Thursday, December 22, 2011

Novels and Stories

One thing I've discovered about writing novels: it definitely slows down one's ability to write short stories.


But seriously, since I've committed much of the past two years to novel-writing, my short story production has drastically slowed. I've got a bunch of half-finished stories in the hopper, some of which I'll try to complete, others of which are probably best left where they are. But I haven't been able to muster the time to work on them.

It's not just a time thing, either. The novel I'm currently revising is Young Adult fantasy fiction--requiring a very different voice and narrative approach than the experimental, literary short fiction I've been producing lately. So changing gears from the one to the other presents certain problems; it takes a period of decompression of whatever to move from one style and genre to another, radically different kind.

Case in point: I just completed a very short short story (1,700 words or so) titled "Girl Drives into Oncoming Traffic." I'm pleased with it, and I've started to send it out. It was short enough that I could write it in a week and thus not take too much time away from revising the novel. But its language and narrative were SO very different from what I'd been working on, it had a powerful effect on the novel when I returned to it--in the middle of a lovely, straightforward prose passage, I found myself spouting postmodern nihilism. I cleared it up, needless to say, but it was eerie seeing the hold a particular voice gains over you.

Eerie, but also encouraging. Sustaining a narrative voice is one of the hardest things about writing, especially writing longer works. You have to let the voice take control to a certain extent if you're going to keep it strong and consistent. So it was good to see how deeply the voice I'd created had taken on a life of its own.

But now, it's back to the novel. And to another long dry spell for all the other voices clamoring to get out.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What the Dog Saw

I just received word that my latest science fiction story, "What the Dog Saw," has been accepted by Bellow Literary Journal. It should be out early next year.

Warning: this is the story I mentioned a good long time ago (last year, I think, when I was first writing it) that possesses a very experimental voice. It can be off-putting--though interestingly, two or three journals that rejected it said they liked the voice but didn't like other aspects of the story! I personally think it's a pretty cool little piece, but consider yourself warned.

It's also interesting to note that the editor of Bellow spent some time working with me on this story to make it better. I say this is interesting because, in my personal experience, I've found editors of speculative fiction journals more willing than editors of straight-up literary journals to work with their writers. Several of my spec fic stories, including "Cats in the Backyard," "A Very Small Child Called Eugene," and "A Chimaera Story with Four Morals," were published only after some editorial changes, all of which made the stories better, in my opinion. Now, this might be a false comparison; it might be that my literary fiction just isn't good enough to get published in the journals that offer editorial assistance, so such stories of mine aren't even making it to that point. But it might also be that the editors of journals that specialize in genre fiction have a particularly keen sense of what their readers want, and thus they are particularly invested in crafting stories to meet those expectations.

Whatever, the story's coming out soon! I'd love to hear some reader reactions to it once you see it in print.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


This is to announce that I've officially finished a draft of my young adult fantasy novel, a month ahead of schedule! Beating my own deadline is not uncommon for me; I get a spurt of energy and creativity at the end, once I've finally figured out what the heck I'm trying to say, and the last couple chapters fly by. (It also helps that the final chapter is presently very short.) But the draft is complete: 304 manuscript pages, roughly 66,000 words, and a plot that wraps up most of the loose ends but still leaves room for the sequel. I did mention this is part of a trilogy, didn't I?

That makes two novels completed in the past two years. Not bad for a guy who hadn't written a word of fiction since college!

So I think I'll take a week off and then get down to the work of revision. A writer's job is never done....

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Frog Prince Is Coming . . . Slowly

I found out today that my creative nonfiction essay "The Last Days of the Frog Prince" is scheduled for publication in the journal Snowy Egret . . . a year from now!

That wouldn't seem all that unusual if not for the fact that it wsa accepted for publication . . . a year ago!

Can we say "glacial"?

But, no biggie. The essay concerns a childhood experience of mine, so it's hardly essential to rush it to print; what happened when I was ten isn't likely to change anytime soon. I'm just excited to know that the thing is actually coming out.

I'll keep you posted on its progress . . . a year from now!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gone Hollywood

As you know, I've been busily working on my latest novel, which is now nearing completion (18 of 21 chapters drafted). But this is a strange business, and you never know what's going to drop into your lap.

To wit: I received a phone call yesterday from a Hollywood producer who's interested in optioning my forthcoming book Native Acts for a screenplay.

Before we all get too excited, let's be clear about certain facts.

First, the aforementioned book is a collection of scholarly essays for which I, along with a colleague, served as editor. I've always thought of it as my final work of scholarship, a project conceived before I made the decision to switch to fiction-writing and thus a project I felt obligated to see to its completion even after I made the switch.

Second, despite its cool and racy title, it's not comparable to, say, Smoke Signals or The Last of the Mohicans. It's a bunch of historians and literary critics writing essays on Native American performance in the colonial era.

Third, I'm not even sure I have the rights to sell the book to a film production company. I'm a bit fuzzy on this, but I assume the publisher would be the one to do that.

So this is probably a dead end at best, a scam at worst. It's probably a guy who saw the title, knew it had something to do with Indians, said to himself, "Hey, Indians are hot these days!", and jumped on the phone. It's probably not going to amount to anything.

But as I said, this is a strange business.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

$2.01 USD

The title of this post is exactly how much I've made so far in royalties from my story "Snooping," which was recently published in an e-book anthology from Nevermet Press. That's the amount that went to me after the editor/publisher took his percentage and all the other authors divvied up the rest.

So obviously, unless you're Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, you do this thing for love, not money. In fact, they probably do it for love too. The money just kind of happened.

But you plug on. I just got word that my story "What the Dog Saw" has been (kind of) accepted for publication. The editor wants some revisions, and unlike previous instances in which I've been asked to revise a work before publication, this guy sounds as if he's not ready to publish the story unless I meet his expectations. So we'll see what happens there.

I've been publishing fiction now for about three years, and I've got a good twenty stories and just about as many dollars to my credit. To some, this might make the act of seeking publication for one's work seem pointless.

But me, I'm not complaining. I'm living large. And I've got $2.01 USD to prove it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Survival Colony Nine, Doing Just Fine

Just an update on my young adult fantasy novel-in-progress: it's coming along quite nicely. I've hit a very fertile stretch of the writing, and I'm now pleased to report that if I stick with my 2-page-a-day average, I'll be done with a complete draft by the end of November (not December as originally projected). And, the best part of all, my 12-year-old daughter, who's serving as my test audience, really likes it!

I know, that doesn't sound like much; what's she going to say to her dad? "This really sucks, old man"? "Don't quit your day job"? It's no doubt hard for her to disentangle her affection for me from her estimation of the book.

But what the hey. I think it's pretty good, she thinks it's pretty good, and I've logged just over 200 pages, or roughly two-thirds of the projected total. So there's no stopping me now!

Look for it in bookstores. . . . Well, whenever!

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Snooping" Available!

My new/old story "Snooping" is now available, along with twelve other fantasy/sci-fi stories, in the anthology Stories in the Ether from Nevermet Press. You can check it out and download it in a variety of e-forms here.

Enjoy, and spread the word!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Aphasia" Available to Order!

Just thought you'd like to know that my story "Aphasia" is available to order in the collection Beyond the Grave, published by Pill Hill Press. The link is here. Trust me, the cover art alone makes it worth the price! And then when you add in my story (as well as all the others). . . . Well, you just can't put a dollar value on quality like that!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Survival Colony Nine

The title of this blog post is the title of the first novel in my planned young adult fantasy trilogy. I finally came up with a title, and though the work was progressing without it, I find that the work's progressing much better with it. In fact, the narrative has finally hit its stride.

For a while there, I was a bit worried. I've written young adult material in the past, but that was in the way past, and I wasn't all that confident in the voice I'd crafted for the first couple chapters. Nor did I believe I'd struck the right balance of narrative, exposition, and dialogue--the right balance for a young adult audience, that is. And finally, I wasn't convinced the plot was sufficiently complex to sustain a novel, much less three. But I kept on writing, hoping it'd come together eventually.

And I believe it has. I'm now in the midst of chapter seven, and the ideas are tumbling out almost faster than I can put them on the page--the characters and plot becoming richer and more complex, the fantasy world becoming more fully realized, the arc of the entire book taking firmer shape in my mind. All of this is good stuff.

Whether it'll be good enough to be published is another matter. But I'm putting that thought on hold for the moment. My plan is to have a complete draft done by the end of the calendar year (which, according to my quickie calculation, I can achieve if I write an average of two pages a day from now until December 31). After that, I'll start revising and looking for agents and/or publishers. And of course, I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Very Small Child Called Eugene

As promised, I'm back, with news of a recently published short story. It's titled "A Very Small Child Called Eugene," and I suppose you'd call it speculative fiction/alternative history/magical realism/something like that. My contributor's copies came yesterday, so you can order copies of your own if you're so inclined. And the online version will be out in October, according to the publisher, A cappella Zoo, which you can find at this link.

