Character viewpoint based on “traditional values”

Understanding a particular point of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create believable, three-dimensional, real characters is one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Problems arise when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in opposition to the writer’s. For me, the most challenging viewpoints are those based on “traditional values” that excuse characters from questioning their actions or personal beliefs. The characters, instead, cling to ignorance and prejudice, no matter who they hurt. In the short story “Contrition,” for example, an aging WWII Japanese veteran refuses to renounce the “traditional value” of racial/ethnic superiority that has led him during the war to torture, maim, and murder. In another story called “Responsibility,” an old man resides in a retirement medical facility, unable to die, miserable in senescent seclusion due to “traditional values” that have caused him to disown his gay son, an act that has driven the boy to suicide.

In the early-to-mid-1960s, southern schools were finally forced by law to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one summer night before mandated integration, my father, mother, and I came upon a rural traffic jam just south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a gas station bordering a field where hundreds of people surrounded a stage, the night ablaze with a giant flaming cross. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd in its hateful hysteria, fired by the litany of racial epithets streaming from onstage speakers.

Shortly before I entered fourth grade that fall, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with any African American students. But when I met those students, I began to question the traditional values I was being taught, values that enabled such hatred in the people I knew, values that were supposedly sacred but based only on personal religious beliefs and social prejudices. Other groups, I soon discovered, had their own traditional values. Every country. Every region. Every culture. Every ethnicity. Every race. Every religion. Every denomination within a religion. Traditional. Hallowed. Superior.

A local newspaper recently ran an article with the headline, “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The story extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations. Campaigns to deny rights to various groups is nothing new. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. And everyone—from company CEOs to performers like Ry Cooder, with his Election Special CD, to average persons concerned enough to pay attention—everyone has the right to support any particular political or social initiative, just as everyone has the right to oppose those initiatives by boycotting the businesses or individuals who support them.

Only recently has it become acceptable and legal in most parts of the country for interracial couples to marry, a move that still irks the preachers of the traditional values I endured as a child. As acceptance of interracial marriage has spread, the values bandwagon has turned toward gay couples. The torchbearers of traditional values who once railed against interracial marriage now rail against same-gender marriage, justifying arguments on selective passages and interpretations of whatever holy book they believe in, as though their religion, their beliefs, their values are superior to all others and should rule everyone.

As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. They lamented the passing of days when even lynching was justified by the traditional values of good, God fearing folks. Today, that same kind of hatred continues to thrive, targeting various groups, from homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, and different Christian denominations, to immigrants and, increasingly, women. The rants are consistent and vitriolic, filling the airwaves 24/7, inciting action among the lunatic fringe of political pawns, action that results in assassination attempts, buildings bombed, planes flown into IRS offices, treasonous plots among radical military members, and so much more. Those values can even translate into acts of law that prohibit basic rights of targeted groups, from denial of healthcare or marriage to the return of Jim Crow initiatives.

One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on members of other faiths such as Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims, laws that ban interracial and homosexual marriage, and forced submission of women—to name only a few. Many maintain that if everyone were governed by some supposedly god-ordained list of rules such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, then all would be fine. But do we truly understand exactly what we’re promoting?

The Christian commandments are pretty self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence do not mention is the punishment prescribed for violation—for good reason. It ranges from genocide for violating the graven images commandment to death for goofing on most of the others. (For a more comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please refer to http://www.evilbible.com/ten_commandments.htm.)

Based on our personal values, we believe we can dictate what’s best for everyone else until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. For example, Dick Cheney opposed gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But some of us don’t change even when we excuse ourselves from adhering to the same values we’d force others to live by. Author Ayn Rand vehemently opposed programs such as social security, yet reaped their benefits even as she campaigned to outlaw them. Politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. Yet the couple continue to advocate for passage of draconian laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.

Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it is critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts, facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone desiring to be informed cannot rely on accounts from one broadcast network or newspaper to understand events, especially if that paper or network is a political tool, as many of today’s media are. I recently engaged in a political argument with a relative who employs his chosen party’s platform and a strictly personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic agenda. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to exert those opinions on others by forcing them to live as he would have them live. Our debate ended in a shouting match as we failed to respect one another as individuals, damaging the relationship beyond repair.

Because of that argument, however, I realized that my viewpoint is based on certain values that I’ve made “traditional” to myself, affording me better understanding of why characters I create, such as those in “Responsibility” and “Contrition,” choose such disparate paths. In “Responsibility,” the old man finally reassesses his values and their effects on others, and accepts responsibility for the rejection of his son that led to the young man’s suicide. In “Contrition,” on the other hand, the Japanese veteran refuses to abandon his traditional values, clinging blindly to his prejudice, rejecting responsibility for the evil he’s perpetrated, condemning himself to an eternity of suffering in arrogant ignorance.

The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They usually reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one “golden” value traditional to most religions and cultures: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In other words, live and let live.

Life, however, isn’t fiction. And live and let live is sadly the biggest fantasy of all.

The Willful Ignorance Factor: Denial in Fiction and Reality

He stands on the tracks.

“There is no train.”

The rails tremble.

“There is no train.”

The whistle blasts.

“There is no…”

Tick.

Characters in the fiction I write reflect qualities and values of people I’ve met along the way. One quality I find intriguing to explore is the ability to deny reality. Whether failing or frailty, we humans exhibit a propensity for choosing fancy over reason, the mystical over reality. That’s why I base so many of my stories in dark fantasy to explore real-world problems, views, and reactions, creating a speculative world that seems possible even though it isn’t. Through dark fantasy’s hocus-pocus, the negative quality of denial occasionally spawns positive results, and everyone lives happily ever after. But real life isn’t hocus-pocus.

