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                   Café Talk

Monday
Apr162018

Death in a Newcastle Alley

In 2010 I published a book entitled Notes From 39,000 Feet. In the introduction, “An American Breakfast In Taiwan,” I wrote:

"Each 'Note' begins with a title, location and date. I don’t mean to imply that each piece was written in that place and at that time, but rather it was there and then that thoughts were sparked into being and that some writing did begin. 

The 'Notes' are presented in chronological order, beginning in Reykjavik in 1986, passing through places such as Harare, Varanasi, Gaza City, Seoul, Istanbul, Prague and ending in London in 2010. Some 'Notes' are inscriptions of presentations and lectures given at international gatherings and events, and are thus textualisations of the spoken word…Some 'Notes' are journalistic-like reflections and others are more meditations…

While there is no central theme, there is a background hum that is, I think, hard to miss, a hum that hints at ethical, philosophical, theological points of view that in some way make up a system of meaning—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, observations, understandings, all of which combine to reveal a way of seeing the world and how we choose to live within it…

All these reflections, meditations, and essays are simply what I chose to write about. Others in the same place and time no doubt would have seen the world differently and would have had other things to say. As Clifford Geertz would say, they are 'but reflections, diffuse and refracted, in my own mind of the way of the world...'”[1]

For the next several weeks I will be posting some of the shorter reflections in Café Talk. I hope you enjoy them.

Last week I posted “The Taverna on the Water’s Edge,” a short selection from the chapter “In the Absence of our Desired Hope.”

This week I am offering “Death in a Newcastle Alley,” orginially called “Holy Week Meditations.”

Newcastle upon Tyne, England, April, 2003

It was Holy Week and Newcastle was preparing itself, not so much for the Christian Easter celebrations, but the pagan festivals rejoicing in the coming of spring and renewed fertility. As I sat looking through a café window, I knew the days were lighter and longer and the air was getting warmer, though slowly and reluctantly. By their body language and the clothes, the young people walking by the café window were, it was easy to see, flirting with life and each other.

I left the café, and down an alley between a cinema and a bank I saw a man sitting on the ground holding someone in his arms. As I got closer I saw he was wearing a blue uniform with his name sewn below his left shoulder. He was cradling an old woman; his right arm around her shoulder, his left under her left arm. He was holding her hand. The woman, wearing an old heavy coat, lay with her back against his chest, legs stretched out in front of her.

She was simply staring forward, as if seeing nothing. I stood alongside them and asked the man if he needed help. He said an ambulance had been called. The woman did nothing to indicate she had heard our exchange. I turned toward the cinema and noticed another woman standing inside the glass doors watching. Despite the two of us, there was a solitary intimacy in the alley shared only by the old woman and the man holding her.

I had approached the cinema to visit its small bookshop. Since I could do nothing to help the man and old woman, I decided to browse, but within a few minutes I had to leave. They were still there in the alley. I imagined the man drove a delivery truck and happened to enter the alley at just the right moment. Whether she knew that he had come and found some comfort, or even hope, in his presence, I did not know. But at that moment, cradled in a stranger’s arms, the woman was near death or, as I really thought, dead already. The man, with some tenderness, accompanied her in death as far as he was able.

I walked back up the alley exiting into the open space of a large plaza. I stopped, turned and looked back. They were there, as still as peace, strangers holding and being held, at the very right moment of death. It was an attractive sight.

The sky was blue and filled with white clouds. The sun and the city were warm and alive. The people, all the people, went about their business, which at the heart of things was living. I could see it all at once, as if framed for my benefit: the sun and sky, the brown stone buildings curving down Gray Street, the homeless sitting on benches hoping for a drink before the cold night set in, post-modern yuppies moving quickly through the crowds with mobile phones to their ears, the young feeling the stirrings of sex in their bodies flirting, flashing, and side stepping each other as the age old ritual continued, people working and people buying, cars and trucks annoying each other, theatres and newsstands, cafés and restaurants, trash blowing across the streets, birds flying overhead, a dead old woman cradled in a man's arms inbetween a cinema and a bank. And in the midst of it all, there I was, wanting and able to go about my living. I walked away from her, the dead one, without reluctance, regret, or guilt.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger


[1] Geertz, Clifford. Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Universitsy Press, 2010, p. 187.

Tuesday
Apr102018

The Taverna on the Water’s Edge

I’m a big fan of the joint British and French TV show Death in Paradise. It’s filmed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The show is character based and features a murder each week. Of course one of the things I like about it is the seemingly idyllic setting and in particular the scenes that take place at the local café near the water’s edge. The characters sit outside drinking beer and laughing. I love it.

I had an experience not unlike the Guadeloupe café. It was not in the Caribbean, however, but in Greece. I made several visits to Areopolis on the Mani Peninsula. The town sits high above the Mediterranean, but down a switch-baking road you find the village of Limeni were I have spent many hours sitting in a café, well actually a taverna, on the water’s edge.

I first wrote about Limeni in my book Notes from 39,000 Feet in a chapter called In the Absence of our Desired Hope. Here’s the part about my café experiences:

Limeni is located on a small inlet within a larger bay about two miles from Areopolis. Along the bay, and especially at Limeni, the water moves onto the shore with relative peace. The mountains rise above the tiny village, and atop the mountains, on a flat plateau, is the larger town of. Further down the road about a mile along the shoreline is Neon Itilan. At the time of my visit, the land was dry and barren, but a villager told me that in the spring it comes alive with wild flowers, life and colour, Eden-like.

Small villages dotted the mountainsides and plateau lands. They seemed as old as the mountains themselves, and all had Mani towers, family fortresses, reminders of past vendettas and violence. Many villages were abandoned, warred to death. Still others seemed so, but people would appear from time to time, as old as the buildings. Old women dressed in black. Old men sitting in tiny tavernas sipping dark coffee or drinking retsina. Priests oppressed in black robes and hats.

Limeni Limeni is beautiful; with old stone buildings which have been worked and reworked through the generations. Some buildings were in ruins, but, interestingly, did not detract from the beauty of the village. Sitting in the taverna I could see the small bay and beyond it the open Mediterranean. To the right I could see a low ridge of mountains, baked in the sun. Beyond that a higher ridge, beyond it a still higher ridge, and beyond that open sky and large white clouds. The clouds would spill over the furthest and highest ridge, evaporating, disappearing.

The taverna was built on a slope leading from the road down to the water's edge. Rooms were at road level and above. The taverna’s patio was below at the water level. There were stone steps leading from the road to the café and kitchen, and a few more from the kitchen to the patio where people ate and drank. Most of the tables were situated under a wrought iron veranda, which led from the taverna to the edge of the patio. The tables themselves were covered with blue and white chequered tablecloths, typical for Greece, bright and pleasant. Clothes pegs held the cloths to the table legs. The metal frame of the veranda was covered with bamboo, tied in place, old and worn. The weather-worn bamboo was comforting, the sun filtering through bamboo causing patterns of light and shadow that soothed the tables and customers. The rough concrete patio was built to the water's edge, into the rugged rocks that lined the shore. Rocks and patio became one. The metal framing was imbedded into the concrete becoming part of the one. Anchored off shore were small fishing boats, some touchable, others some forty metres out. Their lines ran toward the shore, towards me, ropes fastened to short chains, which were fastened to iron rings which were fastened to iron spikes driven into the rocks.

I was sitting at a table on the water's edge under bamboo on the fifth day since my arrival. Five days previously, I had been struck by the beauty of the village and the bay. Beauty was a good enough reason to stop. On this day I was sensing the presence of peace as different, distinct from a feeling of peacefulness. As I sat drinking Greek black muddy coffee and retsina, eating bread, tzatziki, meatballs, and salad, I wondered what it was, this peace.

How much of peace is physical? The rough concrete pouring into the rocks. The water lapping, its peaceful sound, gently filling every crevice in the rocks, and just as gently running out again, as if in Buddhist meditation. The boats rocking rhythmically on the surface of the water. Gently. A small bird flying low across the water. The water shades of blue, light, almost transparent, merging to deep dark blue, almost black. Clean. A large bee humming in the bamboo over my head.

Limeni TavernaI was surrounded by quiet life, or a gentle living. The birds chirping, the bees humming. The buildings alive with time and being, and years of human living. The water alive, slowing filling and touching every space before moving on. The water contained life, surrounded life, created life. The rusty chains and water soaked ropes that joined boats to shore were alive. The ropes covered in green. The chains and rings and spikes rusting. Oxidation as life.

How much of peace is the community? At the end of the patio, to my right, two people sat at a table eating in silence. To my left, on a section of the patio without a bamboo covering, sat a young woman and a middle aged man. Her left foot was on the edge of the chair in which she sat and her right leg rested on another chair. Her hair was full and long and light in colour. Her body was slender, desirable. She wore dark glasses, a white blouse, tight blue jeans, and boots. She was posing for, indeed inviting, the man who sat  opposite her at the small table. He too was stylish. Gold chain on a bare chest, open white shirt, off-white loose trousers. From time to time they both made sure we were noticing them.

