Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Italian Earthquake

Like many of you, my heart goes out to the people affected by the devastating earthquake that hit central Italy this morning. The damage spans several regions, with Umbria and Lazio looking like they've sustained the most deaths.

I'm no expert on Italy, but I've visited several times, including one extended vacation to a hill town in Umbria close to Perugia, the epicenter of today's quake. We stayed in an apartment that was built in the 1500s, with several big holes cut into the remarkably thick walls that allowed for plumbing and electricity to be added centuries later. That little town, Todi, was very much like the towns stricken today: a blend of very old and current, with infrastructure a patchwork of modern placed over or alongside ancient.

The hill towns of central Italy have been racked by earthquakes since they were settled, and every few years one or two towns are basically obliterated. That's just a fact, albeit a sad one, and one Italians are always aware of.

It's clear that the affected towns need an awful lot of help, and I urge you to do what you can to aid in their survival. In my experience, there is a lot of international help offered while the dust is still settling, help that an individual can't do much to enhance. When you need earth-moving equipment and jackhammers to rescue people, you need them right now. But the flurry of concern will die down as soon as the rubble is cleared. That's when I think it's more important to find a way to help.

Each of these towns will have building projects to repair their historic churches, landmarks, and piazzas, and they'll need all the funds they can get. If you're the type of person who will forget about this in six months, by all means--give now. But if you can remember to check back on the affected towns in six months or a year, I'm sure your contributions will more likely go to a specific project--rather than the general operations of a rescue organization. There's nothing wrong with keeping the Red Cross going, of course. But if you've been moved by a 12th century church that's lost its campanile, check back and see if you can direct your financial help to that specific spot.

I'm going to try to keep on top of this, and I'll post an update in a few months, suggesting appeals I've learned of. Having lived in Southern California, I'm very aware of how long it takes for the abject fear to settle down after a significant quake. Having to live with a low level of panic for months while having the very soul of your historic city lying in ruins around you must be an awful combination. Let's hope all of the survivors are rescued as quickly as possible, and let's do our best to help these small, significant towns survive.

Forza e coraggio!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

My Last Word On The 2016 Election

Despite my earlier vow to myself to limit my immersion in this shit-show of an election, I keep being pulled back in. So now I'm going to publicly sign off for the season, hoping I have too much pride to go back on my word.

I hate to insult those of you who've fallen under the spell of the Republican nominee, but I have to face reality. If the things he's said and done haven't convinced you that he would harm our republic, you're beyond my reach. 

If you're going to vote for HRC, you don't need my encouragement, and if you're not, I'm sure I can't change your mind. That leaves us to state and re-state the same things to like-minded people, like dogs chasing our own tails. I'm officially dizzy.

I'm puzzled, dismayed, angry, and in a state of near-despair to see how many people have fallen for a bad man with bad ideas. It sickens me to see how proud so many are of their blatant prejudices. I want to weep at the joy I see in people's eyes who are finally given permission to unleash their hatred of the foreign born, minority groups of all stripes, and women. I am sure there are people who are voting Republican who aren't racists/sexists/xenophobes. But how can you be antagonistic to those beliefs yet vote for someone who personifies them? It's unconscionable.

I look back at 2012 and think of how critical I thought that election was. What a naive child I was! Mitt Romney would have rolled back a lot of progress we'd made, but he wasn't one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse! He seemed to believe in the first amendment, and having good relations with the rest of the world, and living up to the treaties we've signed and all sorts of things we've always assumed a president would automatically do. But all of that seems like a different time. A kinder, gentler time.

Being president is a difficult job, one that's getting tougher every single day. Personally, I think you have to be slightly mad to want the damn job. But someone has to do it, and I'd sleep better at night knowing that the person who has their finger on the button has experience, patience, intelligence and perspective. 

The worst traits for a president to have are narcissism, grandiosity, a thin-skin, grudge-holding and a lack of empathy. Those traits are the primary ones that make up the Republican nominee. Add in a deep lack of curiosity, an aversion to reading, a very short attention-span, and an explosive temper and you have a simmering brew that could do us irreparable harm.

I would do nearly anything to see Hillary Clinton win this race. But I'm not enough of a narcissist to believe I can influence the outcome. For my sanity--I'm out.


Monday, July 11, 2016

GCLS 2016

Thoughts on the Con:

In the past few months I've been whining about how little I hear from readers. I love praise--who doesn't--but that's not specifically what I seek. I simply want some interaction with the people who read my work. I love writing with all my heart, but it's isolating--especially when it's your full-time job and you work at home.

What I think I'd forgotten was that I haven't been to the GCLS conference for three years, and hadn't gotten my infusion of interaction/feedback/love that the Con provides. Having just returned from Washington, I feel like my tank is full once again, and, with luck, all of that interaction will power me for quite a few months. I'm not able to go to Women's Week in P'town this year, so it's going to have to last a full year, but I got so many good vibes that I think it might.

