Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Political Terms

This book I’m working on now is a novel about the revolution of 1848 in Prague. This was famously a failed revolution, but it was a presagement of the successfulrevolutions, communist and fascist, that occurred in the twentieth century. Here we first see communism, the active enmity between workers and the owners of property. Here we first see the kind of florid “racial” nationalism that would lead to two world wars. Here we first see in action the class-based divide between constitutional reformers and revolutionary dreamers. And here too we see the emergence of nationalistic and class (as opposed to mainly religious) opposition to the Jews. So it’s an interesting era and I suppose it may shed some light on our current politics as well.

Our concepts of left and right come, of course, from the French Revolution. The left wanted a complete reordering of society down to its roots, while the right, having got rid of the aristocrats, was mainly interested in stability and security of property. One of the strange things about 1848 was that the individuals involved often had mixed and incommensurable desires. There were, for example, German speakers who wanted a constitutional regime in the Hapsburg lands, others who wanted all German speakers to be part of a pan-German Union. Many of the people who spoke for freedom had no interest in the freedom from German domination desired by the Italian, Hungarian, Polish, or Croat subjects of the empire. There were Czech speakers who wanted the same kind of constitutional government, but based on Czech nationality. There were pan-slavs, who wanted a union of all Slavic peoples, and who looked to Russia (not considered a bastion of freedom) for support. There were anarchists who wanted the whole system brought down and there were communists in both Czech and German flavors. Thus divided, they were easily crushed by reactionary forces.

Working on this got me thinking about how we describe political factions today. I am no political scientist, which is probably why the current political scene seems so incomprehensible to me. This post is therefore an effort to make sense of what is probably essential crazy. Poor us.
We start with a view of the world. Barbara Tuchman once remarked that as you looked over the historical eras and the great civilizations of the past, you noticed that they had one thing in common. Despite their great achievements in industry, invention, architecture, art and literature, they all did one thing terribly and stupidly, and that was governing themselves. In every age with few exceptions we may observe in human governance a machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear; and the question is, always, what is to be done? The search for an answer forms the substance of political discourse, and the answer chosen identifies a person’s political orientation.

One group of people sees the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and believes that the general solution lies in constitutional government, with the full array of civil liberties and civil rights—universal citizenship, equality before the law, universal suffrage and the like. Such people believe in a strong government to protect rights and, to an extent, in a strong central government, this being considered less liable to corruption and the local influence of powerful interests. These people were called liberals in 1848 and are called so today. Liberals in 1848 were also all for untrammeled capitalism, which they saw as a counterforce against the ancien regime. Today, however, the kings having departed, they see corporate potentates as the great danger to their ideal of a just society.

Another group believes in constitutional government, but also believes that it is not nearly the whole solution to the problem of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, nor even the most important part, necessary as it is. They believe that society is composed of much more than merely the rulers and the ruled, but is complex organism, with many relationships—family, church, community, property—that are just as important as the relationships defined by legal rights and that they should be preserved, and if necessary shielded from the power of the state. They believe that personal qualities are indispensable to a decent commonweath and to the success of individuals and tend to attribute the inequalties observed in all societies to these more than to oppression. With liberals, they believe that everyone should have a vote, but they object to restricting the franchise to the living. The dead should have a say as well, in that institutions cherished in the past should not be lightly changed or disregarded. In 1848, they were suspicious of capitalism because they feared its destructive force, but have since come to terms with it and grown to regard private enterprise as the foundationstone of a decent society. These people are conservatives.

A third group sees the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and rejects it entirely. They believe it is rotten at the core because it is based on the domination that is the inevitable result of the ownership of private property. Society must therefor be broken down to its roots and all existing institutions abolished. Class enemies must be extinguished and not given a place in the coming order. This accomplished, a new and better society can then be built according to some plan. These are radicals. For a number of historic reasons they have never constituted a political force in United States, but have, of course, changed the course of nations elsewhere.

Finally there are those who see the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and reject it utterly as the radicals do, but believe that things were not like that in the past, not before They took control. The They varies among cases, but the paranoid style is as prominent with them as it is with the radicals. If They could be eliminated or rendered impotent then the natural goodness of the nation would re-emerge, as it was before They did their mischief. The past is glorified here in just the same way that the future is glorified among the radicals, and the degree of reaction depends on the date chosen for the supposed existence of the golden age. It could be 1950 or 1890 or the Middle Ages, and the political program espoused will vary accordingly. These people are reactionaries.

I find it interesting that the current political discourse is entirely devoted to describing the conflict between liberals and conservatives. There is no such conflict, because while the liberals remain liberals, the “conservatives” are not conservatives, but reactionaries. As a political force, actual conservatism is nearly extinct in the United States, except in newspaper columns and academic journals. And yet, for some odd reason, you never see reactionaries called so in the press. People are called radicals, but this is typically a meaningless curse-word, like “commie,” but no one is called a reactionary in the mainstream press, and certainly reactionaries never call themselves anything but conservative, even though they propose to tear up the work of many previous generations. This is something no conservative ever would do. Why this is so and why conservatism failed in the United States is a fascinating study, but one for another post. I just wanted to straighten the terms out in my own mind and offer the definitions for anyone interested in political language.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Asshole Theory of Literature

I've just finished reading Phillip Roth's The Human Stain and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, both well-crafted novels that have in common but one thing, which they share with practically every other work of literature: they are all about assholes. Have you noticed this? Virtually every great work of fiction is about someone acting as stupidly as he or she possibly can. Okay, we all have friends who occasional act like assholes, as we all do ourselves, and part of the purpose of friendship is to call out our buddies on this, and we expect them to call us out as well. It's a big part of friendship, and it's a common observation that assholes often lose their friends. Nobody likes an asshole, except in literature where we can't seem to get enough of them. Have Roth and Franzen, to take a couple of examples, ever written about someone who wasn't being a complete jerk? They have not. Being a jerk is what literature is about and I wonder why this is so. And don't these people have friends? For example:

Achilles, what's with the sulking? Guys are getting killed out there and you're pissed off about a girl? You know what? You're actinglike a girl! Don't be an asshole!