As a species, we’ve advanced rapidly via science and are well on the way to verifying and observing the Higgs boson*, the so-called “God particle,” and yet many of us believe the Earth is no older than 6,000 years, that planetary alignment will initiate Armageddon, that God speaks directly to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Aunt Gerdie or Brother Jimbo because the great creator obviously supports our particular political and social agendas—whatever side we’re on; their god is always wrong—while shunning the rest of the world as it descends further into chaos, starvation, war, and environmental peril. Our television programming reflects our values in so-called “reality shows,” elevating the worst traits of our species into goals supposedly worth attaining. We’re a simple, narcissistic lot, and repeatedly we gleefully employ willful ignorance over rational thought and education. As long as we have our iPhones, a good connection, and Facebook, we’re content to exist in a virtual life and be led by liars who pander to our personal prejudices, even as we follow them off the cliff into the abyss.

Tick.

Time and again, like people you and I know, the characters in my stories deny the truth, even when it’s overwhelmingly indisputable, but how can a character deny facts? More important, how can we deny facts, especially when denial is against our best interests and will ultimately cause us pain and loss?

The U.S. in 2012 experienced its warmest spring on record. That’s a small fact in a sea of alarming scientific data. And yet many of us—perhaps a majority—are convinced that global warming is something one can choose to or not to believe. We can thank organizations like the conservative policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and fair-and-balanced news media for convincing so many of us that scientific theory—for example, gravity—is faith based rather than built upon empirical scientific data. While ALEC has convinced many state lawmakers to curtail air pollution rules and to teach climate change skepticism in schools, various news media highlight freak spring snowstorms as “evidence” that, if anything, Earth is cooling instead of warming, even though those freak storms are direct results of the very reality talking heads deny. Some states have even targeted renewable energy mandates for elimination, insisting on the continuation of wasteful, environmentally destructive policies that only exacerbate a rapidly growing quandary.

Do we really harbor a planetary death wish?

Tick.

Like those of fictional characters, our reactions to problems have severe consequences. The denial of global warming, for instance, has pushed the planet to a tipping point. Based on increasingly reliable data, 22 internationally known and respected scientists warn in a paper in the June 7 issue of Nature that climate change, coupled with explosive population growth and widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, is pushing Earth dangerously close to an irreversible change in the biosphere that will result in destructive consequences without adequate preparation and palliation. Even the recent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, funded in part by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, a source for backing conservative organizations and initiatives to dispute global warming science and fuel denial, confirmed to the Koch foundation’s chagrin that global warming is indeed a rapidly worsening situation, primarily the result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The project confirmed findings highlighted in previous accounts such as the 2007 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report compiled data from work by 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries, concluding humans have caused most of the current planetary warming, with industrialization, deforestation, and pollution the greatest human-made culprits in altering the planet’s natural cycles.

The past two decades have been the planet’s warmest in the last 400 years, with 11 of the past 12 years among the dozen warmest since 1850. The average global temperature since 1880 has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), primarily in recent decades, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The rise in the average Arctic temperature, however, is double the global average. And as Arctic temperatures rise, ice-melt increases, unlocking even more greenhouse gases now trapped in sea ice, permafrost, and undersea deposits. As a result of rising temperatures, glaciers and mountain snows are vanishing rapidly. Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, had 150 glaciers in 1910; now it has 27. Shorelines are retreating as waters rise. In one case soon to be followed by others, the populated island of Lohachara, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, has vanished under rising water levels caused by global warming. And each year, increasingly bizarre and extreme weather worldwide makes headlines, from major snowstorms to vast outbreaks of tornadoes, from extreme droughts to massive typhoons and flooding. More than a million species already face extinction from current climate change effects. And yet, our political leaders conduct us in a chorus of denial that anything is wrong as they delay or prohibit action to remedy the situation because it might adversely affect corporate profits.

In a dying world, when does survival outweigh the bottom line?

Tick.

Willful ignorance is a considerable impediment for fictional characters to overcome. A few of the characters in my stories prevail, but most accept the truth only after it’s too late. The problem is the decisions we make in real life are little better than those made by characters in fiction. To make better decisions, we’ll have to discard the arrogant belief that we own this planet when, in fact, it owns us and we are simply squatters in time.

Like characters rapidly approaching the climax of a story, we have a quickly vanishing window of opportunity to act. We’ve arrived at the moment we must decide whether this planet is worth saving, whether the generations that could follow deserve the same shot at existence that we’ve had.

Tick.

The rails shudder.

The whistle wails.

Tock.

Farewell to India: A Study of Character

india nose 1Two questions usually come up during presentations: Where do you get ideas? How do you create characters? For me, ideas come from daily experiences, sprinkled with a good helping of what if. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. My characters are usually vague reflections of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, although rarely based on a specific person, but rather a composite of three or four people. Some characters, however, aren’t based on people at all.

In 1997, we purchased an Australian shepherd named India who bonded with us quickly. To our then six-year-old daughter, she became a reliable, exuberant playmate and companion. To the adults, she became a helper, eager to accompany on any errand or perform whatever trick or task taught. To each of us, she provided comfort with unqualified affection. Although the breed had been developed strictly for herding, India found cats and kids unwilling participants, but she enjoyed the romping, scampering, and playing as fully and jubilantly as any child. When left behind, she’d lie with her head between her front paws, eyes on the door, waiting for our daughter to return and the fun to begin again.