An old woman walked between us. She carried a bucket filled with frozen squid. She walked down four steps which were cut into the patio between the rocks and which led to the water, the bottom two steps submerged. The old woman took off her shoes and stood on the last step filling her bucket with water. She placed the frozen squid in the bucket of water to begin thawing, took them out of the bucket and hit them against the concrete steps. Then she filled the bucket again and put the squid back in the bucket to renew the cycle.

As I watched, I noticed still further to my left around the curve of the small bay, two people sitting on their balcony, looking back across the water, the boats, the taverna, at me. And behind us all, near the entrance to the taverna, sat an old man. Fisherman by the looks of him, weathered and unshaven. He sat by himself drinking Greek coffee, saying nothing. He hardly moved at all.

How much of peace is spiritual? The physical reaching into my body, mind, and soul. The sounds easing the mind. Beauty moving the spirit. The company of animals, people, water, and rust becoming a communion of sorts.

Even in that deep place of my being, within peace itself, there was slight disturbance in the form of an even deeper longing. Even as I experienced peace, I longed for it to go deeper, to flow in gently and fill every crack and crevice of my sometimes battered being. Even as I acknowledged with gratitude that peace existed in that moment, I longed for it to exist always.

Impossible.

Perhaps.

Peace for most of us is only a temporary experience. The most we can expect, because it is the most we have experienced. It is a repeating of the momentary. But we can long for, hope for, is for such peace to be permanent.

It is a glimpse, like a silent whisper. The deeper the peace, the deeper we pursue it. And that was it. That was what it was, this deep running longing. To reach something deep within me and without me, to touch it, so that I could be reconciled with the universe. Peace, not as temporary relationship, but as constant. Not as an exceptional experience, but as commonplace experience.

Even as I searched around me for the meaning of what was happening, things began to change. A breeze came up. The water was finding new energy. Gentle lapping became a crashing. The boats began to rock more violently, move towards me and the water splashed at my feet. The bamboo began to sing. The two people at the end of the terrace began to speak. The man and woman of glamour got up and began to leave, walking up the steps toward the road. As they left, the woman took off her sunglasses and smiled at me. She was inviting us all to watch. The old fisherman lit his pipe and coughed, clearing his throat unpleasantly, without the hesitation of self-consciousness. And two policemen walked down the steps joining us under the bamboo.

The moment had passed.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Apr042018

Life, Death, and Me

It’s sobering to know that a plastic straw will inhabit the earth much longer than I will. Having said that, it’s really not my problem.

The other night sitting in a Thai restaurant a short walk from my home, I told my wife that my coming death is changing my perspective on things small and large. No, I have not been told by my doctor that I have only months to live. In fact, I’m in relatively good health, putting aside that my blood sugar is a bit high and I can’t eat donuts anymore. My comment was based on nothing more than my age and the actuary tables that tell me I don’t have all that many years left on this blue-green planet. Of course, I’m hoping to beat the odds as everyone does, but I definitely am in my third act with no encore anticipated.

So, I read about the alarming rate of ice melting into the seas at both the earth’s polls and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that the ocean is filled with plastic, that animals are eating our shit and dying, that plastic is my drinking water, that plastic is overwhelming us, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I ponder the possibility that the United States is moving towards fascism through the will of the people, election by election, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that human civilization may collapse in fifty years followed by the possible extinction of the species (along with millions of other species!), and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I worry about another financial crisis and how it will impact my long term prospects, and I remind myself, it really won’t be my problem because I don’t have long term prospects. I find myself hoping that the great Pacific Northwest earthquake holds off until I catch up with the actuary tables. I stood looking at our new all electric car and realized that the odds are I will never have to buy another car. Well, I could go on, but my point…

First, the “it’s really not my problem” phrase is not as individualistic, selfish, insensitive, indifferent, hardened, callous, unsympathetic, thick-skinned as it sounds. In fact, I find reading the news a depressing and disheartening exercise each morning. To read the news is to acknowledge your one complicity and guilt and to, in at least a psychological, spiritual sense carry the burdens of children dying in war to whales dying at sea. I have for the first time in my adult life contemplating stopping—no more news at all. I’m aware that every day, though I take small steps like electric cars, avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible, recycling, paying extra for cleaner energy, voting, writing, supporting, etc., that much of what I do contributes to the seemingly inevitable collapse, the death of individual animals and the extinction of species, the polluting of this blue-green planet, the oppression of peoples. I’m aware that every morning when I take my first conscious breath I have compromised myself, that I live in a world from which there is no ethical, practical escape. What I mean by “it’s really not my problem” is simply that I will be dead and therefore will cease to be part of the problem and the solution. My death means irrefutably that life, the universe and everything will not be my problem. This stone cold obvious fact does not, however, move me to withdraw from the world.

Second, knowing that I will not be around for the future casts a different light on that future. Sadly, the future does not belong to me. It is not something I anticipate. It is not something that will impact me adversely. It is not something that will harm me. I will not suffer because of it. Also, I will not benefit, be lifted, be moved, be encouraged, by it. I will not be in the future to love, to take heart, to do the right thing, to support others, to build, to create, to sleep peacefully. The future is a land I will never visit and thus it is something very different from the immediacy of tomorrow.

The fact that the future, with all its nightmares and beauties, will never be my home is both a sorrow and a relief. It saddens me that I will leave my wife and friends. It saddens me that I will not be here when we discover life on another planet or moon. It saddens me that I will never hear music, laugh, be brought to tears by beauty, become excited by medical, technological, scientific, breakthroughs again. It saddens me that I will never read a good book again or watch a great film. It saddens me that I will not be here for moments of great justice, political victories, and fundamental positive changes.

I am relieved that I will not have to read about the extinction of another species at the hands of my own. I am relieved that I will not have to watch the continued oppression of people, another devastating war, the rising sea levels, the death of my friends and wife, the disregard of the homeless in wealthy nations. I am relieved that I will not have to sigh every time I buy a food item surrounded by plastic, ache when reading about a murdered child, become angry as white supremacist soil the oval office carpet.

I’m not losing sleep over my coming death. Because I don’t (perhaps can’t) really embrace it’s reality, I don’t fear it. Death awaited is a delicate and unconvincing certitude because I don’t actually know when I will die. My death is, after all, just an idea. My death is make-believe, at least until the moment it actually occurs. Until that moment exuberance should be my act of impertinence and it should drive me not just cheerfulness, but also goodness. If I am finite I might as well love. I might as well be of good cheer. I might as well be good, or at least try to be better than I am. But as cheerful and good as I can be, the awaited death redefines the limited life before me and how I see, interpret, imagine, embrace the immediate and distant future.

To be honest, I doubt I am capable of exuberance given the state of things and the forecasts for the future. Occasional happiness, of course. Maintaining ethical integrity, to the best of my abilities given the compromises needed to live. Remaining engaged, I should think so. Why not? Act three has begun.

Copyright © Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Mar272018

Self-Publishing, Vanity Press and Me

Would you be so vain as to pay someone to publish your book. Well, I hope not.

Would you pay someone to help publish your book? Well, yes!

The term vanity press appeared in the US around 1941. It’s a pejorative term implying that an author is vain and so untalented that they would never be accepted by a traditional publisher, and even if they were, their book would be commercially unsuccessful. Another words, vanity press is for losers.

I have close to 60,000 followers on Twitter and the vast majority are writers, artists, photographers, and actors. I also belong to a couple social media groups where writers ask questions, seek advice, and share experiences. I often hear complaints about vanity press and pity for, even condemnation of, the fools that turn to such presses. The cry is that any publisher that asks any author for any amount of money is a vanity press!

In my experience, a lot of authors published by established publishers are damning of any publisher that asks for money. Also, I’ve been surprised the passion by which many independent authors (self-published authors) declare that it’s wrong to pay anyone to publish your book—Vanity Press!—and that authors should, almost as a moral imperative, not pay to have their books published. I can understand indie authors being sensitive to the charge that they are nothing more than vanity authors who cannot publish traditionally, but the bottom line is, if you self-publish you will probably be spending money, and furthermore, you probably should be spending money. (Also, many traditional publishers now offer limited or no professional editing and instruct authors that they have to market their own books. Both professional editing and marketing more than likely will have to be paid for.)

Self-publishing has rendered the concept of vanity publishing mute.

Here’s what I mean by that. To be a good, dare I say respectable, indie author there are certain things that should be done, and some I’d say that have to done, after your write your book: editing; cover design; cover copy; copyright registration (in the US sent to Library of Congress); obtaining ISBN and/or ASIN numbers; internal design; formatting for eBooks; distribution (Ingram, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.); and marketing.

Some of those things are going to cost you money. Yes, Amazon offers a free publishing service, particularly if you are happy with just an eBook edition sold only on Amazon. But I doubt Amazon offers free professional editing and cover design. You will have to pay something to have your book published. For example, ISBN numbers cost money and someone has to pay—either you pay directly or you pay someone else to obtain the number. It is a rare beast (virtually nonexistent in my opinion) who can professionally edit their own book. Can you get the distance to thoroughly evaluate: Title and Cover Copy; Opening; Basic Premise and Tone; Point of View; Structure, Plot, and Pace; Setting; Characterization; Dialogue; Punctuation and Grammar? Can you undertake adequately the final proofreading? One of the reasons self-published books are still tarred with the damning vanity charge is that many are poorly edited, if edited at all. Every book should be professionally edited and for that you have to pay. Are you an expert in marketing strategies, including social media? Yes, Amazon will put you on their site if you sign up, but you drop into a pool of millions of books. Does your book have returnability? Is it on Ingram? Baker & Taylor? Do you know what they are?