Oh,you saw a ghost? A ghost? Give me a break! And on this basis you're going to screw up your life? Stop being an asshole, Hamlet, and get your butt back to school.

Lear, Othello, Macbeth, the list goes on. Okay, the tragic flaw and all that, but still, even in naturalistic novels, the asshole rules.

Emma, I get that Bovary isn't what you expected, but he's a nice guy and he loves you. And, girl, if you keep messing around like you're doing, you're gonna wind up dead.

Nasty families, people behaving badly, betrayal, self-betrayal, sexual katzenjammer, this is what we struggle to avoid in real life and seek out in fiction. It's so common, it's like water to a fish, it's what quality fiction essentially IS, and so we barely notice it any more as being a little strange.

And why especially do we dote on assholery of the sexual type? Is it inherent? Do chimps sit in trees and stare at fellow chimps having dysfunctional relationships? Or is it a peculiarity of our culture? In real life, the work that goes into making a good relationship is more interesting than the noise of a bad one, but we don't see a lot of that in fiction. To paraphrase Tolstoy, bad relationships are all alike; each good relationship is fascinating in its own way.

Interestingly, too, while we get to read only about assholes in fiction, in non-fiction, the asshole memoir is in the minority. We actually love to peruse the lives of the non-asshole, the great and successful, as long as they're real. (Yes, the great are often mega-assholes, but by definition, unless they're Hitler or the like they have striven to overcome or conceal this aspect and have thus triumphed.)

My theory has not developed enough to propose a cultural substrate for the asshole phenomenon. Is it what we have instead of morality plays? Are we supposed to derive warnings--don't be like that? That's not the sense I get from this kind of fiction. The sense I get is despair. The world is such, the authors seem to be saying, as to make assholes of us all. There is no place to stand as a human person: love, patriotism, work (and why do we hardly ever see in fiction compelling descriptions of working life, except miserable degrading work or the working life of writers?) religion, child-rearing--all the ancient touchstones of human existence are depicted as incompetent for salvation. What remains is the Me, raised as the sole object of devotion, the asshole triumphant. This is why, after reading the prize-winning, beautifully written, exquisitely crafted novel, I feel like I've had an unpleasant, embarrassing experience, like a a public quarrel with a drunk friend.

I think this is why people turn to genre fiction, which, as bad as it often is, does not entirely concern itself with assholes getting into trouble. Strangely enough, despite the preposterousness of the genre plot, genre characters are more lifelike than those in literary fiction, in that they are serious about the ultimate significance of what they're doing. They may have a veneer of cynicism, but they never think catching the killer is absurd. Occasionally, you see a prominent literary writer try genre--detective stories or science fiction. Maybe even they get tired of writing about assholes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bad Scientist

I decided to become a scientist in the gift shop of the Tanglewood Music Festival, in New York state, during a concert intermission. I was twenty-three or four at the time, living in SoHo in Manhattan, and on track to become a New York literary artistic type, a fate that had been practically seared into my flesh from early on. I’d started writing stories and making comic books when I was about eight. I went to a high school that valued writing the way a west Texas high school values quarterbacks. And, unlike hicks who come to New York to make it as writers, I was already in New York. I’d worked in ad agencies and for magazines. I was the humor magazine editor in college and had contacts galore around town. I had published some cartoons and pieces in a number of hip small magazines. And yet, standing in that gift shop some cosmic voice was telling me that this life that I’d been born for was really kind of crappy and that I should dedicate my life to being a scientist, specifically a marine biologist. It was as if a little birdie, with wings and brand-new feathers, ready for its first flight, should have decided that being an earthworm or a smelt was more suitable for its talents. Yes, crazy and sick, but so it was.

I went back to the city, quit my magazine job, applied to City College. Over the next two years I took courses enough to convert my BA in English into a BS-level biology qualification. These were hard courses: organic chemistry, physiology, comparative anatomy, genetics, statistics, organic evolution. I did reasonably well and then I took the Graduate Record Exam. As luck would have it, the exam that year seemed to be perfectly aligned with my reading and interests. I blew the top off it and got into every graduate school I applied to. The Marine Lab at Miami gave me a full-freight fellowship with a stipend, so I went there.

Well, the Marine Lab: a sleepy place dreaming in its marvelous location on a key in Biscayne Bay. The great physicist, Rutherford, once said that science is either physics or stamp collecting. Biology was converting itself into physics just then, but they were still collecting stamps in the sunny courts of the Marine Lab. There are so very many creatures in the sea, you know, and it’s important to collect and pickle every one of them and dissect them and count and measure their little spines, and place each species on a chart. I found I did not want to do any of this.

Alternatively, there were some people studying the behavior of live animals out in nature. This is what I chose to do. I found, though, that when one has a fellowship, rather than an assistantship, the faculty is not particularly interested in your fate. Unattached grad students with their own money do not make good serfs, and most research faculty spend their hours directing the serfs to add incrementally to the research project of the chief scientists. It’s a good deal all around. The serfs get a stipend and a project they can turn into a thesis or dissertation, and the research faculty get cheap labor and publishable work. I found myself out of this loop.

