Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Story and the Art

My Uncle Claude, a great old guy, died on Saturday. For the past ten years, he and his wife had been fighting to recover a painting that belonged to his family before they lost it during their escape from Nazi Germany. The painting, by Camille Pissarro, now hangs in a museum in Spain, worth an estimated $20 million. The museum has refused to return it, arguing, in essence, that they stole it fair and square. Such is the fate of much of the art looted by the Nazis.

This news story, which ran a few days before my uncle's death, provides the basic information.

I don't know if my uncle's family will succeed in their quest to recover the painting. Legal developments look promising at the moment, and I certainly hope truth and right will win in the end. I just wish my uncle could have lived to see it.

In my story "Liberation," there's a small bit about a painting brought from Germany to the U.S. by Jewish escapees from the Nazi regime. I don't think I realized when I wrote that part that I was telling a family story, or tweaking it to make it right.

Set against the enormity of the Holocaust, one recovered painting isn't much. But it's what my uncle wanted, and it's no more than he deserved.

This is for you, Uncle Claude. I hope the story, the art, turns out the way it was meant to.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oil's Well That Ends Well

Reports are that as of Sunday, the relief well that BP dug to intersect with the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well has served its purpose: the flow of oil into the Gulf has stopped.

This is, of course, good news. The bad news is that, in the meantime, untold millions of gallons have gushed into the Gulf. The biota, non-human and human, in the affected area will never be the same.

The well blew on April 20. It's now September 22. That's five mighty momentous months.

If this incident has taught us any lesson, it's that some things are far easier to start than to stop. Wars. Wildfires. Love affairs.

And, gee, wells.

Will the closing of the BP well mark a moment of rebirth, or simply a pause in the ruinous train of consequences that brought us to this point? When we look back at this event twenty years from now, will we see this day as a boost for clean energy, or a reprieve for its dirty predecessor?

It's impossible to say. On the one hand, even as I write, new wells--oil and natural gas--are being dug, around the world as well as in my own backyard. On the other, a growing coalition of activists, scientists, and politicians is moving, however haltingly, in the direction of a new energy future.

We commemorate September 11 as the day our nation was confronted with, and triumphed over, a great evil. Let's hope that, years from now, we remember its double--September 22--in somewhat the same way, as a triumph over our own worst instincts and as a birthday for the good.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Talk to the Hand

My latest crusade is to get my students to stop talking to their hands.

And staring at them. And caressing them. And waving their other hand over them.

So far, I've had exactly zero success.

If you don't know what I mean, just take a look around you. There are an awful lot of people talking to their hands. On the streets, in cars, at work, in restaurants, at ball games, at playgrounds, just about everywhere you go, there they are: people talking to their hands.

Apparently, there's something more fascinating about their own hands than the people, places, and things around them. Apparently, their hands contain mystical portals to an alternative realm of experience vastly more captivating and worthwhile than the realm you and I call reality.

In college, most students have the good graces, and the good sense, not to talk to their hands during class. (Some, however, can't resist, and I've had to humiliate them publicly as a result.) But the moment they walk out the classroom door, no matter what we were talking about inside--Descartes or Art Deco, World War II or Timbuktu, Thoreau or Theroux--and no matter what's going on in the wider world around them--a riot, an exhibit, a flower unfolding its petals--they're right back to talking to their hands.

It puzzles me. Never having had (or desired to have) anything in my hand worth talking to, I just can't imagine what they find so intoxicating there.

But I guess there must be something. My students, much less the whole world, certainly couldn't be wrong and I alone be right.

Still, I wonder. If we are to become a society of hand-talkers, what will become of other parts of our bodies (including our brains)? What will become of those places our bodies have traditionally found it convenient to inhabit (such as the planet earth)? What will become of friendship, love, compassion, conviction, intellectual stimulation, art, music, laughter, and poetry if all we want to do is talk to our hands?

Unless, of course, our hands start talking back. Now that would be nirvana.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Memoriam

During today’s September 11 remembrances, I heard a man state that no matter how bad things got, “what we have to remember is that we’re the greatest nation on earth.”

It always depresses me to hear people say that. Not, however, because I don’t think America is great. I do. But because it’s precisely that attitude that historically, and to this day, has supported everything about America that is not great.

Yes, we have a great nation. We have considerable personal liberty (though significant aspects of it have been chipped away in the aftermath of September 11). We have a participatory democracy, flawed as it is. We have enormous material wealth, however unevenly it’s distributed and however damaging to the planet its consumption may be. We have an excellent medical system, even if many of our citizens have little or no access to it. We have a history of doing good for other nations (but also a history of bullying, dominating, and invading them). We have legal mechanisms by which to redress our most grievous social malignancies--racism, sexism, and so forth--but we also have no shortage of social malignancies for which legal redress is needed. We have. . . . But need I go on?

The point is, America’s greatness is neither absolute (with respect to some ideal) nor relative (with respect to other nations). We’re neither the only great nation nor the greatest of all nations. When we believe we are--and we’ve believed in our exceptional status from the start, since the Puritans pronounced their colony “a city on the hill,” a God-favored community the entire world would be watching and envying--we authorize the worst excesses of American militaristic, moralistic, and materialistic power. When you believe you’re the greatest, what’s to stop you?

