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Saturday
May052018

Justice in a Berlin Park

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...'”

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 Death in a Newcastle Alley. This week I am offering “Justice in a Berlin Park.


Berlin, Germany, June 1990

I awoke late on Sunday morning, showered, and left my hotel at about 11:30 a.m., wound my way to the news agent for the International Herald Tribune. The sun was shining and I found a small café in Tiergarten by the Neuer See not far from the Siegessaule. It was warm and green and the water of the small lake looked inviting,  just like in the tourist books. The café itself wasn't much to speak about, but served coffee, tea, orange juice sodas, donuts, cakes, and sandwiches. It was just one of those small white caravans with a small white yawning, several small white plastic tables and chairs, all overlooking the lake. The plastic tables and chairs you could find anywhere in the world. I imagined that someone somewhere were making them in massive quantities and shipping them around the planet.

I sat purposefully at a table in the sun. Directly in front of me was the lake and slightly to my left a park bench. Inbetween the bench and the lake was a footpath. The park was full of people enjoying the summer. Tourists and locals were intertwined in the new Berlin, a city without visible walls. As I watched the world enjoy this new summer, two couples approached and sat on the bench to my left. They had a picnic basket and the pleasant gleam of sweat on their bodies. They were young, healthy, strong, and beautiful. In the basket was bottled water, bread, cheese, and fruit. It was a delight to watch them set about their picnic, laughing and sharing.

As the couples ate, a number of pigeons attracted by the bread gathered before them on the footpath. First one picnicher, then the others, began feeding the pigeons with bread and good humour. Among the pigeons was an old slow moving pigeon, without the shine of youth on its feathers. Each time this old pigeon went for a bit of broken bread, its younger companions devoured it first. The picnickers noticed this too and began to go out of their way to feed the old pigeon. It was fascinating to watch, these young humans laughing and showing considerable concern for an old pigeon who only wanted a bit of bread. Finally, their efforts and sensitivity were rewarded and the old pigeon was fed. I smiled, they laughed and applauded.

Then, from up the path came an apparently old woman dressed in layers of rags. Over her shoulders and in her hands she carried paper and cloth bags of various sizes, all worn and filthy. She shuffled rather than walked, old black shoes sliding along the black paved path. Her body was slightly bent forward, as if to give some momentum to her movement. She wore a scarf over her head even though it was a warm sunny day. She looked weary, dirty, and hot, but I supposed that sleeping on the surface of the park in the cool of the night, she needed the layers and the scarf to keep warm. I wanted to know what she carried in her bags. Presumably, all that she possessed. But what did she possess?

As she so very slowly approached the two couples picnicking on the bench, she stopped and watched them feed the pigeons bits of bread. She no doubt saw their efforts and obvious compassion. She heard their laughter and pure joy when their compassion was rewarded.

She shuffled forward and the pigeons scattered into the air. As she moved slowly between the bench and the lake, she turned slightly toward the couples and began to extend her right hand toward them. What was this a gesture of? Hope? Further invitation to practise the virtue of compassion? The continued possibility of reward and laughter? It was, after all, simply a movement of her hand? Before she completed this motion, or even stopped her shuffle, one of the men yelled at her with an angry tone and face, and dismissively, almost violently, shooed her on with the back of his hand. The three others looked at her with disgust and anger. Without stopping, without any visible sign of hurt or humiliation, the old woman dropped her hand, turned back toward the path and continued her journey.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

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

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 hole 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

 

 

 

Wednesday
Nov152017

One Simple Question: Where are All the Massacres?

After each large mass shooting in the United States we are immediately told that the shooter is crazy and that the cause of the tragedy is not guns but mental illness. After the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Trump said:

This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very said event. A very, very sad event, but that’s the way I view it. 

It may be that the Texas murderer is mentally ill. It may be that all mass killers are mentally ill. And it may be that the United States has a mental health problem. But so do other countries. There are people with mental problems in every country on earth.

Studies have shown that approximately 26.% of Americans suffer from some kind of mental disorder, ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia. Around 27% of Europeans exhibit a wide range of mental problems. In Australia about 20% of people suffer some form of mental problems. In New Zealand 16% of people were diagnosed with some sort of mental health issue. And approximately 20% of Canadians experience mental problems. 

So, I have a simple question to ask our elected officials and the NRA:

If mass killings are a mental health issue and not a weapon ownership issue, where are all the massacres in, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, etc.?  

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Nov072017

The American Drama: Mass Killing, Prayers, Mental Illness, and Nothing

There’s been another mass shooting in America, this time in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As I write, 26 people were killed and about 20 people wounded by, yet again, a white male killer with a big gun. The big gun was a AR-15.

