Friday, March 24, 2017

"I Am A Cage, in Search of A Bird"

My name is Mr. Kafka.  I am a cage, in search of a bird.

We're a literary agency.

Then it is fortunate that I am an author.

You have a novel?

I do. An entire novel. Would you like to read it?

Absolutely not.  You can send us a brief summary and the first ten pages.

Better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have.

Send me the summary, and then I'll decide if I need or want it.

It's about a man who wakes up one morning to discover that he's a cockroach.

That sounds like young adult science fiction. Not our area of interest.  

It's not young adult science fiction.

What is it? What genre? 

[Mutters:] It's only because of their stupidity that they're able to be so sure of themselves.

What did you say?

Nothing; I didn't say anything.

What genre did you say it was? 

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.

Our main interest is upmarket fiction.

Books are a narcotic.  Maybe you should read it before you decide what it is, and what it is not.  I'll bring it up to your office.

What!? Where are you?  

I'm in front of your building.

Holy crap! I'm calling security. Do you hear me? There's a camera trained on you, by the way. 

Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked...

I do not wish it to be unmasked. 

I am not a stalker. I am a writer.

Fine.  Then EM me a synopsis and ten pages of manuscript. I'll let you know if we're interested.

If I EM you a synopsis and ten pages, you will read the manuscript?

Did I say that? That's not what I said. 

By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it.

[Whispers] He's right outside the building. He wants us to publish a book about a cockroach. Call security. 


Nothing; I didn't say anything.  

All language is but a poor translation.

That's so true. But Mr. Kafka, I don't think we're the agency for you. Don't be discouraged. I'm sure someone will be wildly enthusiastic about your...narrative.  I do wish you the very best  with your cockroach.  

There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe...but not for us.

Gertrude Stein

Hello I am Gertrude Stein I would like you to publish my novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

I'm sorry; is this a novel, or an autobiography? 

Rose is rose is rose.

You wrote a novel about Alice B. Toklas? 


Did Ms. Toklas write an autobiography?


Who or what is this book about?

Mostly me.

And who sent you to us?

Ezra Pound Ernest Hemingway F. Scott Fitzgerald Ford Maddox Ford James Joyce

Don't you know any women writers?  Our main interest is upmarket women's fiction and LBGQT.

I am a woman who writes.

Oh, you are! Fantastic! Are you, by any chance, trans-?  

Trans...forming literature into something completely new and modern?  Yes!

That's not exactly what I had in mind, but do send me a synopsis and ten pages of your manuscript. 

I'll send you the manuscript in its entirety.

No! God, no! Don't do that! 

Why not? Wouldn't you rather read the whole thing, beginning to end?

There is an extremely high probability that I will not want to do that at all. 

Writing and reading is to me synonymous with existing.

Time is money. You may email or snail-mail a synopsis and ten pages. If you send the entire manuscript, it will be recycled. If you send it as an attachment, our system will block it.

Are you afraid that you won't be able to understand my book? Very few people can understand my books. That's not really the point, though, is it?

Please write down what the point is in an email, with the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of the text. Thank you.

I could do that. I could. But the fact is, There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. There's your answer.

I see. Okay. Good luck with your autobiography, Ms. Toklas.

Ernest Hemingway

I want you to publish ten poems and a story by Ernest Hemingway.

Who is Ernest Hemingway?


And is that the title of your book, Mr. Hemingway: Ten Poems and A Story? 

It damn well could be.

We're not talking about ten actual poems and a short story, are we?  We're talking about a novel called Ten Poems and A Short Story?  Because that's a good title for a novel.

I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, brother.  I'm talking about ten poems and a short story. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear, and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses, he will endure or be forgotten.

We are primarily interested in murder mysteries. Have you thought about writing in that genre, Mr. Hemingway?

I never had to choose a subject--my subject rather chose me.

Well, if you ever find yourself selected for murder, I'd be happy to read about it.

When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea.

That sounds painful.  

It's not like I'm getting into the ring with Tolstoy...

Of course not.  [Clears throat] I don't feel we're quite the fit for you, Mr. Hemingway, but I do wish you the best of luck with your short story, ten poems, and that awful Coleman stove.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Gas-Lighting America

I think it's important to remember where we were before the election--to bookmark it--because we will have to find our way back in the dark.

As I recall, we were dealing with racial injustice, sexual harassment, climate change, and terrorism.

We could no longer believe that racism had ended with the election of a black (or mixed-race) president.  We saw black teenagers being manhandled, brutalized, and killed;  we saw black drivers interrogated and shot; we saw and heard black people in custody being abused or denied urgent care, with fatal results.

There were protests, reprisals, and recriminations on all sides.  In some places, law enforcement introduced sensitivity training, and took steps to build positive relationships and trust among the communities they served.

There was tension, struggle, and anger...

But at least the issues were real.