Other than a quartet of renegade planes, that is.


In memory of those who died on September 11, 2001 and the years that followed.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Going up in Flames

For those who cling to the illusion that natural gas is a cleaner, safer source of energy than oil--and that would include all the politicians, businesspeople, and lobbyists in my home state pushing natural gas drilling as the solution to our energy woes--yesterday's natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California might come as a shock. Following close on the heels of the BP oil well blowout, this massive explosion--which killed at least six people, wounded many others, destroyed over 50 homes, and smothered the horizon in flames--should tell us that there simply is no safe source of energy that involves drilling or burning.

To drill is to kill. If only to burn were to learn.

The California explosion didn't involve drilling, of course. But it still staggers the imagination that gas prospectors in my state--in my city--are talking about digging wells near, around, and even under people's homes. The stuff they're digging for isn't cotton candy, after all. It's a flammable, poisonous, deadly substance. It blows up. It makes people (and other living things) sick. It makes people (and others) die. And let's not forget that burning it does cause greenhouse gas emissions. Less is not none.

The more I think about this issue, the more I perceive our society to be paralyzed--unwilling or unable to move, to develop, to change. I keep wondering what it's going to take to jolt us out of this fossil fuel haze we're living in. A natural gas explosion that kills 10,000 people? An oil spill that we just can't plug? Yesterday's blast happened very near a public playground, which fortunately was deserted at the time. But is that what it's going to take?

I hope not. I hope no children are sacrificed on the altars of our addiction.

But I know that they are sacrificed every day: sickened, killed, brain-damaged, deprived of their present and future.

I read yesterday that Barack Obama, offered a free solar panel for the White House (one of the old, but still functional, panels installed by Jimmy Carter and removed by Ronald Reagan), refused to commit to the installation, his press secretary explaining that the issue was "complicated." Personally, I don't see the complication. He's got children. What kind of future does he want for them?

Apparently, one that's going up in flames.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Well, it took longer than I expected, but the 2010 issue of the journal Permafrost has just been published, with my short story "Liberation" within its pages. You can't get this one online, folks; you'll have to pay the big bucks if you want to read it! (Actually, it's really cheap, only $16 for a two-year subscription.) Follow the link here to order.

Just to whet your appetite, here are the story's first couple pages. Enjoy!


by J. David Bell

One remembers only that one remembers nothing.--Nadine Fresco, Remembering the Unknown

The Russians were kind to her, my grandmother said. The camps were full of stories, no one knew what to believe. But these Russians were kind and so gentle. They brought blankets, spare boots. They stole eggs from abandoned farms and offered the protein-starved inmates a thick, sloppy stew. Most could not eat, they vomited back up whatever they choked down. The Russians had a doctor, but he brought little for people in such condition, no antibiotics, nothing for sores or wounds or dysentery or typhus. All they could do for those too emaciated to walk was bear them in stretchers to convoys of horse-drawn wagons waiting to deliver them to the nearest unbombed medical facility, many miles away in bitter cold across snow-clad fields. The soldiers were efficient, disciplined; they heeded their officers’ commands with none of the brusqueness or grumbling one anticipated of military men long separated from home and assigned to such grim work. Some of them, men with unshaven faces and soiled overcoats, wept silently at the sight of the skeletal survivors. Others pulled prisoners aside and, in signs and broken language, spoke their secret solidarity: Jude, they said, laying a hand on their chests and nodding fervently. Jude. The prisoners, for their part, were too sick and incredulous at their rescue (though they’d heard the shells nearing for weeks) to respond with anything but stares.

My grandmother talked, and I took down everything she said, every word.

She sat in a wingback chair with a pale rose pattern, faded from the alcove sunlight. Crocheted doilies draped its back and arms. Her hands rested on her lap, unmoving, palms up; her head inclined gently to the right, an affectation from long years of diminished hearing. Her dark eyes hove behind her lenses, emerging, retreating. The room sweated, the bare iron radiators bristling with heat. Delicately, I asked her about the days before the liberation. She waved a hand.

Ah. That is water underneath the bridge. You have books, movies. For that you do not need me.

Don’t push too hard, Tam. My father’s wisdom. She doesn’t like to talk about it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

War and Piss

So the war in Iraq is over. Let the celebration begin!

Never mind the hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined, the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, during its seven-year run (almost two of which took place under Obama's watch).

Never mind that the drawdown of troops in Iraq is directly related to, and will be more than offset by, an escalation of combat in the equally unjustifiable and unwinnable war against Afghanistan.

Never mind that these twin wars helped leverage policies of illegal detention and interrogation ("torture" to the layman) that the Obama administration continues to practice.

Never mind that the antiwar movement in this country is dead, killed by its own and the general public's foolhardly faith that Obama would bring us Peace in Our Time.

Never mind any of that. I'm gonna grab me the first civilian gal I can find and plant a big public smooch on her for the cameras.