A Eulogy To Words

wrial2Sometimes the greatest tragedies come quietly.

Today marks a week since the passing of The Writer’s Almanac, one of the few modern examples of true literary culture edging – just slightly – into the American mainstream.

The Almanac has been around for 24 years. Hosted by its creator, Garrison Keillor, each daily program included vignettes about authors and other noteworthy people whose birthdays or significant events coincided with the date of the particular program. There were also interesting excerpts of important events in history.

The program continued with one or more poems usually chosen and read by Keillor. The show ended with his traditional sign-off, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” The theme music was a version of the Swedish song “Ge mig en dag”, performed by Richard Dworsky on piano.

Keillor has recently been accused of ‘inappropriate conduct’ by a co-worker at Minnesota Public Radio, which has the distribution rights to the show. He has been summarily removed from all his connections to the station, and, among other actions, the Almanac is no more. The details are murky. It isn’t clear what was committed; from crimes against humanity to repugnant boorishness to internecine office politics. But the Almanac is gone. That we know.

This loss is a terrible thing. The Almanac goes quietly, ‘with a whimper,’ but the magnitude of the demise cannot be understated. Thousands of writers, poets especially, saw a small sliver of light fall across their obscure desks because of the Almanac.

Ever heard of Athena Kildegaard? I hadn’t. ‘Till A Mother’s Poem showed up in my email the other day. Same for the poetry of Anne Sexton, Paul Hostovsky, David Romtvedt, Ogden Nash, Janice Moore Fuller, Dorianne Laux and hundreds of others. Each post in the Almanac included links to buy the works of these poets, which I’m sure was a huge benefit to them. Ever tried to sell a poem? Ever tried to keep the heat on in winter with income from your wordcraft? Give it a shot. Have fun.

Another casualty: The Poetry Foundation. Long fighting a valiant Thermopylae-esque battle for the attention of the American public, this beleaguered institution will crumble further into obscurity. Many of those who attempt to live by the spoken or written word will feel the effects of this ignominious end.

wrial4I think of all the people who made their living from the show too: The Almanac was written by Betsy Allister, Joy Biles, Priscilla Kinter, Heather McPherson, and Holly Vanderhaar, the program was engineered and edited by Thomas Scheuzger, Noah Smith, and Sam Hudson. Production assistance was by Kathy Roach and Katrina Cicala. I don’t know any of these people, but I presume they’re now using those fabulous writing skills on their resumes.

This is a blow to the English language itself. The Writer’s Almanac invited Americans to spend time with those who are excellent and exacting in their use of English. This, in turn, pushed those of us with lesser skills to be better with the craft. To avoid sentence fragments, for example. And fight the urge to grow wary when in fact we were weary. Great English avoids misconfusing conjunctions. And doesn’t use nouns to modify verbs (e.g. ‘travel safe’ is, ostensibly, a thing, ‘travel safely’ is a well wish). Great English makes whimsical and witty use of alliterations (you be the judge with that one).

wrial6But to my way of thinking, the greatest effect of the loss of the Almanac is to the American mind. I’ve long been suspicious of just how well the average American thinks, myself included. I’m dubious that we as a people place a high enough standard how and at what point we decide something is True. America today seems to be a land of sports spectacle and activism, neither of which lend themselves to nuanced and charitable thinking. Intellectual certainty abounds. Justice may rarely roll down like water these days, but arrogance about one’s opinions certainly does.

Poetry tends to avoid absolutes. It remains one of the few places where the dress could be blue, or gold, or both…and still be considered valid. And valuable. A poet once told me that a good poem has two completely different meanings, depending on how it is read –  a great poem has three. Poetry demands of us the ability to find both satisfaction and fascination in such unkempt intellectual complexity.

I met my future wife over Faulkner, but things really heated up when Cummings and Frost got involved. To say I owe my marriage, and all the glories that have resulted thereafter, to poetry is both overstatement and understatement. I mean, words…what can they really do for us? No doubt it was actually those relentless brown eyes. Then again, perhaps it was the waves, which did something to the shore that water never did to land before.

It may be that shutting down the Almanac was necessary; the justice of sins come home. Perhaps it is the victim of McCarthyist purges. Either way, the loss is incalculable. The exit of a Today Show anchor or a Hollywood movie producer barely rends the cultural fabric of America. But the loss of The Writer’s Almanac shreds it. All are bereft of so much more than can ever be said. Except, perhaps, by the poets, who are now even more quiet than they were before.

Movie Review – Avatar

I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind.  I’d watch the show again tonight if I could.  I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.

You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder.  In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie.  In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.

The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?).  On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest.  They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers.  These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.

These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America.  In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”.  Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely?  The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.

Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.

Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company.  Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives.  Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular.  He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.

I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist.  Some are saying it absolutely is.  I don’t really think that was the intent.  I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world.  That they still run it, ultimately.  But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark.  Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds.  Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.

Big Business takes a major hit in this movie.  It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life.  That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora.  The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes.  Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets.  Big Business is rarely genuinely evil.  True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.

