Walter Mitty Does Transgressive

Tonight I went to see Donald Ray Pollock.  He has a new novel out that he’s promoting. I’ve already read his two previous works but was absolutely blown away by his short story collection, Knockemstiff, which I wrote about here.

If you’ve read the book, you know that I had no idea what to expect. Here was a man born in a small town, now living in Chillicothe, Ohio (with a grand population of about 22,000). After a career working in a paper mill, he went to Ohio State University to learn how to write. While getting his MFA, his short stories began to be published. At about the age of fifty, he quit his job and became a full time writer.

His stories are brutally violent as he remorselessly shines a bright spotlight upon his hapless, forsaken characters, who even though beaten down by life, still fight to live another unforgiving day. Picture Trainspotting in Southern Ohio.

So, who comes up to the stage? A mild-mannered gentlemen in his early 60’s, wearing jeans, a button down work shirt, with a pen conspicuously displayed in his shirt pocket. He spoke softly, with the slight Southern drawl that you get from people living in the Southern Midwest (reminding me of my relatives from Kansas).

He reads for about fifteen minutes and then takes questions for maybe twenty-five minutes. He’s quiet, unassuming, ill at ease, possibly even nervous, although he said that he’s been on tour for a while and is now wrapping up.

His work is full of sex, drugs, violence and degradation. Before he starts to work, he comments that some of his previous readings took place near or in the children’s sections of bookstores. Accordingly, he’s now adjusted his readings so that they are palatable to all ages. He frankly admits that these aren’t the most interesting parts of the book, but feels obligated to not offend.

Contrast this to Chuck Palahniuk. He went on a reading tour of Haunted, a set of truly shocking short stories. The story that he publicly read to people was some extreme that it was reported that it wasn’t unusual for one or two people to faint during a reading.

I found it interesting that this mild-mannered man not wanting to offend in public can unleash his id into his stories so ferociously in the quiet of the shed that he writes in back home in Ohio.

When asked what inspired him to write at such a late age, he said that he started to work at the paper mill when he was a very young man. It was the same factory that his father worked at and that his grandfather before him worked at. His initial plan, like a lot of people in that part of Ohio, was to work a couple of years, save some money, and then get the hell out. However, life intervened and he ended up making his life there. When he was 45, his father retired, and he noticed that his father almost immediately went into full time sitting in his lounge chair watching television mode.

He saw that and decided that there was no way that he was going to do that. He wanted something different. As he said, all he knew was factory work and reading. Therefore, he thought he’d try a hand at writing. He enrolled in writing courses at Ohio State, where he was encouraged to get into the MFA program.

He didn’t think that he could ever write a novel, so he thought that he’d start with short stories. After several years, he was profoundly disappointed with the quality of his work. To get around this, he resolved to type, each week, in its entirety, a different previously published short story that he loved / admired. Among others, he published short stories from Denis Johnson and Hemingway. He did this for a year and a half.

In so doing, typing forced him to read the story more carefully, so he could better understand what the author was trying to accomplish and how the author was actually constructing the story. From this experience, he started writing his own short stories again, which were fairly quickly published.

Although the reading was not that exciting and Pollock clearly was not that comfortable on stage, it was interesting to listen to the author of one of the finest set of short stories that I’ve read and how a, ahem, late career man was able to fashion a new life.

Maybe there’s hope for all of us?



An Evening of Pain, Anger, and Beauty

I’d never attended a poetry slam before. This was the grand slam for Seattle. It was the final competition from which the winner will go on to the national finals in Georgia (apparently the heart of poetry in America; who knew?).

Not surprisingly, all eight of the contestants were pretty young. I’m guessing that all were under forty and probably most were under thirty.

The rules were that the poems had to be original and under three minutes long.  No props were allowed (sorry Gallagher).

Five people in the crowd were randomly selected to be judges. They graded on a score of 0.0 to 10.0. The low score and the high score were tossed out. There were three rounds of poems. The winner obviously would have the highest collective score.

The first interesting thing is that the time limit seemed to force a very consistent style; namely talking fast in an almost rap rhythm.  All poets took a moment to collect themselves, and then launched into their poem at breakneck speed. This reminded me of the Radiolab episode that discussed college debate. College debate has devolved to this state where all participants shout out facts as fast as they possibly can, not sounding like any debate I’ve heard.

Secondly, these are not Robert Frost poems. They were all, at least as far as I can tell without actually knowing any of the poets, intensely painful, personal experiences. For example, the so-called warm-up poems (to give the judges practice in scoring) were centered around a Jewish grandfather that survived the Holocaust turning his back on the Civil Rights movement and a man trying to break a multi-generational cycle and be gentle with his son.

