What Dreams May Come? – A Poem

To close our eyes, perchance to sleep;
To glory rage, to laugh and weep;
To build on high our castle walls;
To raise a tow’r, never to fall;

To find the vict’ry oer our foes;
To triumph over all our woes;
To best that dragon strong and true;
To meet the demon inside you.

To imagine that we had great wealth;
To see ourselves in perfect health;
To sculpt ourselves like god of old;
To stride the world head high and bold.

To take that boat we so much fear;
To flee so far away from here;
To travel far to spots unknown;
To chase a river to its home.

To learn the secrets of the age;
To commune with that long dead sage;
To wax so wise and good and strong;
To be that seer of right and wrong.

To wonder why so oft we’re scared;
To play out scenes we’d never dared;
To brave that mountain, sing that song;
To love our child, to right that wrong;

To grow in magic, that’s the task;
To bring those spells to life at last;
To make our worlds more like our dreams;
To do impossible things, it seems.

What dreams may come, tonight again?
In them will I lose, or win?
To know, I only rest my gaze;
And let the darkness lead my ways.

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To Hate or to #WalkAway

Our national discourse has become like that carnival which set up in an abandoned lot on California State Route 180 which we might have gone to as a child.

Rising early, we are pushed into our clothes by our excited parents, anxious for a day away from our constant nagging. We may have driven for an hour, maybe more – expectation building until finally we pulled into the parking lot beside the garish pink dinosaur at the gate commanding entrance. On the right, soaring above the melee is the rickety Ferris wheel making its maniacal journey to nowhere haltingly, rattling to a stop and squeaking to a start again: rust and age ignored. We walk through the concessions stands first, the greasy aromas of corn dogs and pretzels waft above as we hunt for the cotton candy in desperation – because the hysterical wails of little Liz demand immediate attention, she’s been crying since Fresno (evidently Nancy had one of the fluffy treat last week, bringing it to kindergarten but unwilling to share, and it’s all little Liz can sustain in her tiny imagination) while Jill, sullen and morose, lectures her on sugar. We then make our way past the aged bumper cars, supervised by a spiritless adolescent apathetic to the fact that the Styrofoam and fiberglass buffers are worn away and no longer protect anybody from harm. Past the attractions. The painted lady holding high a trophy head, an act demanding no explanation; the spine-chilling clown who reaches down to pick the children’s pockets as we are hurried past by our parents; the bearded lady; the tarot card reader predicting over and over again the falling of the sky, indifferent to which card is chosen. Through the games where we wait while Bernard plays the darts, a game of chance and hope – to exchange good money saved from his job mowing lawns for the dream of obtaining something which he could not afford. A large teddy bear perhaps, or a laced red heart-pillow to present to his new girlfriend; but ending up only with a long cylindrical fuzzy tube from which the eyes are already falling.

Carnival

Photo by Laura Cros on Unsplash

We were headed through the fun house to the hall of mirrors – because Chuck wants to practice his student council speech. There, where the mirrors contort the fat into thin, the short into tall, the puny into muscular; all hung opposite each other while Charles delivers his winning address to himself and his family, our reflections bouncing from one mirror to another and another and another and another as they fade into infinity – a great crowd endless in magnitude and all reduplicating our applause over and over and over again in a perfect pageant of harmony.

Before entering the hall, I might have turned to look back at the inverse side of the great sign hanging at the carnival entrance to read the words spray-painted in blood-red “Enter Here, All Who Hate”.

Eighteen months of hate – though some would say more, though it was hate polished up and shiny and smooth as silk to the touch. But for almost two years now it has been raging full and ugly, unvarnished and unapologetic. Hate, because hate weaponized into public policy is called socialism – that tired old program to which so many inexplicably return: the managed – in the futile hope of a prize; and the managers, because people are not doing what they have been told. Hate, because it is the yeast which leavens the sizes of marches and the virality of hashtags and, in the minds of the haters, the lines at the polling booths.

But does it?

