacking in this idol-worshipping world (consider Baal and Mammon, to name just two, and throw in Beelzebub for good measure)  … and hope is a speck in the farthest starling’s eye … then charity, it could be, is all we have left and what we have, and need most, to give each other.

Is it possible, brothers and sisters, that the charity that begins at home and flies through the world like the truest arrow, will make a luminous mark where it alights? And that it alights on and in us?

In this year of upcoming elections and crazy national politics, we could use a bit of charity, couldn’t we? More light, less heat? More embraces, fewer pointed fingers.

In this season of cheer and plenty, it’s not just about stringing out Christmas lights and planting Santa and reindeer on the lawn.

Or pouring eggnog into our neighbor’s cups, spiked or not.

But looking around and contemplating, for the time being, which is all we have, what our relation is to our fellow man.

God rest ye, merry gentlemen and -women, and nothing you dismay! This is our fondest, most peaceful, and most charitable hope for the New Year.

Exemplars & examples

Every year at this time, I have cause to think of my wife Jennifer’s marvelous generosity, which began in her home and then began to define ours when we married 45 years ago. My own family, like hers, had two parents and seven kids, but Jen’s parents were, frankly, more generous and giving than mine could be, with their background and temperament. I don’t mean merely in material terms, for I think my father Bob the lawyer (RIP) and Mary the housewife (RIP) made more than Jen’s father Max the pastor and Vi the secretary (RIP). It’s just that whatever they had, Max and Vi were willing to share, on every occasion, with the family, and even if family grew to include (if not comprehend) such dubious and unbelieving outsiders like me the charity extended that far and beyond.

Baa baa, black sheep, Max and Vi might say, we too had wool.

And the greatest of these woolly virtues was, and is, charity.

So here’s to Jennifer, and the generous souls in her family and circle of friends! Let’s lift a glass of eggnog (spiked or not) and celebrate the flowing from these welling sources onward and outward into the desert world.

Lindo Mexico, here we come again

gate of the lake
This mural depicts a real gate that opens to “the heart of Ajijic,” namely, its lively restaurants and shops.

Jen and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Mexico this October and November, for 2 1/2 weeks, the first visit in four years. We flew to Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city, with a metro population of maybe six million, but spent most of our time in the much quieter retreat of Ajijic, a cobblestoned village of about 10,000 on the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala.

We met a few old friends, both gringo and Mexican, including Randall Lankford, a North Carolinian hippie in Tlaquepaque, an artsy enclave of Guadalajara, and Claudia Nery, a miraculous painter who lives on the lake and whose website I keep. (See www.claudianery.com. I also keep a site for Pepé Orozco, a tour and shopping guide whom we saw, at www.guideworksorozco.com.)

Bitten anew by the Mexico bug, we are returning, in January, this time to Mazatlan, the northernmost commercial port city. Mazatlan is special because it is such a working city (a fleet of about 600 shrimping boats, for example, the largest in North America) and yet a typically charming Mexican city too.

The commerce includes fishing, brewing (Mazatlan is home to the Pacifico brewery), and tourism (largely located in the new hotel strip or Golden Zone). All this business means that Mazatlan is pretty prosperous, and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sources of fun and reflection for tourists as well as paying jobs for the locals.

Charm? It’s not mostly in the commercial part of Mazatlan. Look rather to the old city, its churches, squares, restaurants, and unfranchised amusements like

  • The malecon, or ocean walk, which features, as one reviewer says on TripAdvisor, “Great walk, ocean breezes, sunsets, people, bikes, roller blades — it’s all here. Plus you can stop for lunch or a refreshment!”
  • The Plaza Machada, or square, of the old historical section, with cathedral on one side, plus plenty of shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating.
  • The El Faro lighthouse and the view from the top of the entire harbor and beyond.
  • The Olas Altas beach (High Waves), which was once the only beach, and act, in town.

The return of the prodigal son et al.

ruby and cream
Ruby, on Thanksgiving Day, enjoying a cup of cream. (Photo courtesy of Robert Brubaker.)

In July, this year, our son Gabe and his family returned to Fayetteville, after an exile of two years in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis–St. Paul.

Gabe is working from home, as a computer programmer, for a New York City firm, and Heidi is once more working as an adolescent psych nurse. Ruby, we’re proud to say, is now eight years old and enjoying second grade at the local Happy Hollow School. It was hard for her at first, as she left behind many friends in St. Paul, where the kids were living, but they all seem to have adapted well once more to the Ozarks. (They moved down here originally in 2010, and are the reason Jen and I retired here the following year.)