The video recording of Trump's remarks about women, and the dozen or so women who came out afterwards alleging Trump's unwanted sexual advances, and the disparaging comments (some of them extremely vulgar) that he made about Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, and Hillary Rodham Clinton ("such a nasty woman") prompted broad discussion of sexual misconduct, especially with regard to powerful men and their sense of entitlement over women's bodies and social credibility.

This too was a far-reaching issue, a real issue, with implications for all women. The discussion extended to university campuses, where rape and sexual harassment remained a persistent threat; and to women serving in the armed forces, where women are still expected to pay for the privilege of serving with their bodies and their silence.

Before the election, the United States was focused on real problems--most of which our society and institutions had had for a long time, but which had gone ignored until there was so much evidence (especially on social media) that the reality of women and black people's experiences could no longer be denied.

The burden of proof falls hard on black people, immigrants, women, and victims of childhood abuse, to prove that their experiences (of racism, sexual harassment, of being cheated, mistreated, exploited, raped, and hurt) are real.

For example, defending a rapist, an attorney tries to discredit the victim's assertion that intercourse was rape, and not consensual. The lawyer tries to persuade the judge or jury that the victim's experience was other than what she says and thinks it was.

In other words, the lawyer needs to  gas-light the victim--make it appear (at least for the jury or judge) that her view--her truth--is wrong.  Perhaps she has a vendetta, perhaps she has alternative motives, perhaps she is a slut...She can be anything but a rape victim.

In JUST MERCIES, Bryan Stevenson writes that six black witnesses testified to the alibi of Walter McMillan, and their testimony was discredited.  The damning testimony of three much-less-creditable white witnesses prevailed. The six black witnesses simply did not have as much social credibility as the three white witnesses. It was not their statements, but themselves--their perception of reality that was discredited.

By denying the truth of their experience, the six black witnesses, as well as McMillan, were effectively gas-lighted by law enforcement and prosecutors.

Walter McMillan's case was eventually overturned on appeal, but not before he had spent six years on death row.

Gas-lighting is a term that I learned just a few months ago. It is a very useful concept.

If someone's gas-lighting you, the most effective thing you can say is, "Stop gas-lighting me!"

Because they are no longer arguing about the matter at hand. They are now trying to convince you or others that you're wrong because your  whole perspective is unreliable. They are trying to discredit you entirely.

They're saying that your judgment is impaired, and nothing you can say on the subject under discussion should be taken at face value.

If you can't recognize when you're being gas-lighted, you might go on arguing your point without realizing that no one is listening to you anymore.

If you've been successfully discredited, it won't matter how eloquently you argue, because now they think your judgment--perhaps even your sanity--is impaired.

For example, I was in a committee meeting, making what I thought was a good point, when a man sitting next to me responded by saying, "Yes, we all know how passionate you are about [Ms. Smith]."

Nothing I could say after that comment would matter. Whatever I said would be the words of a passionate, overwrought, irrational woman.

Without having to address what I was saying, he had managed to discredit me (not my argument), entirely.

I felt betrayed.

I don't think that he realized consciously that he had nuked me in this way--that he had ended a bilateral discussion with my annihilation. But that is what he did, nonetheless.

Gas-lighting can only occur when one person has more social standing or credibility than another person. It cannot happen between equals.

The man who gas-lighted me clearly had more social credibility than I had.  I might have prevailed in a debate, but I could not, in that social setting, resist the effects of him gas-lighting me. The group accepted his verdict without question. I was impassioned, and that was the end of it.

Mainstream literary critics, who represented and dictated social norms, essentially gas-lighted James Baldwin when they called him an angry young man. If you believe that someone is writing out of anger, you take what they say with a grain of salt. It undermines the validity of their opinions and their experience.

Donald Trump said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and get away with it.

While that may not be entirely true, he has proven again and again that he can say and do outrageous things and get away with it.  He has a lot of social standing through lawyers, money, and power.  He also relies on a loudly enthusiastic voter base, which you may characterize as you will.

Because he is now in a position of even greater power, it is incredibly difficult to discredit his point of view, however bizarre it may be.

Can we imagine anyone of ordinary means, any black person, any woman, behaving in such an outlandish way and not being socially dismissed?  It's inconceivable.

On the other hand, Trump gas-lights whomever he pleases: Hillary Rodham Clinton is a nasty woman; Barrack Obama is a Moslem, the founder of ISIS, and a spy; and Megyn Kelly is deranged, because she's having her period.

But it doesn't stop there. He also gas-lights the media. CNN is fake news.

He gas-lights the public by telling us lies that directly contradict our experience of reality. Millions of people voted illegally. The sun came out for his inaugural speech. No President since (who? Reagan?) has won an election by such a wide margin of electoral votes. Millions of people turned out for his inauguration.

We know that none of this is true, but that no longer matters. Our experience and our truth is not as important now as it was before the election. In this way, we have all been discredited.

As long as the Republicans rally around Trump's version of truth and reality--in the interest of consolidating their power--you and I (Republicans and Democrats) will continue to live in Crazy-town, where there truth is entirely relative to power.