We lived in the countryside at the time, where leash laws were considered an infringement upon an individual’s rights (go figure). The neighbor across the street owned a golden retriever with the IQ of a nail and fidelity of a politician. Time and again, the dog had tried to rush me from behind as I jogged on the street. But when faced, it always ran. One afternoon, I went into the front yard to hoe away some weeds near the street while India waited on the porch where she’d been instructed to “sit” and “stay.” The retriever was nowhere in sight, so I got to work. I was on my knees at the curb, back toward the street, pulling up a stubborn root when India bounded past me. I spun in time to see her intercept the retriever in mid-air as the retriever sprang for me. The retriever was easily twice her size, but India did not hesitate to protect me.

I shouted for her to heel, and she immediately responded, but the retriever, not having made eye contact with me and in the fever of battle, now lunged for her. I stepped between them, hoe drawn back to do whatever needed to protect India and me. The retriever set, snarling and drooling as it prepared to attack. The owner emerged from her house, screaming as she ran to the street where she grabbed for the dog, breaking its concentration on India and me only to have it snap at her. I jabbed the retriever’s shoulder with the hoe, forcing it to retreat into its yard. The owner and I then engaged in a rather intense discussion, resulting in the retriever’s confinement inside the fenced backyard following the incident. The retriever’s conniving cowardice has since surfaced in several characters in my stories, but, more important, India’s brave and selfless nature has served as the basis for some of my most honorable characters.

In recent years, age took its toll on India’s health. She developed cataracts, muscle spasms, and aching joints. A few months after she turned 16 last year, we found a marble-size knot over her left upper canine tooth that had already fused with the bone. Surgery would have required removal of a good portion of her snout and mouth with no cure or extension of life, while chemical treatment would have proved useless.

Over the next few months, her abilities declined rapidly. When she barked, it was usually only once, more of a grumble than protest. The stiffness in her joints intensified, and on some mornings she could barely move. She slept more and more. Even so, she always became excited and animated when one of us would arrive home. And she still experienced moments good enough to play with one of us, wrestle with the cats, or chase her ball until winded. By late November, however, the knot had tripled in size, and she’d begun to experience dementia, staring at her food as though she didn’t know what it was, walking in endless circles, stopping in the hallway to stare and sway as though she’d forgotten where she wanted to go. Then the vet discovered a large mass in her belly and suspected more in other organs.

Early on November 30, India stood at the window from where she had watched the neighborhood for years, then bowed her head briefly and turned away. She went to each of the two cats, gave them a nudge with her nose, then walked to each room in the house, finally to our sleeping daughter’s bedside. She slipped her head under our daughter’s hand for a pat on the head.

Two hours later, she died.

I buried India’s body in the backyard in a place she favored in the final months of her life, a place visible from where I’m now writing. I spend a good deal of time looking out at that small mound of dirt, especially when I’m developing story characters. I recall how she loped after her ball, tried to herd cats and kids, played tug-of-war with my daughter, protected us from any danger with no concern for herself, and so much more. She embodied the best qualities in fiction’s most endearing and admired characters. Devoted, forgiving, accepting without reservation, reliable, responsible, India exhibited as basic instinct the primary traits we cherish in human beings, the most honorable qualities most of us only wish we possessed.

JD Fox releases Spooner Oldham tribute CD

Note: Spooner Oldham’s contributions to music are noted in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie. For further information on Alabama Musicians, detailing the history of native Alabamians’ contributions to music and featuring dozens of biographies, please visit Amazon.com.

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Casual fans of rock and soul music may not know the man by name, but Spooner Oldham is a star among stars who’s now inspired Belgian recording artist JD Fox to release a tribute CD in honor of the keyboardist and his career. Born in Alabama in 1943, Dewey Lyndon Oldham, better known as Spooner, grew up listening to the usual radio fare for his time and geography, from Fats Domino to Jerry Lee Lewis, from country to gospel. In the late 1950s, he began attending the University of North Alabama but became more interested in the developing local recording industry. Oldham met fellow Alabamian Dan Penn in Muscle Shoals around 1959, and the two men struck up a song-writing partnership while Oldham began playing keyboards as a studio musician for FAME Studio, joining David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson as the early rhythm section that defined the studio’s sound by backing soul artists on songs such as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” and “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

By the late 1960s, Oldham had moved to Memphis where he and Penn continued their partnership, writing numerous songs that would become hits for the time and standard play even on today’s radio stations, from “I’m Your Puppet” and “The Dark End of the Street” to “Cry Like a Baby” and “A Woman Left Lonely,” among many others. The team wrote, by their estimate, nearly 500 songs, certainly enough to define a career as successful, but Oldham wasn’t finished and moved to Los Angeles to begin yet another phase in his musical life, playing keyboards for dozens of top artists over the years, including Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Oldham to honor him for his long service as a sideman.

Born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium, Jan de Vos, professionally known as JD Fox, developed an early passion for southern soul and especially for Oldham’s piano and organ work that became a defining element of music produced in the Shoals. Choosing to pursue a career in music, Fox served as drummer from the late 1970s through the early 1980s for The Machines, Belgium’s number one pop band, which recorded three albums, their first, A World of Machines, cut at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, England. In 1989, he joined the heavy rock band Derek & The Dirt, recording three albums before his departure. In 1991, he became a singer-guitarist, combining American roots music with French lyrics, recording one album with the band Paris, Texas, and three solo albums. During that time, he developed an even keener admiration and respect for Oldham’s song-writing ability and recorded one of Oldham’s songs in 2004, “Genie in the Jug,” in French, an effort that netted personal praise from Oldham.