There’s something interesting happening, in reaction to our ghoulish spectacle. Because America is an unpredictable land full of empowered people where the milk of human goodness which knows no party or race or religion flows liberally, swelled often to overflowing by our tremendous prosperity. We are not a people who takes kindly to class warfare, or to the newest variation – identity warfare; victim warfare. We are from too many places, immigrants all who build and write and dream and do not wait seated in a hall or squatting endlessly in a food line for something to spill from the table of our managers. We squabble and we strive and we fight and we dream and we love. And we rebel. Right now that rebellion is against revolution, because revolution is weaponized nihilism. And a revolution unto socialism? We are doubly damned. “Man wants to reign supreme through revolution. But why reign supreme if nothing has any meaning? Why wish for immortality if the aspect of life is so hideous?” says Camus. Why the pitched battle of severed heads in the attempt to control a carnival such as they have created? Because in their nihilism they have become lonely, and “Terror and concentration camps are the drastic means used by man to escape solitude.”

Into this spectacle has emerged a new paradigm, as often happens in America when we are put under extreme stress. Because we rarely respond as we are told, rebels all. A movement, or perhaps an anti-movement of those who reject the nihilism and its carnival of death. By those who want to live in the land of the living by and for the living. #WalkAway – it is not political per-se and I will respect that aim by not reading into it what it is not. Because it is simply a group of people who have had enough of being forced into the hall of mirrors, told to raise their hands and scream hate to satisfy the egos of those who would believe “their ends justify their means”, as the below video says.

So I give it to you – that which has filled me with encouragement for the first time in a long time that there is a light at the end of our dark night of hate. I, for one, look forward to seeing the moderating influence it has on all voices – especially those who see in every debate the ancient call to socialism, which is nothing except, “the exaltation of the executioner by the victims.”

 

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How to Become a Successful (Recovering) Alcoholic – A Book Review

When I read this book, “How To Become a Successful (Recovering) Alcoholic”, my mind wandered to a little hotel room in France, the unexpected last stop for Anthony Bourdain. Let me back up, I’m part of a little group on Goodreads which reads and reviews each other’s books. Not for money, but for the solidarity of knowing that there are others out there with the same passion and for a chance to connect with strangers over something we all love. I do a lot of book reviews as part of my experience of reading – of living, and I find them everywhere: some are linked to by articles I find intriguing; others mentioned in the annexes of a book I enjoy; and still others come from a particular genre over which I am obsessing (right now its pre-revolutionary Russian literature) – and of course those by authors who I just love (W. Somerset Maugham). It is amazing to meet so many incredible people through the pages of their books and novels. Some are dead, but others – like J.P. Willson, are very much alive and still fighting.

Back to “(Recovering Alcoholic)” and Bourdain – because J.P. Willson is also a chef. Willson did not kill himself, as Bourdain did. Bourdain wasted the last third of his life, literally. Willson, in his own words, wasted the middle. Willson spends a lot of his book, which is his story of how he went about freeing himself from the demon liquor, wondering of what he might have been capable had he not been spending his energy and money in pursuit of a vice; I wonder what Bourdain might have done with the last third of his life had he not decided it wasn’t worth it. Willson’s drug of choice was alcohol, Bourdain was supposedly clean but had suffered from heroin addiction in the past (and probably alcohol as well, he certainly drank a lot on his shows).

Addiction. What family does not have a story of somebody who has struggled with this particular issue; and what family does not wonder “What could have been” about the stories of their loved ones. An alcoholic father staring blankly at the TV screen; a drug-addled son. The chapter I liked best was Chapter 11; where Willson talks a little bit about how he got into his conundrum. There is no one path to addiction; people arrive in that prison from all walks of life, from all races and faiths. Men and women, sinner and saint – and Chapter 11 told Willson’s personal story, as well as the anguish of his father. One anecdote, when his father – after a particularly nasty drinking bout in adolescence – put him in the car and drove him to skid row, trying to show him where he would end up if he did not control himself. Yet end up there he did; and I can only imagine his father’s anguish, for I have a little boy as well.

