Thursday, February 24, 2011

The New Wedge?

Consider these quotes from Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas:

If it's [collective bargaining for public sector unions] not eliminated I think it has to be certainly somehow contained in a reasonable, responsible way. And I don't have a specific proposal other than just to recognize that it is not the same to have collective bargaining at a public employee level as it is at the private sector level.


They have a parasitic relationship with the states, and a symbiotic relationship with the federal government. Nationally public employees are now making 30 percent more in wages and 70 percent more in benefits and health than are their private sector counterparts.

Here he explains why he hasn't jumped into the presidential race:

One of the things that I have to understand is that if I run, you know, I walk away from a pretty good income.... So I don't want to walk away any sooner than I have to, because frankly I don't have a lot of reserve built up. Most of my life was in public service. And therefore I didn't come away wealthy. I'm trying to recover in order to do public service -- in order to run for president the last time, I cashed in my life insurance, my annuities, I pretty much went through everything I ever had as an asset that I thought I might one day live on....

If I do this I'm gonna hopefully be in a position where I'm not so completely destitute at the end of it that I have no idea what to do if I get sick. Or if I retire. Or if I'm retired early, or have a disability. Those are the things I have to think about, because I'm self-employed, I don't have, you know, some safety net to fall into.

I recognize my own ideological blinders. However, I've always thought of Huckabee as one of the good guys -- a decent person guided by faith who believes in public service, and whom I disagree with on many issues. But doesn't he perfectly illustrate the disconnect between rhetoric and reality? TalkingPointsMemo also links to a study that suggests that, once corrected for education, public sector employees make less than their private sector counterparts.

I do wonder if this is a new wedge issue. With the economy being more important during a recession (and slow recovery), social issues like abortion and gay rights lose their galvanizing power. Immigration's too sticky, especially with the changing demographics. So let's attack public employees. Unions. Blame them for our problems instead of the bankers who gambled with pensions and 401ks, or the speculators who created the housing bubble, or the folks that invented reasons to invade a country or who gave tax cuts to millionaires knowing full well the effect both would have on the deficit.

Check out my friend Aki's take on the scapegoating of teachers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"I Don't Want to be Sued."

I'm transcribing Sunday's interview with my grandmother. I asked her about her experience on the base -- I wanted to flesh out what I already knew about her getting to know Sammy Davis, Jr., in Wyoming, as well as some more about the race relations. She said that the guys there gave Sammy a hard time: "not physical, but mentally. They tried to humiliate him." In order to situate her anecdotes within a firm timeline, I did some research on Sammy Davis and his time at Fort Warren. He said, "Until the Army, nobody white had ever just looked at me and hated me--and didn't even know me."

Anyway, as we finished, Nana said to me, "I hope you can use some of this -- be careful -- I don't want to be sued." I told her we wouldn't have to worry about that. But it was striking how much her descriptions align with his--not that I'd expect anything different--just that I imagine the past as fuzzy, shaped and reshaped by our memories of it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday, Sunday

I just finished Emma Donoghue's novel, "Room." I highly recommend it. The book is narrated by five-year-old Jack who lives with his young mother inside Room. They are being held captive by a man whom Jack calls "Old Nick." Jack's mother, wanting to spare him the pain of knowing that he's not free, has convinced him that "everything" is contained within Room's four walls. Outside is nothing. Space. But she's taught him how to read, how to do math. Science.

It starts, "Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark, I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero."

Then he asks his ma, "Was I minus numbers?"

Because Jack's entire world is that room, there is not a rug or a wardrobe; there is only Rug and Wardrobe. The narrative voice is sustained throughout the whole novel. We see Old Nick come in nightly through Jack's eyes (he's in Wardrobe, trying to sleep but instead counting the number of times the bed creaks). We are amazed that his mother is able to keep Jack's optimism up, when she is repeatedly victimized. "Room" was a great read from beginning to end.

I continue to push forward with my own writing. I've topped 10,000 words in my own would-be novel (40ish pages); I've got another interview with my grandmother recorded and which needs to be transcribed; and my collaboration moves forward.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Winton Place

I'm not a poetry writer. I can count the number of poems I've written (always assignments for a class) on one hand. The first one I wrote in college had a heavy-handed rhyme scheme, ABAB ABAB ABAB, etc. It was about Dopey, he of the seven dwarfs. He resented how everyone assumed he was unintelligent because of his name. After all, he was smart like Doc, and shy like bashful. In the end, he killed all the other dwarfs (ending with something like, "He shot them one by one..... Dopey's label is undone.") The other poem that I wrote freshman year was about the neighborhood where I grew up, Winton Place.

The street corners,
Populated with discarded lottery tickets,
Entice loitering.

The boys, not yet in high school, gulp
Their Mountain Dews in unison. They laugh
At the man who wears a black and orange
Hat and coat. He raises his head
To acknowledge their stares, then returns his gaze
To the liquor bottle, as his soiled hat bobs
To the broken walkman's silent music.

A shopping cart clatters, veering off course
At each whim of the cement. The man in the soiled hat
Guides the cart, full of forsaken pop cans
Worth a nickel each. His head shifts
Left then right, guarding his fortune.
The boys, not yet in high school, finish
Their Mountain Dews in unison and

The empty cans take their
Place on the ground beside the
Discarded lottery tickets.

These guys (I combined two men to make it easier) were regular sights around my neighborhood. There was the man with headphones, always bobbing, never bothering anyone, and there was a man with the shopping cart, sometimes pulling cans out of recycling bins, but more often picking them up off the ground. I saw them as I walked to my bus stop, or to my friend's house, or to the corner store to buy (yes) Mountain Dew or bags of chips. I loved Ruffles, Cheddar and Sour Cream, and Grippos Barbeque the best. The men never bothered me or said anything to me; they were just a presence around the neighborhood.

I post the poem here not because I think it's good (I don't) but because I was thinking about life here in the suburbs. When I can drive to my house, going straight from the interstate to a busy street full of Walmarts and fast food restaurants and turn into my little area apart from everyone else's little areas, I don't see other lifestyles. I don't see people waiting for public transportation, grocery bags in hand. My neighbors aren't on food stamps (as far as I know; I've never talked to my neighbors). And I certainly don't see men picking up aluminum cans, hoping for the nickel or dime he can earn with each one. Those people still exist, of course, but because they're out of my line of sight, I don't think of them.

So I guess I'm reminding myself.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nana Story #2: 1943

Another great class today. We had a large-group read-around, meaning that each woman shares a piece that is four minutes or less. It's hard to describe how powerful it is, listening to twenty different women sharing poems, stories, and personal reflections. Anyway, here's the next part of my nana story. It continues immediately after the first one (minus its last paragraph, which I've edited out).


Barbara, my grandmother, still has her photo album from the nineteen-forties. It is filled with pictures that were once black and white but are now a faded gray and yellow. She doesn’t have candid shots of her daily life. No one, those days, had point-and-shoot cameras that they kept in their purses, or phones they could pull out at a moment’s notice. Photographs were for important events and for official portraits.

“This was our Company Commander,” she says, pointing to a woman with a broad face and hair pulled tightly behind her. The woman is standing “at ease” in front of the barracks. “She was from Czechoslovakia. One day, all the girls were outside in formation when a snake slithered right near us. We all started screaming! Well, the Company Commander, she takes a hatchet and chops that snake in half! That’s when we knew we were in good hands. She was going to protect us.”

After basic training in Arkansas, the women went by train to Texas to learn administrative work. They went upstairs to the station and were immediately swarmed by young men: after all, women in uniform were still a novelty. Barbara—blonde, blue-eyed, and twenty-one years old—received a lot of attention. After a while, she looked around and noticed there weren’t any other women; only the men were there. She didn’t know where her cohort had gone. She ran downstairs and saw the train she was supposed to be on. The caboose had a platform full of men standing behind the gate. As Barbara ran for the train, now pulling out of the station, the guys yelled, “You can do it!” and “Come on, baby! Come on!” She reached back of the train and the guys pulled her over. She felt exhilarated.

If her time in Arkansas was lonely and regimented by military rules, her time in Texas was more like summer camp. The women stayed three months on the campus of an East Texas college while attending administrative school. In the evenings, the women traveled by bus outside the small town to go to dances and bars. Barbara joined two other women in a singing trio; together they helped one of their teachers serenade his love interest. At night, it was so hot that they often brought their mattresses outside to sleep.

When Barbara had enlisted in 1942, women weren’t yet allowed into the army itself. They were part of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). But 1943, when she was sent to Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, women had been admitted into the army, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Barbara started out doing administrative work at the base: filing, taking messages. But she didn’t want to do paperwork. She joined the army for an adventure, not to do the same things she’d done at home. She asked to be reassigned and was put on motor pool, where she delivered pastries all around the base each morning.

After a while, she drove the staff car, in charge of taking male officers to their chosen destinations. One officer demanded to be taken to Guernsey, about an hour north of Cheyenne, despite the blizzard-like conditions. They arrived safely, and Barbara waited for hours in her truck, shivering, while he did his business. He hadn’t told her how long he would be, and she was afraid to get out of the truck without permission. By the time he returned, her clothes were practically frozen to her body. The snow had worsened. When she drove him back to Fort Warren, she had to stick her head out the window in order to see.

Another time, Barbara drove an officer to Pole Mountain, about 30 miles east of Fort Warren. During the return trip, he told her to turn off the engine and then the lights. He grabbed the gun from the back of the truck, and she froze. A minute passed in complete silence. “Flip on the lights,” he said. The headlights revealed hundreds of jackrabbits, and he shot them one after the next, as Barbara clutched the steering wheel. “Let’s go,” he said, and they drove off, leaving the dead animals behind.

The following summer, Barbara was asked to represent the WACs for Cheyenne Days, the biggest rodeo celebration in the country. She rode on top of a float, waving to the crowds as the parade went down Capitol Avenue. When the parade was over, a young man helped her down. He asked if she wanted to get a drink.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, tentatively to this man she’d seen around base. He played baseball and basketball and even helped the amateur Fort Warren football team beat the professionals from Brooklyn.

Even if she didn’t immediately agree, she must have said yes at some point: my grandfather’s pictures—team photos, mainly—dominate the second half of the album.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Musings

For Christmas my mom got me a Flip video. They're compact, easy-to-use, and fit right in my purse. They can take up to two hours of video, and I can plug it into any computer's USB drive and transfer or play the video. I've been using it for my "Nana Stories": I prop up the camera, hit record, ask a couple questions and then let Nana do her thing.

I had over thirty minutes of video from our first session; it came out to over two-thousand words when I transcribed it that evening. Yesterday, I propped up the camera, ready for session number two--I wanted to ask about some of her experiences on base once she got to Wyoming. She spoke for nearly twenty minutes, and I was so excited by the material she gave me! I retrieved the Flip Video to stop recording when I realize that... I didn't record any of it. I must have hit the button twice when i started, or made a mistake when trying to zoom, or-- or-- or--

"It didn't get it," I said.

"Well I'm not going through that again," she replied.

I didn't push the matter. I had listened to her, and had already known the rough outlines. I jotted down a couple notes. But later that day she got out a photo album from that time period and I got permission to record as she thumbed through the pages, telling me about some of the pictures' context. Among other things, I learned she had been Miss Alameda. Anyway, here she is in her uniform at the barracks. The picture's kind of blurry, since it's just a cropped still frame from the video I took.

Anyway, a great weekend. I was off work Saturday, and my boyfriend changed my car's oil. (Valvoline will miss my business!) We saw a matinée of "The King's Speech" which was very well-done. But after all the accolades it's gotten, I think I was expecting more. Still, nice. Come Oscar-time, I'll be rooting for "The Social Network," though. Out of the ten films nominated for best picture, I've actually seen eight of them. Only "Winter's Bone" and "The Fighter" are left.

And... Go Packers!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Memory Wall

Too much to read. Isn't that a wonderful problem to have? I've finally gotten Emma Donogue's "Room" from the library, but I also just got Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists." I have to reread Nicole Krauss' great "History of Love" for my library's bookclub next week, and I also have a dozen books to help me with research in my own would-be novel.

Right now, though, I'm still stuck in the beauty that was Anthony Doerr's latest story collection, "Memory Wall." The six stories in the collection are connected not by character or setting (think "Olive Kitteridge") but by theme. Each seeks to understand or describe the pull of memory; each lingers on how memory shapes our identity as well as our impressions of the world around us.

Doerr quotes from Luis Buñuel's autobiography, "My Last Sigh," to begin the book:
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
The titular first piece in the collection is an 80-page novella. Doerr wrote it in response to a call by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's (issue 32) to "travel somewhere in the world and imagine life there in 2024." Doerr imagines a South Africa in which scientists are experimenting with treatments for dementia. "We don't offer a cure," says Dr. Amnesty of Cape Town Memory Research Center, "but we might be able to slow it down. We might be able to give you some memories back." Alma is seventy-four years old and the widow of a fossil hunter. She visits the clinic where Dr. Amnesty records her memories onto cartridges and then sends her home. Later, on her own, she can "plug in" these cartridges and re-experience positive memories, like falling in love with her husband, going on trips with him. But in this near-future, Doerr imagines a black market for these memory cartridges, sold on the street, like drugs. A man, believing Alma's husband to have been on the verge of discovering a major fossil, sneaks in to her house at night and has a young boy plug into the cartridges and search for clues. Over the course of two or three years, fifteen-year-old Luvo has gone through hundreds of Alma's experiences, in no kind of chronological order, seeking the information the man wants.

The plot may seem convoluted, but because it's told over 80 pages, not 30, Doerr has room to build it. We see Alma's slow decline juxtaposed with clear visions of her memories from childhood to old age. The context is apartheid and its lingering effects.

The last story, "Afterworld," also focuses on an older woman and her struggles with memory. Esther Gramm, born in 1927, grew up in an orphanage in Germany. Parts of the story are told when she's in her seventies or eighties, living in Ohio; parts of the action take place in Germany, as the world around her changes. She struggles with the guilt that she escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany while the girls she lived with didn't. One interesting thing I noticed is that both the parts in 1939-1942 Germany and 2009 Ohio are told in present tense. The reader is never confused about the setting until the two become conflated for Esther: "Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time? How do we know we aren't continually traveling inward, toward our centers?" Like "Memory Wall," this story builds, layer upon layer as the characters, their thoughts, and their experiences are revealed.

In an interview with, Doerr says
Ultimately I'm trying to write stories inside which a reader is transported; I want readers to have an experience that allows them to enter the time and place and life of someone else. And I want that experience of empathy to be continuous; I don't want the dream of the fiction to be broken by any carelessness on my part. That's the most I can hope for: that a reader might leave his or her world for an hour or two and enter the world of one of my characters. And if a reader is going to be nice enough to read one of my stories, it's up to me to make that world as convincing and seamless as possible.

Jane Smiley wrote in "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel" that it can be difficult for short story-writers to transition to novelist. Or, at least, that it requires a change of mindset. I've contended that short stories more resemble poetry than they do novels, and she clarifies that point. She argues that
in short stories, perfection is a valid goal, and it is fairly easy, psychologically, to go on perfecting a short story for several months without losing sight of the whole piece. The same with poems. But when the whole of the work is a hundred thousand words rather than two thousand words, you simply have to get those words down on paper or you don't even have anything to think about or work with. A novel comes alive, even to its author, as it precipitates onto the page. If you prevent it from going forward by polishing each bit, it is much harder for it to take on its own being. (221)
After reading something like "Memory Wall," or the trifecta of stories that conclude Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," I have to remind myself that my goal isn't 30 perfect pages, or even 80. It's 200 or so messy pages that hopefully, when read in sequence, engages and entertains.