So I drifted and did marine biology things. I went on research cruises, where I was a useless supernumerary, and bored senseless. I went scuba diving. I spent hours looking at the tape from underwater cameras. Yes, romantic to get paid for cruising the Caribbean, messing around in small boats on an azure sea, and diving amongst the coral and jeweled fishes, yet it’s hard to describe how tedious it was to actually do it, day upon day. After a while the French-accented voice in my head telling me how wondrous were the mysteries of the deep faded and I was colossally bored. Did I take the hint? I did not.

After a while, I discovered the wily octopus and I announced that I was going to be a student of octopus behavior. Now, the wily octopus is actually pretty damned wily. It has the largest brain of any invertebrate, and since it has an entirely different evolutionary history from the other sorts of creatures with big brains, like mammals and birds, studying the brain and behavior of octopuses might tell us something about the general structure of brains in general. It was a story anyway, and in science you need, most of all, a story.

So I consumed the entire literature on octopus behavior, most of which involved experiments that treated octopuses like lab rats. This was during the high tide of behaviorism: offer rewards and punishment to an animal in a box and you’d find out what made it tick. Having flunked behavioral psych in college, I was not about to do experiments like this. Instead, I decided to observe the development of the animals in as natural a situation as I could, and so I found a female with eggs and put her in a big tank, The eggs hatched, the mother died, as they do in nature, and I watched the little octopuses dart around the tank and catch brine shrimp. I had all kinds of plans for launching a whole new field of octopus behavioral studies, based on the natural development of their behavior, but this was not to be, for in the spring of 1968 the reserve unit I was attached to was called up for service in the Vietnam war.

A little upsetting this, but I figured out a way to do my master’s research before I had to leave, by using my octopus babies in a neuroembryology study. I spent countless hours in processes of bottomless tedium: gently killing them at different developmental stages, embedding them in wax, slicing them on a microtome, staining them, making slides, photographing the slides, developing the film, printing photographs, and studying the photographs until my eyes burned, trying to figure out what was going on. I pulled a thesis together and they gave me my master’s degree before I shipped out, which they should not have done, since the works was a total botch. Some years later a real cephalopod biologist took a look at the work and declared it completely without value.

When I got out of the Army they gave me another fellowship, probably out of guilt, and I took it to another lab. I worked for a brilliant man who had made a career out of studying how rabbits controlled their heart rates. He’d learned how to place electrodes in the rabbit brain to find out what different neurons did when you did various things (like shocks) that would make the rabbit change its heart rate I proposed that I would develop a preparation that would do the same thing in the octopus, a project that if feasible at all, might take thirty years. But I was young and bored and arrogant.

Right off, I decided that I was only interested in natural stimuli. In nature, octopuses don’t get electric shocks. What scares octopuses in nature? Well, moray eels do, a chief predator out where they live. So I designed and built a plastic maze that forced a choice between a tank with just seawater in it and one with a moray in it. (I am, by the way, one of the few people who have been bitten by both an octopus and a moray eel in an experimental setting.) This was crazy thing to do. As I said, grad students are supposed to make safe incremental advances in their supervisors’ research field, under supervision from people who know the techniques better than they do. I had no supervision at all. I had to literally build my own lab in a disused building from the time of the second world war, haul water in from the sea, and maintain and feed two species of animals both famous as escape artists. It was lunacy.

It worked, however. I actually discovered a Scientific Fact, which was that the octopuses response to the moray was entirely dependent on whether it was dark or light in the lab. Morays hunt by night. When it was light out the octopus went into the moray tank without hesitation. When it was dark, it never did. The merest taste of the moray’s water made the octopus book out for the other side, but only in the dark. This suggested something important about how octopus brains process information about their environment, and got me a PhD.

I did not go to the graduation, so I never bore the glory of a doctoral hood. A few days later the mail brought a cardboard tube containing my diploma. It’s still in a closet somewhere, still rolled up. I looked into post-docs in a desultory way, went on some lab visits, but the heart had gone out of it for me. Later that year I started working as a restaurant cook.

I guess I’m okay with having a scientific doctorate, although I might have been better employed during those seven years, considering what I do now. Or maybe not. Something in me did not want destiny to play out in any easy way. Dr. Johnson said that no man thinks well of himself who has not been a soldier, or been to sea. Check and check, there. Maybe that was what it was all about.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Competition confession