Most of the poems were intensely moving. It was if the poets were trying to tear out their still beating hearts out of their chests and show them triumphantly to the audience. There were poems about being an illegal immigrant, raising a black son during the time of Trayvon Martin, a sister with breast cancer, several about the difficulties of being transgender, and several about being black in a white dominated world. The poet that spoke of immigration and one of the transgender poets were particularly eloquent, earning standing ovations, and scores of 10.0.

The audience was hugely responsive and encouraging.

I did find it interesting that all of the poets were men of color, women of color, or transgender. The audience, since this is Seattle, was pretty overwhelmingly white, and considering that most people brought dates, was at least majority straight.

So, you had poets primal screaming their pain, anguish, and despair to the very people that at some level are representative of the systemic environment that brings about those very emotions. The audience was supportive and empathetic, but the dichotomy of the poets and their message and the audience that they were passing the message on to seemed incongruous.

Of course, I myself am a white male. I paid a grand total of $10 to listen to eight marginalized artists cathartically (hopefully?) express their marginalization. Did they even get paid to do this? How much could they have been paid? Sure, I’ll probably donate some more money to help pay their way to go to the nationals in Georgia, but still, is this truly helping or this just another way to assuage the white guilt that I feel when I’m face to face with the systemic oppression of the marginalized that still takes place today?

There was one poet that was actively heckled by the audience. His first poem was not warmly received, so perhaps he thought, fuck it, if I’m going down, I’m going down in flames. His second poem was about a teenage girl’s abortion, told from the viewpoint of the teenage boy that impregnated her. As you can probably imagine, this did not go down well. Women were yelling and hissing at him throughout the poem. He received virtually no applause and received several scores of 0.0. It was interesting because the poem was as well constructed, as emotionally intense as the others, and was clearly an honest expression. This was clearly not a night for such a poem, and I had to think that the poet knew it and did it anyway. Was he taking the risk of honest expression knowing that he’d be shouted down or did he knowingly troll the audience?

The final interesting thing is that the Town Hall is an old building. It has a very limited number of bathrooms. With such older buildings, the usual case is that the men’s bathroom moves along fairly briskly while a serpentine line forms for the women’s bathroom. Tonight, next to both bathrooms were paper signs stating that both bathrooms were gender neutral. Therefore, both bathrooms had pretty long lines. I did not go myself so I do not know if the urinals were somehow now concealed or women had to stand waiting while men openly urinated in front of them. I also don’t know if this was a one time deal or the new normal for the Town Hall.  I do know that we are certainly not in North Carolina.

Stay Faithful

I went to see Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey.

He is absolutely a rock star politician. I’ve seen politicians talk before, but never like this.

He was supposed to talk for about 30 minutes. He ended up talking more than an hour. He spoke completely without notes. Granted, I’m sure that there’s probably a stock core to the speech, but he kept it vibrant and apparently spontaneous. It was a bravura performance.

His whole message centers around love. People speak about tolerance. Tolerance should be the absolute floor of feeling. Tolerance implies that you let the other person live but that you would not be affected if the person would cease to exist. We should all aim for the higher plane of truly feeling love for each other.

This could easy have been a self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier than thou sort of speech, and in less capable hands, it probably would have been. Throughout his entire speech, he was self deprecating and frankly admitting all of the ways that he himself does not live up to this ideal, but failing at an ideal is not an excuse to stop attempting the pursuit of it.

He was passionate. He told a deeply moving story that connected the help that his father received that in turn led directly to the charmed life that Senator Booker leads to a young man in Newark that was murdered that he tried to mentor but then kind of lost track of while he was caught up being the mayor. He was near tears as he told this story. The story is too long to tell hear, but is the source of this blog’s title.

He told a story that made a connection between his father’s ability to buy a house in a middle class neighborhood that in turn gave Senator Booker education opportunities that propelled him on the path that he’s on today with Bloody Sunday , a day in which civil rights workers, including most famously John Lewis, were attacked as they crossed over the Edmund Pettus bridge during their march from Selma to Montgomery. State troopers attacked the non-violent marchers. This attack inspired a lawyer to support Booker’s father in his attempt to own a house in a neighborhood that previously was whites only.

He told another story connecting an act of kindness that he did for a mother with two young children on a cross country flight to his later mayoral elections in Newark.

The message is that acts do matter. Acts do have a butterfly effect that can cause significant ramifications.

I found it interesting that Senator Patty Murray was there as well (in the audience). He was clearly stumping her candidacy by repeatedly trumpeting her many accomplishments and describing what a role model she is. Senator Murray has been a senator for 24 years. Senator Booker has been one for 2 years, and yet, it was Senator Murray that was trying to ride his very charismatic coattails.