In 2007, Fox decided he’d had enough and said goodbye to the music business, but his love for Oldham’s songs led to him to contact Oldham personally. Reenergized by the keyboardist, Fox decided to record one more CD, this one to honor the man who had been such an inspiration throughout Fox’s life and career. The result is the newly released CD, The Roadmaster: A Tribute to Spooner Oldham, the title derived from Oldham’s song, “The Roadmaster.”

On the CD’s first twelve songs, Fox teamed up with Holland roots musicians, the Sunset Travelers. For the thirteenth song, “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet,” Fox lived a dream come true. “The icing on the cake,” Fox says, “was a trip to the Shoals, where I recorded [“I’m Not Throughout Loving You Yet”] with the Roadmaster himself. It was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill to sit next to him at the piano.”

The Roadmaster, Fox says, is a return to basics, celebrating Oldham’s songs by presenting them in their intended forms, with simple arrangements, straightforward production, and unadorned vocals. To hear samples and to purchase The Roadmaster, please visit CD Baby.

Michael G. Allen of Coyote Oldman

In the mid-1980s, I became acquainted with Native American flute music through the instrumental musings of Coyote Oldman, purportedly an Oklahoma-based duo specializing in “new age” music that utilized native flutes backed by electronic soundscapes. A few years later, I played a cedar flute crafted by Michael Graham Allen, Coyote Oldman’s flautist, and I was hooked. The sound that came from that flute was indescribable, a sound that touched something deep in my psyche. On a tight budget then as I am now (some things never change, especially for writers), I couldn’t afford the retailer’s price, but neither could I simply walk away from such beauty of sound. So I began researching Native American flute craft, but little instructive material existed at the time. Through trial and error and by studying various flutes I chanced across, I finally discovered a method for crafting a decent sounding flute—all thanks to the inspiration of Michael’s music and artistry.

Jump ahead nearly twenty years. I’ve spent the last year researching and writing a new book for The History Press, entitled Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, which details the vast influence of Alabama artists on music past and present. In August, I submitted the book’s final draft, which (acceptably) exceeded the specified length by a thousand words. Around the same time, I learned that Michael G. Allen had teamed with David Lanz and Gary Stroutsos to soon release a new Coyote Oldman CD, entitled Time Travelers. Searching the internet for more information, I discovered that Michael G. Allen is not Oklahoma-based as I’d read many years ago, but a resident and native of Alabama—which meant that a book designed to spotlight Alabama’s musical innovators did not mention a word about one of the most influential pioneers of our time, an artist arguably most responsible for popularizing the native flute worldwide. After a few e-mail exchanges, the editor  allowed me to slip in an entry on Michael.

Michael began Coyote Oldman collaborations in 1985 with Barry Stramp, who provided electronic soundscapes for Michael’s flutes. Each album since 1986’s groundbreaking Tear of the Moon has further explored and developed the range of native flutes, each flute used in the recordings impeccably crafted by Michael. Time Travelers, released in October 2011, utilizes Michael’s handmade replicas of ancient desert and Anasazi flutes in extended studio improvisations with David Lanz on keyboards and Gary Stroutsos on Chinese xiao and dizi flutes to create an album that’s deeply contemplative and moving.

Michael’s interest in, research of, and devotion to ancient North American flutes began in the 1970s as he traveled throughout the U.S. to become a primary force in their reintroduction, refinement, and popularization. With few traditional musicians or craftsmen at the time, Michael learned to craft and play native flutes by studying and copying artifacts housed in museums and collections around the country. In 1981, he met and developed a deep friendship with Dr. Richard Payne, another researcher instrumental in popularizing the native flute. Payne had developed much of his ability in the 1930s, learning from Kiowa elder, Belo Cozad, who had been taught by Oldman Turkey in the late 1800s. Collaborating with Payne until Payne’s death in 2004, Michael became and remains one of the world’s foremost authorities on native flute history, craft, and music.

Michael’s handcrafted flutes have introduced a number of musical innovations, from tuned pentatonic, multi-keyed and bass Plains style flutes to double flutes and experimental flutes. His current efforts include the reintroduction of ancient rim-blown flutes to wider audiences both through his music and custom-crafted instruments. He’s available to lecture on the history of North American flutes at colleges and music events around the country. For more information about Coyote Oldman flutes and music, please visit the Coyote Oldman website.

Michael is one of the many Alabama musical innovators featured in more detail in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie. In the coming months, others will be featured here, including Spooner Oldham and Belgian artist JD Fox who will soon release a tribute album featuring Oldham’s music. To purchase Alabama Musicians, please visit Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or any online or brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

To Hell with Common Sense

On April 27, 2011, Alabama suffered the most severe outbreak of tornadoes in recorded U.S. history. Dozens of tornadoes snapped trees, destroyed homes and businesses, and injured and killed people across the region. By the storm system’s third wave, the electrical infrastructure could take no more, and power winked out across much of north Alabama, including the whole of Madison County which is served solely by the Tennessee Valley Authority. All primary feed-lines had been destroyed, and officials speculated that restoration of electrical service would require several days. Water service continued, but in a reduced capacity because some treatment plants had been knocked off-line.

