30 September 2017

One, Two, Three What Are We Fighting For? Don't Ask Me I Don't Give a Damn, Next Stop is Vietnam....

And he's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall
- From The Universal Soldier by Donovan

The Vietnam War is eating up my life right now. I refer to the Ken Burns PBS series that, as of this writing, I’ve watched seven-tenths of. So many memories of the war come flooding back and I didn’t even fight in it. I was growing up with the war in the background. As a pre teen I assumed that my country was doing the right thing. But coincident to my becoming a teenager, questions about the war began to arise. This was natural for anyone anywhere but particularly for me growing up in Berkeley. Also many of my cultural heroes — The Beatles, for example — were critics of the war. Most of all  I saw the light (not the one that was supposed to be at the end of the tunnel) and being a news junkie as I was (starting as far back as I can remember) became well-versed in what was going on in Southeast Asia and could see that US actions were not serving the country’s best interests. It wasn’t long before I began to see that in addition to not needing to be there, we were on the wrong damn side.

Vietnam went hand-in-hand for me with the Civil Rights Movement, the emerging Black Power Movement and the evolution of our culture with rock and roll as a vehicle to express this new questioning of government in particular and authority in general. Vietnam was a symbol of a government that was deeply flawed (Watergate would later offer a glimpse into just how deeply). Two Kennedys and King had been assassinated and  those deaths robbed many young people of hope — just as did government perfidy in Vietnam. But blind patriotism did not give way to cynicism. The late Sixties and early Seventies were filled with a kind of gleeful hope and optimism. A belief that change could come. Liberation movements were not without some success and even failures and setbacks were immediately greeted by action. For example in the wake of the Attica prison riot — in which the authorities responded with excessive force and abuse — the reaction on the left was swift and powerful. There were protests and official investigations. Any slap in the face offered by the establishment would be met by protests and calls for corrective action.

The protest movement was critical to the success of the counter culture. First Civil Rights and later Vietnam brought people together in a spirt of sister and brotherhood. There were not just angry messages of protest but a sense of unity. The oppressed and alienated were not lonely figures plunged into despair, but integral parts of the rallying cries for justice. My participation in demonstrations imbued me with a sense of being part of something greater than myself.

Vietnam is high on a long list of wars that the US should have had no part of. But men will gladly go to war “for their country” as what they perceive to be the ultimate act of patriotism. Imagine, blindly going to wherever your country sends you to fight regardless of the reason. The US being invaded? Sign me up. Defending the sovereignty of an ally? Sign me up. Fighting to defend a corrupt, racist regime? Sign me up. Invading a foreign enemy to better take advantage of their natural resources? Sign me up. It is literally true that millions of people will fight in a war without the slightest hesitation and without having a firm grasp of the objective. Oh and they’ll tell you they’re fighting to defend our freedoms.

So many young Americans went to Vietnam in a patriotic fervor. Those who died did so needlessly. Just as did the Americans who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost to the country is in the billions. Money that could be spent on health care, education, scientific research, housing, infrastructure and job creation. Instead those dollars go towards blowing up buildings, villages and humans, often creating permanent enemies for the US.

The wanton destruction in Vietnam was catastrophic and it says quite a bit that the North Vietnamese won despite the battering they took. They were the ones who were fighting, not out of an imagined sense of patriotism, but to defend their homes.

The US has been terrible at foreign policy throughout much of its history, but particularly since the end of World War II. The US is supposedly a beacon of freedom and equality but to many it is a meddlesome bully whose actions have done more to deny freedom than enhance it. Just ask Chile, Iran, Guatemala, The Congo and other places where the US has intervened.

I have resumed this writing after a few days and have now finished watching the Vietnam documentary series. It is amazing to me that something nearly 20 hours in length can be so near perfection. The series captured the experiences of soldiers from of the US, North and South Vietnam and of the Viet Cong as well civilians in all parts of the country. It also explored the American experience during the war and the manner in which the US was torn asunder by opposing views of the war. Every American should watch it.

20 September 2017

They Gotta Go: Current Usages in English that Should be Abolished

There are some things being said in the English language today that need to go. They’ve either worn out their welcome, been badly used or should never have been uttered in the first place.

Here’s what we need to get rid of:

No worries. I’ve mentioned this one several times before. It never sounds right, it can be flip, it is often unnecessary and it’s lazy language. I hate it.

Grab. The word grab does not have to go entirely, but it is being way overused. In addition to people “grabbing something to eat” or “grabbing” lunch or dinner, I’ve heard people say they were going to grab the following: a shower, some sun, a workout. What’s next, is one member of an amorous couple going to suggest to the other that they “grab some love-making”? Here are the first three definitions of grab in Merriam-Webster: 1) to take or seize by or as if by a sudden motion or grasp….2) to obtain without consideration of what is right or wrong 3) to take hastily grab a bite to eat grab a cab.
Time to start using this one correctly.

Don’t get me wrong and its cousin, what I’m trying to say. I’ll get you wrong if I want to. But seriously…if you’re worried someone will take something the wrong way, just be clearer. A lot of people will criticize something and then add, “don’t get me wrong, I really like such and such.” How about this, start with I really like such and such then say, however. As for what I’m trying to say, here’s a tip, just say what you’re trying to say and skip the part where you tell us that what you are saying is what you are trying to say.

Awesome and amazing. Can we please reserve the use of these words for things that fill us with awe and amaze us. I’ll never forget the first time I gave a barista my coffee order and he responded with “awesome.” There was nothing the least big “awesome” about ordering a latte. Nothing. Sometimes at work we get credited by admin for our amazing work that week. No one was amazed. Maybe pleased, or happy with or impressed by but not amazed.

Same ole same ole. Just shut up. You sound like a total rube.

More than happy. What are ya, nuts? More than happy? This is usually said by someone who just helped you find a stapler. You thank them and they claim to be have been “more than happy” to have helped. Come on. You probably weren’t even that happy about it. At best you didn’t mind, it was part of your job, but more than happy. Please.

Give 110 per cent. This one always suggests a complete inability to understand the most rudimentary math. As many of us know the maximum one can do is 100%, let’s stop fooling ourselves that there’s any more one can give.

Anyways. Hey moron, there’s no s at the end of anyway. People sound like 12 year olds when they say anyways. SO I guess if you’re 12 or younger, go ahead. Worse yet, people write anyways. There’s no excuse for that.

We're keeping them in our thoughts and prayers. Sure it feels good to say or write this in reference to earthquake, hurricane, fire and shooting victims, but its ultimately pretty empty. For one thing prayers are notoriously useless. People are praying for things all the time and it doesn't change a damn thing. If you believe in god you've got to admit that he does what he wants regardless of your prayers. If you don't believe in god then you should already know that while prayer might feel good it has no practical effect. If I'm ever dispossessed by a natural disaster please keep me in your thoughts long enough to send money then you can go on to thinking about something else. I also wonder what percent of the time a person reacts to a tragedy with the old keeping you in our thoughts and prayers and then gives you no further thoughts and doesn't fit you into any ensuing prayers. I bet it's a lot.

Speak truth to power. No one knows what the hell this even means. It’s seductive because it sounds intelligent and meaningful but really it's just gobbledygook.

Double down. As a blackjack term this has been around for ages and is perfectly appropriate, but in reporting the actions of a politician it is a new term and its being beaten into the ground. Every time a politician re-affirms a position — particularly a controversial one — they have “doubled down” on their previous remarks. What did journalists do before someone came up with double down? Maybe they should look that up and start using some of their old terminology. Else they want to “double down” on their use of double down. Here's some ideas: reiterated, stood behind, repeated, refused to back away from.

Do or do not. There is no try. Yes there is. This one came from Yoda in one of the Star Wars films. For some reason there are people who think this makes sense. It doesn’t. For the record there is: doing; not even trying to do; and trying to do but not succeeding. There's no shame in trying and failing, there is, however, shame in not trying at all or spreading this "do or not do" nonsense.

America is the greatest country in the world. First of all, why would anyone say such a thing? Many Americans do and it sounds stupid, childish, insecure and arrogant. What kind of person pronounces themselves to be the best at something? A boor. Same with a country. It’s unseemingly but Americans do it, particularly American politicians. Secondly: you wanna bet? Think of the country you’re touting as the best. One with Donald Jackass Trump as president, one that carried out genocidal practices against its original occupants, that maintained chattel slavery long after European countries stopped, one that has meddled in other countries’ business repeatedly and to everyone’s detriment (see Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, El Salvador, etc.) one that has a tendency to drop bombs on people of color (Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) while going easy on predominately white counties. One that won't provide universal health care, has a congressional body rife with climate change deniers, the world's largest prison population.... I could go on. Greatest in the world? Not even the greatest in North America.

10 September 2017

A Interview With My Depression

At the suggestion of my psychiatrist I decided to interview my depression to see if I could understand it better. The arrangements were not difficult to make. My depression is never far away and is delighted for any opportunity to visit. What follows is a verbatim transcript of that interview.

Me: First of all depression, thank you for sitting down with me for this conversation.
D: My pleasure.
Me: I’d like to start off by saying, “fuck you!”
D: I understand that and am unfazed by your harshness and vulgarity. Indeed, I rather enjoy it.
Me: So what brings you here, time and time again?
D: I can see where that could be a bit of a poser. Sometimes I feel invited and other times, well frankly I just barge in.
Me: Let’s look those one at a time. How on earth do you ever feel “invited”?
D: It genuinely seems like you want me. I’m not suggesting that you’ve ever said: “come on over” no, it’s much more subtle than that.
Me: Please elaborate.
D: Sometimes there’s an unsettling event in your life such as an argument or confrontation or a disappointment or perhaps bad news, in those cases you open yourself up to me. Your guard is down so its a simple matter to enter.
Me: But why enter at all? Why not just leave me alone?
D: But you’re feeling bad about something, it’s only natural that I show up.
Me: I may be hurt by something, or disappointed or whatever but that does not mean I want or need to go into a full fledged depression.
D: But you’re prone to depression. You’re a vulnerable chap. You take a lot of things in stride but other things knock you off your stride. You’re just waiting to wallow in the pain.
 You may think you don't want me, but part of you does, I believe that.
Me: You do realize that your taking advantage of my pain serves no purpose. It would make far more sense if you just left me alone so that I can work through whatever is bothering me, then get on with being happy.
D: That’s not how I work. I like to plant myself in a host who’s -- like I said before — vulnerable. I revel in your pain. I'm sorry, that may seem harsh but that's just what I am.
Me: You’re just a mean son of a bitch, aren’t you?
D: You don’t really think name-calling is going to have the slightest effect on me? Perhaps I should amend that, I rather like it. The more vitriol you spew my way the more empowered I feel. I live off conflict, animus, discord and failure.
Me: I still don’t get what your motive is, what you get out of this.
D: Come now, I’m depression it is my raison d’être. What the hell did you think? You might as well ask why the wind blows. We do what we do.
Me: This conversation has gotten depressing.
D: Thank you.
Me: Okay, earlier you mentioned barging in when I’m not depressed --
D: Yeah that is fun. I just step right in and bring your mood right on down and sit on it.
Me: That’s especially cruel.
D: You flatter me.
Me: How is it you leave it all? Why don’t you become a permanent fixture if you’re so powerful?
D:  I’ve got my weaknesses too, just like everyone else. For example when you run, those endorphins are toxic to me, I have to get the hell out. Also you sometimes get distracted, -- like when you’re teaching or enjoying a film -- and pay no attention to me. That’s frustrating. Then there’s those meds you take, it’s not easy to ignore them. Oh and those sudden upswings in mood you experience -- my bane -- that can turn into a God awful fight. When you’re mood gets elevated I have to bide my time before returning. There are a lot of complications to keeping a person good and depressed. Some folks are easier than others. Some I can’t get to at all, like your wife.
Me: But aren’t there reasons for depression? Like biological ones?
D: Oh absolutely, that biological weakness is what gives an opening. Some people, such as yourself, are prone to depression. It's no use wasting time on others unless some sort of tragedy befalls them.
Me: What about other factors? My psychiatrist and I have talked about some of the issues that might be plaguing me like age and whether I’ve made good use of my life and my childhood.
D: Those all help. Anything that can get you down I can work with. I can even put thoughts into your head such as the fact you’re still an unpublished novelist. And at your age.
Me: Not funny! So you can send bad thoughts to my brain?
D: Sometimes directly to your subconscious.
Me: Aren’t you afraid that the right meds are going to spell your doom? Or successful work in therapy?
D: That kind of stuff is always a threat. I’d appreciate it if you stopped seeing your doctor and went off all medications.
Me: Like I’d do you a favor.
D: Think of it as a challenge.
Me: It’s challenge enough just living with you. You’re like an uninvited, unwanted roommate who’s only ever away for short periods.
D: That’s a lovely way of putting it.
Me: If you were me, what would you do?
D: You really think I’d help you out?
Me: Think of it as a challenge.
D: Hey, that was my line.
Me: You’ve been of very little help. Just know that I’m going to do everything in my power to kick your ass and keep you out for good.
D: Talk, talk, talk.
Me: Once again, fuck you!

04 September 2017

Twice Inspired by Thomas Wolfe, a Man Writes a Novel

I was inspired by something Thomas Wolfe once said to me — yes, the Thomas Wolfe, the late great writer — he said, “Langdon” (for he always called me by my last name) “you must never give up. If you believe you’ve a novel in you, you keep at it, never let any rejections you may receive deter you.”

That was over 40 years ago when I was a young man of but 23 years. It was 1938 and we were enjoying a beer together on a hot late Summer night in New York. Like Thomas I was from the south, though in my case it was Virginia. I had ambitions to be a novelist and was meanwhile working for the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy. I would go on to have a byline on the crime beat and later take a job on the New York Post where I rose to city editor. I retired in 1976 when the odious Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. All told I spent 39 years working for two New York papers. Everyone of those calendar years began with my making the New Year’s Resolution that this was the year that I would finish my novel and find a publisher.

Instead of finishing the book — indeed in lieu of even getting beyond so much as a first chapter — I occupied my non working hours being a husband, father and drunkard. The latter of those three made me a poor fit for the former two. Oh I was never abusive or cruel, I loved my dear wife Effie and our children Carla and Hank but I saw so little of them what with work and all the hours I spent keeping my favorite watering holes in business. The problem for me was that I was so damn good at being drunk. No matter how much I imbibed I’d barely slur my words, I’d not suffer black outs and would hardly do or say anything I wouldn’t have while sober. I never even looked at another woman let alone philandered. I would just get good and soused and enjoy the world though a sotted brain. If I'd been a sloppy or angry drunk perhaps I would have seen my problem sooner.

I’m alone now. Hank went off to college five years ago and is now in law school and last year Carla enrolled at Radcliffe. Once she was out of the house Effie left me over my drinking. We’d been married for 31 years. I got the message and went into AA and have a year of sobriety. That’s not good enough for Effie. She’s living with her spinster sister in Connecticut and doesn't speak to me.

So like I was saying at the beginning of this story I was inspired by my old friend from a lifetime ago. (We’d met at a party my well-to-do high society cousin and her husband threw.) Perhaps it's obvious that what I was inspired to do was write that novel. Hell I’ve been writing like a house of fire for five months now only taking breaks for eating, sleeping, a little exercise and, of course, AA meetings. I’ve never written so much nor been so happy my whole life (although I’d be a far sight happier if Effie would come back and if my kids would call more often). I think I’ve got another month before the damn thing is finished. The first draft, that is. God knows how long the editing, re-writes and polishing up will take. Given my newspaper experience, that’ll be the easy part for me. Then I’ll need to find someone to put the book in print. I’ve got some connections in the publishing world and even better ones through a few former drinking buddies and colleagues. I also have an old friend — Hewitt Layne — who’ll read the book and give me some suggestions. Hewitt’s a professor of English Literature at Colombia and knows his way around a book, so I’ll be in good hands.

I’ve already determined what course to take if I get roundly rejected: I’ll just keep at it. First I’ll look to other publishers, if they don’t like my opus either I’ll just give the manuscript the once over and see if I can make it to someone’s liking without comprising my artistic integrity. If it still won't pass muster by heavens I’ll sit right back down and write another one. Why not? I’ve got nothing but time on my hands. Having substituted a booze habit for a coffee one, I find that I can be lucid all day. All those years I had so few days that didn’t at least include a mild buzz. Now my brain is as sharp as tack all day, just right for a novelist.

My book is about beatnik named Loudon Ellingway living in Greenwich Village in the late Fifties and early Sixties who writes poetry and songs. There are a lot of historical figures who he interacts with like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Richard Farina. He lives with a fictional female folk singer who’s making it big. A third of the way through the story he’s visited by his Great Great Grandfather’s ghost, whose name is also Loudon Ellingway. The long-ago-deceased had fought and died in the Civil War. The ghost becomes a regular visitor. He’s got a million questions for his young descendant and a million and one pieces of advice. The two even argue a lot, mostly about issues surrounding modern morality. Meanwhile our protagonist goes on with his love affair and poetry and song-writing, more inspired than ever.

I’ll bet you’d like to know how the story ends. Well, you’ll just have to wait for the book to come out, which hopefully won't be too far off.

I don’t know where the damn idea came from. I think it was a dream. It must have been. One morning, shortly after Effie left, I was finishing my morning oatmeal and just staring off into space, my mind a total blank. Then the story popped into my head, at least the part about the beatnik being visited by the ghost of an ancestor. As soon as I got back from my morning AA meeting, inspired by memory of what Wolfe had said, I started writing.

I will add one more thing right now and this is the real crazy part. You'll note I’ve saved it to the end. In the newspaper business this would be called burying the lead but I am longer in that line of work anymore so I’m calling this saving the best for last.

Three days after I started writing the book, I quit. I got stuck on the wording of a sentence and thought, what's the use. I felt I didn’t have it in me. The idea was just damn silly and surely I was too old to write a publishable novel. It was the same kind of feeling I’d succumbed to so many times before on those rare occasions in the past when I’d tried to write fiction. I slumped my head down on my desk and thought about whether I should forget this sobriety stuff and go out for a drink. That depressed me. Then I though that maybe I’d park myself in front of the TV and watch some of the television programs people raved about. That depressed me too. Then I thought of settling into my easy chair and opening a good book. Now this thought cheered me, especially when I decided that re-reading some of Thomas Wolfe would be darn fun. I rose from desk and stepped toward the bookshelf when I felt a strong grip on my shoulder. It was like a huge hand was digging into my flesh. I wrenched myself free and spun around more scared than I’d ever been in my life. But the fear vanished completely when I saw Thomas Wolfe himself standing there looking me in the eye.

“Don’t,” he said firmly. There was a pause, then the great writer said, “don’t quit, don’t stop, don’t forget what I told you. Do you understand, Langdon?”

I don’t know why I wasn’t at all scared anymore. But there was something about this ghostly presence that calmed me. “Yes,” I finally said. “I do.”

“Good.” With that he smiled broadly and vanished. I stood gaping at the empty spot where he had stood — and yes, I am absolutely certain it was him and that it really happened. Then I walked back over to my desk and started writing and haven't thought of quitting since.

In the months since I have not questioned the visitation. There’s no need to, I know it really happened. I’ve not had time to question what it means about the afterlife, that’s for later when I’ve earned a break from writing. And yes, I do find it interesting that I’m writing a book about a ghost and I was myself visited by one. And no, I’m not using Thomas Wolfe’s ghost’s visit to inform my book, because, after all, what I’m writing is pure fiction.