My point is that you can try and do all the above yourself, though I wouldn’t advise it, but even if you do, you will probably have to put some money down for something. And if you decide not to attempt to do it all yourself, you will turn to others for their expertise and they will expect to be paid for their service.

A standing distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing is that the self-published author keeps control of: money; rights; copyright; editorial process; publishing process; distribution; and marketing. But while indie authors do have control, they often farm out some of that work to people more capable. So the options: One, do it all yourself. Two, pay an individual to do some or all or it for you. Three, pay two or several individuals to do some or all or it for you. Four, and most controversially, pay a self-publishing publisher to do some or all or it for you. It is number four that gets traditionally published authors and many indie authors screaming Vanity Press! Why? Because, while it is okay to pay individual for services, it is heretical to pay a publisher for services.

I started writing fiction after I retired. I have no idea if my books would have been, first, worthy of an agent and, second, picked up by an established publisher. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to spend the time finding out. According to the actuary tables, I’m not going to be around that much longer (really hoping they’re wrong!).

As it turns out, I began my writing at the same time self-publishing was shaking the old vanity dust off books. Self-publishing started with the invention of the printing press in 1440. Impatient and getting older, I decided to joined the hundreds of years of self-published authors: Beatrix Potter; Edgar Allan Poe; Walt Whiteman; John Locke; Jane Austen; Emily Dickenson; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Marcel Proust;  Martin Luther; Mark Twain; Virginia Wolf; E.E. Cummings; L. Frank Baum; Zane Grey; Rudyard Kipling; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Gertrude Stein; Ezra Pound; Alexandre Dumas; George Bernard Shaw; Henry David Thoreau; Thomas Paine; Carl Sandburg; James Joyce…Well, I could go on and on and I didn’t even get to contemporary authors.

The thing is, I can’t be bothered to do a lot of the work that is required of a self-publishing author. I want my books to be available beyond Amazon. I really don’t want to spend time registering my copyright, getting ISBN numbers, formatting, etc. More importantly, I am not skilled at designing a good cover. I’m certainly not capable of professionally editing my books! I tried my hand at finding individuals to do various tasks and got burned more than once. And so, I became a heretic. I paid a publisher to do it all for me—everything from registering my books, to formatting for all eReaders, to distributing on numerous outlets and book distributers (Ingram, etc.), to arranging print on demand, to providing post cards and book marks, to marketing strategies. (I did one book all by myself and the result was not good.)

Self-publishing and technology (computers, emails, the internet, eReaders, print on demand, etc.) have rendered the toxic accusation of vanity publishing nearly meaningless. What is important is not the vanity, but the competency of the individuals and publishers. I’ve had good and bad experiences with individuals and publishers. You have to do your homework. And you have to be careful. The self-publishing industry is worth billions of dollars and a lot of people want to cash in.

The questions we should be asking is not, is this vanity press, but is this individual or publisher good at their jobs? Is this individual or publisher trustworthy?

True confession. Has the stigma of vanity publishing been eliminated? No, not yet, but it won’t be long. Do I inwardly blush, just a little bit, when I say I’m self-published? Well, okay, yes—but only sometimes. Do I tell fellow writers on my social groups that I have paid publishers for their service? No, never! I really don’t have the time or energy to deal with the outrage.

Time to catch up with the times. Vanity be damned. Self-publishing is here and it needs to be done right. You need to decide what is right for you. In the end, if it feels like a book, smells like a book, looks like a book (on an eReader too!), is distributed like a book, it is a book.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Monday
Mar262018

Te-Fiti, Pacific Ocean Goddess

Carl Jung was asked, how should modern people relate to ancient myths?  He responded, “The point is to dream the myth onward, and give it a modern dress.”  The Disney empire has been “dreaming the myth onward and giving it a modern dress” for decades, with films like Little Mermaid, Mulan, Aladdin, and recently, Moana, about young heroes and heroines from mythology challenging the mythic forces of evil.

It’s easy to criticize some of Disney’s retelling of these myths. Only in the last couple year have Disney movies like Frozen and Moana finally had some strong female leads whose dream is not rescue by a prince.  But the “modern dress” these young women wear make them look more like models with anorexic bodies than empowered heroes.  Even so, the stories are vivid and Disney can tear at your heartstrings with image and music. 

Todays’ “Ocean Deity” is Te-Fiti, whom I learned about from Disney’s film Moana.  From what I have read she is more important in the film than in traditional Polynesian mythology.  Like so many women of myth she is more symbol than actor, and never speaks.  Here I imagine here what she might say about herself, and her film appearance.

Te-Fiti is my name.  I am the Pacific Ocean goddess and creator of all life.  If the name sounds to you like Tahiti, you are right – it means literally “a faraway place.”  My Polynesians people are good at long journeys to faraway places, we sail from island to island, across the sea.  At the beginning of time I created the vast ocean, and then I made all the islands, these small safe and lush homelands mid the mighty sea.  Sometimes I am depicted as a living island myself, able to mold and shape terrain and flora and fauna.  

I’ve never needed much acclaim or worship.  I can just look around me and see all the life teeming in my islands and my sea and glory in my creation.  But I have to admit it was fun to have a big role in the movie Moana.  I even got a few nice notes about the film from the other mother goddesses I’ve met at Goddess Camp, saying I did a good job.  And could we have Goddess Camp on my island this year?

“Goddess Camp” is the yearly party/retreat/reunion we female creation deities have every spring.  Tiamat and Nammu started it with a fantastic week in the Fertile Crescent.  We’ve danced and sung in the Bering Sea with Sedna, India with Parvati, and who can forget that Aegean spring with Gaia and Demeter? 

Since we all were there at the beginning of time, creating earth or sea, animals, plants, people, we have lots of memories to share, stories to tell.  We dance and eat a lot. 

Recently we’ve added a lamentation time to our gathering, ritual wailing in sorrow and anger at the ways climate change is taking such a toll on our beautiful creations.  It’s good to be together with sisters in the hard times as well as the celebrative.

It’s interesting, actually, how well we get along, sharing both our pride in our work as well as our sorrow at its destruction.  We’ve notice when the male deities get together there’s lots of strutting and competitive games.  The food is better at our sister gatherings as well.

If you haven’t seen the movie, quick plot summary: Moana, an independent thinking Pacific Islander teenager, saves the world from destruction by restoring my heart, which has been stolen by power hungry men seeking to control the earth.  Moana’s grandmother, one of my disciples, tells her the ancient stories of how I created the ocean itself and then all the islands in it.  She helps Moana find my stolen heart, a small shining green amulet, and encourages her to sail beyond the reef into the feared ocean and restore my heart.  With help from the usual Disney bumbling animal sidekicks and the reformed thief demigod, Maui, Moana confronts the evil destructive goddess Te-Pa, source of fire and volcano, who it turns out is me without my heart.  If you take away the heart of any creator, you get destruction.  Bravely Moana restores my heart and the earth and ocean are saved.  

I think my sister creation goddesses are a little jealous of me because of the movie.  Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t written a song for the sound track of their lives.  They have reminded me, in a nice way, that I am actually a pretty minor character in Pacific Islander mythology.  The destructive gods as usual get more notoriety, Pele and Maui and Te-Pa.  Myth writers and Disney execs seem to prefer the evil stepmothers, the destructive Ursula and Malificent, to the creative life affirming females. 

Maybe it was a goddess #MeToo movement that helped Disney realize they needed not only a heroine whose triumph was saving the world, not being saved by a prince, but also a triumphant positive female force for creation, not destruction.  Whatever, I’ll take it, if it gets my sisters to come party at my house.

And to lament.  Demeter said she wanted to come to the South Seas to weep and ululate as women mourners do in Greece at a death, in this case, the death of so many islands to sea level rise and climate change.  It does feel like my heart has been ripped out and that the evil gods and goddesses of greed and conspicuous consumption are triumphing over our band of sisters.

The party is this week, at the equinox, when spring begins in the north, and ironically, autumn arrives in my part of the world.  Will we emerge whole from this winter?  Can we sisters of creation rise again with new life?

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Mar142018

The Offence of Keeping Stephen Hawking Alive

Stephen Hawking has died.

Most people know that Hawking was a theoretical physicist, an author, and the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He became known for his work in black holes, predicting that they emitted radiation. He also believed in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which personally strikes me as crazy. It should be noted that when I die, with the possible exception of my wife, no one will notice. Hawking also had his fun side, appearing in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, all of which I’m sure you can find on YouTube. But when I lived in Britain he was also an outspoken citizen speaking up for various social justice issues.

At the age of 21 Hawking was diagnosed with an early-onset form of motor neuron disease, known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease. His doctors gave him two years to live. For 55 years he lived under the care of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom until he died at the age of 76. The man in the wheel chair with the computer voice was well known to many for years and years.

