Saturday, November 30, 2019

Telling Truth to Popcorn Eaters

     Last night I re-watched "American History X", a 20-year old film that I saw and thought highly of twenty years ago. I thought well of it this time too. It's a film that condemns the Skinhead / Ultra Right / White Power movement that was on the rise a generation ago. And it applies just as well today as it did then.

     But in watching it a second time, I noticed something I may have missed the first time. Which is: the film rejects this movement for all sorts of reasons that aren't directly related to the essence of the movement. Meanwhile, it gives the espousal of the movement's philosophy full voice, without ever allowing full expression to the logical repudiation of this philosophy.

     I don't criticize the heart or intent of the film. It provides a hard look at a difficult subject, and one that's difficult to fully break down and analyse. I just wish it had tried a bit harder to do so.

     The way I viewed it, the arguments that the film presents as to why the Ultra Right is to be rejected are:
- it's a movement that stems from anger and that seeks targets for that anger
- it gives its practitioners an 'other' to blame for their hardships
- the practitioners of this creed do horrible things to people
- some of the people 'selling' this creed are self-serving or are cowards
- and that being associated with this life-style puts one into association with crude and violent, anti-social, ignorant freaks.

     Now, all of these are reasons why one might legitimately decline to follow a life-style, or to buy into a creed or social organization. However, none of them in any way undermine the fundamentals of a belief system itself. All of the reasons above can equally apply to followers of particular movements that have grown out of Christianity, Buddhism, Anarchy, Capitalism, Communism, whatever. There are people who follow all of those creeds for the wrong reasons, who do horrible things in its name, and who avoid the painful reality of their lives in doing so. It doesn't make those philosophies wrong.

     The shame of it is, the film does such a great job of showing Derek Vinyard, the protagonist as portrayed by Edward Norton, making very intense and powerful arguments that I'm sure are the very arguments that in fact successfully brought in so many of it's followers. But those in the film who oppose the philosophy either express their views weakly or they are preoccupied with the emotional/social/relational problems of this protagonist. Or worst of all, the character best able to attack the philosophy at its core, by demonstrating its factual and intellectual weaknesses, that being Dr. Sweeney, as portrayed by Avery Brooks, isn't given the opportunity to do so. What a lost opportunity.

     Sweeney is depicted throughout as an intelligent, perceptive, caring, professionally skilled educator. It is he who points out the most potent of the reasons why Derek's clinging to White Power is misguided. But he isn't ever given the screen time to actually enunciate why the arguments of the Far Right are wrong.

     I will be guilty here of committing the same error, in that I'm not going to make that analytical breakdown here. Maybe the film - as I do - presumes that its consumers know the argument. Maybe we're both right. My defense though is that I didn't set out here to break down the Ultra Right, as I believe the film set out to do. My purpose here is to point out how a really good film fell just short of a mark it might easily have reached. And one of the main reasons I make that point here is that it isn't really an isolated fault in popular entertainment.

     "Unforgiven" is an outstanding film that is said to be against violence. But I don't see that it ever really makes an argument about violence being inherently wrong. Instead it shows how being violent has corroded or destroyed the lives of particular individuals. A great argument is made, yes, but without resorting to the direct argument that it might have employed.

     "Django Unchained" is another example. In particular, I recall the scene in which the plantation owner played by DiCaprio makes a case that Blacks demonstrate their inferiority by their failure to rise up when outnumbering their oppressors. That argument leaves out so much of reality. But the counter-arguments are never presented. Instead, the oppressor is simply destroyed in a manner that satisfies the lust for vengeance, but doesn't even bother to address reason.

     That's my rant. Great movies that I wish had been a little greater. Maybe I need to just shut up and make my own movie. Or at least write one. Or a book.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Final Lap of NaNo

     It's been almost four weeks since I started NaNo - National Novel Writing Month. With 3 days left, I've produced 45,578 of the 50K word target, just slightly ahead of pace for finishing on the 30th.
And I'm really liking my novel.