AR-15The AR-15 was invented by Eugene Stoner for the Armalite company. The AR stands for Armalite, not assault rifle. The rifle is loaded by a magazine that can hold anywhere from 10 to 75 bullets that feed automatically into the rifle as it is fired. 10 rounds is the legal limit in eight states, but not in the other 42 states. 50 round magazine, produced by companies like TorkMag and X-Products, are not uncommon. The AR-15 was the weapon of choice at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut; in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; at the business day party in San Bernardino, California. The Orlando shooter used the standard AR-15 magazines and bullets in his killing spree. And, of course, the killer in Las Vegas, who brought to his massacre 23 weapons, used an AR-15 with a bump stock, which turned his semiautomatic into an automatic killing machine allowing more than 500 shots per minute, and magazines holding between 50 and 75 rounds. (You may recall that legislation was suggested to outlaw the bump stock. To date that has not happened. Bump stocks went back on sales one month after 58 people were killed and numerous other wounded. Sales skyrocketed after the massacre.)

Though there is not an agreed definition of what a mass shooting is in America, the FBI identifies a mass shooting as one incident in which four or more people are shot or killed. On average one mass shooting occurs in the United States every 24 hours. Obviously, most of these shootings are not reported on the national news. There are just too many of them. They are too commonplace. However, the large mass shootings like the ones in Newtown, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, and Las Vegas are part of the national drama played out over and over again. What can we expect from this drama?

1) A Call for Thoughts and Prayers.

This is, of course, not unreasonable and from the vast majority of people the call for prayer comes from a place of genuine concern. However, there is a rising chorus of people frustrated by the “thoughts and prayers” response because that is where it ends. People are beginning to wonder if the call for prayers, particularly from the men and women who make our laws and could do something about this American drama, might function more as a distraction than a means of healing. If we’re all busy in the sacred duty of prayer we won’t be busy in the mundane, dirty business of talking about violence and weapons in American society.

There is also a theological issue at play here. Presumably Americans who pray believe in a god that intervenes in human affairs and individual lives. If so, what exactly do they want their god to do? Support? Heal? Stop the carnage?

President Obama’s two tweets after Sutherland Springs were interesting:

We grieve with all the families in Sutherland Springs harmed by this act of hatred, and we’ll stand with the survivors as they recover... May God also grant all of us the wisdom to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst.

The second tweet is instructive. Obama at least wants his god to grant us wisdom to at least ask about how we might reduce the killing. Bottom line: Whatever god Americans believe in, by whatever name they use to identify their god, that god will not stop the killing. Only we can do that, and I guess asking questions would be a start. But to date, our leaders have been unwilling to even do that. The price of even commonsense gun legislation is too high. The killing therefore will continue.

2) The Killer is Mentally Ill.

Well before any motive of why a person, usually a white male, decided to massacre people has been established, the person will be declared crazy, insane, unhinged, mentally ill by politicians. Trump made it clear that a man walking into a church armed with a AR-15 is a mental health issue, not a gun issue. As he pointed out that the US, like other countries, has a mental health problem. But arming mentally ill people with war-like weapons is not part of the problem.

3) Do Not Politicize the Tragedy.

Both GOP politicians and the conservative media demand that each mass shooting not be politicized in honor of the dead, the wounded, and the grieving. Any attempt to address gun violence in America is criticized and shut down. There is a suggestion that a time will come for such discussions, but somehow that time never arrives. This rule holds fast if the killer is a white male. It does not apply if the killer is a Muslim. If Muslim kills Americans, we talk politics immediately.

4) Arm the Citizenry.

Immediately after a mass killing there will be a call to arm everyone. Political leaders in Texas are urging churches to arm their members or at least hire security guards to protect them from fellow citizens. When it is suggested that a semiautomatic weapon like the AR-15 should once again be outlawed, the suggestion is called naïve, the point being that it is simply too late to outlaw the weapon. American society is so saturated with weapons legislation would only deny a lawful citizen the right to protect himself or herself. And so we have the image of a worship service with the congregation cradling their AR-15s, locked and loaded, because we know, as sure as we know the sun will rise, that another Sutherland Springs will occur.

5) Nothing.

We will mourn. We will pray. We will pontificate. And we will do nothing.

I have begun to wonder if the point that it is simply too late to deweaponize America is correct. There are just too many weapons. The Second Amendment has been so thoroughly reified. The ownership of weapons has been so completely linked to the concepts of freedom, liberty and the great American myth. And the weapons themselves have been deified beyond any point of reason and return. Killing each other is acceptable. We know it will happen. We play out our American drama with theatrical precision. We seek a bizarre realty where everyone carries weapons everywhere with the open acceptance that the killing will continue.

Death, at least in part, defines us. We embrace it in our ongoing dystopian American drama.

You, an individual among billions of individuals, will most likely not die do to gun violence. But if you want to increase your odds, I know where you should live.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger