Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wisdom Books

The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $35.00 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-393-06812-2

The importance of sacred texts forms the foundation of culture. The preserved wisdom inherent in such works as the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Bible teaches us how to live and the significance of our life experiences. Through sacred literature, we discover our place in the universe and the meaning of life.

It is in that spirit that Robert Alter’s new translation with commentary, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, re-evaluates the wisdom contained in those biblical books for a twenty-first century audience. Alter focuses on a more literal translation using Hebraic sources, and compares the language to the Vulgate, Septuagint, Egyptian, Arabic and rabbinic Hebrew sources. He takes great pains to construct his reordering of the words, utilizing a linguistically dogmatic and accurate translation, footnoting the conjugation of verbs, implication of specific diction, and the possible scribal errors that might have occurred through the centuries.

Given the number of classic translations of the biblical books, Alter has his work cut out for him. Can the King James’ Bible really be superseded by yet another translation? His take is to trace the three books as part of the wisdom canon of sacred texts. He cautions readers that scholars disagree as to the order and importance of the books in this section of the Old Testament, but “there are identifiable features of Wisdom literature that give [these books] a distinctive identity within the biblical corpus.” He goes on to say that “Abundant evidence has been uncovered, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia as well, that Wisdom writing was a fairly widespread practice in the ancient Near East.” This kind of literature focuses on a dialogue, similar to a legal construct, debating the philosophical implications of good and evil, and why human suffering exists in the world. This literature “raises questions of value and moral behavior,” Alter writes, “of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life.”

Alter writes an opening essay for each of the three book translations, analyzing the historical and critical ideas present in the specific book. This is where Alter’s work is most successful. He is a first-rate biblical scholar, and his discussions of the books reveal many intricate aspects of the texts.

Of Job, he writes, “apart from the prose frame-story of the first two chapters and the last one, [the book] is composed entirely as poetry, and it often proves to be poetry of a highly innovative and sometimes deliberately disturbing kind.” He insists that “Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text.”

Proverbs,” he says, “is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy. Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his disciples.”

Alter uses the Hebrew title for Ecclesiastes: Qohelet. This book, “concerned as it is with the structure of reality and how ephemeral human life is locked into that structure, is close to a genuinely philosophic work, though it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought.”

As for the translation, Alter’s work does not really improve upon other classic biblical translations. For instance, Proverbs 11:29 reads in Alter’s version: “Who blights his house will inherit the wind, and the dolt is a slave to the wise of heart.” This may be linguistically accurate, but I find the poetry missing from the phrase, and the writing is clunky.

The New American translation has the verse as “He who upsets his household has empty air for a heritage; and the fool will become slave to the wise man.” That certainly has to be an even worse rendering.

I find the best, most poetic translation to be the King James’ version: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” As I have said, there is a reason why the King James’ version has withstood the test of time, and Alter’s new translation is no threat to its sovereignty.

Alter also tends to utilize the same phrases or words repeatedly. He uses “dolt” to refer to a stupid or foolish person. His text is littered with “dolts” and the word becomes cliché and pedantic with overuse. Yes, “dolt” might be the exact translation of the original Hebrew word, but accuracy must sometimes be sacrificed for readability.

The other problem with the book concerns the layout of the text. Alter has the translated text on each page followed by the footnotes of explanation and source material at the bottom. This almost uniformly makes each page half text and half notes. I read the text and then the notes, which interrupts the continuity of the reading. Ideas and complete thoughts of the biblical writer are interrupted in order to include Alter’s notes. I tried reading to the end of the thought, but then I had to turn back, sometimes several pages, to catch up on the notes. The notes are far more interesting than the translation.

Alter is an incredible scholar, and his analysis of the books and their importance to culture is the best part of the book. His insights and background make for such interesting reading, and if a reader wants to review the text of the biblical book, one can consult the Bible separately. The value of Alter’s work is the scholarship, and this material really does not need to compete for page space with yet another translation of the Bible.

In the end, the wisdom transmitted by Job’s theological argument with his three adversaries and God, the collection of Proverbs dictating “that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and the book of Qohelet’s “reflections on the ephemerality of life, the flimsiness of human value, and the ineluctable fate of death,” are the elements of wisdom elucidated by these books of the Bible. Robert Alter identifies the books of Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet as unique in their singularity. “The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible,” he writes. Proverbs, “like Job and Qohelet, [is] not altogether a likely book for inclusion in the canon.” Finally, “Qohelet is in some ways the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible.” His placing of each book in its historical, cultural, theological, and philosophical position in human history makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, his translation does not move our understanding of the books forward, although it is a painstakingly meticulous work on its own.

The result of Alter’s labors is two books really, and one is infinitely more intriguing for this reader. He traces the history of western wisdom from the dawn of Judeo-Christian culture, and like a crystal-clear voice across millennia, we listen, we hear, and we are enlightened.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Man From Plains Comes To Panorama City

It is not often that you see teenagers stay at school late into the evening to hear a guest speaker discuss character, values, and history.

But the students at Saint Genevieve High School are not your average teenagers.

It is not often that you see an 86 year old former president take time out from his busy book tour to meet with 600 students and more than 400 invited guests in a high school gymnasium.

But then former President Jimmy Carter is not your average man.

How did Carter, president more than thirty years ago, develop such a close relationship with a small Catholic high school in the San Fernando Valley?

The answer to that question involves some history and a remarkable story. St. Gen’s principal, Dan Horn, struck up a friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Carter in 1986 when he was a public school teacher in Virginia. They have kept in touch all these years, and when Horn took over St. Gen’s a decade ago, he renewed his contacts in Georgia and made several trips with students to Carter’s hometown of Plains to hear him speak and to perform for the former president’s birthday.

Dan Horn is an interesting character in his own right. St. Genevieve’s was on the brink of oblivion when he took over. Under his leadership, the school made a remarkable comeback, becoming a National School of Character in 2003, as designated by the Character Education Partnership in Washington D.C. Horn instilled in his young charges the four pillars of character education: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. These hallmarks were displayed during the president’s visit, both in the students’ behavior, and hanging from large banners along one wall of the school gymnasium. This award has been the foundation of a remarkable educational experience for students in this community. Even more noteworthy, this is the second school Horn has brought back from the brink of closure, having spent the 1990s at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles and reinvigorating that community. For his efforts and those of his faculty, that school was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
This event Monday evening came about when Carter scheduled a book signing in Los Angeles to promote his latest tome, White House Diary. He was on his way to Border’s Books in Westwood after his stopover at the high school.

A packed gymnasium buzzed with anticipation when word came that Carter was on his way. Horn and a student contingent greeted the former president in the school parking lot. A remarkably spry Carter leapt out of his California Highway Patrol-escorted Lincoln Town car and shook hands all around. He quickly donned his silver and blue St. Genevieve’s baseball cap and entered the gym to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The band launched into “Hail To The Chief,” followed by a school favorite, “Everlasting Love.” Carter made his way around the packed hall to pose for pictures with students. Then he took the podium.

He greeted the crowd as “his favorite high school in America,” before recalling what one of his teachers once told him. “We need to accommodate changing times,” he said, “but cling to our unchanging principles.”

After brief remarks, the former head-of-state who has faced the world’s top journalists took questions from students. The kids more than measured up.

About the current controversial immigration policy in Arizona, Carter called it “a terrible situation that violates the principles that made our country great.”

When asked for an example of one of his policies in which he takes pride, Carter responded that he established America as the number one champion of human rights in the world. “We never dropped a bomb, never shot a bullet, never lost a missile,” he told the crowd, who gave him a vigorous round of applause. He said that too many presidents in history have been in love with war. The former president spoke passionately about war and peace. “We should never go to war again unless our security is directly threatened,” he said. This was not the case in Iraq or Vietnam, he insisted. Carter is not free from controversy, even today. He has strong views about peace in the Middle East and America’s role in bringing about a resolution to the Israeli conflict with Arabs and Palestinians in the region. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to build a peaceful world, both as president and a private citizen.

His one regret about his own place in history involved the failed rescue of the Americans held hostage in Iran. “If I had sent one more helicopter,” he said, “the hostages would have come home sooner...and I would have been re-elected.” The crowd again broke into thunderous applause. Of course, when the hostages did come home, Americans attributed Iran’s actions to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, but it was actually the Carter administration who secured their release on that January day in 1981.

The students did not shy away from questioning the president about controversial issues, asking Carter for his opinion on gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. He responded that he was against gay marriage in the church, but that civil marriages were appropriate and necessary because gay couples should have the same rights as everyone else. As for marijuana, the former president has always insisted that nobody should be punished for possession of small amounts of the drug, but he was opposed to full legalization.

Then the St. Genevieve student choir and the entire Valiant community took over the assembly, singing a prayer long associated with peace, “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” in a stunningly beautiful arrangement. Carter left the podium to stand in front of the singers, visibly moved by their performance. Then the entire congregation, a thousand strong, surrounded Carter and anointed him with a blessing.

A beautifully crisp fall evening had settled in upon the school, as Carter made his way around the crowded gym floor one last time while the choir burst into a rousing rendition of “Midnight Train To Georgia.” He left the campus for his book signing, but the students continued their celebration, singing the school alma mater and fight song. Horn dismissed the students and thanked the parents for coming out to welcome the former president.

I stayed behind until the gym emptied out into the night, reflecting on what I had witnessed. The students were most impressive. They offered their rapt attention throughout the lengthy assembly, even when waiting for the president to arrive. They sang, they clapped, they cheered, and proudly represented their school in their dark coats and ties. I have rarely in my twenty-four years as a teacher, seen such a well-behaved and mature group. For kids born as much as sixteen years after former President Carter left office, they treated him with the respect often shown to current world leaders, and offered the love and appreciation reserved for a grandfather or treasured family member.

As the equipment and lights came down, and the gymnasium became quiet, I packed up my camera and walked out into the night. With all the bad news and dire predictions about education these days, my witness of the evangelical fervor of the St. Genevieve Valiants as they greeted former President Jimmy Carter tells me that the story of how we teach our children will not end in failure. There is hope. There is the promise of a moral character. On Monday night, a simple man from Plains, Georgia reached out across the years to anoint a group of middle class, largely immigrant Catholic school students to seize the mantle of leadership and forge a new world of peace. The students listened, they cheered, they sang beautiful songs. This is only the beginning. I am sure one day those kids will make a brave new world of their own, and Jimmy Carter, wherever he is, will be smiling.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Echo Down The Years

Sometimes we wake in the middle of a dark night to the sound of voices. Someone is calling our name. On occasion, I have had this happen to me in my waking life. Walking down a hospital corridor once after visiting a sick family member, I heard a voice clearly call out to me. I turned sharply, and went back to the room I had just passed. An old man wearing a black beret sat up in the hospital bed. He stared at me, and I stared back, waiting. He was as confused as I was, and I realized the voice was not his. I walked up and down the hallway, but the voice did not call my name again.

I went to a party once shortly after I got married. People gathered in groups in the various rooms, speaking of things, sharing stories and small talk. I gravitated to the den where I encountered a middle-aged woman surrounded by a number of people. She was a guest of the couple throwing the party, but I did not know her, and had not been introduced.

“So what you are telling me, Doreen, is that you can predict the future,” one guest was saying. “You’re a psychic.”

“Not exactly,” Doreen calmly asserted, “I see things.”

“Can you talk to the dead?” another woman asked.

“I sometimes get feelings about the dead.”

“Can you predict next week’s lottery numbers?” an obvious skeptic asked.

Doreen looked a bit exasperated. “Look, it is not that simple. I can’t control it.”

“So is that your business? Do you make a lot of money at it.” More people were entering the room and edging closer to her.

“I cannot make money from it,” she insisted. “And as I have said, I cannot control it. Sometimes I get clear messages, and sometimes I get nothing.”

“I went to a medium once,” a woman said. “She told me my mother was trying to tell me where she hid some money in her house before she died.”

“Did you find it?” a man asked.

“No, we had already sold the house and given all her stuff to Goodwill.”

“I don’t want to put someone down,” Doreen said, “but most of the people who advertise themselves as mediums or psychics are frauds. The people I have met who have this ability are not comfortable with it.”

“Why?” a man asked. “Seems to me it would give someone a lot of advantages. You’d know what everyone was thinking. You’d know when the stock market was going up, when a company was going bankrupt. You could make a lot of money.”

Doreen did not get flustered, but she clearly was trying to school her audience.

“Knowing things about people who are living or dead is not something to take advantage of,” she said. “In my case, being unable to control what I receive means that I don’t have all the pieces, and if I could act on what I know, this could cause the whole situation to change. For instance, I know something about each of you simply by looking at you.”

“You mean you get messages from beyond when you look at us?”

“No,” Doreen replied. “I see things around you. It’s an aura, like a shimmering band of color that surrounds you. When you are troubled by something, your aura shifts into certain colors. When I meet a joyful person, someone who has a great disposition all the time, that person’s aura also reflects the mood in colors.”

“Have you ever been wrong about someone’s aura?”

“No. It is the one aspect of this ability that stays consistent. The downside is that whatever a person is troubled about may be a secret. When I first realized I had this ability, I was in high school, and deeply in love with a boy in my class. We spent a lot of time together talking, and I simply knew he was troubled about a secret. I could tell this from his aura. You can probably guess his trouble. I waited and waited, but the relationship would not move forward. I finally confronted him and told him he was gay. He exploded at me and refused to even be my friend from then on. So now if I get a hit off of someone that is negative or dark, I keep it to myself.”

A younger woman moved closer to Doreen. “Is there anything positive you can tell us right now.”

“Yeah, what do you get from the people in this room?” a man asked.

Doreen turned to the woman. “You will find someone to share your life with, but finding someone may not bring you the total happiness you want.”

The woman stiffened.

“You wish someone would return your affection,” she said to the man. “He can’t, but it is not your fault. He is not capable of it.”

“Yeah, you’re talking about my dad,” the man chuckled. “He’s a difficult guy.”

“What about me?” another woman asked.

Doreen stared at her for a beat. “I’m sorry, but I do not get anything.” The woman looked disappointed. “It happens,” she continued. “That is why this is not something reliable. I get things, and then I don’t.”

I started thinking about what I was seeing. I had recently moved into an apartment with my wife where some strange things occurred. In addition, my security job at the local mall was beginning to scare me. Most days, I was bored out of my mind. But once in a while, something would go down that made me very afraid. For instance, I once found myself confronting a man who was following a woman and threatening her. I needed to keep him calm and contained until the police arrived. When two officers showed up, the man went ballistic and knocked one out cold. He broke the second officer’s arm while they were locked in a struggle for the cop’s gun. I had the dispatcher call the police to summon help, and within seconds, more than twenty-five officers flooded the scene and every one was needed to subdue the guy. He was on PCP. I realized after he had been hauled away that my handcuffs, plastic badge, and lack of fighting skills would have been no match for him had he managed to get away from the injured officers. I was afraid, mainly because I knew what was happening in the city from the police officers I worked with, and this made me wary every time I went out. Sometimes, I awoke at night with nightmares about acts of violence. So, I thought that Doreen might offer an opportunity to clarify a few things. I edged forward and waited for a break in the questioning.

“Doreen,” I started.

She turned and stared into my eyes. “No, Paul, you will not die violently.”

I was stunned. I also became a believer.

Later that evening, I asked Doreen for her number. I called her a few days later and asked if she would like to come over for dinner. She said yes.

“I want you to check out my apartment,” I said.”

“Don’t tell me anymore,” she replied. “It is better if we just get together and talk and see what happens.”

On the appointed evening, Doreen arrived with her husband. My wife and I greeted them at the door, and as they entered our small apartment, she complimented us on the decor. We stood back expectantly as she moved into the living room.

“It’s all so nice,” she murmured. “I see someone has put a lot of thought into the decoration.”

My wife smiled and thanked her.

Doreen moved into the hallway and grimaced in pain. “Ahh.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s okay. I am getting a lot of energy here, like a buzzing in my brain.”

“Is it a ghost or something?”

Doreen laughed, even as her eyes teared up. “No, it’s electrical energy. Thank God I don’t live near those high powered lines. I’d be dead by now.” She pulled back the hallway door to reveal the apartment’s electrical panel. “There it is. That’s the problem.”

She continued into the bedroom, glanced into the bathroom, and grimaced again as she moved through the hallway back into the living room.

“I get a lot of artistic energy here. Someone who lived here was a painter. I see canvases. I can even smell the paint and turpentine.”

“So far, everything is positive?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so,” she replied. She moved toward the living room wall where we had our television and stereo. “Except,” she stumbled.

“What is it?” my wife asked.

“Right here,” she said, gently touching the wall. “Right here. Immense sadness. Desperation.”

“The wall?” I asked.

“Not the whole wall. Just right here.” She pointed to a spot directly behind and over our television. She turned back to us. “But don’t worry. The energy does not radiate to you or the rest of the apartment. Just that one spot.”

What followed next was a fairly unremarkable dinner. Doreen had nothing further to add, and did not seem to glean any more information from the beyond. She did describe her ability as like trying to get a radio station signal from far away. Sometimes, the signal moves in and out of range, causing static and interruption. Other times, the signal simply goes dead, especially after a period of intense communication. I thanked her for coming over, and told her I wanted to keep in touch.

“That will not happen,” she said.

“What?” I was a bit taken aback by her bluntness.

“We will not see each other again,” she said. “It’s not your fault, or mine.”

A few weeks later, I went to see the manager of the building to pay my rent. John had lived in two separate apartments in the building for over twenty-five years. I asked him who had lived in our apartment before us.

“It was another young couple,” John said. He was somewhat distracted by the game show on his television. We stood at the counter in his kitchen.

“Really,” I said. “What did they do?”

“She was a student, and he worked for a finance company.”

“Did either of them paint?”

“No,” John replied. “That was the tenant before them. He painted. Never liked his stuff though. All squares and lines of color. I evicted him because he couldn’t pay his rent.”

Score a point for Doreen.

“Anything bad ever happen in our apartment?”

Now John gave me his full attention. “What do you mean, bad? I had the place fumigated before you took over.”

“No, I mean, like did someone die there, or have something tragic happen?”

John looked relieved. “No, no, no. Nothing like that. In fact, the painter guy was the only one I ever had to evict from there. As long as I can remember, that apartment has been trouble free. Why are you asking?”

I reassured him that things were fine, and I thanked him for putting up with my questions. I handed him the rent check and made my way to the door. He followed me. “Now the apartment next door to you, that one has problems,” he said as I stepped out into the hall.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the guy there killed himself. Blew his brains out sitting on the couch. He sat there for almost a month before I smelled him and called the cops. Took me weeks to clean up the mess.”

“That would have been the living room wall, right?” I gulped.

“You betcha,” John said. “Have a good evening.”

A few weeks later, one other piece of information from Doreen turned out to be true. I dialed her number only to hear the phone had been disconnected without a forwarding number. When I asked the hostess of the party what happened to her, she told me Doreen had relocated to the Pacific northwest. I never heard from her again.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Living With Ghosts

Someone I met once who spends his days designing complex computer programs argued with me that when we die, it is as if someone turned the power off on the human machine. Click, and that’s all, folks. I leaped into the fight with my Catholic sensibility. “What about the soul?” I insisted.

He assured me that the soul was a story we told ourselves in the hope that we can pull off the ultimate cheat: survive death. But once the plug was pulled, he said, we are gone.

My life teaches me that there are, in the end, many things we haven’t a prayer of ever understanding. There is fate and there is destiny; don’t forget luck and intuition and falling in love for a far from complete set of life’s intangibles. These are the mysteries of us. So, I’m not overburdening the list of life’s unexplainable dimensions when I make the following statement: I believe in ghosts and things that live in the space just north of reality, and I have proof of their existence because I have lived with them.

Cathy is my first cousin. She’s a few years older, and had what I would call, a paranormal past. To understand what happened when we shared an apartment for a few years, we must go back and examine that past.

One hot summer, my aunt Phyllis, Cathy’s mother, found herself in the final stages of her life. It seems while she was working as a nurse, a sterilization machine exploded, and she inhaled toxic gas. It was a death that took several years to finish, and Phyllis was tortured every step of the way. Everyone who lived in her house was tortured as well. Cathy, her youngest daughter, took care of her daily, and was forced to watch her mother slowly slip away.

Finally, and with great agony, Phyllis died. She died right there on the living room floor in a pool of bodily fluids and her head in Cathy’s lap. After the coroner removed her body, they had to bleach the carpet to remove the stains. They were left with this large, yellow patch in an otherwise unremarkable piece of 1970s shag.

After a funeral that was as much about sadness as it was about relief, everything was supposed to get back to normal. But that was when the yellow patch in the carpet began to move. According to Cathy, it shifted by degrees around the living room.

But that was not all.

Once, Cathy came home to an empty house after school to hear Elvis Presley singing “Love Me Tender” behind the locked front door. He was my aunt’s favorite singer. Cathy quickly unlocked the door, but the music stopped and the empty house went silent. She walked into the living room. A hint of movement caught her eye: the turntable on the record player was slowly turning.

Years later, when I moved into her two bedroom, two bath apartment, she had occasion to tell me more. We sat around her dining room table drinking a screw-top wine and eating Chicken Parmegiana. “I see things,” she said. “You need to know that upfront.”

“Like what?”

She didn’t want to elaborate. She was not comfortable with the details, and probably thought it would not be a good idea to tell her new room mate what she experienced. We drank more wine and I insisted she tell.

“Okay,” she said. “You know why I didn’t drive until I was twenty-two? The Ouija Board told me not to. If I drove before eighteen I would die in a car accident, and I would be the one behind the wheel.”

I stared at her. “The Ouija Board told you all that?”

“And remember how I used to take the bus to college? Well once I went into this old abandoned house when I was waiting for a bus, and there was all this broken furniture. I picked up this old purple beret I found on the floor, and when I touched it, I saw people dancing in the 1920s.”

All of this came out in a rush, and she looked like she was going to cry, so I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Knowing all of this history did not stop me from sharing the apartment with her. I just figured it was her personality, and I needed a place to live. End of story, or so I thought.

Almost as soon as I moved in, strange things happened. When I was home alone, brushing my teeth, watching TV, or studying, I’d see this shadow, like a mist, pass by in my peripheral vision. If I looked, nothing was there. After a few minutes, I might glimpse it again. I never felt fear; no hairs went up on my neck. I’d just catch a glimpse, look, shrug my shoulders, and go on with whatever I was doing.

Soon, I began to see the mists more frequently, but only when Cathy wasn’t home. They became more defined: one was white and one was dark and gray. The glimpses lasted longer. They lingered just on the edge of my field of vision, but if I looked directly at them, they disappeared. Still, I wasn’t afraid. They just did not seem to be something to fear.

The day came when I walked through the living room to the kitchen and the darker mist passed to my left going in the opposite direction. For the first time, it had a vaguely human shape. Suddenly, I knew what it was doing. It had gone to the kitchen to get water and was returning when it passed me in the living room. The thought just popped into my head: water. I had no idea how I knew this. It was time to get some answers.

When Cathy came home from work, I asked her to sit down at the dining room table. “I don’t want you to get weird on me,” I started, “but I’ve been seeing things in the apartment.”

“Things?” she said with hesitation.

“Mists. Misty things. One’s dark and the other is light.”

Cathy’s face turned red. “The black one’s Mama; the white one’s Tina’s mom.” Tina was the room mate I replaced. “Tina’s mom committed suicide.”

“Let me get this straight. You see them as people?”


“So they’re recognizable?”

She looked down. “Yeah.”


Cathy looked at me. “Mama goes to the kitchen all the time to get water for her burned throat.”

Now, I was scared. I tried to reason through this. “Your mom didn’t die here, and Tina’s mom didn’t die here. So why are they walking around this apartment?”

“They’re here because they know I can see them,” she said.

“Why are they black and white?”

“The colors are easy. Mama didn’t want to go because she wanted to live longer. She was so angry about the accident taking away her life. That’s why she’s black. Tina’s mom is finally at peace. Her death was a big relief and now she’s happy. She wanted me to tell Tina for her, and I did, right before she decided to move out.”

Made sense to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay after these revelations. “Did Tina see these things?” I asked.


Cathy didn’t want to talk anymore, so I dropped the subject. I slept every night with a light on, and I tried never to be alone in the apartment. Still, I continued to see the mists.

Months later, I got married and moved out of Cathy’s apartment. In our new place, I did not see the mists, and I felt a lot more at ease. Within a year, Cathy called to tell me she was moving out. She offered us some decorative fans to hang on the wall that did not go with her new house and decor. We met for dinner later that week to pick them up. At home after we said our goodbyes, my wife hung them on our wall. That night, while washing up at the sink, I saw the mists again, one black, another white. I panicked. I ripped the fans off of the wall and took them to a dumpster a block away. I was through with them. Sure enough, the mists disappeared.

Cathy and I have lost touch. The last time I saw her was at my mother’s funeral. She has a family now, and a life elsewhere, so we only see each other at funerals.

If there were an afterlife, I would hate to think it involves hanging around a crummy apartment. May be ghosts are our own projections, a way of keeping people with us after they’re gone. Possibly, some people see them and understand their pain or happiness because it mirrors their own. As for Cathy, she never seemed comfortable with her ability to see into the spirit world, and she did not like to talk about it.

I think the ghosts we leave behind in this world are just the misty echoes, the fleeting glimpses, of who, for better or worse, we once were. We live in the memories of those we have encountered in our lives, and this is the reason the living are sometimes haunted by the dead. For human beings about to cross the threshold of this reality into another, death is a chance to shed this decaying shell of a body for another life somewhere else.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gift From The Sea

Gift From The Sea: The 50th Anniversary EditionBy Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Pantheon, $16.00 cloth
ISBN: 978-0679406839

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

 In these difficult times, it is hard to fathom the curves of our lives. So it is with that spirit that I picked up Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 1955 classic, Gift From The Sea.

I have taught Lindbergh’s work in the past, and I knew her history. Her father was a lawyer, a United States ambassador and a senator. Her mother was president of Smith College. Her childhood was one of learning and privilege, and her life long habits of reading and writing carried her through to adulthood, where she married aviator Charles Lindbergh and learned to fly herself. Of course, history records her most famous challenge, the kidnapping and murder of her firstborn child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III on March 1, 1932. The kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was later tried and executed, leading the Lindberghs to flee America and live in Europe. Their sympathies with Nazism and Fascism created a backlash against the couple here in America, but the Lindberghs quickly recovered their reputations after the Second World War. Gift From The Sea is Anne’s most acclaimed work, and established her as a respected essayist and memoirist.

The book is divided into eight sections, each a meditation on a sea shell or image from her solitary vacation on Florida’s Captiva Island. “I began these pages for myself,” she writes, “in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work, and human relationships.”

Her meditations center on her life as a woman specifically, and she writes what could be considered both an environmentalist and feminist text, but stops short of being preachy or didactic. Hers is a simple logic of rediscovery of self, and that is the power of her philosophical meditation. In fact, the book is shelved with other works considered speculative philosophy, and therefore her writing avoids the cliché of memoirist navel-gazing. Although she refers often to a woman’s life and women’s roles in the mid-twentieth century American landscape, I find much relevance for men in this work. The power of Lindbergh’s reflections radiates from her humanity and the lessons of the sea. She does in philosophical prose what Hemingway does in the fictional novella, The Old Man and the Sea, but Lindbergh confronts the awesomeness of nature herself, one on one, and does not use a fictional stand-in, yet her work is every bit as moving and intense.

She begins her contemplation with a channeled whelk, a particular shell that once housed a snail-like sea creature. That tenant has vacated the premises, and the empty shell is left to the occupation of other marine life. When she finds it empty on the beach, she sees the tracks of the hermit crab leading away from the borrowed home. “He ran away, and left me his shell,” she writes. “It was once a protection to him...Had it become an encumbrance? Why did he run away?”

She equates this shell with her life, which has become, “Blurred with moss, knobby with barnacles, its shape hardly recognizable any more...What is the shape of my life?” And thus it begins: what do we need to survive? What is important in the baggage we carry through this existence? The shells she contemplates are singular in their beauty and opulence, yet the animals therein abandon them when they outgrow their confines, or when they shuffle off this mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare. When we are gone, will our lives stand up as well? Will they indicate aesthetic beauty when they have outlived their usefulness as our lives?

Throughout, we are privy to gems of startling clarity in Lindbergh’s reflections. They leap out at us from the page. “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere. That is why so much of social life is exhausting; one is wearing a mask. I have shed my mask.” In the solace of the sea, in the reduction of life to basic elements like a walk, an evening fire, time spent reading and reflecting, we find the essence of pure existence. Is it the magic of the sea, or something about being alone? Lindbergh believes in both. “The world does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone.” She returns often to this theme of solitude. However, she is not focusing on herself in solitude; in fact, she believes one must lose the self to find her bearings. One finds the self when, paradoxically, “one loses oneself,” she writes.

On the contemplation of mid-life, she writes, “Perhaps middle age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of the ego.” Later she insists that “middle age, because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets these life-signs, paradoxically, as signs of approaching death.” Not true. Middle age is the casting off of one life shell for another, a different perspective, possibly deeper due to age and acquired wisdom.

Lindbergh finalizes her thoughts by quoting Saint-Exupery, a fellow aviator and author of The Little Prince: “The life of the spirit...the veritable life, is intermittent and only the life of the mind is constant...The spirit...alternates between total vision and absolute blindness. Here is a man, for example, who loves his farm—but there are moments when he sees in it only a collection of unrelated objects. Here is a man who loves his wife—but there are moments when he sees in love nothing but burdens, hindrances, constraints. Here is a man who loves music—but there are moments when it cannot reach him.”

Here we feel the prose equivalent of Longfellow’s poem, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls.” We feel the pull of the tides at our feet, the stable existence of the sea in all its glory, yet the impermanence of the sand, the shifting of our lives with the ebb and flow of all existence from primordial to future tense. In contemplation of the sea, we receive the gift of perspective and what our brief candle might mean to the light of the world in total.

Lindbergh’s slim volume tells us, in the most poetic paragraphs, what the sea teaches us if we listen. She presents life’s paradoxical truths, how we can lie down by the sounding sea with all of its crashing waves and roaring tides, and sleep the peaceful slumber of infants, secure in our knowledge that the journey moves forward, and life is forever revealing its myriad gifts to those who patiently live in the moment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What Would Roosevelt Do?

Our president has failed us. He has lined his cabinet with former Wall Street fat cats, or those who have taken handouts from them. These are the same people who sold America bad mortgages and then bet on our failure to pay back the loans. Yes, they collected both ways, and Barack Obama is in bed with them. Now he has his top aides out there hitting the morning news programs and cable news outlets instilling fear in Americans that a foreclosure moratorium will hurt our fragile economy. But bailing out the banks to the tune of billions of dollars, not so much! Worse, those billionaire banks sat on the TARP funds to enrich their own pockets and not help struggling Americans to modify their home loans as they were required to do. Now, when he should be penalizing the banks for their bad behavior, he conveniently looks the other way and says it will be disastrous for the economy.

On education, Obama and Arne Duncan have chosen to reinforce many provisions of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy when even the architects of the legislation have turned tail and called it a failure. According to Harper’s Magazine for September, 2010, out of the forty states that applied for Obama’s “Race To The Top” funds, only two have received any aid. The “Harper’s Index” goes on to list the number of public school jobs lost in the past year totals 85,700, and three in five public school districts across the country plan to increase class sizes for 2010-2011.

The index includes some other telling stats: the percentage of all campaign donations from securities and investment firms that went to Democrats in 2009—sixty-one percent. The percentage so far this year stands at forty-four percent, but we have two and a half months left if they want to beat last year’s number.

Or how about this: “Average annual government expenditures since 2005 on military research and development: $77,000,000,000; average expenditures on energy research and development: $5,000,000,000.” I think I just broke my zero key.

More? “Value of fuel contracts awarded British Petroleum (BP) by the Pentagon last year: $2,200,000,000. Rank of BP among the largest fuel suppliers to the Defense Department: 1” Numero uno! See a pattern here?

President Obama, the man elected by promising change, has a screwed up list of priorities. Those of us who voted for him hoping that change would trickle down to us? Well, we were suckered, and our economic recovery is not his priority. May be if we owned Citibank, he might care.

So in the upcoming elections, is it time to throw our bags in with the Tea Party? They are no better. David Harmer (great name!), congressional candidate from California and a Tea Party enthusiast wants to abolish public education altogether. No child left behind becomes no child, period. Not our problem, says Harmer with a maniacal giggle. Welcome to the party of racists and homophobes. They are too busy chasing Obama’s birth certificate to care about keeping homeowners in their houses or middle class Americans who want an education without signing themselves into slavery with all-too-meager student loans.

Our political leaders are not leaders, and they have missed the point. More specifically, they have missed our point. Or, more likely, they never cared about our point from the start.

We need Franklin D. Roosevelt again. We need to clone him, and elect him for a fifth term as president. Of course, we would have to change the law and possibly exceed our scientific capabilities, but these are desperate times calling for extreme measures.

Or, may be we could simply adopt his Second Bill of Rights, proposed during his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944. Roosevelt proposed the rights because he believed Americans were not given enough of a chance at the “pursuit of happiness” with the first set.

Some of the provisions in The Second Bill of Rights include:

“The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation”

“The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

“The right of every family to a decent home.”

“The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”

“The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”

“The right to a good education.”

Roosevelt also told Americans on that winter night that he wanted to establish “an American standard of living higher than ever before known.” He went on to say that, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

I can hear the Tea Party idiots now. Roosevelt was a communist! Roosevelt was a socialist! Roosevelt was born in Africa! Why would he even suggest adopting a second set of rights?

He explained himself in the address. “...As our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence...People who are hungry or out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

There’s a line the Tea Party can understand. They would love it if America rolled over and elected Sarah Palin as dictator, oops, I mean president.

The stimulus package was a failure. Giving money to the top of the pyramid does not mean that funds will trickle down to the average American. Let’s try another tactic. Let’s make it a priority to help the jobless, soon-to-be homeless Americans, those who have been aced out of their livelihood, hoodwinked into mortgages beyond their means, and victimized by the con artists on Wall Street.

Remember who elected you, Mr. President. We are dying out here, and we won’t get fooled again. Americans need leadership; we need strong, intelligent people to lead us out of this mess, and if you cannot provide us with such leadership, Mr. President, beginning next month and continuing into 2012, we will begin the search for someone who can. Then it will be you who loses his job and gets evicted from his home. Take it from too many Americans: you will not like it!

Do you think Roosevelt might have left some DNA around?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Need To Speed Read

What I hear from students every day is that they cannot keep up with the reading in college courses. The problem seems worse for non-English majors. At least English majors have a history of reading to draw upon when facing assignments. The common problem among all students, though, is the amount of reading versus time. How does one keep up with the demands of reading in college?

The need to consume and digest information is the heart and soul of college course work. The trick is to dive into the work and hopefully, like working out a muscle, the ability to read and understand information will become a stronger skill the more one practices. One must realize that not all reading is created or assigned equally. We read for different purposes, depending on the subject and need. Reading for English class is different from any other reading one does. When reading history or science, information and facts are most important. It might be possible to skim through the chapters, capturing the pertinent data in notes. The purpose of the writing is to convey factual information. Also, the teacher might cover the selected material in a lecture during the class session, thereby making the reading a reinforcement of class material. If one skims the reading before the lecture, taking good notes during the class will serve to cement the material in the brain.

When reading for English class, one is reading for depth and nuance, character motivation, and the subtleties of the human experience. To do this correctly, a student must actively read the text and plan on rereading it as many times as necessary to understand all that is present in the words. Even if the professor lectures on the novel or poem, he expects the students to have read it and come to their own understandings before the class. This is why English majors might have a leg up on the competition. Reading is a way of life, and if one is used to being a reader, no matter what her major, she will be able to cope with the demands of intensive reading for a course.

When one is assigned a piece to read for homework with the intention to study and learn the content, it is not enough to simply read it through. One must understand it, consider it, and synthesize its nuances and meanings. The task of the student is to develop critical skills of analysis so that one can create meaning from a work without the teacher’s help. In factual material, the writer intends a meaning; in a literary work, the intention might have a more subconscious basis. Either way, a student must be able to discover the writer’s message. Reading is not a passive act; it is a creative “working with” the material being studied.

The basic rule in all of this is that to create a meaning from a piece of writing or art requires that the reader pay attention, respond, reflect, and understand the writing as a critic would. A reader makes active assessments and judgments about the writing, and his view is valid only if he has truly put thought and effort into the reading. After a class discussion or talk with the instructor, notes can be updated and revised. No one is asking for a snap analysis. Analyzing and thinking critically about a work of art requires focus and diligence, with plenty of revision along the way. At some point, however, a reader must come to conclusions about what is read, and that is the goal of the analysis.

There is a method to studying that has worked for other students and scholars. It is called the SQ3R method. [S]urvey the material, reading carefully. [Q]uestion everything one doesn’t understand and try to develop answers to the questions. [R]eread the work again, looking for missed facts and details. [R]ewrite the major points in one’s own words using detailed description and analytical terms. [R]eview the major points before going to class.

Of course, all notes should be kept in a notebook or binder, and be dated and organized. Underline and highlight the text, and make notes in the margins of the books. Annotating while reading keeps the reader alert and focused. Note thoughts, impressions, and feelings regarding the reading as one moves through the text. Always develop concrete reasons and analysis for inferences and conclusions, and find text to support all assertions.

Now, let’s focus on reading for English class exclusively. In many cases, a course might cover a book per week. I remember a course I took on English writer, Charles Dickens. Since many of his novels are very long and involve many characters and subplots, I needed to read and study more than 1000 pages per week. I survived only by carrying the novels with me everywhere I went. I read in the bathroom, on elevators, while waiting for appointments, and while patrolling a mall parking lot as a security guard. My body was present, but my mind was off in Victorian England for eighteen weeks.

Reading a novel takes a commitment, an honest desire to see the story through whatever twists and turns arise in the narrative. Therefore, a reader must remember and be cognizant of plot points, characters, and events as well as the subtler aspects of the text such as theme, symbolism, and figurative language. When assigned a section of the book, a student should read the pages carefully, making note of important characters, events, and if possible, themes or symbols used by the author to convey meaning. Taking notes while reading is a necessity. One must sink into the narrative world and live there because the more active the reader imagines what he is reading, the richer the experience.

Plays will be read as literature in most English classes, with a de-emphasis on performance and an increased focus on the words, themes, and cultural relevance of a particular work. The need to understand character motivation, scene, and plot points will be more like the study of a novel. A student should try to read the play through in one sitting and then work through the text again at a slower pace to understand and appreciate the nuances of character, plot, and theme. When reading a play, focus on dialogue, stage directions, plot points, acts and scenes, climaxes of action, character motivation, and of course, symbolism and themes.

Poetry is an incredibly skillful literature. One must say something deep and meaningful using a few words, often in a distinct rhythm and rhyme scheme, and structured within a common form such as a sonnet or haiku. To study a poem, one should read it through once for a general flavor. To fully comprehend and synthesize a poem, one must read it line by line, carefully working through the words and images. A poem might seem to be just a few words or lines, but its possible meanings and interpretations might make up a book length essay. When assigned a poem to read for homework, do not think of it as a five minute job. While it might take longer to read a few chapters of a novel, a poem makes up for brevity with depth and intensity. It might help when studying a poem to write notes on the page of the book next to the text of the poem. What should one look for in a poem? First look for diction (word choice), imagery, symbolism, themes, references, and allusions to other works of literature.

Essays, biographies, memoirs, and subject books are tremendously popular and also may be assigned to students in English classes. These works of nonfiction incorporate novelistic techniques into their pages. The stories are often told like novels, and often with a first person narrator. There is suspense and tension, as well as plot, character, dialogue, themes, and even symbolism.

To be a good, fast reader takes relentless practice and diligence. There are no shortcuts. Years ago, a woman named Evelyn Wood pioneered a speed reading program that she developed from watching how successful people read mountains of material quickly. Does her method work? Yes, and no, because while it is possible to learn to read faster, if one is reading for depth and analysis, the pace must naturally slow down. To consume information, much the way people read on the internet, speed is important. But to understand layered material like a novel or poem, speed is not all it is cracked up to be. Sometimes, like slow cooking, taking time with a text allows the flavor to come through and leads to a more enjoyable experience for the reader, even if it is only a homework assignment.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

While Waiting For Godot

We stood in the shadows watching the blue light from the helicopter illuminate the neighbor’s house. A police car blocked the street and dark figures moved in and out of the shadows cast by the streetlight. A uniformed policeman came out of a nearby backyard, went to the trunk of the car and removed what looked like an assault rifle. My neighbor, John, my wife, and I stepped back into the dark against a garage door and waited for what would happen next. Without warning, a police officer stood up from the grass less than twenty feet away from us, racked a round into the chamber of his pump-action shotgun and prepared to fire at the illuminated house. Two other officers came barreling around the corner, running for the protection of the police car, screaming at us to run. They kept saying over and over as they took cover that we needed to leave the area immediately because our lives were in danger.

I am a night owl, one of those people who, given his preference, could stay up all night and work right through to the dawn. What I am not is a morning person. So that is how I came to step out of the shower at 11:30 PM on a Wednesday night, looking forward to another two hours or more of quiet reading before I would be tired enough to fall asleep. No phones, no interruptions, just peace and calm to think and consider the ideas of whatever author’s brain I decided to pick.

As I dried off, I heard the helicopter, circling overhead, the noise rattling the medicine cabinet on the wall. Something was up. I dressed and went out into the backyard. The airship was almost directly overhead, shining its light at a house just a few doors away from mine. I went out to the street to get a better look. My wife came out to join me. “What’s going on?” she asked.

The helicopter focused its attention on the Plumber’s house. The man who lived there had two dogs that we loved. Him we could have done without. He was a plumber and depending on his level of intoxication, could be sullen or flat out mean. He had lived in the neighborhood for years, and most people loved the dogs but avoided him. No one was visible around the house; the blue light from the helicopter lit up one side and then the other, like a beam of nervous energy.

That was when I noticed the police car parked diagonally across the street, blocking all access. The more I stared at the area around the house, the more I began to see vague shapes materialize and float: police officers were crawling around the street, in front yards, behind trees, crouched behind vehicles. The darkness was alive.

John came out to see what the ruckus was all about. He, too owned a dog we loved, and he also worked from home, so he did not have to be at work early the next morning. We stood there in the warm night, talking about how the neighborhood was going downhill, and how we knew the Plumber would get himself into trouble some day.

We were joined quite suddenly by two boys, about seventeen years old, tall, with tee shirts and shorts. They smelled faintly of alcohol. “Dude, what’s going on?” one asked me.

“Something’s going on at the house up the street,” I said.

We stood there watching the helicopter light twirl around the house like a transparent tornado.

“I’m Danny,” the speaker announced. “This is Clem.” He gestured to his partner.

“Where you guys from?” I asked.

“Over that way,” Danny responded, pointing in the general direction of Nevada. I’d never seen them in the neighborhood before.

The helicopter killed its light but continued circling the house. Danny and Clem moved forward into the darkness to get a closer look. I followed them, and I heard my wife say, “Oh my God,” but when I turned to look, she and John were right behind me. We moved up to the police car and then up into a driveway against the garage door. Danny and Clem made it all the way to the corner directly across the street from the Plumber’s house. They nearly stepped on the cop lying on the lawn with the shotgun, and that was when all hell broke loose.

When we had all run back to my driveway, and the cops were behind their car, we broke into nervous laughter. “Dude, what’s the big deal?” Danny said. “Cops so over-react.”

“Dude,” answered Clem in a disapproving tone.

From literally every direction, we heard approaching sirens. “Here comes the cavalry,” I said.

A man materialized out of the shadows. “The fire department has an entire battalion parked next street over,” he said quietly. “They are waiting to go in.”

The man disappeared into the darkness again.

“Dude, who was that?” Danny asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Dude, he’s like Agent X,” Clem chortled. “Dude,” he added for good measure.

I ducked into my house and pulled up an internet scanner station on my computer. The police commander was assigning stations around the house and ordering evacuation of the surrounding residences. There was a lot of activity, but I decided to get back to the street so I could see what was going on.

My group had moved across the street for a better vantage point. I told them about the scanner traffic, and Danny and Clem whipped out their cell phones to look for the website. More sirens joined the night chorus. The helicopter flew away. “Dude, he has to refuel,” Clem offered. Both boys soon had the scanner up and running in stereo, although one phone had a slight delay. This worked out well for us; if we missed a transmission, it would broadcast from the other phone within a few seconds.

“Dude, I hope they have to take the guy out,” said Danny. “I would love to see SWAT in a shootout.”

“Dude,” Clem said in agreement.

Agent X was suddenly behind me. “Homeland Security and the FBI just arrived,” he announced. “They are being deployed from the command post next street over.”

“Dude, who are you?” Danny asked with a tinge of panic in his voice, but Agent X was gone into the night again.

“Dude, he creeps me out,” Clem said.

Before we could speculate from what planet Agent X originated, a car swung around the corner onto the street. We stared at it as it passed us: a Ford Crown Victoria, black, with all the windows tinted dark. We could not see the driver.

“Dude, what the…” Danny said.

Around the corner came another vehicle, same make and model, but this one was white with all the windows tinted. Then another black one.

Agent X came from the direction of the Plumber’s house. “The black ones are FBI,” he said as he passed us. “The white are Homeland Security.”

“You mean federal agencies color-code their vehicles?” I asked.

Agent X kept walking and only shrugged his shoulders. He disappeared into the shadows again.

“Dude, I wish he would stop doing that,” Clem said.

“Dude, if Homeland Security is involved,” Danny theorized, “someone must have bought a Koran last week.”

“Dude,” Clem responded with apprehension.

John laughed. “You think this is all about someone buying a Koran?”

“Dude,” Clem said, a hint of a warning in his voice.

The police helicopter came screaming over the trees, taking up a hovering position directly over the Plumber’s house. At that point, the boys’ cell phones cut off. “Dude,” Danny said, “shut down your phone and then power up again. That was only a trial version and it only lasts for ten minutes. If you reconnect you can get on again.” They both frantically worked their phones.

Up the street, I saw the Plumber’s porch light and house lights go out. The streetlight directly over his sidewalk went next. The house was now in total darkness. A large vehicle with glowing red lights took up a position on the street directly across from the house. Something was going down. The helicopter was at tree top level, and the vibrations resonated in our bones. The thing was loud.

“They’re using the helicopter to cover the noise of whatever they are doing, dude,” Danny shouted.

A battered Pontiac came down the street. The cops quickly surrounded it and forced the driver into a side street to park. A few minutes later, a young man wearing a jacket with “Security” stenciled across the back came out of the street and began walking right toward the Plumber’s house.

“Dude, that dude is going right for the house,” Danny yelled over the helicopter.

The helicopter lifted off the rooftops and flew away again. We watched Security Guy move down the street until we lost him in the darkness.

“Dude, how did he get in,” Clem said. “There are cops all around there.”

Almost as soon as he spoke, Security Guy came back at a trot, pushed along by a police officer. He came down the street and joined our group.

“Dude, what happened?” Danny asked him.

“I live across the street from that house,” he offered. “I got inside, but I forgot my cell phone in the car. When I went out to get it, they nabbed me. Now I cannot get back and my girlfriend is inside alone.”

“Dude,” Clem said with sympathy.

Since it was almost two in the morning and the helicopter was gone, the night settled in around us with an eerie quiet. “I wonder how long this will take,” Security Guy said.

The two boys reconnected with the scanner. The phones crackled to life. “Okay, all units,” the voice of authority announced over the phones. “Our suspect is a male, forty-six years of age, threatening to kill himself. He has been drinking and using cocaine, he has numerous weapons registered in his name, including…” The officer listed at least six major firearms, including handguns and rifles. He clicked off the microphone at the end of the list because his finger was probably tired.

“Continuing,” he announced, clicking back on. “He says he lost his mother recently, and his girlfriend. His house is in foreclosure, and he has lost his business.”

“Continuing,” he clicked back on. “He has previous convictions for manufacturing weapons and domestic violence. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous.”

We stood there in stunned silence. “Dude,” Clem said. “Who does coke these days? That is so 1980s.”

“Dude,” Danny responded. “May be that’s his problem. Dude has to update his stash and get into the twenty-first century.”

There was a series of six pops from the direction of the Plumber’s house. They were not heavy enough to be gunshots. The police were firing tear gas canisters through the windows. I hoped the dogs were not in the house.

Security Guy suddenly bent over and rested his hands on his kneecaps. “Oh my God!” he yelled.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Dude, I’m sure your girlfriend is okay,” Danny offered.

“I gotta pee so bad,” Security Guy shouted. “I wish this was over with.”

“I wish it was over with, too,” said a voice in the darkness. Then I saw the policeman in the bushes. They were everywhere.

“Can I please go home?” Security Guy asked the officer in the dark.

“Where do you live?”

“Up on the corner.”

“Too bad,” the police officer laughed.

I moved closer to Danny to hear the scanner better. “Don’t you guys have to go to school tomorrow?” I asked him.

“Dude, school!” he said in disgust.

“Where do you go?”

“I used to go to the Catholic school in Van Nuys.”

“I know somebody who teaches there.” I gave him the teacher’s name. Danny reacted with disgust.

“Dude, I hate that dude! He got me thrown out. In my senior year! I hate that dude.” He paused in his bitterness. “I hate school.”

Clem turned to me. “Dude, what do you do?”

“I’m a teacher,” I replied.

Clem looked at Danny. “Dude,” he scolded his friend.

“Dude,” Danny mumbled. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re a good teacher. Not like that other dude. I hate him.”

John drifted back into his house. Security Guy walked off to find a bathroom. The scanner sites cracked with a whispery voice. “We have visual of the backyard. There is some kind of camping trailer, lots of junk. We cannot see into the house.”

“Dude, I wish they would just shoot him already,” Danny whined.

“Dude,” Clem started. “If a dude is threatening to kill himself, and the cops break in, and he has a gun to his head, do they shoot him to keep him from shooting himself? I mean, that makes no sense to me, dude. Why not just let him shoot himself? What’s the point of shooting someone to keep him from shooting himself? That’s crazy, dude.”

I realized that this was the longest Clem had spoken in three hours.

“I don’t know, dude,” Danny replied, fatigue plain in his voice. “It’s almost three. I’m going home. I need to sleep, dude, or may be I’ll order another pizza.”

“Dude, no one delivers this late,” Clem said.

“Dude, I’m going home. They aren’t going to shoot this dude.” Danny walked off into the night.

My wife and I went back inside and locked all the doors and windows. Three-thirty in the morning is too late for even a night owl like me.

The Plumber gave himself up at five in the morning. His dogs were fine. We saw them the next day playing in the yard. We have not seen Clem, Danny, Agent X, or Security Guy again.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hitch 22: A Memoir

Hitch 22: A Memoir By Christopher Hitchens
Twelve/Hachette Book Group, Inc., $26.99 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-446-54033-9

Arguably, one of the most famous pens in the magazine Vanity Fair each month belongs to Christopher Hitchens, and in his recent memoir, Hitch 22, we clearly hear the magazine’s recognizable style, a gossipy, conversational tone as if one is sitting in front of a roaring fire listening to a raconteur regale the assembled group with what’s really happening in the world. His writing is both intimate and worldly, accessible and sophisticated. Hitchens, the transplanted Englishman, never disappoints the reader looking for strong opinions, juicy details, and wit in abundance.

The memoir follows chronologically, beginning with a discussion of Hitchens’ parents, whom he calls Yvonne and the Commander. A divorce leads to his mother’s murder by her suicidal new paramour, leaving Christopher with many loose ends in the relationship. Hitchens struggles to come to terms with her death, and tags a coda to this chapter about suicide, citing examples of kamikaze pilots, Hindus, and Albert Camus in his exploration of the act of taking one’s own life. He comes to the conclusion that his mother was the victim of a bipolar lover, although he says “she had certainly undergone the wrenching and jarring and abrupt loss of social position and security (and respectability) that had always been of such importance to her.”

The Commander fairs better in this narrative, although Hitchens and his father have a more distant relationship. His father is a disciplined military man, someone for whom ethics and values mean a great deal. Hitchens relates a story about how his father unwittingly engineered his own firing from a boys’ school “which had furnished his last and only economic security.” The headmaster tells the elder Hitchens that he did not have to inform them that he was at the mandatory retirement age. “Nobody was going to make anything of it,” the official says. However, for the Commander, there is no equivocating; a rule is to be obeyed, even if it brings difficulty.

The scenes with his family are poignant and sepia-toned. Hitchens spends so much time away from his family at school that the scenes where they are together contain a lyrical sadness not in evidence when he writes of world affairs. The fact that his father died of cancer of the esophagus, a disease Hitchens is now facing in his own life, completes the tragic circle.

Hitchens is known for his contrarian views. He is an atheist, having written the book, God Is Not Great (2007) and also Letters To A Young Contrarian (2001). He is a prolific writer, contributing to other publications in addition to Vanity Fair, including The Nation and The Atlantic. He makes no apology for his abrasive views, and admits freely that he is a socialist and a liberal who also supported the war in Iraq and former President Bush’s foreign policy. One of the successes of his memoir is the opportunity to see his thinking in action. We read his logic as he lays out clear cases for his positions on a number of issues.

Hitchens is less successful in his profiles of famous people. His chapters on Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, although interesting, are not revealing. The stories he tells about interacting with famous people really hinge on his character and the subject. This is a memoir, and he never lets us forget that he is the central character. His voice is so strong, lending his writing that conversational tone. He has made a career out of the “world according to Hitchens,” and his is an unapologetic, argumentative, and provocative voice.

Hitchens throws in tantalizing tidbits regarding how he came to be a writer. He gathers these anecdotes in a chapter entitled, “Something of Myself.” He speaks of his work schedule, and discusses his contract with Vanity Fair and Graydon Carter, the magazine’s editor. He refers often to the most famous incident where he had himself water-boarded in order to understand this torture technique and its effectiveness.

As for the impact of his writing, he takes us through the innumerable feuds and public arguments he has had with other writers and thinkers. He also speaks of a young man who was inspired to join the military by Hitchens’ pro-war writing. When the young man is killed in battle, Hitchens attempts to rationalize what happened and find peace with it. His words seem manipulative, and he is not altogether successful with his logic. When he warns the reader, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…,” the words seem overwrought and dramatic. In fact, this is where Hitchens’ style falls short. The story is indeed a sad one, but something of the writer’s attempt at manipulation keeps the reader from it as well. Other writers like Joan Didion manage to wring every drop of emotion from a scene without using emotional words, or telling the reader to get ready to shed some tears. It is one of the few areas in the book where Hitchens’ writing feels disingenuous.

If one enjoys the writing in Vanity Fair, and has appreciated Christopher Hitchens’ take on the world, this book will give a more complete picture of the stories, and a little of the personality behind the words. No doubt, Hitchens is an intellectual, philosophical writer in the same league as Susan Sontag. There are occasional moments in Hitch 22 where his heart is on the page, unguarded and vulnerable; at other times, as in the chapter about whether he should be called Chris or Christopher, the tone is a bit trite. Overall, Hitchens is a writer ready for an intellectual fight, and his voice is consistently provocative and pugilistic. He is the master of mental jousting, and his memoir is no exception.

All in all, Christopher Hitchens is a remarkable journalist and writer because he is not just an observer, but a participant in history. He has seen some remarkable things in his travels, and his witness brings the world to us in all its nuance, splendor and tragedy.