There is nothing sadder than addiction.

Joy – that is what Willson discovers when he finally pulls his head from his bottle to look around. An amazing world – where you can paraglide with the condors, hike ancient trails, read olden books, visit cathedrals where great events were held and that still radiate with the energy of purpose and power. Eat amazing food – simple and expensive. Live a life you can remember, as the song goes. Bourdain knew all this, yet still took his own life; Willson is just now learning it, but after a destroyed life it is hard to afford (both in terms of money, and loved ones with whom to share it with).

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories,” – Ray Bradbury. That is hard for all of us, mired as we are in everyday life. Its easy to look for escape in something – food, hate, indifference: a bottle. Life is scary, it’s sometimes easier to invite your worst fears to come true; because after that there is nothing to be afraid of. But what do we miss? I wish J.P Willson well and hope he stays the course, to live a life of wonder. For those who are struggling with this pernicious demon – read his book and learn about a rough guy who might have been great but instead became lost, and how he rediscovered himself.

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On Literary Fiction and Empathy

I recently received a review on my newest novel “I, Charles, From the Camps”. I mostly don’t pay much attention to reviews, but this one made me think. While laudatory regarding the plot and story line and beats and sense of purpose and power, “The story is sad. It is raw. It is violent. The characters are well-developed, the atmosphere compelling. The story-telling passionate. Owing to its realism, it is nothing for the faint-hearted,” – the reviewer did focus on one problem which in his experience detracted from the work. In his opinion, “There is little in his (Charles’) “voice” which would identify him as a black, tribal African and reveal the warmth and simplicity of his own native tongue.” The protagonist, a young African man from a refugee camp, was too “European” (by this I think the reviewer meant refined, eloquent – white). He would have preferred, I suppose, Pidgin or some more halting form of communication.

This naturally guided my thoughts to issues of racism – and empathy. I write literary fiction; which is not a genre most Americans are comfortable with. Albert Camus in his treatise “The Rebel” laments the fact that American literature dwells mostly on the actions of the characters and the reactions they provoke – not delving into the inner struggles of the troubled protagonists and the sordid motivations of our antagonists. Even a masterpiece like “East of Eden” does not attempt to enter Kate’s twisted heart to try and illuminate if only just for a moment why her brokenness. We seem content with a narration of a series of events alongside descriptions of our natural landscapes, which compelling as they are I find somehow wanting.

Besides, what do we really know about the inner life of people? What about those who are somewhat uneducated, poor? How do we know that an angry young man from Uganda’s camps is not, in the quiet of his own mind and in constant communication with himself – as we all are – equally as eloquent and complex as we perceive ourselves to be? By giving Charles a healthy, tumultuous and profoundly secret life, somehow I was not being true to the character that should be ignorant. And by using the power of the language of my audience I have endowed him with “western” eloquence to describe his anguish, I am disingenuous?

As authors we learn early on not to play too much with language; the days of Sam Clemens mimicking rustic slave jargon is over, and good riddance. While though, as I’ve said above and channeling Camus, they might be effective for showing realism, they tell us nothing of what is going on inside Jim’s head. Nor do they establish empathy. While writing in Pidgin might lend authenticity it detracts from readability, especially for those who want to know what is going on inside Charles’ head. How could I have achieved the vivid, passionate writing and the dynamic protagonist (which) will remain with me for quite a while,” or Powerful, compelling, and thought-provoking, (…) a remarkable coming-of-age tale that will shake readers to their core” had I descended into broken English?

I’m currently reading “Inventing Human Rights” (review forthcoming) – in which Lynn Hunt is attempting (somewhat successfully) to trace back the west’s laser focus on “rights” to their source, which she finds (spoiler alert) in the expansion of empathy resulting among other things from the birth of the literary novel. Allowing people to put themselves in the shoes of others who they could never hope to know, or perhaps even meet, helps them make common cause – empathize – which revolutionizes the way they think about their fellow man.