Warning: the story contains explicit language and hard-to-stomach concepts (hard to stomach in the moral sense, not the physiological sense). It's why a couple publishers turned it down; they liked it, but told me they were afraid their readers might not understand what the story's trying to do and might be deeply offended by it. I hope that's not the case with you; I hope you see what the story's really about. But that's always a risk when dealing with sensitive subjects, subjects we as a culture haven't really resolved no matter what we may like to tell ourselves.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I recently read an essay (which I won't dignify by linking to it here) by a guy who works at Google. This guy delivered a commencement address describing his odyssey from being a "technologist" to being a "humanist" (apparently, he went back to school to earn a Philosophy Ph.D. after earning a bundle in the technology industry). He waxes eloquent about the wonders of humanistic inquiry, how it has enriched him as a thinker and a person. And then he tells us how wonderfully the humanities can serve society: apparently, with his fancy new Philosophy degree, he got the brilliant idea to create a new kind of internet search engine.


As someone who believes in the humanities, I'm frankly tired of those who try to argue that humanistic inquiry is "as good as" technological, scientific, material, or economic pursuits. What these arguments typically boil down to is what I've described above: a claim for the ways in which the humanities can get you a good job, help you solve a technological puzzle, or add to the material prosperity of humankind.

What you'll never hear these supposed "supporters" of the humanities say is that the humanities are good in ways that simply are not reducible to dollars earned or techno-gadgets built and improved--that the humanities are, indeed, in some ways antithetical to the values embodied by techno-society.

If anything, these techno-humanists are more dangerous than those who simply vilify, ridicule, or demean the humanities. The latter at least are being honest: they believe that all there is to life is money, material possessions, and technological advance, and they have no time to waste on anything that doesn't contribute to those ends. Techno-humanists, by contrast, act as if they favor the humanities--but really, they merely wish to transform the humanities into another servant of the almighty technological god.

So the next time you hear someone sing the praises of the humanities while telling you how he used his Philosophy degree to dig us deeper into the pit of techno-slavery, ask him this: might he not try using his Philosophy degree to try to start digging us out?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gotta Lotta Harry Potta

I've now seen the final installment of the Harry Potter series (twice, in fact, thanks to my daughter's obsession with it). What can one say? To praise the movies (or the books) is redundant, to critique them seems like sour grapes, especially when one is an aspiring fantasy novelist oneself. But for what it's worth, here's my assessment of "The Deathly Hallows, Part 2":

I liked it.

It was very dark--literally and figuratively; I had trouble seeing what was going on some of the time. The score was terrific, the acting was effortless, and there were a number of stirring scenes, notably the arming of Hogwarts. I also found myself moved by two scenes in particular: Snape's memories viewed by Harry in Dumbledore's Pensieve, and Harry's meeting with the shades of his loved ones in the Forbidden Forest. Though Voldemort's death was something of an anti-climax (less so, actually, than in the book, where he just kind of falls over dead), the film had a fittingly final feel. The promos read: "It All Ends," and though that may be a bit grandiose and hyperbolic, I didn't feel as if they'd left anything out or failed to tie up any important threads.

The only negative thing I'll say about the movie, or about the series as a whole--and this has nothing to do with J. K. Rowling or the film-makers--is that I just don't get all the reviewers and critics who write about the saga's profound religious and mythological resonances. I had the same objection to those who waxed eloquent (and incoherent) about the Star Wars films as modern-day myths. Yes, Harry visits King's Cross Station when he dies--and then he comes back to life, so you can definitely see the Christian imagery there. But the books (and the film adaptations thereof) don't strike me as carrying the gravity and significance necessary to proclaim them "mythological" or "religious." They're pretty simple fairy tales or action-adventure yarns: good confronts and defeats evil, all while riding on dragons and fighting ogres. If that's all there is to mythology or religion, so be it. I suspect, though, that there's lots more: like the complexity of faith, the puzzle of suffering, the relationship of humanity to the earth, the mystery of creation. Harry Potter (not to mention Star Wars) doesn't seem to have anything to do with those subjects, and so for me, it fails the test of myth.

But it fails that test only if we expect it to pass. If, by contrast, we expect it to be exactly what it is--a well-crafted story with appealing characters, a visionary dreamworld, and a compelling narrative--then it passes with flying colors.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fairy Tale Future

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm currently working on a young adult fantasy novel. It's set in a post-apocalyptic Earth (or maybe not Earth), and that's all I'm going to say about its plot for now. I've got a chapter and a half drafted (but no title!). We'll see if something comes to me.

Anyway, working on this book has got me thinking about futuristic narratives and their relationship (or lack thereof) to reality.

Take Blade Runner, for instance. It's celebrated as one of the great science fiction films of all time--and I don't dispute that. Its visuals remain stunning (especially on a widescreen TV and Blu-Ray, both of which I recently purchased), its conception of a future Earth is arresting, and (once Ridley Scott got the control he needed to strip out the voice-over narration and other distracting elements from its theatrical release) its plot is deeply moving and disturbing.

But measured against the real, it's way off base.

Think about it. The film, which came out in 1982, is set in 2019, or eight years from now. Earth is for all intents and purposes uninhabitable. Non-human animals are extinct. And superhuman android slaves labor in off-world colonies. Huh?

Unless we have some major changes in the next eight years, Blade Runner's vision of 2019 is pretty much laughable.

Or let's consider the Terminator movies (which also look really cool on Blu-Ray). The narrative is set in 2029, after a super-smart computer called SkyNet has initiated global thermonuclear war to annihilate the human species. Cyborg assassins called Terminators travel back in time (that's right) to eliminate the humans who will, in the future, fight back against and ultimately triumph over the machines.

Double huh?

Time travel is impossible (Einstein proved that). The smartest computer we've got can barely beat a human being on "Jeopardy." And though nuclear war does remain a looming threat, what will happen in its aftermath, if it happens, is that humans will have to struggle against themselves, not a bunch of machines, for survival.

I'm not being dense here. Obviously, futuristic narratives aren't meant to offer "real" pictures of the future; they're meant to facilitate reflection on the present. And we do indeed have reason to be fearful about our present technologies, our present violent tendencies, our present destructive ways. The only point I'm making is that stories about the future, even those that gesture the most strenuously toward believability, are bound to be just that--stories. Fictions, in fact. Or, to use a somewhat more loaded term, fairy tales.

This is why, perhaps, I prefer futuristic narratives that make no pretense of accuracy. Narratives such as those of 12 Monkeys or Star Wars. The former an obvious social allegory, the latter based largely on The Wizard of Oz (which was itself, by the way, a futuristic narrative when it came out in 1939, as well as a social allegory).

So when you're reading my book (assuming it comes out some time in the future), don't be surprised if I get everything wrong. As the androids and cyborgs will gladly tell you, that's the nature of the game.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Snooping, Redux

The new and (I think) improved version of my old story "Snooping" is available on the website of Nevermet Press! The story's been trimmed and tightened, and I think it reads much better now. There were supposed to be illustrations to go along with it, but alas, they seem not to have materialized. Maybe they will when the print edition comes out later this year.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Toxic Tommy

Of all the crazy things, I've been asked to create an anti-fracking coloring book to parody, lampoon, and otherwise undermine the pro-fracking coloring book recently released by a natural gas company. The title character's name, Toxic Tommy, is not of my design, but the character and his shenanigans are. I offer the first page of the coloring book here; I hope the whole thing will be out soon.

How did a self-respecting English professor like me end up doodling sinister cartoon dinosaurs?

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Writer's Life

A couple major summertime writing projects are underway, to wit:

1. I've started to query agents about my novel, so it'll be interesting to see whether it piques anyone's interest. To be truthful, I'm very conflicted about whether to seek an agent at all or simply send the manuscript out to publishers; I can see pros and cons to doing it either way. But for the moment I'm going to see what luck I have with agents; I figure any feedback I receive from them will give me some idea of how marketable the book may be.

2. I'm beginning to write a Young Adult fantasy/sci-fi novel (a trilogy, actually, but I think I'll write one novel at a time!). Way back when, I had a certain affinity for the Young Adult voice; not only did I like to read it, but I had some success writing it. Hard to say whether I've still got it. But I've recruited my twelve-year-old daughter to be my first reader; if she likes it, chances are it's pretty good. This is, obviously, a long-term project, but with one novel in the bag, I figured now is a good time to start something new.

I used to think of myself as a teacher who writes; I guess I felt the need to define myself according to the occupation by which I made a steady income. But I think that's wrong; most writers don't make a living from writing alone, but they think of themselves as writers nonetheless. So now, I think of myself as a writer who teaches. It might not seem like much, but it's made a world of difference for me.

Monday, June 13, 2011

School of Frack

My latest cartoon addresses the paradox I mentioned in a previous post: while Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finds it impossible to tax fracking companies lest they flee the state, he finds it all too easy to cut funding for education and social services on the grounds that there's not enough money in the state coffers. Where, precisely, does he think state money is going to come from if not from taxes?

Then again, as my cartoon suggests, maybe this isn't a paradox. Businessmen such as Corbett aren't fond of public education, which they feel costs too much money at too little direct return to them. If they can manage to gut the education system, they'll get their wish: an under-educated workforce desperate to take any job business throws its way.

