Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Can Make You Happy

A short story by Jan Alexander

An undisclosed location in New Mexico, 2027

Welcome to New Pathways.  My name is Sonia Delarosa. I’m the founder of this workshop.   I’m 43 years old, and I’m a happy person.  Stroll around here and you’ll see lots of others who are happy.  You can identify our graduates by their “Trump Pride” buttons and their smiles. You’re here because you’re liberals and you think you can’t bear another day of President Trump’s reign. But you’ll learn that even you can re-educate yourself, with some help from me.
Ten years ago, I was miserable too. In fact, I wept uncontrollably on the New York subway that day in January, 2017 when President Trump was inaugurated.  I thought this can’t really be happening.  No doubt you all felt the same way—otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
That’s right, I was one of the last of the working people living in New York and burrowing underground like a gopher every day, before the city became the first Trumpistan, Inc.  Real Estate Investment Zone for global billionaires looking to diversify their holdings and was closed off to fulltime residents.  Back when I lived in New York I was an aspiring writer making what we used to call a creative salary—that’s a joke, I see you get it. I worked at a magazine and in my spare time I was writing the novel that was going save humanity.
So that day of the inauguration, I was on the subway and all around me were other young liberals on their way home to Brooklyn—and I wasn’t the only one sobbing.  There we were, a subway car full of people with advanced degrees in literature, sociology and history making less money than the managers at our neighborhood Starbucks. We started talking. We all thought President Trump was going to mow down the crumbling brick walkups where we lived.  We feared he was going to deport people because of their religion and get the country into a war we could never win. And we dreaded, absolutely dreaded, having to look at his disgusting face everywhere. The sneer.  The peroxided- balding-Elvis hairdo, the albino rhinoceros-in-pancake-makeup face.   Someone drew a cartoon of his sneer and passed it around. 
Now, though, when I see my President sneering I feel nothing but pride.  All of my early predictions came true, but I’ve stopped blaming Trump and learned to love him.  You’re going to love him too, by the time you graduate from my workshop.  
I see from your applications that a lot of you came here from Detroit.  I lived there too—it seemed like the only place to go after a bomb demolished my apartment building. At the time I thought my life was over;  I was one of the many poor but hip New Yorkers who was sure it was a Trump conspiracy when the bombs went off in the New York Times building, and then in the old residential buildings all over Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I believed, sincerely believed, that the bombers were just hired thugs disguised in kuffiyehs so they’d look like Muslims.  Remember the rumors that it was all a master plan to get the war started and incidentally wipe out the affordable housing?  I was furious—I walked around gnashing my teeth and sobbing and wishing I had a gun so I could destroy the guilty parties—when luxury towers rose up, with armed guards around Manhattan and Brooklyn, and there was nowhere to live in the outer boroughs because they were all combat zones.     I heard that the whole Muslim family who’d run a store on my corner back in Brooklyn had disappeared, and I blamed Trump. Just as  I blamed him when Shiites and Sunnis, jihadists and moderates from all over the world managed to find a united cause, attacking our country.
I was still screaming about conspiracy in 2020—I was convinced it was yet more hired thugs who planted the bomb that killed Elizabeth Warren after she won the election that year. Especially when President Trump made his big announcement and said, “This is war, my friends. Have you noticed the enemy has invaded and no one is safe? Until we kill off every single one of the enemy, democracy takes a back seat.  I’m going to remain the President and the Commander in Chief. Because no one else is tough enough.”  
By then, I’d settled in Detroit, and things started to get worse for me. There weren’t many jobs for writers unless you were willing to work for the Trump and Adelson-owned media, which I wasn’t. So I got a job making lattes for minimum wage—and you remember how all the minimum wage earners started disappearing after Trump created the private-sector Trumpistan Police, Inc.  in 2021? They didn’t publicize their new laws at first, and there were all kinds of offenses that no one knew were crimes until they were charged.  
I was a week late with my rent, and the Trumpistan Police came after me. So there I was in a place they called a reform camp. But that awful place was where I saw the light.
Everybody in the camp was poor.  All their crimes were failure to pay some bill or another. We didn’t have showers or plumbing and it stank of filthy bodies and stale urine.  We got watered-down macaroni and cheese once a day,  and a lot of inmates were so hungry they stole food from the officers’ mess hall—we’d hear shots in the night and figure someone else had been caught trying to steal food.  We also had these daily intake sessions with police social workers.  My social worker said to me, kind of shouting and sneering, like they’d all been trained to do, “Oh, so you have a masters of fine arts?” By then, of course, MFA programs had been banned on the evidence that they caused poverty.
The social worker asked me, “What do you think of your bunkmates?”
One of my bunkmates was a woman who weighed 280 pounds and had snake tattoos that undulated when she moved because there was so much loose flesh on her arms.  She’d voted for Trump in 2016 because he wasn’t afraid of speaking out about what everyone around her was really thinking.  Another bunkmate was a born-again Christian who’d voted for Trump too, and in the camp she was ranting that the worst thing about the place was that people were going to form homosexual bonds and never go to heaven.  She told me that if I had any perverted ideas I should know she kept a pistol under her pillow. That was one thing they let everyone have in the camp; they had a canteen where they sold guns on easy credit terms.  
So when the social worker asked me what I thought of the bunkmates it didn’t take me long to concede, “They’re riffraff.”
“You see?” the social worker said. “If they weren’t so ugly they wouldn’t be poor. What’s wrong with you? ”  