As a black man, he seemed to walk a narrow tightrope on race issues. On the one hand, he was very forthright about the racial injustice that is still rampant today. I’ve just read the New Jim Crow and he cites those same statistics and describes how the war on crime has been an attack on minorities. He did this all in a non-threatening manner. After all, he was in Seattle. The audience, by Seattle’s measurements, was diverse, but still probably at least 70% white. His response to these issues seemed calm and measured, especially in comparison to some of the passion that he showed in earlier parts of his talk. I’d be interested to hear him speak in front of a predominantly black crowd to see how much he tunes his speech to the audience in front of him. I’m sure that all politicians do this.

By the end of his talk, he completely had the crowd in the palm of his hands. He received three standing ovations. He was by far the most inspiring person that I’ve ever heard speak. It’s distressing that he’s not running for president this year. I think that his message of love and optimism could have truly been a uniting factor and if, God helps us, Trump wins the Republican nomination, would have absolutely overwhelmed him.

I think, in all seriousness, that he could be the man that could change our nation.


Deconstructing Juliet’s Nurse

Today I went to a talk by Lois Leveen, who wrote the novel Juliet’s Nurse. It’s Romeo and Juliet, told from the perspective of Juliet’s nurse. I was drawn to the presentation because, from way back when I last read it, I remember the nurse as being an interesting character.

Leveen was somewhat trapped writing another novel when the phrase Juliet’s Nurse popped into her head. She re-read Romeo and Juliet. She first of all found that the nurse actually has substantial lines. In fact, she has the third most lines in the play, including a couple of lengthy speeches which hints at a complex back story.

That inspired her to dive deeply into the character and the historical background in which she lived.

Leveen is not a historian, but she does do deep research. In fact, she’s made interesting discoveries. Strictly using clues from Shakespeare’s text, she was able to pinpoint the time of the play’s events to somewhere in the mid to the late 14th century (based upon references to plagues and the existence of a prince of Verona).

Once she could tie it down to a location (Verona) and a time (mid 14th century), she could do a significant amount of research to determine what life was really like then. This level of understanding and detail is crucial to historical fiction. As the author you have to be able to transport the reader to that time and place.  In fact, she said that one of her challenges writing is having the fortitude to throw out historical facts / anecdotes that are very cool but that just can’t be fit into the story.

An interesting subject that she touched upon was the wet nurse occupation. First of all, she points out the absurdity that Juliet’s nurse is still in the household, considering that Juliet is 14 years old (probably no longer needing a wet nurse, I’m guessing). More interesting, during that time it was considered imperative that a wet nurse have fresh milk. Practically, what that meant was that a wet nurse offering her services could very well have just had a newborn baby herself that has recently died.  In one of the nurse’s lines, she mentions the death of her newborn daughter.

Can you imagine that?  Your child has just died and then you use that opportunity to suckle another child? Apparently, in that time, the child often left the parent’s house to live with the wet nurse. So, not only, in your grief, you’re having to suckle another woman’s child, but effectively you’re actually raising it? Crazy times.

Another interesting tidbit she discussed was the nurse’s husband. In Romeo and Juliet the husband is only mentioned in a couple of lines.  However, from those brief mentions, she was able to extrapolate a fully formed character.  That strikes me as an interesting challenge for a writer.

All in all, it seems that the nurse is portrayed as a knowing, bawdy, wise woman of the world that has suffered multiple misfortunes but has emerged from them stronger and resigned to her suffering and to her place. I imagine that she and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would have many stories to share and would get along famously.


When Your Name is Your Destiny

Today I went to a reading from John Perkins. It really wasn’t much of a reading as a call to action.

John Perkins wrote Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. I’d read it many years ago (it first came out in 2004). He’d recently updated it and was embarking upon a book tour.

The thesis of Confessions is that there is a group of men who consciously take steps to encourage developing natures to incur massive amounts of debt to build infrastructure (built by US companies at enormous profit) that actually benefit a relatively insignificant percentage of their people. Ultimately, the debt is so massive that the nations have to default, which forces the nations to privatize previously public institutions and open up their natural resources for plundering (again by US companies).

Woo-hoo! USA! USA! USA!

As can be imagined, there is a significant amount of controversy around this topic. I’m certainly not educated enough in history and/or economics to have a firm position regarding the veracity.

Anyway, I went to his reading. He did not read from the book. Instead he decried the current state of capitalism (calling it death capitalism). He lays a lot of blame on Milton Friedman and his somewhat libertarian view that corporations’ sole responsibility is to maximize profits, regardless of the cost on employees or environment.

