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Summer Beach Reading

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

OK, summer’s here, and it’s Gay Pride day, and now the Supreme Court says everyone (well, 30% of everyone) can marry the person of their gender preference. What better time to pick up a sweet gay travel romance for some summer beach reading? Now you can get my novel The Traveler’s Companion in e-book or paperback.

The easiest source is Amazon, but if you’re looking for alternative file formats, try Smashwords.

And to prove that it’s perfect beach reading, here’s a beach scene set in Venice:

lidoWhen Lint and Ricka and Klaus have gone off to the nude beach, I feel a tiny regret at not having gone along, not least because my cowardice has left me just here, lying between Philip and Antonio who are as glistening and uncommunicative as fish at a market stall. I take out my book and start to read but can’t concentrate. I glance again at my companions. Philip may or may not be sleeping, but he has achieved in repose the stillness and symmetry of the effigy on a Medieval sepulcher. Antonio must be asleep. His lips move, and every now and then a murmur escapes them. My eyes travel down his chest, lightly dusted with dark hair, along his narrow waist, to the tiny black swimsuit. He moves suddenly, and I glance away. But he has only shifted in his sleep.

I get up, walk down to the water, and wade in. The water is warm, with a lingering odor of the canals. A hundred tourists and Italian holidaymakers splash around me. I wade out past the crowd and begin to swim until I am rather far out. Around me the sea is a glittering disk with the sky domed above it and, at its rim, a crescent of sand dotted with colored moving forms. I float on my back and let the sun bake my face. Then with slow strokes I make my way back to shore. As I stand up and wade through the crowd, I hear my name called.

“Mark!”

I look around. Off to my left, Francesco stands at the edge of the water. I wave and wade towards him.

“How are you?” he calls.

“Fine, and you?” I shout back.

I have the disconcerting sensation that, like the hero of a children’s story who steps magically into a picture book or a painting, I have walked into a Vogue Uomo spread. If Francesco was beautiful in the lovely setting of his garden, he is stunning here, set against the sea and sand, with the breeze sifting through his honey-colored hair. He seems taller than I remembered, or perhaps it’s just that, in his snugly fitting bathing suit, there seems so much more of him and all of it perfectly shaped and tanned. The rest of us, duller and plainer and all too recognizably human, fade into background detail. I fold my arms across my chest and squint up at him, finding my skinny, pale form reflected in his sunglasses.

He smiles. “A beautiful day.”

“Yes,” I agree. “Are you going swimming?”

He casts a finical glance at the water. “The water is dirty here,” he says making me feel all at once coated in grime. “There are nicer beaches to swim.”

I wonder if he means Lint and Ricka’s beach, then have a quick image of Francesco striding naked down the beach with everyone gazing in hushed appreciation as if royalty were passing.

“Thanks for dinner the other night,” I tell him. “It was really great. Do you cook a lot?”

“Yes,” he seems pleased that I’ve asked. “I like to cook very much. I would like to open a restaurant some day.”

“Here?”

“New York. I love New York. I must convince Adam. He does not want to return to America.”

“Well, it’s a big country,” I say, wondering what I could mean by such a pointless remark.

“Yes,” he agrees. “I love it. You liked to meet Adam?” he goes on.

“Very much. He’s very nice.”

“He is very intelligent. He talks all the time.” He laughs and flutters his fingers against his thumb to indicate constant talking. “Sometimes I just let him talk. He likes to talk. I let him.”

It strikes me as a pity that Adam should have a lover who doesn’t like to hear him talk and wants to go to New York when Adam wants to stay in Italy. But, I tell myself cynically, his other charms must more than compensate.

I’m searching for my next trivial remark when I look up to see Antonio coming down the beach. I start to wave, but he stops and seems to hesitate. Francesco follows my gaze and calls out, “Ciao! Come stai?

Antonio, reluctantly it seems, moves towards us. He nods briefly at Francesco. “Come stai?” They talk in Italian for a few minutes, Francesco smiling pleasantly and Antonio appearing to give brief, unwilling answers. Finally Francesco, with a smile at me, moves off. “We see you soon?” he calls as he moves away.