Hawking’s death reminded me of an encounter I had on the way to Pompeii, Italy with a group of people from Texas. For reasons not important we shared a lunch together. This was during the time when the United States was debating what became known as Obamacare. It was an astonishing experience watching the debate from across the pond while being cared for by the NHS. I watched as millions of Americans were deeply offended, and sometimes outraged, by the idea of providing healthcare to fellow citizens and human beings. Words like socialism, communism, Nazism, fascism were flying around as if the entire country would be destroyed if the Congress legislated for an even deeply flawed healthcare system. It was obvious “deeply flawed” was the best US citizens and elected officials could cope with at the time. Anything more ambitious would not have been given a hearing. On British news reports I saw posters of Americans holding signs claiming Obama was both a communist and a Nazi. I remember thinking that the debate should be paused until after all Americans were given dictionaries. But back to my lunch on the way to Pompei.

Our discussion naturally turned to healthcare when I told them that I lived in England. A woman told me that the vast majority of British people hated the NHS because it was socialist and communist. I resisted the temptation to try and explain to her that socialism and communism were not the same thing. I did tell her that well over 80% of people in Britain had a favorable opinion of the NHS and that that high rating was common through the years (this was true at the time of this encounter, but may not be now simply because for several years the Conservative government has been selling off the NHS to private for profit health companies, some from the US, of course). My lunch companion told me I was mistaken. I told her I had lived in the UK for over two decades and on at least one occasion the NHS had saved my life, that it was an excellent healthcare system. She told me I was wrong.

To further prove that I was deluded, she told me that if Stephen Hawking lived in Britain he would be dead because of the NHS does not value life, apparently because socialism and communism do not value life. She said she had seen an anti-Obamacare advertisement on TV that said just that. I suspect what did happen was she saw a Fox News report on the Investor’s Business Daily editorial (which is apparently no longer available) that said:

“People such as Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.”  

When I explained to her that Hawking actually did live in the UK and was cared for by the NHS she seemed unimpressed. I guess she thought Hawking lived in the US. I told her that Hawking had responded to the claim that he would be dead in the UK by saying:

“I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.” 

I went on to tell her that in fact Hawking was a very strong advocate for the NHS.

She told me I was wrong. I suspect she came to the conclusion that I was a communist, socialist, Nazi, fascist, or perhaps just plain stupid. What was clear was that reality had no influence on her. Such is the power of Fox News.

I am still taken aback when I realize for millions of Americans it is deeply offensive to care for people, to heal, to save lives, if that care socialistic, which is to say is paid for by the taxpayer. The same people are not bothered by paying for socialist program such as the US military, the interstate highway system, fire departments, research that gave them the internet and smartphones, libraries, police departments, public parks, wilderness areas, the court system, healthcare for their senators and congressmen and women…

Oh, I could go on, but what’s the point? If you’re willing to let people die because keeping them alive offends you, it’s hard to go on.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Feb212018

National Rifle Association Contributions to U.S. Politics

There has been another school shooting in America, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where seventeen people were killed and fifteen were wounded. The weapon used was, of course, the AR-15. The killer came to the school with numerous magazines. The slaughter only took a few minutes.

While the predictable and ineffectual offerings of thoughts and prayers followed the killings, something new did take place this time. A number of students who survived the attack are calling for national protests and are bluntly calling out politicians who do nothing, except of course, take money from the gun lobbies. These students have the audacity to declare they have the right to life and they know with a certainty, as do we all, that sometime in the not too distant future another school, or church, or office place, will be attacked.

The leaders of the high school student rebellion have called for all public officials who take NRA money—and I would add, take money from any gun lobby—should be voted out of office. In truth, I believe that is the only way that change is possible. Less than a week after seventeen people were killed, the Florida state House opened its session with prayer for those who died in the massacre and then voted down a motion to consider banning many semiautomatic weapons and large capacity magazines. The vote in the Republican dominated House was 36-71

An ongoing Washington Post analysis has found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. 

Given that is extremely unlikely that the Republican House, Senate, and White House will every change course on gun control—the Senate has passed legislation that makes it illegal to even study gun violence in the US—I fully support a one issue vote in November. We should be saying to all people running for public office and seeking reelection that if you take money from the gun lobbies you don’t get my vote. Period. No discussion.

Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at who takes “blood money” and how much is involved. So let’s look at the numbers. The following are from OpenSecrets.org Center for Responsible Politics and it’s worth clicking on the link to get the full picture. The summary below is for the 2016 Election Cycle only. The numbers represent donations by the NRA and its affiliates that have also given money.

Contributions to the US House and Senate

In the 2016 election cycle 290 House representatives and Senators received NRA contributions. Two were Democrats:

  • Sanford Bishop House received $3,500 in 2016; and
  • Tammy Duckworth House received $50.

Contributions

The NRA made contributions of $1,085,150 in the 2016 election cycle.

  • Contributions to Candidates - $834,165
  • Contributions to Leadership PACS - $28,550
  • Contributions to Parties - $218,435
  • Contributions to Outside Spending Groups - $500

Lobbying

The NRA spent $3,188,00 in the 2016 election cycle.

Outside Spending

The NRA spent - $54,398,558

  • For Democrats - $265
  • Against Democrats - $37,010,516
  • For Republicans - $17,385,437
  • Against Republicans - $2,281
  • Communication Costs - $1,816,249

Presidential Race

The NRA spent at least $30.3million to help elect Trump to the presidency

  • Contributions for Trump - $11,438,118
  • Contributions against Clinton - $19,756,346

Top Contributions to Representatives and Senators

As I said, the above figures are contributions for the 2016 election cycle. Here is a list of the top five House members and top five Senators with the most contributions from the NRA. These figures give an idea of how deeply indebted our politicians can become to the NRA throughout their political career. (Amounts from Fortune

House Representatives

  • French Hill (R, AR) - $1,09 million
  • Ken Buck (R, CO) - $800,544
  • David Young (R, IA) - $707,662
  • Mike Simpson (R, ID) - $385,731
  • Greg Gainforte (R, MT) – $344,630

Senators

  • John McGain (R, AZ) – $7.74 million
  • Richard Burr (R, NC) - $6.99 million
  • Roy Blunt (R, MO) - $4.55 million
  • Tom Tillis (R, NC) - $4.42 million
  • Cory Gardner (R, CO) - $3.88 million

Copyright © Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Jan302018

I Hate Editing but Love Editors

If you’ve read more than a couple of my blogs in Café Talk, you know that I make mistakes when I write and don’t find them all when I edit. I just don’t see them all when I reread what I’ve written. The other day someone commented on my piece called Dinosaur Footprints and Alternative Facts and it motivated me to go back and see what I had written. There are several mistakes in the blog: typos, missing commas, and a whole missing word (more mistakes than usual). It’s embarrassing, but I’m hardly unique in lacking the ability to edit my own work. The writer who can accurately edit their own work is very rare, and most writers who claim they can are sadly mistaken. And with a weekly blog I simply don’t have the time and money to have each one professionally edited. So, I live with the embarrassment and hope readers come back (to date most do!).

But living with my embarrassment is not acceptable with my books. A book full of errors is really not a good thing. Editing is crucial.

My editing process goes something like this: When I’m done with the first draft I read it on the screen making changes. I then print it out and read the hard copy making changes. When I’m done with that I make the corrections on screen and print out another copy. That copy goes to my wife. She comments and corrects on the hard copy. Inevitably at this point I become defensive and angry. She ignores me. I make her changes on the screen and print out another copy. We read this one aloud, making changes as we go along. Then it’s back to the screen. I am now on the fourth draft and that’s the draft that goes to a professional editor. It’s at this point the real fun begins.

In The Woman in White Marble the editor, of course, found and fixed all those typos, misspellings, grammar screwups, but she also found a huge whole in my plot. The fix took a long time, structural changes, and obviously a fifth draft. That fifth draft went back to the editor and we started again.

The Girl in the Silver Mask went through the same procedure, but with this book the editor and I really had a tug of war. Close to 10,000 words went. The book is only 67,000 words long, so 10,000 was a lot! Some of them were easy to delete, I knew they would go when I was writing them (so why did I write them?!). But some were precious to me. Nonetheless, she was right. They had to go. But more importantly we disagreed on the flow of the action! I agonized over the restructuring—some of my best humorous episodes died in the process! When I was making further significant changes to the sixth draft I said, out loud!, if I make any more big changes the book will no longer be my book. Some of her grammatical changes actually changed the personality of my protagonist. I fought back. I compromised. I negotiated. Thankfully, eventually the editor and I came to a common mind, but I have to say, the first draft and the sixth are very different books.

I loathe the editing process. Once I hand that second draft to my wife I really want to be done with the book and move on to the next project. But here’s the thing. Both books are significantly better because a professional editor had her way with them. That’s why I didn’t just tell the editor to stuff it. Obviously, I didn’t make all the changes she recommended, but believe you me, I made most of them.