For those of you who haven't gone, I'd suggest making it a priority. Many, if not most, of the people who go are on the shy side, so don't use that as an excuse. Not having anyone to go with shouldn't stop you either. There's a great program for Con Virgins that will hook you up with a buddy, not to mention the built-in camaraderie from meeting the other first timers. Having limited economic resources shouldn't put a crimp in your plans, either. There are scholarships that can help or fully pay for your admission and there are always people ready, willing, and able to share a room.

In recent years, writers have begun to make up a larger and larger percentage of the attendees. In my opinion, we should do all we can to reverse that trend. Without readers, we're just writing for ourselves--a fine hobby, but not nearly as much fun as having an audience. In particular, I'd love to see the people who are relatively or completely isolated as lesbians/bisexual/trans women in their communities. I live in New York City, a place where you can't sneeze without hitting a gay person, yet I get a real high from being surrounded by women with whom I have one big thing in common. Well, two. Besides being gay, we all love reading and writing, or we love a woman who does.

I've been a member of GCLS since the beginning, and I will acknowledge that there have been some growing pains through the years. But the current board has learned from the mistakes of the past and seem to me to be committed to making this an inclusive, open-minded, fiscally sound group that's worthy of your support. But even if you don't care about the organization, I can guarantee some fun times after the official schedule is finished for the day. It's fun to take over the bar in a big hotel and let the female energy flow!

Next year's Con is in Chicago, a place I lived for much of my young adult life, and the place I met my wife. I'm very much looking forward to going, and if you need any convincing, drop me a note. I can be very persuasive .

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March 6

Today's an important day for me. It's the birthday of two people who had outsized impacts on my life: my dad and my dear friend Anne Brisk.

My dad died a few years before I met Anne, but I'm certain they would have loved each other. They were, in many ways, alike. Both were a bit larger-than-life, both loved a well-made drink, and both loved to tell and listen to a good story.

Now that I think of it, both of them came from similar backgrounds. My dad was happy to stay in his blue-collar, lower middle class slot, but Anne longed for the big city, big culture and big ideas. Luckily, she was able to move to NYC as a young woman. Few people appreciate what the city had to offer as much as she did, and she spent her free time gobbling it up.

My dad, on the other hand, was really content to sit in his back yard and listen to the Cardinals on the radio. Every year my mother tried to get him to go to Europe with her. She'd never been, and really had a strong desire to see at least a few parts of it. His answer was always the same. "I've been there." My mom would remind him that going over on a troop transport in 1943 and laying sewer pipe in Belgium for a couple of years was not quite the same as flying over and seeing La Tour Eiffel. But he was unbending. He had simple tastes, simple needs, and loved predictability. Luckily, my mother outlived my dad and finally got to travel a little. God knows my dad would never have changed his mind!

I learned to listen to people and their stories from my dad, and I learned to write stories in a better way from Anne. I owe them both more than I can say, but all I can do for either of them at this point is remember them. They say you live until no one thinks of you any longer. Both of them will continue on as long as I'm alive.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why It's So Much Fun To Live With Me

Last night, my wife and I were to meet at a restaurant in Manhattan at 6 pm before going to see a play.

We live in Brooklyn, and my usual train is about 17 stops from 42nd St. I usually take the "F," but the "G" also stops at the same station.

Let me make it clear that I have no sense of direction. I'm also prone to being distracted, especially when I'm in a good writing mood--which I am at the moment.

I knew I'd have to change trains, no matter which I took, since neither the "F" nor the "G" goes to the 42nd St. stop I wanted. So I got on the "G." A few stops later, I got to the correct spot to switch to the "A."

I've lived in NYC for 13 years now, and have taken the "A" train hundreds of times. But I haven't taken it often from Brooklyn. That's a weak defense, but it's all I've got.

I hopped on the first "A" train that was going in the same direction my "G" train had been going and proceeded to space out. I was idly daydreaming until I heard, "Ralph." Ralph? There's a Ralph Street? How could I have never heard of such an oddly named street? Then I started to pay attention. For the next six stops, I marveled that I'd never heard of any of them. Van Siclen, Liberty, Shepard... This was kinda cool! How had I missed all of these names? I must have really been zoning out for the last 13 years!

Then the subway climbed out into the sun. What? The "A" train doesn't go aboveground on the way to Manhattan. But it is, so it must! We're chugging along, with fewer and fewer people on the train--the exact opposite of what should be happening at rush hour. But none of this makes an impact on me. I just think I'm learning something new!