I did not watch the recent Olympics, unlike the five billion people on the planet who did. I don’t follow football, soccer, hockey, baseball, or basketball. I don’t play games of any sort, not cards or Scrabble, video games, chess, backgammon, or golf. I do not compete, or watch competitive activity. I was an avid sports fan until I was about seventeen, in the manner of the average boy, but somehow failed to make the transition to adult sports fandom. I don’t really know why. A shrink might say that it’s a reaction to a hypercompetitive family. My father was an all-state high school end in football and all my cousins were star athletes. I learned how to play baseball competently in self-defense but as soon as I left for college I hung up my glove for good.
I recall once coming over on the ferry from Bainbridge Island, which is west of Seattle, across Eliot Bay, on a Sunday when the Seahawks were going to play. This ferry turned out to be the one that the fans had to take to get to the game on time, and the ship was jam-packed with Seahawks fans. They were the kind of fans that wear the team colors, and put foam sea hawk heads on their heads, and paint their faces with blue and green stripes. A number of people had portable TVs so that they could watch the game on the screen as well as in real life. The team was doing well that year and they were all noisy and happy. I recall thinking that I must be really strange not to able to do this, that it was a kind of autism, to be totally uninterested in something so very important to my fellow humans and the average American. I recall thinking about what the Dalai Lama had said after witnessing his first (and last, one supposes) pro football game: “Very interesting, but I believe there would less violence if each team had its own ball.” Just so, your Holiness.
I read the Times in the old-fashioned broadsheet way and during the Olympics it was impossible to avoid photographs of dramatic moments—the winning goal, say, or the winner crossing the finish line. But my eye always goes to the losers, their anguish and despair revealed to the whole world. I get it about winning, how great and all, but my heart is always with the losers. As a result, at games, I enjoy neither winning nor losing, so why bother? I suppose I could play solo against a computer, but when I’ve done this in the past, something in me always said, “During this session of Grand Theft Auto II I could be learning Chinese and eventually be able to read Li Po in the original,” and I always give up on level one.
This view of games is not meant as an invidious statement on my part suggesting cultural superiority to the fan: far from it. Brilliant people, geniuses, have been and are sports-lovers, and the near-universalism of sport argues for it being a basic aspect of the human condition. As I say, it must be a kind of mental/emotional defect in me. Oddly enough, I always read the sports section assiduously, even though I have no idea of what they’re talking about most of the time, and although I don’t care. I just feel it’s necessary to connect me with humanity, like someone who has lost faith but still attends church to please his family. Also, it allows me to avoid solecisms, like saying brightly, “How about those Mariners!”
On the other hand, there is something awful about competition. It’s true that competition is ingrained in us, as it is in all organic life. It’s one of the drivers of evolution, of course, and of cultural development, and since we, in the West, are the winning society (so far), we praise competition inordinately. Our economic and education systems are vast machines for separating winners from losers, sometimes at the cost of not doing very well what economic and education systems are supposed to do—creating general wealth and ensuring a cultured and politically competent population. But we all understand that mere competition is not sufficient to succeed in life, not if one is a member of a social species. Cooperation is just as important, just as inherently rewarding. Much of the joy of sports comes from being team members, or, by extension a fan, like those folks on the ferry. Esprit de corps is real. Patriotism is real. Religion is certainly real to its adherents.
So humans have to get their competitive and cooperative ya-yas satisfied simultaneously and the way we typically do it in our culture is via the team-rival relationship. The world is structured as Us against Them, on a spectrum that goes from a neighborhood softball game all the way to genocide. I don’t think it’s an accident that the great religious leaders have been hard on competition and encouraging of cooperation, even though organized religion has been as competitive as any other human structure. I believe that just as the end-point of competition is murder, the endpoint of cooperation is love.
From time to time societies based on love have emerged, but they have always flickered out or succumbed to the temptations of competition. One of the projects I have on file is a fictional exploration of a society in which each team has its own football.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Google Me

Some years ago when Google went live and my kid showed me how to use it I googled myself. As who does not? It turned out that the most famous Michael Gruber was a musical comedy star, then me, then an Olympic skier from Austria, then a German motorcycle racer who was in an accident on the track and had his genitals ripped off and sewn back on, then a psychologist in New York, then an oncologist in Texas, and then the hoi polloi of Michael Grubers, including, I imagine, the Seattle scumbag whose bounced checks have occasioned a number of distressing phone calls over the years.

Well, interesting, to know the doings of ones name-brothers, but I didn't give it much thought until I started to get letters from teen-aged fans of the musical star asking for autographed photos. I wrote back and explained the confusion, and am pleased to report that at least one girl wanted a photo of the reserve MG anyway. So I have that to place in my book of life achievements. Then the Times printed a shot of the other Michael as the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. it was a profile shot an damned if it wasn't the spit of a photo that I have of myself thirty years ago! OK, a little weird, but then I got a letter from a fan who said she'd read all my books, including the one on depth psychology and asking me if my research had helped me in developing my characters.

Then I got an email in German from a fellow in Salzburg, an aspiring skier, expressing his admiration for my silver medal run at the most recent winter olympiad and asking for the signed photo. Too much! Everything went blurry, the squeaky music came on and I realized I was being interviewed by Charlie Rose.

CR: So, Michael Gruber--best-selling author, musical star, champion skier, motorcycle racer, psychologist, oncologist, petty criminal--how do you manage it all?

MG: Well, Charlie, I don't get a lot of sleep. Basically it's all about organization. I have one meal a day, a 6000 calorie milkshake. I make lists. My staff takes a lot of the burden. And I practically never use the Internet. A lot of cocaine. Being a tweaker street thug helps here. It can be done.

CR: Clearly! Let's start with show biz. What are you performing in now?

MG: I'm rehearsing a new production of the King and I. I play the leader of a survivalist motorcycle gang with 43 children and I hire a Thai nanny to look after them. Its an adaptation of my thriller Guns of the Road. A bit of a switcheroo, if you follow me.

CR: Yes, and you're directing as well, I understand.

MG: Yeah, I had some spare time, because it's summer and the skiing's mostly closed down.

CR: You still compete?

MG: Oh my, yes. When I get the show up and running I'll start training for the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi. Luckily we're opening in San Francisco and they have those great hills. I'm looking forward to slaloming down them between acts.

CR: But there's no snow in San Francisco.

MG: That's what they tell me. But, you know, Charlie, I just don't entertain that kind of negative thinking. Where there's a will there's a way. That's how psychology has helped me. I mean being a psychologist, I look at the world a little differently from most people. I don't have all these neurotic hang-ups.

CR: But do you think your age will be a factor in international competition?