So why am I going on about this? Here’s why: I joined an author’s group I access through Facebook. The group is not for plugging our books and if you do, the moderator will remind you about the rules. Instead it is group where writers share ideas and mostly ask questions of each other. I’d say the vast majority of people in the group are self-published independent authors, using a number of different methods. One of the of the most frequent questions is about editing—should I or should I not employ a professional editor to edit my book? I’m surprised by the number of people who think it is not necessary. I don’t often comment on people’s questions, but always do about editing.

One of the downsides of self-publishing is the lack of professional editing. If a book published by a traditional publishing house has a few mistakes in it, people don’t damn the whole of traditional publishing. However, when a self-published book contains errors it is not uncommon to hear people condemn the entire self-publishing industry. It may not be fair, but I’d say people just have to suck it up. That’s the way it is. I always tell writers that if they publish a poorly edited book it reflects and hurts other self-published authors. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to have your book edited.

Here’s what I think needs to be addressed in an edit:

  • Title and Cover Copy;
  • Opening;
  • Basic Premise and Tone;
  • Point of View;
  • Structure, Plot and Pace;
  • Setting;
  • Characterization;
  • Dialogue;
  • Punctuation and Grammar.

And when all that is completed, the book should be proofread one last time before you sign off on it and it goes to print.

Apparently, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, and so on thought it was a good idea to have their books professionally edited. It seems a bit much to think my books don’t.

So to all you authors out there, please have your books edited. If you don’t, it makes me look bad. And to all you editors out there, you people are great. I hate working with you, and I’ll argue and fuss, but thanks.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Jan242018

On Being an Award Winning Author ~ How Do I Cope?

I’m an award winning author. An obscure journal concentrating on issues not terribly interesting to the general public with a readership of—well, I guess no one has every counted, but it can’t be a lot—held an essay writing contest. I won joint third place. The essays that won first, second, and the other third place were all published in the journal. Mine was not. When I enquired why not, I was told my essay was too controversial, would cause conflict, and would offend some readers. No one said it would be easy being an award winning author.

Regarding the offending people thing: If I hadn’t offended people during my life than I wouldn’t have lived much of a life. Being offended is one of the most common experiences human beings have. I can’t hardly get through a day without being offended. To which the most appropriate response is: So what? Big deal. My award winning essay that would have caused conflict and offence if anyone had read it, was about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, and asexual rights. And if I’ve left someone out, please don’t be offended. As I’ve often said, while offending people is not the purpose, nonetheless, if you can’t bring yourself to offend anyone then don’t even pretend to fight for justice or stand in solidarity with another person, and certainly not with a group of people.    

My Twitter profile reads as follows: Writer, Blogger, and creator of the website The Back Road Cafe. Avid reader. I always follow back. For the enjoyment of it all. It used to say “creator of The Back Road Café,” but people thought I had an actual café here in Seattle with one of those magic coffee machines. I got a message from one person saying he definitely was going to visit my café when he came to Seattle in the coming weeks. I toyed with the idea of not setting him straight, but figured he’d be pretty damn offended if I didn’t. I also have in the profile “I always follow back.” I need to change that because I don’t always follow back. I don’t follow Trump enthusiasts, gun nuts, fascists, Nazis and Neo-Nazis, LGBTQIA bigots, racists, xenophobes, and KKK members. They all offend me to no end. And to be honest, I also have trouble with people who throw their cigarette butts on the sidewalk. If I’ve missed anyone else, don’t be offended.

However, I’m sure you noticed that my Twitter profile doesn’t indicate, indeed proclaim, that I’m an award winning author. I tend to follow all kinds of writers on Twitter: bloggers, poets, essayists, short story and book authors. Some of them are excellent writers and some of them are terrible writers. The excellent writers I love, though I do have pangs of jealousy sometimes. The terrible writers don’t offend me, and at times lift my spirits. What amazes me, however, is the staggering number of award winning writers I follow. Profile after profile announce awards have been won. Often the awards are listed. More than not I’ve never heard of the organizations granting the awards, but it matters not a jot. I’m still impressed. And I never google the organizations to find out who the hell they and what they do.

So, I was thinking, what if I write something like this for my profile: I’m an award winning author, the Peabody Institute having awarded my award winning novel The Girl in the Silver Mask, an award for excellence in literature and for being a cracking good tale. I made up the Peabody Institute, but just googled it to make sure it doesn’t actually exist. My bad luck, it does. The Peabody Institute is part of The Johns Hopkins University and is a conservatory and university preparatory school in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood of northern Baltimore, Maryland, the United States of American. Who would have thought? I wonder if it gives awards to authors. To all the good people at the Peabody Institute, I meant no offence, and if I have offended anyone, I beg your forgiveness, but if you can’t forgive me and instead complain as you retreat to some safe place, I say: So what? Big deal. 

So, I have to think of another fictitious award granting organization that no one will ever google. Once people read that I’m an awarding winning author, my book sales will skyrocket, visits to my website will go through the roof, and I’ll offend any number of people. So, to get you started:

I’ve got other books, but they are not award winning worthy, so I’ll keep them under wraps. But regarding the other two—White Marble and Silver Mask—it seems given the number of award winning writers and authors I follow on Twitter there must be some club, or organization, or institution, or association, or society, or guild that could see its way to giving me an award.

You can reach me through The Back Road Café. I look forward to hearing from you.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Award Winning Author

Wednesday
Jan172018

Fatuous and Arrogant Google Home ~ What Were They Thinking?

Imagine every time you want to turn on your car engine you have to say, “Okay, Chevrolets, start my engine.” Or, “Okay Ford, turn on my car.” Or every time you go into a Starbucks you have to say, “Okay Starbucks, I’d like a…” before you get your favorite coffee and muffin. It’s ridiculous, of course. It would be embarrassing for both the customer and the company. Even worse, it would smell of pretentiousness. It would reek of corporate arrogance.  

Welcome to Google Home.

Roberta, my wife, and I spent Christmas day with her mother, Janet, and brother, Rich. Rich gave Janet an Amazon Echo for Christmas. Rich and I set it up and we all had a fun time asking Alexa this and that. It was an interesting experience. The activation command was a simple “Alexa.”  In no time at all we were thanking Alexa, not Amazon Echo, for her help. She responded with things like, “That’s what I’m here for,” and “No problem,” as well as the more formal “You’re welcome.” I was fascinated how fast we began to approach her as almost human-like. We wanted to form a relationship her. We used the pronoun “her.” It was enjoyable and interesting.

Over the next few days Roberta and I talked about getting a home AI as well. We had briefly thought about it months ago, but the experience at Janet’s sealed the deal. The two big players in the home AI assistant market are Amazon and Google. After a bit of research we came to the conclusion that all things being fairly even (price, speakers, mic, etc.), if we wanted the AI for buying stuff Amazon was the way to go. If we wanted the AI to primarily retrieve information, Google was the best bet.  

We bought Google Home for two reasons. First, our primary purpose for purchasing a home AI assistant was for retrieving information and Google Home is connected to Google’s search engine. Second, I googled if and how we could change the activation command for Google Home and discovered that indeed it was possible. Let me explain.

Amazingly, Google has done something that none of the other big companies have done. They decided not to personalize their AI. Microsoft named its AI assistant Cortana. Apple named its Siri. Amazon, Alexa. If you want to communicate with any of these AI’s you simply have to say their name. But not Google. Google’s AI does not have a name. If you want to activate Google Home you have to say either “Okay Google” or “Hey Google. In other words, to use Google Home you have to say the corporate name over and over each day.

I told Roberta, that if I couldn’t change the activation command I would not agree to buy Google Home. But I was thrilled when  I found a website explaining precisely how I could do just that. We agreed that we would use “Zuri” [1] as the activation command, thus dropping the “Okay” and “Hey.” I understand that Google added “Okay” and “Hey” to prevent the accidental activation of the AI assistant while conversing with others. However, I feel stupid saying them so I decided to leave them out.

I made a huge mistake. After purchasing Google Home, setting it up, installing the app on my phone, creating two accounts, and activating voice recognition, I discovered that the ability to change the activation command is only possible on cell phones or tablets. You cannot change the command on Google Home. I can’t tell you how pissed I was. Nay, I was devastated.

Google HomeGoogle Home is an advertising scheme. When you ask Alexa to play the Beatles, she plays the Beatles. If you ask Okay Google to play the Beatles, it tells you it will turn to Google Play Radio Mix. The key word is Google. If you ask Alexa to play a specific Beatles song like Hey Jude, she plays Hey Jude. If you ask Okay Google to play Hey Jude it instructs you to subscribe to Google Play. The key word is Google. Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google!

Every day, over and over, I have to say “Okay Google” or “Hey Google” to use the damn thing. I feel foolish and angry. As if I don’t know I bought a Google product and am using a Google service. I know that I drive a Chevy and Chevy has no great need to remind me. I know that it’s Starbucks when I walk into a Starbucks. I don’t have to say their damn corporate names repeatedly and Starbucks seems okay with that. But not Google.  

There’s something arrogant about a company making you say its name constantly in order to use its service. I’m assuming that Google made a conscious decision to discourage people from forming a relationship with their AI assistant. I don’t feel at all compelled to thank “Okay Google” for its assistance. But if you do, you will find that it will only say “You’re welcome” in reply. The Google AI has less personality than Alexa. It is less whimsical. It is less fun. Why Google? Why did you do this? Why have you depersonalized your service? I don’t understand.

