Thursday, November 16, 2017

Claiming the Ambivalence Award

Apparently my award came with extra chins. (Bill Armendariz/Headlight photo)

Last weekend I drove up to Albuquerque for a second consecutive Saturday of training - a "Back to Basics" series of panels organized by the Society of Professional Journalists, which for me was more like "Hello, Basics, nice to meet you."

Meanwhile, at a casino in Bernalillo, the New Mexico Press Association was getting ready to hand out awards for its annual Better Newspapers contest. That night, one of my "Desert Sage" columns took first place for dailies with circulations under 11,000.

They gave me a plaque in honor of a column I wrote back in March, which described my observations at Deming's UPS depot on a day when they were interviewing for supervisor positions. I described the scene including the surprisingly candid speech from their H.R. officer (a voice on a speakerphone - I kid you not, someone held up their iPhone and The Voice spoke to everyone in the room) about the class divisions in that workplace, and how supervisors were expected to exert severe discipline on the unionized drivers.

A judge sheet said it stood out for making a point via storytelling. Just what I was attempting - the affirmation feels nice.

It was amusing, writing the anonymous staff report about myself winning the award. On the other hand, it was also an opportunity to give a brief history of "Desert Sage," a 16-year old weekly column originated by Win Mott.

As it happened, I was not invited to attend this ceremony. Budgets are tight and only a couple of people from our region went. My News Director in Las Cruces picked up the plaque for me. The training felt like a more important place to be anyway.

Also, I feel this ambivalence about awards.

On the one hand, industry awards are a way to celebrate strong work and uphold standards of quality.

On the other hand, I am wary of self-congratulation. Especially since, reading the piece again, I want to re-write it. It's almost there - almost good. It has inspired me to try harder. For instance, my column this week. I'm happier with this one.

On another hand, get over it. Accept the compliment, receive what someone else is offering, and own the possibility that someone might respect something you made.

P.S. There is now a page where you can access my columns and other reporting online.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Decorating, maybe

"You don't decorate!" remarked numerous NMSU professors when they poked their head into whatever office I had been assigned that semester. Why didn't I hang up some show posters? Why didn't I stock up the book shelves in my Theatre Arts office? Why didn't I make myself more at home?

My office in Theatre Arts was more visible than my office at CMI, which was a storage room in a retired dormitory. That office had the advantage of being quiet. But honestly, I could have died in there and no one would find me for days.

At every entreaty about my decor, I would tell the truth, reminding them that I was an adjunct teaching at-will, usually part time, and could be let go at any point, so I wasn't about to fill up the book shelves or hang things up knowing I might have to break it all down again. And indeed, Theatre Arts refused three times even to consider me a serious candidate for a faculty position; and the Creative Media Institute was very pleased to have me, but in the state's budget crisis, NMSU drastically curtailed money for adjuncts and at the end of 2016 I was let go.

For that reason, I haven't "moved in" to a work space in a decade. I have long maintained that I would not hang up so much as a poster in my workplace until I am offered a permanent job as a regular hire. I've gotten used to bare walls and empty shelves because - well, no one would hire me on any basis except contingency.

Four and a half months ago, I started a temp job working at the Headlight under surprise circumstances, doing work I'd never done before. News reporting. Writing for a newspaper (and website). What a novel idea.

Last week, I had a conversation with my boss's boss. Today, I got an email.

Tomorrow, I'm going to hang something up on the wall.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Correcting My Thinking: A Car Story

As a preface to this story, I have to tell you that I'm a Rip Van Winkle when it comes to the electronic systems cars have these days.

I drove a 2002 Honda Civic for 12 years, and after I killed that car I inherited a 2005 Volkswagen Golf for a couple of years, until I killed that one off as well. (It seems I am hard on cars.) Through the winter, I had no car: I rode the Greyhound between Las Cruces and Deming, and walked or rode a bike.

In May, I purchased a slightly-used 2015 Jeep Renegade. Biggest car I've ever owned, but it was a sensible purchase for my current job, which sometimes requires me to drive off the pavement and navigate dirt roads and large puddles - for instance, the photograph above was taken during a reporting trip out on the western end of the village of Columbus, New Mexico, near the border. There is also my growing family: a new baby brings us up to two parents, two little boys, and an infant in a car seat.
For me it has been like learning to drive a 3,000 pound iPhone. I'm getting used to a car that can tell me the temperature of the oil and coolant, and the air pressure in the tires. Not being highly informed about the latest in automobile technology, much of this is new to me even though it has been standard in cars for a while.

This is why I couldn't figure out why my seatbelt alert kept going off.