Like his mom, Gabe is a good cook, the principal chef in the family. Like his dad, he bought a new bike this year, and has done some biking with him on the wonderful Razorback Greenway, which goes north from Fayetteville almost to the Missouri border, about 40 miles. (I’ve done 60+ miles at a time and am aiming, next year, for 100 miles.)

Moderation in all things (or Facebook anyway)

At the tail-end of the year, I took a break from Facebook for a while, checking into the FAC (Facebook Addiction Clinic), where I stayed for observation and therapy. Most of this, understand, was self-induced, and I could recommend it to you heartily.

You simply lie about and watch yourself, out of the corner of your eye, noting shifty and desperate shifts toward the keyboard and monitor … or extra time peeking at your smartphone or tablet. You observe the desperate longing and the panting, yet somehow they pass, a bit, with each passing day, and you find yourself busy with more important things, it could be, or more outward things.

A novel event

In my case, most of the action, this coming year, may take the form of a novel I’m researching — on gun violence, of all the Yuletide themes. I’m learning fascinating things that psychologists and sociologists, among others, have discovered about mass murderers, of whom we have had way too many recently.

The novelist, of course, is more than the sum of his personal prejudices, but he can turn them to fictional account. He can invent characters inflamed with passions, sadness, violence, benevolence, you name it, and cover the whole panoply of human emotions and ideals. And still, to some degree, stand back, as if from a cosmic and comic distance and watch the human ants build and destroy.

Whether you sling a gun or hash, whether you’re wholly sane or certifiable, we wish you here from the heart of the Ozarks a merry holiday season and, oh yes, hugs, kisses & big bags of charity, which is the greatest of these and, like sugar, sweetens the cookies.

Greg & Jen Zeck

 

 

 

Hello, Facebook, and goodby

Made my final direct entry in Facebook for a while: “Checking into a Facebook Addiction Clinic for observation and therapy. See you later.”

Facebook addiction
It appears that you’ve been infected by the Facebook bug.

So I’m checking in to this clinic (in the skies, in my mind) and hanging out there a week or two. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? And do without me for a bit? Thanks for understanding. I have to shake my head clear, that’s all, of the fog of argument and inanity that Facebook has become for me.

Because most of Facebook is inanity — urgent and infantile pleas to “like” my latest dog or baby picture, or agree with a political or cultural position that’s self-evident to the poster and should be to everyone who reads it — I tend to take the opposite tack — and attack what I see as superficial and sentimental positions. As a provocateur, I’ll make statements that even I don’t necessarily believe in or subscribe to. Anything to get people’s goat, really — and they’ll generally let me know where they’re keeping the beast.

In my last issue-oriented post, I poked and prodded and trolled, you might say, for snapping fish, writing simply or not so simply (ha ha):

So I see that “Gun Rights” has become “Gun Pride,” under the aegis of the NRA and its allies. Oh what a laugh. LOL. Laugh silently. Co-opting political slogans like “Gay Rights” doesn’t hide the fact — just the opposite, in fact — that these brave bucks and bravos go out into the woods with their rifles in order to jerk each other off and slaughter Bambis.

And soon I got a response from a friend, not a good friend but a friend, that I might have anticipated but, with my lack of emotional IQ, did not:

Greg you have always been quite an edgy person with your comments but as a hunter myself you have crossed the line with this comment.

I do so enjoy crossing the line! It’s not the same line that George H.W. (Papa) Bush drew for Muammar Gaddafi, I know. Or even the line that Barack Obama drew, with less point and success, for Bashar al-Assad. Comments like my friend’s are not bombs, after all. They don’t take me out for good or behind the shed for a beating. I’m still here, you see, fat and sassy and ready to put up my dukes, aren’t you? For sticks and stones, and bombs and guns, can break our bones, but words will not dispatch us.

We all define lines and edges differently, could be. My friend, if not good friend, has always drawn back from provocative statements I make in person. I see him shrink back, physically, and frown, for he’s a good Methodist boy and bible believer, far as I can see, and would like us, evidently, to stay within the bounds of proper deportment and conversation, as John Wesley and brethren might have defined them.

In fact, I don’t care if he’s a hunter. I certainly knew that  Facebook harbors hunters, among others, with or without secret blood and lust for deer, turkey, bobcat, wild boar, you name it. I know that not all Facebook readers have my literary education, and are not trained, or tainted, in rhetoric that’s hyperbolical, in your face, smack up against your gob. I was out for blood, could be, if only literary or literate blood. I wanted to taunt and dare the comfy hunters among us, the gunslingers, to question why they used guns and how they enjoyed them.

(Someone even reported me, for this post, to Facebook as being in violation of its standards — lax and pliable as they may be. In its message to me, Facebook cited a complaint about references to “nudity” but followed up with a second message, shortly afterward, judging me not guilty of inciting prurient interest. After all, I didn’t describe and linger deliciously over sexual organs or a particular sexual  act. If I had, how scary would that be in America, land of the free and the home of the NRA? We know what’s right, after all, and what’s too filthy for words!)

No, I don’t literally believe, of course, that hunters are jerking each other off in the woods. But I certainly strongly feel that among male hunters out in the woods, without women and domesticating restraints, with booze and bullets and London Bridge and boundaries falling down, there’s a homoerotic impulse. (As there is in football, or boxing, or just slamming down a few brews at the bar.) And I wonder if this impulse is part of the desire to kill. In other words, if lusting for the blood of an animal and lusting, at whatever level of consciousness, for another male aren’t intertwined.

I’m no psychologist, or psychoanalyst, though I have dabbled in the literature. I have also read scores of sophisticated literary works that take up, and consider, extreme positions on social and cultural problems. If artists don’t do this, who will? Without shooting, I mean? Without enforcing their ideas with lethal weapons? Words are simply words, with no power to kill, or maim, but some power, it could be, to challenge and change.

You’d hope so, anyway, though here and now in America we seem to be convinced of the rightness, and righteousness, and inviolability of our own positions. No one will tell us what to think, or what to do. We know, by god, what we know. So we go to Facebook, among other places, armed with conviction in our position, our a priori rightness. And if someone challenges this cherished position, we lash out, bellow, jump up and down and stomp on the questioners and nay-sayers.

So, friends, Romans, countrymen, I’m checking into the Facebook Addiction Clinic for a while. You won’t hear from me anymore for a bit, boo hoo. You won’t have to “like” or hate my comments. You won’t have to challenge me not to cross your lines or violate your boundaries. I’m outta here for the time being. I’m grabbing a beer, and communing with the better, and worser, angels of my nature; I’m continuing to research, and reflect on, a novel on the problem of mass murderers and the guns they use. And if I can achieve this, devoting myself to the craft, I will have saved both you and me a lot of grief and a lot of wasted time.

 

 

Gun control

The Oregon community college killer, too confused and cowardly to be named,
says the sheriff, was enrolled in Writing 115. Before he began picking off his
classmates, he handed over to one of them, “the lucky one,” a manifesto
of obscure resentments and rages. Whether he was failing or passing
this writing class, who knows? Whether the manifesto contained run-on
sentences, subject-verb errors, pronoun agreement problems, dangling
modifiers, incoherence galore. He killed his teacher, Lawrence Levine, 67,
of Glide, an avid fisherman and good writer. Grandma, a survivor sobs,
He killed my teacher. I saw it. The community will pull together, according
to the mayor. He was wearing a flak jacket, camo gear and more ordnance
than you would need to blow up the entire MLA Committee on Community
College Best Writing Practices. He is said to have practiced with his mother,
toting guns, not pens, the two of them, to shooting ranges, making a point
of squinting and taking aim at the obstacles life presented in their long trudge
since divorce from daddy the Englishman. Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59, died
at the scene, a very energetic, very kind, kind soul, according to her ex,
who loves her still, an exceptional woman. Lucero Alcaraz, 19, died too.
There is no sense in talking about it, his father says, though he says it
in Spanish. What is the point in showing our pain? Jason Johnson, 20,
had just begun his first week at the school after passing a Salvation
Army drug rehab program. Quinn Glen Cooper, 18, was funny, sweet,
compassionate, a wonderful loving person who loved martial arts,
dancing, and acting. Our lives are shattered beyond repair, his family
says. Lucas Eibel, 18, an amazing soccer player, had just graduated
high school with outstanding marks. Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, a Seventh-
day Adventist, was among others singled out as a Christian. Treven Taylor
Anspach, 20, a name that might’ve been fresh off the boat,  was one
of the most positive people you could ever know. So too was  Rebecka
Ann Carnes, just 18, just starting on life’s mysterious, shall we say glorious path?
Her beautiful spirit will be enormously missed. May they all rest in peace.