     But beyond simply being happy with the result, I feel I've learned a lot about writing. I feel much more comfortable with the idea of setting deadlines for myself and being able to produce. The reluctance I've had around that in the past has had a lot to do with getting stuck upon encountering problems in the production of a particular piece that I didn't know how to solve.
     Barbara, a fellow writer in my first writing group, used to always advise 'writing through' any such problems. And while I thought I understood what she meant, I get it on a much deeper level now. Because each of the problems I've encountered this month, with plot, character development, continuity, eliminating contradictions, what have you, have been solved by writing through them.

     The difference has been that, 1) I've given myself permission to write badly, and 2) the commitment to producing the daily word count of approximately 1,700 words a day has forced me to keep on writing when I'm writing badly. That's amounted to a potent combination because, incredibly and with remarkable consistency, I've learned that I can only write badly for so long before I stumble across something that isn't quite so bad. And that not so bad opens the doorway to something better.

     The result is that, these bad writing days have always generated something that led into a good writing day, which is another way of saying: to a solution to a writing problem that was blocking me.
Writing and writing and writing, however I might feel about it in the moment, has led to me finding solutions to a dozen or so really challenging problems in the development of this novel. And I'm going to finish up with a manuscript that, while short and incomplete, has substantial idea content, a few dynamic characters, and a decent plot.

     There will be lots to do in December, but I'm going to insist to myself that I not let this project drag on for much longer than that. Perhaps I'll set myself other deadlines.

     Many WriMo's come back to it year after year. That was surprising to me when I first heard it, because I thought of this as a kind of quirky, un-serious, bucket-list sort of thing. But I get it now, and can already see myself doing another round next November.

     I'm extremely grateful for what this month has been. My writing Life is certainly reinvigorated. I have so many ideas for books I'd like to write, that at my previous pace were total dream-stuff. Now I see that it isn't inconceivable that I could produce 1st drafts of all of them in one year! I don't think I'll reach that far. I'm going to unchain the editor and let him at it, after all. But things are looking good in Novel Writing Land. Better than ever before!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My NaNoWriMo

      On a sudden inspiration, I decided to do National Novel Writing Month this year. To participate, you set out to complete a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. That makes for a fairly short novel, but a good chunk of work for just about any month. It comes to 1,667 words a day, or about 7 double-spaced, type-written pages.

     I heard about the challenge years ago, and have met a couple of people who tried it. But I'd never considered attempting it myself. Not with work, a fairly eventful personal life, and on-going writing projects that I struggled to make time for. I realized a while back that I was never going to be that writer who gets the job done while holding down a job. It's not that I wouldn't like to be. Just isn't in my character or my skill set.

     Looking back over my writing history, the few times I accomplished forward progress were all periods when I was either un-employed or under-employed. I accepted some time ago that multi-tasking is not my thing. A good writing day for me is anything but efficient. I get it done in chunks ranging from one to three hours long, with equally long chunks of mostly unstructured time between them, during which I might be reading, or walking, or running around doing chores, or not doing chores, or doing crosswords, or catching up on news, or sending emails, or out on my bike, or walking, or visiting with a friend. On just sitting somewhere thinking about things. That's a process that works for me really well.

     I discovered during my first forays into writing that it's these varied periods of not writing that generate ideas and insights. It's when I stumble into solutions to writing problems. I can then return to my typewriter or computer ready for another hour or two or three, after which I'm spent again and unable to continue. The same sorts of ideas and insights have always come to me while working, and I've jotted down a thousand of them over the decades, and have gotten a start developing dozens. But I've brought very, very few of them to any kind of completion. In fact, the main reason I started this blog was to take on short subjects that I could complete and offer up to readers in a day or two. And it's been wonderful for that.

     But I was never going to develop into any kind of writer with this process. Which brings me to now, to retirement. It's been more wonderful than I can express. For the first time, I'm able to structure my days in a way that facilitates my writing, and not feel that it causes issues in other areas of my life. For the first time, I'm able to live as the writer I want to be, for more than just a month or a few weeks. And I'm loving it. Which brings me to NaNoWriMo.