During the first several weeks I owned the car, it would randomly alert me about the seatbelt, incessantly going "ding ding ding ding ding ding." It was awfully annoying and worried me - what other sensors might be loose? Had I made a bad purchase after all?

I called up the dealer and described the problem. I think probably an attentive mechanic might have been able to guess at the cause, but all they would say to me was that I should bring my car in to run a complete diagnostic - which would run me $114. Nothing beats you like a Sisbarro deal.

Yesterday, I was driving around - ding ding ding ding ding - and I examined my own thinking. I noticed that I was assuming this whole time that the ding ding ding was a symptom of something broken. What if the ding ding ding was symptom of something working properly?

So I began asking a different question, and sure enough, I learned that modern cars have sensors in the passenger seats. No, I did not know that. It did not take long to test this hypothesis. Eureka: the bag I use for work, which is always pretty heavy, was fooling the car into thinking I had a passenger. When I moved the bag to the floor, the "symptom" disappeared.

No more ding ding ding. And it didn't cost me $114. Take that, Sisbarro.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

About Exes and the Futility of Memory

Disclosure: Max Winter (that's not a pen name, that's his birth name) was a friend of mine in high school in Providence, Rhode Island. I have a few good stories about him. Nothing incriminating or acutely embarrassing. He was rather obsessed with Bob Dylan for a period in high school, but I was bonkers for T.Rex at the same time, so who am I to mock?

I point this connection out because it's relevant to the book and how I experienced it. This is about people and the relationships left behind (or that left us behind), and the futile effort to reconstruct connections through memory.

Another confession: I dislike a lot of "literary fiction." I'm not sure I agree with the suggestion in Max's afterword that narrative economy is "overprized." Sometimes when reading contemporary lit I wish it were valued more.

(Although I don't always model that value myself.)

((Oh, and right now, I'm doing something that Max's novel does: annotating myself, and then annotating the annotations. Makes you realize how much memory really is a construction in the present moment.))

Too often I read literary fiction that disdains the reader, that confuses more than it elucidates, that is more interested in unique sentences than a compelling story, that seems designed to make the author seem profound and beyond the comprehension of the lowly reader. When I smell that on a book, I feel angry. Happily, Max's book is plenty "literary" but it does not bore or bullshit the reader. It does not seek attention through bogus mystification, and once you figure out how the book works it isn't difficult to follow. It is entertaining, often hilarious, and it evokes a beautiful melancholy that can only be understood when you have loved a friend and lost people who mattered to you. It is loaded with stories, many of them fit to stand alone, but the jumble of histories (and the annotations that follow) depict the struggle to touch people across a distance with memory.

It reminds me of Max : here is his deceptively casual wit (masking a lifetime of attentive reading and media absorption) - and also his heart. All the characters sound like Max altering his voice ever so slightly. The book also stoked my long-smoldering homesickness for Rhode Island, its unique colloquialisms and irascible characters.

The book struck me like a specially formulated pill: my own memories and people I've lost mingling with the characters (some of whom are very much based on persons living or dead, trust me). And if you have loved people and places, this might be your experience as well. I don't think you'll regret spending a little time with Exes.

Order it here. (Fuck Amazon.)

Friday, March 03, 2017

Bullies Will Be Bullying

Silver Spring was my elementary school in East Providence, Rhode Island

In a Facebook community group for Deming, the subject of bullying in the schools came up. Frustration was expressed over continuing abuses despite "anti-bullying" campaigns in the schools, varying responses from teachers and other parents, and so on. As people do, several came down to the old-fashioned approach, urging kids to take a boxing lesson and thump the bully. Then, surely, the bullies will slink away and all will be well.

That's movie logic. In movies, the little kid finally gives the bigger bully a taste of his own medicine, gives him a sock in the face (with a great loud sound effect), the other kids all cheer, the grownups wink in understanding, the music swells, and the bullying stops. Roll credits.

Maybe it works out that way sometimes, but never from what I witnessed. And I punched a bully myself.

For years, I went to the Silver Spring School in East Providence, the school depicted above (although Alan M. Feinstein wasn't putting his name on everything yet in the 1970s). I got bullied for most of those years. I was a bookish kid, spent a lot of time with grownups, and didn't fit in well with my peer group. I didn't like being teased and didn't respond well. Sometimes I shouted at my tormentors; sometimes I mocked them; I sought adult interventions which were frequently denied. Bullies would  mock, chase, hit, take things from me. One time they even loaded me into an empty metal trash barrel and rolled me down a little hill. Once, I was chased home and my mother sided with the boy chasing me since I must have said something to anger him. I tried remedies that grownups suggested: ignoring them, saying "you're right" and just accepting anything they said, trying not to run away when they menaced me physically (but eventually running away because they would in fact hit me), and I even tried the classic adult suggestion: hit the chief bully!

