FINALLY getting onto bookstore shelves in NY, Chicago, New Orleans, Guanajuato, and (soon) Austin. Click cover for link.
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Tentative opening for a novel-in-progress, “Alice,” which seems to be developing as a post-apocalyptic, adult-hippie fairy tale. Any thoughts?
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Alice sat by the pond cupping her hand in the water, as if searching for an undersea plant or animal. The sun was going down. She stripped off her gown and dove in to do something but she could not remember what. When she came up, something was in her hand and the stars were above. They were the same stars as ever, but the constellations were different. Virgo and Scorpio and all the others were gone, and some new arrangement had begun. Something moved in the woods beside the pond. Not really in the woods. In a juniper bush. It was too big to be a fairy. Alice did not know what it was that moved in the juniper bush.
As Alice approached the shack, she could hear in the dark the whispering of the forest. She saw the lovely silhouette of Evelyn through the window, sleeping in bed. She entered, and Evelyn opened her eyes.
“I was at the pond,” Alice said.
“Was the rain king there?” asked Evelyn.
“No. Not today. But something happened. I dove in and the whole cosmos changed. The stars are still there but all the old constellations are gone. Virgo and Scorpio are gone now.”
Alice chose those astrological signs to exemplify because she was Scorpio and Evelyn was Virgo.
Evelyn sat up. She was taller than average, with a nobility of stature that contrasted with the petite Alice.
“So then it’s a new age,” said Evelyn.
Alice took out the thing that she had in her hand when she came up from diving in the pond. She looked at it, a small iron rod with a little flag at the end. A skeleton key. “A magic gift from old times,” smiled Alice to herself. She put it under a box in the corner. She did not really think that the skeleton key was a magic gift from old times, but it seemed respectful to put it under the box.
She sat on the bed. Evelyn leaned toward her, pushed a brown curl from the brown eye of Alice, and kissed her on the mouth.
“We can hope,” she whispered.
“Yes,” said Alice. “And when we can’t hope, we can love.”
And they lay down together in the wood frame bed in the wood frame house in the woods.
The next day, John Wilson came over to the shack. No one ever called him “John.” They always said, “John Wilson.”
“Something happened with the fairies last night,” said John Wilson.
“I knew it,” said Alice.
John Wilson lifted one of his bushy eyebrows, and the black hairs came to attention. Alice thought of a black cat’s tail with the hairs standing in response to a threat.
“Your eyebrow looks like a black cat’s tail,” she said.
John Wilson reached up with a massive paw and touched his eyebrow, and then touched his equally bushy mustache, as if to compare the two. He looked for a moment like a distraught walrus sloshed in a button-down shirt. Then he went on.
“The fairies,” said John Wilson. “The hum went away by the pond last night. No hum for an hour and a half.”
The fairies kept the whole of New Arcadia going. They were rarely visible but often audible, a humming that recalled the humming of bees restless to massacre the males and slaughter the other princesses to please their sister, the newly chosen queen. The fairies did not work in the fields or in the Factory. They did not cook or clean. But it was they who wove a sense of destiny into New Arcadia. Without a sense of destiny there would be no going on, for there would be nowhere to go.
The fairies had no enemies – for how could destiny have an enemy? – save one. Ladybugs. Tiny orange specks with wings. Wings with tinier black dots. The ladybugs made no humming noise. No hint of massacres for the newly crowned queen. They just flittered in quiet beauty, careful to disturb no one, seen but not heard. Thus, no one, not Alice or Evelyn, not the kleptomaniac, not the mapmaker, not the white witch, not the rain king, not John Wilson, not even the sweeper as far as anyone could tell, could divine their purpose or what it was about them that touched the spleen of the fairies.
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Between the general disgust with Donald Trump and the specific outcry over the George Floyd killing, revolutionary momentum is building, and the possibility of social transformation seems more within grasp than at any time since the 1960s. This might be a good time to review the things that stoked the 1960s radicalism of Martin Luther King and the hippies for both inspiration and cautionary checks.
Of the various rhetorical angles one might bring, I’ll bring this one. Let’s say I’m a 1960s radical fired up about the 2020 movement but fearing that progressives have made some wrong turns. I’d express those fears as below, not to derail the movement but to prevent it from being derailed, not to push the movement back but to push the dialectic forward through counterpoints. Here are the wrong turns, as they might seem to a 1960s radical.
1. We were for chaotic free speech, rough and tumble, for wider freedom to think, speak, dress, and live in whatever unconventional arrangements you choose. Today’s woke progressives seem too much in favor of policing dissent and standardizing options to their own norms. We wanted to obliterate the cultural police; they want to BE the cultural police.
2. While acknowledging race, we struggled to remove race as the definitive marker of identity, to sort and judge people by values/character; today’s woke progressives seem to have restored race as the definitive marker of identity, sorting people into racial boxes and giving moral tags to the boxes. This may not be the intent, but beware lest you let the devil back in through the side door.
3. We saw a recognition of shared humanness (“they” love their kids, laugh, cry, like “we” do) as the antidote to distrust and bias across racial lines; today’s woke progressives seem to see “shared humanness” as a white supremacist conspiracy designed to elide black identity.
4. We worked to marginalize racists and racism; they seem to seek and magnify it everywhere. E.g., when I think of how over the years, I (white) have had black roommates in two different states, I believe by woke standards (parsing for white privilege and white fragility) I am racist because I look back and see only good friendship there, not insidious racial dynamics. I can think of no better way to reverse the gains in consciousness we’ve made since the 1960s than to re-read every instance of cross-racial love, friendship, and collaboration as an expression of insidious racism.
5. We sought to fix persistent racial inequality by identifying with each other across racial lines based on values, not skin color – with a rainbow coalition for justice and equality on one side and those clinging to an unjust status quo on the other. Today’s woke progressives seem to reinstall the battle lines between black and white, or blackness and whiteness. (There is nothing that old-school racists would like better than to peel off whites who would join the cause of racial justice by recasting that cause as a black vs. white battle.)
6. With regard to feminism, we sorted people into those (male and female) who were pushing for equality and those clinging to an unjust status quo. Today’s woke progressives seem to redraw the battle lines as female versus male. (There is nothing that old-school sexists would like better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men by redrawing the battle line as female vs. male.)
7. With regard to gender and sexual preferences, our instinct was to obliterate all categories and let everyone enjoy whatever consensual arrangements they like, without sorting them into morally tagged boxes. Today’s woke progressives seem to continually generate more and more gender boxes for sorting people, tagging each box with a moral tag or victimhood level, and encouraging each group to defend the wall around its segregated turf.
8. We were (implicitly) in favor of all forms of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Woke progressives seem to prefer that each demographic circle the wagons and guard its turf against cultural appropriation. Applied to the arts, this wrong turn seems especially devastating. When creatively identifying with people from other races and genders becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement stood for. Whereas the “truism” today seems to be that whites cannot know the heart of blacks, Asians cannot know the heart of Hispanics, etc., 1960s radicals felt that we CAN and SHOULD see into each other’s hearts across those stupidly reified lines of race and gender, that we really ARE brothers and sisters under the skin, and that indeed all our future hopes lie in that very recognition that heart-to-heart human connection is not limited by race. I.e., we were radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and woke progressives alike.
9. We were for extending the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment, however belatedly, to all peoples. They seem to reject the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment as features of white supremacy, and prefer tribal (“you can’t know my truth because you don’t look like me”) rights and truths. To us, tribal rights and truths are the causes of distrust and bias across groups, not the solution to distrust and bias across groups.