 You don’t hear much about the disappeared.  My tattooed bunkmate got a bullet in the head because she had diabetes and she couldn’t afford the insulin they sold at the camp canteen. The police came and got her and told her they were going to put her out of her misery.  But I turned out to be someone they could re-educate. I started wandering around in this trancelike state, talking to myself and all I remember saying was, “It’s my fault I’m poor.”
That’s when I got the idea to start a company of my own, offering workshops and a safe space for the remaining liberals, or at least those who, like you, could afford to come.  Because I had a business plan, they let me out to pull myself up by my bootstraps.  They warned me that if I failed I’d be back, so I had a big incentive. I came out here to New Mexico and I hid in the guard’s cottage in someone’s vacation ranch. That’s how I survived for six months. Then slowly, I began to make it.
I’ve grown to love it out here and I think you’ll love it too. The Muslim armies haven’t invaded lately, and you have a lot of space before you get to that half-an-acre point where it’s legal for a homeowner to shoot you.  The 20 kids who were shot at the amusement park last week, and that guy who shot all the inhabitants of the senior citizens’ home, well, you know, stuff happens. But mostly it’s peaceful here.
You’re going to feel immortal when you get out of my training class. You probably saw in the literature that the $10,000 you paid for the week includes a fully registered AK-47 of your own. We’ll issue it when you complete the course.  I know, you’re the kind of people who don’t believe in having guns.  But you’re going to walk out of here re-educated and re-born, and you’ll be happier for it.
I’ve been doing this a few years now, and I know a few things about you. The clients who’ve  come to me always hanker for the good lives they used to have.  You used to be executives or tenured professors in San Francisco, or non-profit lawyers in New York, or TV producers in L.A., before all those cities became Trumpistan Real Estate Investment Zones.  You’ve managed to keep going and keep on as affluent liberals in the heartland, but you’re miserable, right?
Yes, I figured that. For 10 years now you’ve been waking up every morning in a shivery sweat. You’ve been thinking you can’t bear to look at that sneer again. Maybe you had Muslim friends who didn’t want to go to war and no one knows where they are now. Or you employed a sweet-tempered nanny who taught your children mariachi tunes and wanted to become a music teacher—and then she disappeared. And we’ve all lost people we loved in bombings.  I’ve been there too.
Well, here’s what we’re going to do this week. We’re going to talk about rewiring your sense of logic. Nearly all suicide bomb terrorists on our soil are Muslims. Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.
I see some hands up. Yes, you in the third row? Of course, you say but what about all the mass shootings by Americans who aren’t Muslim? We’ll rewire you for that too. You’re going to feel a lot less worried when you have your own automatic rifle.  
And that brings us to the part of your brain that all of you turn to pretty much every time you hear the news or see people getting herded out of their slum neighborhoods. The over-developed empathy part.  Do you know what it’s really like in a ghetto? Did you know that every single low-income person in this country started smoking crack at the age of 12? Then they start making meth and selling heroin to pay for their crack habit. If you give them welfare they’re just going to have more money to spend on drugs. We have statistics to prove that there’s plenty of drug money circulating in the poor parts of town. They’re just hiding their cash under the mattress. You’ll believe our statistics by the end of this week.
More questions, comments? Yes, hand up in the back. . I’ve heard that one lots of times. You feel like you’ve spent ten years in a country ruled by a big bullying jerk. You feel that he’s such a larger- than-life narcissist that he had to run for president and pillage the world instead of just taking Viagra.
You’re quite right, our beloved president has psychological problems.  Trust me, this week you’re going to learn to love him for his flaws. For him, money and power fill an emotional  gap the size of Las Vegas; underneath it all he’s afraid of being worthless as a human being. You’ll come out of this workshop feeling good about yourselves because you’re helping him feel deserving. The way I look at it, I’m here talking to you as an altruist who’s made a lot of money helping others become altruists.  
And here’s a question for all of you: Do you why President Trump feels so entitled? Tell me what your gut feeling says.  Don’t think about the answer too much. Remember, thinking is what’s made you miserable. You’re here to break your thinking habit. 
Yes? You say he feels deserving because he’s decided he is and once he decides something is so, he doesn’t ever question himself. You’re absolutely right. And all of you, you’re going to love how easy life is when you stop asking questions. Especially when you stop asking yourself questions.
Now I think this is a good time to rise and stretch. We have a mantra that will help relax you. Everyone stand. Raise your arms, bend side to side. Now repeat after me, “I love helping Donald Trump.”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Comments on Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquered Egypt, and historians presume that Augustus ordered his death because he had a more legitimate claim to be Caesar's heir than did Augustus himself.  The other three were children of Marc Antony, whom, Shakespeare omits to mention, was actually married to Cleopatra.  The two elder were twins, Selene and Alexander.  Selene is the heroine of this book. No likenesses of her endure; the bust above is of her mother. They had a younger brother named Ptolemy. Augustus took them to Rome as young teenagers after his victory over their parents and paraded them in his triumphal march.  He then gave them to his sister Octavia to raise.  He later marred off Selene to a Juba II, whom he appointed king of Mauretania (roughly today's Morocco).  Juba II had been educated in Rome and was a distinguished geographer and writer.  Alexander and Ptolemy mainly drop from history after the triumph.  Today's historians generally assume that Augustus had them killed because they could be nuclei of a conspiracy against him by Marc Anthony's clan, but there is a suggestion by a historian writing about 200 years later that they accompanied Selene to Africa with Juba II.

