Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Free and Almost Free Books -- Load Up Your Kindle

Are you ready for this?

Starting today and all the rest of this week you can download my books for free and almost free.

It's a Christmas giveaway and a chance to load up the Kindle for holiday reading.

Birdman and French Pond Road -- Books One and Two of the Billy Kagan Series absolutely gratis.  And Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home, for the unbeatable price of 99 cents.

Get them now.

A tale of identity theft and madness in the West of Ireland. A madcap caper skirting the borders of the magical and the mundane, Birdman is Billy Kagan, a seeker of refuge and enlightenment. Will he be forced to land, to come to grips with the fallout of his life? Take the first step to finding out and feel the endless freedom of the skies.

Birdman is that rare treat, an indie published story that breaks the bounds of the acceptable, the tried and true formulas of the literary marketplace, the earthbound and empty life you need to escape.

And now, just in time to save you from the Christmas shopping blues. Just one click away and away you go.

Up, up and away with ...  Birdman.

Hey, it's free. And so are you. Or are you?

French Pond Road: Round Two of Billy Kagan versus the monsters. Yes, the monsters...of post-modern angst and obscurity, the inequalities of wealth and quality that have come to define us.

Okay, you're asking why the pen name. It's a long story. Maybe some day I'll write it. But enough about me. It's Billy Kagan we're talking about. Our hero. It's his story, and the story of the road, French Pond Road. Could be your road.

Billy's building a life for himself and his lady friend in the back of the swamp outside of town. Could be your town. Read all about it on French Pond Road. On your Kindle.

Got enough free? Good. Now check out the almost free. No, don't turn away. This is where I need you to pay attention.

Paying attention? All right then. Then slip through the crack and enter the world of Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home. This week only at $0.99,  two dollars off the regular Kindle price.

A nostalgic look back at the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, a world of big hair, big dreams, and big neurosis as seen through the child-like eyes of Will Kogan. Trying to understand his parents is his first lesson in survival.

"Will looks back to their difficult, tumultuous childhood...An engaging story carried forward by well-written prose." KIRKUS REVIEWS

LATITUDES presents the story of a bi-cultural child. Caplan artfully navigates the reader through Will's experiences, who tries to make sense of and understand the world around him as his parents abduct him and his siblings not once but twice.
Maureen Dabbagh, author of "Parental Kidnapping in America: An Historical and Cultural Analysis"

Is it live or is it Memorex? That's a thorny question, so lighten up, friend. I'm all about giving it away, but there is a limit.

"LATITUDES covers a lot of territory both physically and emotionally" Grady Harp

"A great read for people like me who enjoy multi-dimensional characters" Stephen Paul West

So don't take it from me. This is a great read. Bring it home with you.  Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home

And enjoy the holiday the way you like it, with a good box of Kleenex and three great books!

It's almost free but it's priceless, like the best things.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wood is Good, But I'm Done With Robert Frost

Stacking wood day. Finally got it all in the shed. It's funny,  I'm not about celebrating simplicity or sustainability or any transcendence greater than what is. It 's just a good feeling seeing the wood all in a dry place and knowing the winter can come now. It helps that we aren't stacking the twelve cords the Connors used to go through back in their day. Insulation in a house is a saved labor year after year when you're heating with wood. Five cords will easily see us through the toughest winter. It also helps that we aren't cutting it and hauling it out of the woods ourselves. That would have been a deal breaker. We get a grapple load every two to three years delivered out behind the chicken run. The cost has risen from $800 the first year to about $1000 for the last load, which works out to between about a half to a third of the price it would take in equivalent heat by propane or oil. It is dirty in the house through, and the work involved is not to be undertaken without some effort, but on a beautiful late fall day like today it is nothing but a pure form of pleasure that never gets old. The girls still like to ride in the empty trailer back to the wood pile, and the new dog makes their short journeys extra special this year with his floppy companionship.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What To Do When You Hit A Deer

I hit a deer last Monday on my way to work. It was such a beautiful creature, so strong, and it flew out of the woods over a stone wall in the dark just before dawn. It was a young buck, maybe three points. I noticed the antlers as it kicked on its side in the ditch, trying to stand. It seemed so wrong to have such a strong body unable to get back up, so fatal. The front and driver's side of the car was crumpled in, even though he came out of the woods on my right. A few more inches and he would have missed me, sailed right over me.  I had to push hard against the door to get it opened. The car was a goner also. You could hear the leak of transmission fluid in there somewhere under the mangled metal. I called my wife and then dialed 911, standing in the middle of the road. As I talked, the deer somehow got back into the woods, still unable to stand, and I could hear it rustling loudly through the leaf litter. I wanted to run and hug it, hold it, do what I could, but what could I do? The thing about wild creatures is they are beyond our pity but not our tragic incompetence.
Then later I learned that the police found it in the woods and shot it. They contacted the landowner who hauled it out of there with an ATV. At least he got a good supply of venison, I hope. I got to work in my wife's car and she walked home while the policeman filled out the accident report. It all happened so fast and today we went car shopping and the salesman said unlike in the past people generally know exactly what they want when they come into the showroom thanks to the Internet and the newly transparent nature of information flows. I wish we could do something about our transportation flows to make them less damaging, though. I'll always think of that buck when I drive past that spot on the road now, where the stone wall dips a little and gets lost in the slightly darker shadow of the woods. The rains a couple of days ago washed out the dark streak in the asphalt where the car leaked its fluid. I'll miss that car, too.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ancient Heart Wisdom for All Soul's Day

Reading is important because our thoughts determine the state of our souls. Be artful and careful and  read books that are good for you and you will guarantee a long life for yourself and your descendants. That is the teaching of the ancients.

This weekend marks the turning point in the calendar that our ancestors recognized as a special time, the time when the boundary between the world of reality and the world of spirit can be seen and traversed by those with trained eyes. And indeed, with the leaves off the trees the earth has a skeletal, spare look that reveals the essence of the landscape around us. In Mexico, the remembrance of this special season from the still living past carries on in the ceremonies of the Day of the Dead, when the ancestors walk among us; the friendly ghosts of the past are invited into our homes to be with us once again. In America, the belief has devolved into the horribly commercialized pursuit of candy and forgetfulness that is Halloween, neither fish nor fowl, just a vestige of what was once a proud link to our ancestral birthright. We, who have sold it for a mess of junk, prefer not to think about what we have done. Instead of honoring the past we have relegated the spirits of our ancestors to the dustbin of our minds, much like we relegate our young and old to the dustbins of public schools and nursing homes. When the bottom line is all that counts and we reject notions of communal responsibility, then we get what we deserve, a horror story.

So the practice of Dia de los Muertos can be a healthy corrective for what in the West amounts to the cult of the material world that gives us the Miley Cyrus's of our popular culture and the overt sexualization of our children. But what if the need for correction becomes a hatred of the living world? Such an over-reaction gets explored in my book Savior, which will be published in the spring by Harvard Square Editions. You can read more about the cult of death at the heart of the book, and share in the launch by going here. Spread the word and take action in the name of life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

What I Learned as a Self-Publicizing Author About Reality and Irreality

Sometimes you have to make stuff up as an author. And sometimes you can't make it up.

I'm in the throes of bringing out a new book. Entitled Savior, it's about a father and son battling the forces of evil. My bad guys are not your garden variety thugs. They don't just want to plunder and loot. They want to take over the entire world. I've given them an ideology, a veneer of thoughtfulness all the more creepy for its plausibility and basis on a real world cult. 

Called the Santos Muertos, or Dead Saints, the bad guys in Savior are more than just a super successful illegal drug manufacturing and distributing cartel. They believe that they herald the second coming of Mictecacihuatl, the ancient death goddess of the MesoAmerican people. The Santos Muertos organization is seeking an ancient Mayan tablet called the Chocomal. This tablet contains a code which they believe will allow them to build a doomsday machine and end the reign of Quetzalcoatl, which they identify with Western civilization. Now of course the Santos Muertos don't really exist. But the Santa Muerte cult does. This is a religious practice, condemned by the Catholic church, which has gained increasing numbers of adherents among residents of northern Mexico and the border regions of the United States. Adherents of the Santa Muerte build altars to a saint who does not exist in the Christian panoply. This saint, the Santa Muerte, or Lady Death, promises healing and favors in return for her veneration. 