“I hope so.” I watch his tanned, well-shaped back disappear into the crowd, then turn to Antonio who, I’m surprised to notice, is looking remarkably discomposed. Even with the dark glasses he’s having trouble meeting my eyes, and he may be blushing.

“How do you know Francesco?” I ask.

“I see him, you know, in the city.”

“Do you know him well?”

“No, not at all.”

“I guess that’s a coincidence, that we both know him.”

He shrugs. “Venice is not a large place. You know him well?” he asks.

“I just met him the other night. He’s a friend of—he lives with this guy—a friend of my sister’s.”

“And you like him?”

“He seems very nice.”

“Yes, he is very nice.” He hits the words with a mocking lilt, as if he’s only mimicking my accent again. With his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, any other meaning is impossible to guess. “We must wake Philip,” he says. “He will burn.”

Powerful Delusions

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Shortly after Capturing the Friedmans came out, I was on a bus and overheard two people behind me discussing the film. “They were creeps!” they said, referring to Jesse and his father. “They were so guilty!”

I was stunned because I thought the film, though deliberately ambiguous, portrayed a clear miscarriage of justice. But I realized that the miscarriage of justice was probably clearer to someone who had studied other such cases and recognized the patterns. My fear is that, by the same token, my recent posting might be unpersuasive to people who don’t know the history and theory of the day care cases. And it occurs to me that I might be able to explain the problems with the Jesse Friedman case in a way that doesn’t require special knowledge. So:

When I began to research the Bernard Baran case, I quickly realized that there were only two possible theories of the case: either Bernard Baran had committed crimes of horrific depravity against vulnerable children or he had spent half his life in prison for something that never happened. (You might argue that a third theory is possible, one that splits the difference. Sure. You just have to make sure it’s a real theory and not a cop-out. If you find yourself saying, “Well, something must have happened,” you don’t have a theory. You have an evasion.)

All theories, of course, are provisional. A theory is good only as long as it continues to adequately explain the known facts. In this light, though, a heavy burden is on the prosecutors in the Jesse Friedman case. They have to explain:

…how it was possible for so many students to be repeatedly abused in a classroom without anyone noticing anything amiss

…why other students in the classroom claim never to have witnessed the abuse, which was supposed to have happened in “plain view”

…why some of the accusers now say that nothing happened, but describe instead intense pressure from investigators to say it did

…how it is possible to know whether any of the accusations were true if some of them were clearly fantastic (anal sex leapfrog?)

…how this case is different from other cases which, operating on the same assumptions and pursuing the same methods, have since been discredited

The theory that most adequately explains all of the above is the theory advanced by Jesse’s supporters: that Jesse and his father were victims of the same kind of hysteria-driven witch hunt that played out in the McMartin case, the Amirault case, the Kelly Michaels case, the Wenatchee case, the Little Rascals case, the…. well, you get the idea. Regarding the largest explanatory burden placed on Jesse’s defenders—why would the kids make these accusations if none of it was true?—they can simply state, “It happened all the time,” and adduce as evidence McMartin, Amirault, Michaels, Wenatchee, etc. (Another part of the explanatory burden is the guilty pleas. For those, I refer you to Jesse’s account.)

As I suggested in my post, the news accounts of the report, instead of providing solid refutation of the defense’s theory, offer random bits of information of the kind that all criminal cases throw up. So we get an uncle who now claims that Arnold Friedman confessed to him years ago; Jesse’s own trial psychiatrist calling him a “psychopathic deviant”; two sexually related infractions on Jesse’s prison record. The problem with these random bits of information is that they don’t do anything to address the difficulties I’ve outlined above. They don’t make the prosecution’s theory of the case any likelier. Indeed, they seem like diversionary flares sent up to distract people from the weaknesses of that theory.

It’s characteristic of such random bits of information that they can be hard to pin down. Who is this uncle? When did he make this revelation? Why did he wait so long to make it? Is he lying? Crazy? Misremembering? If he’s remembering accurately, what did Arnold actually say? Why? What was his state of mind? (Free answer: not good.)