Back to Camus – and my problem with modern American literature as well; it is somewhat unfeeling, because of the systems we are forced to adopt – rules of writing which are pushed on us by editors looking to sell quickly. “Show, don’t tell” we are told. “Put it into action,” – because we do love action. This, however, detracts from the power of a literary novel; not allowing us to learn from our characters, to hunger with them, to receive their beatings on our own backs – and yes to murder with them too. I realize as I re-read this that it sounds somewhat defensive. Guilty as charged, I suppose. I am not writing to complain – it would do no good anyways. But because it is an issue that I did think through and research before writing; and found incompatible with a novel that connects people. I want my readers to feel what Charles felt, what so many hundreds of thousands of Ugandans felt living as they did for 25 years in the camps; to know the suffering of people they probably only think of as objects of charity. And that, friends, is the purpose of literature!

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“Stories From Outside the Safe Space” – An Act of Rebellion

People who write do so for many reasons. Some people want to share experiences, something which moved their imaginations; others want to scratch that itch which tells them things are going wrong, and they have the answer; some want to connect, others want to divide, some want to be famous and others are happy with a work of creation that is wholly theirs which might never top the best seller lists of the flavor-of-the-day journals but will be found instead perhaps in a moment of societal stress and serve to instruct on how things went for those who came before – most want to use that oldest of mediums to exercise the demons in their own soul.

“Stories From Outside the Safe Space” was written as an act of rebellion. Rebellion against the nouveau censors and their protracted lists of things we can and cannot say. Those anonymous men with clipboards who decide what is and what is not harmful to societal harmony – that perfectly honed and supervised unit gentle in its diversity and its safety, bent to assure that the weakest minds need never realize their conditions (and, consequently, never get stronger). There is an increasing group of writers who see the ridiculousness of the constraints placed upon society and seek to use their passion to break those new chains; as writers have forever. For to rebel is a story as old as time – as Solzhenitsyn with Gulag Archipelago; as Joyce with Ulysses; as Richardson with Clarissa.

“Stories” is a series of four short stories meant to address four aspects of our new society which the author DW Cook sees as particularly egregious. The cheating – that is the law at the service of social justice which seeks excuses and exceptions just as real justice seeks truth; resentment – that singular motivation which drives people to destroy, a condition as old as the Ten Commandments, recognized twice by God at the top of a mountain in the Sinai as a particularly pernicious motivator to a prosperous society; judging – people who live their lives looking outward at others instead of inside at their own hearts, building their self-worth upon whether or not somebody else said or did (or did not do) something, violating that also old principle of “You do you; I’ll do me”; political correctness – the censors and their lists, destroying the lives of people who dare to think differently and say it (or worse, write it down). Now, the writing itself. Writing “Platform pieces” is particularly challenging. They tend to be preachy and are generally discouraged – because if they exist for the purpose only as a platform for the author’s opinions they often lose out on the glory of the power of the written word. “Stories” was reasonably well written – I liked the space stories most. It is written as “pop fiction”, which is not my favorite genre. I enjoy literary fiction; but I realize I am in the minority here. I prefer a 150 year old Russian novel to Clive Cussler. But Cussler has a big house and a boat – so who am I to say anything? I would recommend to the author to take more time, let the ideas slip more neatly into the story line, like melted butter over toast – invisible except for a shimmer and the salty goodness that improves the experience.

I do applaud the author’s desires to use the medium of fiction – populated by too many utopians – to espouse some of the olden ideas of a life more abundant. So all that said, I encourage you to buy – sales are the fuel of the writer. Unless we provide fuel to those willing to rebel, we may find ourselves all at the mercy of the censors – as if we are not already.

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My Visit to Sharm El Sheikh

The sun has set, releasing its stranglehold on the peninsula. The warm gentle breezes blow the Arabian night air around as people who have waited out the hostile day prepare at last for the reprieve. The smells of salt and the fishy goodness of the sea float gently upon the warm winds; not overpowering as in Liverpool or Bangor – just a suggestion, a reminder really that close by, beyond the dunes, lies the life-saving waters of the Red Sea.

Let me back up a little bit. “Daddy, daddy – I want a beach vacation!” my little boy told me after discovering the small sand in Dubai during our last outing. But where to go? In West Africa – the Atlantic is hostile and the beaches dirty; the service inhospitable; the facilities sub-par. Turkey? Kenya? We settled on Egypt – mostly because it is a direct flight. I am not the adventurous kind who flies for 30 hours with my little boy; I committed no sin to deserve that class of punishment. Sharm, because it was cheap and famous for its beauty – my little boy wanted sand, warm water and fish. How could I refuse?

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Sharm El Sheikh is a strange little town, one long road really hugging the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Resorts; exotic and beautiful. The most amazing reefs I’ve seen – and I’ve been around. Delicate Arabic cuisine and music that pirouette and dance together; alluring, casting a spell like a visiting djinn from the hot sandy mountains which sit in ominous supervision over the town, as if saying “Beyond here, you must not pass.” I can’t help but think of Moses and his ragtag group of Israelites fleeing from slavery in Cairo for decades to roam the dry harshness beyond. Sharm was trying to be perhaps a cross between Las Vegas and Cancun – returned only recently to Egypt during the Camp David Accords, it was growing in a sort of mini-boom, until tragedy hit. Booms and busts leave scars in the forms of dead buildings and abandoned stores too heavily leveraged to survive the lean years. In Sharm you will see many of those; condos which might have been sold to Brits or Russians, cafes which could not endure the years waiting for the tourists to return.

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Egypt is a land in recovery; a perfect storm of political instability and terrorist attacks that were mutually reinforcing at the tail end of a tired dictatorship wreaked havoc on their greatest source of foreign exchange, tourism. But Egypt is an old land – for six thousand years it has weathered the ebbs and flows of civilization. Invasion, drought, famine – corruption and civil war, occupation and revolt. And yet Egypt does abide. There is a story in the Bible about Joseph, who is sold into slavery only to become the greatest advisor to the king – warning him as he does of seven years of prosperity to be followed by seven years of death. And the ancient Egyptians got to work. For this reason, Egypt does last – and just as in the Biblical days, modern Egyptians know that it is their lot to put their heads down and wait for the tribulations to be over; that the tourists are again venturing into the sands to see the Pharos, the Sphynx – to float in the Red Sea.

They know that wiping away anxiety is a task which requires a collective national effort. Which was what made our trip to Egypt so encouraging. It started with our Egypt Air flight, which was an hour late taking off from West Africa (shocker – and to no fault of Egypt Air I might add). Landing, we taxied and finally stopped, allowed to disembark onto one of those little busses. I looked at my watch – 10 minutes until our connecting flight to Sharm. It was 10:00pm; and I cursed silently under my breath. “No worry, you will make it!” the flight attendant said, and I just shrugged. Arriving in the terminal, a man with a badge was yelling “Sharm??” to those staggering through the door. “Yes!” I answered – and we were swept away. Ebola tracking (thanks again West Africa); visa purchase (all you need to do with a U.S. passport is purchase a $30 visa at one of the many banks); immigration; security; and rushing – 10 minutes, from airplane to airplane. For those who travel often, you know this is unheard of. All the while our badged minder slicing like a hot knife through lines and pushing our passports to the top of piles.

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Sharm El Sheikh – there are many resorts, but we chose Sunrise Arabian Beach Resort. Anthony Bourdain I am not (though, apparently – and sadly – neither was he). I have no problem with an all-inclusive resort; cocktails on the beach and endless buffets of food. The resort was beautiful; entertainment and pools for my little boy; a spa for my wife; a gym for me. Snorkeling at the private beach, food that was quite good considering it was made for so many guests (sometimes resort food is sub-par, but this was excellent. The resort was probably about half full). “This is my best vacation ever!!” my little boy told me – filling the hole in my bank account to overflowing (it wasn’t much of a hole, Sharm is affordable these days). IMG_0516And how could it not be the best? Go-carting; submarines to look at the fish; swimming with dolphins; snorkeling; water slides? His beach vacation, in technicolor.

Incidentally, we also took advantage of some services. A dentist for me; my wife needed some ‘woman’s attention’ (none of your business, but yes she’s fine. How is it possible that West Africa, the size and population of the United States, has no decent clinic where a woman can ease a pressing concern?). Clean clinics, excellent service and friendly people – medical tourism is one of the reasons people come to Sharm. My only complaint was to not have taken advantage of the night-life – though Arabs start their gaiety at midnight, by then most of we westerners are long abed. Especially those of us with little boys who at the crack of dawn await with exuberant anticipation for the day’s program. But I digress.

Yes, Sharm is coming back. For a moment in time she was a hashtag: #NewYork (before social media was even a thing); #Bamako; #Brussels; #Istanbul; #JeSuisCharlie – #SharmElSheikh. Who has not suffered from the arbitrary evil of the jihadis? It’s what they want after all – poverty and prejudice in a mutually crippling spiral into extremism.

For Sharm, that moment extended as tourists panicked. But these things also fade into the past. There are more Arab tourists now (from Saudi and Jordan and Algeria and Lebanon). Soon the Russian flights are rumored to be returning (remember, it was a Russian airliner that ISIS knocked from the sky). The Brits; well Her Majesty’s government is still dithering on direct flights from Heathrow – to the dismay of both the Egyptians and the Brits who do not want the annoyance of a transfer in Cairo. But this is the year that Egypt turns the corner, it would appear. A land with that much too see cannot stay lost forever; and the surging tide of tourists brings money and understanding and rewards those seeking to build a better life for their families and their country.

We wish Egypt well and thank them for an amazing vacation! I sign off with this, #VisitEgypt. You won’t regret it.

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“The Same Old Story” is Anything But

The stories of pre-revolutionary Russia are quite remarkable. Saint Petersburg must have been quite a place, indeed, during the days of Russian nobility.

St Petersburg

“The Same Old Story” is, but is also nothing but. It is, because it’s a story like so many of the others I’ve been reading lately. Boy moves from village to Saint Petersburg, seeking wealth and love. He then proceeds to make a bit of a fool of himself in the parlor rooms of the wealthy commercent and merchants as he pursues his passions and seeks his fortune. Long discussions far into the night – Saint Petersburg society it appears was lived between 9:00pm and 3:00am. This might make sense in Arabia, where the days are so hot that people save the nighttime for their amorous dalliances and social calls. But Petersburg at 3:00am must have been a hellishly cold place indeed.

From one parlor to another – drinking wine (rarely vodka) and talking about business and Paris and, of course, love. Then moving to another parlor; another host anxious to please, to be surrounded by the finest people of that great old city; writers and painters and industrialists. A girl comes in, quietly, to show herself to the crowd. She is in search of a matching that fits with her position and which will guarantee her future (and that of her family) in a land which is also predatory. She flirts, her eyes lighting upon the right man. Up and coming, with a trust – why is it all people back then had permanent incomes from trusts? – and then slipping away, to await the time-worn dance of courtship.

Letters, anxious and desperate. Uncomfortable supervised discussions in the libraries, sipping tea and speaking of French literature or Italian theater. Chaperoned walks through the gardens under the watchful eyes of the dowagers anxious to not have their precious flower spoiled. In between, angst ridden work, waiting, wondering.

Then it happens – rejection, betrayal. A better matching has come along. Despair, misery.

Petersburg

It is Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky – its Goncharov. I keep reading these extraordinary novelists trying to understand what happened. Which brings me to another question. What are the peasants doing while the snowflakes flit from party to party fighting with their hosts for the hand of a girl, a bigger dowry or a cushier job? The answer to these questions are found in soviet literature (from both sides of the issue, Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ayn Rand – books full of spit and fight and suffering); just like the answers to the aristocratic governance model were found in the revolution.

At any rate, though Ivan Goncharov thought his novel was “The Same Old Story”, for those of us who have come after – 150 years after – it is nothing but. I highly recommend this amazing Russian classic.

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