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Kafka

This article is reproduced here with permission from the author,

Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have roared in the wake of the coinage “alternative facts” by President Donald Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway. When we suspect that we are living in a dystopia characterized by clumsy propaganda, it’s the book we buy from Amazon.com. (It was the top seller at that site on last week.) There are certain elements of Orwell’s novel that can help us understand how Trump’s administration is already working on our minds.

Like the authorities in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Trump convinces his followers to forget their prior enmities and alliances. Russia has always been our friend, not our enemy. Also, Trump’s obsession with the Mexican-U.S. border echoes Big Brother’s policy of perpetual war. Lying outright to the citizenry is, yes, “Orwellian.”

But there is no Amazon.com in Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it is not a novel about globalized capital. Not even slightly! Nineteen Eighty-Four does not pastiche a world ravaged by capitalism and ruled by celebrities—the kind of world that could lead to the election of someone like Trump. Instead, it depicts suffering inflicted by state control masquerading as socialism.

The language and aesthetic of Winston’s home superstate, Oceania, are lifted directly from Russian communism. Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1949. Orwell commented on the world as it was. He wrote out his fears of nuclear war, and the danger of dictatorship in states where much has been destroyed. He pointed to the problems inherent in superstates and the fragile alliances that govern world politics. Mostly, he wrote in cipher about Russia.

The connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four and World War II makes it the wrong dystopia for our times. When Conway cites “alternative facts,” she implicitly admits that there is more than one way to see things—she simply doesn’t care. Trump’s administration doesn’t even try to cover up its lies. Instead, it assumes that ideological divides among the American citizenry will ensure that the lies don’t matter. That is not how the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four works.

Compare our situation, instead, to The Trial. Kafka wrote it in 1914-15, a generation before Orwell. World War I was only just revving up, and much of the nineteenth century’s world order remained (the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed until 1918).  In The Trial, Josef K. wakes up on his 30th birthday and is arrested. He cannot really conceive of what is happening: “K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who dared accost him in his own home?”

This is the horror that Trump subjects us to. His administration retains the shell of the old American brand—the “land of the free”—but secretly danger creeps underneath all the things that seem silly, even funny, about it. Josef K. thinks the arrest must be a joke, at first. New conditions of danger dawn on Josef, who doesn’t otherwise take anything too seriously.  Laughter, Kafka says, is worse than nothing. It’s the substance of complicity, what makes us afraid to look ridiculous even as we let oppression slink in through the cracks. Josef K. never does find out what crime he was charged with. But his last words are more frightening than any of my memories of reading Orwell. “Like a dog,” he says, as the knife twists twice.

Josephine Livingstone is a staff writer at The New Republic.

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Leonard Cohen – This is for keeps…

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Filed under Democracy, Poetry, Writing

Waking Alone

 

 

In the morning
Before light
The house whispers me awake.
The stream in a painting burbles silently.
The sky over mountains in another remembers dawn.
 ———-
When he’s gone
And I wake
Life wraps more closely around me.
The dogs move from the foot of the bed.
They press their weight against mine without asking.
 ———-
When he returns
And we wake
Life will relax to make room for us.
The paintings will frame our world.
I will feel his weight next to mine and hear him thinking.

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A Short Story – Middle School Tales #1

Sometimes You Have to Blast a Tunnel

He counted 21 blank spaces; 12 on the front and nine on the back.

Mrs. Wink put her hands on her hips, projecting her voice with loving firmness.  It echoed against tidy shelves and seemed to move the crooked slats of Venetian blinds.  “Don’t forget to put your name on this.  No name – no credit!  You’re in 7th grade now.  You should know better than to turn in a paper without a name!  First and last, please.  It says NAME in the top right corner.  That means first AND last.”

He pressed the tip of his pencil into the middle of the line after the word NAME.  Creepy buzzing behind his eyes traveled down his neck, shoulder, arm, into the hand that held the pencil.  The lead snapped.  The buzzing fizzled for a minute, but he felt it again in his stomach.  He quickly looked around to see who had noticed, smiled a little bit, and shot his hand into the air.  “Mrs. Wink.  Mrs. Wink!” his voice released some more of the buzzing pressure.  “Can I sharpen my pencil?”

“I’m sure you can, Brandeis.  Are you asking permission?  May I sharpen my pencil?  Is that what you mean?  Yes, you may.”  Her arm, near the shoulder, looked upside down, like a muscle that might round when flexed, except that it reached down instead of up and it jiggled just a little when she waved him off.  Mrs. Wink shooed him toward the sharpener without ever looking at him.

Brand felt his teeth press together at the use of his longer name.  Just because his father had played baseball for the Judges, just because his mother had been a waitress at a Boston bar where Brandeis students hung out, had landed a jock majoring in investigative journalism, he got stuck with a weirdo name for life.  Not that the landing of Jordan Ball meant that the man would stay with his family.  His father had taken off to cover the war in Lebanon alongside Friedman and it seemed that one conflict after another kept him in a foreign land.  Brand never found out exactly when his parents divorced, officially.  There were always letters and little packages from his father, addressed to him.  Crazy stories.  Coins and strange candies.  Once, a pen-knife.

He got up without repeating the Mother-May-I thing that Mrs. Wink wanted to hear.  On the way across the classroom he counted touches.  Jared, toe on the heel; almost a kick but not.  Brushed against Cory’s pony tail.  Popped Austin on his ginger head.  Dustin’s fist met Brand’s in a bruising bump.  “Hey!” he turned to mad-dog Dustin.  The teacher was licking her right thumb to separate another worksheet from a clutch in her left hand, her loose arm flesh jiggling.  Sarah was watching him.  He pulled himself taller, glared at Dustin again, glanced covertly at Sarah, and then sauntered back to his seat.

Now, Barbara Wink began to notice the disruptive odyssey; she eyed the skinny boy from behind a pencil eraser, then flinched when she saw him catch her staring.  Right away she pretended he was looking at things on her desk and applied the pencil eraser to a stray mark on the margin of an essay that had Becky Fallon’s name in the top right corner.  Brandeis was no mystery to her.  7th grade boys could barely be held in place long enough to warm a chair and they burned attention like gasoline.  Still, there was a quality about this one that unnerved her.   She couldn’t name it exactly, but she was aware of it.  He was erasing something now, too.  Then he chewed his eraser, or at least put it in his mouth.  He had a way of working around requirements, looking busy, accomplishing little.  It was like a kid pushing peas around on his dinner plate, moving them doggedly but never ingesting one.  She began to pace up and down between rows of desks, checking progress.

Brand felt Ms. Wink looking over his shoulder.  “Brandeis,” she began patiently, “did you read the directions?”

“Yes.”  His one word response pushed the dialogue back to her.

“Why aren’t you further along?”  His dusty brown eyes connected with her sharp blue ones for a flicker of a second, then focused on the rims of her glasses.  He considered the question.  Did she want to know why?  Not really.  She was telling him to get going without telling him to get going.

“I don’t like worksheets.” His voice was soft.  All those blanks to fill in seemed like holes in a boat.  He couldn’t explain why, but he really wanted to do something else, to build a boat instead of constantly patching up holes.

“That’s enough out of you!”  Mrs. Wink marched over to her desk.  In minutes the boy was dragging down the hallway to the principal’s office, referral in hand.  Mr. Bertram asked him the usual questions.  He gave the usual answers.  He was not suspended.  He was not surprised.  The only down-side to this day materialized the next week with Monday grade checks.  His grade in Literacy had dropped to an F.  The first football game of the year was next weekend, and he was ineligible to play.

The Saturday game was not until 1:00.  Brand managed to rake leaves and finish his laundry before lunch.  His friends made fun of the laundry chore, but Brand secretly liked it.  He liked working with machines.  The old washer had been a pain.  When it flooded the kitchen, his mom had gotten a new one.  She’d had to.  The old one was dead.  The new one was outstanding.  It had LCD lights and dials everywhere.  Brand pretended that he was handling space ship controls.  Sometimes he took his phone, sat just at the edge of the closet where the washer and dryer were crammed in, and played video games.  He watched the cycles.  They were almost part of his game.  He was in a starship.  The sound effects of the washer spun him along with the clothes, into a private sort of orbit.

He made a sandwich for his mother.  She was asleep on the couch.  Carefully covered with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out, he left the plate and a half empty bag of chips on the coffee table next to her.  His own sandwich was safely stashed in a breast pocket, on the inside of his jacket.  A Dr. Pepper was crammed in the outside pocket.  He hoped it would not fall out while he biked to the school.  He did not want to bring a back pack.  Not today.  He was sorry enough that he had to sit out the game.  He didn’t want to bring attention to his spectator status.  Hence, dressed in uniform, baggy shoulders that a more muscular older guy would fill out, he would slip down near the bench, sit on his jacket, and chew gum.

By the time the last quarter was half over, Brand was almost glad he was not playing.  The Bears were getting slaughtered.  He knew, if he were out there what might work, but he wasn’t sure if Dustin could throw that far.  Or well enough, for that matter.  Coach Lundy was clearly frustrated.  Brand looked away every time Coach glanced at him.  His face flooded with heat.  He was letting the team down.  His teeth ground together.  It was that stupid Ms. Wink!  He just couldn’t stand her and the stupid worksheets.  Still, he felt like this game might be lost because he wasn’t strong enough to just do the stupid worksheets like she wanted.  She didn’t care if he knew the stuff already or if he didn’t understand the stuff at all.  She just wanted to grade them and make it all into a weekly grade that didn’t really show if he was learning or not.  He felt Coach Lundy’s eyes on him and his face grew warm again.

“How’s it goin’, Buddy?”

Now he was standing right in front of him.  Looking up, Brand tilted the brim of his Bronco’s ball cap up enough to make eye contact.  “I’m okay,” he offered.

“What do you think we should do?” Coach Lundy used a low conspiratorial voice.  Brand was confused.  He wasn’t sure if the coach was talking about the game or him.

“I guess…” he fingered loose fabric at the hem of his jersey, “I can ask her if she will let me do extra credit.  So I’ll be eligible to play next week.”

Coach Lundy looked confused.  “What do you think we should do on the field?  Right now.  I’m afraid we’re going to lose.”  Brand’s brain went into instant overdrive.  He thought about a play that he had practiced with the team.  He considered Dustin’s arm, his speed, his aim.  If he wanted to be a real quarterback, now was the time.  Destiny was calling.  All of the grand phrases that Brand got from stories flew in circles around his head, like hawks speeding toward the ground on a downwind.   He quickly summarized the play that he was imagining.  It warmed him in a different way to see the teacher’s intent look, his genuine attention.  Lundy was listening to a 7th grader who wasn’t even eligible to play.  It happened faster than the time it takes for an echo in Thorn Canyon to shout back at you.  Brand watched Coach Lundy stride out to the sideline to call a time-out.  Brand felt just like he was sitting by the new washing machine, playing for an unbelievable level.  He reached up to adjust his ball cap, every muscle tensed with purpose.

On Monday, in class, Dustin bragged every chance he got.  When Brand tried to get into the conversation, Mrs. Wink made like a torpedo to get close and shut him up.  “What do you think we should do?” she challenged him.  Brand thought about describing a perfect throw, the image of a football rushing in front of his eyes like a spit wad headed for Austin’s ear.

“I would do some extra credit if you wanted me to,” he ventured.  “What if I write an article about the game on Saturday?  I could use a lot of compound words to show you that I understand how to use them?  Or I could put vocabulary into the story if you gave me a list of the ones you want me to learn.”  Mrs. Wink pulled the old assignment off of her stack – the one that Brand didn’t finish last week.  She put it on the desk in front of Brand and walked away.  He felt mad at her again.  The worksheet hollered at him, empty nothing words, but not nice.  He pushed it off the desk and then walked out of the room.

Mr. Bertram found him at the drinking fountain.  “What’s up, Buddy?” he sounded like Coach.  Brand found it hard to talk.  He followed the principal back to his office.  He sat there until lunch time, quiet, thinking.  When he couldn’t think about Mrs. Wink or worksheets anymore he took out his binder and began drawing a map of town.  He drew various routes from school to home and began estimating the steps that each would require.  It was something to do.  At last, Mr. Bertram turned from his paperwork to face him.  Brand told him about worksheets.  He told him about missing the game.  He did not tell him about how he helped to win the game.

“Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to think about asking permission to leave a class.  I want you to think about asking permission for anything that you need from Mrs. Wink.  If you need to do something different, something besides what she is asking you to do, I want you to ask.  I think she’ll listen.”  Mr. Bertram seemed serious but Brand could tell that he understood; that he wanted to help.  “What would you like to do to make up for today?”

“Can I write a story?  Well, may I write a story?”  Brand could not help but think about his father.  He hoped that his liking to write was from his father but he also hoped that his standing by his mother, helping her, would not be something he would one day forget to do, like his father had.

Mr. Bertram nodded solemnly.  “I think that’s a great idea.  Write a story about people asking for permission.  I want to see it tomorrow.  You can read it to Mrs. Wink and I together, in my office.  Deal?”  Brand nodded.  “Miss Sandy will call your mother to have her pick you up after lunch because I am going to suspend you for the afternoon.  You must understand that following basic teacher directions is a safety issue.  I can’t have you doing this ever again.”

His mother couldn’t come pick him up.  She talked to Mr. Bertram about the suspension and authorized the school to let Brand walk home.  When he left the school, Brand was thinking about the story.  Inside, he was starting to feel better.  He counted the steps home on his typical walking route.  When he got home the first thing he did was eat a triple scoop dish of Oreo Cookie Crumble ice cream.  Then he changed his clothes to his home jeans – the ones he was not allowed to wear to school because of the cannabis leaf that he had drawn with a permanent purple marker on one thigh.  He set out for school by the regular Baker Street way.

From the front door of the middle school he turned and began counting steps again.  The alternative route, he figured, was a third shorter.  But, it meant going through Chin’s back lot.  Chin owned the Chinese Grocery on Front Street.  He’s never been in the store, but it looked interesting.  There was always a chicken hanging in the window by its feet.  He wondered if it was the same chicken, just fixed like the buffalo head on the wall at Pete’s Pizza, or if it was a new one, freshly hung every day.  Who would eat a chicken that wasn’t refrigerated, anyway?

He approached the small grocery with the chicken and, he noticed now, a leaning stack of red and gold boxed cookies in the window, still counting steps.  The small neon sign was glowing faintly, spelling out Chin’s Grocery, in the middle of the day.  Mr. Chin, at least Brand thought that must be his name, stood in the doorway.  His smile attached to his ears on each side, stretching straight and level, like a shelf.  Brand felt like he had nothing to lose; he was already suspended.  “Mr.” he started loudly, and then remembered that just because someone was foreign didn’t mean that they were hard of hearing.  “I was wondering if I can cut across your back lot.”  The man put a hand to his trailing white beard.  His eyes reflected the sun like black marbles.  “I’m going home.  It’s shorter that way.”  Brand watched him for a response.  Chin’s gray and powder blue plaid flannel shirt hung loose at the waist, and then flapped aside with a breeze from nowhere.  Under the shirt, his jeans looked brand new.  He held a finger to his temple, as if in deep thought.

“The gate is not locked,” he stated in a twinkling tone.

“So it’s okay?”

“Try it.  Let me know how many steps you save.”

“How did you know I was counting steps?”  Brand was shocked.

“Got an iPhone?” the man chuckled.  “Steps.  I do it every day.  You are looking for a shorter way.  I look for longer ways because I want my legs to stay strong.  I am old, but my legs are young when I take the long way.”  Brand laughed out loud.  He decided to ask about the chicken when he came back to report the number of steps.

The gate opened without a sound.  He turned to Mr. Chin.  “Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you for asking permission,” Mr. Chin bowed to the boy.