Finally, I look out the window and see, in the relatively close distance, an airplane that's only a few hundred feet off the ground. That doesn't happen often in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I jump up and look out the window, seeing low buildings and a stream of jets, lined up one right after the other. Holy Fuck! I'm almost at JFK!

I got off at the next stop, crossed over to the proper side and called my patient wife, who was now at the restaurant. "Go to 'Find My iPhone' and try to guess how I got here," I said. (I love to give her little detective games to play.)

I was in Ozone Park, just next to Aqueduct Racetrack, a few stops from JFK. 21 stops from my the wrong direction.

We were able to text, since I was aboveground, and she agreed to have dinner alone and meet me at the play. She's a kind soul, since she brought me a snack, which I wolfed down in the lobby of the theater. I spent 2 hours on a trip that should have taken 45 minutes at the outside.

Here's the funny thing. I'll do this again in the future. And will be just as amazed. "Wow, I didn't know the "A" train ran aboveground..." It'll happen. Guaranteed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vanity Fair by Wm. Makepeace Thackeray

It took me a month, but I finally finished!

I'm not sure if I was distracted when I began the book, or if it was just hard to get into, but the first 50-75 pages were very slow going. I got through them, then put the book aside, assuming I'd not return.

To my surprise, we were sent to London for a month and I decided to pull it up on my Kindle during the flight over. The next 50 pages were a little slow, too, but once I got into it I was always in a hurry to get back to the hotel room and chew on it a little more.

According to my Kindle numbers, the book was about 850 pages. Yes, it would have been more palatable to modern tastes if it was half that size. But if you look at it as a very long look at everyday life of upper and upper middle class Londoners of the early 19th century, it's a perfect length.

I suppose I just gave away the plot! Actually, the plot is very simple and classic. We follow two young women, one good and wealthy, the other bad and poor. We meet their immediate and extended families, and quickly come to know the men they love and their families as well. We learn that being good and kind is better than being avaricious and manipulative. But we also learn that the ride is more fun when the bad girl is driving.

By the time we're really into the book we've met at least 75 people, and most of them show up again and again. Some are caricatures, most are stereotypes, and a few are more complexly drawn. But Thackeray was writing at the beginning of the creation of the novel, and many of the stereotypes were fresh when he used them.

He's most interested and fond of the bad girl and her badish husband. Because it's obvious he's more interested in her, we are as well. But he dutifully tries to make the good girl interesting for us too. I suppose he was one of the early novelists who realized that bad boys and bad girls hold our interest more. There's more to them and their wily motives and that's been true since people have tried to tell stories.

Aside from the main plot, the book, as I said earlier, is a good way to immerse yourself in 19th century London and its environs. The characters are for the most part middle class, which was pretty nice at the time. They all have maids and butlers and cooks and various other servants. Labor at the time was almost free. I've read the typical household servant made two or three pounds a year, plus room and board. Given that they didn't spend much at all on the board part, servants were affordable if you had any income at all.

How money was spent probably took up 20% of the book. Fortunes rose and fell quickly, often with little warning. It seemed that you could live well on a very small income, but most of our characters aren't interested in that. They want to live very well, and that takes a bit more scratch. Getting that scratch takes a lot of time and trickery, and that was the most interesting part of the book for me.

I wouldn't want to read novels like this very often, but I'm glad I read this one. I feel like I have a much better understanding of how England functioned at the time. Given this was the high point of colonialism, it was a very important time in world history. If you have a free month, give it a whirl.

BTW, if you want some background, read "What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens Knew," or "Behind Closed Doors:Life in Georgian England."Then you'll have a much better idea of money, food, social habits, etc.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sure there are zillions of things wrong with Franzen and this book, but I don't care if it's trying to be the great American novel or not. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it highly. However, if you hate Franzen, why torture yourself? Just acknowledge that you hate the book and don't bother reading it.

I'd hate to be the guy people put so much heat on. I think he's just a writer who tries to express himself. But he doesn't need my approval to keep writing. At least I hope he doesn't!

I liked Freedom because I cared about the characters. They were all flawed, but he spent enough time to make us care about them as we'd care about anyone we knew that much about. I think that's what Franzen does best, and it's a skill I don't think you can pick up. Either you care enough to deeply observe and report what you think makes people tick--or you don't. If more writers could follow his lead, I'd be a happier reader.

There are plenty of reviews detailing the plot of the book, but I'll give it a quick summary. The main characters are Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet in Minnesota during college. Their friends and family and co-workers get drawn into the book as time passes, and by the end almost 30 years have zipped by.

I thought the book was pretty light hearted in some ways, even though a lot of bad things happen. But the characters have some inner gumption that keeps them going for the most part. Maybe that's why people tag it as the great American novel. We have a tendency to keep striving and trying to better ourselves and the world. At least we used to, but that's a topic for another day.

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