     Having arrived at this point of freedom, I was still stuck in a slow and ineffective writing pattern. Every substantial piece I've written has been completed over a period of weeks or months. My cynical and over-critical inner editor has become more and more of a tyrant over the years. I have a novel - one I actually think is pretty good - that I've been dusting off and pulling out to work on since 1996! That's so long ago that what was originally intended as a totally contemporary work has become a period piece. I have so many pieces and versions of it on my various computers that; they're like pieces of a fossilized missing link that I'm struggling to piece together. I don't know if I'll ever do anything with it. But what I know is that I must get past the glacially slow production method that produced it.

     So when I came upon a mention of NaNoWriMo in a recent edition of Poets & Writers, it struck me as the perfect thing. I would force my obnoxious inner editor into a month long hiatus, if not outright retirement, and simply write, write, write for a month. And hopefully, by the 30th, I'd have established some flow, some rhythm, and a habit of cranking out several pages every day, regardless of quality. And 12 days and 21,000 words in, I feel that I'm accomplishing just that.

     The non-profit behind NaNoWriMo maintains a website that's full of acknowledgment and encouragement for participants, including chat rooms, and schedules for the meet-ups happening all around the world, for writing together and a bit of socializing. There are veterans there to advise and encourage newbies like myself, and a word counting feature for us to track our progress. I was initially concerned that I was approaching the month with nothing more than an idea that came to me about a year ago, that I'd done nothing at all to outline it. But I've never been a planner anyway, but rather one of those writers who figures it out as I go.

     One of the pleasures of these 12 days had been watching this seed of an idea grow and branch out, session by session, as characters take shape and do things that introduce new elements and considerations. Yes, there's the increasing challenge of holding it all together, and this generates some tension, but only so much as it also generates possibilities.

     I expect that I'll post again as the 30th approaches, and report on how it's gone. I gave myself full permission to write badly, but so far, I kinda like what's taking shape. Another invitation/gift to myself was to try something different. I During my twenties and thirties I read lots of great, classic science fiction, but never gave a serious thought to writing it. But the idea that came to me a year ago, and that I decided to run with, is just that: a sci-fi romp in the tradition of the old masters: Asimov, LeGuin, Delany, Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke!...and I'm feeling their influence as I freestyle to my heart's content.

     Thank You NaNoWriMo, for your crazy inspiration!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Brief but Glorious Sailing Career

Our sailboat came out of the water this week, and it may mark the end of our sailing career.

Bubbles - our First - a Halman 20
Sailing came in to our lives unexpectedly. (The sudden and surprising way is one of my favorite Ponczka stories, but it’ll have to wait for another post – or maybe an entire book; I have so many of them!) We started out with little expectation, except that it would be fun. It has absolutely been that, but it’s also offered a different way of seeing and being in the world.

For one, the laws of nature are different when on a small sailing boat. A scientist might not tell you that, but for anyone who has spent their life moving around on solid earth, the distortion and disorientation is undeniable.

Captain Ponczka in Action!
Early on, it was impossible to get myself or Bubbles – our boat – to move as I intended. To start with, how could a vessel that was powered by the wind move into the wind? And how could such a puny and stationary keel have such an effect on the movement of such a large boat? And how could a movable but even tinier rudder cause the boat to dance and spin so wildly? It took weeks and months to begin to figure out the basics of how to position the sails so as to go where we wanted to go, and that was when the water was calm and the wind fairly steady. Stormy weather made it all that much more complicated. Even moving two or three feet across the deck presented huge problems when that deck was continuously lurching and dropping out from under you.

Captain Ponczka says, "Go Forth!"
We counted ourselves as extremely lucky that Bubbles was designed to respond to heavy weather like a life boat, as so was near impossible to capsize. One of the early lessons we learned – which, thankfully, we never had to put into play – was that, when unmanageable weather struck, and when all else failed, it was advisable to surrender all control, go below deck, and let the boat do what she wanted to do. There are countless anecdotes of boats washing ashore intact after a storm, after their erstwhile masters have been lost at sea.