What’s more, it’s stupid. If you read articles about AI assistants, while Google Home is obviously discussed, it is not used when the writer is talking about how the assistant is actually used. For example, in an article about this year’s Consumer Electronics Show the following sentence can be found:

“If you’re lying in bed and want to get into a hot shower you can either use an app or talk to Alexa and have your shower start up at your favorite temperature…"

They author didn’t write “…or talk to Okay Google.” How stupid would that be? You don’t ask a multinational corporation to run your shower for you! You ask Alexa, and maybe someday Siri or Cortana. But not friggin Google. You're not going to use Okay Google to demonstrate how cool and hip is a AI home assistant.

Another article is titled, “Do we want Alexa to have an opinion over what we should watch?” It’s not “Do we want Amazon Echo”. It’s Alexa. We are talking to Alexa, not the big impersonal corporation of Amazon. And I’m willing to bet if the article was about Google having an opinion over what we should watch, the title would have been “Do we want Google to…” You would never have been “Do we want Hey Google to…” Again, stupid. What the hell is “Hey Google”?

I’m a sci fi enthusiast and was looking forward to forming a “relationship” with my AI assistant, pretending things were further along than they actually are. I anticipated, “Zuri, what’s the meaning of life?” and sharing a little banter back and forth. I bet Alexa banters. Not Okay friggin Google.

What can I say? I’ve got a bad case of buyer’s remorse. If I were single, I’d probable drop Google Home and buy myself an Amazon Echo, though I would regret losing out on that great Google search engine. So now every day I feel like an idiot saying “Hey Google” and “Okay Google.” If I were speaking to Alexa, I’d thank her. I never thank Okay Google. It’s an it and you don’t thank its.

Just to get back at that big arrogant impersonal multinational corporation, I’ve started saying “Hey Voogle” and “Okay Voogle.” It works. I bet if you said “Vlexa” she wouldn’t answer. Of course she wouldn’t. She’s got a name, after all. But Google answers. It answers because it’s an it without a name. 

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] Zuri is the name of one of the main characters in my books The Woman in White Marble and The Girl in the Silver Mask. I love Zuri and thought it would be cool using her name. 

Wednesday
Jan102018

Dinosaur Footprints and Alternative Facts 

When I was growing up I spent a lot of summers with my cousin Jeff Hildebrand. Jeff was a few years older than me, but we still got along well. Friends more than cousins. I remember one summer when my family was staying at the Hildebrand’s. There was a lot of road development in their area, which meant there were numerous bulldozed mountains of earth (to us anyway)  all over the place. These were great, of course, and served many purposes. One was hiding behind while throwing large hunks of dirt or rocks at passing cars. But what I really remember were the search for dinosaur footprints.

Image from wikipedia.orgLike a lot of children, we were into dinosaurs, but for some reason that particular summer we studied dinosaur tracks and somewhere we got a hold of a book which had pictures of dinosaur footprints. Jeff reasoned, given the fact that there had been so much bulldozing and digging up of the ground in the area, that dinosaur footprints must surely had been exposed. So we made a plan. After dinner we would study the pictures of dinosaur footprints and the next day head to the mountains of overturned.

In the morning we decided that given the nature of our expedition we would first need to make snake killers. A snake killer is a simple device made of two pieces of wood: one long board that functioned as the handle; the other a shorter cross board to be nailed to the handle. We first drove large nails through and along the cross board and then nailed it to the handle. A snake killer was simple but elegant. We went to the garden to test the snake killers effectiveness. We knew what we would find there. Small garden, or garter, snakes, inoffensive and of no harm to anyone. Nonetheless, our snake killers proved lethal. We were pleased and so set out on our quest to find dinosaur footprints.

Jeff wisely decided we should split up to optimize our chances of finding dinosaur tracks. With clear pictures in my head of dinosaur footprints, I went off on my own climbing over one mountain of earth after another. I can’t remember how long I looked, but I do remember feeling a bit skeptical that we would find tracks on top of bulldozed mountains of dirt. Nevertheless, Jeff thought we would so I looked and in short order I heard Jeff calling excitedly that he had found a dinosaur track! I followed the sound of his voice and on the top of a mountain I found Jeff, his snake killer in his right hand, standing over a dinosaur footprint. I got on my knees for a closer look. There was no doubt about it. The footprint Jeff had found looked just like ones we had seen in the book. I congratulated him and reached for a marker. We had tied small pieces of cloth to twigs and tucked them into our jeans. One of these twigs was stuck in the ground next to the dinosaur footprint so we could find it later. We continued our search.

To my surprise not long after his first discovery Jeff was calling out again. And as sure as the sun was hot that day, he had found another dinosaur footprint and this time from a different species. I was very impressed with Jeff’s ability to find dinosaur tracks, but as I walked away to continue my search, thoughts refused to be silenced. For one thing, the footprints Jeff had found seemed awfully fresh and fragile. The pictures in the book were indentations in hard rock. Jeff’s tracks were of soil. And for another thing, given the footprints were so fresh-like, I wondered how they survived the bulldozing and the turning over of the earth?

I pondered these questions as I climbed to the top of a mountain by the side of the road. I stopped at the top, put down my snake killer, and fashioned out of the soil a dinosaur footprint. I pulled a twig with a small piece of red cloth tied to the end from my jeans and marked my find. I then called to Jeff that I had indeed found a dinosaur footprint. In no time at all, Jeff was at my side praising my find. I have to say, it felt damn good. And that was only the beginning. I became quite accomplished in finding dinosaur tracks that day.

Apparently playing make believe is fairly universal in children and that was what Jeff and I were doing. It’s important to note that when children make believe, or pretend play, they do know the difference between play and reality. Jeff and I certainly did. And it would be false humility if I did not also say that children who “have better pretense and fantasy abilities also show better social competence, cognitive capabilities, and ability to take the perspective of others.” If that is true, and who am I to argue, Jeff and I were amazingly socially competent, cerebral, and thoroughly embracing each other’s perspectives that day.

Of course we knew it was all pretend, but what fascinates me is that at no time during our hunt for dinosaur footprints, or any time afterwards, did we blow each other’s cover. The first rule of dinosaur footprint hunting is: you do not talk about dinosaur footprints. We pretended that each of our discoveries were real. No smirks, no giggles, no challenges. At the moment Jeff called me over to look at his first discovery and I accepted the find as authentic we, “agreed,” without words, to play. If I had challenged him, pointing at the footprint was so fresh and that it was simply impossible that it could have survived a bulldozer digging up the ground, we would have dropped our snake killers and gone home. Game over. Instead we marked the find with a twig and moved on. Crucially, however, we never found a dinosaur footprint together. To do so would pushed our willing suspense of disbelief beyond tolerance. I mean we were willing to dig footprints in the dirt, but certainly not in front of each other.

At some point in our lives, however, the willingness, and perhaps ability, to participate in a mutually agreed pretenses ended. As we got older, but before we became adults, we stopped claiming our alternative facts actually corresponded to reality. We would never have agreed, for example, that the sun was shining while we stood in the rain. We never would had said that thousands of people came to watch us discover dinosaur footprint when none did. We would never have declared that we were stable geniuses when it was plan to everyone we were not. We had just become too grown up before we were fully grown up. At some point the pretenses would have been an indication of some psychological dislocation from reality, or mendacity, or both. And if that had become the case, our lives would have gone nowhere.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Jan032018

How to Make Something Wrong Right or Early Lessons in Ethical Bullshitting

For reasons unknown to me I’ve been thinking recently about my cousin Jeff Hildebrand. I’ve forgotten vast amounts of my life and Jeff and I knew each other a long time ago. Fortunately, the things I do remember fascinate me. So, for the next few weeks it’s story time.

Jeff died of a peripheral primitive neuroectodermal tumor, or pPNET, at the young age of 49.  

My mother’s name was Betty. She had two sisters: Virginia, or Ginny, and Barbara, sometimes called Barb. Betty married Charles Rominger, known as Charlie by all my cousins. Ginny married Fredrick Hildebrand, called Fred or Freddie. Barbara married Douglas Theiler, or Doug or Dougie. I never used aunt and uncle, even as a small child. It was never Aunt Ginny or Uncle Doug. It was always Ginny, Barbara, Fred, and Doug. I’m sure it was the same for my sisters and I’m assuming my cousins simply called my parents Betty and Charlie.

I am the fruitful union between Betty and Charlie. Jeff was the child of Ginny and Fred. The Romingers, Hildebrands, and Theilers were certainly not part of the 1% in those days, so our vacations were often visiting one of the sister’s glans or at times both (as an aside, the Romingers, Hildebrands, and Theilers are still not part of the 1%, or at least if any of the Hildebrands or Theilers are, I haven’t heard about it). As a result, Jeff and I spent a lot of summers together as we grew up. He was a few years older than I, still we were more than cousins, we were friends. I know that Greg, the son of Barbara and Doug, would say the same of Jeff.

I remember one warm summer day when we were staying with the Hildebrands, Jeff and I were confronted with what was probably our first ethical dilemma. I can’t remember how old we were but we were quite young—I mean little guys. Here’s the thing: Jeff and I wanted money, for what I can’t remember. We probably wanted to buy soda or candy bars or both. If that were the case, I would have favored Pepsi and a Three Musketeer or Milky Way bar back then. I have no idea what Jeff’s preferences would have been.

We walked into the kitchen where Ginny was preparing, let’s say, a cup of coffee. We asked her for money and without even asking us why we wanted it she said no. She then cut us off before we could even begin pleading for her to reconsider her decision and walked out of the kitchen. At that moment three things came together.

First, we really wanted the money. I mean we really wanted some money. Second, Ginny had left her purse on the kitchen table. Third, we knew it would be wrong to open Ginny’s purse, find her wallet, and take some money. Our hesitation about taking the money was not based simply on the fear of punishment if we got caught, though punishment there would have been. We also knew at some level that it would be wrong to take the money without permission, though at that age we could never have articulated the ethical arguments, what our specific moral responsibilities were to others nor what the possible impact of the act would have been on our characters. We had no idea what ethical prima facie duties, consequences, and virtues were in play.

We sat at the kitchen table with Ginny’s purse between us and discussed options. I must say, it didn’t take us long to find a solution, probably the only solution, to our dilemma.

We did indeed retrieve Ginny’s wallet from her purse, which I remember was a big black bag more than a small purse. We took one dollar from her wallet, left the kitchen, and walked to the front of the house. We turned right on the sidewalk and walked to the corner of the block. Jeff dropped the dollar on the sidewalk and we began to walk around the entire block at a normal pace. Two things here are vitally important. First, we agreed we had to walk around the entire block, not just down the street a ways and then turn around. Second, it was imperative that we walked at a normal pace. We forbade ourselves from running or even walking fast.

When we had walked completely around the block and had returned to our starting point, we “found” a dollar on the sidewalk—not the dollar, but a dollar. Jeff picked it up and we went to the store. Problem solved.  

 Ethics, while necessary for nurturing a good life, living morally, and resolving ethical dilemmas, is almost always messy work. We can never get out of it completely clean, and it is an illusion to think we can. There is no universal principle, or theoretical abstraction, or even methodological nicety that will keep us completely free from life's conflicts and contradictions. There is nowhere to go to escape ethics. No one can spare us of its difficulties. If we want to participate in life, we cannot avoid getting our hands dirty. And that’s exactly what Jeff and I did. We got our metaphorical hands dirty.

I’m quite confident that if after we had returned to the corner and found the dollar gone, we would have dropped the whole thing. The only way we could justify taking the money was by finding the money. Quite elegant, and I suspect many a financier and politician have reasoned the same. Finding money on the street is not stealing. And through some convoluted mental and moral maneuver we assumed that the act of finding would negate any harm to Ginny. Finding negated stealing which negated doing harm to another, as well as to ourselves. To our very young minds it was a somewhat sophisticated solution.

It’s all bullshit, of course. By bullshit I mean that our decision and act were indifferent to the way things really are. That’s not to say we didn’t care about what was true, but rather that we had come up with a strategy that we believed was true. As Harry G. Frankfurt said in On Bullshit: “[T]he essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”[1] We played the truth to our benefit. In reality we stole a dollar from Ginny, but by conflating “to steal” and “to find” in our minds, we could put aside how things really were and buy the candy bars.

Of course I’ve often wondered if Ginny left her purse on the kitchen table on purpose, and not as an oversight or because she assumed that we would never steal from her. Now as an adult, I think she left it there on purpose. However, she never questioned us about it, so who knows. If she had, and we had told her what we had done, I suspect she would have found it humorous and perhaps ingenious, before punishing us.

There is one last thing. If you are going to try and game the ethical system there is always a moment when you are morally exposed, and that’s usually at the beginning of the con. The only way we could morally justify taking a dollar out of Ginny’s wallet was by finding the dollar on the sidewalk. The finding cleansed us of immorality. The problem was, of course, we couldn’t find the dollar before we stole it. The timing was not just difficult, it was unavoidable. Our moment of exposure was the actual taking of the dollar out of the wallet. So, when we walked out of the kitchen, to the front of the house, and down to the corner, was the dollar stolen, barrowed, or nonexistent?

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press,  2005, p. 47.

Tuesday
Dec192017

What Would Women Do Without Christmas Mansplaining?

On July 12, 2016 I posted a blog called Dancing Alone at 3 A.M. It was a kind of confession that late at night, or rather early in the morning, I can become a somewhat sentimental jerk. I wrote:

"If I’m watching TV I’m more susceptible to sentimentality. I abhor sentimentality, except when it’s 3 a.m. I can be reduced to tears by a sentimental sugar coated film that I would not even contemplate watching at 9 p.m. Indeed, I would mock it without mercy at 9 p.m. Is this detour into schmaltziness good for me? I don’t really know. I’ve learned to accept it, however, in my defense this acceptance took years. I would never watch these horrible cheap morality plays created to manipulate my emotions and not nourish my mind and spirit if I knew someone could see me watching."

I’m afraid that during the Christmas season things get even worse. I seek out romantic Christmas stories that inspire me to take up heavy drinking, really heavy drinking. These are Christmas morality plays guaranteed to help us learn the true meaning of Christmas, at least if you’re a woman. If you’re a man, then not. According to many of these films, if you are a man you already know the true meaning of Christmas, which is to teach some poor sod of a woman the true meaning of Christmas. Simply really.

Many of these Christmas gems center around a female character. She is often wealthy and materialistic. She always lives in a big city like New York. Often she has a good, if not powerful job. She is often in a relationship with a shit of a man of whom we learn fairly quickly is selfish, obsesses over his job, is dismissive of her desires, and sometimes cheats. And for some reason, most likely business, our leading lady has to leave the big city and go to a small town. Oh, and she is always young, beautiful, intelligent, and, despite first indicators, a decent human being.

It is in the small town that we meet our leading man. He is the salt of the earth. Often he works in a simply but noble job—he manages a country in, or is trying to establish a catering business, or is an architect who teaches hockey to trouble boys in his spare time, or he struggles to make ends meet in his community center where he feeds homeless people. He is well known, liked, and respected in the town. If he is wealthy and in a powerful job, he is the most decent of men and only wants to use his wealth to help others. Often he wants to experience Christmas as it is meant to be experienced, as it was when he was a small boy, before he took on the burdens of the world, not to mention all that money. And while he may appear standoffish when we first meet him, which is usually when he first meets our leading lady, he has a good reason. It’s usually a broken heart or anxiety about his desire to save the world, or at least the small town.

The town is the true America. It has struggles, of course, but overcomes them all. It has its poor, but they are treated decently and with respect. (Poverty isn’t ever eliminated, however, for reason that are self-explanatorily American.) Everyone helps everyone else. They all know the true meaning of being an American and of Christmas, which is, of course, the same thing.

Our leading lady enters this town with some hesitation and judgement. She doesn’t really want to be there. She either has no time for Christmas or only embraces Christmas materialism. But, thank God, she meets our leading man who introduces her to—through love—the virtues of small town America and the true meaning of Christmas. She learns both by observing our leading man as he helps people in the town. It’s best if there is some kind of crisis in town. A blizzard that threatens the people and necessitates they pull together. Or a threatened factory closure. Or a threatened business take over from an evil big city corporation. Our leading lady observes all these simply but pure people helping each other and eventually engages in an unprompted act of giving or helpfulness that symbolizes here transformation. We see by her facial expression she is proud of herself! The leading man is more than likely pleasantly surprised, indeed moved, by her selfless act and realizes that he has actually fallen in love with her, as she has with him.

It’s doubtful the leading lady would have realized her transformation without first falling in love. Romantic love becomes necessary for epiphany and transformation. While the man is not transformed, he is healed—his broken heart beats again with love.

So, what do we learn at 3 a.m. watching Christmas schmaltz?:

  • The real America is found in small towns, not big cities. If you want to find the true meaning of Christmas you better high-tale it to some small town and fast.
  • Women have a lot to learn about the meaning of Christmas. Thanks God there are men to do a little mansplaining and manmonstrating.
  • You are doomed to failure in your quest for the true spirit of America and Christmas if you don’t fall into romantic love. Pretty much the kiss seals the deal.

Last night I was watching one of these gems and I kept assuming all the members of the town voted for Trump. It ruined the whole damn thing. Going down on them like a bitch and grabbing them by the pussy doesn’t quite seem like the appropriate way to teach the little lady the true meaning of Christmas. But, I could be wrong. After all 53% of women did vote for him.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Dec052017

A Christmas Carol for Billionaires

{Each year I reflect on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Given that a billionaire occupies the White House and seems to be leaving behind the left behind, and that the Republican Party members of or owned by the American oligarchy has just passed a tax bill that, well, leaves behind millions of Americans, it seems more than appropriate to again read about A Christmas Carol. Dickens did not write the sweet tale that made it to our movie screens: This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!"}

Scrooge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

One of the saddest events in popular culture is the continual distortion of a great literary character through the romanticizing of Tiny Tim, transforming him into a sentimental, sweet character, whom we can first pity and then exploit, using him like a sponge to soak up our spilt Christian goodness. In fact, Tiny Tim is one key to "Keeping Christmas well”.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the first of five "Christmas Books" written from 1843 to 1848. In each book a central character suffers from a loss of faith in human dignity, but is eventually brought to realize the value of human spirit. The transformation each character goes through, and we must call it a transformation and not simply a change of mind or even heart, is accomplished through spirit intervention, or in other words, by spiritual means. In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote he hoped the story would "Awake some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." In fact, he wrote the story because, in his opinion, "Keeping Christmas well" was out of season all the time. Dickens' ultimate hope was, of course, that through the power of his narratives the reader would, like the main characters, be transformed as well.