Authorities urged residents who suffered little or no damage, injury, or death of a loved one to remain calm, to stay home and exercise common sense so emergency services could better serve those severely affected by the storms. On April 28, voyeuristic and frantic — some callers to local radio ominously claiming the arrival of Armageddon — people hit the highways, speeding through major intersections, even though by law light-controlled intersections become all-way stops during power failures. Emergency services were suddenly sidetracked to help those foolishly in auto accidents caused by failure to think.

The national news media arrived on day two to broadcast and publish their standard “place-location/disaster-here” stories with the stereotypical “battlefield” and “war zone” analogies and interviews with individuals thanking God for sparing them while spanking the hell out of everyone else. Not one star reporter asked, “Why did God choose to spare you?” or “Why did God wreak such destruction and take the lives of others in the first place?” Reporting straight, informative news based on interviews with authorities is obviously not as entertaining as pieces choking with the blather of those claiming special connections to God.

By day two, folks had calmed somewhat, and many had begun to heed laws governing such things as intersections. The increased presence of police certainly had bearing on their new attentiveness. As for the police, when they weren’t enforcing traffic laws or the dusk-to-dawn curfew, they were responding to increased domestic disturbance calls because, if many of us enjoy anything, it’s being with our families during long periods of high stress. Perhaps that joy explains the dimwit who decided to fire his weapon twice in this urban neighborhood. Certainly he hadn’t been reduced to hunting squirrels for survival, not with a grocer operating on emergency generators only a half-mile away, but you never know.

Those of us lucky to be uninjured but sustaining damage and downed trees began to clean up. The media, running another of their stock plug-in-name stories, highlighted the “volunteerism” and “cooperative efforts” of those affected most by the storm. And, yes, a minority of good people, for nothing more than the personal satisfaction of helping fellow human beings, did volunteer and are continuing their efforts. It’s the same in every disaster: the media-highlighted minority of selfless volunteers; a second group who offer services for personal benefit, whether money or goods; a third, larger group who take care of themselves, neither asking for nor offering help to others; and finally a second minority who claim need even though they’ve suffered no loss. As my grandfather used to say, “it takes all kinds.”

As the power outage stretched into the fourth day, the number of food poisoning cases rose, causing authorities to advise residents to discard all foods from refrigerators, that it was no longer safe to eat, no matter how long cooked. Meanwhile, local home improvement stores, operating on backup systems, brought in hundreds of portable generators. Sales and use skyrocketed, and so did the number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, forcing officials during the daily press conferences to plead with residents to exercise a smidgen of common sense when operating the gas-powered generators. Officials implored residents to read all instructions, to operate generators in well-ventilated areas, not inside their homes or garages or under open house windows. Some generators had even exploded because owners had run them continuously, never checking oil which eventually ran dry. Some acts of brilliance simply speak for themselves.

Officials continued to emphasize daily the need to conserve water due to decreased capacity of online water treatment plants. “Don’t wash your car. Don’t water your lawns,” the water department spokesman advised. On the fourth day, one homeowner in this neighborhood washed out his rain gutters. Another guy washed his car. I asked the second fellow whether he’d heard the news conferences. He hadn’t, so I informed him of the request to conserve water. That, he said, didn’t apply to our neighborhood because the offline plants were in the southeast part of the county, and we were in the northwest. His car sparkled.

Sunny, mild weather dominated the first few days following the storms, with highs comfortably in the mid-70sF. As TVA restored power neighborhood by neighborhood, officials requested residents to reduce normal electrical use so the fragile replacement lines wouldn’t buckle under the burden of high demand. The obvious and most easily accomplished point of conservation was air-conditioning. When power returned to our neighborhood on the fifth day, three out of every five air-conditioners hummed. One couple sat on their porch, waving and chirping to passers-by about all the hardships they’d faced without power while the inside of their house cooled down to whatever temperature they normally enjoyed. The next day, rain returned, and the temperature dropped to an unseasonable mid-50sF high. Some who’d been air-conditioning their home the day before conserved now by switching to heating.

By day seven, TVA had restored power to most of the county by rerouting electricity through secondary lines. All water processing plants were back online, inspiring the water department representative to declare that residents no longer needed to conserve, even as TVA officials warned that, without power conservation, outages would lie ahead as primary power routes remain down and power use increases during summer. But who cares? We’ve got water and power now, and that’s all that counts.

Common sense may once have been common, but no longer. It’s one of those myths like “community cooperation” and “God watched over me while letting others die.” It’s something we like to believe in, something we use to convince ourselves that we’re smarter, more charitable, more special, that we really care for one another. But we live in a greedy, narcissistic society, exacerbated by such silliness called social networks and reality TV in which most of our lives are neither social nor real. The pending doom of our planet through human-induced global warming, starvation, natural disaster, war, terrorism, genocide, antibiotic-immune bugs, and more requires little or no thought and certainly no preventative action from us individuals as long as we have what we want. If we don’t have it, we’ll secure it by any method possible, to hell with common sense.

As for our children and their children, friend, they are the future. And the future is their problem as long as we’ve got ours.

Critically Speaking

Recent heinous acts by extremists, motivated by intense critical rhetoric, have set the media abuzz, with pundits defending and condemning critics for denying responsibility for their words. Critics have come a long way, applying their observations to every facet of private and public life with strident rhetoric that has elevated them to a level of prominence and power never before possessed. American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken warned long ago that “Criticism is prejudice made plausible,” something that every writer with work to come under a critic’s damning gaze had already realized by the time of Mencken’s observation. “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics,” English playwright John Osborne confessed, “is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

Plato may be the one responsible for infecting society with criticism as a profession when he condemned poets and poetry in his work The Republic. Aristotle didn’t help matters with his critical counter response in Poetics. He, instead, ensured someone would write a counter-counter-response, which ensured a counter-counter-counter-response, which ensured a—well, you get the idea—until a good number of complainers figured out that, by condemning or praising someone else’s work, they could make a buck. Critics have since gnawed their way through the arts to infiltrate every aspect of life with the blather of critical analysis and condemnation twenty-four/seven.

Lucky us.

Critical analysis, whether the topic is literary, musical, political, social, or whatever, is made through and delivered from a specific person’s worldview of reality, just as this essay is written from my own personal and quite prejudiced viewpoint. The problem arises when the critic expects or, increasingly, demands that the audience accept critical analysis without question or examination, to see and judge the subject of the analysis through only the critic’s narrow viewpoint.

My book Divorced Dads: Real Stories of Facing the Challenge explored how divorced fathers in uncommon and extreme circumstances maintained close and positive relationships with their children, offering pointers and solid, productive advice to fathers in less extreme situations. The point, as detailed in the book’s foreword, was to provide perspective for divorced fathers and examples of fathers who, in uncommon challenging circumstances, maintained healthy relationships with their children, no matter the forces working against them. The intent escaped one critic who called the book the best gift a vindictive divorced woman could present to her ex-husband if she wanted to finish him off emotionally. The critic was certainly entitled to his opinion and to his inability to comprehend the book’s message, even when stated outright, but was he entitled to inflict his views on others, to mislead and prevent some fathers from improving their situation by learning from the fathers detailed in the book? Yes, he was. It wasn’t his responsibility to be honest or fair. It was the reader’s responsibility to think independently.

An extraordinary genre magazine debuted last year, featuring some up-and-coming authors whose stories proved extraordinary. Every critic reviewing the magazine admitted as much, but each felt compelled to point out something “wrong” with the magazine and/or the stories, no matter how far-reaching. While one admitted that the technique of flashback worked extremely well for a particular story, he didn’t like the technique personally and, thus, concluded the story suffered because of that. Another suggested that the premises for most of the stories were thin, sacrificed for the sake of plot and characterization. Perhaps the critic thought the same about classics that employed such thin premises as persons physically transformed into wolves by a full moon, or the presence of gravity on starships zipping through a weightless void, or impressive kabooms when death stars explode in the vacuum of space, or some alien monster uncovered after centuries under arctic ice, able to change its cell structure to match its dinner, or maybe some mad scientist whose potion turns him into Piltdown Man. Thin premises, it appears, result in extraordinarily entertaining stories, critical analyses notwithstanding.

Critics today have surpassed the danger level with their analyses, threatening to lose any ability to provide unbiased or sound guidance about their subject. The majority of today’s critics cheat, fool, berate, and belittle listeners and readers into believing and thinking as they tell us to, suggesting and even convincing us that their views, sound or warped, are our own views. We forget we have choice. We forget we have voice. We forget we are individuals.

Remember the 1976 movie Network? It accurately predicted the demise of journalism, particularly television journalism, into a clown act of entertainment, audacity, and critical extremism. Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, the veteran journalist who became the movie’s messiah of broadcast news, upon realization of the social harm being perpetrated by the new “news media,” urges his huge TV audience to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And he tells them to turn off TV, to turn him off, to think for themselves.

It’s time we listened to Howard Beale, even if he is a fictional character. We all benefit by turning off the critic—TV, radio, print, internet. Eliminating the relentless palaver of negativity can decrease the acts inspired by insipid and vitriolic critical rhetoric. By using our own intellect, we can better choose our entertainment, our politicians, our brand of body lotion, our cars, our futures. We can contemplate, comprehend, and decide on our own once again, defining likes and dislikes based on our personal and individual realities and worldviews, not the views of others.

At the same time, we must put the challenge to critics to tone down their rhetoric, to approach subjects calmly, rationally, to take the same advice as Thumper took in the 1942 movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Or, at the very least, be constructive and respectful.

Enough said.

“I’ll be Fine”: Empathy through Experience

The cashier’s eyes widen as a faint, embarrassed smile blossoms. Even though she won’t ask the obvious question, she can’t stop looking. Outside, the guy passing us on the sidewalk rubbernecks for a full view. And the two women in the minivan in the lane by the walk are simultaneously so disgusted and relieved, it’s comical. Angered, my teenage daughter threatens to educate these people on the social impoliteness of staring.

In my dark fantasy story, “Eyes of a Child,” a father effectively imprisons his physically deformed daughter to spare her negative public reaction and saccharine sympathy. As a father, I understood during the writing the character’s desire to protect his child, albeit misguided, but I could not genuinely empathize with the daughter because I’d never experienced a “disability” and the public reaction to it. Then, a few days ago, I had a bicycle accident.

I’ve been riding the same bike/pedestrian course for months, day after day. Usually, extraordinary evens are limited to one or two auto drivers who fail to yield for pedestrian/bike crossings. One part of the route descends a shallow hill with a curve at the bottom. I’ve had no problem with it in the past. But heavy rain had fallen overnight, spreading a thin layer of clay mud across the asphalt path, mud that I saw too late. The bicycle slued from under me into grass and mud beside the path, and I hit the asphalt path that took chunks of flesh from my knuckles, arms and elbows, and a wide swath from below my left knee. My head and face hit first. The impact destroyed my helmet, but it protected my skull. My nose, left cheek, and chin didn’t fare as well, slamming into the asphalt and scraping across before I began to roll.