In other fracking matters, I've been asked to draw the cover art for an anti-fracking album that's being released. I'm thinking of drawing the "Stairway to Heaven" hermit with a gush of fracking water coming out of his lantern.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Killing for Cross and Crescent

Somehow or other (the vagaries of hypertext, I guess), I recently stumbled across a conservative blog, the purpose of which appeared to be to deny the reality of global warming and to slander Islam. Since I've said enough about the former topic, I thought I'd comment here on the latter.

Now, on one point I agreed with the blogger: anyone who says that Islam is a religion of peace is being, at best, disingenuous. From what I've read of the Koran, it's roughly equal parts touchy-feely, love-thy-neighbor stuff and scimitar-rattling, slay-the-infidels stuff. Pretty much like the Christian Bible, in fact. And to say it's a peaceful religion in some generic sense is to overlook the fact that religion exists not merely in the abstract but in the lived practice--in what followers of a particular religion say and do. Thus, if individuals commit acts of violence in the name of Islam, it's nonsense to say that Islam itself is peaceful.

Where I disagreed with the blogger was in his suggestion that Islam is inherently more violent than Christianity. Jesus says a lot about love, but that didn't stop the Crusades, the Holocaust, the American slavery system, the Ku Klux Klan, assorted far-right hate groups, Jim Jones, the members of Heaven's Gate, and multifarious religiously-inspired mass murderers from committing unspeakable acts of violence against others and themselves.

Islam, being a somewhat younger religion than Christianity, may be a bit behind in acting out its most intense slay-the-infidels phase, but the reality is, all crusading, proselytizing religions generate a certain number of followers who are prone to violence. The Aztecs, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims: all of them have had their world-conquering, infidel-slaying wings.

This is probably why Buddhists and Jews have a somewhat more clean track record: not aiming to conquer or convert anyone, they have less motivation to kill anyone.

So: let's call it what it is. Let's not go around saying that Islam is peaceful and that those who commit acts of violence in its name therefore aren't "really" Muslims, but let's not afford Christianity or any religion the same excuse. Let's critique religious violence as religious violence, violence justified by (though neither synonymous with nor necessary to) the religion practiced by the person who commits the violence. Let's accept it as something we ourselves have created, not some dark, monstrous aberration over which we have no control. Only in this way, I believe, can we understand and seek to eradicate it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Connecting the Dots

Global warming warrior Bill McKibben has a good piece out on his website about the relationships among all the bizarre weather events we've had in recent months (tornadoes, floods, droughts, blizzards, etc.). I think it's vitally important for us to realize, as McKibben's essay makes clear, that global warming is not only REAL, it's HERE--right now. I hear too many people saying, "oh, IF global warming happens, then we'll do something about it." These people have failed to do what McKibben does: to draw connections among the surface manifestations (that is, the weather) and trace them to their underlying cause (that is, a warmer climate). It's hard to think systemically; I always tell my students that when they prefer to look at isolated cases out of context. But it's what we need to do, right now, if we are ever to get a handle on this global-systemic problem.

Friday, May 27, 2011

From the Archives

I was cleaning out file drawers today and came across this cartoon. It dates back to the 80s, when I originally coined the name "Bell's Yells" for a cartoon series I drew for my college newspaper. I thought I'd resurrect it for a new generation.

Who knows, maybe I should have stuck with the cartooning. Look where that Far Side guy went with it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Feast or Famine

In the world of publishing (at least, in MY world of publishing), it always seems to be feast or famine. I'll go months without getting a nibble on any of the stories or essays I've sent around, then all of a sudden I'll get two or three acceptances in rapid succession.

At the moment, I'm relishing a "feast" phase: I just found out today that my sci-fi short story "Snooping," which was previously published in a now-defunct and unavailable e-magazine, was accepted in the anthology Stories in the Ether, to be published by Nevermet Press. It'll appear (so they say) in print, online, AND audio formats, the last of which is new for me. I just hope they have James Earl Jones or Ian McKellen reading my stuff!

I should also point out, for those who have read this story before, that the editors have asked for some fairly substantial changes, so it'll be a fundamentally new (and, I hope, fundamentally better) story this time around. I will, of course, let you know when it appears.

I wonder whether tomorrow will bring more feast . . . or the beginning of a new famine?

Fantasy Fiction Feast

For those of you who have been famished for a taste of some fantasy fiction (I know I have been), I offer two delightful tidbits: my just-published story, "A Chimaera Story with Four Morals," which appears in Jersey Devil Press; and the promise of more to come, as my story "A Very Small Child Called Eugene" was just accepted for publication by A cappella Zoo. (It should be out in September.) The latter story is a bit of a personal triumph: it's an odd tale, as you'll see when it arrives, and after a dozen or so rejection slips, it was hovering on the verge of retirement. But I had faith in it (a couple of those rejection slips were very encouraging, as rejection slips go), and I'm glad I stuck it out.

So dig in, and enjoy!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Apocalypse Not

So I found out yesterday that my wife and I scheduled our son's eighth birthday party for the day the world was supposed to end.

I'm always the last to know.

Fortunately for my son, who otherwise would have been deprived of various sword-fighting ninja contests and items of Lego merchandise, the prediction of world-endingness was, shall we say, premature. The world did not end--unless, that is, we're living in some weird Twilight Zone episode and we don't realize we're all dead.

I'm really not bothered by people who predict the end of the world. Everyone has to have a hobby.

The only thing that bothers me, I guess, is the evident pleasure the end-of-the-worlders take in everybody else getting royally screwed. That doesn't seem very sporting.

So, for what it's worth, and because (the world not having ended) we're left with time to kill, I offer herewith the following riddle:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Answers next week. Unless, of course, the world ends.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Weird World

The world of environmentalism is a weird one, full of surprises, unexpected juxtapositions and reversals, random facts and realizations. Here are three recent examples:

1. I was driving home a few days ago in blinding rain when it occurred to me that what I was seeing (or, actually, not seeing) was the climate I'm going to be living with for the rest of my life. We all know how rainy it's been in the northeast and the south, how strange the weather patterns have been; we remark about it all the time. But it doesn't strike most of us that the reason the weather's so weird is that the climate has changed; we keep waiting for global warming to happen, not realizing it already has. Weather is the veil of climate: it hides the bigger picture we can't see. But at the same time, weather is the sign of climate: it reveals what we can't see. If the weather is weird--and it is--a weird climate lies just behind.

2. I recently learned of a company, Terracycle, that will turn those pesky juice pouches into kid-friendly products (pencil cases, etc.). If you sign up online, your school gets a few pennies per pouch donated. On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing. But then you have to ask yourself: why are juice pouches manufactured in such a way that they're not recyclable by usual means? And is not the promise to recycle the things into yet another consumer product a way of convincing people to buy non-recyclable items, guilt-free? My advice to anyone who worries about juice pouches being thrown into landfills: don't buy the damn things in the first place.

3. A few weeks ago, I attended an event concerning the Marcellus Shale. One of the speakers delivered a passionate address against drilling; she waxed eloquent about the "poisons we're pumping into our chilren's bodies," and she presented herself as a staunch foe of corporate greed, indifference, and propaganda. After the event, I went to congratulate her on her speech. I found her outside, smoking a cigarette.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Going Local

Yesterday was an environmentally friendly day for me. In the morning, my kids and I helped the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association plant trees; in the afternoon, I switched electricity generators to Viridian Energy, which will supply 100% of my electricity through wind power; and in the evening, I attended a lecture on sustainable agriculture by Anna Lappe, whose new book connects our eating choices to the climate crisis. And, having read recently that the majority of car trips we make are fewer than two miles, I decided to walk the mile and a half to the lecture and back. So there was lots of good stuff, environment-wise.

There was also one depressing moment, when I read the following passage in Michael Shuman's book Going Local:

"Governments will be increasingly inclined to put a tax on oil, as well as on other fossil fuels, to account for the environmental effects of burning them. There is a virtual consensus among scientists today . . . that human progress is warming the planet. . . . By the time the multi-trillion-dollar costs of global warming are clear enough to affect the market price of fossil fuels, it will be too late to prevent it. But political pressures will surely mount on governments to place taxes on these fuels, per unit of pollution (a carbon tax) or per unit of energy (a BTU tax), that will raise their prices and reduce releases of carbon into the atmosphere."

Shuman, writing in 1998, is certain that governments will come to their senses, tax carbon, and thereby level the playing field for the development of renewables. But here we are in 2011, and guess what? We haven't taxed carbon (partly because the scientific consensus Shuman applauds has been attacked relentlessly by climate change deniers); we're investing heavily (in both dollars and infrastructure) in the latest fossil fuel to come down the pike, natural gas; the market in renewables is stagnant; the price of oil is way up, but mostly because of unrest in the Middle East, not because of the environmental costs of burning it; global emissions continue to grow day by day; and the planet's climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable, chaotic, and punishing. At the national and international level, we've utterly failed as a species to take the necessary steps to protect our planet and ourselves.

Which is why, for the foreseeable future, I'm "going local," as the title of Shuman's book recommends. I'll plant trees in my own neighborhood, power my own house with wind energy, walk instead of drive, support local groups like the Nine Mile Run association, and otherwise focus on what I can do in my own community. I'll act locally, and think--or at least dream--of a time the global community will come around.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thor-oughly Disgusted

For the record, I am royally sick and tired of movies about gods who don't get along with their daddies.

There was Clash of the Titans. And Percy Jackson. And (in a somewhat different register) Tron: Legacy.

And now there's Thor. I saw it today, and while it has some cool special effects (as well as some really chaotically filmed special effects, almost as if the filmmakers didn't want the audience to be able to see whether the effects were any good or not), in the end it boils down to that unbelievably tedious tale of a spoiled little boy who argues with his daddy, but who learns in the end that father knows best.

Director Kenneth Branagh, dabbling in the decidedly lowbrow, must think there are Shakespearean echoes to this silliness. It's Hamlet in Asgard!

Well, actually, no, it's more like Ferris Bueller's Day Off with frost giants.

I mean, come on. Can't anyone think of a more original thing to do with gods and monsters? Does every story have to be so boringly Freudian? Couldn't we have a story where dad and son actually got along, so we could explore something more interesting about them?

Fathers and sons do have conflicts, sure. I have plenty with my own dad. But I hardly believe these petty squabbles are of Olympian or Asgardian proportions. I'm not so delusional as to believe the heavens quake every time my dad and I piss each other off.

On the horizon, I see there's a movie coming out called Immortals, a Greek mythological mishmash with Theseus (but no minotaur that I can tell) fighting on the gods' behalf against a corrupt mortal king.

Let's just hope it doesn't turn out that Theseus bears a grudge against Papa Zeus. I'm not sure I can take any more.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ruffling Feathers

A letter to the editor I recently published has angered some people (which is not surprising, of course; that's what letters to the editor are supposed to do). This time around, however, the people I've angered happen to be my friends.

It goes like this: in my letter, I question the wisdom, and the impartiality, of the environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (Penn Future for short) in its stand on the natural gas issue. Penn Future has been promoting natural gas as a clean alternative to coal, and I find this problematic, for obvious reasons. Hence the letter.

But I've got friends in Penn Future. I've attended their conferences, supported them financially, met with individuals in the organization socially. So this seems, I guess, like a betrayal.

And maybe it is. But that may be the best reason it had to be said.

At root, my problem with Penn Future's stand on natural gas is that the organization is too much of an insider to see the issue objectively. Penn Future prides itself on being pragmatic and politically savvy, which means it focuses on lobbying politicians and working with state and local governments, as well as industry, to achieve its objectives. That's fine, and it may produce some positive results. But it also places severe strictures on what the organization can say and do.

You won't get radical critique, visionary thinking, or even impolite discourse from Penn Future. What you'll get is tame, middle of the road, compromise measures. The organization's slogan says it all: "Every environmental victory grows the economy." That's about as centrist a position as you can take.

But the environmental crisis, in my view, will not be solved by centrists; it'll be solved by radicals. Centrism gets us nowhere on important social/political issues. It got us nowhere on slavery, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement. Every environmental victory may grow the economy--but it needs to be said that growing the economy is the root of the problem, and we can't solve the environmental crisis by continuing to promote the behavior that produced it. We can't overcome our addiction to fossil fuels by consuming them. Neither can we "bridge" the gap to a non-fossil fuel future by investing astronomical sums of money and building exorbitant new infrastructure as we are doing with natural gas.

Penn Future can't see this, or at least, they can't say it. If they did, they'd lose their ability to influence the political process. But from my perspective, it's not worth influencing the process if, in so doing, one becomes merely another failed part of it.

Penn Future has its approach to natural gas, and I have mine. I can't stop them from pursuing their approach; no more can they stop me from pursuing mine. If they want to criticize my position, they're free to do so, just as I'm free to criticize theirs. And if a few friends get their feelings hurt--I'm sorry, but this issue is too important to let that stand in the way.

So for the record: I'm sorry I upset people. But I'd be even sorrier if I let my fear of ruffling feathers interfere with the work I believe needs to be done.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jumping Ship

Here's my latest anti-fracking cartoon. This one pertains to the practice of "forced pooling," whereby landowners who have not sold their rights to the drilling companies can nonetheless have their lands drilled into from adjacent sites. (Remember, fracking wells move horizontally as well as vertically.) This practice obviously rigs the system in favor of the drillers; a real-life prisoner's dilemma, it pits landowner against landowner, with each individual thinking, "if I don't sell my land but any of my neighbors does, I'll be faced with the negative impacts of the drilling while my neighbors make off with the profits."

For what it's worth, Corbett has come out against forced pooling. But then, he's also come out in favor of college campuses leasing their lands to gas companies as a way of compensating for the budget cuts to education he himself proposed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Machine Man

Thanks to the Blockbuster queue (my seven-year-old son calls it the Blockbuster “cube”), I saw a fantasy film last night that brings together many of the issues I’ve been blogging about of late: technology, spirituality, fatherhood. It was, of all things, Iron Man 2, and like its predecessor, it wasn’t half bad (even if, in the end, it was a bit muddled). Still, I’ll take it over The Dark Knight any day.

Iron Man 2 opens with gazillionaire Tony Stark hosting a revived “Stark Expo,” which his deceased father originated a quarter-century earlier. A showcase for his dad’s (and his own) technological utopianism, their belief that technology can make the world not only a better place but a perfect place, the Expo seems to be vindicated by the exploits of Stark’s alter-ego, Iron Man, who in a very short span of time has used his high-tech iron suit to bring about an unprecedented era of world peace. But the film undercuts Stark’s confidence by showing what’s going on behind the scenes: Iran and North Korea are trying (though at the moment failing) to build their own Iron Man weapons, Stark’s competitor for military contracts is creating Iron Man drones, and a rogue Russian physicist, memorably played by Mickey Rourke, has succeeded in reproducing the reactor technology his father co-designed with Stark’s father, enabling him to wear and wield a high-voltage reactor weapon. Meanwhile, the reactor technology built into Stark’s own Iron Man suit, a technology that not only gives him super powers but keeps him alive, is also slowly killing him as its radioactive elements leech into his bloodstream. All is not well, it appears, in the world that technology has built.

But then, with the introduction of a home-movie lecture from Stark’s father, the film shifts, suggesting that technology is indeed not only a panacea but may well be divine. Looking directly at the camera (and at his son, who’s watching the home movie), the absent father, who in life was too busy with his experiments to pay attention to his young son, reveals to his grown heir the sub-atomic secrets he himself was unable to unlock due to technological limitations. Armed with his father’s knowledge and the technological advances of our own day, Tony manages with ridiculous ease to produce a particle accelerator that creates a new element, one capable of keeping his heart beating without destructive side effects. In other words, the Starks, father and son, become gods, creating new matter and new life. Faith in technology--and in fatherhood--seems safe once more.

And yet, in another turn, the Stark demons come home to roost when Iron Man must face an army of the drones his own technology has enabled his competitors and enemies to create. He triumphs, of course, with the help of his trusty African-American sidekick (a racial stereotype the film could well have done without), but only after the drones, as well as the good guys’ efforts to defeat them, have caused untold chaos. So we’re left with a very ambiguous message, wherein advanced technology both saves and destroys, brings both peace and war, serves both God and Satan (not to mention Mammon).

What I like about the Iron Man movies is this ambiguity, or ambivalence, or even (to be less charitable) this confused, have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. Unlike the Batman movies, which trot out simplistic propositions about life and refuse to challenge or undermine them, the Iron Man films question their own conventional wisdom, their own sacred truths, even their own vested interests. (Let’s not forget, after all, that the cinema itself is a highly advanced technology, and any film that traffics in technological utopianism and/or dystopianism implicitly fingers its own medium. The Iron Man movies make this connection explicit, as everything in Tony Stark’s world--his phone, his coffee table, the interior of his suit, even the air around him--is transformed into the equivalent of a handheld, wireless touch-screen.) So where the Batman films are screaming at the top of their lungs “Life is complicated!”, but doing nothing to visualize or, for that matter, complicate such complexity, the Iron Man films are showing us something of that complexity in the texture of the films themselves. In that respect, these films are heirs to a long and honorable fantasy-film tradition, going back to Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz and forward to Alien, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and others, in which technology becomes both medium and means for reflecting on matters of church and state, machine and man, faith and fantasy--including our culture’s faith in the fantasy of film itself.

This doesn’t make these films masterpieces. But it does make them worth watching--just as the issues they address are worth watching out for.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hollywood Fatherhood; or, Bad Dads

For some time I’ve been fascinated, and increasingly frustrated, by Hollywood’s love affair with fathers. From the start, the film industry has been heavily invested in the assertion of patriarchal authority, generally by portraying fathers as the ultimate source of benevolence, wisdom, and social cohesion. Since the eighties, though, the theme has shifted somewhat: fathers are frequently portrayed as two-bit bums, scoundrels, even monsters who ultimately, through some life-transforming experience usually involving time spent with annoying young children, become icons of fatherliness. It’s as if all the contemporary concerns about “deadbeat dads,” the degradation of the male role in minority communities, and other indications of patriarchal fault lines in the culture are being enacted and then wished away through the magic of the movies.