MG: Not at all. Age is largely an illusion, I've found. At the oncology lab we're developing some interesting new drugs that seem to reverse the aging process. When we get the tumor problem licked I think we'll really have something.

CR: The drug causes cancer?

MG: Not as such. I find I can whip most of the little rascals out myself during my downtime, for example, on airline flights. It's hard in coach, so I have to fly business class, and of course, the flight attendants up front have a lot more time to help out with suction and like that.

CR: Speaking of operations, what was it really like to get your genitals ripped off in a high speed motorcycle crash?

MG: Oddly enough, no more painful than a bee sting. The whole thing was my fault. I was making a turn at about 200 kilometers an hour, and I was going over the lyrics for my tin woodsman role, when the rear wheel spun out. I keep telling myself, no multitasking, but do I listen? Just last year I was proofing my latest novel and doing the giant slalom at the European championship at Gstaad and by gosh I went and clipped a gate. Never again. It's focus focus focus from now on.

CR: But the operation, the reattachment. It was a success, yes? You're okay now.

MG: No, a complete failure. The whole package turned black and fell off. I'm waiting for a donor now, but I haven't seen any I really like. Yeah, it's a little embarrassing in the locker room--I mean the guys, some of the guys, call me Ken, which is a little hurtful. On the other hand, it does save an enormous amount of time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lingering Rain

I lack what it takes to be a big gun on the literary scene, one of those prize-eligible novelists caressed by important critical journals. What it takes is apparently a deep interest in the lives of rather dull people to whom nothing much of interest ever happens, except maybe one Bad Thing, and then they either get over it or don’t. You can tart this story up with post-modern affectations, or magic realism or really fine writing, You can bend it toward the bland, entitled upper-middle, or anxious mid-middle, or the struggling lower-middle classes, or you can do it prole, but the result is the same—a certain number of well-crafted pages and then the big so-what. I suppose this reflects the state of society, which is one thing litersary novelists are supposed to do, when they are not doing verbal fireworks. I don’t have to worry about this since I am a popular novelist, but every so often I get the yen to try my wings up in the empyrean and bask in literary splendor. With this result…


…the lingering rain
Why does it linger?
Even the rain doesn’t know.
--Yu Mu

Chapter One

He was staring out the window at the rain pelting the glass, waiting for his wife to come down. He had been ready for an hour, although he was not particularly interested in going to the club for yet another party with the same tedious people. He was always ready too early and was often the first to arrive at an affair, or had been until Salome taught him about being fashionably late, although what was fashionable about being late he didn’t know. If they wanted you to come at eight, they shouldn’t write seven on the invitation card. This was one of the many confusing things about the world. Another was what was with those little buttons they put on the sleeves of men’s suits. They didn’t button, except if you had them custom made and then you could unbutton the buttons, but no one ever did that he could see. Confusing, and it made him irritable. The rain continued to fall, in the way it usually did, from the sky to the ground. When it hit the ground, each raindrop made a little sound and he thought his life was something like that now, a lot of little drips.

His name was Arthur Finley and he was a mortgage banker. The house was a seventeen-room center-hall colonial in High Valley, Connecticut, and he had lived there with his wife for fourteen years. Before that, when he was just starting with the bank, he had lived in Hill Meadows, a less desirable neighborhood, and before that, they had lived in Manhattan, on East Sixty-third Street, in a one-bedroom with no closets. Now he had plenty of closet space, but he found it did not make him entirely happy. The closets had not fulfilled their early promise, although he was more or less satisfied with the house, and especially with the mortgage, which he had negotiated himself. Many of the fellows at the bank thought it foolish to negotiate one’s own mortage. Cliff Allison always said, with a laugh, that it was like a brain surgeon operating on himself, but Finley did not agree. He wondered if it might be time to refi. The rates were dropping, but a refi meant he would have to explain things to Salome, and get her to sign the papers and she would ask questions to which there were really no good answers, and he would grow testy. He was testy a lot lately. No, he thought, leave it for now; five point seven at fifteen was a good enough rate for anyone.

He thought about the apartment in Manhattan. Had he been happy in the eighteen months they had lived there? He thought he had. There was a saloon on Third he used to go to once in a while, that had a bartender named Ginger, with whom he used to flirt over a beer, even though he was recently married. Her name really wasn’t Ginger, but Abigail. They just called her Ginger, although she did not have ginger hair, nor was she particularly gingery in personality, rather morose as a matter of fact, a brown-haired morose bartender, but he had been really interested in her for a while. He never understood why, nor did he understand why he was thinking about her after all these years. She’d been married but separated from her husband, who ran a muffler shop in Queens, which was why she was working behind the bar. Maybe it was the rain. He recalled that it had rained a lot that year in New York, he was always dashing across Third, it seemed, with a newspaper held over his head.

Nowadays, he always carried an umbrella. It kept the rain off pretty well, far better than a newspaper, but somehow he always felt uncomfortable carrying an umbrella. It reminded him of his mother, who had died the previous fall. She was always reminding him to take an umbrella, of which she must have had dozens, stuck in a brass cylinder in their front hall. “Mom, it’s not raining,” he would say, and she would come back with, “It’s threatening.” Most of the time he took one, and felt embarrassed when the day turned out fair. Often, when he was young, he would pretend that he needed the umbrella as a cane, and would drag his leg like a wounded war hero. He was frightened of the word “threatening” though, as if there was a conspiracy going on at the weather bureau. When he was very young, even before he started with the cane trick, he thought that the weather bureau caused the weather, although he had abandoned that belief many years ago along with his faith in God.