Though aching and bloody, the wounds on my hands, arms, and legs were no worse than any I’d suffered before, only more in number than usual. My face also burned, but I had no way of examining it, so I knocked mud off the bike, mounted, and cycled the four miles home, noting a few stares along the way, chalking them up to my bloody-leg, muddy appearance. Back home, a mirror revealed why my face burned and why people had been staring. The impact had scraped the skin off my left cheek, across my nose, above my upper lip, and off my chin. My left eye was bruised and puffy, and my cheek and chin had begun to swell. I showered, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged those that could be covered, but those on my face could not be bandaged effectively.

Injured or not, I still had work to do. My first stop was to drop a package for shipment. The clerk’s initial look of fear as I came up to the counter nearly made me laugh. “A bike accident,” I said. She nodded eagerly, relief flooding her face. “Oh, I’ve had that happen, too. Just keep it clean, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, I’d be fine, but what about people like the daughter in my story, people with permanent disabilities, people who will never be fine in the public view?

The subject of disabilities is saturated with ignorance and media misrepresentation. In movies and literature, blindness is often equated with stupidity, disability with inability, deformity with evil. A recent Louis Harris poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed and uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and almost half are actually afraid of people with disabilities. In “Eyes of a Child,” the father fears public disgust and feigned sympathy so much that he never allows his daughter out of the house. If I were writing the story today, I would better empathize with the girl’s character and more deeply understand the father’s love for his daughter and his fear and loathing of the public.

My injuries will heal and leave only the slightest of scars on my cheek and chin. They have not provided me with complete understanding of the social challenges faced by persons with disabilities, but the reactions of others to my appearance have provided me with a glimpse of the daily battle. In the past couple of days, I’ve considered wearing a cap and keeping my head bowed to spare others the sight of my hamburger patty face, but, more, to spare me of their reactions. But I won’t. We all can learn something important without the cap.

Back at the store, my daughter and I cross the lane to our car, get in. Another car pulls into the space facing us. The guy behind the wheel narrows his eyes at me until he realizes I’m glaring directly back at him. He fumbles with the door, gets out, and hurries into the store. I glance over at my daughter, and we laugh. The guy doesn’t know I’ll be fine.

***

Another perspective…
by Dick Claassen

The owner of this blog, Chris Fuqua, is a good friend of mine. He recently had a bike accident and told me he really bunged up his face. As proof, he sent me a frontal photo of his face a couple of days after the accident so I would get the full impact of the damage. Ouch! Chris could walk onto the set of an action flick and wouldn’t even have to go through makeup!

Chris commented that when he appeared in public with his temporarily wounded face, his appearance drew many stares. So many stares that it made him uncomfortable. He told me he didn’t even want to appear in public until his face was healed. I was amazed by this rude behavior of strangers. I mean, this is 2010, for crying out loud. Aren’t we supposed to be enlightened by now? But as I thought about Chris’s experience, I hearkened back to the experiences of my own life when I was a kid. I’m 69, and when I was five, I contracted Polio. This would be in 1946. (Yeah, I know, loooong time ago.) People were truly ignorant back then. Polio randomly attacks and paralyzes different limbs, and all too often those of us who are hit by it end up with not only weak limbs, but muscles that won’t keep the feet up, giving the Polio survivor a peculiar slapping walk. This was me. So people stared at me when I walked. I hated to move in a group of strangers, because my funky walk was sure to draw stares.

I put up with this ignorant nonsense until I was a young adult, and I’ve gotta tell ya, that can do some serious damage to your self confidence. But then something peculiar happened: Sesame Street. Sesame Street? Yup. That program was all about tolerance. Preaching tolerance was its reason for being. We saw kids of different races as a matter of course on that show. We also saw kids in wheelchairs. And most important, those “different” kids were characters in the show along with all kinds of other “normal” kids. Sesame Street didn’t point out that little Suzie had to be in a wheelchair. Suzie simply was another normal kid on the show, and was treated as such. Now, this change in attitude among the public gawkers didn’t happen all at once, but eventually those who watched Sesame Street long enough, (and that was just about everyone of any age), finally became comfortable with those who were “different.” Without realizing it, the majority of our population, both young and old, helped by the positive influence of Sesame Street, finally saw the light and put people like me into the “normal” category. And as people became more accepting, they no longer stared at me. I seldom get stares anymore, and that’s a very nice feeling. And I give Sesame Street all the credit.

I don’t mind being physically disabled. Okay, I do mind. But not to the point of either distraction or destruction. I’ve had this body for 64 years. If I’m not comfortable with myself by now, there’s no hope. But after experiencing real courtesy from almost everyone I meet these days, I was very disappointed that someone like Chris, who simply had bumps and bruises, (okay, granted, BIG bumps and bruises), was stared at. Apparently this kind of behavior varies from one region to the other. Case in point: I live in Iowa, and never was I more proud of the people in my state than two weeks after 9(11). Emotion was high, and people were scared to death of anyone who even wore a beanie, let alone a hijab. One day in Wal-Mart I was about to walk out when I just happened to look behind me. There was a family of four walking into the store: a mom, dad, little brother, and big sister. They obviously were Muslim because they all wore traditional Muslim clothing. The dad and son wore trousers and shirts of their culture, and the mom and the big sister were in long abayas and hijabs. (The hijab is the veil that frames the face but doesn’t cover the face). Their attire really made them stand out in the crowd. There were many people in the store, all local white bread Protestant Iowans, and they all saw this young family. But not one person stared. Not one. Sure, there were quick and covert glances, the kind of looks one might give to any stranger. But those glances never lingered. They would simply look elsewhere and go about their business. The Muslim family was comfortable, the people around them were polite, and I felt proud to be an Iowan.