I was thinking about this when I watched the latest movie on our Blockbuster queue, “The Game Plan.” It’s about a self-centered quarterback who discovers he has an insufferably cute eight-year-old daughter by a previous marriage; inevitably, this egomaniac (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) becomes a model parent, the kind of guy who’d give up a $25 million endorsement to spend an afternoon with his little girl. It’s the same plot, all else being equal, of half the films on my bookshelf: “A Night at the Museum,” “Shrek 4,” “Jurassic Park” (parts 1 and 2), “War of the Worlds,” “Big Daddy,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Despicable Me,” even, for God’s sake, “The Simpsons Movie.” Granted, that last one plays some riffs on the theme, but unless my DVD collection is wildly out of step with the rest of the nation, this appears to be a trend.

I’m a dad. I’m a pretty good dad, if I do say so myself. I spend tons of time with my kids, read to them, play with them, support them, encourage them, hug them, tell them I love them; I don’t ignore them, abuse them, demean them, deny them. But I’m also human, and I do have to balance my own needs with theirs; I can’t always put aside everything for them or find complete and total fulfillment in them. This makes me, according to Hollywood, a Bad Dad. So I’ve got to be whipped into shape, subjected to an endless barrage of reminders that Dads are the rock (“The Rock”) upon which civilization rests and without which it would crumble. I’ve got to be treated to the Hollywood obsession with simultaneously glorifying and demonizing Dads, fingering them as failures unless they live up to an unrealistic ideal every moment of their lives.

Maybe I’m just watching the wrong movies. But then, there is no film of which I’m aware called “Mother Knows Best.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Greediest Generation

Journalist Tom Brokaw famously dubbed the generation that came of age during the Depression and World War II "The Greatest Generation." This was a group of people with the wisdom to face these two global evils, the courage to confront them, and the selflessness to accept the sacrifices meeting them entailed.

By those standards, I guess you'd have to call the present generation of so-called grown-ups in this country "The Greediest Generation."

I was reminded of this when I read that all but one of the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to deny the reality of global warming, regardless of cause. Yep, they actually voted--nary a climatologist in the bunch--to deny that global warming exists.

The hubris of such a vote is nearly unfathomable. It's as if they'd voted to deny that the earth revolves around the sun.

Beyond this, such a vote is strikingly stupid.

To put it in perspective, let's imagine these clowns had been in the House during our grandparents' time. They decide to take a vote on the reality of the Depression. Sure, lots of folks are out of work, the banks are bankrupt, the breadlines are growing, the breadbasket is blowing away in a cloud of dust, but is the Depression really real?

Nope, we don't think so.

And what about those politically-motivated rumors of war over in distant Europe? They say some guy named Hitler invaded Poland; that he's currently bombing England and France; that his tanks are in North Africa; that he's moving on Stalingrad? Let's take a vote on it.

No, there's no war.

We can deny all we want. We can even legitimize our denial through the political process.

But we can't change the nature of reality. It'll always be there, silent and irresistible, to show us when we're wrong.

Monday, April 18, 2011


I had another short story accepted for publication yesterday, in a print anthology titled Beyond the Grave, to be published by Static Movement. The title of my story, "Aphasia," might not seem to have a lot to do with beyond-the-grave stuff, but trust me: read it and it'll all make sense! I'll let you know when it's published so you can do just that.

This'll be my third anthologized work, which I've found is a nifty way to get genre fiction in print: there are many small publishers producing many, many themed anthologies, and they're always looking for more. They don't pay as well as some of the genre magazines, but who cares? I'm in this for the love, not the money.

Good thing, too; I think my royalties from last year were a whopping $14.86. Needless to say, I don't plan to quit my day job anytime soon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Novel Idea

Well, I did it. I really did. It's done, and I did it.

What did I do?

I wrote a novel!

Yep, just finished it yesterday. Four hundred and twenty-five manuscript pages, about 93,000 words, twenty chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, title page and epigraphs and table of contents and everything. It's not done done--that is, I still need to revise it--but it's completed.

I know, I know, people write novels every day. So what's the big deal?

Well, people may do it every day, but I haven't done it since college.


That's almost twenty-five years ago. I've started a couple since then (including one in the summer of 2009), but they've all fizzled. Call it work, call it family, call it lack of inspiration (or talent), call it whatever you want to call it, but for the past quarter-century I haven't been able to muster the time, energy, and perseverance to complete anything longer than a short story.

Until now.

So for me, at least, this is an auspicious occasion. Whether this thing ever finds a publisher, as of course I hope it does, is secondary to the fact that I've proved to myself I can still do it.

So congrats to me, pats on the back, parties and parades, all that stuff.

Now back to work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Dreck Knight

The word on the street is that the next Batman movie is going to be filmed right here in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

My advice to the producers: don't bother.

After what seems years of hearing that The Dark Knight is a must-see movie, one of the classics of the fantasy/action genre, a gritty, atmospheric mood piece anchored by Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker, I finally saw the thing on DVD.

My reaction: yawn.

I'll freely admit I've never been a fan of "the Batman" (as those who are serious about this drivel refer to him). I never read the comics; I watched the TV series but was too young and, I guess, too straight to catch the camp; I found the Tim Burton films (with Pittsburgh's own Michael Keaton) pleasantly silly but nothing more; and I find the Frank Miller Dark Knight hooey utterly pretentious and preposterous. So maybe I'm not the best person to ask about this particular film.

But come on! The whole Batman mythos is built around the idea that a guy who wears a costume and engages in vigilante justice is somehow making a profound statement about LIFE. In reality, though, the philosophy of the dark knight boils down to sophomoric propositions anyone over the age of ten could tell you. Like: GOOD PEOPLE SOMETIMES DO BAD THINGS! Wow. Deep. Or: LIFE IS UNPREDICTABLE AND RANDOM. Really? I didn't know that. Or my favorite: THERE IS GOOD AND EVIL IN ALL OF US!!!!! Now that one I'll have to think about for a while.

Putting one guy in a bat suit and another in clown make-up to "represent" these obvious, simplistic truths does not make them any more interesting. It merely illustrates how banal these truths truly are.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love lots of trashy fantasy films: Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, Dragonheart, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans. I just don't get all serious about them and think they hold the answers to life.

I also happen to think there are many fantasy films that are eminently worth discussion as works of art: Alien, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and so on. Such films are both stylistically daring and thematically rich.

The Batman films, alas, are neither.

But maybe I'm being unkind. After all, in The Dark Knight, there's a character, Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face), who gets badly burned so that one half of his face is skeletal while the other is strikingly handsome. This represents the fact that THERE IS GOOD AND EVIL IN ALL OF US!!!!

Yep, there's one that'll keep me up nights.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Puppet Master

This whole business with the "independent" drilling inspectors has gotten me so worked up . . . I couldn't resist.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wake Up and Smell the Poison

This morning, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that inspectors policing the drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale will no longer be able to do anything--issue permits, enforce regulations, cite violations--without approval of top Department of Environment officials. According to DEP spokespeople, this will bring "consistency" to the regulatory process. Yet oddly enough, such consistency is being sought only in regard to the Marcellus Shale; the same policy does not apply to any of the other regulatory protocols the DEP oversees.

Come on, people! This is a shameless ploy to strip independent inspectors of their power to regulate the shale drilling, and to place all decisions in the hands of political appointees whose jobs are dependent on an administration utterly sympathetic to the drilling industry. It's one step short of having the drillers issue their own permits and cite their own violations. My guess is, they wouldn't find themselves having committed any.

Tom Corbett's office denies having had anything to do with the policy change. And if you believe that one....

When are ordinary Pennyslvanians going to wake up and smell the poison?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Chimaera Story

Well, after yesterday's gloom-and-doom message, maybe you're not ready for this announcement, but here goes: I had a new story accepted for publication. It's called "A Chimaera Story with Four Morals," and it was picked up by Jersey Devil Press. Should be out in June, at which time I'll provide a link.

Funny story about this story: when I originally wrote it, I had in mind some bizarre, tongue-in-cheek, self-referential parody of the "sci-fi apocalypse" narrative. So I wrote it that way--or at least thought I'd written it that way--and sent it off. Turns out there's a very straightforward, mournful tale about loss and the relationship between fathers and sons lurking within the madcap prose, and the editor at JDP was sharp enough to pick it up. So I was advised to trim out the parts that worked against the inner story and let it emerge. I was reluctant to do so at first--it's easy to fall in love with one's own high concepts--but once I did it, I realized the editor was right, and it's much better in its current form.

It just goes to show, you never really know what you're doing when you sit down to write. Sometimes, maybe all the time, you're better than you think.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Evil That Men Do

The murder of a teenage girl in my hometown has set me on a course of rather gloomy reflections. The person accused of the crime, a teenage boy, is alleged to have convinced her to play hooky from school, then, at her home, perhaps while attempting to rape her, he is accused of shooting her in the chin, a wound that would not in itself have been fatal. He is then, however, alleged to have covered her with a blanket, which he proceeded to set on fire, whether to cover the crime or merely for the thrill of seeing another living creature burn I don't know. She died of smoke inhalation. While she died, the boy is alleged to have looted her house, taking (among other things) that other favorite of a species bent on rapine and destruction: a video game.