I remember the moment although I don't remember my age or grade at the time. We were both standing on a large mound in the playground (which was loaded with broken equipment - ah, the 1970s, a hairier time on public playgrounds). He was doing his thing. His name was Shawn, I think. Kids were watching. And I just clocked him. Oh, it was beautiful. Shawn had a glass jaw: he went straight down, eyes wide with surprise. Got a little cut on his face. Cried like a baby. I felt adrenaline and the thrill of attention (including girls' attention). For the first and only time, I was the big man on the playground - for about ten minutes.

But it was not a movie: it was real life, and life is messy. The school didn't see Shawn bullying me. What they did see was Shawn's cut face and his tears; and a playground full of children reported that indeed I was the one who had punched him. I did not deny it, nor did I feel ashamed about doing it. But I was the one held accountable. I was not suspended - they probably suspected what had been going on - but now I had a record for fighting.

After that incident, I learned another lesson: bullies often have friends. Shawn certainly did. There was little peace for me after that. Shawn got his come-uppance. I often had to walk through the neighborhood to run errands for my parents - they would send me to the "milk store" up on Pawtucket Avenue. I had several routes there based on who was in the streets. For a couple of weeks, when things were especially bad, I secretly carried a small knife from the kitchen though I never brandished it.

The thing about movie logic is that movies stop. Most stories simplify life in order to fit into a narrative, and the narrative ends and you don't keep following the characters. They also tend to simplify or obscure actual consequences. Fist fights in movies always go on for an absurdly long time augmented by larger than life sound effects created by punching slabs of meat near a microphone: BAM! BIFF! POW! KASPLAT! I've watched fist fights in movies that would result in fatalities or at least brain damage in the real world, but in the movies they barely muss their hair. The rules of movie world are easy to understand, the stakes are clear, the consequences are immediate, and are beautiful and simple; small wonder people would prefer the real world to resemble it. But it doesn't.

There isn't a single remedy for bullying, and the outcome of any one of them is not really predictable: least of all the "hit 'em back" approach. If you're going to give a kid that advice, you aren't doing him or her any favors unless you make them aware of the real-world risks. That's how you prepare them for life, not by pretending life works like a movie.

The lessons I learned from years of bullying is that bullying personalities will find ways to keep doing that. Transforming a bully is possible but rare - and slow. Anti-bullying programs at schools do help some, but the problem will persist. Bullies will be a-bullying and learning how to take care of ourselves and carry on is part of surviving childhood.

Now I have kids of my own and my wife and I are working hard to set them up as best we can, but their lessons will be messy, spontaneous, and rough at times. The playground where I hit that bully had lots of exposed nails, broken equipment, missing monkey bars, and other hazards. We learned to navigate them, and how to tend to our occasional wounds.  People are assholes, and we learned how to navigate them as well. Our lessons in life are not always clear or even safe, but life will carry on in any case. That's the real world. We can't protect the kids for long but we can prepare them to navigate a world in which there are bits of glass, broken sidewalks, strange people - and bullies.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The book for learning Chancery hand

The First Writing Book: Arrighi's OperinaThe First Writing Book: Arrighi's Operina by John Howard Benson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is well worth the effort required to locate and acquire a copy of this old book on writing in the Chancery hand. The author was a master carver and calligrapher who translated the first and still widely considered the finest manual of Chancery writing, the "Operina" of Arrighi. While Arrighi's manual is public domain and can be downloaded for free on the internet, Benson's book includes an introduction and translation entirely hand-lettered with copious notes on both the English and Italian versions that add advice on continuing practice. This, this is the one to get.

View all my reviews


Saturday, February 04, 2017

Down with Kings and Inherited Power

Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. 1

Down with monarchy, argues Paine as he continues in Common Sense, for all humans are created equal and only afterward are divided up into rulers and subjects. He rejects monarchy and hereditary succession in particular.

Inherited power does nothing to ensure wisdom or goodness, and opens the door just as easily for the unprepared, the foolish, or the jackass to assume power.

In our plutocratic culture, many are persuaded to the idea that wealth is equivalent to merit, as when people affirmed that they voted for Donald Trump because they perceived him to be a successful businessman; whereas in fact, although Donald Trump has been involved in a number of business ventures, his wealth was inherited and given his business record, without inherited wealth we would not know who he was and he certainly would not have ascended to the presidency. In our time, inherited fortunes convey liberty, opportunity, and power to any fortunate jackass without regard to merit or virtue. Another way to "inherit" the nexus of wealth and power is to assume leadership in the apparatus of big business. Popular culture consistently portrays the wealthy as better connected and best fit for power, glamorizing the idea of a ruling class.