The day care cases were built on just such random bits of information, information that sounded shocking, but was difficult to place in any concrete way. The Bernard Baran case began when a mother claimed that, while giving her four-year-old son a bath, she saw blood coming from his penis. The boy, she claimed, said Bernie had touched it. Quite disturbing, but on the other hand, huh? The child had not been in the day care center for several days. What could Bernie have done on Monday to make a child’s penis bleed on Thursday? For that matter, what would you actually do to a child’s penis to make it bleed? (It doesn’t help that this mother was not, um, the most trustworthy person in the world.)

Of course it’s shocking to think that Great Neck children might have been sexually abused in their after-school computer class, but how did it happen in real world terms? You’ve got to be able to at least imagine a where, when, and how. The problem with the day care cases was that the efforts made to pin any of this down produced only wilder and woolier accusations, until you ended up with anal sex leapfrog. (See page 10 of my Baran piece if you want to know how crazy things got in that case.)

I was asked the other night what draws me to these cases. I think it’s the toxic interplay of irrationality and injustice. I’ve always been fascinated by human irrationality. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It changed how I viewed the world. It had never occurred to me before that people believe in spite of evidence and logic, that they marshal evidence and logic at the service of belief, the belief itself being overpowering, world-shaping, self-justifying, whether it’s the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet or that a monster has been loose in the local day care center. Perhaps for this reason, the district attorney’s “impartial analysis” was no more likely to find Jesse innocent than a council of Mormons would be likely, after impartial analysis, to acknowledge the golden plates as one of Joseph Smith’s more charming flights of fancy.

Such beliefs can be harmless but they can also be immensely destructive, and this is why I’ve never been happy with the epistemological shrug (can we ever really know what’s true?). It might not matter whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but it matters that Bernard Baran spent 21 years in prison, that Jesse Friedman is still a registered sex offender, and that three of four women in Texas are still imprisoned nearly twenty years after becoming targets of the same kind of self-justifying delusions.

The district attorney’s report revealed once again how depressingly difficult it is to break through the walls of those delusions. What makes it difficult is that these delusions are ultimately about power; they reinforce and protect power, and to give them up is to yield power. The power of delusion is that it can shape not just facts but people to its will, which is how a gay day care worker can become a sex fiend and a suburban teenager a “psychopathic deviant.” Another reason that the DA’s office was unlikely to clear Jesse Friedman is that it would have deprived them of their power to tell him who he is.

Against Liberty

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

“Liberty” is a word that can send you crawling for cover these days. It comes armed and angry. Here’s a radio host in Minnesota addressing the victims of gun violence: “I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss.”

It’s the “my” in that sentence that gives the word its particular curdling quality.

We should love liberty—the word, I mean. Growing up I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, and everyone understood, because we were from Massachusetts, that the name referred to the famous Boston Liberty Tree around which American patriots rallied before the Revolution, just as we understood that Patriots Day commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. We were used to thinking of our state as the birthplace of American liberty.

Few who use the word liberty these days would associate it with Massachusetts. Liberty is not about same-sex marriage or universal health care. Indeed liberty seems mostly opposed to both, unless you catch a particular brand of libertarian who would reject the second but accept the first on the grounds that the state should stay out of marriage altogether.

Liberty, in its current usage, has a troubled relationship with the word freedom. It entirely lops off the second half of FDR’s four freedoms—freedom from want and freedom from fear—and is fitfully suspicious of the first two—freedom of speech and freedom of worship. (If you don’t believe me, try building a mosque in liberty’s neighborhood.) But then, you know, that’s FDR, from whose tyrannical legacy the liberty-lovers have long sought to be liberated.

Perhaps FDR was trying, as Obama still tries, to put the “our” in freedom, to remind us that we cannot separate the terms in the phrase “a free society.” The reach of that “our” is what liberty seeks to limit. For this reason, liberty, even in its American Revolutionary sense, is not in and of itself a good. The two brothers who attacked Boston on Patriots Day may have had more claim to the word liberty than the people they harmed. Incoherently, pointlessly, savagely, they were striking a blow for the liberation of Chechnya from Russia’s hegemonic power or Muslims from Westerners, as we did with Britain, as the South strove to do for the North, as latter-day patriots seek to do with the tyrannical power of the federal government. Liberty, in this sense, has no obvious inherent value. It might be a good, it might not.