He walked up to the window that looked out on the front lawn, and placed his face close to it, so that he could see his reflection, dimly, and make an uneven disk of fog with every breath against the cold glass. He breathed hard for few breaths and in the larger area thus produced he wrote with his finger, “I hate my wife.” He looked guiltily over his shoulder then and crossed some letters out, changing the phrase to “I hate my elf.” If Salome saw it, she might be confused, for he did not have an elf at all. Nor did he hate his wife, or not often. It had given him an obscure thrill to write that on the window, though, like eating a chorizo or thinking about his collection of stamped tin wind-up toys when Salome was talking to him.

He noticed now that when the rain struck the window glass the droplets paused for a moment and then rolled slowly downward, impelled, he imagined, by the force of gravity. But if it were gravity, why did some droplets move faster than others? Perhaps this was one of the mysteries of physics that he was always hearing about, something on Nova, maybe. He placed bets with himself as to which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of the glass first, and after ten minutes or so he was pleased to find he had won $388. But five minutes later he had lost it all and he thought this was all too suggestive of his life at this point, it was so hard to make sense of things, or to feel one was advancing. All his happiness seemed to be tinged with sadness, which was fine, but all his sadness seemed to be tinged with happiness too, and this was, for reasons he could not bring entirely to mind, terribly disturbing. Sometimes, as now, he wondered whether he were going mad, as his father had gone mad, although Finley also thought that the family had acted precipitously in committing the man to the asylum. Surely, collecting Meissen egg cups and humming Rossini were not sure signs of a mental breakdown? Or were they? Finley didn’t know anymore, and it really didn’t matter. What was done was done.

“What was done, dear?”

Mrs. Finley had crept silently up behind him as was her habit, one that had annoyed him for the entire time they had been together. But what could you do? A man could not tie a bell to his wife. He realized, with a faint embarrassment, that he had spoken aloud.

“What was done,” he said. “That was all that was done, dear. It’s a figure of speech.”

“Of course it is,” she repled with a knowing smile. She was wearing her hair up and had on a patterned green silk dress that made her look like a predatory lizard, a Komodo dragon, perhaps, although she did not flick her tongue in and out and hiss, as a real Komodo dragon might.

“Well, shall we be off?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s still raining, did you see? I hate to drive in the rain. Did you know that it makes the pavement slippery? If I had to stop short, we might skid, causing an accident.”
She took her coat from the closet and handed him his Burberry and his cap. He helped her into her coat, enjoying the lush weight of it in his hands. He had always been fond of women’s coats. When he was a child he would spend hours in his mother’s closet, among the furs, breathing softly until he passed out.

“I wouldn’t worry about accidents, dear. We haven’t had an accident since 1978.”

“Not so,” he objected. “We had one in 1994 as well.”

“Yes, but that was the fault of the other driver and it wasn’t raining then.” There was a note of triumph in her voice that he thought was out of place, yet he had to admit that she was right. Still, it vexed him. They left the house via the garage and entered his car, a three-year-old Cadillac Coupe de Ville, maroon He was still thinking about what he had scrawled on the window in his own breath. It wasn’t true—he didn’t hate Salome. Still, he wished that something remarkable would happen at this party, unlikely as it might be, something that would change his life.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rich White Guys Month

I wrote this for no particular reason, couple of years ago, long before the rise of the current rich white guy thingee.

Reasons for having a Rich White Guys Month

--Rich white guys are the only socioeconomic group that everyone feels entitled to abuse and slander, and this is best seen at the movies, where Americans get their idea of what life is about. Who gets his silk top hat knocked off by a snowball in Chaplin movies? A rich white guy. Did you ever once see a rich white guy throw a snowball at a bum? You have not. Does the rich white guy ever get the girl in the movies? No, the rich white guy is always stuffy, or crooked, and the poor but honest lad always wins the girl. Who remembers the rich white guy that Dustin Hoffman snatched Katherine Ross from in The Graduate? Didn’t he have feelings? But no one cares. How about those rich white guys acting bad on the Titanic? Do you think maybe a couple of paupers acted badly, too? Bet on it! But the only ones they show you are the rich white guys. And who’s the villain in every movie? A rich white guy, a corporate chief, a high government official, and the poor cop who lives in a crummy apartment and dresses in Sears suits, and drives a 1984 Plymouth takes him down.

--Everything bad that happens is blamed on rich white guys. Let one little supertanker go on the rocks and destroy a nature reserve, let one measly chemical plant blow up and kill six thousand people, let one tiny nuclear reactor go critical, and who’s on televison sweating under the lights and being treated like a criminal in public, guilty without a trial? Who? A rich white guy. You would think that once, just once, they would have the decency to haul out, say, an impoverished African-American woman to explain a cataclysm caused by corporate greed, but no, it’s always the rich white guy. Is this fair?

--People say, well, rich white guys own 80% of the wealth in America. So? You think that’s enough? You think rich white guys are willing to sell their self-respect for 80% of the wealth, and put up with all that abuse just for near-infinite material goods, power and influence? Rich white guys are not like that, and they resent snide assumptions that they are, just as much as destitute mothers resented stories about welfare Cadillacs.

--Rich white guys suffer from severe sexual problems. Why do you think they broke every law of God and man to become rich? While there are multi-billion dollar drug programs devoted to dealing with these problems—Viagra is just the start—a little thoughtfulness and consideration wouldn’t be amiss. Rich white guys are not whiners, so you hear very little about this, but it still hurts, and if you think $3000-a-night prostitutes of breathtaking beauty, skilled in every exotic love art, help very much, think again!