However you feel about public health, abortion, LBGQT, Black Lives Matter, global trade, etc., etc., to me, it all boils down to one thing: How do you feel about being gas-lighted by your own government?

How do you feel about all of us, our experience, what we know to be true, the whole enchilada, being discredited and replaced by one man's bullshit?

Doesn't that describe an authoritarian regime, when only one person's truth is what matters?

As long as power rallies around Trump, we will continue to be gas-lighted.  Our truth will matter less and less, if at all. Our issues, once real, will no longer be our issues, but someone else's agenda.  (Carbon dioxide does not contribute to climate change. We will spend our resources investigating Trump's claim that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower. We will focus on Trump's absurd tweets.)

So, let's try to remember where we were before the election, because that's really important.  We were struggling with some very difficult and complex issues that had no easy answers. On the other hand, they were real issues, and real problems, and they were ours, and we were addressing them with open eyes.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mischievous Sprites

I'd like to talk about Santa's elves, those magical, industrious sprites who merrily go about their work, which seems to be their only purpose in life. They are discrete and efficient. They never ask or expect to be credited, compensated, celebrated, or even recognized as individuals.

Santa's elves are never alone. They are always together, in the workshop, a collective without bargaining rights or representation.

They are not introspective. They do not drink tea. If anything, they drink hot chocolate and eat candy all day to keep themselves going.

If you come across an introspective, tea-drinking elf, that is  probably a leprechaun, and you should be wary. Or at least chary. That elf may have time on her hands, and you know what they say: Idle  hands are the devil's workshop.  (That doesn't really make sense, does it? But that is what they say.)

Hawaii has elves, of a sort. Whether it is legend or something else, I can't say for certain, but either one seems plausible.

Today, in Honolulu and Waikiki, the Menehune are portrayed for the entertainment of tourists as cartoonish, simple, cheerful, small, industrious characters.

Elves, basically.

In the popular mythology, the Menehune range in size from a few inches to two feet tall, but are surprisingly strong master craftsmen. They also suffer the character defect of being mischievous and secretive, and therefore can not be trusted.

In the historical (not mythological) framework in which I first heard about the Menehune, they were the earliest Hawaiian people, and they were smaller than the later populations who arrived from Tahiti.

If the earliest people to arrive in Hawaii came from South America--possibly, Ecuador--then they would have been relatively small, compared to Tahitians, who were typically over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.  In that scenario, the Menehune would have been the first population of Hawaii to be subjugated by outsiders.

The Menehune story that I heard was of a Hawaiian chief would demanded a single Menehune to dig out a fish pond in 24 hours. If he couldn't do it, he would be killed. Overnight, dozens of other Menehune emerged from the hills and forests, and together they dug out the fish pond and filled it with water and fish.  The Menehune dispersed before light, and that morning the chief was pleased to discover that a single Menehune had appeared to produce an entire fish pond overnight.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe that there actually was an original population of smaller people--real Menehune. They did not have to be small by European standards to have seemed exceptionally small by Tahitian standards. Among the Pacific Islands, land and resources were always scarce (except for fish). A population of large, physically powerful people could have, with a bit of planning, overtaken smaller people, and would have, as a matter of their own interests and survival.

When you think about it, repackaging a subjugated (or even decimated) population as adorable, mischievous, work-loving elves is one way to solve the problem of a guilty social conscience.

I mean, that's exactly what the mainland has done to Hawaiians.

According to American mythology, we did not forcefully overthrow a peaceful monarchy; we annexed Hawaii. That sounds much nicer.

But the fact remains that (in 1893) we overthrew Hawaii's peaceful monarchy and dethroned Queen Liliuokalani. Hawaii did not become a state until 1959.

In the 1800s, financiers from Boston and missionaries from wherever forced Hawaiians to abandon their culture, economy, values, and religion in favor of wool suits, mumus, Christianity, and hard, subsistance labor in pineapple fields and sugar plantations.

The mainland's hostile takeover of Hawaii marked the beginning of a long relationship of exploitation and subjugation. Perhaps the best example is the misappropriation of the Kamehameha Trust--considerable wealth and land that had been set aside by King Kamehameha for the benefit of his people--the Hawaiians. To this day, the management of those resources has not gone at all the way King Kamehameha had intended.

But what do we envision when we think about Hawaii?  Do we picture Iolani Palace, the centerpiece of Honolulu?  We don't picture cartoons of Menehune--they were never heavy on the mainland conscience.  (It's not their blood we have on our hands.)

We tend to think of plastic hula girls with coconut breasts and grass skirt hips waggling on a dashboard. We think of luaus, surfing, and Waikiki. Maybe you think of humpback whales. Maybe you think of the crater at Haleakala, or the slow insistent progress of Kilauea's lava.

Some of these things are true and real, and some have been skillfully repackaged to appease our conscience. Perhaps the Menehune were repackaged, too.

But anyway...Back to Santa's elves. They're not real, you know. They're mothers.