What matters is what happens after liberty. What matters is freedom. Who believes that the South would have been a freer place if it had managed to secure its independence from the North? Who believes that America would be a freer place if our Minnesota radio host got his way? Freedom is a project and a difficult one. It requires many hands. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers inadvertently left us with an image of liberty and freedom: the isolated blow for liberty followed by the many-handed multitude working together to protect and secure their freedom.

Self-Publishing Journal #6: Print!

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

There is now an actual physical version of THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION, available through Amazon. The cover is (once again) designed by Bruce Goldstone.

You can still, of course, buy it as an e-book for your Kindle or Nook. The Kindle app allows you to read e-books on your tablet, smartphone, or laptop. (I know I’m supposed to like real books best [and I do, I do!], but as a new iPhone owner I’ve lately discovered the convenience of reading books on my phone on the subway.) The book is also available at Smashwords in various formats, including a PDF file.

I’ll also be at the Rainbow Book Fair on Saturday, April 13th. I’ll have some copies of the print edition on sale, and I’ll be reading a short excerpt from the novel, at about 12:30. Come by and see me!

Mysteries

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

OK, so it’s late. And I’ve been spent way too much time today following the news from Connecticut. And I’ve scrolled down the Facebook feed and read one too many comments along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people do” or “why must we exploit this tragedy by talking about guns?” And it was probably a mistake to read in the Times the latest from Ross Douthat, with whom I’ve taken issue before.

But really.

Douthat has taken upon himself to understand the tragedy for us. Turns out it’s a matter of evil and suffering. Which are mysteries. He cites The Brothers Karamazov (a novel which, you’ll be glad to learn, is “famous”). He thinks that Ivan Karamazov might actually have a point when he accepts “that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.” (The price of freedom, in this case, seems to be 20 dead children.) He reminds us, at this festive season, that behind the Christmas story lie “[t]he rage of Herod” and “the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” And these great and awful mysteries, he’s willing to allow, test our faith.

The last time I took issue with Douthat, I noted the “circularity” of his mind-set, the way “a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems.” And the system is on full display here. He seems quite pleased that he has come to this understanding for us, that he has been able to construct from the horror his tone poem on the mystery of evil.

And I’m willing to believe the thing is mysterious. It’s occurred to me more than once today that we should understand these tragedies better by now. The pattern is familiar. We should have some way of analyzing it, of being able to name the pathologies that produce these acts if not to prevent them from happening. But, no matter how many times they happen, something about them remains opaque.

So, yes, there are mysteries here, but cosmic they’re not.

Because there are facts. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. (9.0) makes us twelfth in the world, ahead of South Africa but behind Montenegro. Our murder rate (4.2) is comfortably small compared to Brazil (21.0) or, God forbid, Honduras (91.6). But it’s several times the rate of other developed democracies: France (1.1), Italy (0.9), Japan (0.3). We’re also behind Morocco (1.4), Lebanon (2.2), and Afghanistan (2.4).

The most obvious reason for this is the unrestricted availability of guns. There are more than 200 million privately owned guns in America, and many of them are capable of such rapid, repeated deadly force as most of us, short of an alien invasion, will never need. So that’s part of it. And maybe, too, we should consider the political climate of the past several years in which the collectivist impulse was consistently construed as something the other guy was trying to take from you. Along with your guns.

But whatever. All those things can be discussed. Indeed they need to be discussed. And to shrug Friday’s tragedy off as part of God’s unfathomable ways is, to quote myself again, “another example of what [religion] can sometimes do to your moral sense.”

Self-Publishing Journal #2: Covered

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It’s been forever (well, six weeks) since Self-Publishing Journal #1, and the result is that we’re now within 10 days of Launch Date. (Oct. 20th! Gear up your e-readers!) And so, finally, the cover!

This is Bruce Goldstone’s lovely, funny, and alluring cover for my novel The Traveler’s Companion. And I suppose we have to say “cover,” in quotes, since e-books don’t really have covers, per se. But if all goes according to plan you’ll be able to click on this image on Amazon or Smashwords and purchase a copy in less than two weeks.