 I usually write about the plot, characterization, and prose of a novel. But for a historical novel something else is necessary. I'll call it setting. Setting has various parts -: physical setting; the customs, ceremonies, infrastructure, clothing of the time; and psychological setting, the social structure and self-image in which people shaped themselves.

The prose of this novel is not prone to errors, but it is flat and uninteresting.  It is prose that is successful by not taking chances. The force of words and images never makes you say to yourself, ah, that is what that means.

Material and customary setting is meticulously painted. I'm no more than a knowledgeable layman about ancient Rome, but I know enough to see that the author has done her homework and displays it very effectively. The heroine travels early in the book from Alexandria where she has reached the age of 13 to Rome where she gets a tourist-like chance to check everything out including an excursion to Capri. She arrives during the period when Augustus was converting Rome from the city of brick to the city of marble, as he self congratulatorily boasted, and the author does a fine job of showing the physical process. She's also up on what Romans wore, the various festivals, the formal relations of social classes.

The frame plot is a historical question: What will Augustus do with these young people?  There are two sub plots: one is the sort of romantic intrigue typical of young adult novels, and the other is a highly visible slave rebellion in which several patrician characters a take a compassionate interest. They are reliably exciting sub-plots for young adult novel, but not Roman plots. In the end it turns out Selene at first hated Juba II due to misinformation, and then had a crush on him.  We have lots of good documentation of the love life of upper class Romans of this period, from Catullus through Petronius and many others. Lots of people fell in love, but not with the people they had been married off to.