Reading between the lines, my wife, a mental health professional, speculates that this girl, who was described as "simple" and "trusting" and who could neither read nor write, was mentally retarded.

So there you have it: a boy who snuffs out the life of a profoundly innocent creature merely because, I suppose, it fulfilled some need of his own. And in that respect, he's pretty much like the rest of us.

Assuming he doesn't get the death penalty--and though he's being tried as an adult, I hope he doesn't, because what's the point of adding more death to the original death?--he'll spend sixty or so years in prison. There, he'll perhaps learn to feel bad about what he's done. But what can he ever feel, what can he ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for this act?


Which brings me to the human species of which he is, sadly, all too representative. We've caused untold chaos on this planet, much of it directed against ourselves, much of it directed against other species and the planet itself. What have we ever done, what can we ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for our acts?


Those seeking to find extrinsic value in human life--that is, value that goes beyond our value to ourselves--can point at a number of accomplishments as evidence that, despite all the bad we've caused, we're still capable of producing good. But I'm not buying any of it.

Art and music? Sure, they're nice to look at and listen to, but all they do in the end is fulfill our own needs. They have no extrinsic value whatsoever.

Technology? Most of it has been bent toward the destruction of human and non-human life and the gutting of the planet. Some of the rest has been dedicated to making us feel good about how smart we are: landing on the moon, for example. And the rest has either helped prolong or enrich human life or attempted to fix some of the planetary messes we ourselves have caused. So again, none of it has value beyond what it produces for us or, in the latter case, what it would not have needed to produce had we never come along in the first place.

Human rights? Well, if there hadn't been human wrongs, there'd have been no need to develop human rights. All the human rights movements throughout history have done little more than move us marginally closer to respecting each other in ways that the simplest caterpillar instinctively respects its fellow caterpillars. And even if we go all the way--that is, even if we arrive at a point where all human life is treated with dignity and care--we'll have done no more than fulfill another intrinsic need, a need to value ourselves.

The human species, in short, is exactly like every other species in this fundamental respect: we seek to fulfill our needs and preserve our lives. There are only two differences between us and everything else. On the one hand, we've needlessly deprived trillions of other organisms--human and non-human--of the same desires; and, on the other, we appear to be the only species capable of recognizing, conceptualizing, and articulating these desires. In consequence, we seem to think that fulfilling them is inherently more significant than the fulfillment of those desires in and by other species.

We even have recourse to God to provide extrinsic justification of our biological needs. All I can say to that argument is, if it's true that the most depraved, destructive species the planet has ever known is God's personal favorite, then God has some serious issues.

Maybe we make the argument for God because otherwise, we couldn't live with ourselves.

In the end, these reflections are not despairing (much less suicidal). I want to live just like everyone else. I enjoy life. I enjoy music, art, certain forms of technology, Nature, my family, my writing, and lots of other things besides. I've done some good to other human beings and non-human beings in my life (and also some bad). I just don't think the things I've done justify my existence.

That teenage girl wanted to live, too. Maybe that's all she wanted. And no matter what the person who did this to her may do in the future, the one thing he most assuredly cannot do is give that back to her.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Maine Man

Inspired by my own analogy of a week ago, I came up with this cartoon to satirize Tom Corbett's position on a natural gas severance tax. For the record, his administration is now talking about some kind of monetary compensation for communities hard hit by the environmental effects of fracking, but he's still insisting that a severance tax is "off the table."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

There He Goes Again

If he has his way, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett--he who refuses to impose a severance tax on multi-billion-dollar natural gas companies--is about to impose a huge severance tax on ordinary Pennsylvanians.

A severance tax is a tax on the use of public resources. In the case of natural gas extraction, for each unit of gas taken (or severed) from Pennsylvania's lands, the gas company pays a marginal tax.

Corbett (and the Republican-controlled State Senate) won't impose such a tax. They claim it would drive industry away. Forget the fact that every other state in the Union that possesses shale gas formations, including tax-averse Texas, imposes such a tax. Forget, too, that the gas companies are limited in where they can drill; there's no shale gas underneath Rhode Island, so drilling there would be like fishing for lobster in Arkansas. Facts be damned, Corbett, his campaign coffers swelled by industry dollars, has stood firm against a severance tax.

At the same time, Corbett's proposed budget would slash funding for public education at every level, from K-12 through college. The results of these proposed cuts would be catastrophic (I just read that the Duquesne public school district might close entirely), but that's Corbett and the Republican party: cut taxes, slash budgets and public services, and boost industry, and we'll live in a utopia.

But the thing is, such a program does not cut taxes. It raises them. In the case of Pennsylvania's public colleges and universities, Corbett's budget proposes a roughly 50% cut in state funding. The result, inevitably, is that public education in Pennsylvania will become more costly; the schools will have no choice but to raise tuition (or, what is in essence the same thing, to drastically cut services, which students will then have to pay for themselves). Thus the budget cuts effectively impose a severance tax: for each unit of education taken (or severed) from the public system, students and their families will have to pay an increased amount. To finance this additional tax burden, especially in these days of cuts to federal and state grant money, they'll have to take on the additional tax burden of bank loans. Or, what is equally likely, they'll have to forego college altogether.

You'll tell me this isn't about taxes. But it is. Pay now or pay later, services in a society cost money; you can either pay for those services through direct taxes of one sort or another, shared (in theory) equitably by the society that benefits from the services, or you can pay for them through higher costs. From the perspective of the taxpayer/consumer, what's the difference?

Corbett, in short, is not opposed to raising taxes. Rather, like all Republicans, he simply wishes to shift the burden of taxation from those most able to afford it--the corporate and the wealthy--to those least able to afford it: the middle classes and the poor. Thus the social benefits of public services, whether they be gas or education, will be disproportionately enjoyed by the rich, while the social costs (not only in terms of dollars but, as with gas extraction, in terms of environmental impacts) will be disproportionately borne by the poor.

But there's a bright side to all this. I'm sure all those kids who can't afford school can find really good jobs working on natural gas rigs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Worth Reading

Having critiqued a short story not my own in a recent post, I thought I'd introduce a story I thought was terrific. It's titled "Tomorrow People"; I can't remember the author's name, unfortunately, but who really cares? I'm interested in stories, not authors. And you can look it up yourself if you're so inclined.

"Tomorrow People" is set in 2040-ish, but it's not science fiction. Oh, there were a few offhand references to technologies that don't currently exist, but that's just for flavor. The real story concerns the narrator, a pre-teen boy whose college-aged sister was killed when a terrorist nuclear bomb destroyed the city of San Francisco. His parents and older brother don't talk about her, and they've kept no images of her; when he sees an old picture of his parents on his dad's laptop and asks one too many questions about it, thinking his sister might have been the photographer and he might be able to catch a glimpse of her in the sunglasses his mom is wearing, his dad scrubs the picture from his hard drive. So this is definitely a post-9/11 story, a tale of memory and loss, or of lost memory.

The story takes a turn when a neighbor, a former soldier in the ongoing war against those who destroyed San Francisco, brings home a Muslim boy who has lost his own family in the war. The narrator, who committed an unthinking act of anti-Muslim prejudice the year before--spraypainting epithets on the toilet stall of a mosque his school visited--wants nothing to do with the new arrival, and neither does the Middle Eastern child want to make friends with Americans. But the child's adoptive father keeps trying to get the two together, the narrator's mother wants her son to atone for his act of the year before, and the two are forced into an awkward, tension-filled meeting.

If this sounds a bit like the story I disliked, "Summer, Boys"--two pre-teen boys making friends over the summertime--well, it sort of is. But it's a far superior story in every way: unpredictable, far less mannered in its writing style, and about something that strikes me as far more significant, or at least bigger, than that of two boys coming of age. I won't spoil the story by telling anything more about it; I'll just say it's inspired me to try a story of my own that I've had in mind for a while but not, shall we say, in heart. If anything ever comes of that, I'll let you know. Either way, it's always nice to know that there's fiction out there that's not just well-written but well worth reading.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It Bears Repeating

Much as I hate to repeat myself, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to, shall we say, augment my post of a couple weeks ago concerning our "smarter" planet. Once again, the impetus for this post was a commercial, which might seem a bit trivial; but then, what are commercials if not barometers of cultural desire? Commercials show us what we want, or at least what we think we want, and the fact that so many of them show us thinking we want technological solutions to planetary problems suggests something significant about where we are today.

Enough preamble. The commercial of which I speak was, I think, for GE, and its slogan, after showing lots of people (doctors, salespeople, nuclear plant workers) dancing in some ungodly, earth-spanning conga line, was this: "Technology that makes the world work." My response was: here we go again.