I certainly see his point and obviously over the last couple of decades I have seen a decrease in corporate responsibility. I have a slight problem with that statement because I’ve just completed reading Empire of Cotton. With the long US history of confiscating land from Native Americans and then forcing slaves to work on the confiscated lands, this death capitalism has not just been in place for 40 years but has been in place for over two hundred years, which to me makes it a much more intractable problem that can’t be solved just by writing some letters to corporations threatening to boycott them.

As I said, his talk was a call to action. He encouraged all of us to take positive steps to move from death capitalism to life capitalism, in which we focus on the larger issues of personal and social well being and move away from the idea that the economic value of an activity is its only value. It was very much a statement of progressive values.

It was inspirational. When he was done, the small (a couple of dozen people) group of attendees gave him a standing ovation.

Now, hold that thought a moment while I go on a tangent that I promise to tie back up in a bit.

Last year, I’d read Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was basically the story of the rise of Republican progressivism. At the heart of it was, of course, Teddy Roosevelt. He clearly believed in an active government, and through his force of personality, moved aggressively to put a progressive stamp on federal government. Even with Roosevelt’s energy, he had at best limited success due to some extremely conservative elements in Congress.

At Teddy’s side was Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was a forestry expert and was a key figure in leading Teddy’s efforts in conservation.

William Howard Taft was Roosevelt’s hand picked successor and he followed Roosevelt as president. As president, he lacked the energy and drive of Roosevelt. Therefore, Pinchot became impatient with Taft and actively spoke out against him.  Taft ended up dismissing him from his administration.

Pinchot still had Roosevelt’s ear and he was one of those that convinced him that he needed to run against Taft in the 1912 election under the banner of the Progressive Party, of which Pinchot was one of its leaders.

This of course led to both Taft and Roosevelt both losing to Woodrow Wilson, which was effectively the end of the progressive branch of the Republican Party.

Now, back to the present, after his talk, Perkins was taking questions from the audience. One of the questions was regarding a degree program being offered by the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. In response to the question, Perkins mentioned that this should actually be answered by the founder of the institute, who just happened to be in the audience that night. He stood up and spoke for a couple of minutes.

The founder is Gifford Pinchot III, the grandson of one of the founders of the Progressive Party. The institute that he co-founded offers an MBA focused on integrating environmental sustainability and social responsibility with innovation and profit. It was the first graduate school to offer such an MBA.

So, yeah, Gifford Pinchot III has had a lifelong passion and focus on progressive causes.

What did you expect, that he’d be a corporate lawyer for ExxonMobil?

Monopoly – Stalin Rules!


Last weekend, I went to a book reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company. The author was Sunil Yapa and the book was Your Heart is a Muscle the size of a Fist, which is about the longest title that I’ve seen since Fiona Apple.

I was interested because the novel takes place during the Seattle WTO riots in 1999. I remember it vividly. It started off with young hippie types dancing around in turtle costumes, peacefully marching and blocking intersections. Anarchists (from that dreaded town, Eugene, Oregon) all dressed in black began to commit acts of vandalism. The mayor at the time, Paul Schell, himself an ex 60’s protester, tried to keep a lid on things but finally the police came in riot gear and tear gas, and rather brutally shut it down. The WTO meeting itself was cancelled.

So, the subject matter interested me. I first took a look at Yapa’s web page. It lists him as an MFA, a prestigious award winner and research assistant to a couple of writers, among other things. I kind of came in expecting a slightly pretentious ivory-tower elitist. He actually turned out to be a down to earth guy with a passion for social justice. It was an enjoyable evening.

His passion for public service obviously comes from his parents. His mother is a nurse and his father is a Marxist Geography professor, which I did not know was even a thing.

It goes without saying that he grew up in a very progressive home. He mentioned that they did not have the Monopoly board game, but actually had a Marxist version of Monopoly named Class Struggle.

I had never heard of this, so I determined that I must investigate. I did so and I did confirm that such a board game actually once existed!

Here are some highlights:

  • There are no players, only classes.  If you play with only two players, one player must be the worker class and the other must be the capitalist class.  There are other classes (ie farmers, students, small business owners, and professionals), but their primary role is to align with one of the two primary classes.
  • You cannot choose your class.  You’re assigned your class by throwing the luck of life die.
  • The game is rigged for the capitalist class.  For example, that class gets to roll first.
  • There is a nuclear war square. If the capitalist lands on it, the game is over.
  • There are revolution squares and general strike squares.
  • Throughout the game, the various classes acquire assets and debits. If one of the primary classes lands on the revolution square and calls for a confrontation, then all assets are added and all debits are subtracted for each class and their allied classes and whoever has the highest total wins.

Alas, they stopped making this game in 1984. Ironically enough, it’s still available on both eBay and Amazon (at the time of this writing) for hundreds of dollars.

The perfect kitsch gift for that retro commie in your life!