I recently received an email from my editor questioning whether I might be in line for reprisals from the Santos Muertos for my depiction of their activities in Savior. I had to explain to her that they were not real, and that no, I didn't think any followers of the Santa Muerte cult would be Googling my address and moving me to the top of their most wanted lists. But you never know. With Halloween fast approaching, and my favorite holiday, Dia de los Muertos on its heels, I thought I would put it out there in a blog post. To anybody taking offense from my depiction of the Santa Muerte in Savior - it's just a book. I made it up. It's not real. But for anyone looking for a unique Halloween costume idea or themed event for Dia de los Muertos, check it out. And check out my book on Indiegogo. I'm looking for a boost. And I don't plan on building any altars to the Santa Muerte. Not just yet. But you never know. Ayudame santita.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Indiegogo -- How I, the Writer, Access the Rubles

I just launched a crowdfunding campaign for Savior, my new dystopian thriller, on Indiegogo, the crowdfunding platform. Unlike Kickstarter, it allows people from countries other than the United States to participate in supporting projects, so I'm hoping to win thousands of dollars from all those Russian millionaires who read my blog. I know you're out there because I've got Google Analytics, conneras.

I feel proud to be part of this brave new world of alternative financing. It's kind of ironic, because I finally got a publishing contract from Harvard Square Editions for Savior, but their marketing campaign consisted of sendng me a PDF of possible book reviewers to send the manuscript out to. Brave New World. Good luck if you're just setting out to be a writer. The way ahead is swampy and insecure.

But you, dear reader, can be the key by supporting creation at the outset. Be a part of a creative team that gives light to new work. Get into it. Here's the link to the Savior page on Indiegogo:


Click and rock on. Check out the top prizes where you can actually get in on production of book trailer videos and scripting of the sequel.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Shut Down The Tea Party Now

The Republican party has reached new heights of lunacy that exceed even my outsized estimation of where their base is coming from. The sheer madness of their hatred of Obama and our Affordable Care Act is akin to the days of the Berlin Wall coming down. This is what we are witnessing in the GOP today with the government shutdown - the end of the two party system as we have come to know it for at least a century. Unbelievable as it might seem, I think we are reliving the period that led to the breakup of the Union over slavery and the rights of the slaveholding states. But the far right's opposition to Obamacare seems even more misguided then the secession of the slave states did in Lincoln's day. Clearly affordable health care for millions of Americans does not goad anybody's ox outright the way, say the liberation of black slaves did to the property rights of plantation owners. It remains to be seen how far these people are willing to go, but it seems pretty obvious that their respect for the democratic process and the good of the USA is outweighed by their ideological commitments to. . . what? no new taxes? No, the Tea Partying fringe's rationale for the shutdown is that Obama and everything he touches, including Obamacare, represents the end of America. It's a right wing, millenarian, reptilian, shock radio view of America as seen through a lens of racism and ignorance that's driving the Republican agenda, and the only sane response is to get ready to put the heel down on the snake's head come 2014 elections.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

In Defense of the American Way Regarding High School Sports

It is fall in New England. The foliage is beginning to turn and the soccer fields are thronged. I've got three kids and all of them play soccer. It entails a certain amount of sacrifice, time when we could be doing things other than ferrying children from practices and games. But I wouldn't have it any other way. In an era when budget constraints and education reform are conspiring together to force changes to sports offerings, many critics of the American emphasis on school sports look at Asian and European youths climbing ahead of Americans in academic performance and see sports as a culprit. By cutting back on the amount of time and money spent on sports, they reason, children would be able to focus on what really matters,. And there's no question we need to improve the academic outcomes for American youth.  But here's why why i think cutting sports would be a bad move.

*Sports provide focus and cohesion and a communal pride that is distinctly American. Those Asian and European countries that reformers look to as models have social structures in place that are much more homogenous and cohesive than ours. Sports is a unifying force in our cities and small towns, a rallying point for morale and unity.

* There's no evidence that an absence of sports opportunities leads to improved academic performance. In fact there are plenty of studies that show the opposite, that higher rates of sports participation at the high school level lead to greater graduation and college attendance rates, for example. In fact the best way to improve academic performance is to improve teacher practice in the classroom, not to cut funding for after school activities. Greater emphasis on individualized instruction, smaller classrooms, and better prepared teachers are the best way to improve our children's academics.

* Sports provide opportunities for real-life learning that by and large do not take place in a classroom. Learning how to operate as a functional unit, to subsume your own ego in the name of a greater good, to sacrifice immediate pleasures for the sake of long-term benefits, these are all lessons in character development that are difficult to replicate with the same level of passion in a classroom setting. The holy grail of recent pedagogical insights is the opportunity for so-called "authentic" classroom experiences. The playing fields, the practice sessions, and the competitive environment of game situations are as authentic as you will find and they do not happen for Asian and European youth unless they are the elite of the elite in their respective sports. But our kids all have an opportunity for that sort of experience and training through their high school teams. We should strive to widen access to this and see it as a laboratory for how to model authentic learning in our classroom settings, not look to kill it for the sake of budget savings. Cutting sports is like cutting band or theater or foreign languages. These are not frill programs, they are the essence of what makes public schools worth fighting to save.

Sure there is a misplaced emphasis on sports and athletic performance, symbolized most vividly by spoiled and misbehaving athletes at all levels in our country whose sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility is enabled by the celebrity cult of athletes. There is a societal neurosis at work there that needs to be healed, but killing off sports at the youth levels in our schools is not the way to do it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Franzen vs. Bezos -- Battle of the Titans

Jonathan Franzen is a writer whose work harks back to the good old days of the belle lettres when The Great Writer acted as a social oracle reflecting the concerns and currents of thought of his or her day. Franzen's novels, unusually for mainstream publishers, live up to their hype, and his ambitions as a satirist are matched by his talent and acuity of observation. So I like him. And he's my age exactly, so his generational anxieties and experiences basically match my own, although the temperament and bourgeois outlook of his characters, their comfort and passivity, don't always sit well; so sometimes I find his books, honestly, hard to get through. But I admire him and his talent and what he does with his success, which is to sit down and apply himself again and again to the task of the great man of letters and chronicle the age through the filter of his own sensibilities.
Which is why I feel the need to respond to his article in the Guardian Review on Friday announcing his latest novel and using the occasion to vent on the state of play in the publishing industry. In the article, Franzen reveals the roots of his writerly motivations - his anger as a young man at his perceptions of the failures of popular culture, bad headlines and typos in newspapers over breakfast in his apartment in Somerville as metaphors for a general failure of realization. As time went on, sustaining a career as a novelist necessarily meant letting go of some of his anger at modernity and its shoddy status quo, and starting to enjoy a more placid, less emotional breakfast, presumably. But now, writes Franzen, he is poised to take up his lance again and ride Quijote-like to face the enemy of humanity and all that it holds dear, which he has identified as Amazon head Jeff Bezos.
My contention is that Franzen is essentially a grump complaining about the fact that the rug is being pulled out from under his comfortable and well-established feet, willfully ignoring the complicity of mainstream publishing in its own demise.
Point one: Franzen doesn't like the rise of ebooks and social media and the fact that writers as a class are having to take their acts on the road, so to speak, in search of readers. Okay, it would be nice to not have to do that, but it's not necessarily a bad thing to have to work to make contact with an audience beyond the boundaries of the page.
Point two: Franzen decries the Amazon customer reviews as amateurish and prone to being falsified. Yeah, like newspaper reviews are not both of these as well. Again, Franzen's perspective is not in touch with reality, although he himself admits as much in the closing paragraphs of his article when he says that "I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances."
His own sheltered social circumstances are that of an incredibly fortunate, incredibly successful writer and of course any change to the status quo will be perceived as a massive threat to his well-being.