Slave rebellions were chronic during the Republic and early Empire.  Spartacus', which preceded the time of this book, is only the best known. They were not something the patricians as a class felt sympathy for. The heroine and some of her friends feel weepy about the slaves and all poor people. Of course individual Romans may have felt the same way, but this is not characteristic of the society.

Augustus rightfully feared conspiracies against his life and power, but they came from the patricians, the senatorial class, not from the populace, as portrayed in this book.  That's why he had Cesarion and Alexander killed, so they could not be the nuclei of patrician conspiracies.

Selene's thoughts and feelings center on the suffering caused her by Augustus killing her parents, sympathy for the oppressed, her love interests, and self-realization. She is a graphic artist and budding architect. These are the interests of privileged American teen-aged girls. As I understand classical Roman culture, a typical girl like that would be interested in fulfilling her duty to her clan by marrying and running a household and in maintaining her reputation. I cannot stress enough the importance of reputation to self-image. I remember reading Shadi Bartsch's The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, where she discusses what Socrates meant by the Greek words that we translate as, “Know thyself." Our current popular culture gives them a kind of Freudian dig; they mean something like we should have a deep understanding of our inner nature. As I understand it, what Socrates meant and Roman people meant was:  be able to see yourself as others see you. In a way the opposite.

So, from the viewpoint of portraying the self-image and consequent interests of Roman or Hellenistic characters, this book is bogus. But what does that matter? Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours? Especially considering that empathizing with the self-image of an ancient civilization so different from ours is hard both for the author and the reader. The book, instead, gives the intended reader an attractive perspective to survey externals.

But I think it does matter in this sense -: the more deeply we feel what personhood meant in a genuinely different society, the more we are broad and deep human beings. This book lets us look as through a window at history and does a good job of that, but we do not step through the glass.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Comments on Selling to Steven Jobs by Pierre Bedard

This short book or essay was written by a long-time Silicon Valley professional who has toiled as a writer and a sales rep. In full disclosure, he is acquaintance of mine of many years.  The book is a good way to get a feel for attitudes people have towards work, sales, management, and star figures in Silicon Valley from an enthusiastic perspective.

The overt content of the book is mainly about three things: the author (The book is about 40% over before there are more than passing remarks about Steve Jobs), about Jobs himself from a mainly anecdotal point of view, and about the craft of sales rep. A subtext about how people evaluate one another and establish esteem runs through it.

His image of his audience is not always consistent. On the one hand he writes as if he were explaining Silicon Valley culture to the uninitiate:

"Sit in any meeting in any conference room in the Valley. I challenge you to fine more than two of seven participants who were born in the Untied States. We are a Valley of immigrants." 

(Though many immigrants work there, I find this estimate something of an exaggeration.)

On the other hand he frequently names without explanation people and concepts that are locally famous but far from universally familiar:  "C-level" (local slang for corporate executive)" "NeXT", (an unsuccessful computer company that Steve Jobs headed for a while) "J2ME" (a layer of software that lets a given program run on several devices), "John Warnock" (an inventor of display software and in the C-level of Adobe).

The author is and portrays himself as a French Canadian working-class immigrant. He graduated in French form the University of San Diego and has translated French literary works. He holds and MBA from Sana Clara and a JD, but has not practiced law. He was the sales rep from Adobe to NeXT and has often negotiated intellectual property rights.

His style is open, engaging, chatty, and energetic like a friend addressing a small group of companions.

His openness extends to confession, almost to self-abnegation

"To the best of my knowledge everything I am about to relate here is true. I was, at times, inebriated. I did not live through my life with the idea of recording it. Keep that in mind as you are either being cruel fair or both."

The idea of heroism is important. He modestly describes himself as not a hero and explicitly seeks at times the reader's esteem. But he has lots of heroes, most of them managers of hardware or software development. The only other one you are likely to have heard of is Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, Steve jobs most of all.