Let's look at this in two possible ways. By "makes the world work," the commercial might be suggesting that technology gives people jobs. (That's the standard corporate and government line, even when they're pushing supposedly "green" technologies: they'll put people to work.) But "makes the world work" could also mean "makes the world function." That is, in the absence of technology, the world would break down, fall to pieces, and ultimately, I guess, cease to exist.

Both of these suggestions are nonsensical. Yes, in a technological society, technology does provide for employment--but it also provides for unemployment. Just ask anyone who's lost a job to a machine whether technology "made them work." My grocery store has trimmed the number of cashiers drastically by installing automated scanners; every time I try to reach someone on the telephone to complain about the breakdown of some piece of technology I purchased, I have to punch fifty-seven keys into the automated system then wait an hour to talk to the one living human being still employed by the company. Unemployment in the U.S. still stands at a whopping 10% (and remember, that figure doesn't include those no longer looking for work, those who are underemployed, or those who are employed in below-subsistence-level occupations). And the U.S. is a lot better off than much of the rest of the world. So much for technology as a panacea for joblessness.

Technology, it would be fairer to say, makes the work that is necessary to sustain itself. In its absence, the work taken up by technology would be taken up elsewhere.

But even more nonsensical is the suggestion that technology makes the world function. The world was functioning just fine before we came along, thank you. Rather, once again, it's a purely circular process: technology creates the conditions under which further technology can be called into action. So technology pollutes rivers and cleans them, sickens people and heals them, trashes the planet and tries to patch it up. If you can name one technology that has solved a problem technology created, I will grant that I'm being hyperbolic. But you can't. You can only name cases (such as the case of CFCs and ozone) in which the removal of an existing technology was necessary to begin to resolve the problem it had introduced.

I am not, in the end, a technophobe, a Luddite, a primitivist. Technologies have achieved some very nice things (such as enabling me to disseminate these words). But let's not kid ourselves about their capacities. Let's not forget that every time I fire up the blog, I expend energy (most of it produced by coal) that dirties the planet and sickens its inhabitants. Nor let us forget that when you read these computer-mediated words, you distance yourself, if only ever so slightly, from primary contact with the physical world.

If we must have technology, then so be it. But let's be prepared to deal with the consequences, and not imagine we can so transform the world through technology that it will, at long last, work.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Nuke Wells

Amid reports from the New York Times that fracking wastewater contains dangerously high levels of radiation--and that regulators are doing little to ensure its proper (notice I didn't say "safe") disposal--I drew this cartoon. What are we willing to suffer, what are we willing to risk, to feed our fossil fuel addiction?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Smarter Planet

A few weeks ago, an IBM-designed computer program, Watson, defeated several human contestants on Jeopardy. This was hailed by many as a triumph. In its commercials, IBM featured the program's chief engineer, pronouncing the company's new mantra: "Let's build a smarter planet."

I've been mulling over why this disturbs me so much. For what it's worth, here's what I've come up with.

Humans, being human, have tended to measure intelligence in absolute terms, with ourselves as the sole and final standard. Thus anything that possesses an intelligence functionally akin to ours--say, chimpanzees and dolphins--is "smart," while the farther you get from that standard--from birds to lizards to jellyfish--the farther you get from intelligence. God, being the smartest of all, is simply an uber-human, with an extension of our own capabilities: he knows everything, sees far into the future, etc. Being smart, according to this way of thinking, is an abstraction; it has nothing to do with the organism that houses it, much less with the conditions and contexts within which that organism exists. You're either smart like us, or you're dumb.

But this is, in my view, a radically reductive--and dangerous--understanding of intelligence. Intelligence, as I'll define it, has little to do with human-ness. Rather, it has to do with adaptation.

Birds and reptiles, for example, aren't particularly "smart" by human standards; in fact, we tend to think of their brains as the most "primitive" aspect of our own. Partly, that's an evolutionary description, but it's also an evaluation: the least evolved part of the brain, the part that has the earliest evolutionary emergence, is also the least "smart." (Hence the expression "bird-brain.") And indeed, were you to place a bird or reptile in a situation requiring human intelligence, they'd fail miserably. Put them in front of a closed door, for example, and (even were they possessed of opposable thumbs) the most they'd do is stare listlessly at it.

But the evolutionary progenitors of birds and reptiles, we are told, were very "smart." Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years, and in modern theorizing and modern storytelling such as Jurassic Park, their intelligence compares favorably with our own. Put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, and it figures out how to use its claws and snout to open it.

My guess, however, is that if you actually put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, it would have no more idea what to do with it than a modern-day parakeet. That's because, having spent millions of years adapting to a particular environment, a doorless environment, its intelligence would not extend to an environment to which it was not adapted. Over time, given the opportunity, this misfit might eventually figure out what to do with doors. But initially, a creature "smart" enough to survive infinitely longer than we've managed to thus far would appear quite "dumb" when thrown into a world some other creature's intelligence had built.

The same applies for birds and reptiles. They're not particularly smart by our standards, but they are supremely well adapted to their environments. In the absence of major disruption, in the absence of the equivalent of our poor Velociraptor being thrown into an alien world, they thrive without much "smarts" that we would recognize. But as soon as the environments in which their intelligences evolved are disrupted--mostly by humans--they die in droves. Just like their "smart" dinosaur forebears, who died without a wimper when the climate changed and the meteor struck, modern-day organisms are only as "smart" as the environments to which they are adapted allow them to be.

We humans tend to forget this. We believe we're so smart we can adapt to anything--even the drastically new environments we've created for ourselves. If our smarts get us into a jam, if they produce environmental disasters we weren't godlike enough to predict, no problem--we'll just build an even smarter planet that addresses these issues.

It should be evident by now that it doesn't work this way. In fact, it works exactly in the reverse. The more we engineer our planet in an effort to address the perceived and actual shortcomings we've either abided or produced, the farther we drive our world from the intelligence that was adapted to it. The "smarter" we make our planet, the less readily our own smarts can deal with the results.

We don't need a smarter planet. We need a planet to which we're adapted, a planet on which our bodies and brains can survive: a planet in which the global climate remains within the range we evolved to tolerate, a planet in which we don't dredge up radioactive waste every time we force fracking fluid into the shale, a planet in which mercury and other toxins don't concentrate in the fatty tissues of fetuses, a planet in which the other species with which we co-evolved and co-adapted aren't driven to mass extinction by our activities. A "dumber" planet, perhaps--a planet with fewer Watsons and Ipods--but a planet that can sustain the creatures whose intelligence it shaped for these millions of years.

We've already built a smarter planet--a planet smarter than us, in fact. And it turns out that was pretty dumb.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

One (Dull) Story

I've been preoccupied lately with writing my first novel (I'm about halfway done with a draft), so I haven't had much chance to write and submit short stories. I did complete one, titled "Aphasia," and I'll be sending that out soon to see what happens. But in the meantime, rather than offering more of my own short fiction, I thought I'd comment on someone else's.

Over the past year, I've subscribed to the literary journal One Story, whose innovative idea is to send out precisely one story to subscribers roughly every three weeks. Of the fifteen or so stories I've received from them this year, I've really liked about five and at least appreciated another five; the rest I haven't thought much of. The most recent one, titled "Summer, Boys" by Ethan Rutherford, falls into the "appreciated" category: it's beautifully written, but in my view, utterly predictable and ultimately unsatisfying.

"Summer, Boys" is a coming-of-age story about two unnamed fifth-grade boys who develop an intense friendship centered on the common interests of many prepubescent males: professional football, skateboarding, dirt bikes. The two are inseparable until an older cousin of one of the boys mocks their interests as childish and introduces them to his own interest, namely video porn. The story ends with the two friends uncomfortably but compulsively trying out on each other one of the acts they witnessed in the video. So in the end, the story becomes what just about anybody could have predicted it would become from the first word (which is "Friends"): a story of the loss of innocence, conveyed through the medium of homosexual experimentation.

And that's precisely my problem with the story. Not the homosexual experimentation, which I'm confident lots of boys engage in as they're making the passage from childhood to teenhood. What bothered me was the predictability. As a rule, I think we can agree that any story whose plot can be expressed in the form of a tabloid headline isn't a very original story: "Two Young Boys Lose Their Innocence and Engage in Homosexual Experimentation!" What's so interesting about that?

Rutherford, it must be said, can write his pants off (no pun intended). Just look at this sentence (and yes, it's all a single sentence):

"Plays are called, random numbers, slow huts, sharp hikes, and the trees lining the street, the great oaks and elms that have been watching over this particular block for who knows how long, have seen how many plays called, have seen how many errant, throwing-starred punts go up on the roof, who hold, in their branches, a generation's worth of Aerobies too high to knock out--these trees, who have enjoyed, for centuries it seems, those magical on-the-lawn-hours when balls are drawn heavenward, who have stood in rapt attention for those endless minutes before the car-door slamming parents return from the outside world to ask their kids what the hell, just what the hell is going on, these trees, they whistle their applause."

That's good stuff. But to my thinking, it's form without much substance; it sounds great, it evokes a feeling, but it's all in the interest of setting up the scene toward which you knew the story was driving all along. The trees, see, are timeless, but cruel Time will snatch these boys and drag them toward teenhood and an Unspeakable Act! But that Act being neither unspeakable nor particularly interesting, the trees are mostly wasting their time, or ours, by leading up to it.