Why I don’t fear (for) my progressive friends
1. Our long-term vision is the same – a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness.
2. There is a growing sense that rather than clinging to the left in an old left-right paradigm, people are ready to break the whole paradigm. This means breaking the grip of leftwing Establishments as well as rightwing Establishments. The left still has a hold on the progressive movement, but there is something in the air to suggest that progressives may soon break that hold and cross a new horizon line.
3. There is a gap between the intelligentsia of woke progressivism (in academia) and the grass roots progressives on the street that warrants optimism. Many of my fears above are rooted in the formulations of critical race theory (and critical theory as applied to women and other identity groups). These think-tank products are almost invariably divisive and counterproductive, enforcing a sense of identity defined by race and gender, drawing ever sharper lines and fomenting animosity between them. The kids on the street seem already beyond – or very nearly beyond – the academics in their ivory towers.
Why, one might ask? Why the disconnect between the academic think tanks and the street? We can start with the cynical idea that the main mission of every academic department (at least in Humanities) is getting funding for next year (cynical, yes, but not for one who has seen some of these annual and highly competitive funding battles). If you are in newly formed Identity X Dept, you had best prove quickly (and build a sufficient body of literature to back it up) that X is the cornerstone of identity, and that the struggle of people X is defined by trait X above all else and is a struggle that will continue in perpetuity (hence our need for funding in perpetuity). “Shared humanness” or the idea that one’s value system and not skin color is the defining aspect of identity means your dept is on the defensive in next year’s battle for funding. Call it a conspiracy theory, but at least it is one aligned with the accepted principle that self-preservation is often an operative force behind the scenes of what one thinks and does. It also aligns nicely with Karl Marx’s insight that the economic base is the driver and the political/ideological superstructure evolves in a way that serves the economic base.
Luckily for us, the kids on the street are not invested in next year’s funding for Dept X. The toxic influence of those academic theories is wide across newsrooms and other institutions, but it is not deep. Even where kids on the street mouth the slogans they learned from the academic think tanks, my sense on the street is that deep down they are not at all invested the divisions those slogans are designed to perpetuate. Deep down, they are invested, on the contrary and perhaps to the dismay of the more self-aware of those theorists, in that long-term vision of a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness. They already intuit, on some level, that there is no retreat back to conservatism, but there is also no future in the divisiveness of academic theories or in the increasingly narrow speech and thought zones of too many of our media outlets. They already know. Turn off the news and love your neighbor. Talk out of turn. Never stay in your lane. Never trust anyone, left or right, who says we need to respect walls of separation.
The ever-prescient LSD guru of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, had the right solution after all: If you want to bring society over the next horizon line, “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”
Or, if you prefer Lennon/McCartney, “All You Need Is Love.” Get that part right and the rest will follow.
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Interesting facts. The 2.4 million stone blocks used for the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza weigh an average of 2.5 tons each. Built around 2560 BC, this pyramid was (at 481 feet) the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4000 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD. It contains “more masonry than all the medieval cathedrals, churches and chapels built in Europe added together” (Wilson, 1996, p. 6).
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Stylized, slick, solo
eternally fixed she sits
in sheen and shadow
In the back of her
mind, a garden of sculptures
lost in seal and stone
Further back a light
breaking through silver and steel
a thousand angels
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With the current fervor for social transformation in the air, it’s a good time to cue an odd-sounding idea at the hidden core of the 1960s social transformation (click for link):
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Food for thought. A word of caution to both the left and the right, bringing together an impressive list of signatories, from Noam Chomsky to J. K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, David Brooks, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and many more.
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Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner Prize) is FREE this week on Amazon (Kindle).
(If you don’t have a Kindle, download the app for free, and get all the books you need for COVID days.)
Click the cover below to link through. (Read some excerpts below.)
Get your copy while it’s free. Or if you have a copy, gift a copy or two to friends. Just tell them to be polite and write a brief and honest Amazon review in return for the freebie 🙂
Phil’s life becomes a fiasco of misdirection when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Magnus then disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.
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