--Let’s face it, rich white guys rule the world, and just once we should pause in our daily tasks, just on one special month a year, and say, ‘Hey, thanks, guys, it’s a darn great world!’

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Karpiad

Between 1985 and 2001 I wrote fifteen novels that were published under someone else’s name. They constituted a “legal thriller” series about a New York prosecuting attorney named Butch Karp, his wife, a private security consultant named Marlene Ciampi, and their three children. Unlike many such series, they were embedded in real time; that is, time passed, the characters changed and accumulated experience, the kids grew older, and so on. They were set about ten years prior to the time I wrote them, the 70s and 80s in New York City, with some occasional visits elsewhere. Allowing for the necessary repetitions required by such projects, the series is really one long novel, totaling about a million eight hundred thousand words. It’s certainly the largest project I will ever do in my life. The books were extremely successful, and even though I only received half the advances, these were so large that I did better financially then than I have since publishing under my own name, which never appeared on the cover of any of these fifteen books.

This is an unusual situation. Famous writers certainly hire ghosts, or “research assistants” as they are sometimes called, and we continue to see books appear from dead authors, written by others, either attributed or not. But I can’t think of another case where someone produced a substantial literary success without writing a single word. You would have to be crazy to be the writer in this scheme. I was.

The person whose name does appear on these books is Robert K. Tanenbaum. His mother and mine were sisters of unusual closeness and until we were teenagers we were raised essentially together, along with my brother and his. In 1985 I was working as a bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and he had just completed a stellar career as a homicide prosecutor at the New York D.A.’s office, and was setting up in private practice in Los Angeles. We had drifted apart owing to the peculiar nature of our family (don’t ask!) but when our paths crossed we were friendly and I sensed that he wanted to cultivate that friendship.

He had published a ghosted true-crime book about one of his spectacular cases, on the strength of which he had been contracted to write a fictionalized version of another such case. He had written about a hundred pages of this and he asked me to take a look at them with a view toward doing a little editing. I should add here that although I was a writer in college and was at the moment writing speeches for the administrator of the EPA, I had not been able to write fiction for a long time and had never done any sustained fiction writing. So I took a look at this ms. and it was unreadably bad, at least in my view. I suppose it was no worse than some books that are best-sellers. In any case, I told him that I thought it was un-editable, but that if he liked, I would write him a novel from scratch on the theme of his case, in return for half the advance. He agreed and I set to work.

Looking back, I suppose I regarded it as something of a lark. I was a civil servant, he was a lawyer. We both had real work to do, and the Karp novels were a nice source of income and also fun. I got to write fiction without the burden of being a writer and he got a chunk of nice money for going on book tours. In my imagination, as I recall, he would go on to a career in politics—his goal then—or else make a major career as a litigator, and after a while, my name would appear on the books (why not?) and I would slide into the life I should have been living all along.

This did not happen, obviously. First the partnership was pleasant, then less so, then unpleasant indeed. The Karp books still come out from time to time, written by another, but they no longer command huge advances. I should have schadenfreude about this, but I do not. It’s entirely possible that I would have spent my life in the civil service and duly retired, and done wisterias or golf instead of novels had I not engaged in this hideous enterprise, so I must be at least partially grateful. As a life lesson I guess it cost me about a million dollars and thus takes pride of place in my forthcoming memoir, Diary of a Schmuck; but the real reason I mention the Karpiad here is that I assume people who like my own stuff seek out this website and that they might also like the Karps. When I published Tropic of Night I wanted to include these books on the Also By page, but the publisher wouldn’t go for it and they were right, I guess. Nevertheless, I did write these books, they are part of my opus, they took up sixteen years of my life, and, compared to the typical legal thriller, they are pretty good.

The ones I wrote are:

No Lesser Plea
Depraved Indifference
Immoral Certainty
Reversible Error
Corruption of Blood
Material Witness
Justice Denied
Falsely Accused
True Justice
Reckless Endangerment
Irresistible Impulse
Act of Revenge
Enemy Within
Absolute Rage

I believe they are all still available.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Halvah scholarship

When I have been writing for a while and stop there is a certain inertia remaining, as with a heavy object that continues to roll along, or something in outer space. Occasionally this inertia is expressed in silly bits of writing. For some reason, now forgotten, an on-line discussion I was party to began to discuss halvah, a kind of candy of mid-eastern origin, and this resulted in the following parody of wikiesque scholarship. It’s the kind of thing one could continue forever, but that way lies madness.

The Story of Halvah (excerpted from Masters of Confection, Richard Krumpf, ed., 1975, McGraw-Hill, New York.)

Chaim "Halvah" Hod, 1889-1972, b. Znieczwriercz, Poland, par. Zev & Zelda Vnin Hod; m. Ida Messer (1923) three ch. Peter, (1924) John, (1926) Ira(1928); Hod emigrated to New York, 1903; after working as a seltzer bubbler and a derma machine operator, Hod apprenticed himself to the famous halvah impressario Noachim Karaganovsky (q.v.) in 1910, rising to foreman of the Orchard Street works (1918).With the entry of the US in the Great War, vital supplies of sesame essence from the Ottoman Empire were curtailed, and the halvah industry collapsed. Hod, however, discovered that an acceptable essence could be derived from a byproductof synthetic rubber manufacture, and that halvah filters were proof against deadly mustard gas. Several War Department contracts followed, and by war's end the Karaganovsky concern was the pre-eminent halvah producer in the US.