We had some scary moments before we learned this and other lessons. The worst was probably the first. We went out one sunny afternoon, shortly after learning some of the basics, and wondered why all the other boats we saw were coming in. A storm struck, seemingly out of nowhere. We were bounced around like a kernel in a popcorn popper while our sails were yanked loose and whipped about above us. I, like a fool, crawled to the foredeck, determined to rein them in. And if I had perished then, I’d have no one but myself to blame. No life vest, no secure line to hold onto, and crocs on my feet. And there’s no way Ponczka would’ve been able to steer around to get me if I’d been tossed overboard. Only half jokingly, when we made it back to shore I kissed the ground. Needless to say, since that experience we’ve always checked the forecast before leaving the dock, however glorious the weather seemed from shore.

Trickster - Our Second - a Catalina 27
That difference in perspectives from land to lake was one of the best parts of sailing. From just a few yards out, the land we live on – city and suburb – looks and feels so different. But actually, just going to the marina and sitting on the boat, and experiencing the slight rolling buoyancy of the tethered boat, could convey a sense of getting away, of being insulated from the heaviness of daily life. We soon came to understand why so many boaters hardly moved their boats at all, yet loved the boater’s life.

But there are other reasons for actually going out on the water that we’ll miss. It’s quiet. It’s serene. Sailing is a slow way to get from points A to B, but it’s also effortless and unhurried. And it can feel pretty fast, from a perspective of simply moving through space and over moving water. And there’s something uplifting about knowing that whatever power and speed one manages to harness is courtesy of natural forces in play.

On Lake Ontario
The most surprising and rewarding part of the sailing experience however, has been the community. Every marina is a kind of social club, or more accurately, several overlapping social clubs. Since moving to Hamilton, for various reasons we’ve made our home in three different marinas in just four seasons. But before that, while in Seattle, we belonged to the small Navy League Marina in Ashbridge’s Bay for 9 years, and there we had a wonderful community that we’ll remember for the rest or our lives. It contained only about 30 boats so, unlike the larger versions, was pretty intimate. There was no paid staff and all the work, including Spring Launch and Fall Haul Out, were handled by the boaters. Those two days alone – 8 to twelve hours long – led to a lot of bonding and mutual support among us. There were also meetings and work days when we actively supported our shared interests.

Fair Weather Sailor
During the season, there were lots of visits on one another’s boats, and shared meals at the picnic tables. And best of all, our marina happened to include quite a few musicians, including a pianist who made his living giving lessons, and a well-known professional rock and blues drummer. That bounty led to a number of jam sessions and ‘shows’ over the years. These were wide open affairs, where anyone was free to take the mic to share a song. I, with my also sax, wasn’t nearly the musician that most of my fellows were, but I was always made to feel welcome.

These were such good times! But another of the characteristics of marina communities is that they change every year, as boaters come and go. We had about a three year peak of our musical, communal boater community in Ashbridges Bay. We lost some key members after that, and the character of the community changed, as it inevitably had to. Ponczka and I moved to Hamilton then, and our mobility and distraction with other parts of life has kept us from becoming true members of the communities we’ve encountered here. But they exist, and in all of them, there is some sense of ‘alternate lifestyle’ and the ‘call to adventure’ to be found: always one or two whose entire being is centered around boats and life on the watery part of the world, always a few who live aboard their vessels, during the season or even year-round; always someone contemplating a big sail, down the coast or across the ocean.

In 13 years of sailing, I’ve come to know for sure that my place is on solid land. I love the opening, the shift, the freshness that sailing offers. And I’m so grateful that it’s been part of my life. But I’ll never feel ‘at home’ or so totally at ease as I know the true sailors do. We don’t want to sell our current boat, Trickster, which we got about halfway through our career, when we wanted a vessel that was roomier below deck and more maneuverable on the water. Trickster is a 27’ Catalina. you might call it the Honda Civic of the seas, as it’s so user friendly that there are more of them than any other sailboat in North America. We’d love to keep her. 

But the other thing about sailing is that it’s expensive. It costs over $4k per year just to keep her docked in summer and stored in winter. So the year when we managed to get out only half a dozen times, sailing set us back almost a thousand bucks per outing. Which is absurd for folks with our income.