Before you conclude that none of this is any big deal, it is. It’s huge. It’s far bigger than we might suppose. The very future of our democracy hangs on tolerance. Intolerance breeds fear, and fear will tear a democracy down faster than anything else. The question is not “Is Obama a Muslim?” That question shouldn’t even be asked. What faith, (or no faith), our leaders embrace is none of our business. It really isn’t. Personal faith or no faith is a private matter. Sesame Street was extremely successful in acclimating us all to those who were “different” from us. That show increased our level of tolerance. We might have to hope for an adult version of Sesame Street that can instill and infuse tolerance into the heads of those who insist on infusing fear and violence into the minds of those who should know better. Let’s all get down on our little knees and pray tonight for the adult version of Sesame Street before it’s too late. Even if you have no personal faith, pray anyway.

–Dick Claassen is a retired math and chemistry teacher, a guitarist, banjoist, professional of the Native American flute, and author of numerous romance novels, textbooks, magazine articles, and several books on Native American flute instruction and technique. Please visit his website at http://playfolkinstruments.com.

A Long Way to Go

A giant Rebel flag—the Stars and Bars battle flag, not the official Confederate flag—has been flying high beside I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005. Although it’s the most recognizable Rebel symbol today, the battle flag was used on the battlefield like other flags that displayed various Confederate states’ regimental colors, never earning official recognition by the Confederate government. Still, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that erected the huge version beside the interstate, the battle flag is the perfect symbol to celebrate Southern “heritage” in its stated campaign to insure “that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” in part, by asserting that Confederate soldiers “personified the best qualities of America,” that the war was the result of the South’s determination to preserve “liberty and freedom,” underscoring its “belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” despite the fact that Confederate states completely disavowed the U.S. Constitution by seceding from the Union and going to war.

In Texas, the school board recently decided that the state’s history schoolbooks require updating, that the term “slave trade” is outdated and needs to be changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson has no place on the list of great Americans, that Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero rather than the paranoid, communism-obsessed lunatic whose witch hunts ruined countless lives, that Confederate president and slave-owner Jefferson Davis must be taught favorably alongside Abraham Lincoln. There’s more, but you get the gist.

In several countries including the U.S., some groups assert that Nazi Germany never waged war to exterminate Jews. These groups insist that no gas chambers, no mass executions, no experimentation, no torture, no starvation—that nothing against the Jews was ever perpetrated by the Nazis, that the Holocaust is myth.

For decades in Japan, nationalist groups have portrayed the country as the primary victim of World War II because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings while maintaining that the country’s invasion of China and involvement in the war were justified reactions to Western imperialism. During his term in office, Japan’s recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rejected claims that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery even as legislators denied the six-week massacre conducted by the Japanese military in Nanking, China, in 1937-’38. Observers have long condemned the Japanese government and educational system for not addressing these and other issues in Japanese textbooks.

Of course, historical revision like these examples is nothing new, in part because so many of us are unwilling to question authority even when we know something is wrong. In my short story, “Contrition,”  Eiichi Takada, a WWII Japanese veteran, is struck by a car as he crosses the street to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors as heroes Japanese military men who committed heinous acts during the war, including those in China and Korea. Eiichi is unsurprised that he’s uninjured. He’s grown used to surviving otherwise fatal injuries. Having served in a unit that enslaved and tortured women during the war, Eiichi has since forced himself to forget, succumbing to popular revised accounts of history, but fate refuses to allow him to die until he accepts responsibility and atones for his actions. As he visits the shrine, fate sends him a stark reminder of his crimes, the vengeful ghost of a woman he tortured and killed. Of course, that’s fiction. Fate isn’t so proactive in real life.

After the invention of the cotton gin, the American South moved increasingly toward a one-crop economy, relying heavily on slave labor, solidifying a stratified class system that had little interaction between the classes, while the North progressed into a society in which cultures and classes worked increasingly together. As the federal government asserted more power over states, Southern states promoted the view that state’s rights superseded federal power. With America’s expansion, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a political battle erupted over whether new states admitted to the Union would be slave or free. Then came the Dred Scott Case, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all fueling the Abolition Movement, and Southern leaders grew increasingly defiant and afraid that the federal government would attempt to outlaw the very thing on which the Southern economy so heavily relied. The election of Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern leaders feared would free the slaves in preference of “northern interests,” spurred seven states to secede from the Union even before he took office, while four others seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. More than 600,000 people lost their lives.

Perhaps groups or individuals who fly the battle flag truly believe the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery. Perhaps some Japanese believe the country never invaded Nanking and never enslaved Korean women. Perhaps Texas politicians believe that rewriting textbooks can change historical fact. Perhaps Joseph Goebbels was right when he said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” echoing Lenin’s more concise declaration, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

Perhaps.

Reality isn’t privy to the ghosts of fate found in fiction, but real life conjures up its own ominous specters to remind us of mistakes past. That shrine in Japan, those altered books in Texas, the campaign to deny the Jewish holocaust, and that flag flying beside I-65—no matter their stated or perceived reason or justification—symbols and acts like these serve as stark reminders that authority must always be questioned, that truth must be sought and its lessons learned to avoid the mistakes of the past, that movements and their symbols purported to celebrate heritage instead serve most starkly as testaments of how far we still have to go.