Stay tuned!

For Obama

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Happy Anniversary.

In a speech before Congress on September 8, 2011, Barack Obama outlined what the Times called a “robust and far-reaching” plan for action on jobs and the economy. And you could almost hear the Republicans thinking, “But if we do that, the economy might get better, and we’ll lose the election.”

One good reason to vote for Barack Obama is that nobody should win with a strategy like that.

But a better reason is that nobody since, certainly not Mitt Romney or his running mate, has come up with an alternative plan that’s even remotely plausible.

I think it’s relatively easy to agree on the challenges we face. We have unacceptably high levels of unemployment and a rising deficit adding to a potentially crippling debt. Less mentioned, at least by Republicans, are surging poverty levels, the increasing concentration of wealth at the upper levels of society, and an infrastructure that risks falling behind our competitors both intellectually (education, research) and physically (roads, bridges, high-speed rail, green energy).

The idea that you’re going to fix all that by cutting taxes and slashing spending seems not just unworkable, but suicidal, a recipe for widening the wealth gap and compromising our infrastructure even further. Why would we want to be a third-world country? Even Brazil isn’t Brazil anymore.

It’s been a strange four years. I’m pretty pessimistic about human rationality in general (including my own), but I was still thrown by much of what went on. Half the country seemed to enter a phantasmagoric dream state where the president was born in Kenya no matter what those stupid people in Hawaii said; where end-of-life counseling for the aged and terminally ill amounted to “death panels”; where a lachrymose paranoiac soared Beale-like in the ratings by diagramming ever wilder conspiracy theories on a chalkboard, thus becoming a hero to people who went around in tri-corner hats because apparently the fifties were not far enough back in time to take the country; where a slightly left-of-center, business-friendly president who structured the country’s much-belated healthcare reform around the insurance industry was a socialist. (Not just a socialist but, in the preferred term of the lachrymose paranoiac television personality, a Maoist!) It was as if a nightmare version of America had devoted itself full-time to fantasizing a nightmare version of America.

And all this was before the Dance of the Demagogues, the carnivalesque Republican primary season in which one shameless, reality-challenged, hopelessly unqualified candidate after another shot ahead in the polls.

What were these people thinking? And by these people, I don’t just mean the tri-corner hat types who gave (for instance) a wild-eyed, Muslim-chasing Christian Dominionist with a pray-the-gay-away husband a brief moment as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. I mean the people who egged them on. The Koch brothers and Fox News and the current Republican nominee.

A long time ago, a friend of mine gave me a book called When Prophecy Fails, on which I eventually based a screenplay. I describe the book elsewhere on this site, but its main thesis is that when a belief is dramatically “disconfirmed” the believers will become only the more convinced. And, in their anxiety to remain convinced, they will aggressively seek out new converts. By the end of 2008, a certain world view—a certain belief system—had taken some devastating hits. There was Iraq. There was Katrina. There was the worldwide financial meltdown. And then, as if to ratify the catastrophic failure of the belief system, some black guy got elected president. Lately I’ve been wondering if much of the craziness of the last few years is the result of a bunch of wealthy, influential people trying not to face up to the fact that they destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. Nothing else accounts for the virulence with which they’ve tried to convince everyone that the problem is really the black guy. (Maintaining a death-grip on their influence and wealth probably has something do with it, too.)

I have to say the distortions weren’t limited to the right. On the left, I kept hearing that Obama was a “sell-out.” He “betrayed” us. He was the “disappointer-in-chief.” The result was a bizarre stereophonic dissonance. In one ear you heard “socialist” and in the other “corporate hack.” And, in both cases, I kept feeling that the world being described didn’t actually exist, or at least it was a world from which a great deal of context had been removed.

Obama has made mistakes, but he’s had to make complex political and policy calculations under very difficult circumstances. Among those circumstances has been the same scorched-earth opposition that made the jobs bill such a non-starter. If you or I might have calculated some of his decisions differently, then they’re legitimate occasions for critique, dissent, engaged discussion, but it’s hard for me to imagine anybody else—any specific, electable person—doing much better.