The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human.  The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human.  Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar.  Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.

Soohh...who gets to clean this thing?

The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie.  First, all humans need to sleep.  But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep.  For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life.  This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron.  By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).

Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours.  At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there.  Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien.  Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.

As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals.  It is a “looker” many times over.  But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries).  That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart.  After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to.  We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today.  Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.

But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether.  It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way.  Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today).  They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has.  The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too.  But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people.  This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world.  Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.

Yeah, YEAH! Die lame-oh Americans! Wait, didn't an American make this movie?

Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others.  Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever).  In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right.  e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate.  Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.

Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything.  It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end.  But it would have made a better movie.  It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.

Where’d They Go?

For those wondering where all the blogs have gone – I was on a once/week or better output for over a year – I’ve been distracted (this is not newsworthy).  Lately, the particular distraction has been my novel (this, maybe, is).

Yes, like every 3rd human on planet earth, I’m writing a book.  And one not all that creative, I suppose, since it’s basically “Star Trek” but with minimized people in a tiny ship inside a human body.

Same Thing...Just Smaller

Entitled “The Journals of the Micro Project,” I started writing the book waay back during my first year of med school to help me survive…med school.  Anatomy and physiology, in particular.  Then I just kept going, as I kept taking more classes.  Then I started writing the story to help me make sense of my feelings about religion and international politics (since we were living in Israel), how the American social order relates to dreamers and idiosyncratic personalities…and even how I feel about the city of Jerusalem.  Yeah, that all got in there.  Possibly some funniness and mildly-believable sexual tension stuff too.

I knew about the likes of “Inner Space” when I started my story.  But since I was using it to help myself understand and remember facts about medical science, I didn’t care about any sort of “hook” or “unique voice” or “poetic angle” so important to selling fiction.  I wrote it for me…not to foist on the rest of the world.

Then I started hearing the cha-CHING of literary greatness when I learned that the average novel makes an author less than $5000.  I figured ‘Daaang, I gotta get me some o dat action!”  Immediately, I began working on crafting a novel that everyone would like to read and pay, oh, 2-3 bucks for.  By ‘everyone’, I suppose I’m referring to Jr. High super-dorks with a left brain so big and a right brain so atrophied they walk in left-leaning circular arcs all day.  But so be it!  Friends are friends, even if they eat Captain Trilithium for breakfast.

Suddenly, things like verbs, quotation marks, PLOT, coherence and originality actually mattered.  Whoah.  Pressure.  So, I put a lot of work into all the mechanic stuff during residency, usually at the Bayview Deli in downtown Olympia.  The manager there gave me permission to hole up and write all day.  Sitting in that cafe, looking through giant bay windows onto Puget Sound, studying its many moods – from glistening to tumultuous, from deathly still to rollicking and granular, from green to blue to silver to explosions of orange and red and purple – remains one of my life’s favorite memories.  And that 2nd floor of the Bayview Deli remains one of my favorite places…making a respectable run at the Armenian Tavern in the Old City of Jerusalem.

As I sat there, pondering what kind of Eternal Being could possibly drum up the idea of a vision like the Sound, the distant snow-capped Olympic mountains and all the glorious splendor of trees, hills, clouds and wind that make up the southern edge of Budd Bay, I figured I was writing a freaking MASTERPIECE.  Move over, Bill’s Faulkner and Shakespere.  Make room for the New Guy.  Who wouldn’t write a masterpiece when surrounded by such divine poetry?

The guy's on a throne...how'm I supposed to compete with that?!

But, like a tire iron to the face, I learned only recently about a similar story written by Isaac Asimov, which was based on a movie screenplay.  I guess it was written in the ’50’s – when all anyone cared about were those evil Commies – but aside from that political angle, my story apparently bears many similarities (I am mortally afraid to read his book, lest I find that all my plot ideas have been used up).  So, turns out that more than one person on the planet has, at one time or another, imagined what it might be like to travel around inside the human body.

If you want my opinion, he’s a damn inconsiderate un-original jerk, Asimov.  Depending on your definition of “time”, Asimov pretty much totally ripped off my idea and then went back to the 1950’s and wrote the killer app (we’re talking sci-fi here…it’s an arguable point).  And really, how many ideas did that guy use up on his stuff, anyway?  Couldn’t he have left at least a science fiction crumb for anyone else?

Oh well.  By the time I learned about the Asimov thing, I was too far in to quit.  So, tired drivel though it likely will turn out to be, I’ve been putting some of the final touches on the book.  All 150,000 words of it.  It’s all I do with my spare time.  I get home from work, play with kids, help with the dinner/bed axis, try to give eye-contact to anyone who is talking, chill in front of the T.V. for a bit, then I attack the book till 12 or 1 every night, even when I have to be up at 0630.  The result? A sadly neglected blog, baggy eyes, and a book that now needs professional help (arguably, like its author).  Once off to a good editor (bro, you’re up!), I suppose I’ll get back to some regular blogging.