So our years of sailing may be done. And it makes us very sad. It was a wonderful, brief career.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

B-I-D-E-N Doesn’t Spell OBAMA

I’m frustrated by the notion that the way to show loyalty to Barack Obama in 2020 is to back his 2008 running mate.

I was an Obama supporter, which doesn’t mean that I back everything he did while in office. While he pushed for and accomplished some positive, progressive measures: health care, LGBT rights, some checks on corporate greed, not only didn’t he go as far as I’d have liked, he didn’t go nearly so far as he himself would have liked.

I was very frustrated at his inability to bring in gun controls, I abhor the huge increase in drone warfare, and I sure wish he’d found another way to turn around the economy after its disastrous implosion in 2008 than to give or loan billions of dollars to the very corporations that caused it. But I recognize that he was even more frustrated than I was, by the organized resistance to change that he encountered in Washington.

Which is why I find it so ridiculous that supporting Joe Biden – a “middle-of-the-road” candidate, if there ever was one – is so often equated with ‘loyalty’ to Obama.

Biden speaks of Obamacare almost as a legacy that needs to be protected. But we mustn’t forget that Obamacare isn’t what Obama wanted at all; it is merely the best compromise he could find – a barely minimal beginning of an overhaul of a corrupted and ineffective health care system. Obama very much wanted a single-payer system, much closer to what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are calling for, than the system that exists now.

Loyalty in politics shouldn’t mean dusting off policies and platforms from more than a decade ago, and holding them as sacred because of what they represented when they were new. That’s the same kind of reactionary ignorance that has conservatives insisting that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to the original intent of its framers in the 18th Century, rather than by reasonable, philosophical extrapolations. (NO – the 2nd Amendment does NOT suggest that gun ownership should be completely unchecked by concerns for public safety).

I will surely support Joe Biden if he emerges as the Democratic Party Presidential candidate to oppose Trump. But I hope that the party is bolder and more forward thinking than that.  I believe that the US badly needs leaders who will address global warming, foreign policy and economic inequality in bold ways that challenge the status quo. For now, I’m hoping that Sanders or Warren will succeed.

The notion that Black Americans are mostly falling in line behind Joe, as a standard-bearer of all that Barack represents really irks me. I don’t see it that way at all. And I hope that ALL voters will look and think more deeply than that. Of course, when I look at the idiocy that prevails at the right end of the political spectrum, where so many seemingly intelligent voters abandon truth and integrity in their continued defense of the nightmare that is Trump, I despair.

The old maxim seems to be true: that people get the leaders they deserve.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Coming into the Country

(with acknowledgment and apologies to John McPhee, a great writer)

A friend who lives up the road from here put it this way:
“I like to just go along, to let everything be the way it is. If a tree falls, I figure it was supposed to fall there, so I leave it. Sometimes it gets so quiet, and nothing is really going on. It’s almost like I’m not here.”

How does that strike you. Is it a little chilling. A little scary, this notion of almost…disappearing?

But no. It isn’t that at all. It’s actually very beautiful.

First of all, Dan is always doing something. One day, when he said he hadn’t done anything, he’d chopped down a tree, then spent four hours cutting up and stacking the wood.
Not exactly the same as letting a tree fall and just lay there.

What he means, really, is being in flow with these woods and this wildlife he lives within, so that all sense of being anxious or driven by anything falls away. Rules fall away. Society falls away. He forgets himself for awhile.
If I could say it any better, I’d have said it myself.

Willow on Fawn Lake in Addison, New York

My experience isn’t exactly that. I came here this week determined to make progress with my novel. And I spent lots of time struggling with it, trying to free myself of the eternal editor so that the writer could romp.

And even so, I fell into a rhythm that was as much the sun rising, and the fog gathering over the lake in the night, and the geese with their periodic summonses to one another
as it was my enduring battle with time, to have purpose, to matter, to achieve.

Time humbles me when I let myself be absorbed by it, let it insert space between my molecules and I suddenly breathe to a different rhythm.

Is it true, as Einstein said, that time and space are one?
I’m not so fixed in either from this place. Not so certain or definite at all. Yes, I understand that bit about almost not being here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Too Dumb to Throw the Ball?

I'm a pretty big sports fan, and a follower of American Football in particular.

The NFL (National Football League) is celebrating its 100th season with a lot of looking back, at great games, great plays and great players. And as the current season unfolds, the amazing success of black quarterbacks has me looking back, and observing gratefully that a racial barrier seems to finally have been overcome.

For most of the hundred years, including most of the Superbowl Era, which began in the mid 60’s, there were very few black quarterbacks in the sport. For those of you who aren’t fans, the quarterback is by far the most important member of a football team. He is the general of the offense. He controls the ball on every play, and by running with it, handing it off, or throwing it, manages the other ten players as they march down the field. It’s a complex and multi-faceted job, requiring the ability to quickly ‘read’ a defense, change the play at the last moment, make split-second decisions, and to demonstrate poise, judgement and leadership. And long after many Americans insisted that racism was no longer a part of the America’s character, you still hardly ever saw a black man leading a team from the quarterback position. And the reason – whispered, but known to everyone – was that blacks weren’t thought to be intelligent enough to manage the complexities of the position.

I won’t try to recount the long and varied history of the NFL in terms of racial inclusion. But a small number of blacks played in the league in the early decades, until the league segregated in the 30s. In the 40s it began to reintegrate, and by the time the NFL merged with the more integrated AFL in 1970, about 30% of the players were black. (as compared with about 10% of the nation’s population).

Russell Wilson & Patrick Mahomes

But black players were generally slotted into the speed positions, and only rarely did one make it into the league as QB, and when they did, almost always as a back-up. It’s said that though many black QBs excelled at the college level, they were often persuaded to change positions upon coming into the professional league. And there, even when they had success as QBs, it was usually credited to their athleticism and ‘instincts’ rather than their football knowledge and intelligence.

Warren Moon, who’d established his credentials in the Canadian Football League, was the first black QB to experience huge and sustained success when he came into the NFL in the 80’s as a starting QB and a star. Then Doug Williams led the Washington team to an impressive Superbowl victory in ’88. But despite these successes and the stardom of a few others over the years, like Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, the stigma persisted.

This state of affairs lasted right up to and through the presidency of Barack Obama. In a league in which more than 65% of the players were black in 2014, there were still only 7 or 8 starting black QBs on 32 teams. And very often, even these starting QBs were not highly regarded, sometimes credited mainly for their running ability, rather than as accomplished passers or capable team leaders.

And suddenly – seemingly, almost overnight – something has shifted. When you take a snapshot of the NFL today, you still find that only about one in three teams is led by a black quarterback. But the big change is in how they are regarded. Last year, began with a quartet of firmly established black QBs: Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and my favorite, Russell Wilson a sure bet to end up in the Hall of Fame, along with a few others fighting to establish themselves. Then, there was the sudden emergence of 2 more, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, both new players leading their teams for the first time, and immediately making them much more competitive. Mahomes went on win the year's Most Valuable Player award, going to a black QB for only the third time, following Newton in 2015 and Steve McNair in 2003.

And this development carried over into the current year. Currently, when you look at the QBR – a rating that takes into account all of the different elements of effectiveness – you find black QBs heading the list. In fact 4 of the top 5 on the list are black, and the one exception is replacing the injured Newton. Sports talk shows these days are for the first time regularly mentioning multiple black QBs - Mahomes, Prescott and Wilson - as leading candidates to win the award this year. 

And, these black QBs, instead of being denigrated for their generally more mobile and elusive styles of play, are now having the styles of their teams adjusted to suit them, rather than being constrained to play the more conservative style of decades past.

It’s a positive step, and one that I celebrate. It reflects a shift in thinking that is long overdue. It’s not the end of racial barriers in the league, by any means. There is still an extreme shortage of blacks in coaching, management and ownership positions, the obvious place for veterans of the sport. As in the society-at-large, there is still a tendency for people to want to say a problem has been dealt with when only the most egregious wrongs have been addressed.

And, if only one of the 32 teams would come to its senses and hire Colin Kaepernick, another very talented black QB who was essentially black-listed because he took a knee when the national anthem was played, in order to call attention to the killing of unarmed black men by police.