And the “disappointer-in-chief” crowd often elides his actual accomplishments which you can browse freely here.

Obama has been called a transformative figure which, of course, is part of why he’s so threatening to certain elements. But it also gets him in trouble among his supporters, who perhaps mistook the transformation as one promised instead of one ratified. To me, he’s always stood for something we’re becoming, not something he’s making us: a pluralistic, multi-racial, open-minded society able to have adult discussions about complex issues. (Remember the speech on race?) It’s no accident that same-sex marriage achieved majority support during his tenure, and no accident either that his role was not to promote that support but to validate it once it had arrived.

My own vote for Obama was and will be based on a conviction that he represents the country I want to live in. He’s a flawed man (can we just note that that’s a redundancy?) who’s made some mistakes and done some things I disagree with. I’m pretty sure, though, that there hasn’t been a better man occupying the office of president in my lifetime.

Vote for him.

Self-Publishing Journal #1: Cover Me

Monday, August 27th, 2012

As I wrote in my last update, I’ve been thinking about self-publishing my first novel, THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION. This is partially in celebration of having finished (or just about finished) my second novel, but also because I’m fond of it and would like it to be out there, and this seems like a fun way to do it.

Right now I’m thinking of an e-book, but even e-books need covers, so I asked Bruce Goldstone to design one for me. Bruce works with Blue Coyote and designed the haunting postcard for PARADISE and the delightful one for NANCE O’NEIL.

Bruce gave me four beautiful sketches to choose from, which made choice difficult since they were all so alluring. But I do believe the one I chose was the best fit for the book and the audience, and when Bruce is done working on it, I’ll share that one, too.

Meanwhile, you can click on the thumbnails to see two of the other sketches.

Oh, and I’ve also been updating my website, so take a look around while you’re here…

Binaries

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

In just a few weeks, I’ll be facing a cohort of new students who will be tasked to learn “writing the essay” from me. Here’s an early lesson for them: Tell me, future students, what’s wrong with the following statement: “And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” If you guessed that this Paul Ryan quote, which appears in two of yesterday’s opinion articles in the Times, is a meaningless and therefore useless binary, then you’ve got a step up on most of your fellow students. You also appear to have a step up on many of your fellow Americans—and, disturbingly, on one of our candidates for Vice President.

One of the problems with binaries is that words have a tendency not to stay put. (“They shuffle, they change,” says Virginia Woolf.) What do you mean by individualism? The Marlboro Man? Lady Gaga? Charles Lindbergh? Mussolini? Each a fair prototype of a different kind of individualism. By collectivism do you have in mind the Politburo? Or Chinese re-education camps? Or the public garden on Avenue B? Or the evangelical church on Avenue A? Or maybe, since individualism is often yoked to the pioneer spirit, the wagon train? Mormons? Here’s the good news: you don’t have to choose. You can (and probably should) mean all these things. But the fact that you don’t have to choose means you have to complicate your thinking.

You, future student, will try to slip this responsibility. When faced with complicating the individualism/collectivism binary you will say, “It’s both.” Or you will say, “You need to strike a balance.” And I will try to force you to describe what that balance might look like or, in the words of one of my colleagues, “what makes striking that balance hard.”

One of the things that can make Obama seem at times ill-suited to his job is that his mind seems instinctively to work that way. He’s interested in complexity. For this he gets accused of being professorial by those who, let’s say, prefer to keep it simple. In particular, he often gets himself in trouble when he tries to describe what the individual/collective balance might look like. In 2008 Joe the Plumber became fleetingly famous objecting to something Obama said about “spreading the wealth around,” though this was not an unreasonable way of addressing the fact that, for the last few decades, the upper percentiles of earners have been claiming a larger and larger share of the nation’s wealth. This year the “I built that” signs at Romney rallies are responding to Obama’s grammatically maladroit but factually correct assertion that no small business owner creates that business entirely on his or her own, without help from the collective. (The fact that Obama gave one of his more eloquent descriptions of the individual/collective dynamic while Paul Ryan sat in the audience looking bitch-slapped is adding some dramatic backstory to the race.)