But until then, dear SW101 nation, bear with me as I pursue this 8-going-on-9-year exercise in being told, “Don’t give up the stethescope, Dr. Delusion”.

What A Pen Can Do

Doctors love pens.  You wouldn’t be too far afield to say we worship them.

Every few weeks, 3rd year residents like me take over as “chief” of the medicine service in the hospital for a full 7 days.  The transition is dramatic.  Our former lives prior to chief look almost quaint and idyllic compared to the intensity and workload of those weeks.

So, with a chief week approaching, you can imagine my heavy-heartedness this past weekend knowing that Monday morning at 6am would mark another 7 days of suffering probably on a level similar to licking the entire circumference of a New York city block.

It isn’t that I don’t like chief, by the way.  In fact, I like inpatient medicine more than most rotations in residency.  It’s just so much harder that there’s an emotional hurdle to get over as the new week approaches.

But what, you’re probably asking, does this have to do with pens? Simple. To combat the downer vibes, I did what any self-respecting doctor would do…I bought a pen.

Keep in mind that doctors love pens, but not just any pen.  We have all these specific, detailed, exact standards for the perfect pen.  And most of us believe that although our current pen is the world’s greatest…there’s always the possibility that yet a more perfect union of writing instrument materials does exist.

Given that pens are relatively cheap, I don’t even chastize myself for constantly striving for a better and more perfect tool of locution.  The grass is always greener, and when it comes to pens, that’s damn right.  I’m sure of it.

Hmmm. You're real nice and all...
Hmmm. You're real nice and all...

Typically, I use Zebra pens.  It’s something of a dysfunctional but torrid love affair, really.  I wander away, pursuing the curviest, the silkiest.  You know the ones, the sultry models with squishy midsections that caress the writing surfaces of your hands.  Or the ones with multiple colors that reveal themselves on demand.  Hot, those pens.  HOT!

But the passion fades.  *sigh*  Not unlike teenage angst, eventually I return – humbled, learned, schooled – to my old favorite.  The Zebra.  Specifically the model F-301.  Been using them for years.  Machined brushed aluminum barrels with textured plastic gripping surface and crafted with a satisfying *click* (that I fired repeatedly through one of my interviews to land this residency, for example), these pens rule the universe of analogue human communication.

So, to psych myself up for another week of strife and toil, I went to my local office supply store to pick up a couple of old friends to add to my collection (I’m pretty much always running low on them, you see).

But what to my sharp eyes did appear…but a NEW pen.  A NEW model, shiny and sleek, perched in it’s own display container next to the plebian F-301’s.

Yes, I’ll admit that in reaching for Old Faithful, I did give certain liberties to my wandering eyes (we have an “open” relationship, ok?).  And YES!  Maybe I’d found the perfect machine to compliment, to fulfill the untapped potential of my opposable thumb!  Perhaps there, in that shiny bubble-plasto case, lay the final answer to all human evolution.

Oooo!  White.  Like clouds.  Or Mist! Or Sunlight!
Oooo! White. Like clouds. Or Mist! Or Sunlight!

The good news is that the pen is also a Zebra, so I’m not really defecting.  Not cheating.  All in the family, right?  THIS is the F-701, and WOW what a testament to human ingenuity and engineering.  Walk into the middle of the Crimean Wars and raise this baby, flashing brilliantly in the sun, and every knee would bow amid the clatter of dropped weaponry!

Important to keep in mind, however, is the subtle motivational trick I was actually playing on myself – a new pen requires WORK!  I need to have reason to write with my maybe-perfect baton of neurophysiological realization.  The Cartesian dilemma, few knew, was badly mis-translated.  In reality, it reads, “I think, I write with my Zebra, therefore, I am!”

Given all the new power I’d just bought, settled in the crook of my thumb, “snug as a gun” as Seamus Heany says, I went from dreading my early Monday at work to barely able to sleep in anticipation of it.  I had a new pen.  Maybe the best pen ever created, maybe crafted by God himself…all I needed now was piles of patient charts, sheaves of unsigned orders and dozens of new prescriptions.

C’mon Monday morning!  Let’s start at 5!

I can report after one day that the pen is living up to it’s billing.  The barrel has scoring on it to create texture at the writing surface.  It comes equipped with a “soft” clicking mechanism – so very Hamptons, so Riveria!

In the end, let me say simply that pens can change the life of a doctor.  THIS doctor, at any rate.  Incidentally, I’m such a fan of Zebra that I wrote them and tried get them to “sponsor” me.  I offered to put a patch on my white coat and to carry around sample pens.  Hey, I figured I’d be around pen-worshippers all day, I’m a GREAT agent of marketing.  I added that I could even be talked into sewing black zebra-stripes into my doctor’s coat.  EVERYTHING’S got a price, right?  Didn’t we all learn that from “Indecent Proposal”?

They turned me down flat.  Actually, they didn’t turn me down at all.  They just never responded.  And what did I ask for?  What was my requested payment?  A lifetime supply of Zebra pens, of course.  What more could a doctor want?