He reports his negotiations with Jobs over intellectual property rights as someone might report negotiating the sale of baseball bats to Hank Aaron.

But Jobs is a controversial figure. Many admire him as a great CEO and technical innovator. Others, I among them, see him as some one who promoted an abusive and over-driven work environment, some one who improved the fortunes of Apple computer and affected the style of marketing and of industrial design of smart phones, but had no long-term technical or broad social effect. For example, you sometimes hear him credited with making the smart phone popular or even with inventing it, but we would be looking at smart phones if he had spent his energies in other fields. The first thing that could be called a smart phone was marketed by Bell South in 1994, and Ericsson and Palm marketed basic smart phones at the beginning of the century. The idea was on a role. The smart phone in our hand might look somewhat different, and Apple might have disappeared as a company if not for Jobs, but from my perspective that is not so consequential as to make him a heroic figure.

Bedard catches this difference of perspective neatly in an exchange with his wife:

"I remember telling Caroline that we had to get a front-loading washer, because Steve thought they were cool....As Caroline has pointed out for years since, what the hell does Steve Jobs know about washing clothes and clothes washers?"

The later part of the book provides advice about how to work as a sales rep in Silicon Valley and much of it thrusts toward being open and natural with your clients as he is with his reader in this book.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Comments on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This is a good, little book. It centers entirely the development of a single character. Eilis (pronounced just a little more tightly in the mouth than "Alice") has grown up in a medium-size town in Ireland in 1950's, where job opportunities are few. An American priest, who has been connived by her more expansive sister, propels her to Brooklyn.  Her world in Brooklyn is enmeshed in Irish connections and seems more like 1935 than 1955. She lives in an Irish boarding, house, works in a shop managed by Irish, and chiefly attends Irish church functions. But she grows in independence and sophistication, learns bookkeeping, and drifts into love with an American man of Italian descent. Then the death of her charismatic sister calls her back home. There she drifts into romantic involvement with another likely husband. She has to decide whether to stay or return to her commitments in Brooklyn. Her weakly-felt independence turns out to be constrained by the gossip of despotic, small-town figures.

The heroine is very likable, moderately smart, and moderately pretty. Tóibín doesn't tell us these things. Rather he lets the reaction of other characters show them to us. It is an engaging way to develop our understanding of the character and is part of the story. The only other fully drawn characters are her mother and her sister, Rose. Her mother is in a constant state of muted anxiety because she wishes her daughter well in the world and at the same time wishes her to stay home. Her sister knows from before the beginning of the book that she has a condition that may kill her at any time, although we do not. Her condition frees her to lead a more interesting life, more impulsive, free of the stereotypes of work and marriage of the village. At first we believe that our heroine is in a sense living through her sister, but later we realize that her sister was hoping to live through her.

The author is omniscient, and we see into the thoughts and feelings of the heroine but not very deeply because they are neither deep nor intense. Remember, she is 19 and from a rather unsophisticated background. Her fully realized and detailed characterization is like a finely cut empty space filled only with pastel inference but clearly etched within a lush medium of other people’s acts and feelings. That medium is part of the warmth of the novel.

Keeping silent is important in this book.  Characters tellingly do not utter their thoughts and often fail to articulate to themselves their own ideas and impulses.  In her family, in her town, and in her restricted corner of Brooklyn many things ride on unspoken. A stereotypical American popular novel would see such reticence as a failure -:  yet another family secrets novel. But it is not so simple. For example, when Eilis returns to her home town, she does not speak of her romantic involvements in Brooklyn and only slowly and reticently articulates them to herself, yet this process is how she finds her necessary path.

The prose is simple, carefully wrought, but not striking, like the story, like the heroine, always appropriate. Here is Eilis on her first day back in her home town:  

Eilis wondered if her mother had always had this way of speaking that seemed to welcome no reply, and suddenly realized that she had seldom been alone with her before, she'd always had Rose to stand between her and her mother, Rose who would have plenty to say to both and questions to ask, comments to make, and opinions to offer. It must be hard for her mother too, she thought, and it would be best to wait a few days and see if her mother might become interested in her life in America enough for her slowly to introduce the subject of Tony, ....