Some might say it's precisely the job of stories to render the commonplace in uncommon language; others will quibble that the classic definition of the short story presumes that every word will indeed point toward a single predetermined effect. But personally, I'm not much for stories that go to great stylistic lengths to tell me something I already know, or something I could already see coming from word one. I much prefer stories that teach me something I don't know, stories that shock or surprise me, if only (to paraphrase Emerson) with the alienated familiarity of my own being.

If you want to read a couple recent coming-of-age stories that do just that, check out Benjamin Percy's "Refresh, Refresh" and James Lee Burke's "Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine." Both of them are brilliant, impossible to summarize, surprising, melancholy, hilarious, sad. No timeless trees or unspeakable acts in either, but I promise you won't miss them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sixty Students

Facing financial meltdown, the Detroit public school system has been ordered to close half its schools, raising class sizes to as high as sixty students per high school class. Just another present to the people from our enlightened leaders in Washington.

It's not fair, of course, to blame this crisis entirely on the present Republican Congress. Detroit's public schools, like most big-city public schools, have been in freefall for decades.

But then, it's not inappropriate to suggest that the slash-and-burn mentality the current Republican Congress has brought to our nation's capital is the same that has failed our public schools over the past half-century.

To speak bluntly, our nation's leaders don't give a shit about poor black kids in Detroit's public schools. They never have. And witness the results.

I looked up the statistics on one of Detroit's public high schools, Barsamian Preparatory Center. (It was first on the alphabetical list.) Almost 100% of its students are black. Almost 80% receive free lunches. Its attendance rates are around 55%. Over 60% of its students lack proficiency (as defined under No Child Left Behind) in all subjects, including reading, math, and writing. That's actually a lot better than the district as a whole, where the below-proficient population is over 80%. And anywhere between 50 and 60% of the students in this "preparatory" high school drop out before completing their degrees.

Apparently, what they're being prepared for is the reality of being poor and black in America: no one gives a shit about you.

I have a prediction for the 60 students in each class at schools like Barsamian Prep. 30 will drop out and end up either dead on the streets, hooked on drugs, living off welfare, or working at minimum wage. Of the remaining 30, 10 will rely on public assistance, 10 will find low-wage employment, 5 will go to community college and obtain work as lab techs or clerical laborers, 4 will go to state schools and possibly manage to claw their way into the middle class, and 1 will go to Harvard, where, feeling hopelessly alienated and out of place, he'll commit suicide.

And our elected leaders in Washington will be chauffeured home to their mansions and townhouses, and wash their hands for dinner, and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn

Sorry for the blaze of environmentally-themed posts in recent days--I promise I'll have something entirely new soon--but I was so incensed by the House vote yesterday, I just had to fire off this cartoon. And yes, as you can see, all the incendiary language is intentional.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Tolerable Planet

Recently, I reported on attempts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gases. Today, I am sad to report House Republicans have had their way: in their spending bill, the House not only slashed EPA funding but tucked in an amendment to prohibit EPA regulation of heat-trapping gases. The reason, of course, is that they claim such regulations would hurt the economy.

The last time I talked about this issue, I tried to see it from the side of your average American, someone who's afraid of losing her or his job (or who has already lost it) and who honestly believes regulating CO2 and methane will hurt their chances of a decent life. That person, I suggested, was someone with whom one can sympathize.

But the Republican leadership and representatives aren't supposed to be your average Americans. Politicians are supposed to be forward-thinking, insightful people who understand the implications of their actions. They're supposed to think about the damn future, not just about the next election cycle.

Sadly, American politics are in ideological freefall, with neither party able to govern effectively. All they can do is piss off the electorate enough that the vote swings toward the other party two or four years later.

We are living in a climate-altered world. That's fact, not ideology. If the world's climate gets much worse, we may not be living at all. I can appreciate the difficulty of the average citizen in accepting that reality. But I can't accept elected officials' ideological purblindness to the actual world in which they and their constituents live.

Thoreau wrote in his journal: "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" That was in the 1850s. He was thinking of the future. If he were here today, he'd surely be shocked and saddened to see so many of the nation's supposed leaders living in the past.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Passing Gas

Here's my latest pictorial comment on newly inaugurated Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and the natural gas industry he supports. If you're a Pennsylvanian (or New Yorker, or West Virginian, or Ohioan, or Texan, or just plain American) concerned about this issue, watch Josh Fox's film Gasland, check out the Marcellus Protest website or the blog "Fracked Again," and get involved!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Third Option

I got a call a couple days ago from some lobbyist group trying to convince me that the EPA shouldn't be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases. Their reasoning? You guessed it: doing so would "hurt the economy." My response: "perhaps, but it would help the planet." Clearly, we had little to talk about, so we hung up.

It boggles the mind, this weighing of profit over planet. Taking the long view of things, it's impossible to conclude that those who favor the former over the latter are certifiably insane.

And yet, the thing is, they're not insane. They're behaving, in fact, in perfectly sane, indeed eminently rational ways. According to rational choice theory, most of us, when given an either-or choice, will choose the one that is most rational for our immediate circumstances. If the choice is between having a job today and having a planet 100 years from now, it's rational to choose the former over the latter. And so most people do.

This reminds me of discussions we've had in one of my classes this semester. Why, we've wondered, did northeastern woodlands Native peoples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries over-hunt and over-trap fur-bearing animals? Couldn't they see that they were depleting the very resources on which they relied? Weren't they--according to the popular stereotype--environmentally conscious enough to want to preserve for the seventh or seven hundredth generation the land's bounty?

Perhaps they were. But they were also enmeshed in a colonial economy wherein just about the only valuable commodity they could sell or trade was furs. Their populations were decimated, their forests were falling, their lands were diminishing, their languages and cultures were threatened--and they still had to feed their families. Given the choice to do so over the choice to preserve hypothetical future beaver and deer, they rationally chose the former.

The same holds true in contemporary Native Nations. Some of my students were troubled, given the prevailing stereotypes, to hear of the presence of extractive, and highly destructive, industries on Indian reservations. How could Indian peoples damage the lands of their ancestors? Well, Indian peoples live, by and large, on the submarginal lands to which they've been relocated; poverty in their communities is endemic; opportunities for education or advancement are practically non-existent; and when the coal company comes knocking, the rational choice is to open the door and let them in.

All of this simply goes to show that to make a truly rational choice, one that empowers communities while at the same time embracing planetary health, we need a third option. And that third option can only come from systemic change; individual communities generally don't have it at their disposal or within their means.

Which is exactly why we need the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. That, in conjunction with programs that help individuals pay the bills and that promote renewable energy and green jobs, would be a step toward that third option.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Best Work

I've noticed something odd about the editorial guidelines offered by many literary journals. In their tips to contributors, they often say something like, "send us only your best work." Which means . . . what?

Maybe it's some kind of code. Maybe if I'd attended an MFA program I'd know what they were talking about. Maybe it means, "make sure to proofread, you moron!" Or, "send only those stories that your thesis advisor compared favorably to the works of Chekhov and Hemingway." Or, "if you've written a hundred stories, throw them all at the steps and send only the one that lands on top."

Because really, how many writers seriously consider sending their worst work to a literary journal? Yes, I suppose there are a lot of desperate writers out there (maybe I'm one of them), and I suppose there are people who jot down a story, run a quick spell-check (or not), and then flood the markets with the thing. Given how many journals accept electronic submissions these days, this is relatively easy (and cheap) to do. So I guess, in this light, the journals are just trying to protect themselves.

But my guess is also that it doesn't work. Because those few writers who adopt the above approach are not going to be dissuaded by such editorial advice, and the rest of us are not going to be helped by it.

I'm confident that most writers, the vast majority of writers in fact, are sending their best work--the best work of which they're capable. That doesn't mean it's going to be great; but the fact that it isn't great doesn't mean it isn't their best. The majority of writers, even those whose stories are not very good, are not trying to annoy and infuriate editors by sending inferior stories; they're sending their best, and it's precisely the job of editors to determine which stories among the innumerable "my bests" are actually the best.

I've written lots of stories. Most of them I consider to be pretty good. A few I know are awful. And many I consider to be my best. But I'll be darned if I know how to make my best better. The only way I know to get better as a writer is to keep reading and writing, and so that's what I do--but should I sit on these stories forever, hoping that in years to come they'll meet someone else's hypothetical standard of "best"? Or should I send the work I consider to be my best at present, knowing that as I continue to write, my best will get better? The stories I send out for possible publication are the best I can do right now, and so it's not particularly helpful to tell me they're the ones I should be sending. That would be like me saying to my students, "Send me your best paper." What other paper would they send me?

I think it's time for some honesty here. Don't tell us on the editorial page, "send only your best work." Tell us, "send only the best story ever written, the single story most likely to be immortalized by the bards of the future." If I saw that advice, I'd know not to submit my stories there.

Instead, I'd submit to some market that's willing to consider my best.