Now, future student, you will bring your essay into conference with me, feeling very proud of it. And I’ll start raising objections: “You’ve said that this binary is meaningless and useless. But doesn’t that depend on what you mean by meaning and use?” Because of course Ryan’s statement is not actually meaningless. It may not have much meaning for policy prescription, but it has meaning as narrative. The very way it’s phrased, the sense of an epic battle fought for the highest of stakes, reveals its essentially narrative intent.

We’re all cynical handicappers of the horse race these days, and we think we know that word “narrative.” We know the importance of seizing the narrative, creating it, running it. But narratives are important for more than that. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said. Stories create meaning, and that mysterious phrase—to create meaning—is the opposite of cynicism. It even hints at the basis of an ethical system, the task of creating meaning.

This is the reason, I think, that Ryan is often described as, and indeed appears to be, sincere, honorable, likeable, smart. It sets him apart from the Gingriches and the Bachmanns whose narratives ride (and often jump) the shark of opportunism. They don’t create meaning; they trash it. Ryan is, or appears to be, a true believer, and most of our narratives are in some way about belief.

I have a close relative who’s something of a star of the Pentecostal preaching circuit, and if you want to study the relationship between narrative and belief, you could do worse than bone up on Pentecostalism. I believe my relative to be a good man, with a good heart, but he’s also a dangerous man, at least to the extent that any man becomes dangerous at the moment his narrative stops being adequate to the world he encounters.

There’s been a great deal of cynicism and opportunism in the opposition to Obama, of the Mitch McConnell “our goal is to make him a one-term president” stripe. There’s been a lot of what may or may not be racism, but is certainly terror of the difference and change that a black man in the White House represents. But a large part of the problem is that we’re a nation of true believers. If the true believers at times seem to live in a zone that’s not so much information-free as information-impermeable, that has to do with the power of narrative, its oilskin toughness. In 2010, many of those true believers ended up in Congress, where they’ve spent two years failing to recognize that the world they’re encountering renders their narratives inadequate, with disastrous results.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Paul Ryan’s narrative. There are already signs that it’s being reshaped to meet either the reality of the world he’s encountering or the reality of a national campaign. But he actually doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m more interested in you, future student, and maybe I’m more interested in you as future citizen. If you take nothing else away from your four years at college, learn to recognize the moment when your narratives are no longer adequate to the world.

The Latest: Lazy Summer Edition

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Lately I’ve been cleaning up my website—nothing spectacular, just adding photos, switching out play excerpts, changing a font or two, creating a new banner of photos for the header—and, in doing so, I’ve been forced to pass my home page time and time again and to face down those haunting words, The Latest. Scanning down the column I can see that it’s the latest only in the sense of superlatively late. As in, months go by without my posting anything to it.

Honestly, though, there’s not a lot going on right now. DEADLY MURDER keeps getting produced in various locales, including one somewhere in Siberia. (No, I mean literally. Siberia.) In Los Angeles this spring, I met Alan Shearman, the director of the Portland production, and since I wasn’t able to see it live, he gave me a DVD of their quite impressive staging. The graphic on the left is by Lee Moyer for the same production.

The Athens DEADLY MURDER produced this very fun trailer.

And I’ve just discovered that, in November, there’ll be another production closer to home. Road trip?

A few things, including an intriguing development for DEADLY MURDER, fall into the category of “watch this space”: nothing worth talking about at the moment, but material perhaps for future updates.

More or less in that category are the writing projects I’ve been working on this summer. In June in São Paulo, I finished a fair draft of my new novel, THE HOUNDS OF HEAVEN. (A shout-out to the folks at Livraria da Vila on Lorena in whose lovely and comfortable terrace café I got a lot of work done.) Patient friends are reading and responding to the novel now. You can read an excerpt here.

I’ve also been re-re-polishing the first novel, THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION. This is because I’m thinking of dipping a toe into the chilly but rapidly warming waters of self-publishing. Watch this space. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt.

Other than that I’ve had a lazy, pleasant summer, teaching our pre-college writing class at NYU, following Brazilian soap operas on O Globo, getting out to see friends and films, and shopping for furniture for the apartment I seem to be buying…

More later (though hopefully not terribly later).