From among these [capitalists and managers], the few tens of thousands who sit on two or more boards form a pattern of interlocking directorships among the major banks and nonfinancial corporations. This network, together with the top-level political and cultural leaders aligned with it, can fairly be called the ruling class.

...The ruling class is bound together into a coherent social force by common networks and institutions that allow the ruling class to rule - to give strategic guidance to society. Thank tanks, elite university research and policy centers, exclusive social and political organizations, media and cultural institutions, all interact to create an environment in which debates lead to policy formulation and political processes that broadly reflect the corporate interests at the center of the network. 2

One way people improperly try to "claim" Thomas Paine for their ideological projects is to assume where he would stand on current affairs. I am wary of such misuse of him, but I can easily imagine things he might say about the character of power in our time, not to mention the expansion of executive branch powers, at a later stage of capitalist development, simply by applying his principles to present-day institutions.

For instance, he easily dismisses normative claims about "constitutional monarchy," the idea of a parliamentary legislature and monarch as the executive. Paine simply looks at history and asks whether Locke's promise was fulfilled, whether this led to rule of law rather than rule of the tyrant. The answer is not ambiguous.

I write this on the very day that a new, autocratically-minded president has been actively (and quite purposefully) working to de-legitimize any checks on executive power, from the press to the judiciary. The way has been paved by past presidents widening their authority, much in the way Paine saw constitutional monarchs gradually extending their power so as to circumvent checks and balances on them.

When the executive disciplines the republic instead of the other way around, we are bending the republic - and it will break.

1 From Common Sense, Thomas Paine, 1776.
2. From The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Michael Zweig, 2012.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Paine on Society vs. State

Lately I have been digging into Thomas Paine's writing again. He is so often cited and so rarely read.

His most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, opens with his unique distinction between society and government:

Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kinds are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others. 

This was a distinct proposal about the legitimacy of power. Many of the founding generation believed, as many seem to believe to this day, in a natural aristocracy, that people born into wealth and certain networks had best lead the country. Paine is having none of that. He sees a robust civil society consenting, out of prudence, to government for the security of all, since human virtue cannot be counted upon to serve all human needs. As he felt society was too large for direct democracy, and humankind not able to govern itself as yet, he concluded that representative democracy, a democratic republic, was the appropriate form of government as subordinated to the needs of a distinct civil society. His notion of society assumes relative equality of status and wealth, free of oppression: poverty, caused by privilege and wars waged by monarchs, unjust taxation, and so on were not only unjust but unnatural.

By contrast, what notions of civil society prevail today? To what extent do we embrace the idea of living a public life in which our happiness and liberty derive meaning in relation to the happiness and liberty of others? We seem, to the contrary, to be ever more privatized and clannish (sometimes people say "tribal," yet many tribes model society, so I am loath to use it as an antonym).

We are a plutocratic culture, viewing conspicuous wealth as a sign of success and worth. We believe, as many in the founding generation did, that the "well born" are better suited for leadership than those who toil; many of my countrymen would be comfortable with John Jay's old assertion that those who own the country ought to run it. Elections are competitively financed and require candidates who are wealthy and/or elicit large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, and who seem uncannily to find that the best course for society aligns with the interests of capital and profit.

Over my lifetime, watching politics I have seen the abandonment of every republican principle in the pursuit of raw power, and an insistence by our chief executives - the last three in particular - that unchecked power is necessary for the safety of society.

As Paine proceeds to critique the British constitution for its mockery of checks and balances, I wonder if he could look at our system as it is in practice today and say that our system of checks and balances is less absurd - or that we even operate with meaningful, explicit consent of the governed.

We - speaking here of civil society, the commons, the governed - had better get clear on this. It may already be too late to reverse the courses we seem to be following towards catastrophe, both politically and ecologically. Amid talk of resisting the corporate coup that seems to have seized the levers of the republic, we need to sharpen our analysis, as Paine writes:

...Any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.

He was referring to the British constitution and its flaws. Our own Constitution has flaws of its own, but more to the point we have allowed so many precedents that circumvent the rule of law, in the interest of an economic system that demands the negation of civil society to an extent the founding generation could not have foreseen, that injustice and the thirst for power have bent the very light by which we see. But it is our sacred responsibility - part of the natural order of things, Paine might agree - to discipline government, not the other way around.