In 1924, Karagonovsky's failing health (he had contracted sticky lung during the early days in the halvah mines of Lower Silesia) caused him to pass the reins to Hod. In 1925, Hod bought out two smaller producers, founded The Universal Halvah Corporation, and took the company public. He also founded (1927) the Halvah Research Laboratory, in Littleton, New Jersey. In 1931, Jerome Silverman (q.v.), working at the HRL, first described the crystalline nature of halvah, a discovery upon which the entire science of halvonics is based. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937.

Although Hod had been a life-long Democrat, an anti-trust suit filed against UHC in 1936 and agitation by the CIO among the halvah miners enraged him and he switched parties. He supported Landon in 1936, and thereafter backed a number of right-wing causes. With the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Hod made himself available to the government and was appointed head of the Strategic Confectionary Board. He was a successful administrator, although his project of constructing a bomber entirely out of stressed halvah never got past the experimental stage. Halvah production rose 230% between 1941 and 1945, an achievement for which Hod deserves major credit...

After the war, UHC continued to expand under Hod's direction, branching out into such disparate areas as railroads and plastics. Hod and his wife were active in the New York cultural scene, and the great south wall of Lincoln Center, a mosaic of preserved halvah, was the gift of the Hod Foundation. In 1968, UHC was purchased by Ling-Temco-Vought for $1.9 billion and stock. Hod retired the next year, and devoted the remainder of his life to writing his memoir, _You Shoulda Been There_, published posthumously in 1974.

The article in Who's Who in Sugary Treats covers much the same ground, but deals with the current Hod offspring in more detail. Aficionados will recall that John "Lolly" Hod was the first person to market an all-day-sucker that actually lasted for twenty-four hours, thus obviating a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit for false advertising.

For those interested in halvah itself, its history and uses, there is, ofcourse, J.L. Magruder's magisterial The Technology of Halvah. At 1213 pages this may be somewhat dense for the average reader, in which case, Armand Rothstein's amusing but accurate It's Not Just a Candy may suffice. Halvah is My Life by Preston T. Anderson has some interesting illustrations, but the text is often inaccurate. For example, he states that the double-boiler halvah proving-mill was introduced in Utica, NewYork, in 1914, although the Smithsonian exhibit of halvah technology displays a Petersen-Weigs rotating double-boiler rig with a brass plate clearly marked '1910'! History buffs will wish to consult the large collection of early printed tracts and incunabula at the Hod Research Center in Littleton, NJ. I would especially recommend the account of Sir Ralph Maxwoodie (1507-1569) in his True Historie of a Journey to the Greate Cham, (1527), which many scholars regard as the first mention of halvah in English. The relevant section begins:

'Therein we did see divers Persons of Dress and Equipage most odde, the which when asked, our guide named them, Halvah-thegghs, which meaneth in theyre Tongue, the ones who maketh Halvah. From these ones we purchased for two Sequins a Lumpe of ye Substance about ye size of an Heade-cheese. They do saye that it is wholesome to eate, being sweete, and also that it improves the ardent Humours and maketh the Privy Parts swelle up. It is therefore much used by the Greate Cham and other haughty Personagges at ye Sublime Porte. It is said, too, that ye Women of ye Towne do use it as Unguent for theyre lascivious Sportes; also, ye Drivers of Camels and Asses, feed it to theyre Beastes, to promote swiftnesse of Foote; also that it may be lette dry, and become harde, therafter mixed with Naptha and Eelroote and divers other luciferous Principals, and made into Balles for the Bombards and Culverins of ye Cham his Army, which when hurled at the Foe, do burste in flames. This, though, we saw not. We did partake of it, a little. It is passing sweete, and maketh a great stickynesse in the Mouth, so it is harde to passe down ye Gullet. As to ye efficacie in ye listes of Venus, I cannot saye, for in theyre Graces and saucy Wiles ye Women of this realm surpasseth all others, so that each Nighte our ardent Partes were mayde to perform such Feates as never would I have believed possible had the Soothest Man in all Christendom vouchsafed it mee; so we judged us that the properties of ye Halvah, if reale, had been a superfluitie, and doe us Harme…”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Advantages of selling ceiling tile over being a writer

1. At 5:30, when the ceiling tile store closes up, you are done, and you never have to think about ceiling tile again until the store opens the following morning.

2. It is unlikely that you will have the urge to sell ceiling tile in a bar at 1:30 am, and desperately search around for some tile to sell, ignoring the attractive person you are with.

3. No ceiling tile salesmen make $5,000,000 a year while you make only $1200 a year selling ceiling tile.

4. The difference between real good ceiling tile and mediocre ceiling tile is clearly marked in the catalog, subject to no dispute, and, in general, you get more for the good stuff.

5. Neither repressive redneck assholes nor effete New York publishing capons will get on your case if you sell ceiling tile, and neither will attempt to prevent your installation of it.

6. People who own bookstores know when they need ceiling tile and will call you on the phone. You will not have to make a multi-city tour to inform them that they need your particular ceiling tiles.

7. Your customers will not confuse you with your ceiling tile; they will understand that you are a person and you just sell it, nor will they try to divine your biography from the little holes in the ceiling tile.

8. After you sell some ceiling tile, it stays sold. You will never call up a customer to cancel an order or break into his property to rip out and replace those tiles, nor will your customers ever call you and demand in insulting terms that you improve the ceiling tile you have installed.

9. Your parents will understand what you do for a living, and be proud of you, and not make snide or hurt comments at family gatherings. Also you can do favors in the tile line for your friends and relatives, even if they are illiterate, and they will appreciate it a lot more than a signed copy of your collection of short stories.

10. Most important: you will not ever have anything to do with the motion picture industry, even if you are the best ceiling tile salesman in the nation..