I have no illusions that the changes wrought by Bezos on the publishing industry herald a new golden age for the written word. In fact, I share Franzen's frustration with the shoddy nature of most books, the sheer glut of crappy entertainment in the form of genre fiction. But who are we to judge how people seek escape and solace? Serious writers who are persistent will eventually find an audience, even if many if not most will never be remunerated for their work. And hasn't it always been this way.

It is absolutely disingenuous for someone of Franzen's status to not recognize the enormity of his good fortune and the potential benefits of widening the appeal of books to a mass audience as opposed to an elite who then trickle their tastes to the masses via an entirely coopted reviewing/book-marketing industry -- the aesthetic equivalent of trickle down economics.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Passion and Suffering in Today's Marketplace of Life - Thanks Obama

I'm sitting out here on the porch in the morning with the new puppy reading a book my wife got from the library about how to pay for college. We are about to experience the financial wringer of the college years with our oldest son entering his junior year in high school. One thing I've learned through hard experience is that pain forewarned about stings less than the sudden kind. The only kernel of truth I've gleaned so far universally applicable is that the base income year used by college financial aid offices begins in the January of the child's high school junior year, in other words, for us it would be next year's tax returns that matter when calculating the amount of aid. Life sucks, but not so much. I guess that's the main thrust of my post this week. You can stop reading now, or if you enjoy the sheer poetry of my writing, you are free to continue to read.

Have you seen this video?
 I thought it was funny and apropos of the idea mentioned above. It's tapping into a meme making the rounds on the Internet making fun of begrudging right wingers pissed off at life. I first encountered it when reading the comments in an article by Paul Solman on the problem of the government's official unemployment figures not taking into account the third of the work force that has stopped applying for full time jobs and now relies on freelance work to make ends meet. There is genuine pain out there in the land with the convoluted and shrinking landscape of remunerative and sustainable work, and opinion is generally divided as to the proper way to meet these challenges. About half of the commenters in the article were of the opinion that individual pluck and fortitude could get you through, and the other half were full of the idea that individuality is merely a mental construct and we are truly just chaff in the wind of the large social forces about which we can do little. I think both camps are correct and here's where it gets deep. Getting ahead, progressing in your life, is about passion, and passion is inseparable from suffering. This is what the great teachers in all ages have sought to pass on. There are certain things you can't get away from, but your individual outlook will determine your ability to align with those universals in a more harmonious way. For Christians, we lay our suffering at the feet of Christ who suffered beyond all imagining for our sake when He could have chosen a different path as the son of God.

Whether you are homeless and out of work due to forces beyond your control, or whether you are a comfortable middle-class citizen with a family and a pension facing the squeeze of college expenses, the amount of suffering is relative but nonetheless pretty constant if you look at it through a lifetime. There are some people who suffer more than others, and that is one of the mysteries and inequities that gnaw at you. The victims of chemical attacks in Syria - the children who didn't deserve it - they arouse our compassion, and there is that word again - passion - this time shared out among us like communion bread and companionship. Suffering has no value for those that suffer, that is all of us. But it is a currency, a gold standard, if you like, that we deal with and in all of our lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Drums of War on Syria

It's Labor Day weekend and the roads are abuzz with frenetic vacationers towing trailers and boats, all the paraphernalia of our true national religion, the pursuit of leisure. And the hills around here are about to take on their fall sheen of color while the fields are full of the last wildflowers of the summer, lilies, golden rod, foxgloves, Queen Anne's Lace. That's how we roll; we take to the roads to escape, finding a place by a lakeside or a seashore to pause on the precipice before plunging into the mad rush of fall - school, sports, the gathering of harvests of all kinds in the face of the coming darkness of winter.
It's appropriate that in these days we are faced with a collective danger in the form of the Syrian crisis that has caused us to pause before the precipice and take stock. Are we the world's policeman? Is it in the nation's interest to be enforcing international conventions on the use of chemical weapons? If so, is a missile strike an effective form of action against the madness of Assad?
Obama has showed his strategic sense again by placing the onus on our do-nothing Congress to make the call. By doing so, he has wisely given us a chance to reflect before taking any irreversible steps that could lead to unintended consequences, as wars seem wont to do.
It's true that the collective American will seems burnt out, a fatigue has set in at the sound of the drums of war after two Middle Eastern adventures over the last decade or so have led to no greater sense of stability or security and have drained our treasury and taken a toll on countless lives here and abroad.
For those who haven't seen it, I recommend watching the PBS segment of News Hour with David Brooks and Mark Shields debating the Syrian situation. For me, these two guys are a hope for a revival of civility in our political discourse - Shields the old-time voice of Kennedy liberalism and Brooks the face of Republican moderation and common sense. They seem to be bucking the sentiments of their political brethren, with Shields calling for restraint and questioning the use of unilateral American power and Brooks playing the internationalist card of world order and stability dependent on outing Assad for his atrocious misuse of chemicals against his own people.
My own thoughts are that at this point our action or inaction will make little difference to the situation on the ground in the suburbs and hospitals of Damascus or elsewhere for people victimized by the horrors of this civil war. Going forward, there is a consensus that America has no true dog in this fight and that our best bet is to let the conflagration burn itself out without allowing it to spread.

(Illustration: English civil war drummer bronze statue by John McKenna, from Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting Published After Years of Writing Character Driven Fiction

You heard the story of the rock band that was discovered after touring the Midwest for six months.

"Man, we paid our dues," said the lead singer, complaining about the bad food and long nights.

Well try 25 years of perfecting your chops, man.

I finally managed to get a publisher interested in my work. When I was 25 I dropped out of film school after getting my funding for a short film axed in mid edit. I turned to my IBM word processor, (that's quaint, isn't it?) comforting myself with the notion that nobody could take that away from me, and quickly sent off my Raymond Carver inspired short story to an editor at Esquire magazine in the mail. I never saw it again. That black hole of obscurity was an experience that would be repeated over a 25 year period and three continents, as I made my way as a journalist, activist, and teacher, never losing my faith in the power of words to evoke the nugget of truth, the Flannery O'Connor epiphany, the New Yorker mood of revealed truth about the human condition through concise and intuitive writing.

This week I signed a contract with a small publisher, Harvard Square Editions, to bring out SAVIOR, a dystopian thriller, as an ebook. SAVIOR takes place in an alternative present time, with a stagnant America beset by a powerful and evil international narcotics trading organization intent on acquiring a lethal weapon of massive, destructive, civilization-ending capability. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it shows. My move away from a purely literary, introspective, character driven writing process is no accident. As a self-publisher, I have discovered first hand that the audience for today's works of fiction is not driven by the dictates of critics or mainstream publishers steeped in the teachings of our educational establishments. Instead, the proliferation of ebooks and new reading technologies like the Amazon Kindle are growing a mass reading audience that prefers, in the words of W.H. Auden, "entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and then replaced with a new dish." I won't pretend to pontificate on the merits of genre fiction as opposed to mainstream, "literary" fiction. I just finished reading Michael Chabon's excellent collection of essays on this subject, Maps and Legends, and I will quote from it here to give a feeling for where I think we are going:

"All literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction...Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving - amateurs - we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers, should we be lucky enough to find any, some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels. "

So I am plotting out a sequel, a Book Two of the Savior trilogy, and this will indeed take place in a future of the imagination. As the architect of this future world, I am delighted and can't wait to put it together and watch it blow apart. Writing was never this much fun.

Let's take it a step further, let's crowd source the vision. What are your favorite trends and technologies that you think will shape the world out to the year 2075? Send in your suggestions. Here's a partial list of my own.

1. Climate change driving an autocratic, benign world government behind the ethic of sustainability and geo-engineering.
2. Mood enhancing drugs individualized to DNA allowing massive public narcotization.
3. Virtual reality gaming as a relief valve and the major preoccupation of the potentially rebellious young
4. Public transport based on Elon Musk tubes connecting major hubs
5. Sanctioned, off the grid communes based on monastic, Christian and Buddhist denial of desires.
6. Personal communication devices with variable ability to detect movement inside buildings, moods, and thoughts, depending on a person's rank.

That'll give you a taste of what's coming. I'd share the plot points with you, but I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that it's a writer's job to be on the job in the confines of his own head, for the most part.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Kaminski on Retreat

Author note: This is a story I wrote a few years ago, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a certain kind of writer, with ambitions but not totally out of touch with reality. The kind of person who could get swallowed up by the changes sweeping the publishing world, which at the time seemed minor and surmountable. Now I'm not so sure what I think of Kaminski. What do you think?

Kaminski on Retreat

                    The little birds, finches of some sort, came the closest, hopping along the sea wall to examine the pieces of bread Kaminski had set out. The gulls were prouder, not as efficient at close work, preferring to make watchful circles, dip down and catch the bread in the air. At the end of the promenade a troop of schoolchildren marched along the path through the palms, some running ahead and shattering the stillness with their cries and hand-clapping games.
Kaminski retreated under the veranda with his beer, leaving the rest of the chicken sandwich on the stonewall for the little birds.  From under the veranda the deep blue of the ocean was comfortingly   more distant, less immediately impinging on Kaminski’s feeble reserves of morale. The rest of the bar was empty, it being the off-season in the island resort of St. Barnabas.  He drank the rest of the beer from the glass with the air of a man determined to cadge any use from bitterness, put the glass down and pushed the chair back in order to rise. He hated the sound the metal legs made scraping across the tiles and determined to remember never to push the chair back again while still weighting it down with his corpulent frame. The voices in the kitchen ceased, and Kaminski could feel the pairs of eyes on him, watching his every move for cues as to the service he required.  It was disconcerting to be the hidden focus of    attention when all he wanted was to slide away into tropical anomie.  It was a little morbid, a little precious to have such preoccupations he knew, watching him with the habits of observation of a lifetime trained on a favorite subject.
His wife would have liked it here. The remnants of British rule would have amused her, the well-groomed hotel staff with the air of resentment bubbling away under the surface of their black faces, just like parts of England.
"Mesta Boodle J. Kaminski. Telephone for Mistah Bodley J. Kaminski."
Kaminski was purposefully stroking his beard, wandering in the lobby reading the historic maps and charts of the Antilles above the furniture, when he was thus paged. On the first morning in the hotel he had paused outside the doors by the oversized Grecian urns full of flowers where he’d overheard   the Northern English hotel manager exhorting the desk clerk, "For God’s sake, don’t leave out the J, man. He's a best-selling author."
And the poor man had taken the admonishment to heart ever since.
"I'll take it in my room," said Kaminski.
"Yes, suh, Mistah J," said the desk clerk.
It would be Gerald Cate, his agent, the only other person who knew where he was. He had purposely left the Blackberry in New York, but found him in the elevator looking forward to Gerald’s impertinent, sneaking requests, whatever they might be. In the room, he dallied by the balcony, overlooking fishermen in the bay pulling up their long dugouts on the sandy beach.
"Hello, yes?" said Kaminski, picking up the phone. He could hear Gerald’s voice crackling over the long-distance line, speaking to someone else.
"Yes?"  Gerald was unaware he was on the line. Just like him to be so distracted.
"Bodley?  Oh, hello. I didn't know you were on. How are you, Bodley?"
"I’m fine,” said Kaminski, hoping Gerald would hear the utter indifference in his voice.
"Bodley, I’ve got something here we think should interest you."
"Oh, no."
"Well, I know you'd like to see the sales figures improve, Bodley.  I'm sorry about your wife, by the way. I just heard the other day. I had no idea. We're all very sorry."
"Yeah, well."
"Bodley, The Chakra Report is languishing, just languishing. It would be a shame to let it just drop. After all the work you put in, we think it deserves a good shot. We've got to appeal to the broadest possible audience, Bodley."
"What is it, for God's sake?"
"Okay, okay. I'm just glancing through the brochure.  Bear with me."
They were getting sillier and sillier ideas. He didn’t know who was worse, Gerald or Lucretia Margarethe over at Illicit Press. Next they would have him dressing up in a Bozo suit and doing belly flops at conventions.  As if there was something sacred about the sales figures.  Kaminski didn’t like to think his books were token offerings to destiny designed to improve his standing in the here-after, so of course he was prepared to do what was required, just that it was so humiliating sometimes to have to actually perform.
"Okay.  Ann Stevens sent me this and asked if you might be interested in doing a book signing.  It’s a convention in Minneapolis, New Age sort of thing. They'd have some sort of stall."
Kaminski groaned into the mouthpiece.
"Gerald, I mean, how could you."
"Bodley, you don't have to go if you don't want to. It just happens that Minneapolis is a good place for your sort of books. The convention is the Third Annual North American Cosmobiological Conference.  Apparently they'll all be there, Uri Geller, Madame Bovary, you name it. Just a joke. Lighten up, Bodley."  
"Give me a few days, Gerald."
"Of course."
Kaminski lay on the bed, face towards the ceiling, listening to the chatter of the hotel maids as they worked their way down the hall with towels and sheets. He had not been this lonely in fourteen years. Sandra, if there was a heaven as conceived by the Episcopal church, with trim, green lawns and squash courts, would be engaged in joining the most interesting organizations, reforming the trickier, more Oriental customs that led to poor posture among the angels. She would have recommended activity, sea breezes, long walks, up on the balls of your toes, Bodley.
They’d hiked in Nepal the year before, and she'd been in fine health. It was the poor timing of her death that shook Kaminski. They had no children and had looked forward so much to spending the next few years traveling the world together now that his writing was getting him somewhere. Kaminski found he no longer wanted to keep up with interests they'd shared in common. He'd stopped doing the TM he'd been practicing for years. His stomach grumbled, and he regretted having left the rest of his chicken sandwich downstairs for the birds. He rose and checked his appearance in the bathroom. The sallow skin and bags under the eyes aroused deep-seated feelings of    regret. Maybe the lights were to blame. He should at least try to get some sun, he thought. He started out again for the beach, this time determined to actually set foot on the sand.  Kaminski the conqueror.  Away, timidity. In with the new Kaminski, the   positive thinking man for all seasons. Sandra would not have minded if he kept his eyes open for eligible female companionship. It was just the thing to vanquish the blues.
The sunglasses went on in the lobby and Kaminski perused the bulletin board, smiling ironically at the thought of limbo dancing entertainment during the night’s buffet provided by the Carries Carnival Society Dancers. But first he would take the cruise into Camries in the afternoon aboard the Jolly Roger. A family of what looked like Canadians was checking in at the desk. The husband consulted his diving watch and adjusted one of the bands. Perhaps he was decompressing, thought Kaminski   cruelly.  The wife was a thin, little woman with a startled expression, and her adolescent daughter   happily   exchanged appraising glances with the male hotel staff loitering between duties.
The beach was mostly empty of people except for the gathering of Rastafarian vendors under the first palm trees. They had given up approaching Kaminski. He was not interested in buying crafts or marijuana. They no longer paid any attention to him, laughing and gossiping among themselves in low, rasping voices as he took off his loafers and trudged across the sand to the plastic recliners set under frond-thatched shelters.  Kaminski sat under the palm fronds and stared out at the wavelets hitting on the shore, heaving deep sighs occasionally when his stomach grumbled.  He thought of Sandra in Nepal against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and the apartment on Columbus Avenue she had loved. He was thinking of selling it and moving out of New York.  The city only depressed him now where before he’d taken pride in the rugged adaptability it required of its inhabitants. 
Restless, Kaminski decided to check the time the cruise was sailing to Camries to make sure he would not miss the boat.  He walked back to the hotel across the beach. The Canadian family was out on the veranda with some soft drinks, looking out at the    ocean with beatific looks on their faces.  The weather was  beautiful, every day a perfection of blazing sun and blue sky. But Kaminski had discovered he became nauseous if exposed to the sun for too long.
He checked the bulletin board. There was just enough time to go back to the room for a fresh shirt. He debated whether or not to bring a book along. He was rereading The Grapes Of Wrath, but decided against it when recalling the episode on the flight down.    The man next to him, a lawyer involved in some industrial dispute, had told a story about Steinbeck's widow in Japan asking at a bookstore for one of her husband’s books.  The man had thought it hilarious that the Japanese had called the book The Angry Raisins. It was pretty funny, but the trouble was he found the good-natured Joad family also made him nauseous.  Kaminski was heartsick with loss.  The goodness of common people was something he no longer put any faith in.  He kept hoping Tom Joad would reveal an incestuous longing for Rosasharon, which was no way to reread Steinbeck.
The jetty which served the village of Chastened was a short walk and around a minor headland down the beach. Village girls swam near the jetty with all their clothes on. In a clearing, fishermen repaired nets draped over their dugouts. The Jolly Roger was moored off the end of the jetty, rising up and down in the swells. A crowd of people stood by the gangplank.  Kaminski inquired whether he could go straight on.
"Jus go on her, mon," said someone amid a flurry of competing responses.
Kaminski proceeded up the gangplank unsteadily. He stopped once on deck, adjusting to the sensation of being water-borne, and then continued sensibly clutching the handrail.  He stood against the handrail in the stern as the boat began to fill with  people.  There was much jostling and socializing.  Many people seemed drunk. Kaminski began to wish he'd stayed on shore. He was the only white person on the boat and felt he stood out like a sore thumb. The sight of a little girl heaving over-board while her mother held her, afterwards wiping the debris from the front of her dress, put Kaminski on the verge of losing his lunch himself. 
The coastline unfolded, the rock face of ocean-battered land, green forest cover inland of the sugar cane plantations. The fishermen in the dugouts waved as the Jolly Roger passed, rocking their small craft in its wake. A man in a dashiki    clutching a bottle of rum yelled at someone he knew in a boat. Kaminski envied his easy smile. He turned and looked past Kaminski as if he were not there, chuckling. Kaminski smiled and looked out at the boat as if he shared in the knowledge of the fisherman’s picaresque ways.
The boat made its way into the harbor of Camries, a town with white-walled houses and bougainvillea in bursts of violet and pale yellow on its hillsides. A banana boat was moored at the dockside, and thin, disfigured men walked idly back and forth in    the shadow of its hull. Kaminski prepared to disembark along with the other passengers. Two young black women in tight pants moved ahead of him down the gangplank. Kaminski thought to stop them, invite them somewhere for a drink and a chat, but of course he did not.  Instead he wandered the dockside, amid the coarse-featured    countrywomen sitting in front of their taros, yams, melons and fruits, fishmongers and the daily catch of parrotfish, long blue kingfish and pink squid.
Kaminski moved through it all unperturbed, solemn, unmoved and oddly unscathed.  He would have bought something just for the human contact, but Sandra's illness had been expensive and The Chakra Report was not selling well and he did not feel like sailing back clutching a sack-full of breadfruit. He walked into a bar and sat on a stool drinking a beer, hoping in this way to find the inspiration in the flow, the improvised communion of life. But Sandra's absence had stung his heart.  He could feel his body failing in its functions, and he feared his gas would offend the two other men in the bar.  In the end, he nursed three or four beers until it was time for the Jolly Roger to make the return voyage. Kaminski motioned that he wanted to pay. The bartender paused in his work and moved down the bar to take his money. The two men in the corner of the bar continued to mumble in a thick-tongued drunken patois.  Kaminski said   goodbye.  The bartender looked up, as if shocked to hear a human voice addressing him.
The boat was preparing to leave when Kaminski walked up the jetty. There were more people on board now, but the two girls in tight pants were nowhere to be seen. He stood along the rail again.  The salt spray stung his eyes. People kept bumping into  him. The journey seemed twice as long as before. Kaminski finally gave up trying to move out of people’s ways, scowling at everyone, whereupon he felt the others accepted him as some sort of mildly amusing crank.
Back at the hotel, the desk clerk was busy trying to please the Canadians, all three of them, who had a problem with their lodgings. Kaminski felt better. He had come to St. Barnabas to get away from life but found instead he was in a place with complaining Canadians and feeling oddly the better for it.
After a shower, he sat out on the balcony reading The Grapes of Wrath. He flicked to the end, to the scene where Rosasharon breastfeeds the starving, old man. Kaminski had tried writing a book, his first attempt at a novel, called The Country of  Desire, about a family of Puerto Rican immigrants in Newark, New Jersey.  He had researched it for three years and written it in two, but that was before he'd met Sandra.
A few Rastafarians were down in the sand practicing their yoga. The sun was sinking and the hotel staff was preparing the buffet out on the veranda. The little birds, finches of some sort, hopped along the sea wall, looking for scraps of food.   Kaminski found he was hungry. Hungry and lonely.  Minneapolis suddenly  made sense. He checked the time.  Gerald usually worked late. Kaminski went inside, sat on  the bed and picked up the telephone.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Where's the Rage on Main Street?

One of the unforeseen consequences of global news access that we get with the Internet is American liberal envy of Third World street protests. As we watch Brazilians massing against government corruption and excess, and the power of popular outrage toppling authoritarian regimes like dominos in the Middle East, we can't help but wonder - where's the rage here at home on the American Main Street? The lies of the Bush years leading to at least one if not two failed wars of expeditionary adventurism, the meltdown of the casino economy of a deregulated Wall Street, and most recently, the revelations by Edward Snowden of a growing Big Brother-like apparatus of domestic surveillance, none of this has yet to spark any significant mass unrest. The Occupy Wall Street movement was a brief high point of spontaneous revolutionary zeal that quickly morphed into homelessness and ennui. While distrust of the government, especially among the young, is a bipartisan affectation, the move from paranoia to semi-organized action seems to be beyond us. While working as a reporter in my younger days covering anti-government riots in Latin America, I used to admire the bravado of the masked students throwing rocks and braving bullets, but at the same time knew that their recklessness was basically aimless and pointless, and as much a machismo rite of passage as political expression, although there were plenty of females also running those gauntlets. But what I've seen since then is that an evolution of governance seems to start with the political passion of a population that shows a willingness to storm the barricades to get it done. Governments across Latin America in the last years of the twentieth century shed sclerotic and corrupt political parties and adopted new and progressive leadership. You can argue about whether that leadership has taken Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, etc. to good or bad places respectively, but things were bad enough to move the political needle. And that needle would never have moved if dissatisfaction had not been expressed in the form of protests and other political action. The argument has always gone that we in the USA have an inherently stable and superior political system that allows for popular expression at the ballot box, but here we have Obama in his second term unable to implement any of the changes he was elected to pursue, whether it be in health care, the shuttering of Guantanamo, investment in infrastructure, the positioning of sustainable energy in a green economy, the list goes on. And what's most impressive if not surprising, is the passivity of the American people as if paralyzed by the changes sweeping over us. Here in the dog days of August it is hard to imagine anything changing, but something has to give and we can see some glimmers of life on the horizon. Here's my choice for most likely inheritors of the spirit of rebellion we haven't seen in this country since the summer of '68, the student led campus movements for selling off university holdings in the large oil companies that are blocking the fight against carbon pollution. Climate change activists feel the urgency particularly acutely, given that we've known about the problem of rising man-made CO2 emissions in the atmosphere for some fifty years and have yet to summon the political will to meet it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

August is a Dog Park

Point totals:

Family from Maine -- 10
New Puppy -- 10
Fake pirate accent -- 0

Once you get a dog, the whole world becomes a dog park. You ever notice that? It's similar to the way when I was building a house and I was doing the eaves, I'd notice the eaves on every house I drove past, something I'd never taken much notice of before. Only now, with a dog, you get the notice of all the other people with dogs everywhere you go, people who would never have paid more than a blip's worth of attention to you. There's a fraternity of people with similar interests to yours who become your tribe. We took the dog to the amusement park last weekend and if we could have taken money for every man, woman and child who came up and wanted to pet him we could have done something interesting with the cash. Instead we were left with the warm and fuzzy impression that the world has lots of wonderful people in it. It also made a very handy excuse not to ride on the SuperTwister roller coaster with my daughters because someone had to stay behind and take care of the dog. You know you've reached middle age when some of the more outlandish rides make you groan so loud the five year olds look at you like you're beyond belief. But a dog makes everything all right because they are all about love, and that's what life should be about. Who cares if the pimply teenager getting paid to be the voice of the mad pirate on the Haunted Ships of the Caribbean ride has the worst imitation pirate accent ever. "Have yee a good day. Raise yee hands above yee heads and walk yee plank." Because after the pirate ship a whole family from Maine will help you figure out how to get the puppy to drink from a spare plastic cup at the water fountain and three little Puerto Rican girls all called Mami will squeal in delight when the dog rolls in the puddle.
If only life was always as simple as a day in the park in August with a new dog.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Obama - Crazy like a Fox

Obama has done it again. Attempting to heal wounds and repair relations between previous enemies, he has raised the bee swarm of conservative ire. In a speech to Vietnamese leaders, Obama referenced Ho Chi Minh's letters to then President Truman at the end of World War Two seeking US help in gaining Vietnamese independence after the fall of Japan. The existence of these letters is historical, as is Ho Chi Minh's regard for America's founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson. But to the right, Obama is merely relaying leftist mythology and replaying the political errors that led to our failure to hold onto Vietnam. Some people just can't seem to let go of the past, or work a way out of a hide-bound ideological take on the world.
It's a similar sort of denial that takes over right wingers on the issue of climate change, where Gaia has dared to defy the market system and declared its own self-regulatory mechanisms that pay little heed to individual self-interest. Of course, environmentalists need to understand that it's only been 450 years since Sir Francis Bacon proposed ravishing Nature for the purpose of unlocking her secrets and it's going to take some patience while we get used to living within our limits on the blue-green planet. But don't count on Obama to storm the ramparts of the oil companies. He's way too smart for that. The dragon has its talons dug deep within his own administration, and its going to take a massive effort on the part of a world-wide movement based on generational equity, not race or class, to cut us loose from impending disaster.

(photo credit: Templar 1307/Flickr.com)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Teddy Claims His Place

Here is my weekly blog post, delivered with trepidation. For it offers no insight into the Israeli-Palestinian situation, gives no definitive take on the Trayvon Martin case. Instead I am writing about a dog. A new dog in my house named Teddy.

Oh, fine. Teddy, said my daughter in the back seat, acceding to the younger sister's suggestion for a name. We were driving to a town along the southern border with Massachusetts where the puppies were waiting.

A little background: We are not dog people. My wife and I have resisted a dog for the well-known factors involved: time, money, chewed up and wasted clothes, shoes, lives, as it seems to us. We have children, three of them, growing up fast, but still consuming our attention as it is, along with chickens, sheep and oh, yes, jobs. Who needs or wants a dog? My daughter. Who has not stopped pleading and worshipping a wristband she received from some charlatan at a wedding who said it would not fall off until she received her secret and most ardent desire. Which was? A puppy. At a basketball game this winter when she was crying on the bench before the start, I walked over and was informed by the ref that players could not play with accouterments on the wrist. And she refused to have the ragged slip of fabric cut off because the puppy had yet to materialize in her life after two years. I untied it and retied it around her ankle and the game was allowed to commence. But I knew we would have to bite the dog bullet.

And so we drove three nights ago through a landscape of scrub woods which I have come to recognize as prime domestic pet breeder real estate after our purchase of a cat four years ago from a trailer parked in similar terrain. It had reeked - animals and generations of New England backwoods survivalists coexisting in a jumble of plywood and dilapidated possessions. We love Jink, one of the best cats ever. But Jink and us were about to receive a new addition to the family.

The house did not disappoint. Located a mile back from the road on a rutted and washed out drive cleared by backhoe, devoid of bark mulch. At some point there was a fork in the trail. Up the hill in two different directions. Two gentlemen on dirt bikes, practicing for the last days on this moonscape, were parked under the spruce. I asked them if they knew anything about puppies.
Puppies? Never seen them, they answered. We drove on, choosing the right hand fork. And then, at the top of the hill, behind the last pile of uncleared boulders, was the log house, maison Swiss Family Hardscrabble, behind a leaning plywood barn failing to contain several pick up trucks flying Confederate flag decals, and other rusted hulks of one kind or another.
A mixed pack of hounds surrounded us, one of them poking his head through my window, baying for us to come out with our hands up and some treats. After some awkward moments, dim shapes appeared on the porch of the house, two largish people, one man and one woman. The woman leaned over the rail.
They don't bite, she said at last. I popped my door and stepped out, testing the veracity of her assertion, and my daughters followed me up to the house with the dogs at our heels, one particularly friendly mutt thrusting its wet muzzle at our hands to be petted. Turned out she was the mother.

Teddy and siblings were the cutest bunch of butterballs, flopping around at our feet and vying for our affection. The girls fell in love with the smallest pup, and the mother took it aside and straddled it, seeming to swallow its head. It looked like bonding time before we took him away.

So far we have survived. It has been two restless days and three sleepless nights. And we struggle to find the right routine and mix of tenderness and sternness that will yield a perfect and well-mannered denizen of  Hope Mountain Farm. But Teddy, a needy and uncertain yellow fur bundle, claims his place, and our lives will certainly never be the same.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Edward Snowden Worthy of Our Gratitude

Edward Snowden is a visionary man of peace and we should do everything in our power to protect him. That's my conclusion after his meeting in the Moscow airport Friday with human rights activists and listening to his words in silence and respect. 

"I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice."

Snowden recognizes that we live de facto in a transnational community via the Internet today, and therefore he is seeking to establish the rights of all citizens to equal protection of privacy rights. It is a discussion worth having. We need to make sure that he continues to be able to spread his message that the power of snooping on the electronic communication of all people at any time is just too much to place in the hands of any government, or government contractor, for that matter.  It is the power, as he said in his meeting, to decide people's fates, and the fact that he thrust it away and took the step that he did to bring this power to light, makes him a man worthy or our respect and gratitude.

Still, I would like to see him stand trial and defend himself in court in the United States instead of spending his days in irrelevant exile in a place like Venezuela that does not stand for the vanguard of human freedom.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Inspiration - Solar Impulse

I'm a writer. I'm currently in between books. In between books is a scary place. It doesn't really exist. Kind of like the other side of the moon. As I contemplate the next phase of my writing career, I'm looking to different sources for inspiration: my life, the books I read, the media. Sometimes a story in the news gets my creativity flowing in ways that might not feed in directly to what I'm working on, but lifts me just by the sheer example of human perseverance and ingenuity it provides. The unlikely journey of the Solar Impulse, completing its historic cross-country flight today, is one such example.

Like the creators and pilots of the Solar Impulse, nobody tells me what to do next as a writer. A book is a one-off flight across terrain that ideally has never before been seen. A writer in between books is kind of like the hero of Yeats' poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

...No law nor duty bade me fight, 
No public men nor cheering crowds...

What makes me want to keep taking this plunge into the vastness of infinite space? Is it the lonely impulse of delight that Yeats ascribed to his gloomy, heroic pilot? After all, the blank page is like that - the possibilities are endless and the trick is to keep pushing the envelope and not settle for what has gone before. Whether you are a financially successful writer, (all 10 of us), or not, the ideas must be fresh and the vision compelling. There must be delight in it. Otherwise why do it?

But more than individual pleasure, it also helps to have a higher good in mind.  Not many people talk about this, but there is a purpose to fiction writing. Stories help shape us and give us strength to carry the flame forward. By not hewing to the known, by not pandering to the concepts or stereotypes that form the common consciousness, stories clarify and mold our awareness of the reality we all swim in.

Writing is exploration, which when done with purpose and intelligence, is really about the challenge of solving a new puzzle, and that's why I take as my inspiration today the story of the Solar Impulse, an example of intrepid exploration that is helping to push change in the spheres of science, engineering, and social organization, and in the process providing a lift to all of us as we celebrate the spirit of independence and the unleashing of humanity's potential.

(Photo courtesy of the Solar Impulse)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Ballad of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden come home.
I suspect he won't. You can't. Neither can we. Where is home now when the walls have ears and our computer screens are staring back at us with the cold eyes of NSA bureaucrats?
No, Edward Snowden has sent us all off into exile from an America that may have never existed, from the Leave it to Beaver world before 9/11, before the Internet, when we still knew or cared about our actual neighbors more than our virtual pleasures.
Edward Snowden where will ye go now? Is it Ecuador? Maybe Cuba? Lands and powers that may or may not have your interests at heart. But probably not.
Maybe that's the last we'll ever see of him, the netherworld of the Moscow airport, stuck between flights. There will be rumors of sightings on strange midnight planes to Marrakech, on trains for Novosibirsk, on a bicycle to Finland, and whole mystic cults devoted to finding him, but Edward Snowden is not coming home. And neither are we.
But I hope to God his father has some success bending the ears of the machinery of state. Here's a pretty savvy operator writing a letter to Eric Holder and offering to broker a deal to get his son off the dime and out of the Moscow airport. Huzzah, Mr. Snowden.
Obama is clearly in PR mode, taking my advice and downplaying the whole affair. After all, why stoop to taking this guy seriously, right? Nothing he's said is actually that revelatory. Did anyone ever think for a second that Google and Facebook were in charge of the Internet and that higher authorities would not be brought to bear? Get real, people. What he's done is shed some light on the bureaucratic, legalistic and technological netherworld that exists in the intelligence gathering community and how it has latched onto the Internet like remoras on a whale. But did anyone not suspect that this is how it is done?
But Edward, like a hero in some poem by Shelley. has sacrificed himself for our sake. So that we might know how far we have strayed from home. And we might never get back. But at least we have our iPads and our Blackberrys and we don't ever have to look anyone in the face anymore and acknowledge them except on our screens. And the terrorists, well, they're not emailing each other or posting each other tidbits on Facebook and never have. They're not stupid. They know NSA from a hole in the ground. They still rely on human couriers, the real touch of flesh on flesh. In the end they might win.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Strawberry Moon

This is a magical time of year for me. I always am very aware of the hinge of the solstice as we go from waxing in the growing year over to the long, gradually accelerating descent into the dark. The full moon tonight is another layer of influence, her pulling tide calling out in mysterious ways to all creatures.  I find myself really responding to the beauty abounding in life. Today a flock of cedar waxwings took to the cherry tree in the back yard. Their olive plumage gleamed in the sun like drops of water. A new batch of chicks moved into the henhouse, and chirped in a panic like any babies would out in the real world for the first time, before settling down at dusk and dropping off to sleep. One of the lambs got his horn stuck in the portable fence and leaped like a salmon to get away, almost flipping this morning in the long, dewy grass. The awesome energy of spring is moving into a new phase and these first days of summer are like the culmination of the first act of the play.
We don't know what God is, but we can see the grace we are endowed with most clearly at the change of the seasons. Nature is healing.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Edward Snowden -- Heroes "Backwards R" Us

Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? His revelations of the extent of US surveillance efforts under the Patriot Act have put him at the center of the world's attention in the latest round of political embarrassments for the Obama administration, but I don't believe they have disclosed the existence of anything new. We've known about the US government's surveillance of domestic telephone and internet traffic overseas since the Bush administration. At least I remember being aware of reading those reports and thinking my emails to my father living in London at the time were probably being picked up on the government's radar every time I mentioned Osama Bin Laden or something I'd read in the news. See, there I go again. Hello NSA computer scanning this. Are you having fun yet?

What's new for me is the way opinion on the issue of government surveillance is completely divided along partisan lines. According to the polls, Democrats who previously railed against government intrusions under Bush are now totally fine with giving up certain undefined privacy rights in exchange for the added security of the government's snooping, whereas Republicans now are seething with libertarian fury in the place of their previous trust in the government's good intentions with their innermost secrets. Yes, Virginia, there is a functioning democracy.

The point is we have gotten used to the feeling of being invaded in the sanctity of our home spaces via Facebook and Google and have seen that instead of trench-coated watchdogs knocking at our doors, you get strange ads for tree pest removers and yoga classes when you're online. Sharing our information has become part of the trade-off of living in the age of the Internet, and we somehow sense that the government is no more powerful than the nerds that run things nowadays, and are probably less likely to bother us. Seeing Edward Snowden come in from the cold only confirms this sense that the government are us. Here's this guy from Maryland who didn't even graduate high school living in Hawaii with his girlfriend and suddenly feeling guilty about his job working for the biggest eavesdropping operation in the history of the world. But really, Edward, come on. You were working for the NSA. What did he expect, they were doing market research for toothpaste manufacturers?

I think if Obama were smart he would let this go away. We already have a genuine whistleblower hero on our hands in the person of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who decided to answer to a higher morality and betray systematic massacres of innocent civilians in the immoral war we waged in Iraq and now faces a possible death sentence from a military tribunal for his genuinely sacrificial actions.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Problem with Activism on Global Warming

This is the time of year that I can't really say I sympathize with nature. They say we humans have an adverse impact on it, but today I really don't see it. The grass has never been more lush. The rain keeps coming down. The mosquitoes have never been healthier. I know that climate change is a problem, but the weather at my place is just fine. We've had some heavy rains, but then the sun comes out and dries us off. It's hard to get worked up about the crisis between man and nature when you're setting up for a barbecue. My biggest problem with the outdoors is picking off the ticks when I get inside. Everything seems just fine. The Amazon has lost 3 percent of itself to fires in the last 12 years, but I think we've balanced that out here with the growth of bittersweet, golden rod, nettles and assorted other impossible to destroy weeds that have taken over our garden. You get my point. Our view as humans is so dependent on local context that despite the best information in the world and the preponderance of scientific reasoning in setting policy, the more we're told about the dangers of climate change and global warming, the more we want to see the evidence. And the evidence for the impacts of human activity on average global temperatures does not happen at the local scale. As activists gear up for a summer of civil disobedience around the issue of the Keystone Pipeline and the need for an immediate shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels, the biggest obstacle will not be the evil oil company barons and their allies in Washington. It will be everyone's natural inclination to judge the severity of any crisis by what they can see before their eyes.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

In the Merry Month of June

June kicks off the busy summer season here at Hope Mountain Farm. Just sheared the first two sheep. I use the manual shears because it keeps them calmer and I don't cut them as badly, but it's a struggle anyway, and after two, I'm done for a spell. The benefit of a small-holding is the scale is right for this kind of careful, time-consuming work. Here's a funny thing, the lambs don't recognize their moms and when they're done getting shorn, they spend hours bleating at each other trying to figure it out. The lambs are about six weeks old now and have formed a pack, somewhat like unruly teenagers, running up and down the hill from the barn and finding any crack in the fence to get out and into trouble. Ah, the animal kingdom of which we are a part.

The first victims:

 Some lambs and a ewe inspecting shearing station:

The apple trees have a very good set this year, and for the first time I think I've figured out an organic system for keeping the dreaded plum curculio at bay. (See last year's post for the misguided and ill-fated venture into chemical farming in this regard.) It involves constant spraying from first petal fall onwards of kaolin clay and the use of pyganic, (made from chrysanthemum seeds), on cherry and plum trees as traps.

Northern Spy:

The garden is doing its usual great after plenty of moisture and now the first summer heat. We are behind though, with two more beds to be dug over and manured for tomato, eggplant, corn, etc.

Here some potatoes are emerging from leaf mold mulch put down just last week as a cover to protect from the last frost of the year, hopefully:

Saturday, May 25, 2013

An Excerpt From Birdman

(In honor of Memorial Day, an excerpt of Birdman, including the foreword to the second edition, copyright 2012)

Foreword – Second Edition

It has been almost a dozen years since Billy Kagan, aka Bert Smith the Birdman wandered the Irish hinterlands seeking his soul. Much has changed. The Celtic Tiger has come and gone. The world seems to have survived the passage into a new millennium, albeit semi-fractured in its consciousness and its ability to carry on.
It is instructive to look back on the world Billy was watching in those wild-eyed days.  We seemed to be perched on the edge of a yawning chasm, pursued by the ghosts of our former misdeeds, and uncertain of a future providence. Nowadays, a new generation looks to the birds, “perchers, songsters, blown by the wind and content to sit in the early and late days of the lingering sun, faith in perpetual sustenance, sharp-eyed observers of the moribund and settled,” as the waves of creative destruction crash down again on the rocks of these shores.

