Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory and Other Stuff

I took the kids to Washington DC for a long weekend. It was beautiful weather while we were there. The dogwoods and the cherry were in bloom. The first day i stayed in the hotel room nursing my daughter who came down ill on the flight. I read all the newspapers, including the free ones in Spanish from the stands in front of the hotel and watched C-Span and Judge Joe and a book of English short stories my wife picked up at the transfer station in our town a few weeks ago. The most peculiar show, though not the worst, was the Roamin' Catholic, from the religious channel, which depicted shrines and holy sites from around the world from a green screen while the guide in a Hawaiian shirt frolicked in front of the non-moveable backdrops and recited facts about them. Even the sacred and holy gets reduced to banality on television. But the real world was still mysterious and awe inspiring. At night my wife and I walked to the Lincoln Memorial and witnessed the parade of school trips on the steps of the memorial while the full moon shone on the mall and an older man explained to anyone who would listen that no photograph of the Lincoln statue is ever in focus because Abe has a twitch in his leg and sure enough my photos all came out a blur, but that's because my camera sucks.  The moon shining on the mall and the government buildings on the ridges made me think of ancient Roman ruins.
When you go down to Washington DC it becomes clear that we are greater than the sum of our parts. Democracy is an awesome thing when it works, and even when it's messy. And we carry forward a legacy of greatness.
The next day my son gave me a guided tour of the Air and Space Museum. He has memorized the whole thing from the Wright brothers through to the space program. Then I took him out to Annapolis to see the Naval Academy and he noted afterwards in the introductory video before the tour the use of the word indoctrination twice in regards to the midshipmen and the education they receive, and he said he never thought he'd hear that word used in a positive way. I guess he is growing up and becoming discerning and that should be a comfort to me, but ironically i am finding more of a use for words like honor and country in my elder role. But we did see the crypt of John Paul Jones carried on the backs of the dolphins. That will probably stay with me for a while.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sweet Caroline - We''ll Sing it Again

Reachin out, touchin me touchin you
Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good 

And then came the bombs, the one two punch wiping out the illusion of harmony and love.
Why'd they do it? Two brothers from the neighborhood, all-American Chechen kids, living the dream.

Beside all the usual bromides, this is one truth that seems self-evident - for pain and suffering everywhere, there are no easy answers. But the hand of God is in the Boston Marathon tragedy that has swept us up this week. The evidence is in the excellence of the characters - the victims: Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old Boston University student from China; 8-year-old cherub Martin Richard; and 29-year-old spectator Krystle Campbell; the heroic rescuer Carlos Arredondo in his cowboy hat and his flawed, haunted past; the injured Jeff Bauman who helped identify the bombers after his legs got blown off; the fallen MIT security cop Sean Collier; the transit cop injured in the firefight Richard Donohue, with a master's degree from the University of Limerick; the thousands of police fanning across Watertown house by house and the millions of Bostonians sheltering patiently throughout the day; and finally the brothers Tsarnaev - fallen angels, with so much promise and talent, but lured by the siren call of violent, apocalyptic jihad to kill and maim their neighbors and turn on Sweet Caroline, the city that had given them refuge and a chance to build meaningful lives.

Why do we need tragedies on a massive scale to bring forth the best in us? As a writer I try to show up the beauty and heroism of everyday life, but then something like the Boston bombings and the swirling passion play that comes in its wake shows me that the true artist is God and days like last week are the window He opens to allow us to recognize the truth in all its fullness, that we are alive as an entity, a humanity joined in our suffering. If only there was a way to underline our higher natures in the routines of our normal lives. If only every day was a crusade that joined all of humanity in a common cause.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Writing Means Never Having to Say your Sorry. Really?

Being a writer is tough. Everyone knows the hazards of being the lone writer locked in a world of imaginary constructs for hours at a time, closed off from ordinary contacts with human beings in order to cultivate the tools of the trade. These are very real sacrifices that take a toll on a life. The impact of books in our culture is so huge, that millions of people are willing to take that route, seeing it as a noble calling. But is it worth it? What if your impact is so minimal that it is barely measurable? Is there some metaphysical trade-off that you can point to and claim as a reward? That's a question that every writer must answer for him or herself.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," said Boswell. And it was a quote I always liked. But now, as it becomes clearer that writers along every path of the trade are looking at diminishing streams of income and the near Sisyphean task of making a living from their work, either original or of a journalistic bent, I wonder what other writers are telling themselves as they struggle in their dingy lofts or plush caves. For me, it has been years since I contemplated writing as anything other than something I did to keep myself sane, to keep my instincts and perceptions sharp in the world of humdrum adult responsibilities and routines, and if I ever managed to knock it out of the park by selling my work to the remote, big league universe of New York publishers, well, that was a nice dream to take out and burnish once in a while like a remnant, a childhood bauble, but not something to take seriously and plan a life around. It was just too random, the touch of literary success. And now that the demise of the mainstream publishers is on everyone's lips, there is a new phenomenon, the rise of the self-publishing route to financial sustainability, to inflame the writer's ambitions for worldly recognition. Real or just Memorex - a replay of the mirage of the old school dreams that writers of my generation, that would be the generation somewhere this side of the Boomers but pre-GenXers, used to gather around before it shattered like the vase in the commercial. The cynic in me says it's just another cyclical gold rush, to the benefit of the few lucky or quick enough to draw off the sap before it dries up.  The rest of us will do what we have always done, continue to struggle to hone craft and refine our stories, and that hard work is our calling and reward. And in case anyone is interested, here is my contact information:

Anthony Caplan, Author!/AnthonyCaplan1

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The New Cultural Paradigm in Publishing

The last vestiges of ice are making a final stand around the back steps. I love it when it gets to this. I was taking up the sheep fence yesterday to move them onto new pastures in time for the lambs. The ground was soft and mushy and down by the woods there was still some banked snow and when the wind picked up it felt like March again, but it was the old, cold weather's final farewell. Now, of course, there is a rush of work for the next few months in the garden, and on top of that, planning the release of a new book. I decided to skip the writer's conference today because I'd rather be outside working on cleaning out the barn. But then I got roped into driving to a lacrosse practice, so there goes most of the morning. Just barely time to squeeze in a few sentences on the blog before I run. When do we get a time to just reflect? Hardly ever. Still, I love my weekends.
I met a writer the other day. He'd had a big success in the seventies with an experimental, literary kind of work, and then his second book was turned down by all the major publishers and he went into making educational video scripts, and it seems his more ambitious work took a back seat. And maybe we're the poorer for it. Here's an argument in favor of the cultural importance of the new publishing paradigm. People like to complain about the deluge of crappy books hitting the market, and of course many of the novels being written and self-published are the reflex scribbling of barely literate people or the fandom exercises of sheep-like followers of literary fashion. But how is that so different from the piles of slush being published by the big six, oh sorry, now big five, mainstream presses over the last thirty years, most of my adult, reading lifetime? Not much, in my humble opinion. I say: let the self-determined presses roll and let the writers' work find its level. This is my libertarian ethic for a new American literature. Get out of the way, all of you so-called judges and aesthetes. The people will educate themselves, and when they are sick of the vampire love stories and the button-pushing elegies to the known, they will turn to the work of the risk-takers, the writers who today are ignored because they work with character and voice and themes that are implicit instead of calling out to the mass delusions of the day.