The story Brand wrote was about the game.  He did not praise Dustin for the pass, or the receiver, or himself for giving that play to Coach Lundy.  He just told the story.  That is what journalists do.  They tell the story.  It doesn’t matter what they like about it, if the story makes you think you were there.  That’s what his father had written in a letter.  But he had to write about asking permission.  That’s what Mr. Bertram wanted.  At the beginning of the story he added a bit about a boy who was not eligible to play.  The boy asked a teacher, not Mrs. Wink, but just a teacher, if he could do something different to bring his grade up.  Something besides a worksheet.  Something for extra credit so that he would be eligible to play.  The teacher said no.  She said he would need to complete the worksheets that all of the other students had completed.  In his story, Brand had the boy go to the principal then, before he had a chance to get really mad.  The boy asked if he could write a story and the principal said yes.  The teacher was not happy, but the principal told her to let the boy write a story.

The rest of Brand’s story was about the game.  He imagined he was his father, writing about a very important event, but he worried that there wouldn’t be enough about asking for permission, just because the boy in the story had done that once.  He knew that good stories have a theme – an idea to share.  He knew that he needed a good hook and a good conclusion.  He was a pretty good writer.  He went back to the beginning of his story to add a few sentences.  It went like this: Boulders are huge rocks and they can be hard to move.  The team had a tough job ahead of them, playing without their regular quarterback.  It felt like needing to move a huge boulder.  Then Brand went to the end of the story to add some ending sentences that would link back to the beginning to explain his theme.  He wrote: The team made a bold move, pushing right through the defense, even though it was a little scary.  Sometimes it’s better not to expect boulders to move.  Sometimes you have to blast a tunnel right through the big ones.

The next morning he read his story to Mrs. Wink and Mr. Bertram.  The principal’s lip curled into a very slow thin smile.  Mrs. Wink sat like a stone.  She thanked him for writing a story with a good hook and a good conclusion and then she questioned whether the details of the game were really connected to the topic sentence and the conclusion.  As Mrs. Wink and Brand walked down the hallway back to her room, the teacher put her arm around Brand’s shoulder and told him that his writing showed promise.  She reassured him that this whole thing would be forgotten if he came back to class and got to work.  He felt his lip buzz.

Mrs. Wink took attendance.  She asked if Becky Fallon would hand out the worksheets for class.  Brand stared at his desk.  A worksheet floated onto its surface innocently.  He immediately penned his longer name, Brandeis Ball, in the upper right hand corner and he added the date.  Mrs. Wink flashed a broad smile at him.  She started walking up and down the rows, checking progress.  Brand wrote quickly, very legibly, in every blank, idk  idk  idk  idk.  He got to the bottom of the page just as Mrs. Wink approached.   He turned it over and poised his pencil to begin the second half of the worksheet.  “May I sharpen my pencil, Mrs. Wink?” Brand asked.  She waved him toward the pencil sharpener without a word and moved to the next student.

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Golden Rain Falling

Where I live now…  I have not posted in several years.  Much has happened.  All fine, but I did lose access to this blog for a time.  Today I stumbled on my password and user name.  I decided to come back – see if it was still here.  Indeed.

My life has taken me to Steamboat Springs.  If I ever hoped to fall in love with Colorado, being routed to this location must have been the divine plan to make that happen.  I am not a particularly religious person, in the traditional sense of it, but this place is what Wallace Stegner would have called God’s Country.  Today I am sharing a picture that I took last week.  The sun is falling behind a ring of mountains that hold the dancing waters of Stagecoach Reservoir like a circle of rough-shaped granite around a campfire.  Rain falls from an extraordinary altitude, catching the day’s last light and disappearing before reaching the ground.  And in the center of it all, a rainbow falling down from Heaven.

This is the view that I am privileged to see from my front porch.

My heart be still…

 

IMG_3176

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Magic, innocence, and wonder…


Work was work, racing toward 4:00, and then sitting out the final 15 minutes in an endless stretch of voices and phone calls.  I should be able to leave at 4:00, but this seldom happens.  It took far too long to get to the car.  By 5:15 I was finally pulling up in front of the barn.  A south blowing breeze that had been gently pulsing all day flipped.  The breeze became wind, gusting out of the north.  Heavy dull clouds pushed southward, clinging to the Front Range of the Rockies like sludge in a gutter that catches in rough spots, forming masses in unlikely places.  Not one of us could stem the force of the front.  Not horses or people or dogs.  The trees submitted, shifting above us.  Barn doors shuddered.  Stray wisps of dry grass hay danced along.  The weather in Colorado is like a magic show.  Now you see it, now you don’t.  First you will and then you won’t.

I debated only a little.  If it rains, it rains!  I thought, I will be like the trees, standing my ground, but ready to bend to the will of Mother Nature.  I ran out to the pasture to find Bear.  He heard me calling and came to me – this is the first time.  He is beginning to live in my world.  He doesn’t run anymore.  He recognizes my sounds.  He moves with me, capturing my touches.  There is no communication like the language of voiceless innocence, of unadulterated longing and appreciation.  It’s like being in love.

I saddled him quickly, dispensing with the ritual of grooming beyond the bare basics.  If it should rain, I thought, I want to be in the saddle so that I will not quit.  He trotted alongside of me, out to the arena.  His body is turning sleek with good grass hay and grain.  I watched his muscles move under his golden hide as he walked.  His breath blew warm, like the wind.  Sitting on my horse, I felt a part of something indescribably wondrous, almost mythical.  It would not have surprised me to feel wings unfolding behind my thighs.  I felt him move and imagined us flying.  Steady, smooth, pushing the thickly gathered clouds aside and mounting into the atmosphere.  There is nothing in the world like the feeling of being one with a thousand pounds of horseflesh;  moving effortlessly through space, forging a rhythmic connection into the earth.

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Montage – The day before Mother’s Day from Many Pespectives

The afternoon before Mother’s Day turned in circles, like a dog winding its body into an ever tightening coil, searching for a perfect position before plopping down to rest.  All I want is a movie, potatoes, onions, and maybe some fruit.  I saw strawberries when I walked in.  The display is massive and there were people swarming all around it, choosing one plastic container, putting it down and picking up another.  I edge in to grab two.  I just need berries to go on cereal next week.  The potatoes and onions are on the same table, which makes grabbing bags of them easier.  A double deep line at the Red Box convinces me to forego the movie that I came for.  Ge me outa here!  For all that I want to be home already, a little girl swims upstream, the opposite direction, into the market.

The girl’s brain is chanting the lyrics of a pop song and considering the awkwardness of marching into a grocery store with her father.  Mom always knows what she wants.  Dad is funny about shopping.  He’s looking at dishes and rice cookers in a grocery store!  We need a card and flowers.  He got strawberries so I told him to get Cool Whip and yellow cakes.  It’s full with people today.  Everybody wants something special for their mother.  I wish we could get Pop Tarts.  Mom really likes Pop Tarts.  The girl grips her father’s hand and tugs him along, trying to move faster.  Her eyes scan the check out lines for the shortest one, and she suddenly shrinks against the pant leg beside her.  A stout old lady is looking straight at her.  She seems frozen, all except her wet blue eyes.

I forgot that it might be busy today, the old lady mumbles wordlessly.  Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and I never thought about it at all.  The kids will call tomorrow.  I better stay home.  There are so many people in the store.  Carts everywhere.  Maybe I should come back another day.  She sees that the shortest route out of the store is toward the back, because lines are clogging the front aisle.  She patiently makes her way toward the butcher’s display case.  Mounds of fish are reflected in the curved glass of the case.  She briefly considers buying a piece of fish for supper, but swings around to head down a side aisle, determined to exit the market with all dispatch.

The butcher is smiling.  I like days like this.  People pick nice things.  They splurge.  Men who never buy fish at all want salmon fillets or lobster.  They don’t know how much to buy, so they tell me “Enough for four.”  I can do that.  They look around, their eyes traveling from catchy color coordinated displays to the cold case.  They don’t know what to buy but they know what they want.  Something special.  Something from the kids, but from them, too.  I don’t think anybody knows what the right thing will be but they know they need a right thing.  Everybody has a mother.  How can you NOT do something special for mothers on Mother’s Day?

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