It is time to bring Billy forward on the bridge he foresaw being built, bypassing the architecture and snares of the old city, into a new land of opportunity. This electronic edition of Birdman is for the reader who knows that sometimes you have to step back in order to move on.

Chapter One

The countless ways of yearning, the winged and white-backed beasts, crossed the ocean behind Kagan, in hot pursuit. The Atlantic beat against the cliffs of this present citadel, laying siege to his dreams. The light of day gave a nightmarish aspect to the misted fields, the silent cobbled street with its electric cables sagging and shrieking in the wind, the three public houses, the post office in requisite green, the shop and the sharp hairpin up the hill. Across the water in one direction lay Europe, in the other America. Goat Island, the last spurs of the land’s spiny back, seemed in a winter’s dawn to have been thrown up out of the sea by an improbable hand.

“Sit down, Mr. Smith,” said Francis, the eldest brother. He rose from his chair at the small rectangular table.

“No, that’s all right. I’ll take the plate up to my room,” Kagan said.

“You can sit here if you please,” said Francis, pulling out his chair in a gesture of invitation. Murphy senior grunted an assent. Mrs. Murphy cleared her plate and Francis’s plate away from the table. The rest of the Murphys resumed eating as if on cue, satisfied that the situation with Kagan would resolve itself one way or another without impacting their ability to finish breakfast.

Kagan would have insisted on going upstairs with his food, but thought of Bert Smith, birdwatcher and student of man, and accepted the offer. He walked around the table by the steamed window, the sill with its statuette of Mary in her cloak of sky blue, so unlike the Irish sky this particular morning, and sat down as Mrs. Murphy loaded his plate with food in whiplike motions from the range.

Francis lit a cigarette, while Murphy senior directed a comment at Kagan he did not understand. He wiped his mouth in a scholarly fashion and asked Mr. Murphy to repeat himself.

“You’ll be walkin’ the cliffs for the birds this mornin’, Mr. Smith,” said Murphy.

“That’s exactly what I plan,” said Kagan.

Murphy mumbled to himself, mumbles Kagan took as tokens of disbelief, and his stomach sank. To play Smith would require more than imagination. It would take balls. Kagan suspected Smith would be of a taciturn disposition and so kept quiet, finishing his food.

The Murphys gathered in twos and threes by the front door, said goodbye to Mrs. Murphy and headed out across the lawn to the Hiace van and the Toyota Carrera on the curbside followed closely by Heidi, the yapping dachshund. Kagan observed through the open front door beyond Mrs. Murphy’s midriff as the two vehicles wheezed into action and drove off. Mrs. Murphy closed the door, leaving Heidi sniffing for remains outside on the wet lawn.

“Not a very nice day, actually,” said Kagan.

“’Tis not the day but the fish that are in it,’ said Mrs. Murphy. “You could do with a good lie-in, Mr. Smith, you look half dead. I’ll get you some more tea.”

“Call me Bert. And thank you, Mrs. Murphy.”

She poured him another cup of tea and seemed unfazed by his forwardness. Apparently Smith was an intimate, theatrical sort of man and had a winning way with older women. This disclosure, along with the breakfast, went a way towards allaying the gnawing pain in his gut, a product of pints the previous night. The beer flowing through him seemed to have eroded a large chunk of his liver.

Upstairs, Kagan gathered up the binoculars and the bottle of Bushmills, put on waterproofs, porpkpie hat and boots, all of which except for the Bushmills he’d acquired at a sporting goods outlet in Mallow on his way down from Limerick, and descended the stairs again. Mrs. Murphy was dusting down the table, Heidi sleeping in her basket by the range.

“You could do better than going out on a wet day like today.”

“Ah, but I have my duties to the birds.”

“I suppose it’s one thing or another.”

“Very true. I’m just a bird-watching fool, Mrs. Murphy.”

“I know. I know. And I’m thinking that old David Bellamy himself would give up on the birds and stay inside with the fire going on a day like today.”

“Yes, well. It’s a severe sort of calling.”

“Not for the faint-hearted.”


“And you seem yourself a sort of stay at home man. Although there is a touch of the rough to you, as if you’d seen better days.”

“You flatter me, Mrs. Murphy.”

Heidi stirred in her basket but thought better of it as Kagan went out of the house. He walked past the sleeping village, folded up on itself in the mist, and climbed the mine road up the long hill to the top of the island, hopping a ditch gurgling in the gossamer rain and over a short wall, his boots squelching in the mud.

The rain blew in from the southwest, the direction of nightmares. Sitting on the edge of the cliff, Kagan could see the ocean far below him bashing against the rocks. Through the binoculars he scanned the waves for a sign monsters or vessels of calamity. But all he could see were swooping gulls along the lower portion of the cliffs, some cormorants skimming the water, and a group of seals further along the rocky coast. There was nothing out there but the wind and the waves as far as the eye could see. Kagan clung to his perch, pre pared well for this sort of battle, facing down of fate, manning the watchtowers of the imagination, seeking with the radar of the mind for friend or foe. They would be coming after him. They always did. They had the patience of landowners, the law on their side. All Kagan had was the waves. He wiped the water off the lens of the binoculars and put it away. Unscrewing the top of the whiskey bottle, he regretfully considered his situation.


Barry’s was strangely silent, although a good number of people sat at tables and three or four at the bar. Barry, a man of gruesome demeanor and appalling personality, had that morning received notice from his solicitor in Lamareen that the sale of his pub had been completed, something he’d been trying to pull off for ten years in a half-hearted attempt to change his life. But the sudden idea of a Dublin man, a stranger, getting to stand behind the counter and glare at people who came down the steps had put him in a total funk, a mood which rubbed off on the clientele, despite the fact that most people who knew Barry would not miss his service in the pub, as he was miserly, with a long memory, and unforgiving of debts.

Kagan sat at a corner table finishing his lunch and admiring Barry. He had a really ugly face, glaring and suspicious, but Kagan intuited that Barry was misunderstood, and in a different situation, under perhaps ideal circumstances, may have turned out to be a decent sort of man, respectful and considerate. Kagan’s meager awareness was enough to set his mind reeling with incommunicable insights. He sat and drank his beer, grateful for his private thoughts.

The pub’s yellow walls reverberated with the light coming through the opaque, low set windows. The brass beer taps and puddles of water on the counter reflected this mysterious incandescence, while the faces of Barry’s customers were lowered and secretive, grim expressions broken only by half-winking, jeering smiles and cackles of delight.

A man approached Kagan’s table from the bar carrying a full pint glass of beer which he set next to Kagan’s half empty one.

The man studied him momentarily while Kagan garnered his own impressions. He grinned, more like a grimace, showing a row of crooked, brown lower teeth.

You bein’ a stranger here you need to know a few t’ings,” said the man.

“What are they?” asked Kagan.

“The man who owns this pub is standing over there behind the bar. His name is Donal Barry and he’s selling the place to another man from Dublin and none of us here will be sorry to see the back of him.”

“I see.”

“Yes, I’m a blow-in myself. Where do ye come from?” he asked, poking his face next to Kagan’s and screwing up his lips.


He stepped back, considering.

“You don’t seem a half-bad sort of American.”

“Thank you.”

Kagan tipped back his glass.

“What brings you here and what keeps you here?”

The man was still standing in an idiotic way before him. Kagan put the glass down.

“Birds,” he sighed.

“Birds it is and birds it shall remain,” said the man.

“Yeah,” said Kagan, hoping not to have to be more specific. Luckily the man seemed to require no more information. It had been perhaps an inspired choice of line.