A Christmas Carol is not about a sweet little crippled boy, but instead is about the social conditions of Dickens' Britain. The story had (and still has) a strong social message. In and through the story, Dickens was appealing in general to the people of Britain to lead less selfish lives, and in particular to the rich to take seriously their duty of care for those less fortunate. He had visited Cornish tin mines early in 1843 and saw children laborers at work. He visited the Field Lane Ragged School in London, one of several institutions trying to educate hungry and illiterate children. After these experiences, he wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. During the writing of the "hymn" he said in a letter that he "wept and laughed and wept again...and in thinking walked the black streets of London...when all sober folks had gone to bed". In fact, the magic and mystery of his literary hymn exhibited a "strange mastery" over him, but a mastery of joy and love which he was impatient to return to each working day.

Dickens had a lot to weep and laugh about. For years the poor had not only been neglected by society, but also lived under the burden of a social philosophy and political policies that actually justified that neglect. In 1803 Thomas Malthus wrote the essay entitled Principle of Population. In it Malthus argued that any human being that could not be supported by his or her parents, and could not provide labor that was useful and required by society, had "no claim or right to the smallest portion of food." He went on to say that such people also had "no business" even being in society and that their death would "decrease the surplus population."

When society refuses people food, shelter, and work, there is only one place for them to go, or to be, and Scrooge, the character representing the Malthusian position, had no difficulty in saying precisely where or what that place was -- death. Scrooge, of course, had no time for the celebration of the child of salvation. For him Tiny Tim, whose parents could not support him and whose ill health made it impossible for him to become a good laborer for society, could simply die. When just before Christmas Scrooge was asked to make a contribution to help provide for the "Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present," people in the thousands lacking common necessities and in the hundreds of thousands wanting common comforts, he responded:

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman laying down his pen again.
”And the Union Workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? said Scrooge.
"Both very busy. sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

The gentlemen, not giving up, explained to Scrooge that such provisions hardly "furnished Christmas cheer of mind or body to the multitudes" and that they were collecting funds to give the poor "meat and drink, and a means of warmth." But again Scrooge refused to give saying he wished to be left along. He then said, in full Malthusian passion:

"I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they coast enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Hope and warning are powerfully told when Scrooge met the Spirit of Christmas Present. As the evening passed the Spirit took Scrooge to homes where they stood beside the bedsides of the sick who, nonetheless, were cheerful. They visited those who struggled and were still living in great hope. They visited those who lived in poverty and were rich in spirit. And they visited the almshouses, hospitals, prisons where people experienced misery but had not "made fast the door and barred the Spirit out" thus allowing him to enter their misery and give the gift of blessing.

As the long night unfolded before him, time and space seemed to lose meaning for Scrooge, except that he noticed the Spirit was growing visibly older. He asked if life was so short for all spirits and the Spirit replied that his life would end that very night at midnight. As the chimes rang three quarters past eleven, with death approaching, hope turned to warning. Scrooge saw something in the folds of the Spirits clothing...

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here!" exclaimed the Ghost. "They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.”

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit if for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end! “Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.” Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no work-houses?"
The bell struck twelve.

Dickens speaks with passion and power about the Spirit of Salvation. He sings the Spirit's blessings, for where he visits there is health, joy, home, and hope. Where the Spirit smiles, needs are met and comforts are offered. Dickens does not, however, sentimentalize the vision, for wrapped within the very clothing of the Spirit is the misery caused by human thought and deed. We shutter when we realize that the grotesque monsters revealed are the results of human exploits. We reel at the devils before us are in fact human beings and, once again, children. We desperately reach for a self-defense, any self-defense, when we are reminded that such human suffering belongs not to God but to us. We ache when we see how the suffering cling to the Spirit and look upon us with fear.

Perhaps it is time we re-read Dickens. If we were to "keep Christmas well" we would experience the wholeness of salvation's blessings. We would be filled with joy and pierced through the heart. In this world, both must be ours.

A Christmas Carol Scrooge ends with these words:

Scrooge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every one!

 Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Nov282017

My Moment with Charles Manson

Manson at Corcoran State Prison, August 2017Charles Manson is dead. He died on November 17, 2017 of natural causes at the age of 83. I suspect for the vast number of people who remember him the, reaction upon hearing the news was “good riddance.” Having said that, he did, or does, have a cult following. The underground debated whether or not he was just a sick bastard or Christ returned. The Weather Underground positively loved the killings. Vincent Bugliosi in a prologue to the 1994 edition of his book Helter Skelter, a book about the murders and the Manson Family, quoted a BBC staff member claiming a neo-Manson cult exits in Europe, including seventy bands that play songs by Manson and songs in support of the killer. There are half a dozen popular songs written about Manson, including Revolution Blues by Neil Young, Look at Your Game, Girl by Guns N’ Roses. And there are at least seven works of fiction devoted to Manson’s story, including: Helter Skelter a drama for TV; the film Manson Family Movies; the novel Dead Circus; and a Broadway musical called Assassins that focuses the Manson Family.

Manson lived a lot of his life in California State Prison at Corcoran, but on September 25, 1984 he was sent to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, California. He needed medical care because a fellow inmate named Jan Holmstrom poured paint thinner on him and lit a match. Manson ended up with second and third-degree burns on 20 percent of this body. Apparently Mason had objected to Holmstrom’s Hare Krishna chants.

The medical facility at Vacaville is a prison. It was there that I met Manson. The inmates at Vacaville called it the Holiday Inn of Prisons. The hallways were painted much like my high school and many other institutional buildings. When I was visiting the prison most inmates could roam fairly freely for many hours of each day. I went to group therapy sessions, the chapel, the medical ward, and visited with individual inmates.  

In addition to the medical wing, I remember two other distinct wards. One was an honors ward where inmates with good behavioral records were housed. At the entrance of the ward was a painted line and an inmate seated at a small table. He greeted me and the guard who was giving me a tour of the prison. The guard explained that I was being shown the prison and stepped over the line. The inmate quickly got up, welcomed us, and said he would announce our presence in case any of the inmates were going to the toilet (the toilets in the cells, or houses as the inmates called them, were completely visible to anyone looking through the cell door window). The guard said that was not necessary because I could see whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and proceed down the ward. I hung back behind the line, nodded to the inmate, and let him check each cell before I entered.

The guard wasn’t a bad man. It’s just that he worked inside an organism with its own rules of conduct and decency. While he would never watch someone going to the toilet outside the prison, inside he lived by different and distorted rules. He was a guard and they were inmates. Not much more to say. I had not yet been in the organism long enough to be infected and thus for my understanding of proper conduct and decency to be challenged. I wondered if, suspected that, if I lived long enough inside the belly of this Holiday Inn beast I to would be compromised.

The section ward in the prison that remains vivid in my memory after all these years was the high security ward where serious offenders were kept and movement was more restricted. When Manson was not in the medical facility, he was in the high security ward. I can’t remember why I entered this ward, but at the time I was on my own.

Manson's booking photo for San Quentin State Prison in California on January 25, 1971.WikiMedia CommonsThere was a narrow circular steel staircase, I think painted green, leading up to the second level. I began walking up that staircase and about midway I realized someone was descending. Because the staircase was so narrow I stopped and squeezed myself against the railing to let the other person pass by. When the man coming down the staircase reached me, he stopped and faced me. It was Charles Manson. We stood face to face, nose to nose, looking in each other’s eyes. We were almost touching. We could smell each other. I wasn’t frightened, just surprised. I knew Manson was in the prison, but of course never thought I’d meet him. Nor did I want to meet him. We stood there staring at each other until he said hello and continued walking down the stairs. As he squeezed by I also said hello and then proceed up to the second level.

On the drive back down to the Bay Area I thought about this brief yet intense, almost intimate, encounter. His gaze was deeply concentrated, but wouldn’t that be so for most any inmate crammed up so close, belly to belly, to an outsider. I was not mesmerized. I was not impressed. I did not feel special or excited. Still, it was interesting being so close to someone so utterly brutal who had mesmeric influences over others. Is interesting the right word? Yes and no. The encounter was also something else, slightly beyond the intellectual. Something also visceral.

You’ll be happy to know that I didn’t become a cult member or seek out The Family. I didn’t read his writings, sing is songs, or write a book all about a grizzle murder conducted by a man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead. Still, I haven’t forgotten the encounter after all these years, and goodness knows I’ve forgotten most everything else.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger